Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s superbly bred dogs have been expanding horizons for blind and visually impaired men and women worldwide for more than 50 years. A pioneer in the guide dog field, the nonprofit has enlarged its mission to assist families of children with autism. Over the past five years, Guiding Eyes has placed 43 dogs through its Heeling Autism program with a 100 percent success rate.
These dogs ensure safety for children with autism and help them to develop lasting emotional and social bonds. As a result, families are able to lead more normal, less stressful lives. Parents often report other life-changing benefits as well, including seeing their children transform from a social outsider to an accepted peer with an autism service dog by their side.
The nonprofit recently welcomed three more parents to their Yorktown Heights headquarters, where they met their children’s new autism service dogs.
“Heeling Autism dogs are individually trained to meet the needs of a specific child,” says Caroline Sandler, director of the program. “Each child receiving a dog has experienced an improvement in one or more areas, such as bolting behaviors, verbal abilities, sleeping patterns and social interactions.”
In many cases, having a Heeling Autism dog can be a matter of life or death for an autistic child. Parents rank their children’s wandering or bolting as one of the most stressful of all behaviors. Drowning is the leading cause of death among children with autism, who wander away from a safe environment. The sooner a child receives help, the more likely he or she is to break away from autism’s social barriers and emotional obstacles.
“Every day, we understand more about the exponential powers of our dogs and marvel at the impact they’ll have in their new homes,” Sandler says. “They’ll help children and their parents, they will support siblings and friends, and they’ll strengthen families’ connections with their communities. Quite simply, they are going to make the world a better place.”
Outcomes from the Heeling Autism program are tangible. Caregivers report dramatic and meaningful improvements in children’s behavior and in the overall quality of families’ lives. A child who once rarely dined outside of his home is now able to sit through a meal with his dog. Another who was once ridiculed by his peers is finding acceptance.
“Gabriel has been a true blessing for our family,” shares Cindy Fountain, Stamford resident and mother of Thomas, a 6-year-old boy with autism. “Before we received Gabriel, Thomas’ safety was constantly on our minds. A simple trip to the grocery store was filled with anxiety and fear. That anxiety and fear is now gone thanks to Gabriel. He has brought us a sense of peace and hope and has opened many doors for us as a family.”
Guiding Eyes invests significant resources in breeding, raising and training these special dogs, yet does not charge families for any of its services.
“I am a mom and it’s been incredibly meaningful for me to support parents who need service dogs to help their children navigate a difficult world,” Sandler says. “These special dogs bring healing to entire families, every single time.”
With a two-year waiting list, Guiding Eyes is currently seeking additional donors to provide more children with expertly trained dogs that will dramatically improve their lives.
“We always invite people to join the Guiding Eyes team as a volunteer or donor to help us change lives. We always hear how much people’s own lives are forever changed as a result of their support,” says Michelle Brier, Guiding Eyes’ director of marketing and communications.
For more information on the Heeling Autism program, visit guidingeyes.org.