As reported by The Associated Press: "The U.S. military and the Iraqi government have said that Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida in Iraq are increasingly trying to use Iraq's most vulnerable as suicide bombers to avoid raising suspicions or being searched at checkpoints that guard access to many markets, neighborhoods and bridges in the capital." This on the heels of reports that mentally disabled women had been used as suicide bombers in recent attacks.

I put down the paper. My mood was turning foul.

It's not news that the disabled are among society's most vulnerable members. But that makes it no less disturbing when people take advantage of or disregard that vulnerability.

The phone rang. A deep voice boomed, "Uncle Matty?" and proceeded to fill me in on the sordid details of his home life — two aggressive dogs, aggressive toward each other, aggressive toward strangers, aggressive toward him, aggressive toward his wife, aggressive toward his son — "who, incidentally, is autistic."

Incidentally? There's nothing incidental about keeping a dangerous dog in a house with a child, and the gravity of such a situation is only magnified when that child is disabled, mentally or physically. I can't say it enough: Keeping a biter in the house with your child is a huge mistake, one that could cost you your child, your homeowners insurance and somewhere in the range of five-to-life in the clink, depending on the damage.

After I hung up, my mood in the gutter, my mind tackled the challenge of channeling that frustration into something productive, something positive.

I've long respected the work of service dogs and the people who train them, and it seems that every day more and more ways are discovered to utilize dogs to improve the lives of people: dogs for the blind, dogs for the deaf, dogs for those confined to wheelchairs, drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs, dogs that track escaped criminals, dogs that track missing children, dogs that provide companionship for the elderly or the sick, dogs that locate people trapped in burning buildings or buried in the debris of disaster, dogs that protect and serve on our city streets, even dogs that detect cancer.

I felt my mood lift a little as I thought of all the people out there putting the canine touch to work in aid of others. And then I discovered another way in which dogs and people connect to help others: Canines for Disabled Kids.

This group matches specially trained and assistance-certified dogs with autistic children, as well as children with other pervasive developmental disorders, such as Asperger's or Retts, and also with children suffering hearing loss, cerebral palsy or other physical disabilities. In operation since 1998, Canines for Disabled Kids was born out of the void of available canine assistance for kids younger than 12. The program is an offshoot of New England Assistance Dog Services, which has been training service dogs for the disabled since 1976.

Autism is a neurological disability, the most common symptoms of which include impairment and delays in social skills, language and behavior. Dogs used in this capacity are referred to as therapy dogs or social dogs because therein lies their contribution: They help keep the autistic child calm, help him to develop greater self-confidence in social situations, help minimize emotional outbursts and help teach him the responsibilities involved in the care of another life. They also provide the overall effect of improving the entire family's freedom and quality of life.

But perhaps the best explanation of what these dogs do and how it affects children comes from testimony from the trenches, found on the Canines for Disabled Kids Web site:

"Factor has been trained as a service dog for therapy, and I am an able-bodied occupational therapist. He goes to work with me every day. I work at the Family Achievement Center in Woodbury, Minn., with children who have a variety of developmental delays, in an outpatient clinic that offers occupational, physical and speech therapy.

"Factor received his service dog training at NEADS/Canines for Disabled Kids in Princeton, Mass. Factor knows all of his basic obedience commands, along with service dog commands to turn on and off lights, open doors, push buttons and fetch large and small objects. Factor can push a large therapy ball back to a client who has tossed it to me; he knows how to crawl; he can 'take a nap' and 'wake up' on command; he can 'speak' and he can carry an envelope to a child that holds a piece to complete a puzzle and then come back to me for more pieces.

"Factor is a comfort to the sad, nervous or scared child. Factor is a motivator to the children who come to therapy multiple days a week. Factor shares his unconditional love with all and has many best friends in one day.

"Factor has brought so much joy into all the lives he encounters each and every day. I have been told on more than one occasion that he is a gift from above, and each day I see that is true through the looks in the children's eyes. This gift would not have been possible without the support of donors to Canines for Disabled Kids and NEADS. Thank you."

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling much better.

For more information on social dogs for kids with autism, assistance dogs in general, Canines for Kids or NEADS, please visit caninesforkids.org or neads.org. Dogs for the Disabled (www.dogsforthedisabled.org) and Autism Service Dogs of America (autismservicedogsofamerica.com) offer similar programs and informative Web sites.

Woof!


Send your questions to [email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619. © Creators Syndicate Inc.