Autism’s best friend

Recently, my Easter Seals colleague Ellen Harrington-Kane emailed me an article from the Star Tribune about a school in Canada that trains dogs to help people who have autism.

I am blind and use a Seeing Eye dog to guide me safely to work each day. Ellen knew I’d be interested in this story because I know how valuable a service dog can be. I’m delighted to hear stories of people with other disabilities benefiting from dogs trained to do work or perform tasks for their benefit. To qualify as a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a dog must be partnered with a person with a disability and individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of that person.

I lost my sight when I was 26 years old. In 1991, after four weeks of training in Morristown, New Jersey, I flew back to Chicago on my own, guided by my first Seeing Eye dog, a Black Lab named Dora. It was the first time I’d traveled alone since losing my sight. Now I work with Hanni, a Golden Retriever/Lab mix.

The Seeing Eye is 77 years old this year. Along with other training centers, they fought long and hard for the right of people with disabilities to bring service dogs to public places. There’s still work to be done. For example, we’re still working to bring our guide dogs with us on some international flights.

I hear about people bringing pets into places and claiming they are service animals. This makes me sad. Dogs who aren’t truly trained for this kind of work don’t qualify as service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Their presence could ruin the good name we’ve built over all these years. I know that any regulatory line can look arbitrary. And I know pets provide comfort and stress relief by their mere presence. But I worry that a backlash could result from unqualified dogs showing up in public places.

I’m glad to hear that National Service Dogs (NSD) of Kitchener, Ontario is serious about training dogs to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of people with autism.


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