Saturday, July 29, 2017

An Autism Service Dog for Jude: FAQs

After much deliberation and research, Josh and I made the decision to get Jude a service dog. We were completely blown away by all of the positive reactions when we introduced her on Facebook and Instagram! Y'all are the BEST and have always been such amazing cheerleaders for Jude.

I imagine that many people will have questions about it, so I decided to write up an FAQ to help answer those questions.

Why a service dog? What will it do for him?
We started looking into a service dog several months ago after Jude climbed out of the girls' bedroom window and took off running down the road. This wasn't the first time he had run off, and each time he was found by people who were driving by and knew him. But what would happen if he got out one time and nobody found him? The news is full these days of stories about autistic kids who run off and are later found dead, and we don't want Jude to end up as one of those stories. The news clip below shows how autism service dogs can be trained to find and protect their kids:

She will also be trained to at least alert us if he slips out unnoticed (which is less likely now that our house is even more securely locked down, but always possible), if not possibly try to stop him from escaping in the first place.

Along with these tasks, once the dog is fully grown and trained, we plan to tether Jude to her when we go places as an extra guard against him running off in public. Going in public with Jude is a constant wrestling match and he requires us to have our hands on him at all times to make sure he doesn't run off. Even then, he occasionally slips free and has to be chased down. If he is tethered to a service dog using a hands-free leash/belt like runners use, then all she has to do is sit or lie down and he is restrained. In case you're having a hard time visualizing how the tethering works without seeming cruel to either the dog or child, here is a short clip of a girl tethered to her dog while walking in a store. I also found this great video of a dad explaining what their autism service dog does for their daughter, who sounds a lot like Jude.

We've already been practicing this with Molly on hikes and walk, and Jude LOVES it. He is so much more calm and focused when tethered to her. In case you're wondering, Molly is pretty much the best pet ever but she has several limitations (namely her advanced age, an arthritic hip, and her fear-aggression toward other large dogs) that preclude her from service work.

We understand a dog's limitations, and we know she won't be the next Nana from Peter Pan, but she will provide an extra safeguard against him running away both at home and in public. These will be her primary tasks. Autism service dogs can also be trained to cuddle on command to help mitigate meltdowns, and to alert to and distract from stims, and we hope these things will help him as well.

In addition to these trained tasks, just the presence of a service dog can be a huge help to kids with autism. They serve as a stable companion, a conversation topic since social interactions are difficult for them, and a signal to others of a hidden disability. I really enjoyed watching this video made by a teen with Asperger's about his experience at school before and after getting a service dog:

What kind of dog did you get?
Golden retrievers and labradors are the most common breeds used as service dogs, but any breed can be a service dog as long as it is trainable and not aggressive, although some breeds are generally more suited for the task than others. Despite their frou-frou stereotype, standard poodles are becoming an increasingly popular service dog breed, as they are very smart and eager to please, form strong bonds with their people, big enough to hold their own, generally friendly and not aggressive, and they don't shed. For all of these reasons, as you've probably already seen if we are friends on Instagram or Facebook, we decided to get him a standard poodle. Her name is Rey, and she has already stolen all of our hearts. We hope she grows up to be as strong and fearless as her Star Wars namesake.

What kind of training does the dog have to go through?
There is no certification board or anything like that for service dogs, but the requirements for a service dog are that they must accompany a person with a diagnosed disability, have top-notch obedience, and be trained to perform at least one task that the disabled person cannot do for himself. Jude's dog will go through a couple of levels of training to be his service dog:

First, she will learn basic obedience at home while working with trainers. She is just graduated from AKC Puppy Kindergarten for socialization and to learn basic obedience. Next, she will be in a Canine Good Citizen class for more advanced obedience. While she is a puppy, we will also work a lot on socialization with people and animals, and take her to as many pet-friendly places as we can to get her used to being in public.

Second, she will do special training to learn disability-specific tasks and to refine her public access skills.

During all of this, we will do search and rescue training both at home and with a group of local search and rescue volunteers.

Why didn't you get a dog through an organization that trains them for you?
There is a growing number of organizations training and placing service dogs, and they are doing great work! I looked into pretty much all of them, and unfortunately their waiting lists are generally about 2-5 years. With Jude's safety at risk, we didn't feel like we could wait that long. Additionally, the price tag for a dog from one of these organizations is significantly higher, and most if not all of it has to be raised in advance.

She's so cute! Can I pet her?
She is, isn't she? As I said above, for the first couple of months we will be taking her with us to a lot of places just to socialize her and get her used to being out in public. During this time, she will need to have positive interactions with as many people and animals as possible, and we hope you will pet her!

However, once she starts wearing a vest and doing serious service dog training or work, we ask that you please refrain from petting her in public. I know it's SO hard! But whenever you see any service dog in public, it's very important that you ignore them because they are working and need to be able focus on their job. That is a hard enough task for a dog even when people aren't actively distracting them by petting them or making kissy noises at them.

That said, even service dogs need time off-duty where they can just be a dog, and if you come visit us at home you are more than welcome to pet her and play with her to your heart's content!

How much will all of this cost?
For the dog plus all of the trainings she will need, it is going to cost us around $7,000 to $10,000 once it is all said and done, the majority of that going toward her disability-specific training.

I can hear you now... "$10,000 for a DOG?!?!" Because that's exactly what I said at first when I started looking at service dogs. But when you don't think about it as a dog, but as an investment in Jude's safety and well-being, then the perspective shifts. What is Jude's life worth? If she saved his life by preventing him from getting lost just one time, wouldn't it all be worth it? We've tried so many other things to keep him safe, and we really feel like this is our last resort.

When we were first considering a service dog for Jude, the money was one of the biggest things that gave us pause. But a very good friend encouraged me to pursue it and told me that there are a lot of people who love Jude and who would likely want to help him in this way. So we have started down this road in faith that the Lord will provide for Jude's needs through people who love him.

We aren't going to make a huge fundraising push for this, because we don't want it to interfere with the money we are already trying to raise for Gospel Life. But if you know and love Jude, would you please consider helping us cover some of these expenses?

You can donate online by clicking here and choosing "Jude's Service Dog" under the "Give to" menu on the right. You can also donate by mail by following these instructions. A donation of any amount would be appreciated beyond words.

Gospel Life Global Missions is a 501(c)3 organization. All gifts are tax deductible. Contributions are solicited with the understanding that Gospel Life Global Missions has complete discretion and control over the use of all donated funds.

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