What it takes to get a service dog for children with autism

When her baby boy was 2 months old, Meghan Roberts Roper worried that an apparent seizure might lead to a devastating diagnosis — one that would paralyze her son on one side of his body and require him to eat only through a feeding tube.

“That was all I needed to hear,” Roper said. “I walked into a private waiting area, where I cried.”

More than three years of therapies for speech and motor skills and evaluations for behavioral problems and hyperactivity passed before Brody Roberts, now 7, finally got an autism diagnosis.

As far as his mother was concerned, Brody’s biggest problems revolved around his balance and sensory issues.

And then one day at a hot air balloon show he met Barkley, a black bloodhound/Labrador mix who was trained to work with children who have autism.

“Brody was so anxious I thought we would have to leave, when Barkley, the service dog from 4 Paws for Ability, showed up,” Roper said. “Once Barkley arrived, Brody unplugged his ears and sat watching these balloons. This was a huge moment for us.”

At that point, Roper knew she needed a service dog trained for Brody but had no idea how long it would take to get approved and how to raise the money.

Life-changing dog

Barkley had joined Jennifer Schwenker’s home in 2009, which changed the whole family’s life. The dog had been trained to work with Schwenker’s twin boys, who both have autism.

Finally, Schwenker could not only get her sons out of the house and on public transportation but also have a resource to track down her sons should they take off.

“We needed a service dog to which we could tether them,” Schwenker said. “If they eloped, the dog could track them. If they engaged in behaviors such as excessive hand flapping or a meltdown, the dog could interrupt the behavior. In order to safely access the community, I knew we needed a service dog.”

High cost of service dogs

The real battle is the cost.

On average, nonprofit organizations charge between $12,000 and $25,000 for the training and care it takes to prepare a dog for service with a person with autism.

Roper has been raising money for a dog to be trained for Brody.

“It costs them $27,000 to train (service dogs),” Roper said. “Families are now responsible for $17,000, but since mine was approved so long ago they were only at $14,000.”

Her hope is to meet the financial goal in time to give him the dog for his 8th birthday on Jan. 10.

‘It’s been a really long seven years’

Roper found only one organization — in Ohio — willing and able to help Brody.

“It’s been a really long seven years,” Roper said.

Roper applied for a dog from Georgia-based Canine Assistants to help with those mobility issues in 2013, but when she didn’t hear back, she applied with Ohio-based 4 Paws for Ability, the same place where the Schwenkers got Barkley.

After going through physical and occupational therapy and being on a Canine Assistants waiting list for three years, Brody was denied a dog, but Roper wasn’t too upset because Brody had already been approved for a dog from 4 Paws for Ability.

“He was denied based on the change in needs,” Roper said. “It wasn’t because they just decided he couldn’t have one.”

That was in April, his mother said, more than two years after they first applied.

The recipient coordinator for Canine Assistants, Theresa Martin, said the organization doesn’t train service dogs for those with autism.

“We do evaluate each application individually,” Martin said. “It is a very specialized training that goes into an autism service dog and we simply do not do that at our organization. In the past, we have had dogs that have gone with recipients that have autism, but they also have other disabilities.”

While medical service dogs provide comfort and peace of mind, they are not the same as emotional support animals, Michelle Farrell, a self-described disabled handler of an Owner Trained Service Dog, said.

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“Having a service animal is great in what they can do, but it’s not fun and games,” Farrell said. “I don’t know of any handler who’d rather not need their service animal and live a normal life.”

Not everyone qualifies

Few organizations exist nationwide that place dogs at free or low-cost.

Debbie Clark of California runs what she calls a “Paw-tism Autism Service Dog Program” and helps as many families as possible in a three-county area of her state.

“Since I’m a one-woman band and just starting out and haven’t received donations to offset costs, I unfortunately have to charge $5,000 per dog,” Clark said. “I’d like for every family to get a dog if the dog can help the child with tasks. If the child is high-functioning and just needs a dog for comfort, I suggest going to their local shelter and just adopt a sweet, loving dog before expending a lot of money on a service dog that won’t be used for tasks.”

Clark refuses to give dogs to families in only one scenario:

“If a child is destructive and can hurt a dog, I refuse to place,” Clark said. “It has to be a win-win situation.”

Help from a friend

Recently, a high school acquaintance of Roper reached out on social media, offering to help raise money for Brody’s service dog. Scott Mashburn is one of the owners of the Johnny’s New York Style Pizza restaurant in Villa Rica.

“He told me that he noticed Brody was in need of a service dog and that they had recently done a fundraiser for a little girl in town,” Roper said.

Mashburn said he would every once in a while see Roper’s attempts to raise money and knew he and his business partner, Joe Paradiso, could help.

“The people of Villa Rica have embraced Johnny’s,” Mashburn said. “We feel that whenever we can help out our community, it’s responsibility to do so. I felt like Megan and Brody needed a jump-start to get them on the way to their goal.”

The fundraiser last week brought in more than $4,000, Roper said.

“We are finally under $10,000,” Roper said of her fundraising goal.

Anyone who wants to contribute can do so online via Razoo, which is run by the 4 Paws for Ability charity and gives 100 percent of the donations to a service dog for Brody.

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