July 17, 2019

BY PAUL BOREHAM

Creatures other than humans are attending classes at Conestoga College. They walk on all fours, are covered in fur and wag their tails as they saunter along. Often a tongue droops out of their mouth. If they give you the “eye” in the hallway, don’t pay them any mind – they’re working. They’re either service dogs or service dogs in training.

Karina Weber, a first-year protection/security investigation student, is a volunteer puppy raiser for National Service Dogs (NSD), a non-profit organization that specializes in breeding and training dogs for families with autistic children. Her puppy, named Finnigan, goes wherever she goes, and that includes her classes.

“He’ll either sit beside my chair or find a spot where he can spread out,” said Weber. “Or he chews on his bone.” He eventually falls asleep on the floor, she said.

“Most people are pretty good about it and say ‘ah’ (isn’t he cute),” said Weber. Her teachers applaud her for what she is doing and welcome Finnigan into their classrooms.

The use of service dogs started after the First World War with guide dogs for the blind. In recent years it has expanded to include a variety of disabilities. NSD was the first to establish a service dog program for autistic children.

“We really set the bar,” said Laura Scott, development manager with NSD. The program has become a model for service dog organizations internationally.

NSD has its headquarters in Cambridge, where an old farmhouse has been utilized, with five kennels constructed at the back for breeding and training.

“Labradors and golden retrievers are bred because they have the physicality and temperament that’s required for service dogs,” said Scott.

The main job of a trained dog is to keep an autistic child from bolting while out and about. The dog is held by a leash while the child is tethered to the dog’s jacket (purple-coloured in the case of NSD). One word – “halt” – from a parent and the child is prevented from moving any farther.

“They also act as a social bridge for children, in developing relationships, because children with autism can be very isolated, and the dogs can bridge that,” said Scott. Scott also quoted a study that found service dogs can lower a child’s stress level by 50 per cent, allowing them to participate more in learning activities.

A puppy raiser plays an important role in acclimatizing the pup to all manner of social situations. As such, they are required to go to puppy classes each week and learn simple obedience training for their puppies.

“As a puppy raiser, the puppy goes everywhere you go: grocery shopping, work, school, and when they’re 18 months old, they’re recalled back to our centre to do advanced training,” said Scott.

“That’s where they’re getting their special service dog skills.” The advanced training can take another six months before they are ready for a family.

After a lengthy application process and wait time, an approved family receives their service dog – valued at $30,000 – completely free of charge, although they are given opportunities to give back through fundraising. They go through a weeklong training session before taking their dog home. People come from across the country to receive a service dog, said Scott.

NSD has two other important service dog programs. One is for veterans suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome; the other is called Canine Assisted Prevention, which places service dogs with treatment professionals such as doctors, therapists and social workers.

Weber said she has been working with the dogs for two and a half years. Finnigan is her third puppy.

“You have to have a lot of patience. Your first puppy could be a totally easy puppy. Your second puppy could be a puppy from hell,” she said.

Each dog has a different personality and many end up not suited for the autistic program, Weber said.

Asked why she does it, she spoke of a family friend who has an autistic child and of her passion for dogs.

“It gives me a sense of accomplishment knowing that I’ve helped someone who needs a dog. It also allows me to give the dog a good start in life.”

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