Creating Caring Canines – Cheri Kolstad
by Catherine Morris | July 14, 2020
Dogs are pretty great, and it’s no wonder we humans have been BFFs with them for centuries. Whether pulling babies from burning buildings, fighting crime, or simply helping us ride out the pandemic, our four-legged companions are so much more than pets.
For families with disabled children in particular, dogs can be a lifeline—helping kids and their parents cope with a range of both mental and physical conditions. A child with autism who's having problems communicating, a diabetic who needs to be alerted to when his blood sugar drops, or a visually-impaired teenager who just wants the freedom to walk somewhere without her parents—they can all benefit from a dog trained to support their particular disability and needs.
How Service Dogs Can Help
BC-based dog trainer Cheri Kolstad began working with service dogs after she was approached by the parent of an autistic child. The child's service dog wasn't sticking to its training, and the parent worried that it would have to be rehomed by the organization that originally supplied it – a prospect that understandably upset them. Kolstad, who has been working with dogs since she was 14, stepped in to help.
“To take a dog and replace it, like it was a broken car, did not seem to be the way to handle people or dogs,” says Kolstad. “This same scenario happened a few times, where I was asked to fix a dog or it was going to be repossessed and/or replaced. After a few years of this I felt an alternative option should be offered. I began putting people and dogs together, training them together, and giving them the opportunity to be together forever.”
Kolstad helps her clients find the right dog (or train their current dog) and then works with them to get that animal officially certified as a service dog in Canada and the US.
Since that first family, Kolstad has found herself working with all sorts of families who have all sorts of needs. For children with autism, she says service dogs fill many roles – friend, caregiver, and even night time watch. “Autistic children tend to be restless sleepers. The dog will fetch the parent when the child leaves their bed, and will also raise the alarm when an autistic child is becoming overwhelmed and needs a diversion,” she says.
“I trained a dog that had two autistic children to take care of. When one needed a diversion or to be redirected, the dog threw the ball at the child. For the other child, who was very different, the dog crawled up to the boy on his stomach and lay down beside the boy, but didn't touch him. The boy would, in his own time, reach out and touch the dog. When the boy was ready, he and the dog could come out from their hiding place and resume their day.”
Dogs can give autistic kids the confidence they need to come out of their shell and engage more with the world around them. Kolstad has also trained dogs for visually-impaired clients, those with mobility issues, and diabetics. Dogs can learn to signal their handlers when their blood sugar drops or is too high. This is particularly crucial for diabetic children who are not as capable of monitoring their insulin needs.
“I have trained dogs to bring testing kits to their handlers when their blood sugar levels change. We have also at times put little pouches on the dog with sweets in it for emergencies. The dog is particularly useful at night if the child's blood sugar levels drop, and they are not responding. I teach the dog to alert the parent and go get help. I have found parents are finally getting a good night's sleep knowing the dog is keeping watch.”
Finding the Right Service Dog
Families often enlist Kolstad's help to find a dog that is capable of reaching service dog standards. She looks for behaviour over breed, and says: “I don't agree that a dog has to be purebred or of special breeding from a certain kennel to be a service dog. I look for a dog under a year old that has the temperament and intelligence to be a service dog. At times we have taken months to find the right dog, but to find a dog with the right characteristics takes patience. I always tell [clients] not to rush things, the wait and search is well worth it.”
Once they find a dog, it's time for the family to get to work. Kolstad says everyone must participate, and that the approach varies from dog to dog. “Having a service dog is a lifestyle and the entire family should be involved with the training. There is no special technique I use. People and dogs are individuals and need to be recognized as that. If there is no flexibility in training, there will be fewer success stories.”
Training usually takes a minimum of six months, but every dog is different and every family works at its own pace. To get their official status, service dogs must meet Assistance Dogs International Standards, be in good health, spayed or neutered, have all their shots and be endorsed by a doctor as a medical necessity. In some cases, organizations will provide service dogs (such as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind), but there are also privately-run facilities where unscrupulous breeders and trainers offer service dogs at sometimes very inflated prices.
Kolstad says there's a lot of confusion out there, and warns clients to be careful, “There are so many people that have no idea what they are doing, yet say they are trainers. There are many breeders that profess to breed service dogs, but are more concerned about making a sale. My benefit as a trainer is I can see what each person needs for their medical assistance, and I have the family in their day to day environment to help teach that dog exactly what it needs to know. The dog is a lifetime family member.”
Kolstad says seeing dogs become a vital part of the family dynamic is one of the most rewarding aspects of her work.
“For me, success comes in many forms. When a parent can sleep at night because the dog will alert them to medical problems [with their child]. When a dog learns to redirect an autistic child and help them focus. When a dog assists a visually-impaired child to walk on their own. When a child can attend school or a teenager can get a summer job because of their dog. That, to me, is the definition of success.”
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.