BREAKING NEWS

Very Young Children and Dogs

There has been a recent increase in the use of animals for people with Autism, in particular children.

Many programs set age limits on who they will accept in their programs for partnership with a service dog. The lower cut-off is usually somewhere between 12 and 16 years of age.

Sometimes, especially in desperation, folks can lose sight of the whole equation. Getting a service dog is not just about what possible benefits might be derived. This decision should be based on a cost-benefit analysis which includes careful consideration of not just of what the person with a disability needs, but also the needs of the animal.
Service animals are not like wheelchairs. They don't perform consistently no matter who operates them, and they can feel pain, suffer, and die if left unprotected or uncared for. If a wheelchair is forgotten for a few days, a few weeks, or even years, odds are good that it will be fine, and even if it is not, it is just a thing. A service dog is not a thing.

A service animal needs stewardship. That means that he or she needs a handler who is capable of handling him or her, controlling him or her, providing for him or her, and communicating with him or her.

A service dog handler must be proactive in observing his or her environment and avoiding pitfalls. See that kid around the corner? The one with the ninja turtles T-shirt who is practicing his karate moves and talking about the "doggie?" If you're a service dog handler, your spidey sense should be tingling. On more than one occasion I have had such children charge my dog with their karate moves.

See that tater tot on the floor? You know that your dog has been trained to "leave it" but are you really going to ignore it yourself, or make darned sure your dog has not forgotten the rules? Dogs are not machines; even the best trained, best proofed dog, can AND WILL make mistakes. Mistakes like "hovering" that are not caught immediately will damage the dog's training. This is where a lot of service dog teams fail. The human partner is not a dog handler. Perhaps the handler thinks that the dog is programmable like a VCR and you just "set it and forget it." A good handler learns enough behavior theory to recognize self-reinforcing opportunities like the tater tot and knows how and when to apply reinforcement and correction to maintain their dog's training.

Especially with children, there can be a tendency to think of service dogs as Lassies in capes. Lassie does not exist! She's a fictional character and isn't even just one dog! In order to do all of the cool things she does on TV and in movies they have to use several dog actors. Dogs are not humans in fur suits, they do not think the same way that humans do. They are dogs, which is wonderful in itself, but we need to be realistic about what dogs are really capable of doing.

A dog has the mentality and the cognitive ability of a three year old human child. Dogs make the kinds of decisions that a three year old child would make, but with dog motivations. Would you send a three year old out to cross the street alone? Would you put a three year old in charge of another child to lead that child across the road? A service dog should not be given more responsibility than a three year old human child. Service dogs need adult supervision too.

Service dogs are wonderful helpers, but they are not guardians, they are not nannies, and they are not babysitters. In the human/service-dog partnership, the human MUST be emotionally mature. If you would not hand off a three year old human child into the care of the would-be service dog handler, then please, do not give that person a service dog. Not just for the dog's sake, but for the sake of the would-be handler as well.

The handler must make on-the-fly decisions and plans to provide for their SD. I know that my dog hasn't gone to the bathroom in three hours. He had some water about an hour ago and a snack. I am about to go in to a lecture on thermodynamics. There is a suitable potty area if I deviate slightly and am late for class. Which is better? Walking in late or have to leave in the middle of the lecture when my dog gets desperate? What are the odds that my dog can "hold it" comfortably? Do I have a right to make him or her hold it because of my bad planning? If a kid is not capable of working through this kind of thought process, then he or she is not ready to be responsible for a service dog.

I know that there is a popular trend, especially with the parents of Autistic children to get a service dog knowing that the child is not capable of handling the dog alone, justifying this by saying that the parent will be the "backup handler." That is an abuse of the concept of a backup handler. Let's be honest, the parent intends to be the handler. The parent will be directing the dog and caring for the dog. The parent is using the dog to help his or herself, the parent, to parent their child. The dog is not working for the child, but for the parent. That is not a service dog, even if it is helpful. The justification is that they can not handle the child alone and need help. I sympathize, really, I do. But a dog should never be responsible for a child like that.

Here is what typically happens. The parent spends a few thousand hard-earned dollars on a miracle service dog that is supposed to solve all the problems of the child wandering, running off, behaving inappropriately, or demanding the parent's full and undivided attention. The dog arrives and the kid falls in love. At first, there is the honeymoon period driven by hope. Then reality sets in. Now instead of supervising one kid, the parent is supervising two. Tell the dog to sit. The kid pulls the dog off his feet and the dog gets up, or the kid hits him and the parent has to intervene. Now, not only does the parent have to take control of both the dog and the child, if the parent want to maintain the dog's training, the parent have to stop right then and there and train. The dog must be proofed, yet again, not to let the child budge him or her. Geesh: how confusing for the dog! Sometimes he or she is controlling the kid, sometimes the kid is controlling him or her, and most of the time no-one is really in control.

If a child is not genuinely ready to take on the responsibility of controlling and caring fully for a service dog (100% of the care 100% of the time), then it is too soon. Wait and let the child mature so that he or she can SUCCEED. What can you do in the meanwhile? How about getting a skilled companion dog? You still get many of the benefits with far fewer liabilities. A skilled companion dog is usually a dog from a program who for one reason or another is determined not to be suitable for service work. Perhaps he or she has an allergy that makes him or her scratch a lot. The dog is still very temperamentally sound (so he or she should hold up to erratic behavior from children). He or she is still professionally trained in obedience. He or she has all the good manners and obedience of a Lassie actor. He or she a great buddy for the child, a buddy who attracts other children and makes the disabled child "cool." He or she is still someone to hug, and sleep with, and he or she still has fur to cry into when the child is frustrated or hurt. The difference is that a skilled companion stays at home (or goes places with the family where pet dogs would ordinarily go). There's no juggling of leash, dog, and child just to get a quart of milk.

One last thing to consider: after the child has heard wonderful stories of magical service dogs, and he or she gets his very own magical service dog who loves him and whom he or she loves, and he or she takes the dog everywhere..... can you go back? Can you suddenly say, "this really isn't working out the way I planned, Fido needs to stay at home because I just can't handle it all." How is the child going to take it? How can you explain?

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE consider very carefully before seeking a service dog for a child. There are so many pitfalls.


You should also read What Every Caregiver Needs To Know About Service Dogs by Joan Froling.