Hope in a Blue Vest

By Michele Graham
Photography by ChiChi Ubiña

Blue is the color of clear skies, tranquil waters, and refreshing pools. It’s also the color associated with autism—and the color of the vests BluePath service dogs wear when they’re working. Launched at the end of 2016, BluePath places service dogs with children who have autism—totally free of charge. For families, “A service dog is ‘hope in a blue vest.’”

Typically, when people think of service dogs, they think of those who are visually impaired or military veterans. Unless you have a child with autism or know someone who does, you’re less familiar with their use to support children with autism. BluePath Service Dogs is one of a handful of organizations across the country that focuses on both the emotional support and safety that autism service dogs provide. As Michelle Brier, one of the nonprofit’s co-founders and VP of Marketing and Development says, “Path refers to the incredible journey of expanded opportunity with an autism service dog—and the many beautiful, multi-faceted connections made along the way.” 

Safety from a trusted companion

According to the Autism Society, there are more than 3.5 million Americans currently living with an autism spectrum disorder. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, with a dramatic increase in diagnoses from 2000 to today (from 1:150 to 1:59.)  

About half of children diagnosed with autism are prone to dangerous wandering or running away, which can make trips outside the home extremely frightening. BluePath service dogs keep kids safe, allowing families to rejoin their communities and lead more fulfilling lives.

“Along with safety, companionship and independence, BluePath dogs also provide the immeasurable benefits of unconditional love, increased social acknowledgment from peers, and enhanced confidence. They also help to alleviate stress due to sensory stimulation or anxiety during transitions,” says Michelle. “Qualitative and quantitative data prove that animal-assisted therapies lead to healthier outcomes for both children with autism and their family members, creating a sense of normalcy and security for the first time.”

Autism service dogs are trained to keep their wards safe via a specially designed tether system. As part of this system, one of the most important skills the service dogs learn is “anchoring”—firmly holding their position when a child attempts to wander or bolt. Whether in a crowded parking lot, along a suburban street, or near bodies of water, these dogs are the difference between being safe and a potentially life-threatening situation. Over time, the tethering system reduces, or even totally eliminates, the bolting behavior, transforming the lives of children with autism and their families.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs can accompany their families anywhere the general public is allowed, including restaurants, malls, doctors’ offices, and schools. It is illegal to refuse access to a service dog and it can result in hefty fines.

Outside of the child’s home, BluePath dogs spend the most time in schools. It is here where you find another person who is crucial to the child-dog relationship: the child’s school aid. As Michelle notes, “Our dogs go to schools where their child has a 1:1 aide who is willing and able to support the relationship throughout the day.”

Growing to meet the need

Founded just three years ago, BluePath supports the high demand for life-changing autism service dogs. With autism diagnoses increasing, the organization is growing quickly. Last year, BluePath placed eight dogs; this year it will place between 10 and 12.

Volunteers make up 99% of BluePath’s workforce. They are the organization’s foundation, raising and fostering the dogs in training, and, as Michelle says, “offering their hearts and homes to help improve the lives of a family with a child with autism.”

Not every dog can be a BluePath dog. The bar is set very high. First, the dogs are all purpose-bred to have the best possible health and temperament. Michelle describes the dog as people-loving, highly confident, eager to work, and focused and calm in all environments.

To qualify for a BluePath dog, prospective families must complete a comprehensive application that includes reference letters from their children’s education and medical professionals and have an in-home interview to ensure the dog is a good fit.

Children must be between the ages of 3 and 11 to receive their first service dog, as the dog must be physically able to stop the wandering behavior. Once a child stops bolting and learns to navigate life with a service dog, size is no longer a factor; this allows BluePath to place successor dogs with older kids and adults.

“We look at a large number of personality and lifestyle traits to match dogs with families. Once we have the best dog for the job, a parent or caregiver spends five days with us, away from their family,” notes Michelle. It is during this “Team Training” that the parent is taught the dog’s commands and how to utilize the dog to redirect behaviors and keep their child safe. They learn the guidelines associated with the ADA and how to responsibly travel with their service dogs in public. They also study dog health and grooming to maintain wellness.

Deeply committed to the success of each placement, BluePath staff visits frequently during the first two months of the service dog’s placement, supporting all milestone moments and troubleshooting any challenges.

BluePath fills the void for families who are struggling with safety and quality of life issues. It is totally reliant on donors and volunteers to fulfill its mission—and provide its dogs free of charge. As Michelle says, “In the U.S., a significant majority of funding for autism is allocated toward research into causative factors. Each dog we place makes a difference for the child and their immediate and extended family and their social circle, while concurrently touching so many lives in the wider community. Our work is timely, tangible, and far-reaching.”

For more information about BluePath Service Dogs or to support its mission, visit bluepathservicedogs.org.