MONTREAL — If Nancy Cummings Gold, right, gets her wish, every child with special needs in Quebec who can benefit from the assistance of a specially trained dog will get one – free of charge.
Matching companionable watchdogs with kids who have autism or related
developmental disorders has proven to be successful in Ontario for at
least a decade, but is almost unheard of in this province.
Gold has created the non-profit PACCK Foundation (Positive Assistance and Companion Canines for Kids), which will receive its first four white German shepherd puppies this month from a breeder in the United States. In about 11/2 years, the dogs will be placed permanently with a family that has a child who can benefit, usually between four and 12 years old.
“The transformational impact of assistance canines on the lives of autistic children and their families is astonishing,” said Gold, PACCK president. The dogs help keep the children safe and increase their capacity to connect with people and their environment. They are a complement, not a substitute, for other therapies, she emphasized.
These dogs are much more than a pet and have a greater array of skills than guide dogs used by the visually impaired.
They are indeed a comforting friend, but they are also trained to help care for the child, keeping him away from dangers that he may be oblivious to, such as walking toward the headlights of a vehicle or into a body of water. The animals are trained in search and rescue, because some autistic children have a habit of running off.
Most amazingly, the dogs interrupt certain self-harming or undesirable repetitive behaviours in the child by nudging him with their nose or paw.
The youngest children are often tethered to the dog by a belt around their waist, while the parent holds a regular leash.
Many children who don’t speak become verbal after getting a dog, or at the least, the dog will serve as “a social bridge” to other people.
“The dog helps connect the child to the world. It is a conduit to other people and places. It’s an enabler,” said PACCK’s executive director Mark Stolow. who has an extensive background in the social service field.
In addition, the dog almost always has a calming effect on the children, and many sleep through the night for the first time.
The dog’s presence is thus a stress-reliever for the whole family.
“Dogs are non-judgmental and always give you positive feedback,” Gold said.
PACCK is working with Cambridge, Ont.-based National Service Dogs, which has placed hundreds of dogs over the last dozen years. The advantages of pairing assistance canines with kids who have special needs have been supported by research at the University of Guelph.
Gold, a dog lover, became aware of the positive impact canines can have on people with disabilities while volunteering in Israel on a Combined Jewish Appeal mission a few years ago. She was assigned to Beit Cohen in Be’er Sheva, a centre that brings in friendly canine visitors for people with disabilities so severe that they could not work in a sheltered workshop.
“It was an inspiration to see the effect of the relationship between human and animal,” Gold said. Eventually, she’d like to bring PACCK to Israel.
Since then, Gold became the proud owner of two abandoned dogs with troubled pasts. She hired Zoë Quinn-Phillips to train Lola and Lucy, with delightful results. The two women became friends and the idea of PACCK began to form.
Quinn-Phillips, Stolow’s wife, is now PACCK’s head trainer and director of operations.
When they arrive in Montreal, the puppies will be placed with volunteer foster families for about 18 months, while they undergo 380 hours of training. At the end, they will be licensed assistance dogs, permitting them to go to public places and use transportation usually off-limits to animals.
They are also being trained bilingually. Although most commands are by hand signals, the dogs will understand French and English.
The dogs will accompany the children they are paired with almost everywhere – to school, appointments, the grocery store, movies.
Families have said that after getting a dog, they were able for the first time to go away together.
Building up a bank of volunteer foster families for the steady stream of puppies expected to arrive in Montreal is the priority right now for PACCK.
“We know it’s hard to have a dog for a year and then give it up. But you can be proud to know that you’re raising a dog that is going to have a career that benefits someone,” Gold said.
Prospective volunteers go through a rigorous application process and those chosen are in weekly contact with PACCK. The family that receives the dog will also be given training and ongoing support, including an annual testing of the dog’s abilities.
PACCK already has a waiting list of families. Eventually, it plans to breed its own dogs.
At PACCK’s official launch this month, an Ontario mother, Maureen, and her 16-year-old son, Brodie, will talk about how their assistance dog changed their lives. He received his first dog as a young child, and now has a second.
“The dog kept Brodie grounded,” Maureen remembers. “It kept him from fleeing into danger and his emotions from peaking. He was able to connect with people and not be afraid of them.
“Even the self-harming behaviours disappeared within a short time after we got Shade. His sleep pattern improved and we all began to feel more at ease. To us, this was a miracle.”
For more information, visit www.pacck.org.