The Children's Village Dog Assistance Training Program

The Dog Assistance Training Program was started at The Children's Village, in partnership with East Coast Assistance Dogs (ECAD) in 1999 as a way to reach some of our most vulnerable teenagers. The program gives the troubled youngsters who live at CV the opportunity to experience the unconditional love of a dog and at the same time to help others who are less fortunate than themselves.

While the primary purpose of service dog training programs is to provide independence to the handicapped, an equal benefit for the CV Program is helping at-risk adolescents. The majority of these youngsters have been physically or sexually abused and/or suffered chronic neglect. They are struggling with their anger and pain, have difficulty succeeding at traditional schoolwork, and often feel unworthy of love. The Dog Assistance Training Program teaches even the most difficult of these kids about the love and discipline that dog training requires, and shows them that they can help others who are even less fortunate. We have seen the most hardened youth change almost overnight. They get into less trouble, are better able to control their tempers, and in many cases, their school attendance and grades improve. It is particularly heartwarming to see these streetwise kids gently teaching handicapped youngsters how to work with their new dogs.

For almost 70 years, specially trained dogs have assisted blind people, giving them an independence that was never before possible. Now, an increasing number of people with physical and emotional handicaps are getting the same kind of help through service dogs. These dogs are trained to make up for limitations in mobility, coordination, strength, or mental ability. They can open doors, turn on light switches, pick things up, help support a handicapped person getting up, and do a myriad of things that allow a wheelchair-bound or otherwise impaired person to get out of the house and live a more independent life.

For children, this independence often allows them to attend a mainstream school—often without the assistance of an aide—go out to play with friends, to the mall, to shop at the grocery store--participating in the things other children do so effortlessly.

Unfortunately, the waiting list for a trained dog can be 5 to 10 years. For a child who desperately wants to grow up like other children, that seems like a lifetime. Further, the cost of a service dog is generally from $10,000 to $15,000, none of which is covered by insurance. For many handicapped children whose families are already coping with huge medical bills, a service dog is a luxury they cannot begin to afford. With this program, the waiting list is under a year and most of the cost of the dog is subsidized by individuals and foundations who believe in the value of this program. In the past year, we have provided dogs to a 15-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, an autistic child, a child with Down’s syndrome, and a teenage girl who is wheelchair bound.

The primary recipients of the dogs are children and adults with physical and mental handicaps. This can include people in wheelchairs; people who have hearing problems; people with limited or no use of their arms; people with severe mental problems such as autism or retardation; and people with mobility problems. We specifically target service dog recipients who are older (11 and up) and thus better able to grasp the concepts of training, although we are open to working with younger children who can benefit from the dogs as well.

While all dogs receive the basic service dog training, each dog’s training is customized to match the disability of the person who will eventually be adopting him or her. The dogs improve the quality of life of the handicapped children by improving their mobility, confidence and independence. The recipients gain the unconditional love of a constant companion, an important benefit to children who often feel isolated because of their disabilities.

In addition to providing dogs to handicapped people, the program occasionally provides dogs to facilities such as hospitals or nursing homes. Dogs in these programs not only provide companionship to residents, but also help in physical therapy, keep Alzheimer’s patients safe, and provide other therapeutic activities.

ECAD, a non-profit organization that was founded in 1995 to train service dogs, provides instructors and oversight for the program. In 1997, ECAD pioneered the use of students with emotional and learning difficulties as trainers. Because of this unique approach, ECAD has been able to reduce the cost of training assistance dogs and decrease the waiting time for the people who need these dogs. To date, ECAD has placed more than 25 service dogs with handicapped children and adults from across the country. ECAD is a member of Assistance Dogs International and the Delta Society. Visit East Coast Assistance Dogs on the web