Your Child Doesn’t Need An Autism Dog (Probably)

Posted on May 14, 2021May 14, 2021Categories Assistance Dog Skills, Common Mistakes Owners Make, Kids and Pets, Please ShareTags , , ,

Why have a Child With AUTISM

When you could have a

Child With An AUTISM DOG?

According to People On The Internet, who, as you know, are never wrong*, if your child is autistic, a magic dog can fix them.

*Sarcasm. People on the Internet can be wrong. 

Autism Dogs can be great. After a dozen years of training assistance dogs for other people, I’m finally training my own Autism Dog.

But you probably don’t need one.

Some parents put a lot of weight on getting an autism dog for their child. It seems to be the newest accessory.

When I ask them what they want the dog to do for the child, they often aren’t sure. They just heard that autism dogs can help, and sometimes they’re truly desperate for help.

So it’s really important to understand – a dog can’t fix autism.

A dog can’t rewire our brains.

A dog can’t make your apraxic child capable of speech.

A dog can’t make the world quieter, the lights in the grocery store dimmer, or help us when we panic at Subway because they forgot one of the sandwiches we ordered and now we have to either go home without a sandwich and go hungry for dinner or speak up.**

**I went home without my sandwich.

They definitely can’t help us when we try to navigate downtown without Siri and accidentally turn the wrong way on a one way street.***

***If any police officers are reading this I'm joking!!! HAAHAHAHAHA.****
****No seriously it was scary but no one got hurt and now I will always always have Siri on. I learned my lesson. I'm too autistic for downtown*****. 
 *****As per the preferences of the majority of autistic people polled, including myself, a genuine Autistic Person, I don't usually refer to autism as if it is an awkward accessory - I call myself autistic.  

An Autism Dog is not a substitute for an AAC device, an Occupational Therapist, or acceptance in the community.

So What CAN an Autism Dog Do?

Well… some things…

Safety Sense

Dogs can be trained to stop automatically at curbs, preventing the child from wandering or bolting into the road.

Behavior Interruption

Dogs can be taught to interrupt self-harmful behaviors like skin picking or head banging.

Social Support

Dogs make for great conversation greasers. As an autistic person, I can vouch for how easy social interactions are when you have a dog. People always ask the same questions, and I’ve got the scripts for the answers down pat. Then people start talking to me about their dog and I just nod and smile and coo over pictures. It’s easy!

Sensory Support

Is there anything more soothing than the feeling of soft ears between my fingers? And a firm handle to hold is so steadying when I’m feeling lost and overwhelmed. A tug of a guiding dog with a handle can even help me overcome autistic inertia.

Unconditional Love

When you’re autistic, people tend to look at you strangely.

A lot.

Because we process the world differently, we experience the world differently which means that quite frankly we inhabit a slightly different reality from the people around us. That can get lonely. But do you know who doesn’t care whether I made a faux pas at a party?

Dogs. They love me anyway.

I guess those benefits sound pretty great to parents, because we field a lot of emails from people looking to make their autistic child into a Child-With-Autism-Dog. They just adopted a puppy, or are planning to buy a puppy, and they want the pup to become their child’s loyal Autism Dog.

Sometimes, working with an autistic kid and their dog is the highlight of my day. I love my clients, and they love their dogs.

Just the other day I got a text from a client.

It said:

“[My child] refused to go to a dentist appointment and I didn’t think I was ever going to get them in the car, but then I suggested the dog come with us and he changed his mind and agreed to come. They both rocked it!”

(paraphrase to protect client privacy)

That’s the beauty of an Autism Dog. Sometimes that furry companionship is exactly what an autistic child needs to help them face the challenging of daily life.

Sometimes a handle to hold can mean the difference between getting a child from the car and to the school calmly safely… versus yet another eloping incident involving a bolting five year old and a busy road.

Some of the most impressive and skilled dog handlers on my client list are autistic teenagers who train their dogs themselves.

When people come to me looking for help training an Autism Dog, I can be delighted and honoured to help them on this journey.

But more often… I tell them it’s not a great idea.

That’s right. I, an autistic person who gains immense comfort and support from dogs, don’t think most people should get an autism dog for their child.

As great and useful as an Autism Dog can be, most families should not be getting one for their autistic child.

Autism Dogs Can Be A Terrible Idea.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Reason 1:

The child doesn’t even like dogs.

If you’re an autistic kid and dogs are your special interest, then a dog is the best present your parents will ever get you.

But a lot of people believe that all autistic children just naturally tend to bond with dogs, and that’s incorrect. The fact is that the majority of autistic children, from verbal to non verbal, from apraxic to non-apraxic, with or without intellectual disability, do not enjoy dogs.

Dogs are slimy. Dogs are smelly. Dogs love eye contact. Dogs poop and drool and chew and make loud unexpected noises.

Autistic people are cat people more than dog people. Horses tend to be good. Rabbits. Guinea pigs. Doves, maybe. Not hairy, shedding, stinking, drooling, noisy dogs.

Quite frankly I can’t even explain why I like them, because I dislike basically everything I mentioned above. If I didn’t have this sweeping obsession with animals I’d probably hate dogs too.

Photo by Tamas Pap on Unsplash

Reason 2:

The parent wants the dog to accompany the child to school.

Children under the age of 10 or so tend not to have the ability to handle a dog – even a well trained one – on their own. Autistic kids also tend to struggle with reaction time and physical coordination, which are necessary for skilled dog handling.

I learned it, but it took me a long time.

The parent, not the child, usually handles the Autism Dog. So unless your child’s care aid or BI is willing to handle the dog for you when you aren’t around, or your child is old enough and capable enough to manage the dog, the dog cannot accompany your child to school.

Are there exceptions? Of course! Some of my most skilled handlers are autistic teens. But if you have a young child, you should probably forget it.

Photo by Daniël Maas on Unsplash

Reason 3:

Autism and puppies don’t mix.

Most of the people who contact me are getting a puppy and want to train it up themselves. It sounds good on paper but if often doesn’t work well in reality.

Puppies are terrible. They make disgusting messes. They jump up. They have VERY sharp teeth which they like to embed in our sensitive skin. They’re a TON of work. They chew up your favourite toys, mess up your beautfully lined up objects, and then leave a poop in the middle of your bedroom floor.

Oh and they yip and want constant interaction and it’s terrible and your child will probably hate it.

Yes, even if your child loves dogs.

Yes, even if your child desperately wants a dog.

Parents continually underestimate how much chaos a puppy will bring into their child’s carefully ordered life.

You should not leave your autistic child – or even your neurotypical child – unattended with a puppy. I don’t care how sweet and gentle your child is, or how much empathy they show to animals. When a puppy is sinking needle-like teeth into their pinky toe, there is an excellent chance the child will defend themselves by hitting or kicking the puppy. It’s a reflex. They won’t be able to stop themselves.

I have seen this happen in families where the parent was 100% positive that their child would never hurt a dog.

The parent was probably right in thinking their child wouldn’t hurt a DOG. But a PUPPY is another story. Puppies are really, really obnoxious.

Reason 4:

The child can get violent during meltdowns.

Every autistic person melts down at times.

While some of us elope and scream, or collapse on the floor, some of us can hit and throw things. No, we can’t control it. I’m a grown up woman, married, a parent, and running my own business, and I still can’t control myself during a meltdown so you absolutely cannot expect that of a child.

Thankfully I’m a run-screaming-down-the-side-of-the-highway kind of autistic, not a hits-people-or-dogs kind of autistic but that’s just luck of the draw. It all comes down to how your nervous system reacts to a red alert.

If a child sometimes throws things, or hits and punches people they love when they are upset or melting down, they likely cannot have a service dog. The dog could end up getting punched, kicked, hit, or – in one memorable incident – thrown against a wall.

…I’m pretty sure Amelia is still recovering from that training appointment.

No matter how much benefit a dog could bring to your child, we do not have the right to put a dog in harm’s way.

I do have a client whose child can throw a solid punch when they’re worked up, but they are always pulled out of the meltdown by the dog and have never aggressed on the dog.

So can it be okay? Yes. But I find this is very much the exception, NOT the rule, and parents must always remain vigilant and be ready and able to protect the dog from the child if necessary.

We have a duty to provide these animals with safe and loving surroundings. If we cannot guarantee that, then we cannot put the animal in harm’s way.

Reason 5:

The dog is a chore.

A lot of parents want their child to have a dog because they want the child to get outdoors and get active more.

It won’t work.

Most autistic kids are struggling with meeting basic daily challenges like getting dressed, going to school, and maybe putting their laundry away. Adding a dependant living thing to their to-do list is usually too much for the kid.

Even when the child adores the dog, they usually won’t put their video games down to go for long walks on the beach with their beloved companion. They’re more likely to complain that the dog gets in the way of the X-box controller.

Now, I’m not saying your child can’t be responsible for the dog. I have clients whose kids love to walk the dog. I know kids who even pick up the dogs’ poop.

So I’m not telling you what your child can and can’t do.

But I do want you to seriously consider these things because I frequently find that the parent’s expectations of the child are disappointed. In fact sometimes I see the child turned off of the dog because it represents more work and more things for parents to nag about.

Reasons 6-10,000:

When People See You, They See Dollar Signs.

Whether you hire someone like us, or get a pre-trained dog, expect to spend a lot of money, and watch out for people who want to prey off of you.

There are a lot of vultures out there looking to get money from parents who are trying to help their child. Selling you an “Autism Dog” is a popular scam.

Note: I’m not referring to accredited charities such as BC Guide Dogs. Look for accreditation through Assistance Dog International when searching for a trustworthy organization.

Unfortunately, since ADI accredited charities contend with massive wait-lists, and since they screen their applicants carefully, many families either don’t qualify (likely for good reason – see above). Others qualify but do not want to wait years for their dog.

This opens you up to predatory Autism Dog programs who will often charge thousands for poorly trained and sometimes even aggressive dogs. These are the same people who push Autism Dogs so hard in the first place.

Yes, this happens.

Quite often actually.

Yes, in Canada too.

Yes, here in Vancouver.

Want to know how to spot a service dog scam? Here are some signs.

So please, before you fork out thousands of dollars to breeders/service dog scams or to private service dog trainers (including us!) ask yourself if your child will really benefit.

And if you don’t… we will, because we don’t believe in charging people money in order to waste their time.

How To Spot Assistance Dog Scams

Posted on May 14, 2021May 14, 2021Categories Assistance Dog Skills, Featured, Please ShareTags , , ,

Everyone knows about fake service dogs – dogs who have a vest that says “service dog” but pull on the leash, bark, and generally act like your average pet.

But what people don’t know is how often the person holding the leash is the victim of a scam, and they don’t even know that their service dog is not legitimate.

Sometimes people contact us after they realize they’ve been scammed, and they are looking for help.

Sometimes we have to gently break it to people when we realize they have been scammed.

It’s never fun.

It makes me angry that there are people willing to prey on disabled people who are looking for help. I hope this article helps save a few people from these common scams.

Scam #1: Fake Service Dog Registration.

If I google “service dog registration canada” I come up with a long list of scam sites. They urge you to pay them money now to “register” your dog in return for fake IDs, fake letters from fake doctors etc. But of course they don’t say that it’s all fake. They make themselves look as legitimate as possible.

My personal favourite is the one which clearly displays its address in the USA while urging me to choose them because they’re based in Canada.

hope you don't fall for this!

So, how do you spot these sites?

It’s easy.

If it isn’t a government website, then they have no right to make any kind of declaration about whether or not your dog is registered or certified in your area.

If no one has asked you for a doctor’s note and checked to see if your dog behaves itself, then they have absolutely no authority whatsoever.

If they’re asking you for money, be suspicious.

It is important to understand that random organizations on the internet have no authority over whether your dog is a real service dog.

While service dog laws vary from province to province, here is a summary of the laws here in British Columbia:

Scam #2: Selling You A Fake Service Dog

leash manners are just the beginning...

Even worse than bilking people out of a couple of hundred dollars for a false service dog ID is selling a false service dog. A fully trained service dog can sell for anywhere from $5,000-$15,000. Are they worth that? Absolutely.

…IF they are actually well trained.

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there who will put a head halter on any dog and sell it to you as a service dog.

42 people have filed fraud complaints against one “trainer” in North Carolina.

Another outfit has been sued for selling poorly trained dogs for as high as $30k.

These high profile cases are merely the tip of the iceberg. Fake service dog scams can be found all over the world, including here in Canada.

Hope you know assistance dogs shouldn't do this!

Here’s how you spot a service dog scammer:

They are not on any lists posted by reliable institutions. Self-Regulating organizations such as Assistance Dogs International will list approved members. https://assistancedogsinternational.org/resources/member-search/

Their dogs pull on the leash or require frequent corrections.

A trained service dog should walk next to their handler calmly and on a loose leash. That means the leash should be hanging down in a J or U shape and the handler does not seem to need the leash in order to direct the dog. In fact, the handler should be able to drop the leash and keep walking, and the dog acts just the same.

Their dogs need special equipment.

A well trained service dog behaves the same off leash as on leash. A trained service dog should not require a prong collar, a shock collar, or any other form of extreme control. Some service dogs may wear head halters, because their handler is in a wheelchair or is frail and even an accidental tug on the leash could result in injury. But most fully qualified service dogs only require a simple harness or flat collar.

The dogs do not perform specialized skills.

Service dog scammers don’t know how to train dogs, only control them. You can use scolding and punishment to stop a dog from yanking on the leash, but it takes a lot more skill to train a dog to fetch medications, find a lost possession, or carry their own poop bag and put it in the garbage. Your service dog should be able to perform several advanced skills designed to assist you in daily life.

A dog who can just heel nicely and sit-stay is a well behaved pet, not a service dog. Check the organizations social media channels – skilled trainers delight in showing off what their dogs can do and they’ll have the social media posts to back it up!

They have the dogs’ names on their service dog capes.

There’s a reason that big service dog organizations don’t embroider the dogs’ names on their capes, and it has nothing to do with cost. It would be easy to find a nice volunteer to embroider a special cape for each graduate. No, the reason they don’t do it is because they know that you don’t want the public to know your dogs’ names. Some of my clients even have “stage names” for their dogs that they’ll give the public when someone asks for their dogs’ names. It’s extremely annoying to have people calling your dog from across the room when you’re trying to keep him under your chair in McDonald’s.

So I raise my eyebrows at any organization that does this, because to me it practically screams “lack of experience”.

Their trainers don’t have any certifications.

Experience is not a substitute for education. I have learned immense amounts from my dozen plus years of hands-on experience training dogs, but just as vital has been active pursuit of education on the subject of dog training. A dedicated dog trainer invests in their career, and will be able to list courses or apprenticeships they have taken and certifications they have achieved, and will be happy to refer you to the schools that trained them.

Once again, check their claims at the back end. If they say they are CPDT-KAs, for example, you will find them on the CCPDT website.

They don’t have a good relationship with similar organizations nearby

There’s not much competition in the service dog charity world. The demand far outstrips production, which exactly why these service dog scammers are able to do so well. Service dog schools swap training methods, breeding dogs, and anything else they think will help each other succeed. If the organization you are looking into doesn’t seem to have good affiliations with similar organizations, nearby or abroad, it’s worth calling those other schools to find out why.

They don’t screen applicants carefully.

A true service dog organization wants its dogs to go to good homes and worthy recipients. They will want reports from your doctors, they will check your finances to ensure you can provide food and vet care to the dog, they’ll ask for references, and they may even run a criminal record check on you to make sure you aren’t an animal abuser.

They’ll ask you about your schedule, your pasttimes, your home life, and your recreational activities so they can match the right dog to the right person – they don’t want to pair a slug-dog to someone who does marathons, or hand a canine athlete to someone who rarely leaves the house. Since demand is so high, service dog schools can be very picky about matchmaking to ensure that the paired teams are ideal.

They don’t treat their clients well.

Service dog organizations exist to help people, and they are run by people who love people. They should be educated on the nature of your disability, they should not express ableist beliefs, they should demonstrate genuine care and consideration for their clients and their needs, and they should be willing and able to accommodate your disability.

They don’t behave professionally.

Professionals behave like professionals and care how they and their dogs are perceived by the public. They require their clients to behave professionally as well and will coach them in how to handle difficult situations (such as being questioned about their service dog) with grace. They will coach their clients on ways to be discrete with their dog in public and to ensure their dog is not a nuisance to others. They will respect their clients’ privacy and human rights.

It should go without saying that they will not try to take advantage of their clients, or offer you discounts if you recruit more clients for them as if they were Mary Kay.

Their fee for the dog is non-refundable.

Most of the big charities do not charge their clients for the dogs, but instead choose to retain ownership and “loan” the dog out to the client. But some do permit the transfer of ownership for a fair price. Usually the client is expected to fundraise for the dog, rather than pay out of pocket. None of these things are, by themselves, suspicious.

However, if papers you are signing commit you to paying a non-refundable fee, with or without ownership of the dog, please ask more questions. What if the dog isn’t a good fit for you? What if you realize you don’t actually like having a service dog? You should always be able to return the dog without ending up out-of-pocket if things aren’t a good fit.

Some scams will sell a dog to someone, or charge application fees in the thousands, only to give out an aggressive, untrained or otherwise unsuitable dog. When the dog is ultimately returned, they refuse to return the money – usually while deflecting responsibility onto the recipient – then turn around and sell the dog to someone else.

Don’t let this happen to you. Read the fine print on any contracts you sign, and make sure it includes guarantees regarding the dog’s behavior, and allows for refunds if the dog is aggressive or unsuitable.

Buyer Beware

The dog training industry is completely unregulated by the government. While voluntary certifications exist – such as the BC AnimalKind program, and the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers – the government has no legal definition of what constitutes a “dog trainer”, and anyone can go to PetSmart, buy themselves a shock collar, and set up a business training dogs.

We are plagued enough by people who think that punishing a dog into submission is “training” and sell it as such to innocent people and their dogs. It’s ten times worse, though, when a family with a disabled child is faced with the grief of a badly behaved dog who cost them hundreds or even thousands.

When it comes to predatory website scams, our justice system is helpless, as these websites are usually based out of the U.S. and therefore not answerable to British Columbia laws.

Please check things out carefully. Be very wary of buying things online, or getting information about service dog laws online. I’ve lost count of the number of clients who think the American Disability Act rules apply here in Canada.

Be safe out there.