BluePath Service Dogs Provide Autism Support in Westchester

Photos courtesy of BluePath Service Dogs

A regional nonprofit is bringing hope to parents and children in Westchester with its specially trained autism service dogs.

For most of recorded history, people have waxed philosophical about the power of the dog. With their unwavering love and loyalty, dogs tend to see the best in us and support us unconditionally. Dr. Jody Sandler, Caroline McCabe-Sandler, and Michelle Brier understood this when they started BluePath Service Dogs in 2016.

BluePath Service dogs

BluePath’s mission is simple: to provide autism service dogs to assist with the safety, well-being, and independence of the handler. The nonprofit, which receives no government funding, provides service dogs to families free of charge, relying on an extended community of volunteers, donors, and all-around dog lovers looking to make a difference.

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The company is based in Hopewell Junction but serves families across Westchester and Dutchess counties. BluePath sources its puppies from such acclaimed breeders as Guide Dogs of America and Guide Dogs for the Blind. The majority of the pups are Labradors and golden retrievers, and all of the dogs are “purpose bred,” giving them the proper temperament to be service dogs. From there, BluePath’s dedicated volunteers work with 8-week-old puppies to provide the basic commands and obedience training. Once the dogs are 18 months old, they learn support skills, such as “anchoring,” which is when a dog learns how to stop a child from wandering or bolting, and “visit,” which is when a dog rests its head on a child to provide support. Dogs are then placed with families as they near the end of their training.

BluePath has another major initiative, called the Paws to Learn Program, which brings dogs into school environments and camps to work with special-needs children, and into residential and day habilitation settings for adult populations. The program has taken off within the Rye School District, where BluePath staff and dogs visit four schools, twice a month. Joining those visits is an officer from the Rye Police Department, who participates in the enrichment for the children while having firsthand experience with special-needs kids.

BluePath Service dog

“We notice the change in the kids as soon as we walk in the door with the dog; they get so excited,” says Rye police officer Alex Whalen, who works with the program based out of Rye’s Milton School. For the officers involved in the program, Paws to Learn is a gateway to better serve all members of their community. “Not only does it help us build a relationship with the kids; it also helps improve and build their trust in us,” says Whalen. “From a police perspective, by involving ourselves in the classroom, it’s a way we can learn from the kids, because we don’t experience this on a day-to-day basis.” BluePath cofounder Caroline McCabe-Sandler has watched that transformation happen across all of the schools where police officers and Paws to Learn dogs intermingle. “There’s a softening of the police presence,” she notes. “These kids in life are going to need that presence and not be afraid.”

“What we’ve seen tremendously over time is how much the kids benefit from working with our dogs and how the dogs bring so much love and comfort into the classroom.”
—Michelle Brier, Cofounder, BluePath

The pups aren’t left out of the learning, either. “The program gives the dogs amazing experience around kids with special needs, and it lets us evaluate the dogs,” says cofounder Michelle Brier. “What we’ve seen tremendously over time is how much the kids benefit from working with our dogs and how the dogs bring so much love and comfort into the classroom.”

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While the staff at The Milton School is often overcome with the special type of joy one has when there’s a puppy in the classroom, they say they’re more thrilled about the long-term changes they’ve seen in the students.

“Two of our little boys just walked down the hallway now,” says Assistant Principal Christina Brussich. “One was actually holding on to and walking with the dog, but the first time the dogs entered the classroom, he wouldn’t even go near them. But there’s a calm that comes over the kids, a give-and-take between the animal and the child, and it’s nice to watch that growth.”

For Brier, it is the perfect symbiosis of multiple agencies coming together to transform lives. “There are wins on every side of this,” she says.

The loving reputation of “man’s best friend” endures.

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