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Myth #1: Autism Assistance Dog Placements for Children can be Created Safely and Effectively Using Rescue Dogs

by Patty Dobbs Gross

We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another. ~ Lucretius
'Marques and North Star's Boots''Marques and North Star's Boots'

Rescuing a child as well as a dog can be a compelling misconception when creating an assistance dog placement for a child on the autism spectrum, but it can be quite a dangerous one in practice. There will always be stories of this kind of kid/canine partnership working out, as diamond canine temperaments in the rough can and do exist in all corners of the universe, but for every story I’ve heard about a successful assistance dog partnership between a child with autism and a dog from the pound, I’ve heard two others about this dog’s health going south, leaving a child bereft, or the dog’s temperament being sketchy, perhaps due to a past trauma or some problematic genetic trait, with a possible nip or bite delivered to tender flesh as a result.

A solid breeding program can’t guarantee any service pup in training will work safely as well as effectively with his or her child, but in this numbers game the odds are stacked heavily in our favor when we breed intelligently for service work. It should be a requirement to provide our children with social/emotional challenges such as autism with only the best canine candidates as the potential physical and psychological health of the children needs to be factored into the equation when deciding how to best approach this emerging field of autism assistance dog placements, and these children deserve to begin their assistance dog placement with the cream of the crop.

The physical and future structural health of the pup isn’t the only concern when considering the assistance dog selection, although it is certainly a valid one: haphazardly bred pups and even those quite carefully bred for certain physical traits are frequently rife with genetic concerns for a pup slated for service work, and poor physical/structural health can pull the plug on the most effective of placements in heartbreaking ways. Canine temperament is strongly influenced by genetics, and the wrong canine temperament partnered with the wrong child can be like keeping a loaded gun on your coffee table: it may just lay there dormant for years, but ultimately someone may inadvertently pull the trigger. It should be noted that when dogs bite children they frequently do so on the face, and that when creating an autism assistance dog placement for a child, the first rule of thumb should be to do no harm.

It is also important to note that some rescue dogs may respond well to the leadership of an adult who is dog savvy, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to these dogs also accepting the leadership of a child who may poke a finger into the dogs’ mouth or ears or pet against the grain of the fur when that important transition relationship with the trainer has ended. What is needed here is a canine temperament that has tolerance for children, even while we are committed to educating the children we work with to care for their pup in a respectful and gentle manner: we need to meet in the middle of these two thoughts to find the safest ground to walk when creating a partnership between them.

For me, breeding for this canine temperament has always been a bit more art than science, and in the beginning of creating North Star’s breeding program I would select the pups to continue the line based on which puppy my children gravitated toward, and vice versa (with soundness always a given; obtaining proper breeding clearances for many generations in a row is the best way to avoid derailing an expensive canine partnership due to an avoidable genetic misstep.) Later, I began to understand that the quality I was most searching for in the pups I bred, both for finding pups to place with the children we serve as well as to keep back for therapy work and breeding, was actually a hat trick of traits: confidence, playfulness and social intelligence.

To increase the safety of the partnership between a child with a social/emotion challenge such as autism, dogs must not only be bred specifically for a temperament that is fairly soft and submissive, but also curious and brave, with a good amount of intelligent disobedience. This is a genetic quality that some dogs possess which allows them to think for themselves; it is what keeps a Seeing Eye dog from moving forward toward an open man hole cover despite the blind handler urging him forward. It is also the quality that will allow our autism assistance dogs to follow their child when they wander, even if they know they shouldn’t leave the property.

Another genetic quality we look for in our own breeding program at North Star is the pup’s ability to read social cues; I find that the ability to do so is typically linked to the desire to do so, and that my most promising puppies for reading children’s social cues also tended to be the most drawn to the small fry.

Two summers ago we had a fourth generation litter of a line of golden retrievers we’ve been cultivating at North Star for over a decade, and a child with autism came to visit us and spend some time with a 6 week old pup I was evaluating for potential service work. The child was throwing mixed signals out to the pup, with come hither looks followed by a small head hiding itself into his mom’s leg when the puppy approached. The pup read these signals and offered this little one a solid sit, something I would have expected as I only pet the puppies that are sitting when I go by their whelping box, so they all soon learn to sit nicely for attention. As I was telling the mom we were witnessing a default sit in action, the puppy, continuing to read the boy’s continuing mixed signals, laid down and stretched out his tiny paws toward him. We all laughed at this and while we did the pup began to commando crawl toward the delighted child, showing us his natural ability for reading the boy’s nonverbal signals: “Please come closer, but don’t startle me,” he heard the boy say to him, clear as a bell and with no spoken words passed between them.

This is a genetically talented puppy for work with children on the autism spectrum, and the type I would consider keeping for breeding. In fact, I did just that, and the pup grew to be a lovely golden I named Angel for her ethereal ways. Angel grew to be an extraordinary pup; she was co-owned by my friend Judy, and was trained under the loving and generous hand of a talented trainer named Janet, along with my own daughter, Kelsey. Together they taught Angel many therapeutic tricks of the trade, such as ‘Snuggle’ and ‘Say Please’. Angel was as well known in NYC for her sweet demeanor on the subways as she was with the residents of the convalescent home that she visited regularly with her sister, North Star’s Lola.

The fact that Angel and Lola are so lovely along with being so sweet and gentle might seem a happy coincidence, until you consider this: in Siberia they bred fox for ten generations for domesticated temperaments, achieving success at this tenth generation with fox cubs that would wag their tails and act just like puppies; what was startling and unexplainable was that the fox cubs looked like Disney foxes, with upturned noses and big round eyes…the science of genetics is still in its infancy and so much awaits us as we continue to solve the mysteries that are unfolding as I type.

In an article written by Evan Ratliff in __National Geographic__ entitled Taming the Wild, this breeding experiment in Siberia was discussed; they ended up successful beyond even their own expectations:

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To my mind, this work speaks to the power of intelligent breeding for temperament, which should be tapped when creating any partnership between an assistance dog and a child on the autism spectrum.

Last spring Angel developed asymptomatic Lyme disease which affected her kidneys; this condition is called Lyme Nephritis, and it is every vet and pet owner’s worst nightmare. Here is a link to learn more about this terrible disease:

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It was a terrible loss for us at North Star to lose our Angel, but this emotional as well as financial blow doesn’t shake our belief that an intelligent breeding program is needed for organizations that place autism assistance dogs with children; it only strengthens our resolve to create the safest and most effective canine partnerships possible for children on the autism spectrum, despite the challenges we may face in doing so.

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“North Star’s Angel and Lola dressed for success.”

  1. Autism
  2. Autism assistance dogs
  3. Genes

Comments on this entry

  1. Celeste Walsen

    Thanks for this very thoughtful article about not using “rescue” dogs with vulnerable children. After consultation with applied animal behaviorists, we no longer recommend that shelter dogs(even those who are trained by ADI accredited service dog schools) be used as facility dogs to serve in the high stress courthouse or child advocacy center environment. Breeding for temperament as well as for physical health has allowed service dog organizations like yours to produce a high percentage of excellent dogs from which to choose working individuals. One animal behaviorist that works with us has likened the condition of a shelter dog to a human with PTSD. These dogs deserve to be adopted into a home where they can become valued pets, not placed into a working life.

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