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Review of: Factors Affecting Behavior and Welfare of Service Dogs for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

This article summarizes and discusses the following article published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science:
Burrows, K. E., Adams, C. L., & Millman, S. T. (2008). Factors Affecting Behavior and Welfare of Service Dogs for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. [Article]. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 11(1), 42-62.

This study is the result of multiple interviews with parents of children with autism who were partnered with a tether dog. This may have tended to bias the results, but the interesting point is that though most of the parents were pleased with the placements, they also acknowledged some serious problems that are rarely, if ever, discussed with prospective clients who are getting such a dog for their child. Instead, prospective clients are given rosy accounts of miraculous changes in their child with no mention of the potential problems or risks. There is a tendency for parents, especially those with little experience with dogs, to fall victim to "Lassie syndrome" and the belief that real dogs are capable of the sorts of things that fictionalized dogs do, that they are capable of reasoning as humans do, and are qualified to babysit children. This tendency is further encouraged when desperate parents hear nothing but glowing reports from the programs that stand to gain financially if the parents purchase their product.

Ten children and 11 dogs from a program that pioneered tether dogs for children with autism participated in the study. Two of the initial dogs (20%) were returned to the program as unsuitable. One of those was retired and the other was placed with a different family. The dogs bonded primarily with one of the parents, some showing signs of separation anxiety when forced to sleep in the child's room at night or when sent to school without the parent. Sixty percent (60%) of the children showed no interest in the dog during the first six months of placement.

The dog that was returned and retired was returned because it ran off after another dog, dragging the child who had fallen on the ground.

In addition to separation anxiety, dogs showed evidence of stress and fatigue, especially when sent to school with the children because of the length of time they had to work. Dogs also experienced stress when the child had a meltdown and aggressively struck at the dog. Successful dogs were able to learn to avoid the the child when the child was volatile.

There were several instances of the dogs growling at the child, or at strangers in public, presumably due to stress. This prompted the following statement from the researcher:

Regardless of the dog’s training, it is essential that parents of children with autism
carefully observe interactions between their service dog and their child to mini-
mize risks of aggression.

It made some difference whether the parents had previously owned a dog before. First time dog owners had some difficulty understanding and maintaining the dog's schedule and training, especially when it related to indoor toileting. One of the dogs was overfed and under exercised, and his training was not maintained. He started refusing to work.