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Assistance dogs: More than a man's best friend


Dr. Temple Grandin, and Karen Shultz of TLCAD

As the saying goes, “A dog is a man’s best friend.” In some cases, a dog can be much more - he can be a life changer. Jolena Gonzalez was diagnosed at age three with classical autism. Autism for her meant that she had a hard time talking, moving and dealing with her environment due to sensory overload. Life was very difficult for Jolena and her family, with daily “meltdowns” that could happen at home and in public, and could last for up to three hours. Then, Muffet entered their lives. Muffet is an assistant dog, provided by Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs (TLCAD), a non-profit association based in Solana Beach (a coastal town near San Diego) that pairs service dogs and people with special needs. Recently they started Leash on Life, an assistance dog program for children with autism.

TLCAD Trainer Yvonne Espinosa and Dog-in-Training: Billy

In July TLCAD sponsored a “A Day with Dr. Temple Grandin"  which took place at the Del Mar Country Club. Grandin is a world re-known animal scientist and author (Thinking in Pictures, Animals in Translation). Jolena, Muffet, and Becki Cook, Jolena’s mother, were present at the event. Cook said that having Muffet has  given her the ability to go back to work. Becki can now hire regular babysitters when needed. “Due to the calming effect that Muffet has had on Jolena’s daily life, I have my life back. Jolena has learned to use Muffet as a calming tool, touching her when needing to calm herself down – a cue from me is no longer needed,” explained Cook.

Dr. Grandin gave two talks at the event, one about her personal experiences with autism, and the other about animal behavior, based on her book Animals Make us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, co-written with Catherine Johnson. Grandin discussed many aspects of animal behavior, including the core emotions of fear, rage, panic and seeking. Grandin explained that dogs are very different from a lot of other animals because they are hyper-social as well as hypersensitive to everything humans do. This is what makes them ideal as human companions and assistant dogs.

Karen Shultz, Assistant Training Director of TLCAD explained that it  takes about eighteen months to raise and train a dog to assistance level. After this initial training, TLCAD assigns the trainer and the dog to a disabled handler creating a team dedicated to meeting the handler’s specific needs. Once this team is established, an additional period of approximately six months of advanced training is undergone to tailor the skills of the dog to match the needs of the handler.

After a day spent with dog lovers including the dedicated trainers of TLCD, and with Jolena and her dog Muffet, you can’t help but realize that what Grandin tells us is true : it’s animals make us human.

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  • Jeannie Bolstridge 5 years ago

    Autistic children in special educaton classes often are exposed with normal children in school. We brought a facility dog by invitation into our south Georgia primary school last year, and it born great fruit. This year we are invited particularly to the special ed classes. The facility dogs are "boom-proof" and support the teachers as they work with their students with flash cards, reading, and even taking walks down the hall. See many pictures at

  • Chantal Sicile-Kira 5 years ago

    Thanks for sharing, Jeannie. Love the photos!
    My mom is in assisted living and the seniors living there love to ses Handsome, my son's assistance dog.