Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Wonderful World of Service Dogs

When you hear the term "service dog" do you automatically think of a blind person crossing the street holding on to their canine partner.

These days the term "service dog" means so much more. People with limited hearing, seizure disorders, restricted mobility and other disabilities can all make use of these wonderful animals.

Children with autism are not excluded any more for now, they are also benefiting from the use of service dogs.

As you may be aware, Autism has a wide range of symptoms, which can vary in severity on a case by case basis, but difficulty socialising and communicating, a limited range of interests and repetitive behaviours are very common.

How can they be helped? Well, some of the ways that well-trained dogs can help autistic children include:

- physically interrupting or distracting from repetitive or negative behaviours

- alerting a child to an important sound in their vicinity or environment

- moving the child away from a dangerous situation, within reason

- improving spatial awareness and preventing the child from walking into or in front of people

- reducing the chances that a child will run or stray from a safe locality

Another important role that service dogs play in an autistic child's life is encouraging social interactions.

As anyone who has walked a dog knows, a dog by your side is a green light for people to come up and start a conversation.

Autistic children benefit from these interactions, and can work on language development by learning to answer the questions that inevitably arise time and time again, like "what is your dog's name?"

Petting a dog is an anxiety-reducer for everyone, autistic children included, but these kids can benefit from contact with a trusted dog in still another way.

Deep pressure is widely recognised to help calm many autistic individuals when stress starts to build.

Service dogs can be trained to sit right next to a child who is having a meltdown and lean in for a strong and therapeutic hug.

In a potentially overwhelming situation, a dog can also serve as a focal point that can help autistic children avoid becoming overstimulated.

When they aren't working, service dogs can play the role of the family pet -- providing the companionship and unconditional love that pet owners of all types enjoy.

When outside the home, however, these dogs are on the job and should not be distracted. Outfitting them in a service dog vest helps people in the community understand the dog's role and will hopefully eliminate the chances that they will be denied entrance into a facility.

These dogs can even accompany children to school, but parents may have to work hard to convince school administrators of the dog's true role in their child's life.

Service dogs are not appropriate for all autistic children, but for some they can make a world of difference.

Many agencies with a variety of approaches are available to assist with the acquisition, training and placement of autism service dogs.

No particular training or licensing is necessary for a dog to be considered a service animal, so parents can even take on these tasks themselves if they are willing to learn all they can about dog training and the special role of an autism service dog.

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