Service Dog for Persons with FASD – Furry companion helps woman cope with FASD
What is your take on this report by Hamilton The Spectator? Service Dogs trained to act as external brain specifically for persons living with FASD.
A malamute puppy named Sasha could be Hamilton’s first certified FASD service dog.
The dog, which is being privately trained, would be a source of calm for Savanna Pietrantonio. She will be trained to “read” the 47-year-old Ancaster woman — who has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder — and anticipate meltdowns.
“She’ll have to watch me, for anxiety, for signs of a meltdown coming … she’ll be my external brain,” says Pietrantonio.
Her meltdowns are similar to seizures, she explains, and there are many things that can spur one — like a particularly busy day or prolonged social setting.
“I can’t regulate my emotions … I get stuck in thought,” she says in an interview at her home.
In a blog post, she describes it as having the logical and emotional messages from her brain getting tangled up like a pile of Christmas lights.
Friend Mark Courtepatte — who lives with Pietrantonio and her 22-year-old son — says he has done research and believes this will be the first FASD dog in the area.
Once known exclusively for assisting the blind, service dogs are now being used for a spectrum of special needs — including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, autism and, now, FASD.
Ian Ashworth, director of program development and head trainer for autism assistance dogs at the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program, says this is the first FASD-specific dog he has heard of — but it’s difficult to know because the industry is largely self-regulated and there’s no database of service dogs.
An FASD dog will use its weight to lean against its owner during a meltdown, explains dog trainer and breeder Chris Reimer, who will be working with the Citadel Canine Society — which trains and provides service dogs (usually rescues) to war vets, especially those with PTSD — to train and evaluate Sasha as a service dog.
It’ll likely be a year and a half before she is assessed and officially certified, Reimer says.
But Ashworth says it’s a grey area, and that there’s no consistent form of certification in Canada.
Pietrantonio was not diagnosed with FASD until her 40s.
When she was a child, she and her adopted parents knew something was “off.”
She was misdiagnosed by doctors and not supported at school. She overmedicated, abused alcohol and self-harmed, even attempting suicide.
“I went through my whole life being misunderstood and blamed for what was really brain damage,” she says.
The diagnosis was a relief. Since then, she has developed techniques to handle her stress and anxiety, and focuses her time helping others — particularly families and children living with FASD.
“I can give them the viewpoint from my brain,” she says.
One of those families is the Page family, which donated the dog to Pietrantonio.
Dan and his wife Christine have an adopted son with FASD and met Pietrantonio through a local support group.
As the lead volunteer for the Hamilton branch of the Citadel Canine Society, Dan Page has seen firsthand the value of dogs in helping people to cope with issues like anxiety.
“Even with her having her own issues … it’s amazing how she can just reach out and be supportive with other people,” Page says.
Pietrantonio volunteers as a “life strategy coach” with FASD support group Flying with Broken Wings, and she and Courtepatte also work with the FASD Youth and Siblings Support Group — the only one they know of in Ontario.
She also speaks regularly at conferences and fairs about living with FASD — even though the stress of such appearances often lead to a meltdown.
Page said he’s excited for the training to get underway and see her work with the dog and hopes they will boost awareness around the value of service dogs for FASD.
“We’re really looking forward to seeing these two make a perfect pair.”