ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (NEWSPLEX) -- September is National Service Dog Awareness Month.
Service Dogs of Virginia pairs canines to people with disabilities in Charlottesville free of charge.
Service dogs are trained to perform daily tasks for those with disabilities such as Muscular Dystrophy, ALS, Paraplegia, and many others. These dogs can do laundry, open the refrigerator, and fetch medication.
Sally Day with Service Dogs of Virginia says the partnership is about not being alone and having a best friend with you all the time.
Porter is a service dog that's been with his handler Jessica Cohen for about 6 months. Her 5-year-old son, Sam, is autistic and Porter is right by his side making sure he's safe and calm.
"It can be very hard for him to settle down," said Cohen. "Porter gives him hugs and provides deep pressure that allows him to settle and get the rest that he needs."
Sam is making major improvements, a once two-hour bedtime routine, now takes just fifteen minutes.
"We're seeing such a huge increase in his expressive language," said Cohen. "Just having someone who always wants to play with him, thinks he's wonderful no matter what, Porter has done so much for his self confidence."
Dogs aren't born this way; it takes extensive training. Service dogs are trained from about 8 weeks old until the age of two. By the time dogs are placed with a client they have been to over 50 places, learned over 30 advanced commands and had over 700 hours of training.
For the first year, a service dog lives with a puppy raiser and in the second year the dog lives with a different family and attends dog school.
Service Dogs of Virginia primarily train Labrador Retrievers using a clicker method. A clicker signals a positive action and a treat is given to the animal.
"These dogs have to learn everywhere their human is going to go," said Day. "That means being comfortable going up the metal stairs in the airport, elevators, escalators, and being in every type of social environment from a busy Downtown Mall to a store to a restaurant."
Day says the main gift people get from service dogs is independence, but for the Cohen family it's peace of mind.
"As parents you want your son or daughter to have someone else that loves them as much as you do," said Cohen. "Porter gives that to Sam, he loves him unconditionally."
Clients are not charged for a service dog, Service Dogs of Virginia rely on fundraisers, sponsors, and philanthropic opportunities.