Students learn acceptance through service dogs, program inspires children’s book series
Tales of service dogs performing daily acts of heroism aren’t unusual. These canine companions help the blind navigate their environments, they sniff out bombs and help wounded soldiers and they even assist doctors by detecting cancer and alert diabetics to rising or falling blood sugar levels.
In Santa Fe, N.M., assistance dogs are providing another equally important service – teaching local youth awareness of the challenges faced by people with disabilities. Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW) is a Santa-Fe-based non-profit with more than 30 dogs in training at any given time, 12 to 15 of which graduate each year to placement with human partners. These dogs open doors literally and figuratively for people with a variety of disabilities.
Unlike other service dog agencies, ADW recruits students from area elementary, middle and high schools, juvenile detention centers as well as developmentally and physically disabled students to train all of their service dogs. Working with ADW staff, the student dog trainers gain knowledge and leadership skills, build responsibility and compassionate awareness of people with different abilities, and make concrete contributions to their community.
Today, children everywhere can experience the life of an assistance dog through a series of children’s books inspired by the ADW program. Author Judith Newton, an ADW Advisory Council member, wrote three books based on Nito, a runt puppy chosen for the noble job of a service dog.
Newton and her husband moved to Santa Fe in 1999 and began their search for a family dog. When they saw ADW dogs in training and found out that some dogs don’t graduate from the program, they applied for a “release dog.” They received their pup Chutney and became active members of ADW.
The first book in the series, Nito’s Tale teaches kids ages 2-6 how assistance dogs are trained and what they do. In book two, Nito Meets Chloe, Nito is matched with a little girl in a wheelchair and becomes an important part of Chloe’s family. Finally, in Nito and Chloe Get an Invitation they are invited to Washington, D.C. to visit the White House, meet the president, his family and their dog Bo and receive the Service Dog of the Year award. The series is illustrated by popular folk artist Sue Blackburn.
According to national statistics, 19 percent of the U.S. population is defined as disabled – this includes the aging, ill, vision and hearing impaired, physically disabled and mentally disabled. For many of them, service dogs offer both companionship and support in daily activities. Learn more at www.assistancedogsofthewest.org