Making it work
We all know how valuable service dogs are to people with disabilities, but service dog training organizations often overlook the needs of one important subgroup: children.
Located in Princeton, Mass., Canines for Disabled Kids (CDK) helps provide service dogs for children with disabilities (ages 6-18) by underwriting the cost of training the dogs. CDK partners with Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans (also known by its old acronym, NEADS), and works to raise public awareness of service dogs, including the fact that they often can be matched with children.
“We started working with children because we wanted to encourage other organizations to do the same,” says CDK Executive Director Kristin Law. “We feel it’s really important for children to have all the tools they need to overcome their disability, and that will make them more efficient with their tools when they’re adults.”
Dogs and kids
Most of the benefits service dogs bring children are the same as those they bring adults. One big similarity is the independence service dogs provide through the tasks they perform, such as retrieving dropped objects, opening and closing doors, and pushing elevator buttons.
Claire Menke, 12, of Middletown, Md., who has type 3 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA3), is ambulatory and uses a power wheelchair for long distances. She received her service dog Xavier, a 2-year-old golden retriever, from 4 Paws for Ability (4 Paws) of Xenia, Ohio, last year.
Before Xavier came into her life, Claire always had to have an assistant nearby in case she needed something.
“When they’re out in social situations and [Claire] has an assistant nearby, she feels like the other kids kind of clam up,” says Claire’s mother, Daene Menke.
Xavier doesn’t replace the assistant, but with him around the assistant doesn’t need to be close enough to “eavesdrop.”
“I think she does think she can be more of a preteen and not have to worry about an adult hovering,” Menke says.
Another benefit for both adults and children is the companionship and unconditional love that service dogs offer.
Service dogs are great ice-breakers. People’s disabilities seem to disappear when they’re accompanied by their furry friends, making it easier for others to approach them and encouraging conversation.
“Sometimes children with disabilities find it hard to make friends, especially when they are in school, because children can get nervous about things that they don’t understand,” Law says. “The dog may help to make that process a little bit easier because other children see them as a person who owns a cool dog.”
Having a service dog also allows children with disabilities to feel they’re in charge of something, which helps build self-esteem.
SMA3 has caused Claire to be very small for her age, weighing 34 pounds and measuring 44 inches tall.
“She’s nowhere near the size of other children her age and that makes her feel like she’s younger than everybody else,” her mother says. “Having Xavier makes her feel more equal to the other kids. They see her as more than someone who just looks about 7 years old.”
Xavier gives Claire both independence and an air of authority, Menke says, “because it takes some discipline to be able to manage the dog and have him do what she wants him to do.”
|Xavier and Claire Menke|
“You have to pick the right kind of dog, because some dogs are harder to gain their respect, and they respect an adult more than a child,” says Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws. “The dog we placed with Claire, Xavier, is gentle and laid back, and the kind of dog that will listen to almost anybody.”
The 4 Paws staff members’ children work with the dogs to see how well the dogs will respond to commands from younger children.
Not every dog will work for every child. It’s important that the dog’s temperament and personality match that of the child.
“We have the family make a long video, and we watch and see what the child’s day is like, what their personality is like and what their abilities are,” Shirk says. “Then we match the right temperament and right drive of the dog with what’s right for that child.”
What it takes
Of the service dog organizations that serve children, most work only with kids age 12 or above. Others accept younger children but require the child to be able to assume total responsibility for the dog or be accompanied by a facilitator who’s a member of the service dog team.
Knowing that every child is different, some organizations use a test to decide whether a child is capable of handling the dog without a facilitator.
Claire worked with 4 Paws, which accepts children of any age. At the end of team training, there’s a test to determine if the child can be certified with the dog. If not, 4 Paws certifies the dog to the parent-and-child team.
“Claire’s not the youngest to receive a [service dog], but she’s the youngest in 4 Paws who has ever passed the Public Access Test with only adult supervision at the end of the 10-day training period,” Menke says. “Usually they’re certified with parental control, which means the adult would have to be the official handler. But with Claire she can do it, she just needs adult supervision.”
A national standard, the Public Access Test, is used to ensure that a service dog team is safe when out in public. If the child passes with adult supervision, he or she can handle the dog as long as there’s an adult present to supervise.
Claire did much of the training herself because she’s really confident for her age, says Shirk, noting that many 12-year-olds don’t have as much “gumption” as Claire, and their parents have to be more hands-on.
Although the youngest child CDK has placed with a traditional service dog is 6 years old, the agency has the most success with children who are at least 8, when they’re able to show leadership skills. It’s important that the dog see the child as the leader so it’ll respect him or her and follow instructions.
“Often children between 6 and 8 don’t have that ability yet,” Law says. “They’re not able to be the leader, so they need a little bit more time in their own growing so that they can lead the dog.”
Children have to be able to tell their peers, “Don’t touch my dog without permission” or “Don’t give my dog instructions,” Law adds. The service dog is a tool, not a toy or a pet.
“We’ve had parents who’ve come in for an interview and find out their child is not quite ready, so they go on the waiting list and we will re-interview them when their child is a little bit older,” says Law. “We don’t expect a 6-year-old to take on the same responsibilities as a 15-year-old or an adult.”
Before you get a service dog for your child, there’s much to consider. Remember, this is a family decision, and you need to be there to help your child and the dog practice 10 to 15 minutes daily.
Service dogs are expensive. It takes $20,000 to $24,000 to train one, but grants and private donations usually offset the cost to families. Each training organization has different financial requirements, and some ask recipients to raise part of the cost.
Don’t forget the added cost of dog food, vet visits, medications and other items to keep your child’s service dog happy and healthy.
If you have other children, you’ll need to help them understand that the service dog isn’t a family pet and shouldn’t be treated as one.
Claire’s older sisters, Emily, 16, and Amanda, 14, understand Xavier’s role as a service dog and try not to distract him. But it was a challenge helping her 9-year-old brother, Alex, understand why he couldn’t roughhouse with Xavier.
“We encourage it to be a neutral kind of thing and not lovey-dovey type of attention,” Menke says. “We’ve allowed [Alex] to have more responsibility for our other dog so that he does things that Claire might do for Xavier.
“I think bringing a service dog home is kind of like bringing a new baby home from the hospital,” Menke says. “There can be the same type of sibling issues when you bring a new member to the family because that’s basically what you’re doing. It’s a new member to the family but one who already has an established role.”