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Pets and Special Needs

Whenever a parent of a child with special needs tells Daphne Hereford they want to adopt a dog, she tries to talk them out of it.

“The first thing we tell people is, ‘We know that you have a special needs child; now we’re going to give you another one. Are you ready for this?’” says Hereford, the president and founder of A Rinty For Kids Foundation (ARFkids), a small non-profit organization in Crockett, Texas that places puppies with families of children aged eight to 18 who then train their dog to become a service or pet-assisted therapy animal.

Pet-assisted therapy dogs provide fewer physical support tasks for children with special needs than service dogs. Whichever one you choose, adopting and training a dog to assist your child “is probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever do,” stresses Hereford. “It’s a lifetime commitment.”

Hereford, whose family has bred and raised direct descendants of Hollywood’s original Rin Tin Tin since 1957, founded the organization in 2001. “At the time, I was on tour with Rin Tin Tin, doing personal appearances across the country,” recalls Hereford. “Someone asked me where they could get a service dog for their child who had special needs, and I said I’d find somebody. But I couldn’t find one organization that would provide to children under 18, and I thought, ‘My goodness, children need these dogs the most!’ So we formed an organization.”

Over the past 10 years, ARFkids has placed about 30 Rin Tin Tin descendants across the country, including homes in Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Florida and New York. Hereford breeds one litter each year and carefully selects the calmest puppies for the therapy program.

“Our program is unlike any other (service dog or pet-assisted therapy) program,” explains Hereford. “In most programs, you pay $15,000 to $20,000 and they give you a 3-year-old dog that’s been trained by somebody else and has already had five homes: First, the dog was at the breeder’s, then raised in a puppy foster home, then with phase one and phase two trainers, then it goes to the child. From an animal behavioral aspect, that’s too many homes.”

ARFkids places a puppy in a family home and helps them train the animal, “so that at the end of the day, everybody in that family is a good dog trainer: They understand canine behavior and dog psychology. The good thing about our program is that the dog is placed once: It goes from the breeder’s to the family, and it stays there until it’s retired.”

What’s in it for me?
While the advantages of having a pet in the family depend on what your child’s special need is, owning and taking care of a service animal offers children with disabilities a way to communicate and be more active through playing with their furry friend. It can also teach them about responsibility, problem solving, and organization, as kids learn that their animal needs to be fed, groomed and walked.

“The dog can be taught to pick up things the child drops, open doors for the wheelchair and in a lot of cases, the dog is a huge emotional support for the child,” says Hereford, adding that because children with special needs can feel isolated from their peers, some of the emotional benefits that come along with pet ownership, including companionship, unconditional love and feelings of accomplishment after learning how to care for a pet, can boost self-esteem. Having a pet or service animal can also reduce your child’s anxiety.

ARFkids dogs are specially selected, bred, and raised to assist children with both physical and cognitive challenges while increasing their independence and boosting their self-esteem. Having a service dog accompany your child to school can also help with social interaction. Children who interact with and care for dogs develop playing skills, cognitive skills and fine motor skills.

Getting started
To begin the process, families pay $25 and submit an application form for review, which helps ARFkids match the right dog with the right child.

“We charge a fee because we want to make sure the family is serious,” explains Hereford. “We also want you to go to PetSmart and audit a series of classes for eight weeks, without a dog. Just to watch.”

Once approved as a recipient family, a donation of $1,500 is required for a pet-assisted therapy dog candidate puppy. Don’t forget to budget for ongoing pet-related expenses as well, such as food, training supplies and regular visits to the veterinarian. ARFkids pays for the first training classes, but the family pays for the rest, says Hereford.

“We use clicker training—positive reinforcement operant conditioning—and we highly recommend Karen Pryor, the nation’s leading dog trainer (see sidebar for resources). Then we advocate that the family start taking the dog everywhere they go.”

A faithful friend
Angela Mason’s 8-year-old son Stephen, who has spina bifida and is a paraplegic, had always wanted a dog and was determined to adopt and train a German Shepherd.

“We held off for a while, because we weren’t sure we could handle that,” says Mason, a mom of five, including daughter Christina, 10, who has cerebral palsy. “Stephen is in a wheelchair but is cognitively normal. He’s an outgoing, happy little guy,” says Mason, who adopted both Stephen and Christina as infants.

Mason became a little discouraged after doing research online, where she found organizations with long waiting lists and steep fees, which many families of special children can ill afford.

“When we found Daphne and ARFkids and saw they placed puppies and helped with the training, we thought that would be a perfect opportunity,” says Mason.

Before applying to ARFkids, Mason and her husband Kevin took time to “make sure a dog would fit in with our family. My main concern was whether Stephen would be able to handle the dog and not be scared of the dog,” she recalls. “My other concern was taking care of it as far as grooming and having hair everywhere, because Christina has a tracheotomy.”

In the fall of 2009, Masons were put on a waiting list, and six months later, eight-week-old Zeus came into their lives and took over their hearts.

“Zeus is such a good dog,” says Mason. “The first few months, we played with him, and he bonded with Stephen and Christina. Then we put him in puppy obedience classes; Stephen attended every class with us. We’re in the process of training him to do service tasks for Stephen, but in the meantime, Zeus is just wonderful with Stephen and with Christina, who has lots of seizures—he does double duty in our family.”

Mason loves watching the relationship develop between her children and Zeus. “It’s been especially great for Stephen to have companionship. When you have a child in a wheelchair, a lot of times they don’t have as many friends come over to visit him, so he was a little lonely,” she says. “Having Zeus here and watching Stephen enjoy having a pet is wonderful.”