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Touching stories of service dogs for kids with special needs

Will and Werner

Will and his dog Werner |

Photo credit: Thomas Family

Amy Thomas’s 12-year-old son, Will, has Down syndrome, which causes developmental and intellectual delays. In September 2011, Thomas met a puppy raiser with a puppy from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) while Will was taking therapeutic horseback riding.

According to its website, “Canine Companions is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.” Founded in Santa Rosa, California, CCI says it has placed 4,251 graduate teams since 1975.

Find the right team

CCI trains and places four types of teams.

  1. Service teams assist adults with physical disabilities by performing daily tasks.
  2. Hearing teams alert the deaf and hard of hearing to important sounds.
  3. Skilled companion teams enhance independence for children and adults with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities.
  4. Facility teams work with a professional in a visitation, education or health care setting.

For the Thomases, becoming part of a skilled companion team was a dream come true and a step toward giving Will as much independence as possible. After submitting their application in September 2011, the Thomases went through a phone interview in October, an in-person interview in Orlando at CCI in January 2012, and the two-week on-site training at CCI in Orlando in May 2012.

“Will was matched with Werner, and we are so grateful,” Thomas says.

Best thing we have ever done

While Werner has enriched the Thomases’ lives immeasurably, the match doesn’t always make sense to others right away. “When I shared the fact that Will was getting a service dog, someone asked, ‘Does he really need a service dog?'” Thomas explains. “The answer is no, but life for Will is definitely better with Werner. Will’s school speech therapist said that getting Werner is the best thing we have ever done for Will.”

“Werner gives Will a reason to interact and communicate out in the community and a way to connect with other kids,” Thomas explains. “Will is not the kid who looks different or talks differently, but ‘the kid with the cool dog.’ If someone approaches Will and Werner, I encourage Will to ask them if they want to shake Werner’s paw. Will commands Werner to ‘sit’ and ‘shake’ and praises Werner as he does so.”

Bridge from loneliness

Thomas sees Werner as Will’s bridge from the loneliness of disability to the joy of human interaction. “Will does not make friends easily and it is challenging for him to have successful conversations. Werner is a true friend, a great listener and always there for Will.”

Thomas knew boy and dog had become best friends immediately, but even she was surprised by the happiness Werner brought to their lives. “Smiles and laughter in our home have both increased a surprising, significant amount,” she says. “The transitions from bed to breakfast and school to home are smoother because of Werner.”

“The CCI trainers were correct when they said that emotions travel down the leash,” Thomas says. “Almost every situation can be made better with a positive attitude, and Werner helps. Will is developing relational skills with his family as well as people out in the community who want to talk about Werner.”

Will’s relationship with Werner also has taught Will about listening and following directions, his mother says. “Having Werner has also empowered Will to be healthier and take better care of himself. Werner is a natural reminder to take walks and play — both outside and inside.”

Amy says families considering a service dog for their child should ask these questions.

  • Can your child be left alone in the house while the adult takes the dog outside?
  • Do you have a fenced-in yard?
  • Are you able to commit to keeping the dog on leash always unless in fenced yard?
  • Will the child be gentle and loving to the dog?
  • Will the child accept that the adult is always in charge of the leash?
  • Are you willing to limit family members’ and strangers’ interactions with the dog so almost all of the attention to the dog comes from your child with special needs?
  • Are you consistent with rules and schedules?
  • Will your child follow directions regarding the dog’s care and training?
  • Can you commit to keeping the relationship between your child and dog positive, not forced?
  • Are you ready to love and connect with your child like never before?

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