New Directions in Canine Assisted Therapy: Correcting Course
I have always learned more from my failures than my success, and this column is meant to show a bit of what we have learned from the failures we've endured in the past fifteen years of our incorporation as North Star Foundation.
This nonprofit began when people began coming to my door, having heard I placed special dogs for children with autism, and often without the funds to provide for the expense of the breeding as well as the socialization, teaching and training that this business requires. The names have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty, and only my own name will never change because, as with all of North Star’s work, the buck stops right at my throat.
Dramatic language, yes…but purposefully chosen, as the stakes are as high as the throat is delicate. Children with autism and dogs used to be thought of as a dangerous combination in the beginning of this emerging field, and I recall one chat room flame that burned brightly against me and my daring plan to partner the lovely tempered goldens I was breeding with “those children.” We have come a long way as a society since then, but we should not allow the pendulum to swing into the danger zone of underestimating the true danger of this still pioneering work.
The template we used to create North Star's initial policies for placement were based on our largely successful placement of Dan and Canine Companions for Independence's (CCI's) Madison. Their dogs are very well bred, and in fact, they helped us to develop our own top notch breeding program by allowing us the use of some of their top stud dogs to contribute to our lines. Mistakes made in creating Dan's partnership with Madison became information to create the blueprint for constructing North Star's policies and procedures.
Right from the start I was aware of the dangers, as well as the potential benefits, of the field we were hoping to pioneer, but despite the best of intentions we began our work at North Star with quite a painful first attempted placement, which began just days after we finished walking the paper trail to our nonprofit status. I met a teenage girl that very afternoon named Jasmine at a flag football game, sitting on a blanket with a beautiful yellow Labrador retriever by her side. As we watched the field, Jasmine we began talking about our mutual interest in assistance dogs for children who face social and emotional challenges. She wanted to have her dog, Abby, trained for an assistance role with her; by then I could see she was paralyzed from her waist down and required not just physical assistance, but emotional sustenance as her life was hard due to the seizures she suffered on a much too regular basis. Abby had begun to alert to these states for Jasmine, and although the much admired and attended lab that lay between us seemed a touch nervous, she maintained her focus completely on her mistress.
And so Jasmine became our first official client at North Star, and Abby our first North Star dog. At the time our mission to help children by way of assistance dogs was just a newborn concept, and it would take well over a decade to get most of our more sophisticated policies and procedures written down and faithfully followed. One of the first things we were about to learn was to never put the cart before the horse.
Donations for Jasmine’s placement were quick in the coming, as The Hartford Courant ran a story with the gorgeous picture of Jasmine and Abby; over $5,000 in donations was received as a response to this article and we then began to work with Jess on a weekly basis, beginning our work by taking Abby out and about, as it ended up that she had been very poorly socialized outside her front door her first 18 months of life. It also ended up that Abby was wildly unsuited for assistance dog work temperamentally, although she clearly had the makings of a therapeutic companion with the added, proven and quite valuable feature of a developing seizure alert for Jasmine’s frequent seizures. Abby’s genetic temperament may well have been ideal for Jasmine inside the home, but her early socialization as well as her sensitivity kept her from working well with her in public, as her fears kept her too distracted. As a pup, she was kept in the basement for far too long, and was frequently subjected to a shock collar by Jasmine’s mother, who would deliver these shocks her when Abby left Jasmine’s side. It was no wonder that Abby was an anxious dog, frequently looking over her shoulder and jumping up for reassurance, as there were plenty of reasons to be anxious both by virtue of her nature as well as nurture.
The first few training sessions I had with this first North Star team I chose to walk down the road where Jasmine lived, by some chicken coops and a large field that teemed with wildlife. I wanted to see if Abby could be made bombproof with Jasmine in public in addition to developing skills in walking next to a wheelchair (a task with occasional painful moments if care isn’t taken to educate slowly). I thought starting here would be best as Nature would be far more forgiving than the folks at !WalMart should Abby have a transgression such as barking or growling at any strange sight during her early training.
Jasmine’s mother took great exception to these “walks and talks” past the chicken coops and scurrying squirrels, instead wanting us to work on getting Abby to bring Jasmine’s laundry from her room to the basket in the bathroom. I spent increasing amounts of time talking to Jasmine’s mother to convince her to trust our methods and I also tried hard to convince her not to shock Abby or relegate her to the basement. All Jasmine’s mother seemed to want to talk about her belief she was being stalked, and all the proof she was building up to prove this was so; it was hard to draw lines between our placement and Jasmine’s mother’s problems, both real as well as invented or imagined, or with the growing resentment that Jasmine’s mother felt at the different paths my training and socializing of Abby were taking compared to her own earlier ones.
Eventually these differences tore us apart and our very first North Star placement failed. Social/emotional placements are just that, and you are going to brush up against the feelings of more than just the client served when you work with a team of people. There may be siblings whose emotions need to be recognized and respected, teachers and therapists who can enrich a placement immeasurably if intelligently included, and although most parents I’ve worked with have been wonderful, on rare but painful occasion there may be parents who are working on things that take the focus off the child.
My take away from this experience was that it very much mattered where North Star dogs came from, both genetically speaking by way of soundness as well as the environmental factors involved in shaping a dog’s potential temperament. We developed a blueprint on how to raise a well-bred pup right from their earliest environment onward to maintain control of the quality of our products by way of health, soundness and temperament. The pups we used were adorable and engaging, but in the face of serving great numbers of children with autism, and understanding that failure is not an option if we can help it once a placement has truly begun, we needed to learn to see our pups as nonconforming products when they failed, complete with appropriate root cause analysis and corrective actions. (My husband, Ron, is a Quality Control Manager at his day job, and is developing our ISO Certification is on our mutual agenda.)
I heard from Jasmine years later when she was in college and was pleased that she had kept going with training Abby at a highly regarded training facility nearby. I was saddened, but not surprised, to hear she had been the recipient of abuse in her childhood home. It would be well over a decade before I’d have the courage to consider a North Star placement for children who face abuse and/or neglect, as these are the most difficult placements I can imagine us making at North Star. The vast amount of parents we work with are kindhearted and intelligent in their approach to parenting a child with a social emotional challenge such as autism presents, but I now believe that having written and intelligent policies and procedures goes a long way toward avoiding the danger of misunderstandings even if the danger is merely disappointment for the child served. We now have well-constructed placement agreements designed to address as many issues that may arise as we can. To date, we have created 25 revisions of this document, and we would not hesitate to create a 26th should the request from a family arise to address a new concern.
We take our three or four way partnership (child/North Star pup/one or both parents) quite seriously at North Star, as it provides the balance we need to withstand the rigors of life for we exist very much in the real world. We voted that first year to never again work with dogs that people had already chosen as pets to ride with them up the steep learning curve that leads to becoming an assistance dog. We remembered that it is infinitely easier to ride a horse when you’re going in the same direction and so the very next pup we placed was from our own fledgling breeding program, a handsome golden with a mellow and easy going temperament. His family named him Star, and he became our first successful North Star placement; he was placed with two brothers on the autism spectrum where he remains to this day, well over a decade later. Since our incorporation as a nonprofit fourteen years ago, we have created over 200 North Star placements, with over 100 to children on the autism spectrum.
We have spent a good amount of time evaluating these placements and now have some preliminary results: about one in ten placements we put into play hits trouble; out of these, about half have trouble due to an issue with the family and the other half (about 5%) of the time we have trouble due to an issue with the North Star dog. When the issue is with the North Star dog, we first try to work through whatever the training issue is that is disturbing the flow, as long as the issue is not aggression (which is never worked through and always a cause for immediate dismissal from our training program). Most failures of North Star pups in training is due to temperament concerns: perhaps the dog is barking at other dogs in public due to a reactive nature, or maybe the pups is jumping up on the child he/she is supposed to be serving due to a problem with impulse control, or kicking up a real racket in his crate, disturbing the precious peace we were hoping to grant our families: all these issues can be worked through successfully with patience and commitment.
In approximately one out of twenty placements (5%) it is the family that just isn’t able to partner up with us for a wide variety of reasons that can include a simple changing of the mind or of their circumstance, as life happens while we’re creating North Star placements. This is a situation I try very hard to avoid by way of increased screening, but I have a feeling the human factor will forever trip us up in this field, despite our valiant efforts to avoid them.