Service pups helping autistic children

Local school promotes socializing both



ALPHARETTA, Ga. – We all love our pets. They are there for us when we come home and love us unconditionally. But pets also have the secondary ability to relax us. It’s this ability that allows them to help schoolchildren learn to read – dogs don’t judge and will always love being read to.

There is another benefit; one the Lionheart School in Alpharetta is tapping into – reducing anxiety in autistic children.

“Animal-assisted therapy – service dogs – has provided a lot of health benefits for our children,” said Tamara Spafford, executive director of the Lionheart School. “It helps to reduce their anxiety and helps them become more interactive with each other and the dogs.”

Spafford said it was a large accomplishment for children with autism to develop social skills outside the school or family. The dogs give them a way to relax and be flexible.

“Being with the dogs takes the pressure off them” Spafford said.

The dogs are part of a new program at Lionheart called “LionPaws.” This is a joint effort between the school and paws4people, a North Carolina-based trainer of therapy and service dogs.

The relationship between the two groups began when Lionheart took in a service dog named “Langley.” The dog was adopted by the school as part of an animal therapy program.

That led to further discussions with paws4people that would help both organizations.

From those discussions came the “LionPaws” program, where puppies destined to become service dogs spend some of their first weeks alive being with the children, helping the dogs socialize.

It has no downside, said Spafford. The children get help with anxiety and fear, and the dogs learn how to socialize with people.

Eight puppies were brought from paws4people to spend several weeks with the students. They then go back to paws4people for training.

A fully trained dog can perform a variety of tasks essential for those with mobility or medical issues. They can carry and retrieve items, pull and push wheelchairs, alert those with hearing impairment and alert of seizures.

“It’s very important for these puppies to be socialized and exposed to a variety of environments and children,” Spafford said. “They need to be comfortable with a lot of different noises.”

Part of their training is taking the animals to fire stations to become accustomed to people in full fire gear. Another is visiting seniors.

In an effort to get the children used to being out in the community, the school routinely takes them to volunteer with community groups, such as the YMCA. The dogs fill another socializing need.

“So many of our children have an affinity for animals – horses, dogs. We start with the children’s interest. We find things for the kids to be interested in, and this is a beautiful bridge,” said Elizabeth Dulin, with the school.

Spafford agreed.

“It’s been so remarkable for all of us,” she said.

For more information on the Lionheart School, visit them online at HYPERLINK "" For more about paws4people, go to

MH 04-16-14

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