National Service Dogs are a furry option for autistic kids with flight tendencies.

Cassandra Leby doesn’t mind sharing her job, even if her colleague has bad breath and tends to shed. Maybe that is because her colleague has a very important job. Leby is an educational intervener with a local Catholic school and her colleague is a National Service Dog. An odd combination for some but essential in the education and safety of one little boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“I spend my day keeping the boy on task and helping him with social cues and prompts,” explains Leby.

The dog? His job is very different. He keeps the boy safe. Many ASD kids have a tendency to bolt making their safety a constant concern for parents. A National Service Dog makes bolting impossible. How?

“The dogs are actually tethered to the kids,” explains National Service Dogs co-founder and director of business development Danielle Forbes. “When out in public the dogs work with the families or teachers or teacher’s assistants in keeping the child safe at all times.”

The dogs are trained to sit and stay at every corner and obey the commands of the parent. So if a child is tethered to the dog, they aren’t going anywhere.

In an integrated classroom with 20 students, a child who wanders can be very distracting. That's where the service dogs come in. "That child has two and a half feet around their desk in which to move and then they’re done," Forbes explains. "That’s as far as they’re going and they learn pretty quick that it’s not even worth trying. And we see that very often children give up trying to wander when they’re attached to the dog."

For parents without a bolting issue, tying a child to a dog seems a little restrictive, but it actually gives the child and the family more freedom. Many families actually do not go out in public if they have a child who runs because it’s just too stressful. This way, mom can turn her back to pay a bill and the child doesn’t have to be holding mom’s hand at all times.

Although the dogs are there for safety, they do have other benefits. After 11 years of providing service dogs to families, Forbes can’t deny the therapeutic effect the dogs have.

“They provide emotional support at school for the children and when they’re transitioning from the home environment to the mall or an airplane or a hotel at Disney,” Forbes says. “The dogs also have a calming effect on the child.”

Leby agrees. She’s noticed a decrease in anger episodes and flight tendencies in her student. She also notes the benefits for kids with sensory integration issues. “They get sensory stimulation from the rough feet, wet nose and soft fur.”

Forbes adds that there are social benefits as well. "They get the dog and they go from being that strange kid who wanders around the classroom to being the cool kid with the dog."

So how does it work?

Here are the basics:

National Service Dogs is a registered charity.

  • Dogs are free to families who qualify (although fundraising for your dog is strongly encouraged).
  • Children need to be between the ages of 2-8 at the time of application.
  • Dogs are provided all across Canada.
  • The waitlist is 18-24 months.
  • Parents receive training with the dog.
How to apply:
  • Fill in the online application
  • Write to National Service Dogs 1286 Cedar Creek Road, Cambridge ON N1R 5S5
What are the dogs like?
  • All the dogs are Labradors and Golden Retrievers.
  • Almost all the dogs are bred by the National Service Dogs but some are donated.
  • The puppies stay with foster families for 12-14 months until it's time to train.
  • The dogs train at the NSD facility for about four months.
  • Puppies who do not qualify are usually adopted by the foster family or they are trained as companion dogs for other children with special needs or ASD kids who do not have safety issues.
  • The dogs wear a jacket when they are working and get at least one non-working walk a day.
  • When a dog retires it is usually adopted by the family as a pet and a new dog is introduced as the working dog.
How are the dogs brought into the school?
  • Meetings are conducted between the parents, National Service Dogs, the teachers and the principal.
  • When it is time for the child to enter school, NSD has an assembly with the whole school to introduce the child and the dog.
  • Children learn quickly that the dog is working and cannot be touched or played with.

If your child has flight tendencies or you want to know about companion dogs, contact National Service Dogs. They may be able to help.