Raising Our North Stars: Kumari's Puppies from Four to Six Months
Kumari’s puppies are now six months old! This tender age typically marks the beginning of adolescence with dogs, a time when commands formerly obeyed with enthusiastic puppy charm are sometimes resisted as older pups learn to think for themselves; a pup that may have previously come like a rocket to your call may now look curiously at you and tilt his head, as if wondering, hmmm, do I really have to? The answer in most cases is yes, and a bit of consistent feedback and follow through goes a long way here to keep our assistance puppies in training on the right track.
But what if the dog you’re calling back actually has your child in sight, the child you weren’t aware had woken up from his nap an hour earlier, left the house and decided to hide in the bushes next to your front door? This actually happened once and this boy was found by his relieved parents, who didn’t even know he was lost, when Bambi woulldn’t leave the front door until her owner opened it up and watched Bambi find her son hiding in the bushes. This is an example of “intelligent disobedience” in action, and this genetic quality can’t take full expression unless a dog is raised with positive and gentle techniques, and so we want to correct young canine behavior with positive methods, using distractions and well timed rewards just as any good parent would do with a child.
Training challenges at this stage usually come in the form of tacky recalls or from the pup jumping up on a person with excitement, especially when the half grown pups are particularly excited about meet & greets. To decrease the excitement here, we try to step up the public access work for our pups at this stage and try to shore up the default sit; most North Star pups this age understand the relatively simple rule: when in doubt, sit, and you will probably receive whatever it is you’re hoping for, and as the adults that create the pups’ environments wherever they may roam we want to be sure this is usually so; this is important to understand because a sitting dog is not a jumping dog, and a jumping dog is apt to injure or alienate the very children we hope to serve.
When North Star dogs are taken in public, dressed for success in their North Star vest that reads “Please Ask to Pet Me” in gold embroidered letters, the pup is a member of a team meant to achieve a child’s social goals in public. Some of these goals can be achieved just as easily with one of Kumari’s puppies now; there is actually no need to wait longer for a therapeutic effect until the dog is older, so why delay this potential social.emotional benefit for them?
Recent research hints that the young pup in training may actually have an edge in drawing people within the children’s community closer to them than an older and more well trained dog: a recent study from Hiroshima University in Japan, published in the journal PLoS ONE, showed that cute baby animals draw people to them with a friendly and nurturing attitude and a focusing of attention. This is exactly how I would like people to feel when they approach a North Star team in training to provide a fertile social environment where a child with a communication challenge actually stands a chance of holding his or her own in the social arena. Here is the link to lead you to this interesting study:
Previous research by Dr. Martin from the University of Washington demonstrated the power of therapy dogs within therapy sessions to increase social interactions with children with autism; a new study out of Queensland, Australia examined the interactions of children on the autism spectrum with an adult present along with typically developing peers in the presence of guinea pigs as compared to toys. The guinea pigs’ presence in this study increased the children’s social interactions much more than the toys, naturally, and we can only hope that puppies, by virtue of being more interactive and portable in public than guinea pigs, can increase this proven benefit to children on the autism spectrum exponentially in public settings that previously had alienated the child we now hope to serve..
So both John Q. Public as well as the children with autism, along with the assistance pup as the bridge between them, receive many benefits from training and socialization sessions that occur in public as well as private training sessions, but we don’t want to overwhelm the child with autism or the pup (nor any member of the child’s family) by transitioning the pup to live with their child full time too early. We usually seek local puppy raising homes for pups this age, usually just for a few months, but for longer periods of time in certain cases.These puppy raising homes are meant to help the child have regular visits with the pup within their home as well as part of therapy sessions, and to make the transition of the pup from the puppy raising home to the child’s home slow, smooth and successful.
Kumari pup Nardi is doing very well with her boy Jack, especially in terms of the development of the bond between them. Just look at the picture above for a moment to witness this bond captured in a still image that speaks volumes about animal assisted therapy; Judy, Nardi’s puppy raiser, is resting her kind hand lightly on Nardi to remind him not to overwhelm Jack even in this exciting moment of relating to his boy. Note the intent look on Nardi’s face as he learns how to best communicate with Jack; this pup is paying close attention to his boy, in large part because when he does, rewards consistently follo, delivered primarily by Judy but increasingly so by Jack, who is mastering the role of leader in a way that is educational as well as therapeutic. .
Nardi has begun having sleepovers with Jack, and here you can easily see how he begins his life in Jack’s home by meeting an emotional need that all children have to expand their worlds through their friendships. Typically developing children are afforded this rich social opportunity to learn via a sleepover at a friend’s house, or having this friend sleep over their own homes, but unfortunately these invites are usually too hard to come by when you are a child who was born on the autism spectrum. (That the hardest part of raising a child on the autism spectrum is dealing with society’s reactions to your child; the effects of these societal influences over the course of a childhood can be enormous and cause behavioral symptoms which can be minimized by creating kinder and more enlightened environments for the child.) Nardi allows Jack to be able to experience the joy of a friend staying the night, even if this friend has to be watched closely to be sure he doesn’t eat the video controller (a quick spray of bitter apple and a prompt scold the first time Nardi tries to see how that shiny coveted thing tastes will be sure to discourage this activity on two fronts: taste buds and ear drums!)
Below please find a picture taken on their very first sleepover, with Nardi holding a simple “down/stay” to serve as Jack’s reading buddy; look at Nardi’s body language and this excellent example of joint attention to the words on the page that Jack is reading. This is a pup who is thoroughly engaged in his working role, not just obeying a command because he’s afraid not to, as pups are expected to do when they are trained with pain. The simple act of reading is heightened here, which is important because Jack is a precocious reader, as was my own son Danny nearly twenty five years ago. We never stopped relying on this great strength of Danny’s, and Jack’s parents are also capitalizing on Jack’s superior ability to understand the world through the written word. The fact that Jack has such a handsome and engaging canine partner on this cerebral journey make this a more social journey, and although Nardi is not creating Jack’s path to a happy adulthood, he is providing and attracting good company. Friends for this journey can be found in local “Read to Me” programs at local libraries or in schools, as many children would enjoy participating in this structured and literary activity with this engaging pair.
This attention isn’t always appreciated, it should be noted. A decade ago I made what I thought was a wonderful placement with an awesome North Star golden named Charlie, who followed his teenage boy with Aspergers around the way we socialized him to do; unfortunately, this young man never really had any interest in dogs in general nor this one in particular, although the mother certainly did. She eventually wrote me to say her son was asking her to make the dog stop following him; she was also wondering if she could take Charlie with her when she left on her frequent business trips. I had to say no, as public access is actually a right granted only to an educated team put together to mitigate a specific disability, of which the mother had none. Charlie ended up going to live with a young girl with autism, and sticking to this new little wanderer like glue, which has kept her safer than she might have been over the course of this past decade.
(A quick note to say we at North Star learned from this mistake, and the first question I now ask any family who contacts me, interested in creating a North Star placement for their child, is to inquire whether their child likes dogs; most give me an enthusiastic yes!, but on occasion a parent is just ticking down the list to be sure they’ve tried everything by way of early intervention; but the truth is that this is not a therapy that will work in the absence of a child having an intrinsic interest in dogs. I would also like to pass on an important caution here: autism assistance dogs should never be used as a type of nanny or babysitter for any child. The smartest living dog on the planet is not smarter than your average three year old child, so putting them in charge of safety for a child at any point in their partnership is both foolish and dangerous. Our North Star dogs exist as a safety net beneath other safety nets for children such as GPS devises sewn into a child’s sneaker, and perhaps to the dog’s collar for insurance should our little wanderer go barefoot. We may someday be able to fly to the computer and find this errant pair if we heavily socialize the autism assistance dog to follow their child around for the time they are together in their day.)
The larger point here is that autism assistance dogs are versatile, sometimes acting as a bridge to communication with others in the room via the opportunity for structured conversation, other times a touchstone to security for an anxious child in public, or even to provide physical balance for a child with a sometimes shaky and over stimulated sensory system. It is up to us to create our autism assistance dogs’ job descriptions, socializing and training, to best fashion a tool we can use to then carve out a child’s early intervention program or social life. This is a bit more art than science at this point in time, but the methods used should be studied and delivered thoughtfully and carefully, with our main focus to first do no harm with our efforts to help children through this new and emerging field.
Kumari’s second puppy, JoJo, was brought to his family in Oregon last month after he was raised by Savannah, one of North Star’s most talented puppy raisers. (JoJo was Savannah’s ninth North Star puppy raised by this talented teen, and she clearly has a career working with both dogs as well as children waiting for her!) Despite JoJo‘s wonderful breeding, top notch raising and extraordinary family waiting for him with two very sweet children on the spectrum, it was decided to have JoJo moved not to a puppy raising home, but to a board/train situation with a trainer local to them that has some typically developing and dog savvy grandchildren, who will work with their grandmother to socialize JoJo to her children’s home. To trace the reason why this decision was made is to come to a deeper understanding of our work.
The younger of the two children to be partnered with JoJo is a very intelligent and curious young boy with autism named Tommy; developmentally, Tommy has some educating to happen before he can be a safe unsupervised companion for JoJo (ie, that assistance pups are not to be ridden like a horse!), but as this boy is so bright with such a supportive family, this won’t be a problem for us to work through. In fact, the process of working through this misunderstanding that dogs can be ridden like horses is actually rather a social concept,
and one that can help to further associated thoughts such as siblings can’t be ridden either, or classmates…but when you’re little this work is best done gradually, with humor and warmth.
While Tommy is learning, so is JoJo, and the safety as well as effectiveness of this work happens when we meet in the middle; we’re looking at dovetailing educational programs, one with Tommy and his parents, teachers and therapists, and the other with JoJo and his trainer and her dog savvy grandchildren. You can see them pictured below with JoJo:
If you wonder what benefits puppy raising children receive, just look at those two adorable faces (with JoJo’s a study of concentration…it is fun but exhausting for a pup this age to relate to children this young, mostly by way of having to control their natural impulses to treat them like puppies, rolling with them and mouthing them gently in a way we have been discouraging for months now.). Lots of exercise and crate breaks are included in JoJo’s daily routine to be sure his own needs for breaks and exercise are met, and play time with children is limited and heavily supervised at this stage of the game.
Even as JoJo is working well with her children in his training home, he is also having visits with his children and forever family to begin to get them up the handling learning curves. This work is simple and fun, here you can see JoJo and his children/Mom in action:
Our third Kumari pup placed with a child on the spectrum, “Big Ben,” is a beautiful and handsome male pup currently being raised in New Jersey. Ben resembles his father, CCI’s Oz, who is a big and confident male golden, but he also has his mother, Kumari’s, people oriented and sensitive side.
(In case you want to take a peek, here are the parents’ pedigrees of this extraordinary litter:
Ben is perfect for his future role, as the two boys he will be working with are both teenagers on the autism spectrum that will need his large size and mellow temperament. Although no one knew this when this placement was initially created, Ben will end up coming to the boys during a year that is bringing change, opportunities for growth and a bit of turmoil for these brothers, as their mother is moving with them from Antigua to England due to an unexpected divorce. Here we see how important it is to remain ever flexible to best meet our families’ needs at North Star. Divorce is unfortunately not an unknown experience for families affected by autism, but this need not doom a family to dysfunction. There is a way of coping with adversity that can serve as a model for doing so in the children’s future, there is great value in knowing how to stem the flow of trauma to begin the healing process. The timely arrival of a canine companion to accompany this family on its new sometimes overwhelming and occasionally lonely future is valuable in terms of helping to define their new identify as a smaller family in a different country. As most of us understand, transitions are especially difficult for families challenged by autism, and even more so with families that have more than one child on the spectrum. Ben will be a valuable tool in this brave and newly single mom’s hands.
The fourth Kumari pup, Rex, is the only pup currently living with his child, Ella, in Washington state. This early transition date happened in part due to Ella having a seizure disorder that we are hoping Rex may begin to develop an alert for; training a seizure response is simple and is already in progress with Rex and Ella. For now, we are encouraging and rewarding a simple down/stay for Rex when Ella has a seizure; he himself added his paw being placed on Ella’s lap, and this inclination is being encouraged. Ella’s mom, Lauren, feeds Rex small pieces of hot dog while she gives him lots of attention, soft words and ear scratches during this rather long down/stay; this communicates to Rex that his job is to pay attention to Ella when she is in the seizure state, a place that Rex will most likely come to know Ella is going to be in before anyone else in the room does, including Ella. (Most believe that it is a dog’s sense of smell that allows them to predict their owner’s impending seizures; about one in ten pet dogs do so quite naturally and in a variety of ways.)
The reason we were able to achieve such an early placement date with Rex is due to the fact that Ella has a very dog savvy stay at home mom with a younger typically developing brother that is a huge helper for training and socializing Rex to work with Ella. Siblings are a very important part of any child with autism’s life. In terms of North Star’s work, siblings can be quite valuable in socializing our assistance puppy in training for the child we are serving. We need to pay attention to all the children’s needs within the family involved in an assistance dog placement for a child on the autism spectrum. Even for the specific child we are serving, it would not be wise to pay more attention to his needs at the expense of his or her siblings, as the child with autism’s best hope for a happy future lies in having loving and kind relationships with everyone in his or her family based on equality: we want our children to know they are different but equal, and that all our needs can be be met together, with love, tolerance and respect.
This is the environment we want our dogs to be a part of, and one that that we hope they may actually help to create for their children, not just in their homes, but within their schools and wider communities..
I’ll write again in May with an update on what the spring will bring to Kumari’s puppies in training!