Sunday, March 23, 2014

Trained in calmness, dogs help autistic kids

Pekoe and Juanita were bred to be islands of calm amid chaos.
The two Labrador retrievers are weeks away from officially graduating as Heeling Autism dogs, having successfully shown that nothing — not ear or tail pulling, chairs sailing over their heads, screaming, kicking meltdowns or inquisitive pokes at their toenails — will do more than elicit a doggy grin and a wag.

"They're really amazing with the kids. These dogs are so calm," said Michelle Rose, who teaches a self-contained special education BOCES class at Mahopac's Fulmar School, where the two dogs have visited every other Friday since January. "They will be in homes where they have to be used to unexplained things, very loud things. It's a win-win for both of us."

Rose's class is close to a graduation test for the Heeling Autism canines, who are trained to help children on the autism spectrum be calm and focused. The program is part of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the service dog program headquartered in Yorktown Heights that since 1954 has provided dogs trained to help people with vision limitations live independently.

Heeling Autism was created in 2008 by Caroline Sandler, who felt there must be another place for the young dogs bred as Guiding Eyes dogs but found not suitable for the job, she said. Guiding Eyes dogs need to be quick reactors, independent thinkers and adaptable, all traits the organization has bred for over the years.

Many perfectly healthy but docile and friendly dogs who lacked the initiative to become Guiding Eyes dogs ended up released for adoption, she said, a waste of the nearly $45,000 it costs to breed and train a dog for Guiding Eyes.

Dogs can have a calming effect on many autism-spectrum children, research shows; they are able to help children focus, give them love and companionship, and keep them from wandering off. Heeling Autism spends nearly two years of intensive training to prepare its dogs for their jobs. Classrooms such as Rose's are part of that training.

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