Scott McDaniel and his family didn’t consider themselves dog people. They didn’t have a dog, and had never had one before. However, after learning that dogs can benefit children with disabilities, Scott decided to see what adding a furry family member could do for his 6-year-old autistic son, Andrew. He reached out to Dogs For Autism (DFA), and along came Henry, a 4-year-old Lab who would change their lives forever.
DFA works to breed, raise, train and place service dogs to work with autistic children. These dogs serve as members of a team alongside the child’s parents, and each dog’s job description is tailored to the family’s individual needs. Dogs assist families by offering safety and increased independence in public, helping to search and locate a child, and alerting parents to certain activities or situations.
Henry joined the McDaniel family in December 2012. Although DFA usually breeds and raises dogs for training, Henry was a rescue taken in by the organization. To prepare him to work with Andrew, Scott trained with Henry and DFA staff at home and in public. Once they were able to teach Henry specific tasks, they started to incorporate Andrew into lessons. After more than seven months of intensive training, Henry became a certified service dog.
One challenge parents with autistic children face is their tendency to run off or wander away. Trained dogs use blocking and tethering techniques to combat this. Through blocking, Henry impedes Andrew’s progress by stopping in front of him to block him from moving forward and slow him down until his parents can catch up. By tethering, or connecting the dog’s service vest to a vest the child wears, Henry prevents Andrew from wandering away. Henry serves as an anchor to keep him in the same location.
“Autistic children have a greater tendency to run off or wander because of their heightened sense of curiosity and diminished fear of danger,” Scott said. “When we got Henry, we wanted him to help out with this, and it has been amazing to see the progress we’ve made together.”
The McDaniel family is also grateful for the calming effect Henry has on Andrew. “Autistic kids often get upset when they are unable to communicate their needs,” Scott said. “When Andrew gets frustrated, Henry will start to lick his foot or interact with him in some way to calm him down.”
Having Henry as part of the family has also been beneficial to Andrew’s parents. The blocking and tethering techniques give Scott and his wife a greater sense of security and allow them to relax and interact more with their friends and neighbors. “Parents are always stressed, but especially those with special needs kids,” Scott said. “It’s a full-time job and having Henry to help out makes our lives easier.”
The McDaniels look forward to having Henry as part of the family for a long time to come. Scott plans to continue practicing Henry’s blocking and tethering skills, and help nurture the bond between him and Andrew. “As their relationship continues to develop, so does his bond with our family,” Scott said. “Our goal is for Andrew and Henry to keep interacting so it will grow stronger over time.”
For more information about Dogs for Autism, please visit www.dogsforautism.org.