Service Dogs of VA Training Dogs to Help Autistic Children - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Service Dogs of VA Training Dogs to Help Autistic Children

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Service dog Robin Service dog Robin

There really is no limit to what service dogs can do for their human owners and man's best friend is taking on a new dimension for children with autism.

Service Dogs of Virginia is training dogs to assist children with physical and mental disabilities. When the service dogs work with autistic children, they seem to transform not only the children but also the family.

Nathan Gunderson, 7,  has an autism service dog named Robin.  Their relationship transformed Nathan almost immediately.

"Typically, if it were just the two of us he would just not say anything so it has just been really neat to watch him invite people to come talk with him and get to know his dog," said Ann Gunderson, Nathan's mother.

Robin is no ordinary dog. Service dogs of Virginia in Albemarle extensively trained Robin.

"In autism, we train the dog to essentially work with the child but under the control of the parent," said Peggy Law, executive director and founder of Service Dogs of Virginia. "The parent can cue the dog to 'down' and 'stay.' If the child is a runner and is tethered to the dog, the child is protected from running into danger under the direction of the parent."

Law explains how dogs are useful in cases of autism.

"For children who are less verbal, we can teach the dog to listen to their command so that the dog will sit down and shake and do basic tricks. That is reinforcing to the child and starts to engage the child in a relationship that is something that is a two-way street instead of just a one-way street," said Law.

But every child is different.

"The whole idea is to crack open a small door into the child's world and that other folks can expand and walk through," said Law.

For Nathan, that door is opening.

Service Dogs of Virginia operates almost entirely off of donations. For more information, click here.

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