JP, a Labrador retriever puppy, stopped calmly over a storm-grate in the middle of a Bronxville street on a recent afternoon, unfazed by the strange surface that might throw off other dogs. JP will need that cool under pressure when he becomes a service dog for an autistic child.
He is one of 10 puppies who may hold the key to the future security and happiness of families with autistic children in Westchester and Rockland counties, and across the region.
Volunteers are raising the puppies — nine Labrador retrievers and one golden retriever — in homes throughout the area. It’s an effort by the five-month-old nonprofit BluePath Service Dogs to fill a gap left when Yorktown-based Guiding Eyes for the Blind decided last year it will end a program that provided service dogs in homes of families with autistic children. BluePath expects to start training an additional seven to 10 puppies by year’s end.
Once matured, the dogs can prevent autistic children from wandering off, which parents say is the difference between families living life or becoming virtual shut-ins. The dogs can also prevent tragedy: drownings are the leading cause of death for autistic children who wander away.
In her Bronxville home, Pat Carforo, the volunteer raising JP until he’s about 1 1/2 years old, fastened a BluePath vest onto him. Carforo walks him frequently and seeks out distractions — sirens wailing, a police officer’s radio, gawking school children — to get J.C. to the point where they no longer grab his attention. One result, she said, is he’s the dog about town.
“I”ll go for a walk and ‘JP! JP! — everybody knows you — you’re like a rock star,” Carforo said of the 4 1/2-month-old.
BluePath started in December, formed by former members of Guiding Eyes’ Heeling Autism service dog program. The founders are Dr. Jody Sandler, president and chief executive, who was with Guiding Eyes for 25 years including as director of veterinary services; Caroline McCabe-Sandler, BluePath’s vice president of training programs; and Michelle Brier, vice-president of marketing and development.
“We believe so strongly in the transformative role that these dogs have on families,” Brier said. “We’ve seen families be able to travel independently outside of their homes; we’ve seen children smile for the first time.”
BluePath’s leadership is mostly from Westchester County, while its offices are in Hopewell Junction. A BluePath service dog costs about $13,000, but BluePath will assist families in fundraising efforts, Brier said.
BluePath’s mission for the moment is to raise…