BluePath, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization founded in 2016, raises, trains, and places service dogs for area children with autism. Headquartered in Hopewell Junction in nearby Dutchess County, the organization was co-founded by long-time Bedford resident, Michelle Brier, involves dozens of B&NC Mag locals in its volunteer network – including the Bedford Police Department, regularly trains dogs in and about Katonah, and has placed its special dogs with autistic kids within the B&NC Mag readership.
Michelle explains, “I’m a marketing and development executive, and had experience at the Guiding Eyes for the Blind among other nonprofits. I’ve always been struck by the ability of service dogs to profoundly transform people’s lives. I’m passionate about the work we’re doing at BluePath because our service dogs are changing the lives of kids with autism!”
The primary function for BluePath dogs is to protect the child, and particularly to ameliorate dangerous ‘wandering’ behaviors by serving as the ‘anchor’. But beyond unparalleled safety, BluePath dogs reduce stress and facilitate connection for the child, their family, and everyone around.
As MJ Miller, a parent of a BluePath dog recipient, who lives in Darien, puts it, “Since receiving our service dog, Ezra, we’ve been able to participate in more activities together as a family. This includes going for walks, eating at restaurants, and bringing our son, Bennett, with us when shopping or running errands. Ezra has
eased our anxiety – knowing our son is safer and less likely to wander. It has given him more independence, as we no longer have to constantly hold his hand in public places. It’s also brought my son and his typical sibling closer, as they now share the same love and interest in Ezra!”
And as another local mom, Kate Petersen, shares, “Wesley was diagnosed with autism at two years old, and community outings have always been a challenge. The grocery store felt like a war zone with meltdowns and escape attempts. …Then we received Reba from BluePath. Now Wesley is calm and content, and instead of running at the supermarket, he began talking to us to communicate his wants and needs. He has gained so much confidence that he even speaks to other shoppers – he loves to tell them about his dog! I could never have imagined the magnitude of Reba’s impact. Now Wesley moves through the world thoughtfully instead of reactively. I feel like I can breathe again and, as a family, we have so much hope for the future. Reba has been the most incredible gift!”
Volunteering to help raise and train BluePath dogs may be therapeutic for the volunteers as well! As Bedford Police Chief Melvin Padilla says about Maverick, the BluePath dog the Bedford Police Department is currently raising, “The department is committed to promoting the overall health and wellness of our officers. Raising Maverick is a uniqueapproachtoreducingjob-relatedstress,whilealso offering us new ways to connect with residents and give back to our community.”
BluePath’s facility therapy dogs, like Maverick, are a little different from the autism service dogs, in that their primary purpose is to assist with mood regulation, provide emotional support, and help to increase social interaction and connectedness for people without a specific impairment. A National Institute of Health study states, “The presence of a dog in an educational setting seems to support concentration, attention, motivation, and relaxation – reflecting reduction of high stress levels which inhibit effective learning and performance.” And research from the University of California at Davis shows that students who practiced reading skills with classroom dogs increased fluency by between twelve and thirty percent. …The Board of Education for the Bedford Central School District just voted to approve BluePath’s facility therapy dog, Jacey, joining the team at West Patent Elementary School!
BluePath involves a cadre of volunteers as a part of its ‘Puppy Raising Program’. The program includes: ‘Puppy Raisers’, like Jeff and Nina Kellogg in Katonah, who care for the pups in their own homes for a period of about 16 months, teaching basic obedience skill and house manners; ‘Foster’ volunteers, who provide a loving and supportive environment, exercise, engagement, direction and relaxation for the young adult dogs, beginning at about 18 months of age and typically lasting 6 to 12 months – and who are responsible for bringing the dog for training with BluePath’s professional staff, at BluePath headquarters, three to five days a week; ‘Sitters’, who care for dogs while their Puppy Raiser or Foster are out of town or need assistance, and; additional volunteers to support BluePath operations and administration and facilitate BluePath events like the Annual Walkathon, activities like ‘Puppy Yoga’, and programs like ‘Paws to Learn’ – in which future service dogs provide therapeutic services, including emotional support, assistance with mood regulation and opportunities for social engagement, connectedness and increased physical activity, in schools, camps, and adult facilities.
BluePath dogs are ‘purpose-bred’ through a network of partner organizations, and BluePath favors Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Lab-Golden crosses for their superior health and temperament. To be eligible to receive a dog, families must have a child between the ages of 5 and 11 years old with an autism diagnosis who requires the dog for safety. The organization has placed 36 autism service dogs and 4 facility therapy dogs since inception, and presently has another 36 dogs being developed and trained for service. BluePath has the highest ‘Platinum’ evaluation from Candid, and top ratings from Charity Navigator. It receives no government funding, relying entirely on the generosity of donors and volunteers to fulfill its mission.
BluePath’s co-founder Michelle Brier, who also serves as the organization’s Vice President for Marketing and Development, makes the appeal: “Getting each dog ready for service is a tremendous – and expensive – process that involves thousands of hours of training from our professional staff and our dedicated volunteers. Still, we provide BluePath dogs – including extensive ongoing follow-up support – with absolutely no charge to the recipient. …We need donations! And we are always looking for volunteers to support our programs! No experience is required, and it’s an incredible way to make a difference in the world!”