By Brian P.J. Cronin
Photographed by Laurie Szostak
Most people, when you ask them how many dogs they have, can answer you pretty quickly. Jody Sandler and Caroline McCabe-Sandler might need a minute, though. They have…a lot of dogs.
“Well, there’s our three personal dogs,” says Caroline. But it takes a careful count of the dogs listed on the whiteboard in their home office to bring that total number up to around 36. The other dogs aren’t all here in their Hopewell Junction home at the moment, however. The ones not here are at their foster families’ homes or off on training adventures, getting ready to fulfill a very special duty. Jody and Caroline are cofounders of BluePath Service Dogs, a nonprofit they created two years ago in order to train, and place, service dogs for children on the autism spectrum.
Both Jody and Caroline had been working with service dogs for decades before founding BluePath. Jody had worked as a veterinarian for service dogs for 26 years, and one of the dogs that Caroline had trained calmly led its handler out of the World Trade Center on 9/11, saving both of their lives. But Jody and Caroline saw an increasing need for service dogs trained specifically to assist children with autism and a limited amount of organizations that were providing the service in the Hudson Valley. BluePath was created to fill that void.
It takes between six and 12 months for a dog to be trained and certified. During that time, the dogs, like all service dogs, must learn how to keep their prey drive in check. If Caroline takes them out on the Dutchess County Rail Trail, for example, the dogs must learn not to chase every squirrel and chipmunk that crosses their path. In malls and grocery stores, the dogs learn not to run into stores or get distracted by strollers and shopping carts and pizza. “When we go up to the counter, she knows to get behind me, to sit, to be quiet,” says Caroline, referring to Lakota, a golden retriever sitting patiently at her feet as we speak. “After a while I stop using verbal and hand commands, so she knows already what to do because we’ve done it a million times.”
Caroline giving a few basic commands to Lakota.
But dogs that work with children on the spectrum have to be prepared for special challenges. Many children with autism sometimes do what’s known as “bolting”: if something catches their attention, they’ll run after it to the exclusion of everything else. “They have no safety awareness,” explains Caroline. “If they see something they like across the street, like a balloon, they’ll get out of the car and take off. They don’t respond to their name; it’s very dangerous.” BluePath Service Dogs are trained to act as an anchor when this happens. The children will be attached to the dog by a tether, so when the child begins to bolt, the dog immediately sits or lays down, holding the child back. Eventually, the children learn that they won’t be able to get away with bolting and stop doing it.
The dogs also help with social interaction by playing with children. The dogs even learn how to jump with children on trampolines and go down slides. This not only comforts the child they’re with, but helps make the child more approachable for other curious children who might want to play with the dog and their handler. This is one of the reasons BluePath prefers to work with golden and Labrador retrievers: they’re not only smart, loyal dogs, but with their floppy ears, they look friendly and nonthreatening.
It’s hard work, but the dogs get to take a break. BluePath service dogs wear a blue vest to show that they’re “working,” but at the end of the day, the vest comes off and the dogs learn that’s when they can relax and act, well, like a dog.
“She’d still be very well behaved if I took the vest off right now,” Caroline says of Lakota. “But if I then threw a ball? Bye-bye!”
BluePath is always looking for volunteers. Obviously, you must love dogs! For more information, visit them online at www.bluepathservicedogs.org. █