April 1, 2024

Raising Hope: supporting children with autism through BluePath

Raising a puppy is no easy task, especially when that puppy is a future support animal for someone in need.

Hope sitting in front of Empire State University in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Raising a puppy is no easy task, especially when that puppy is a future support animal for someone in need. Catherine Hoff, a program aide in the School of Nursing and Allied Health, is taking that challenge to heart and raising a dog for BluePath, an organization based out of Dutchess County that provides service animals to children and families with autism.

“I saw their mission and program as something I could get behind because it’s for autistic children,” Hoff said. “I’m autistic, my daughter is, so I felt that was where I wanted to be.”

Hoff was not diagnosed with autism until she was nearly 50 years old, seeking out resources when her daughter was diagnosed, and she recognized certain signs and characteristics in herself. For her, raising Hope is a way to give back and provide a resource that would have been an important resource to their family if they had known.

“She didn’t get diagnosed until she was much older,” Hoff said. “I thought what a difference a service dog would have made for her, and us. Reading stories from these parents who said I can now go to the grocery store and not have to worry; we can take a family trip and it’s much more relaxing -- that was what really sealed it for me.”

Service dogs for BluePath are trained to prevent children from eloping, or running away, assist them with sensory issues, and provide comfort during emotional or distressing situations.

“The child is tethered to the dog around their waist, and if the child starts to run, the dog anchors themselves to the ground and holds them there,” Hoff said.

Hoff said the program helps children with autism, and their families, carry out more day-to-day activities like going to the grocery store and allows them to take longer trips they otherwise would not be able to do. As the child gets older, the dog will stay with them and BluePath will provide another support dog if needed.

“When the child is an older teen, they start taking responsibility for the dog, feeding it, walking it,” Hoff said. “If the young adult then goes off to college, the dog can go with them and provide services.”

The training process is extensive. Hoff said she focuses on socialization, teaching house manners and specific commands, going through obedience classes, and introducing Hope to a routine. Hoff is no stranger to raising service animals, having previously raised a puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind to help people who are visually impaired.

“My husband and I both say we have the fun job because we get to take her to the coffee shop,” Hoff said. “We go to Uncommon Grounds, we go to restaurants, we take her down on Broadway -- she’s been everywhere."

The hard part? Making sure people don’t pet Hope and disrupt her training.

“I know it’s hard, we all love dogs,” Hoff said. “We’re not just teaching the dog; we’re also educating the public. She wears her vest when she goes out in public. We like to say if you see a vest, ignore is best.”

Just like Hope, Hoff said she is learning a lot from this experience.

“It definitely makes you slow down because you can’t rush the dog. You’re working on their schedule,” Hoff said.

Hoff will take care of Hope for a year and a half, then she will go to BluePath and be placed with a foster family, who will then take care of her for at least one year and take her to formal training.

As she reflects on the experience, Hoff said she wants to become an outreach volunteer for BluePath and help educate others on the organization and how they can help.

“If I can help another family not have to struggle, to be able to live their life, they should be able to live it with a little less stress,” Hoff said.