Tualatin campers learn dog handling and empathy

Applications due Monday for Autism Service Dogs of America's Doggie Day Camp
by: Jaime Valdez Katie Rule-Witko, the executive director of Autism Service Dogs of America's Doggie Day Camp, cuddles Frankie, a 2-month-old golden retriever and Ike, a 4-month-old yellow lab.

Autism Service Dogs of America's Doggie Day Camp is celebrating its third year of teaching children 7 and older how to properly train a service dog while learning compassion for the children with disabilities who will eventually take the dogs home.

The Tualatin camp kicks off this week and still has openings for its next camp Aug. 22 through 25.

'We hope that through this camp, the children develop a level of respect and better understanding of what autism is and how they can understand that autistic children aren't that different,' said Kati Rule-Witko, coordinator of the Doggie Day Camp. 'It takes understanding to want to engage and become friends with an autistic child.'

During the week, campers learn the basic rules of handling dogs and the difference between raising a regular dog and a service dog. Through the experience, the children gain leadership skills and learn how service dogs can help disabled children.

'Learning and knowing the difference between a proper service dog from a regular dog and wanting the dogs to succeed is important,' Rule-Witko said.

Each day, the campers travel around the community to give the dogs a chance to experience different environments. Planned trips include taking the campers bowling, to a movie, to Bullwinkles and to a swimming pool.

'It's important for the service dogs to be around a lot of different people and sounds. In all of these environments, we're taking these dogs into the public. They will be getting the training and socialization that the service dogs require,' Rule-Witko said. ' At the same time, the kids are learning the responsibility of handling a service dog as well as different ways in which they need to train the dogs.'

The camp will end with a swim day and barbeque where the children get to see the dogs 'off-duty.'

'It's important to the dogs to have that time to be regular dogs and get a reward for the hard work they did all week,' Rule-Witko said. 'It's a really fun day for the campers as well as the dogs.'

The dogs come from local breeders when they are about 8 weeks old. Some of the dogs are then raised by 'puppy raisers,' or families who volunteer to house a puppy for about a year. The family is in charge of paying $35 a month for the dog's food, doing basic training with the puppy, as well as bringing the dog to monthly meetings. Once the year ends, the dogs come back to go through finalized training and then eventually get placed with an autistic child.

'We wouldn't be able to do this camp without the puppy raisers,' Rule-Witko said.

The next camp is Aug. 22 through 25 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and costs $275 and the deadline to apply is Monday. If interested in registering for the camp or being a puppy raiser, visit autismservicedogsofamerica.org.