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Therapy Dogs Lend Helping Paws to Children with Autism

November 30, 2011

By Gwen Gibson

Debi Krakar, Head of Austin Dog Alliance

Debi Krakar, Head of Austin Dog Alliance

The Austin Dog Alliance is helping children with autism to learn new social skills by pairing them with therapy dogs in classes that are fun, educational and therapeutic. In this ground-breaking program, trained and licensed handlers, with an understanding of autism, bring their own dogs to the classes which are held twice weekly in ADA’s northwest Austin headquarters.

 With the incidence of autism in the United States at epidemic rates, this program, known as the “K9 Club,” offers a welcome and promising new treatment for children with various degrees of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).The Autism Society of Greater Austin strongly supports the program as do many parents whose children have taken the K9 classes. The University of Texas, meanwhile, has launched a scientific study to officially determine the program’s efficacy. The results will be released nationally, says Debi Krakar, executive director of the ADA and a firm believer in the strong bond between humans and dogs.

All activities in ADA’s K9 classes are planned so that the students have fun. “Our theory is that you can teach social skills to children with special needs if they are doing something they love and a lot of them love animals,” Krakar says.

The K9 classes are taught by Krakar, special education autism specialists, and the licensed dog trainers who volunteer their time. Other experts, including veterinarians, groomers and search and rescue teams, visit the classes and share their expertise with the kids. “The students learn basic dog training principles, about a variety of dog breeds, while learning how to interact with their peers,” Krakar adds.  

Field trips, parties, painting projects and “poop” relays are also part of the curriculum.

Through these activities, the children learn to understand dog language. “They learn that when the dog is cowering it is nervous and they need to change their position or cue,” Krakar explains. “When they learn to comprehend this, it leads to comprehending what their friends or other people are feeling.”

Riley walking with boy

Riley walking with boy

Dogs and other pets have been used for decades as therapeutic partners for children and adults with special needs. But the ADA’s K9 program for autistic children introduces new elements to such programs by bringing the children and the especially trained dogs together in exciting classes, away from home and school, where they are taught by many experts, not just one doctor or one therapist operating in a clinical setting.

The K9 classes are among many pet therapy projects offered by the pace-setting Austin Dog Alliance, which Krakar launched six years ago with a grubstake of only $80 and one rescued shelter dog named Bennie. For several years Krakar worked, hit or miss, out of her home and in various borrowed and donated spaces. Today the ADA is a major, non-profit organization with some 300 volunteers who visit some 70 sites a year with their special dogs, bringing comfort, joy, company and confidence to children and adults. In the first three quarters of 2011 they worked with 13,000 people in schools, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes and in classes held at ADA headquarters.

The ADA also finds permanent homes for abandoned dogs through its rescue and adoption programs. Krakar’s own family has fostered over 500 rescued dogs since she started ADA in 2006.

The K9 Club for autistic children evolved some two years ago out of these programs and out of Krakar’s personal knowledge of the challenges facing children with autism and their families. Two of her four children have different degrees of ASD.

Competent and determined, Krakar runs the ADA with a sense of purpose and a sense of humor. She is well qualified for the task. Krakar holds a master’s degree in accounting and information systems from the University of Illinois. She is also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and licensed Delta Society Pet Partner instructor.  

Krakar lives in northwest Austin with her four children, her four dogs, various rotating foster dogs and—in her words—“a very supportive husband.”

The need for treatments like ADA’s K9 program is urgent. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in every 110 American children has been diagnosed with ASD, including one in 70 boys. Some experts believe this is an underestimate. Among them is Ann Hart, president of the Autism Society of Greater Austin, and the mother of a 26-year-old son with ASD.

“We are approaching crisis proportions of people with autism in our country which the Autism Society has been talking about for many years,” says Hart. “My son’s at the beginning of a tsunami of adults with autism leaving school and entering the adult world.”

To date no definitive cause or cure for the disease has been discovered. But Krakar insists that children with autism can be helped, through programs like the K9 Club, to gain strength, self-confidence and language and other skills.

The results can tug at your heart.

 “l love watching the sheer joy on the face of a student in our K9 Club when he or she masters a dog training skill,” says Krakar. “I love it when parents tell me their kids can do more than they thought. Some of our kids, for instance, have learned enough about how to behave in a group that their parents have let them attend a movie with their peers. Now all of a sudden, they have this new perception of their child.”

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