Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Who's on First?

As service dogs for autism become more and more common--helping parents to keep their children safe, contained, and connected with reality--parents, fans, and supporters will find frequent references on websites or in news features announcing that "this program was the first to train this type of dog!" or "We we are the only ones doing this work!"  Hmm. I always find that interesting. Especially when I see it in news features, my first thought is that an over-zealous reporter didn't check facts or else some cringing mis-quoted trainer is steadfastly claiming to friends, "I didn't SAY that!!!"

What's the truth? Who was first? My basic reaction to this question is to say..."Who cares???"  The far more critical question is how in the world do we get more programs serving parents & children who are in desperate need. But if you want my definitive, official answer on which program originated the idea of a dog working as a parental tool to keep children safe, I can tell you very easily: none of them.  Yes, I'm sure.

I'm sure because I'm not naive. The bedrock truth about the desired safety-enhancing, behavior-assisting help from dogs is that dogs have been doing these functions for an awfully long time--a whole lot longer than any of today's service dog programs have been in existence. Even the concept of guide dogs (the oldest of the official service dog roles with programs around the world older than most of our citizens) is not new. History documents some known instances of dogs serving as guides as far back as about 70 A.D. Clearly it was before Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act.

So why do various programs or trainers insist that service dogs for autism was their own original idea?  Easy. They thought of it. Of course they did. And they worked hard,....very hard...for a long time to figure out how to make it functional for multiple families. And now it works!  Sure it does. Do you know why it works? It works because they are savvy trainers with good dogs. Maybe they knew autism. Maybe they didn't. Maybe they had help. Maybe they didn't. But here is the bottom line: It works because it's logical, realistic, and a natural outgrowth of a very good dog's normal pack behavior with an educated owner.  It works because it makes sense. Because it suits the behavior of dogs. Because far more than any other type of service dog training, it capitalizes on a dog's natural inclinations to be involved with its "pack"--the family.

Is this to say that every dog on the planet can do the job? Not at all. That's where the programs come in. To select the dogs, train the dogs, train the families, educate the handlers. Let's say you have one dog in 40 or 50 (regardless of breed) that would excel at the specific behaviors needed to make a good service dog, even though that's a pretty optimistic assumption. Believe me, most parents of children with disabilities do not have time to run around three or four states fooling with temperament evaluations on 50 dogs, assuming they even know how. Enter the service dog trainers and programs. That's their job--either find or produce the right dogs.

Yet probably a good portion of the people reading this post will chime in, "But I grew up with a dog just like that!"  Sure, I know you did. So did I. That's why--back in the late 1990s--I knew the job was possible to select and train for. Many, many families out there, through whatever process of fortune or expertise, have at some time scored a really good dog that performed many of these functions with very little or no training.  The photo to the right was taken around 1972...that's me and my grandmother in northern Michigan, with their farm shepherd, Rusty, who would not allow me to go near my grandfather's sawmill, the road, or the creek when I was little. Who searched me out when I got lost in the woods (at five years old) and essentially dragged me back to the house. Who used to voluntarily interfere with me and my siblings or cousins if our play got too rough.  Ofen some of us kids would pretend to fight, just because it was so cool to watch Rusty get all excited and break it up. (Their were 36 of us grandkids, and no....exactly why my grandparents never beat us all senseless was something I still don't know.)

So who taught Rusty these tasks? Nobody. In the tradition of many such dogs in the history of civilization, she just knew. It was her natural maternal instinct paired with her strong inclination to work as part of the "pack."  The challenge facing many service dog organizations today is to find dogs like her. Yes, they are out there. We have to find them or breed them, train them, and make sure they are safe and functional to work in our complex modern society. Then--alas for the minor little details--we also have to train the families how to work with them. That normally takes longer than training the dog!  But this is what trainers do who produce dogs for children with autism. Which trainer or program has correct claim to the original idea? Simple: none of them. Those people or programs had the idea because they have their heads on straight, they know their dogs, they know enough variety of training methods to  make it work, and they are probably remarkably stubborn and persistent in the face of all the various professionals who tell them, "You can't do that. It's just not possible."  They knew better and now they're proving it.

I wish that sponsors, parents, whoever, would shift any interest in the question of "Who was first?" onto a far more pertinent set of questions. For anyone training service dogs for these very vulnerable children with autism, the appropriate questions are these:

  • Is it working?
  • Is it safe?
  • Is it meeting the current need?
  • Is it flexible and expandable as the child matures?
  • Are the trainers on call to help for the duration of the service dog's career?

These are the questions that matter. If the answers are all yes, then so far as I'm concerned I wish several hundred more programs would have an epiphany moment and "think of the idea" very quickly. Like today before lunch. I haven't noticed any shortage of need, and I know of many, many parents who would be grateful for the increase in available services.


  1. One has to wonder if the child, in Florida, who went into the swamp, would have benefited from having a service dog. Of course, we'll never know, but this is the kind of situation we believe Naomi would help stop Thomas from getting into.


  2. Donna, I had the same thought watching the news this morning of her being found safely. I feel pretty confident, had she had a trained service dog, she would have been found sooner or not have been allowed to wander off. The value a properly bred and trained dog brings is invaluable. I salute Julie for her vision and perseverance.


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Dedicated to enriching lives and increasing independence through the use of individually trained dogs for people with disabilities.

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