JP, an energetic 4-month-old Labrador retriever, is like most puppies. He is sweet, playful and a glutton for attention. Also like most puppies, JP is going through a series of training exercises, wagging his tail excitedly when he is rewarded with a treat for obeying a command issued by his volunteer trainer, Pat Carforo.
But unlike most puppies, JP is just beginning a long road of intensive coaching that will prepare him for a specific purpose: to become a service dog for a child who has autism.
“The expectations you have of these service dogs are different,” said Carforo, a Bronxville resident and retired teacher who said she has always owned dogs. “You’re always watching them, you’re always training them. I’m looking at the world now through his eyes, which is a very different place to be.”
JP’s training, which will take roughly two years, is being facilitated by BluePath Service Dogs Inc., a Hopewell Junction-based nonprofit that aims to provide service dogs to children with autism.
Michelle Brier, co-founder of BluePath, said these service dogs can offer children with autism everything from safety and companionship to new opportunities for independence.
“There’s really a lot of investment that goes into these dogs to get them to be ready to work, because what we want to do is add a tool that will be helpful in the home,” Brier said. “We don’t want to make a family’s life that is already a little bit tough even harder by providing a dog that requires so much work.”
Autism spectrum disorder affects more than 3.5 million Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children has been identified with the disorder, up from 1 in 150 in 2000, making it the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S.
“The statistics for autism are rising dramatically,” Brier said. “We believe really strongly and passionately in the program, and so we decided to establish BluePath to meet that need.”
Brier founded BluePath in December 2016 with husband-and-wife couple Caroline McCabe-Sandler and Jody Sandler.
The trio connected through Yorktown Heights-based Guiding Eyes for the Blind, where Brier worked in marketing and communications. Sandler served as a veterinarian for the organization for more than 24 years before becoming its chief operating officer in 2014. McCabe-Sandler was director of Guiding Eyes’ Heeling Autism program, which placed dogs not suited for guide dog work with families with children on the autism spectrum.
Guiding Eyes chose to eliminate its autism service program in 2015, which “left an enormous gap in service,” Brier said, one BluePath aims to fill.
Though service dogs can offer children with autism a variety of benefits, chief among those is safety. Children with autism can frequently exhibit tendencies to “bolt” or wander off.
“What happens over time is that parents become almost afraid to leave the house,” Brier said.
To combat that risk, autism service dogs are connected to their children via a tether system. Additionally, the dog is trained to serve as an anchor in response to a child attempting to bolt.
“Instead of this parent needing to keep this constant eye and constant hold on this child’s wrist, and it becoming this very fearful, anxious trip, the parent holds the leash, and the dog is looking after this child,” she said. “They’re a team of three, and the dog will keep that child safe.”
These service dogs also provide families with a newfound sense of freedom.
“What we see is this dog has now returned this family to the community,” she said. “They’re able to participate in activities as a group. There’s an enormous reduction in anxiety.”
The dogs can also assist children with various social interactions.
“This child goes from being the different kid on the playground to the kid with the cool dog. It’s kind of like a preschool kid conversation, ‘Oh, that’s your dog? What’s your dog’s name? How old is your dog?’” Brier said. “So for a child who does have language, that’s a really easy way to start to kind of facilitate a connection with other children.”
The dogs can also help with sensory issues that children with autism may experience and bring positive changes to children’s eating and sleeping behaviors.
“We always say safety is their primary function, but the added benefits are countless, going all the way to children smiling and laughing for the first time,” she said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
In order to bring a service dog into their homes, families must go through an application process that includes a questionnaires, home interviews and eventually a five-day training class that teaches everything from basic obedience to navigating large crowds with a service dog.
“We want to really match the right dog with the right family to make sure we’re successful over the long term,” Brier said.
Service dogs from BluePath cost families $13,000, though Brier said the organization will work with families to secure funds and offer them a calendar year to pay the full amount.
“We have a long-term goal of being able to provide these dogs free of charge, but we’re four months old, and we’re not there yet,” she said. “We have a way to go.”
In order to help reach that goal, the organization will hold its first community fundraising event on May 20 with a walkathon at Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park in Yorktown Heights. Brier said that the organization has raised more than $40,000 toward its goal of $50,000.
“It’s been amazing the support in just four months we’ve got from our community,” she said.
So far, the organization has placed 10 dogs with volunteer trainers and expects to add another seven to 10 puppies by the end of the year. These puppies, who will be ready for placement with families in 2019, are trained by a variety of volunteers, from families and retirees to a group of teachers who share their responsibilities.
“It’s an opportunity that’s open to almost everyone,” Brier said. “You don’t need to be highly experienced. People fit it into their lives in different ways.”
For Carforo, a former special education teacher who met McCabe-Sandler when she brought service dogs into her classroom, training JP will be her second experience with raising a service dog in-training.
“After the first one, I was not going to do this again,” she said. “It’s hard to give them away.”
But like the co-founders of Blue Path, Carforo said the opportunity to help families affected by autism was too important to pass up.
“I just believe in the mission so much,” she said. “It just changes lives. It brings happiness back into the home.”