Hope Unleashed


We're a Collaborative Program 

Started in 2010, Hope Unleashed is a collaborative program between Project HOPE Foundation and Vested Partners (formerly Dogs for Autism).  In Hope Unleashed, trained dogs are used to benefit children, youth, and adults with autism. Hope Unleashed has been funded in part by the Hollingsworth Funds, Inc., and the South Carolina Developmental Disabilities Council.

Hope Unleashed addresses several core goals:

  • helping parents of children with autism use their own dogs to increase skills and diminish problem behaviors.
  • incorporating trained dogs as integral tools in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy sessions in clinical settings; and
  • improving communication, social interaction, and self-help skills by teaching youth and young adults with autism to work with dogs

Desensitizing Children to Dogs

Over the years, numerous parents have reported to us that their children with autism are extremely afraid of dogs. This fear impacts the entire family: siblings beg for pet dogs to no avail, visits with dog-owning friends are limited, neighborhood strolls result in anxiety-ridden outbursts. Through Hope Unleashed, we have used a systematic behavioral approach to desensitize children with autism to dogs.

We documented one child’s progress in a video called “Desensitizing Children with Autism to Dogs.”

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Use in ABA Therapy

Applied Behavior Analysis (“ABA”) is an evidence-based intervention for children with autism, usually involving 25-40 hours per week of one-on-one therapy. In these ABA sessions, the child works through a hierarchy of skills to build communication, social interaction, and appropriate behaviors. Hope Unleashed introduces a new element to these ABA sessions: a trained dog, provided though Vested Partners, another local nonprofit organization. This component of Hope Unleashed must be individualized to meet each child’s specific ABA program. For example, if the child is working on developing communication, the dog might serve as a catalyst for the child’s initiation of requests (to perform “trick’s” designed to meet the child’s interests). If the child is learning particular aspects of speech, the dog can be used to demonstrate those new vocabulary words (such as “on,” “beside,” “under,” etc.). If a child struggles with self-stimulatory behavior (“stimming”) that interrupts learning and life, the dog can be used to interrupt those behaviors.

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Youth and Young Adults as Trainers

Hope Unleashed, a collaborative program between Project HOPE Foundation and Vested Partners, uses dog training as a way to help youth and young adults with autism to build communication, social skills, appropriate response/reinforcements in relationships, and group participation. Depending upon the participants’ needs, the training will occur in individualized settings, small groups, and inclusion-based classes. The scope of the training will depend upon the client’s functioning level. Some clients may learn how to pet a dog gently or fasten a leash to a collar. Others may work on basic commands: heel, come, sit, stay, etc. Some will build up to directing a dog through an agility course. This aspect of Hope Unleashed promotes active living, social interaction, and pre-vocational opportunities for youth and young adults with autism.