Service Dogs Help Children with Disabilities

service dogs

Some of us may still think of service dogs primarily as Seeing Eye dogs for the blind, but over the past fifteen years, service dogs have expanded their work into many different fields. A New York Times Magazine article, “Wonder Dog”, highlights a field where service dogs are really making a big impact: children with disabilities.

The article highlights the work of Karen Shirk and her Xenia, Ohio organization called 4 Paws for Ability. The organization began in 1998 because Shirk, who has a disability herself, was unimpressed with the difficulty people with disabilities, particularly children, had in obtaining a service dog from an agency.

Her goal became to pair service dogs with children who have a disability. These disabilities include everything from Down’s syndrome, to seizure disorders, to Autism, to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. 4 Paws for Ability, in fact, trained the first known service dog for a child with autism.

Service dogs are able to help children with a wide variety of daily tasks, and each dog is trained specifically to the needs of their future child. Some tasks they may learn include:

  • Turning lights on and off
  • Opening Doors
  • Providing calming “deep pressure” to children with sensory disorders by laying across the child’s lap
  • Alerting, and sometimes even detecting ahead of time, the occurrence of a seizure
  • Warding off unwanted behaviors such as tantrums and hair pulling by redirecting the child.

Shirk notes, though, that sometimes the most moving aspect of the service dog relationship is the unconditional love and sense of companionship that the dog gives to the child. She also notes that children with disabilities often face social anxiety from others who are uncomfortable with their disability. A service dog often makes social situations easier for the child, taking the focus away from his or her disability.

Since its founding in 1998, 4 Paws for Ability has successfully placed over 600 dogs with children across the US and abroad. Four full-time trainers and countless volunteers work with approximately 200 dogs at any given time. The organization has a 90% success rate with placement.

Successful placement may rely on several aspects of the 4 Paws model:

  • A family who is applying for a dog sends 4 Paws extensive video coverage of their child throughout the day. This video footage is used to train a dog to the child’s particular needs.
  • The organization primarily trains breeds who are noted for their service work, specifically golden retrievers and labs.
  • A family spends ten days in Xenia meeting their dog and learning how to work with the dog.

You can learn more about 4 Paws for Ability by visiting their website.

The training of dogs for the service of disabled children is just another example of how amazing our faithful companions truly are. Learn more about how amazing your dog is by visiting our Knowledge Center or stay up to date with the latest pet news on our Smarty Pets Blog.

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