Lions training dogs for children with autism
As the number of children with autism has ballooned in recent years, the Lions service club has stepped up to the plate with a program to provide assistance with dog guides.
For more than 25 years, the Lions Foundation of Canada has been providing dog guides to people with disabilities, first for the visually impaired, then to people with hearing problems, those with special needs or suffering from seizures. Their newest program will place dogs with children and families living with autism, beginning in January.
Chris Fowler has been training autism assistance dogs for about 15 years throughout the world. He recently began to work for the Lions foundation, helping them to launch their program and prepare the first round of dogs for the task at hand.
The first class of dogs has been placed with volunteer families, including Vern, a laid-back black lab who came with Fowler to visit the St. Davids Lions last Friday evening.
"We couldn't do what we do without these volunteer puppy raisers," says Flower.
"They take them to dinner, to the library or the mall and for rides on buses and trains, all the things a family would do."
Vern will soon be ready to return to the Lions' Oakville facility, where he will begin a four to six month training period.
Meanwhile, Fowler has been interviewing prospective families, looking for children with autism, ages four to 12, who might benefit from the assistance of a donated dog guide.
He hopes to place 20 to 25 dogs with families between January and July, he says.
Parents are most often looking for help to keep their children safe, says Fowler. The dogs are trained to walk with their charges, leashed to a belt around the child's waist, and to stop when they're told on command from parents.
The dogs provide a sense of independence for children and their parents, and makes it much easier for the whole family to enjoy outings, says Fowler.
But experience is showing that as important is the companionship and unconditional love children with autism find with their dog guide.
"I've worked with more than 200 families, and every single child has really bonded well with their dog, some instantly."
And an added bonus, says Fowler, is that when families are at a mall or other public place, the dog has a calming influence on the child, and also provides a visual clue to others that the child has autism. People are more likely to stop and show interest, rather than disapproval over the sometimes-aggressive behaviour of the child.
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