In Ridgefield, dogs trained to help families 'unlock life's potential'

The Collins family, of Ridgefield, were matched with BluePath service dog Chelsea in 2019. The pup is specially trained to provide safety, companionship and opportunities for independence for children with autism.

The Collins family, of Ridgefield, were matched with BluePath service dog Chelsea in 2019. The pup is specially trained to provide safety, companionship and opportunities for independence for children with autism.

Michelle Brier / Contributed photo

RIDGEFIELD — A New York nonprofit recently made use of Main Street to train a pair of pups who will soon become autism service dogs. Penn, a yellow lab, and Zappa, a black lab, spent a sunny afternoon in town learning techniques to keep a child safe amid the distractions of a bustling suburban street.

“We love that Ridgefield is a town of many dog lovers because it provides a wonderful socialization opportunity for our dogs in training,” said Michelle Brier, BluePath Service Dog’s vice president of marketing and development. “People in town have great dog etiquette — they don’t approach our dogs when they’re working, which helps them learn to stay focused.”

Through an application process, BluePath pairs its trained service dogs with families looking to add a loving companion to their home. The nonprofit averages $40,000 to train the pups before they are paired with families, who receive them for free.

“We want to make sure financial capacity isn’t a barrier to a life-changing service,” Brier said. “Our dogs allow families to unlock life’s potential that may not have been available to them prior.”

Brier explained that since some children with autism are prone to wandering or elopement behaviors, the pups act as an anchor to prevent a child from getting away.

“It’s a horrifying experience for a parent if their child bolts towards a crowded street or parking lot or gets lost in a supermarket,” Brier said. “Our dogs are an intervention to that behavior.”

Although BluePath’s headquarters is located across the state line, it’s servicing families in town. Jen and John Collins, of Ridgefield, endured more than a year-long waiting period to find a dog for their son, Alex, who has autism. The 13-year-old goes to Scotts Ridge Middle School and is part of the Ridgefield Intensive Special Education program, or RISE.

“Even though Alex isn’t a bolter, sometimes he can lose track,” Jen Collins explained, “so it’s a really great feeling (to know) he’s always with her.”

Collins was referring to Alex’s service dog, Chelsea, a 4-year-old black lab named after the English football club. Before the pup was paired with the Collins family in September 2019, BluePath brought three different dogs to their home for Alex to meet.

“Chelsea just came in ... and put her head right in our laps,” Jen Collins recalled, “and I immediately noticed a change in Alex’s demeanor and mood. … With his natural defensiveness, he doesn’t engage people naturally, and Chelsea is a bit of an affectionate nudge.”

John Collins said Chelsea’s “tremendous calming influence” helped Alex adjust when his older sister, Jillian, left for Lafayette College. The dog has also boosted Alex’s confidence in social situations, Jen Collins said, and provided personal growth since he’s had to learn to take care of her.

Chelsea’s presence was particularly helpful during the onset of the pandemic last year. To maintain some sort of structure with remote learning, Alex and Chelsea often go walking or hiking.

“The worst thing in the world is a special needs child that has to go to school remotely, (but) Chelsea filled in the gaps,” John Collins said. “What would we have done without her?”

On May 15, the Collins family will participate in BluePath’s virtual walkathon to benefit the continuation of its mission.

“We love to be able to give that gift to another family,” Jen Collins said, “to give another child that little bit of safety and comfort that we’ve found.”

For more information, visit bluepathservicedogs.org

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com