Pets with purpose

Service dogs offer support and guidance for kids with autism

By Lori McKay

Service dogs offer many benefits — mobility, companionship, emotional support and increased confidence. And for families with kids with autism, they can also open up a world of
new experiences.

During the pandemic, Jenny Tyler’s teenage son Xavier, who has autism, was having a difficult time and struggled with his mental health. The family decided to get a service dog.

They bought a black Lab from a breeder in Ontario. When the dog finally arrived after COVID delays, they quickly realized their partially trained new puppy, Ridge, still needed more coaching.

“His lack of training was affecting Xavier’s bond with the dog,” says Tyler. “Someone in the autism community suggested we reach out to K9PAD.”

K9PAD is a Nova Scotia charity that offers training programs for service dogs for families with various needs, including post-traumatic stress disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. It doesn’t charge for service dogs but has a training and equipment fee.

Tyler says Ridge was trained within the year and the family has been working with K9PAD ever since.

“It made a huge difference,” she says. “The biggest thing is that Xavier has started to go out in the community with us as a family again, which is huge.

“Before, we’d have to give him an exact plan of what we were doing. We’d say we were going to the mall and to this store, this store and this store and then home. If we wanted to stop and go somewhere else, even if it was to get a pop or something to eat, it would cause him to run away or melt down. Now, he’ll just sit on the floor and snuggle with Ridge.”

The K9PAD training is done as a family, with a parent as the handler. 

“Many children with autism struggle with executive function and daily living skills and they’re not able to always know what they need from their service animal,” says Tyler. “The family is really important in the training side and being that voice.”

Tyler, who worked with Autism Nova Scotia for many years, knew there were other families in the same situation and was happy to recommend the program.

One of those families was Amanda and Chris Richards. They have three children, two boys and a girl: Jayden (11), Ryder (nine) and Bay (five). Both of their sons have autism and Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a rare condition that involves the deterioration of the blood flow to the femur.

“Jayden has had surgery to correct his Perthes disease, and he has a walker on and off, but for the most part he’s just like your typical kid with autism,” says Chris Richards. “Ryder is non-verbal and in a wheelchair.”

They wanted a dog companion for Ryder that would help him be calm and adjust to his environment. The waitlist with some service dog organizations was three years and didn’t guarantee they’d keep the dog if it didn’t pass training. 

“One of the biggest things for us was that we wanted to keep the dog,” says Richards. “Anyone who has a child with autism will agree, the number one thing with them is routine. If someone took the dog away, we would be in an even worse situation than before. We wanted the dog to be ours 100 per cent.”

They applied to K9PAD, which approved them in three months. They took home Dublin, their F1B Goldendoodle puppy (the offspring of a purebred Poodle and a Goldendoodle), about 1.5 years ago.

“Dublin slept through the first lesson,” Richards laughs. “He was just eight weeks old. He was just a cute little potato. We didn’t expect much out of him.”

But Dublin caught on quickly. Although only halfway through his training now, he already acts like a fully trained service dog. “He performs tasks he hasn’t even been trained for, just on his intuition,” says Richards, who is now a volunteer member of K9PAD’s board of directors. 

It has made a world of difference for Ryder.

“When out in public, Ryder has Dublin beside him at all times,” says mom Amanda. “He wheels and he touches his dog to calm him. But when someone approaches them and tries to interact with Dublin, Ryder becomes agitated.”

Richards stresses the importance of education when it comes to service dogs in public places. “People will come up to us and ask, ‘Can I pet your dog?’ I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m training him to be a service dog.’”

It’s easy to see the appeal, as the dog is friendly and stands out, given his special haircut.

“One of the things with Ryder’s autism is that he’s really big into sensory and loves textures,” says Richards. “Knowing this, we shaved Dublin to look like a lion, which Ryder loves. He has this big mane, about six inches long, and a tuft at the end of his tail. Ryder loves the feel of his hair… It’s really helped Ryder bond to the dog.”  

Service dog etiquette

When kids see a cute dog, they often want to run up to it and give it a friendly pat. K9PAD has some recommendations for what kids should do when they see service dogs.

  • Give them space
  • Don’t touch, talk or stare
  • Ignore the team
  • Don’t ask invasive, personal questions

Service dog FAQ

What is a service dog?

A service dog is trained to do work and perform
tasks for a person with a disability. This differs from
a therapy dog or emotional support dog.

What types of service dogs does K9PAD train?

K9PAD trains PTSD, EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) and autism service dogs. 

How should I interact with a service dog?

Just ignore them! Service dogs are classified as medical equipment for their handler. Petting them, talking or staring can distract them from doing their job.

Provided by K9PAD

Accessible training space

K9PAD trains regularly at Decathlon in Dartmouth. The store’s 1,700-square-foot sports facility, the Decadium, is available for community groups to use for free. In addition to service dog training, the space frequently hosts groups like the Wild Child Forest School, learn-to-climb sessions (for kids over eight), archery and vision-loss rehab groups.

A service dog in training at Decathlon Dartmouth. Photo: Submitted

“When I first brought this project (with K9PAD) to the other activity leaders, my store leader was 100 per cent on board,” says Haley MacPhee, activities leader at Decathlon. “This training has everything to do with sport because if dogs and their handlers are uncomfortable in sporting environments, how can they access sport? Our goal is to make sports accessible to the many.”

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