Canine Companions for Independence is a national nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs for people with disabilities completely free of charge. Canine Companions serves adults and children with a wide range of physical and developmental disabilities, with over 3,800 assistance dogs placed nationwide since its founding in 1975. Many of Canine Companions’ clients are children with developmental challenges like autism and Down syndrome. The dogs are trained to work with children over age five, under the guidance of a facilitator (parent or caregiver). Parents value their children’s assistance dogs for the social, developmental and motivational benefits they provide.
First, Canine Companions assistance dogs serve as a social bridge by encouraging interaction for children who may have difficulty communicating with or being approached by others. Ellen, the mother of a young man with Fragile X Syndrome, explains, “Daniel has autistic-like traits that cause over-shyness at times. I’ve noticed that Assistance Dog Cheers has helped bring Daniel out of his shell. He’s more confident!” Dayna, whose child is dually diagnosed with autism and Down Syndrome, agrees wholeheartedly. “Before Assistance Dog Rama, people did not really approach Micah or speak to him. Now, people ask about Rama. Micah has more confidence in public and he loves to show off his assistance dog!”
These newfound social interactions also create opportunities for children to work on their speech. “At first, we gave Kailen, who has autism, scripted things to say about Assistance Dog Aqua,” Kailen’s mother, Lynda, says. “The words are now slowly becoming his own.” Additionally, parents often take advantage of the dogs’ extensive training to motivate children to assert themselves and speak clearly. Through a process called shadowing, a facilitator will give a dog a command and have the child repeat it. As the dogs start responding to the children, it inspires them to enunciate, speak louder and possibly add to their vocabularies. “James, who was essentially non-verbal, now issues some verbal commands to Assistance Dog Tiffany,” his father, James Jr., explains.
The constant presence of a four-legged best friend can also have a calming effect on children with autism. “Braden is much more social, calmer in public, and is developing empathy,” says his mother, Robin. “Assistance Dog Camille gives Braden acceptance and love, without expecting him to be like everyone else.” James Jr. continues, “Because Tiffany is with James in social situations, the typical autistic behaviors of spinning, hand flapping and rocking are almost eliminated.”
Children are often charged with feeding, grooming and exercising their assistance dog, which builds their sense of responsibility and also reminds them to take the same care of themselves. It all adds up to teams composed of best friends who look out for each other. “I had basically given up hope, then I learned that Canine Companions for Independence was training dogs for autistic children,” says Robin. “Each Canine Companions assistance dog is the result of all of this effort and love, as well as financial contributions,” says Brad, Kailen’s father. “We are so appreciative to be able to reap the benefits of all of this effort and passion put into one animal.”
To learn more about Canine Companions for Independence, visit cci.org or call (800) 572-BARK. The assistance dog application process can be started online.