By Sherrie Negrea
Jody Sandler DVM ’88 has been through his share of successes and failures during his professional career. He shared his experience as both a veterinarian and an entrepreneur as a guest speaker at this year’s second Animal Health Hackathon co-hosted by the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and Entrepreneurship at Cornell. The hackathon tasks teams of students to devise innovative solutions to gaps in the world of animal health and veterinary medicine. Sandler shared how he established a fulfilling career by connecting some very important dots.
During his time as the director of veterinary services at the Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Westchester County, Sandler noticed that many of the puppies raised at the center just didn’t qualify to become guide dogs.
Then his wife, Caroline McCabe-Sandler, a certified dog trainer at the facility, came up with an idea: Why not retrain these dogs so that they could work with children on the autism spectrum? She began to match trained service dogs with children with autism in the tri-state area, eventually placing 90 dogs.
In 2016, after Guiding Eyes for the Blind ended its dog training program for children with autism, Sandler left the agency and created his own nonprofit organization, BluePath Service Dogs, Inc. The nonprofit is now preparing to graduate its first class of service dogs next fall and will assign them to children on the autism spectrum who are between the ages of 3 and 11.
“Autism is so prevalent in the world today,” said Sandler, president and CEO of BluePath Service Dogs. “One in 68 children in the U.S. will develop autism. The dire need for those dogs is to keep these children safe and help them to become independent over their lifetime.”
Protecting the human-animal bond
In recognition of his work with children with autism and the blind and visually impaired, Sandler was named the Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year for 2016 by the American Veterinary Medical Association last January. The award, named for the late veterinarian Leo K. Bustad, recognizes outstanding work of veterinarians in preserving and protecting the human-animal bond.
While using dogs to work with children with autism was fairly new when Sandler and his wife began training them nearly a decade ago, they were able to devise a tether system that would allow the dogs to keep a child safe when walking outside. The tether is connected to a vest worn by the dog and to a nylon belt on the child.
“Many children on the spectrum have bolting tendencies, where they try and run away from a caregiver,” Sandler said. “They can do it quite suddenly where they run into a street. They have no fear. They may run into a body of water even when they don’t know how to swim.”
A trained service dog can prevent the child from bolting because the dog is taught to either drop to the ground or stand and brace itself. “With a 60 or 75-pound Labrador or golden retriever attached to them, the children really can’t get away, giving the parent or caregiver time to react,” Sandler said. “That’s the primary role of the service dog.”
Sandler notes that one family he worked with that had adopted a service dog for their autistic son was able to take a trip to Disney World with their black Labrador in tow. It was the first vacation the family had been able to take together.
“The child, his two siblings, and the parents — all of them were in need of this dog,” Sandler said. “That’s the difference that we see with the families that we’ve worked with, and that’s the difference we know the dogs can have with children they’re paired with.”
When Sandler was a student at the College of Veterinary Medicine, the practice of using service dogs to work with children with autism was not taught because the field had not yet been developed. Sandler, however, credits his professors at Cornell, particularly Dr. John Randolph, with teaching him how to work with clients and their pets in the animal clinic.
“Dr. Randolph really taught me how to interact with clients and also how to logistically work through the process of diagnosing and treating pets coming through the small animal clinic,” Sandler said. “He was really just an amazing teacher.”
After matching its first group of dogs next fall, BluePath Service Dogs plans to launch a capital campaign
to raise money so that it can purchase its own building. Currently, the staff picks up the dogs at foster homes two or three times a week and trains them in classrooms, malls, and outdoor environments. With its own facility, Sandler said the staff will be able to offer additional indoor training.
“Our goal is to have our own facility, but ultimately we want to get our service dogs out to families that are waiting for them,” Sandler said. “That’s a big threshold for us to cross.”