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Touching stories of service dogs for kids with special needs

When you think about who might benefit from a service dog, you might first think of a person who is visually impaired. That may be how the concept began, but today service dogs help children with all kinds of special needs, from autism to heart conditions and ADHD.

Claira and her dog Soleil |

Photo credit: Brown Family

It was July 2012. Erica Brown, her husband, Shannon, and their daughter, Claira, who has autism, were at an outdoor concert when a friend spotted Erica through the crowd and called to her. In the moment it took Brown to wave to her friend and turn back, Claira had vanished into the crowd.

Thankfully, the Browns quickly caught up to their daughter — about half a football field’s length from where they had been standing. But the experience changed their lives.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

“Once we arrived home, I knew I had to do something to help us feel safe in public with her,” Brown says. “I googled ‘tethering’ and ‘autism.’ That is when I first was introduced to 4 Paws For Ability.”

Today, Claira is a happy 4-year-old with a new best friend named Soleil (pronounced so-LAY), a chocolate lab classified as an autism assistance dog and mobility dog trained in tracking and tethering.

Function and emotion

While Soleil’s training includes search and rescue by following Claira’s scent, he’s also trained in behavior disruption “to help her calm down during meltdowns,” Brown explains. “He ‘laps’ or lays across her lap to provide deep pressure, gives kisses [by licking her cheeks] and provides comfort during stressful situations by just being by her side — laying under her chair or table while eating in restaurants.”

Soleil helps Claira up and down stairs or playground equipment by staying by her side so Claira can hold the handle on his mobility vest. The difference Soleil makes in Claira’s life extends to her whole family. “We have had no meltdowns at shopping venues since having Soleil and only two or three meltdowns in restaurants since having him,” Brown shares.

When Claira met Soleil, “We went from a family of three, to a family of four literally in seconds,” her mom says. “Their bond is unwavering. He sleeps with her, lays outside her tub at bath time, lays under her chair every night during supper, plays with her in her playroom, and lays his head in her lap while riding in the car.

“He is her independence and safety all wrapped into one furry little body,” Brown says.

Evolution of service dogs

Service dogs help support children with a number of conditions, from diabetes to epilepsy to autism. “The service dog industry has been evolving dramatically over the years,” explains Whitney Hitt, community/media relations director, 4 Paws For Ability. “Many people are accustomed to seeing-eye dogs, or dogs that assist people with mobility issues. But as our agency has shown, service dogs come in all shapes and sizes and can assist a much larger group of people.

“A child who may not have any obvious visible disability, for instance, may very well have a service dog trained for seizure alert. The public is still adapting to seeing service dogs with children, and by and large do not realize the wide variety of tasks for which these amazing animals can be trained.”

Brown credits Soleil’s extensive training for making the transition so smooth. “We were expecting it to be harder for some to accept him since he is the first service dog in our area,” she shares. “Everyone welcomed him with open arms. One restaurant even dedicated one table as ‘Claira and Soleil’s table.’ This was the largest table in the facility, right in the middle, so that he has plenty of space under her high chair.”

Family handles fundraising

The organization 4 Paws was founded in 1998 and has placed more than 750 service dogs with families worldwide. Rather than have a long waiting list, 4 Paws works with families to help raise the funds to train their service dog.

“We hosted a golf tournament and raised all of the needed money to receive [Claira’s] service dog,” Brown says. “The service dogs cost $22,000, but the families are only required to raise $14,000. With the help of loving friends and family, our dream was met in only one day!”

Brown has these tips for families considering a service dog.

  • Do your research and choose an accredited foundation.
  • When possible, talk with families who have obtained dogs from the agency you’re considering.
  • Be ready for a life-changing experience.
  • Plan to provide top-notch care. “The service dog will need exceptional care like a child, so be ready for yearly exams, monthly medications (heartworm and flea prevention),” Brown points out.

Prepare for scrutiny

Not everyone understands how a service dog can change a child’s life. “You will run into people who will question your actions,” Brown says. “Be prepared to explain with class and educate them on your decision.

“A lot of people still think, ‘Only blind people have or need service dogs,'” Brown says. “We have an Autism Assistance patch on Soleil’s vest to help them understand what he is for before they ever ask.”

Brown says while they’ve had fellow shoppers complain about Soleil being in a store, no business has ever turned the family away. “Service dog education is becoming more prominent in the corporate world, but the public shoppers are the ones who still need the education,” she says.

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