April is Autism Acceptance Month

April is Autism Acceptance Month

Grandma Lucy’s is a family owned and operated pet food and treat company located in Rancho Santa Margarita. Grandma Lucy’s is best known for its unique freeze- drying pet foods and organic dog treats.  Grandma Lucy’s recently announced their partnership with little Angles Service Dogs and will be providing food and treats to Little Angels, for the dogs currently in training to become service dogs.

Little Angels Service Dogs was founded in 2006 and became a 501C3 nonprofit in 2011. They have a San Diego Facility and second location in New Hampshire. Little Angels trains and places fully prepared service dogs with approved disabled recipients. Little Angels Service dogs assists individuals with autism, seizures, hearing Loss, limited mobility, psychiatric complexities, or veterans with PTSD lead a more independent life. 

April is Autism Acceptance Month and Josh Drew, Executive Director of Little Angles Service Dogs, has shared his personal experiences on how Little Angels dogs are specially trained to help children with Autism and the impact a service dog can have on their life.  

"Knowing that I’m going to come off a little biased here, I must say there are so many things that make Little Angels such an amazing company; but one of my favorites is our ability to help children. Dogs have an incredible innate skill to naturally help those around them – but the bond they are able to build with children is something quite special. When we harness that innate skill and then use it to assist a child with a disability, the result is incredible.

My initial involvement with Little Angels was born from needing to get my younger brother a service dog. LASD was one of our only choices in the country due to his young age. I knew this was the career path for me when I saw how drastically a dog changed and helped my brother in the span of a two-week training. Since then, my knowledge and awe has only grown.

Young girl and father at aquarium with service dog

One area that LASD specializes in training dogs is for Autism. Our Autism Assistance Dogs provide a variety of tasks that help both the child and parents involved – and I’ve been lucky enough to lead several of these trainings. I think it’s very cool to look into the specifics of exactly what we train these dogs to do.

First of all, just the matter of having these companions walking around in public is a HUGE social bridge. I have had many families come to me worried about public outings due to how stimulating it can be. Suddenly, having a dog by their child’s side alleviates a lot of those overwhelming stimuli.

Second is the tethering our dogs are able to perform. Many autistic children are impressively fast and illusive! Without intending to, they can wander from their family’s side and become lost in a matter of seconds. We teach our dogs to have a child tethered to their service dog vest, and no matter where that child tries to go, the dog stays by the parent’s side. The secondary positive outcome of this task, is that in the child’s mind, the tether feels like a leash and they often feel as though they are the one walking their own dog. This mindset often keeps the child grounded and avoids them wandering at all.

Third is our search task. This is where our training gets very advanced. Even when parents put every practice in place to keep their children safe, there’s always the remote possibility that a child is still able to wander off. We prepare for this by teaching our dogs to search for their little human by scent. Very similar to a search and rescue dog in the mountains, our dogs know their exact person’s scent and are trained to think of it as a game. The sooner they find their person, the sooner they get rewards, toys, and treats! We have found this to be a literal “life-saving” task on more than one occasion.

family receiving service dog

Finally, there’s no way to ever mitigate all the possible stimuli in the world. Because of this, all autistic children are going to have certain places that can be a lot to manage. Each of our dogs are trained in deep pressure therapy, which is almost like a weighted blanket! It has a calming effect that works by giving a lot of concentrated weight into the pressure points of the legs, plus something interactive that creates a distraction.

Although the “best” remedy would be our society learning how to create a more accepting and accessible world for autistic individuals, we think our pups are the next best thing! After spending two weeks with a family while they learn to use their service dog, I am usually reduced to tears at the end while they gloat about what a game-changer this new companion will be, and how they are going into public for the first time in YEARS stress-free. It is not easy to spend two years bonding and training with a dog, just to let them go to another family forever, but the happy tears, hugs, and smiles at the end of two weeks makes it thoroughly worth it for our trainers.

While being a service dog trainer is no easy task, getting to see the change you are making in someone’s life makes it so rewarding. We are so proud to be able to help so many children at Little Angels – especially autistic children. We think our dogs do a wonderful job of helping to create a more accepting world, as well as giving these kiddos a best friend they truly deserve. Service dogs are a lot of work and a huge addition to a family, but seeing the change they can so rapidly create in a loved one makes the work all the more worth it. I would highly encourage anyone that thinks a service dog could help them, or a loved one, to reach out and learn more! We are always happy to have a conversation and help educate about service dogs at Little Angels. You never know, it may just be the best conversation you’ll have!"

Written By:
Josh Drew
Executive Director
Little Angels Service Dogs