For 26 years, Caroline and Jody worked together at guide dog school. After Caroline’s first 18 there, she founded an autism service dog program that altogether has placed 90 dogs with families. “It was incredibly successful and changed my world,” says Caroline, so much so that she and Jody decided to create their own not-for-profit “to help even more families and children.” They started BluePath Service Dogs in 2016. “We opened our back door and autism was everywhere,” she says. “Giving back to children in need is super wonderful.”
More than 3.5 million Americans, one in every 59 children, has an autism spectrum disorder. Many children with autism have a propensity to “bolt” or wander from their families, posing a safety threat and making trips outside the home frightening for families. The comfort and companionship of a well-trained dog can not only help with sleeping, eating and social behaviors, but keep children “anchored.” With a specially designed tether system, BluePath’s service dogs stay connected to the child and respond to attempts to bolt with an emotionless reaction to stay in place.
When they reach 14-18 months old, Labradors begin training with a professional instructor. That’s when they also begin being fostered in the homes of volunteers. Three to four mornings a week, foster families drop off their dogs at the Sandler’s home in Hopewell Junction for training and pick them up late afternoon. These well-behaved and highly trained dogs remain with the foster family until their permanent placement in an autistic child’s home. “The dogs get public access under the Americans with Disabilities Act and help families do things they couldn’t before, like go to the supermarket, the mall or the movies,” Jody explains.
Beyond the practical benefits, families are better able to integrate in the community without the safety fears or embarrassment if their child acts up. “The child is now safe, and the dog makes it clear there’s a special need,” explains Caroline. An isolated child gains companionship and will even sleep better with the warmth of their furry friend nearby, on top of helping them become more responsible and self-sufficient, which builds confidence.
To prepare the dogs to behave in public places, Caroline takes them to the Dutchess Rail Trail every day and practices calm walking when bikers and runners go by. She also acclimates them to the sights and sounds of children by taking them to schools where allowed. Caroline has broken barriers in some districts that were reluctant. “The dogs come into the classroom and suddenly the administrators see the benefits of the interaction,” she says.
The Sandler's two sons, Connor and Evan, have been volunteering, walking or working with the dogs, since they were 6 and 8 years old. “When I was younger, I just liked being with the dogs,” says Connor. “As I've grown up, I see the effect on families. It’s something not just nice to do, but cool and fun.” He’s spent a lot of time teaching the puppies manners and obedience. Evan too has helped train them by playing the autistic child role, wearing the belt and tethers and practicing sudden moves and acting out.