Dressed in his purple jacket, Louie meanders around his newfound surroundings.
“Sit Louie,” Alex Beaulieu says with authority, coaxing his 10-month-old half-Labrador, half-golden retriever to sit calmly. With cameras and lights surrounding him, he breaks pose and heads straight for the lens.
“Sit,” Beaulieu says again. “Watch me, Louie, watch me.”
With an almost bashful grin on his puppy face, he meets the stare of Beaulieu. The shutter snaps.
“What a good boy,” Beaulieu says proudly.
Louie is no ordinary puppy. Louie is a service dog in training, and Beaulieu, a second-year social science student, is his adoptive owner. Responsible for teaching him basic obedience skills, as well as socializing him for the first year to 18-months of his life, Louie goes everywhere with Beaulieu. And legally, as long as he’s wearing his jacket, Louie can go any public place—the library, the bus and even classes. Wherever you can find Beaulieu, Louie be will right there beside him, although Beaulieu says Louie hasn’t taken a shining to night classes.
“He definitely doesn’t like those ones very much. He wants me to get up early and he wants to go to school—he sits and stares out the window until we leave.”
Beaulieu adopted Louie through the organization National Service Dogs, which specializes in providing certified service dogs to children with autism. Beginning in 1996, NSD was the first-ever organization to specialize in training Labradors, golden retrievers and lab-retrievers to aid autistic children and their families, and has since graduated over 250 certified service dogs. And along with their own successes, NSD has also been active in developing similar organizations around the world, including ones in China, the United States and Ireland.
According to Lindsay Havlin, communications and stakeholder relations manager at NSD, their trained dogs are in high demand due to the valuable benefits a dog can provide for an autistic child.
Beyond alleviating safety concerns, the service dogs encourage autistic children to interact with others—even if they are non-verbal—and can also help reduce bullying.
“Bullying in schools is a big issue, especially with children with autism,” Havlin says. “A lot our dogs go to school with our children, so once the child starts bringing their dog to school they’re no longer that kid with autism, they become that really cool kid that brings their dog to school.”
For the entirety of the interview, Louie does not bark. The obedience training Beaulieu has been implementing since eight-weeks-old—the age when NSD puppies are matched up with volunteers—seems to have taken effect.
Raising Louie—or any puppy for that matter—is a heavy undertaking. And while the benefit, Beaulieu says, is the joy Louie adds to his life, raising a puppy and being a student is a balancing act. Beaulieu explains he has to give himself ample time to get anywhere, as he’s always bringing Louie with him. As well, he’s been forced to time-manage more effectively to ensure he can complete schoolwork.
“You just need to be ready,” he says. “Especially if you’re used to doing really well in school—you have to be ready to spend a lot of time with this dog.”
Havlin says the organization receives puppy raiser applications from a wide range of people, including a fair amount from students—especially those from the University of Guelph, well known for its veterinary program.
Cateline Landry, a fourth-year student studying marine and freshwater biology at Guelph, raised a miniature poodle, Vector, as part of the Lions Foundation of Canada, another organization specializing in training dogs to assist people with a range of disabilities, including impaired vision, autism and epilepsy.
Landry echoed Beaulieu’s sentiments when she said training Vector, who was meant to be a hearing or seizure response dog, affected her social life.
“Taking care of him took up a lot of my free time, but I knew that caring for a dog would be a huge commitment and not something that should be taken lightly, so I had a good support system set in place, ready to help out if I needed it,” she says, adding her family and roommates were on call to help when needed.
Although Vector was progressing well, and his ideal temperament seemed suited for the line of work, he was diagnosed with mild hip dysplasia and was forced to withdraw from the program. With the adoptive family often getting first dibs of a disqualified dog, Vector is now a member of Landry’s family.
Likely tuckered out from his walk to campus, Louie lies on the floor and Beaulieu reaches into his bag to retrieve a piece of chewed-up raw hide—Louie’s favourite—and tosses it to him before patting him on the head. In public, so long as they ask, strangers may pet Louie—after all, it’s Beaulieu’s role to socialize the pup.
Beaulieu explains Louie behaves well in public, and while he’d love to get to keep him, he’s confident Louie will excel in the service dog program.
Havlin explains around the age of year to a year-and-a-half, the NSD puppies get recalled into the kennel and begin “advanced training” in preparation for a public access test. Passing the test is what puppies are working toward to receive their certification.
However, if a dog seems ill suited for the certified service dog program—they react poorly in public places, for example—NSD has two less intensive programs that dogs will be filtered into. The skilled companion dogs program pair dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and companion dog program matches dogs with people with various disabilities, including Down syndrome, Asperger syndrome or dementia.
Havlin explains, prior to these programs, the disqualified puppies just became pets, whereas now their organization can expand beyond the autism label.
“[It’s] allowed us to utilize more of our dogs in a valuable way, and has allowed us to help more families in need, and a more diverse group of individuals as well.”
With his first birthday coming up in March, Louie is nearing the age when he’ll return to the kennel. And while Beaulieu can visit him some weekends during intensive training, if Louie is placed with a family, they’ll have to say a final goodbye. It’ll be sad, he says, but he went into the program knowing what was in store.
“You know before you get into it that you’re going to have to give him back,” Beaulieu says.
Havlin agrees while the separation might be tough, volunteers can find comfort in the notion they’ve done a noble act.
“It’s definitely not easy, but I think that everyone gets into it knowing they’re doing a good thing, and they’re going to help another family, and most cases they get to meet the family that the dog is going to or at least see pictures,” she explains.
And to dispel the belief puppies in training somehow lose out on their puppyhood, Beaulieu quickly denies it, adding Louie has a great life—getting to accompany his best friend everywhere and receive attention from adoring strangers.
“They must know they’re special,” Beaulieu says.