Story by Anna Cooke & Diane Rosenberg. Photography by Sara Gomez Take A Chance On Me.

levels, to increasing social skills and possibly boosting our immune system. Studies have found that children with autism benefit in the presence of a dog. These studies, while not conclusive, are very encouraging. Just ask Sara, whose son Zac has been diagnosed with autism and has had a dog since 2010 through a Fernandina Beach program called Project C.H.A.N.C.E. “Our family was participating in Zoo Walk for Autism when


Zac was in the middle of a meltdown,” explained Sara. “Someone walked up with a dog and offered to let Zac pet him. My initial thought was to say no. But the person convinced me that it would be okay. In an instant, Zac was calm. It was as if a switch just turned off the meltdown. My husband and I were stunned.” Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental

brain disorders that hinder a child’s ability to communicate and socially interact. ASDs range from the severe cases of autism to the relatively mild form called Asperger’s syndrome. In the United States, it is estimated that about one in 88 children has some form of autism. Francesca Cirulli, of the National Institute of Health in Rome,

Italy researched published studies of dogs’ effect on children with an ASD. She found four studies that looked at therapy dogs used during formal sessions to help children settle in, become more engaged and communicative. In one study of 22 children, kids were more talkative and socially engaged during therapy sessions where a dog was present. In another study of 12 boys, the children were less aggressive and smiled more when the therapy session included a dog. Two studies focused on service dogs, trained to live with the

family. The dogs served to mainly keep the children with autism safe. When the family goes out, the child is tethered to the dog to keep from running off or getting hurt. This can be a huge relief, as parents’ anxiety over their child’s safety can lead to social isolation for the entire family. Gretchen Carlisle, who conducted a study on behalf of Autism

SpeaksAutism Treatment Network has written, “When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lived with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have greater social skills. More significantly, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people’s questions.’


here is substantial evidence that dogs act as social catalysts, encouraging humans to be friendlier with one another. Dogs have been credited with providing us with a host of benefits as well, from lowering blood pressure and stress

Dr. Carlisle reiterates that parents should consider their child’s

sensitivities carefully when choosing a dog to ensure a good match. “Bringing a dog into any family is a big step, but for families of children with autism, getting a dog should be a decision that’s taken very seriously.” For example, a child who is easily agitated or has sensitivities to noise may have great difficulty with an extremely active dog. Project Chance takes this all into careful consideration when matching a child to one of their dogs. The program provides both service and therapy dogs as part

of their program. Service dogs work with one person who is limited by a disability, helping that person perform a specific function or functions. Therapy dogs provide affection and comfort to groups in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other facilities. “Our kids have service dogs. Our teachers in the program have therapy dogs,” explained BJ Szwedzinski, founder of Project Chance. Kids who were ‘runners,’ stop running because they want to

be near their dog. Kids who were unable to express their real needs, now experience the value of communication. Kids who did not care about outcomes, either negative or positive, are now able to understand that behaviors have their associated outcomes. Kids who did not want to give hugs or show affection are able to do so, even if only to their dog. Kids who rarely laughed now do so, especially when they are having fun with their dog. “Kids who stood alone, never will again,” added BJ. Project Chance is a small Florida-based 501c3 organization

and BJ keeps it that way to control growth. This cautious mind- set allows her to stay in touch with the dogs throughout their lives, as well as the families and kids in the program. If refreshment training is needed at anytime, BJ is able to be there. “My emphasis is on the limited number of kids we’re able to

help. I can’t fix the world, but I can fix a few children’s lives and help their families,” said BJ. CHANCE is an acronym for Children Helping Anyone

Needing Compassion and Empathy. The program’s goal is to have children extend beyond themselves and reach out as leaders with their dog, to not only help themselves and get out of their heads but to make someone else’s day better. “Even if the kids are non- verbal, this always works,” said BJ. Project Chance does not outsource the raising of their

puppies. They purchase the puppies, Golden Retrievers, from responsible breeders, and then BJ raises them herself. This gives her the opportunity to get to know the puppies, which is critical for correctly matching the dog with a child. It also ensures continuity between the dog and the family.

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