Dogs are man’s best friend, or so the saying goes, but they can also be a child’s biggest helper.
Facility dogs are changing the way a child psychologist in New Canaan works with children. Dr. Nancie Spector had an epiphany in 1999 when she decided she needed to try something new to connect with children who were on the autism spectrum. “Out of desperation to get kids to reach out to me, I started bringing my pet cats in with me. You know how cats are, though — sometimes they would let kids pet them, sometimes they wouldn’t,” she recounts.
After talking to her veterinarian, she decided to get a therapy dog. “She was a very lovely dog, she was certified as a therapy dog, but she could not do advanced commands,” Spector says. After the dog died of cancer at age 7, she came across a group called Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) and discovered she had been missing a key piece of the puzzle.
“It was very clear to me immediately what a difference there was between having a facility dog and a therapy dog,” she explains. “A facility dog is trained to respond to many commands. I can tell the dog ‘lap’ and the dog will put the top half of his body into a person’s lap. Knowing all those commands is huge, and knowing that he is not going to move — if you tell him ‘bed,’ he will not move out of there for hours.”
Bred to have the right temperament for working with clients/patients, CCI’s facility dogs undergo two years of training, during which they learn about 40 commands. They can push wheelchairs, pick up objects, and provide unconditional love or attention to anyone with whom they interact.
“I decided to have these dogs so I could create a more welcoming environment for the kids I work with,” Spector says. She got her first facility dog from CCI in 2008 after being on a waiting list for three years. Robert VII, a Labrador-golden retriever mix, is her current facility dog (her third) and has been a boon to her work.
Spector shares one of her favorite memories: “I had a child referred to me for an evaluation, and he refused to get out of the car to come into my office. I actually went out to the car to talk to him. He was polite but crying, and he kept saying, ‘I’m very sorry, but I can’t come in.’ I tried everything, the mom tried everything. Finally, I asked the mom if I could bring my dog into the car. I did, handed the leash to the child, and said, ‘This is Robert and he needs to go back into my office. Can you bring him in?’ and the child got up and walked Robert in. Without Robert, I would not have been able to do that evaluation.”
Many of Spector’s patients have autism spectrum disorders, and Robert provides support and reduces stress. One of Spector’s 11-year-old clients said, “Facility dogs — they sit around when you want to pet them. If I need to pet him, I can pet him. School can be very stressful and Dr. Spector makes me talk about it. When I don’t want to talk to Dr. Spector, she tells me to tell it to Robert. It’s sometimes easier because he doesn’t know what I am saying.”
Another patient, a 17-year-old, recalls, “I’m not the biggest fan of dogs, but he doesn’t have the energy and jumpiness that puts me off about normal dogs.”
Jessica Reiss, a program coordinator at CCI’s Northeast Region office in Medford, N.Y., observes, “Facility dogs … sort of have the hardest job; they don’t have to work for one person, they have to work for a whole caseload of people. Every time they interact with a client, they have to give 100 percent.”
She continues, “Animal-assisted therapy has really boomed, and these dogs provide a huge social bridge for our clients.”
CCI is always in need of volunteers, particularly in Connecticut, where puppy raisers are needed to socialize and take care of puppies, “to give a dog the best start it can on the road to being a working dog. It’s a hard volunteer job, but I feel like the amount of time and work far outweigh the effort,” Reiss concludes. For more information, visit cci.org.