Training a partner for life

March 27, 2012
Amy Dove
Tags: newsalumni

Standing on the tarmac in heels, holding a 100-pound dog in her arms, Alison Archambault summoned the strength to get them both up a near vertical staircase to the awaiting airplane.

Archambault was en route to Ithaca, New York, where Royal Roads University's Centre for Applied Leadership and Management was hosting an International Association of Business Communicators executive accreditation seminar. Tonka, a golden retriever puppy, was going with her as part of his training to be a service dog for a child with autism.

With a background in canine training, Archambault and her husband were keen to help train service dogs. They volunteer with National Service Dogs, an organization that provides Labradors and golden retrievers to children and families living with autism and special needs. In a program launched last year, the organization also trains dogs to support people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Founded in 1996, the Canadian organization has paired more than 170 dogs with children and their families throughout the country.

"The journey we have had along the way (training service dogs) has been one of the greatest blessings of my life," Archambault says.

Kimba was the first of four dogs, followed by Tonka, Vinny and Flicka, who is currently with Archambault. For up to 18 months, the puppy is her constant companion before it joins its new family.

As the director of communications and stakeholder relations at First Calgary Financial, a company she has a 14-year history with, Archambault recognizes the value of a supportive employer. The company sponsored the litter of puppies that included Flicka and is supportive of Archambault having a canine companion in the workplace. The sponsorship allowed her office to suggest names for the puppy, with Flicka ultimately being chosen because it would be easy for a child to say.

The dogs have served as conversation starters with colleagues she may not have otherwise spoken to, she says, and reinforced the fact that many people have been impacted by autism.

As a trainer, Archambault focuses on basic obedience. "For a service dog, someone might give them a stay command that saves a child's life," she says. It's also about conditioning them to be comfortable in a variety of different environments and noises, from floor surfaces, to elevators and airplanes. At the end of that flight to New York, Tonka figured out the airplane stairs and he was so proud, she says.

Alison Archambault, second from the left, and her service dog in training Tonka, pose with her Royal Roads cohort.

The dogs are trained to be a quiet presence in what can be a very noisy world. "As things get busier the dog has to get calmer," she says. When the child has a meltdown, the dog knows to put its head in the child's lap, providing a distraction by offering something positive to focus on.

In their own ways, the dogs teach her about a life of service and about acknowledging where people are in their own journeys. They reinforce the need for grace under the pressure and the value of planning.

Ultimately, the dog is a tool that allows the children and their families to live a richer life. There are studies that show a dog's presence can lower the stress levels of children living with autism, reducing medicine intake and decreasing bolting behaviour.

When it is time to part ways with a dog, Archambault knows it is as it should be. For the families that receive them it means greater freedom to spend time together and increased independence for the child. For Archambault, it has afforded her connections to families she would not have otherwise met.

"We never lose service dogs, we just gain more kids to our family," she says. "(The dogs) are never yours to begin with and where my journey ends the child's begins. That is the gift you give."