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Meet Laura Sylvester of Good Dog! Autism Companions

Today we’d like to introduce you to Laura Sylvester.

Laura, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’ve been a dog person my entire life, but my yellow Lab Buddy was that once in a lifetime dog. He got me through some significant life changes: new towns, new jobs and a divorce. And he was there when I later married Rick on a hilltop in Northern California, Buddy stretched out happily beneath us as we said our vows. Buddy was there for the birth of our son, Elliot – as well as Elliot’s diagnosis of autism just before his second birthday.

Elliot and Buddy had an amazing relationship, Buddy would let Elliot sit on him and pet him and love him, just Buddy’s presence would calm Elliot when he got overwhelmed or dysregulated. When Elliot was five years old Buddy passed away. It was their relationship that inspired us to fundraise for a service dog for Elliot. When Elliot was 10 another yellow Lab entered our lives. I remember thinking the night before Orbit arrived home — a thought that brought me to tears — nearly 20 years ago a yellow Lab changed my life… I wonder if a yellow Lab will change his. And Orbit did, he changed everything.

Before getting Orbit, we could draw negative attention when out in public. Elliot might become overwhelmed or excited and shriek or slap his hands, it became easier if one of us just stayed home with him while the other ran errands like grocery shopping. But with Orbit, we found people were more understanding when they saw the vest marked “Autism Service Dog”. We also noticed that with Orbit by his side, Elliot was more confident and comfortable in crowded places. It was a life changer for us, we started going to more places as a family and actually enjoyed ourselves!

After a trip to Disneyland where every interaction with the public was a positive one (a first for us) we realized other families could benefit from having autism service dogs, so we founded the nonprofit Good Dog! Autism Companions in 2011.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I remember going to a How to Start a Non-Profit workshop at the San Diego Foundation with a friend, we were having lunch and she said “wow, that seems like a lot of work” and I said “really? I was thinking ‘that’s all I have to do to get dogs to kids?’ ” BUT she was right, it is A LOT of work. In our previous profession – Branding & Design, my husband and I started our business from scratch, so I figured. “how hard can it be?”.

Well, there are big differences between FOR profit and NOT FOR profit businesses and the biggest difference is MONEY! I volunteered for 3.5 years to get Good Dog! up and running and my husband still volunteers today. For five years we wondered if we would ever be able to earn a living providing autism service dogs to families. Some who know us would say we barely make a living at it still, but we love what we do – and you know what they say … “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” This is absolutely true for us!

The hardest part continues to be fundraising while also running the organization, but we have amazing donors and supporters that have been with us for a long time and we get new ones every day. We must raise $100,000 per year to place 10 dogs and this is in addition to our families who raise 160,000 per year. We’d love to grow and be able to place more dogs but it’s the funding that keeps us at 10 dogs per year. Autism service dogs are in very high demand and it’s heartbreaking for me when we have to turn families away.

One of the things I used to consider an obstacle has actually turned into an asset – isn’t this so often true in life? Because my husband and I are NOT dog trainers we don’t have a facility where our dogs are trained. All of our dogs live in homes with their puppy raisers or trainers and they are spread out across the country. We’ve had to set up very tight systems and quality controls to be able to do run the organization remotely, we are in San Diego and our Lead Trainer, Samantha Quackenbush lives in Omaha Nebraska!

Now that the systems are in place and things run smoothly, most of the time, we realized something … we have a much higher success rate than most service dog organizations.

What that means is our drop out rate is lower than most, where the average drop out rate is 40-60%, ours is just 20-30%. We contribute this to the fact that our dogs grow up in and are trained in homes; loving homes with trainers who bond with them, care for them and set them up for success.

Good Dog! Autism Companions – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
I think the thing that is most unique about Good Dog! Autism Companions is that we are an autism family running an autism service dog organization. We understand what our family’s lives are like and we can truly celebrate with them when their child has a breakthrough. To the rest of the world our kid’s breakthroughs may seem minimal – he spoke a 4 word sentence, he slept through the night, he participated in a school dance, he got on an airplane, her meltdown lasted only 3 minutes when they used to last 30, he got invited to a birthday party – I could go on and on.

These are HUGE things for families like ours and WE GET IT! The closeness among our families is one of the things I am most proud of, we are like a big family. We celebrate each other’s success and cry together when life is tough. The basics of our organization are – we obtain and train dogs to be autism service dogs, then we teach the families everything they need to know to be handlers of their dog and we support their team for the life of the dog.

The rest is magic! The way our dogs change family’s lives is amazing, after 43 placed dogs I am still amazed by it every day! The stories I hear make all the hard work more than worth it. My favorite blog, called Why Wednesday? Is the best example of what I mean:

One of the things we provide that no other service dog organization does (at least to my knowledge) is our Free Chat program. When we were on the hunt for Orbit it was so difficult to get information like where to get a dog how much it costs, could my child benefit? Etc. There was nowhere to ask my questions without first applying and submitting gobs of paperwork. That is why we offer the Free Chat – which is a fancy name for talking to me on the phone for 30 minutes. It is an open conversation with an Autism Mom that happens to know a lot about autism service dogs.

I am very proud of the fact that I have helped many families find their way to their autism service dog, even many that get their dog some other place or some other way than with us. We aren’t a fit for all families, but with the Free Chat be are able to help more than 10 families a year get an autism service dog and that is very fulfilling to me.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
Good Dog! is successful because of our amazing team of trainers, support team (lead by my better half, Rick Sylvester) as well as the tenacious families who work tirelessly to make sure their kids meet their full potential. It takes an incredibility-dedicated team to make this happen and we have been blessed with some of the best to join our team! Most of our Trainers are graduates of Bergin University for Canine Studies, the only accredited academic institution in the world solely dedicated to advanced canine education and research.

Personally, I am so honored to be affiliated with Bergin, President Bonnie Bergin is a guru in this industry and sometimes I still can’t believe that we got so lucky as to know and learn from her! Bonnie’s philosophy regarding dog training methodology, that dogs are intelligent, emotional beings, is why we use only positive re-enforcement training methods for our dogs. We are also an ADI (Assistance Dog International) Candidate and follow their standards and guidelines for all aspects of our program. I am also on the Program Advisory Committee at Bergin and lecture every year teaching the students about autism and autism service dogs.

But the true success of our program is measured in autism families lives changed; the breakthroughs our kids have made, the new places they can go, new things they can do, the bringing of families back together and the smiles they now receive from the public because of the Good Dog! Autism Companion by their side fosters understanding and acceptance.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Danielle Laudner

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