A Community Effort – Autism service dogs offer children a BluePath to independence
Sitting cross legged on a newspaper-covered floor with seven three-week-old puppies clambering over me, nibbling on my fingers and toes, is not usually part of my job description, but I’ll happily take it any day. Watching these adorable little fluff balls in action, it appears that their super power is to melt the hearts of everyone they come in contact with. But in about two years, each will have developed the skills necessary to utterly transform the lives of families who have children with autism, thanks to BluePath, a non-profit organization co-founded by Bedford Hills resident Michelle Brier.
Brier, a 2017 Bedford 25 award winner, serves on the Board of Directors for the Katonah Bedford Hills Ambulance Corps and volunteers there as an emergency medical technician. She also provides training for area first responders on working with individuals with special needs and handling service dogs in emergency situations.
Having a nephew diagnosed with autism and her experiences while working at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, planted the seed that ultimately became BluePath. “For a time, Guiding Eyes ran a program to train autism service dogs as well as guide dogs for the blind,” she says. “I saw firsthand the impact these dogs had on the families. There are more than 3.5 million Americans living with an autism spectrum disorder. It is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, now affecting one child in 59. Having seen the magical relationship that develops between a child and his or her autism service dog, I knew this was an important program I wanted to continue to work on.”
Founded in 2016, BluePath now has 34 dogs in its pipeline and is on target to have placed dogs with 10 families by the end of 2019. “Many children with autism exhibit bolting tendencies, which can make trips outside the home a frightening proposition,” Brier explains. “An autism service dog works alongside parents or caregivers to keep a child safe. The dog is connected to the child via a specially designed tether system and is trained to “anchor” in response to a child who starts to run away. This immediate reaction keeps the child safe—and often helps to reduce or completely eliminate the bolting behavior. The dog can also serve as the catalyst for other positive changes in sleeping, eating, and social behaviors.”
BluePath gets testimonials from families about how their service dog has changed their lives, allowing them to participate in activities that weren’t possible in the past. One parent noted “I had no idea what kind of stress we were living under—it had all become so normal. When our service dog came home, I realized we were suddenly able to breathe. Not just my daughter, but all of us.”
With the exception of a nominal equipment fee, BluePath dogs and lifetime follow-up support are provided free of charge to the families. BluePath receives no public funds and relies on donors and volunteers to fulfill its mission.
“We have four full-time staff members and a tribe of dedicated volunteers,” Brier tells me from the dining room/puppy nursery in the Katonah home of Jeff and Nina Kellogg, a couple who take volunteerism to a whole new level. In the past 25 years, the Kelloggs have cared for 50 litters of future service dogs and are currently providing early home care for this batch of golden retriever/ lab mixes and their mother. They are then placed with volunteer puppy raisers for the next 16 months, learning house manners and basic obedience as well as getting socialized to other animals, people, noises, and everyday activities. Specialized training follows for those dogs making the cut; others may work in a therapy-style role in a facility, such as a classroom, while others will become beloved pets.
“Bedford has been such a welcoming town for us,” Brier says. “We hold bi-weekly puppy training classes at the Bedford Hills Community House, and our dogs have visited local shops, the ambulance corps, fire houses, and police stations.” BluePath recently helped the Bedford Police Department create a voluntary autism registry where parents or caregivers can submit details about their children, so police have vital information to help in an emergency situation.