Ore. leads nation in childhood autism, use of therapy dogs

Curtis Jr. meets a therapy dog loaned from the non-profit »Play Video
Curtis Jr. meets a therapy dog loaned from the non-profit "4 Paws for Ability" group to help children with autism.

CANBY, Ore. – When Curtis Jr. is around a service dog, you would never know he has autism. 

On Saturday the 7 year old from Canby worked with a dog from "4 Paws for Ability," a nonprofit that trains service dogs for families all over the country.

"The dog definitely makes a difference," said Curtis Jr.'s father, Curtis Cottengim. He and his wife are saving to buy a service dog of their own for Curtis Jr. The family joins a growing number of those in Oregon working with dogs to help treat autism symptoms, according to findings from Lake Oswego-based Autism Service Dogs of America.

There are atleast three dozen assistance-dog programs nationwide, with costs for dogs ranging from $10,000 to $15,000. However, Cottengim said it's rare for these agencies to offer dogs for children.

"A lot of the organizations will not work with kids: below 16 and they won't place a dog," Cottengim said. For his 7-year-old son, "we applied to almost every dog agency on the West Coast and were denied."

That's when the Cottengims found "4 Paws for Ability" in Ohio, where it trains dogs specifically to work with children. "Their dogs also do tracking, which a lot of other dog providers don't offer," Cottengim said. "For us, that's a major benefit for a child with tendencies to want to wander off."

Non-profit Canine Companions for Independence, based in Santa Rosa, Calif., does accept applications for free dogs and supplies for those 5 years of age or older. This agency, like those that charge for service dogs, requires that an adult travel and take time for at least one week of training at one of its kennels. 

Not alone
In 2009, Oregon had the highest rate of autism-spectrum diagnoses out of all U.S. states. Meanwhile, studies of children with autism and animal interaction show improvement in spectrum symptoms, medical difficulties, behavioral problems and emotional well-being, according to "Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals." Indeed, on Jan. 12 KATU reported on a boy with autism calmed even when working with elephants at Oregon's Wildlife Safari.

"The ADA does not have a limit on the species that could be considered a service animal," said Department of Justice Spokesman Alejandro Miyar. "...In some areas even miniature horses are being used as service animals." However, ADA rulemakers are expected to enact a limitation on allowed service-animal species later this year.

All that's needed to bring a dog into an establishment, said Miyar, is that it's "established that the individual has disabilities recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the animal is trained to provide services to address those needs."

Said Miyar: "Autism is considered a disability in nearly all cases; anxiety as well." (See regulatory debate below.)

Much-needed medicine
Despite the regulatory debate, for parents like Cottengim these dogs are a much-needed medicine.   

"Autistics have meltdowns quite frequently," Cottengim said. "In Junior's case, the dog will nuzzle up to him and put a paw on him or just start licking him to bring him out of that mode."

Autism-therapy dogs undergo 500 hours of training at accredited kennels, and are weeded out for temperament problems around children. With the number of autism diagnoses on the rise – from 1 in 150 children in 2006 to 1 in 110 children in the Centers for Disease Control's most-recent study – these constant animal companions could prove to be a parent's best friend.

"The only place they can't go are some parts of a hospital," said Curtis Jr.'s father. "They may keep the dog out if it's not necessary - for the sanitation part of it." 

Sanitation is one reason Cottengim said he's asking for a hypoallergenic dog. However, getting that dog is still a ways away.

"We've saved about $10,200, and have about $2,800 left," Cottengim said. "When we're finally done with the fundraising, we'll catch one of his meltdowns on film and their people will mimic that to ensure that the dog can handle it."

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