Empowering Adults on the Spectrum at Dogtopia

The Dogtopia Foundation focuses on three key initiatives: Service Dogs for Returned Veterans, Children’s Education, and Employing Adults on the Spectrum. In honor of April being Autism Awareness Month, we wanted to showcase three Dogtopians dedicated to employing adults on the spectrum in their own daycares.

Three team members from different Dogtopia daycares are quoted below, stating how much of an asset it has been to employ individuals on the spectrum.

Art Prediger, Owner, Dogtopia of Dulles

“We have three employees on the spectrum, and they are huge contributors to the team. They understand the job and how to work through decisions while managing dog behaviors. They are reliable and often eager to pick up extra shifts. What I’ve really come to appreciate is how they each have a special knack for lifting the staff whenever it’s most needed. Everyone on our team loves them.”

Diane Foos, Owner, Dogtopia of Rocklin

“Employing someone on the autism spectrum is easier than you think! Our location has worked with 10 adults on the spectrum so far through internships and paid employment. Every single one of them is highly intelligent with a lot to offer, and the benefits of having them on our team are countless!”

Andy Knights, General Manager, Dogtopia of South Chandler

“As a leader in building a positive and beneficial culture, I have found that the employees on the spectrum directly reflect those values. They are honest, loyal, and hard working.  Our ASD employees create a positive environment for our clients and their teammates, while performing the essential duties both safely and efficiently.  They are an integral part of our team. “

We are committed to empowering individuals with on the spectrum to learn, grow and build their career at Dogtopia.

Dogtopia Daycare Donation Efforts Bring U.S. Marine Veteran and Canine Companion Together

The Dogtopia Foundation partnered with Next Step Service Dogs to bring together returned veteran Anthony Torres and his field golden retriever, Tillman.

Torres served as a U.S. Marine for six years. Following his years of service, he returned home and connected with Next Step Service Dogs, an organization focused on providing trained service dogs to veterans, Gina Esoldi, Program Director with Next Step Service Dogs, united Torres with Tillman and guided him through the training process.

“We meet on a weekly basis,” said Esoldi. “Once they do their formal application and enter the Next Step program, we meet two to three times a week. As soon as they leave that program, they leave to their own living situation. We meet a couple times a week until they get possession of their dog, pass their access test, and then certify.”

Many of Next Step’s dogs are career change dogs. This means they have gone through training  to be a guide dog but were unable to meet the stringent standards necessary for this level of support. 

“A lot of dogs that Next Step receives are guide dogs for the blind, career change dogs that are not suitable to serve a person with little to no vision,” said Esoldi. “However, they’re wonderful, wonderful dogs. They come to us with their basic obedience and then we task train them.”

On some occasions, as was the case with Tillman, Next Step Service Dogs receives a puppy enrolling in training to live alongside of a returned veteran. When Torres met Tillman, he knew he met the dog that was going to change his world. Although Esoldi was hesitant about Tillman’s career path with Next Step Service Dogs, Torres was up for the challenge of training a puppy.

“They give us the basic tools to reinforce their obedience,” said Torres about Next Step Service Dogs. Torres felt confident training Tillman because he knew he had a strong support system behind him.

After graduating from training, Torres and Tillman officially began life together.

“It’s night and day,” said Torres of his life with Tillman. “Being at the lowest of lows, to meeting those dogs and working at that program and then meeting Tilly; it gives you a new sense of purpose and something to focus on other than yourself.”

Tillman has  impacted Torres’s life in numerous ways. He now feels confident and plays a more active role in his community. Tillman keeps him going.

“He’s that number one spot in my life and I need to make sure he’s taken care of,” said Torres.

The Dogtopia Foundation wants to thank Next Step Service Dogs for their partnership in providing trained service dogs to returned veterans. It is through partners like Next Steps that we are enabling dogs to positively change our world.

Focusing on Wellness with the Dogtopia Foundation

October is Emotional Wellness Month. The Dogtopia Foundation considers emotional wellness to be one of the most important elements of the human experience, and a priority within our three pillars of support: service dogs for veterans, youth literacy programs; and employment initiatives for adults on the autism spectrum.  

Let’s break down our focus areas to showcase how the Dogtopia Foundation helps promote emotional wellness.   

First, the Dogtopia Foundation works alongside each of the Dogtopia daycare centers to raise funds to sponsor a dog for a returned veteran. The sponsorships help our partner organizations cover costs associated with training dogs to be loyal, hard-working and loving companions for military veterans returning home with physical and emotional challenges. Service dogs can be trained to awaken someone from a nightmare, provide a calming presence in a noisy and crowded space, turn on lights, call 911 and various other specialized tasks that can help reduce the symptoms of PTSD and gently guide the veteran to feeling more secure and confident in their daily living activities. By funding the training of these service dogs, the Dogtopia Foundation is helping to heal invisible injuries and restore emotional wellness in veterans who so bravely served our country.  

Secondly, the Dogtopia Foundation’s youth literacy pillar centers around a model that involves dedicated human and dog volunteers who provide a non-judgmental and affirming audiences as students grow their confidence and skills at reading and writing. Think about it: when you were a kid, would you rather practice skills in front of the entire class or in the presence of wiggly-tailed dog? The daunting thought of reading out loud is less stressful, and more fun when a furry friend is involved. The Dogtopia Foundation is proud to support SitStayRead, a Chicago-based organization that has been using this model to significantly improve the literacy scores for thousands of students, in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Through this dog centric partnership, we are helping provide children with emotional strength to keep learning, practicing, and reading.  

Lastly, the Dogtopia Foundation plays a role in empowering and employing adults on the spectrum through our franchise network. Several Dogtopia locations employ individuals on the spectrum as they are very task-oriented and do well in a work environment that includes a list of to-dos in need of being completed. These individuals have warm hearts, an incredible work ethic, and an affinity for dogs. By employing adults on the spectrum, Dogtopia daycare centers are not only providing stability, but they are also allowing the other employees to learn patience, understanding, and how special those who are on the spectrum can be. Frequently, adults on the spectrum have a difficult time finding work which can lead to stress and feelings of instability. Through our “employment for adults on the spectrum pillar, the Dogtopia Foundation promotes inclusive hiring practices, and emotional wellness and stability for those who are on the spectrum. By empowering all employees to achieve great things, we can create a better culture and a better tomorrow for all. 

Emotional wellness means so much more than having a healthy state of mind. It means feeling confident in your skin, able-bodied, and strong. Through our dog-centric pillars of support, we’re doing what we can to help make a difference in the lives of so many who face challenges many of us will never fully comprehend.  

If you are interested in supporting our mission “to enable dogs to positively change our world” by making a donation, please click here.

Dogtopia Daycares Reach Milestone in National Service Dog Month

The Dogtopia Foundation is pleased to announce we have successfully collected enough donations for 100 dogs to begin the training process to become service dogs! We would not have accomplished such a monumental milestone without the love and support from our Pet Parents, Dogtopia friends & family, and people like YOU.

We also want to give a huge thank you to our partners who take in these dogs, love them like their own, and train them to become the best canine companion they can be for their future returned veteran. Our partners include: Next Step Service Dogs, K9s for Warriors, America’s Vet Dogs, Mutts with a Mission, paws4people, Patriot PAWS Service Dogs, PAWS With A Cause, NEADS, and Service Dogs, Inc.

Thank you to all who participated in helping us achieve the donations necessary to send 100 dogs to training! The Dogtopia Foundation is thrilled and is already looking forward to the next 100.

Dogtopia Foundation Making a Difference in the Lives of Returned Veterans

The Dogtopia Foundation instills three key pillars into each Dogtopia daycare center. The most prevalent pillar stands out as Service Dogs for Veterans. Through the fundraising provided by Dogtopia daycare centers hand in hand with the Dogtopia Foundation, returned veterans and service dogs are united through dedicated organizations such as Next Step Service Dogs.

Adam Bond served in the Army for four years and completed a couple years in the reserves. Upon coming home, he spent an inordinate amount of time by himself. He describes himself as a “hermit” who rarely left the house. This was when Bond was introduced to Next Step Service Dogs.

Adam Bond served in the Army for four years and completed a couple years in the reserves. Upon coming home, he spent an inordinate amount of time by himself. He describes himself as a “hermit” who rarely left the house. This was when Bond was introduced to Next Step Service Dogs.

“It has been the best decision I’ve made probably in the last 20-something years,” Bond says when thinking about his involvement with Next Step Service Dogs.

Next Step Service Dogs trains and pairs a service dog with a returned veteran to accompany and assist them in their day-to-day living. Before taking a dog home, the veteran trains and bonds with the dog in a controlled training setting. Bond participated in the training process to educate and connect with a service dog in training. Before too long, he found his match with a black lab named Sara.

“Every week, we’d be hands on working together,” said Bond when describing the 3-to-4-month training process that he and Sara went through to prepare for certification.

Bond’s life has changed immensely since being paired with Sara. He says he feels more outgoing and more willing to embark on new adventures.

“One of the first things I noticed (by having a service dog) is how much more extroverted I am and how much more I’m out of the house,” said Bond. “Before Sara, I was a hermit and now I’m out all day on the hiking trails and meeting people. It’s easier to meet people with a dog,”

Living alongside of Sara has provided Bond with a variety of new experiences and newfound confidence. With Sara by his side, Bond has started exploring his surroundings by trying new restaurants, parks, and events.

“I would hate to think where my life would be without Sara,” said Bond. “I think I’d be in a lot worse place without her in my life.”

Like so many other Veterans that have benefited from the companionship of a dedicated service dog, Bond hopes more people will take advantage of programs like Next Step Service Dogs.  

Interested in donating to the Dogtopia Foundation to support a service dog uniting with a returned veteran? Click here to donate today!

Celebrating International Literacy Day with SitStayRead

One of the three pillars of the Dogtopia Foundation is youth literacy. The Dogtopia Foundation partnered with SitStayRead, a Chicago-based organization focused on “advancing children’s literacy skills using an engaging curriculum, certified dogs, and dedicated volunteers.”

September 8th is known as International Literacy Day and to celebrate, we spoke to SitStayRead’s Executive Directo Amy Taylor about the organization, their mission, and the importance of children’s literacy.

Q: How did you get involved with SitStayRead?

A: I was hired as the Executive Director in January 2021.  I was drawn to the mission because of the loving and inspirational way the organization approached teaching young kids how to read through dog-assisted learning.

Q: How long has SitStayRead been in action?

A: In 2003, three women active in the field of animal-assisted therapy needed a way to refocus the work of their aging dogs in a less active setting. Originally conceived as a community outreach program at Call of the Wild School for Dogs, the pilot was hosted at a local library.  The focus shifted shortly after to school settings with a specialized curriculum.  Since then, SitStayRead has served 18,800 students in 808 classrooms at 17 partner schools.

Q: Why is children’s literacy so important?

A: SitStayRead focuses on children’s literacy because it is the best way to ensure all kids have a chance to thrive in school and life. The achievement gap begins with the literacy gap, yet many children are not given the time and skills to build a foundation for reading to close the gap.  Here in Chicago, 60 percent of incoming kindergarten students are not adequately prepared in language and literacy skills upon entering school. We know this is the case for most children growing up in large urban areas. Children without the necessary literacy skills can fall behind quickly, and the consequences last a lifetime. Around third grade, the curriculum switches from focusing on learning to read to reading to learn. Children who are not reading proficiently by the fourth grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time — hindering their chances to live a happy, healthy, productive life.

Q: What are some of the main benefits you see by allowing children to read to dogs?

A: By bringing dogs into the classroom, we see children’s social skills positively impacted.  Some of the  most noticeable benefits we see when children read to our dogs include improved self-confidence and communication, a reduction in stress and anxiety, and increased emotional development.  By creating a positive social environment, we make the process and practice of reading both enjoyable and meaningful.

Q: How does reading to dogs boost a child’s confidence?

A: By bringing dogs into the classroom, SitStayRead immediately creates a safe and fun environment. When children read to dogs, they have a nonjudgmental reading partner ready to receive the story. Dogs provide positive affirmation to kids by listening and cuddling to ensure children feel supported.

Q: What are some of the benefits the dog receives from listening to a child read, in your opinion?

A: Dogs also receive a positive social interaction and the bond of new friends outside of their owner.  Many of our literacy volunteers share that their dogs show excitement when they approach the schools and realize they are going to see the kids.

International Literacy Day brings awareness to the importance of learning and our students’ ongoing need of support. The Dogtopia Foundation is a proud partner of SitStayRead, an organization that is doing its part to ensure a bright future for students in Chicago Public Schools.

The Dogtopia Foundation greatly appreciates Amy Taylor for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. To learn more about SitStayRead or get involved with their initiatives, click here.

A Service Dog’s Impact On A Veteran With PTSD

Known as the invisible wound of military service, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has a profound impact on U.S. Veterans returning home. According to the National Center for PTSD, 11-20% of Veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan experience PTSD. This “invisible” injury along with anxiety and depression make it difficult for Veterans to maintain relationships, hold down a job, and engage with their community.

There are four symptoms identified with PTSD but every Veteran experiences these very differently. Symptoms include reliving the event, avoiding things that remind them of the event, increase in negative thoughts and feelings, and feeling on edge.

Currently, the Veteran’s Administration provides treatment for PTSD with therapy and medication but has declined to cover the veterinary care for service dogs who assist Veterans with PTSD, like they do for service dogs who assist Veteran’s with physical disabilities. While there is abundant research on the benefits of service dogs for people with physical disabilities, the same cannot be said for understanding how a service dog impacts mental health. PTSD and other mental health issues are a top priority for the Veteran’s Administration who is working on a study to understand the effectiveness of a service dog versus an emotional support dog on the quality of life for Veterans with PTSD.

While the learnings are being compiled for release, many Veterans will tell you that having a service dog has changed their life. According to a recent Purdue study, “Veterans who had a service dog reported significantly fewer symptoms of PTSD and better scores for psychological well-being, coping skills, and other measures of well-being.”

For Afghanistan Combat Veteran and recipient of a Dogtopia sponsored service dog, Russ, credits his relationship with Quinn (his goldendoodle) for stopping his nightmares and no longer needing to take 17 pills every day.

“To be honest with you, Quinn saved my life,” said Russ. “There’s been times I have contemplated and a couple times I’ve tried to commit suicide. With Quinn, I have someone who is counting on me now. We’re in it together.” Click here to watch Russ and Quinn’s moving story about their relationship.

Through the service dog sponsorship program, the Dogtopia Foundation and Dogtopia daycares are proud to work with Assistance Dog International certified service dog organizations that provide service dogs to Veterans experiencing PTSD and physical disabilities. Since 2018, 71 service dogs have been sponsored by Dogtopia daycares and their pet parents and 13 have been paired with Veterans after completing their two-year training.

We are so grateful for the support of our Noble Cause and seeing first-hand how enabling dogs to change our world is making a difference in not only the lives of these deserving Veterans, but all who support our service dog sponsorship program.

Join us in our Noble Cause and help sponsor a service dog for a Veteran! Click here to donate today.