MILWAUKEE — Dogs are known as man's best friend, but the dogs being trained at one Wisconsin non-profit mean a whole lot more to the people they are paired with.
Dogs in Vests is an organization that specializes in training dogs to be service animals for children with autism. It's located in Palmyra, Wisconsin.
“Due to my autism, I will have ticks. So I will start hitting my head when I’m stressed or something like that and making noise and (Daisy) interrupts that," Lucy, a 13-year-old with autism, said.
Lucy graduated from the program with her dog Daisy. It takes two years of training before the dog goes to live with their owner full-time. During the training period, the dog lives part-time with its soon-to-be owner and the other time with a host family.
Lucy's ticks make her hit her head with her hand. Daisy is trained to recognize when that is happening and help Lucy stop.
“Most of the time I can’t or don’t even realize I’m doing it, so I’m snapped back into reality pretty much," Lucy said about Daisy's interventions.
The dogs are trained to help calm their owner down when they get stressed or identify self-harming behavior and stop it.
“We specialize on those specific behaviors that will help the recipient," Michelle Holt, the co-founder, and director of advancement with Dogs in Vests said.
She started the non-profit about five years ago with her husband. They wanted to give back to the community. The two liked the idea of training service dogs of all kinds. However, once they saw how difficult it was for their friend's child with autism to get a service dog, the couple narrowed their focus to service dogs for those with autism.
Five years later, they paired five kids with dogs. In fact, the dogs are donated to each child. The organization focuses on the $25,000 needed to train the dog, and then they give the dog to the family. The program has been a huge success so far.
“We hear words like they make me feel safe and brave. They’re my best friend. They’re always happy. They don’t judge me, and so it’s a real confidence booster," Holt said.
You can learn about making donations or enrolling in the program by going to the Dogs in Vests website.