Viva, Val, Volt, and their 11-week-old German shepherd siblings are every bit the overly enthusiastic puppies one might expect at a recent family reunion: They bark greetings to their siblings, pull back their ears and growl provocatively.
But there’s a catch: They have not been brought to this fun field, with its ladder course, bubble machine, slide and baby pool filled with colorful plastic balls, for a puppy party.
They are here to work. And, unfortunately for the V-named young ones, this means they are not allowed to play, bite and roll around with each other.
The puppies attend Dogs for Autism classes at a training course in Easley three times a week. Accompanied by their “puppy raisers,” they are learning how to help children who have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Julie Nye, co-founder of Greenville-based Vested Partners, teaches the trainees the German command words and how to reward the puppies during training sessions. She guides the young herders through the obstacle course and offers suggestions to the people who will care for the dogs until they’re ready to be placed with an autistic child’s family.
Children with a social developmental disorder sometimes have additional challenges, including anxiety disorders, mobility issues and sensory stimulation problems. So the puppies are being groomed to be adaptable in unexpected situations.
For instance, the training field includes a wheelchair. Volt’s puppy raiser Brooke Spencer sits in it and holds Volt’s leash as she rolls the chair. Volt wiggles and walks, but does not cower or try to bolt away. In other words, “Good girl, Volt,” Volt passes the test.
By the time Volt is fully grown and ready to be a service dog for an autistic child, she will have received a couple of years of training worth $20,000, says Katy Snipes, a social worker and board member with Vested Partners, which operates Dogs for Autism.
Families receive the dogs at no charge, and the waiting list is years long, Snipes says.
The V-named puppies are a very special breed. They are the first litter to be designated for the Dogs for Autism program in a year and a half, so there is a very long waiting list for them, Snipes says.
The German shepherds are bred for this type of service work, and each litter is named after a letter of the alphabet, starting with A-named puppies, 27 litters ago.
Vested Partners has been breeding and training service dogs since the Greenville nonprofit was founded in 1991.
The organization has three divisions, including Dogs for Disabled, which provides mobility service dogs; Dogs for Autism, which gives service dogs to families of children affected by autism; and Hope Unleashed, which provides clinical therapy dogs in partnership with the Project Hope Foundation.
“The dogs can do medical alerts and diabetic alerts, depending on a child’s needs,” Snipes says. “We start with puppies at 11 weeks old, teaching a blocking behavior where the German shepherd herds the child. We send the dog to get in front of them in whichever direction they’re running, so it’s like running into a brick wall.”
A dog with this type of training can save autistic children’s lives, as one grieving parent said in a letter to Dogs for Autism in 2009. Within a few minutes, their 2-year-old boy son had crawled under a fence through a hole, and then wandered down to an adjacent river, where he drowned. “If he had had one of your dogs, I’m certain he would still be here with us,” the woman wrote.
“German Shepherds help with kids who have a tendency to dart away,” Snipes says. “They have a strong herding instinct.”
Also, autistic children sometimes have what’s called stemming behavior, in which they flap their hands or do something else repetitive. The dogs are trained to lean into the child and touch the child in a way that gets the child to stop the stimulation cycle, Snipes says.
Autistic children have trouble forming new human attachments because of their inability to read people’s emotions and facial expressions. But they quickly form emotional connections with the dogs, and vice versa, Snipes says.
“It’s incredible to see a child who is angry and upset, but instantly when they see the dog, they are hugging the dog and are happy, and the dog is happy,” Snipes says. “I have witnessed children revealing their trauma to a dog when they might not tell a person because it’s safe and more comfortable for them.”
More information about Dogs for Autism
Vested Partners has been raising and training service dogs since the Greenville nonprofit was founded in1991.
The organization has three divisions, including Dogs for Disabled, which provides mobility service dogs; Dogs for Autism, which gives service dogs to families of children affected by autism, and Hope Unleashed, which has clinical therapy dogs in partnership with the Project Hope Foundation.
The organization is funded entirely by contributions and grants and has volunteers who provide 20,000 hours of donated time each year.