Myth #2: Training is the Key to Success with Autism Assistance Dogs for Children
by Patty Dobbs Gross
One of the biggest misunderstandings about the emerging field of autism assistance dogs is that it is all about the training of the dog to be partnered with the child on the spectrum, when it is actually as much about the teaching of the child to relate and communicate with his or her dog as it is about improving the dog’s communication with the child, which is at the heart of any dog training endeavor.
Providing suitable environments for the child and the dog to meet their dovetailing needs as well as their training/teaching goals is the real key to the success of any autism assistance dog placement. When you have an assistance dog slated to work with an adult with a physical challenge such as blindness, extensive training of the dog is indeed crucial to the safety of this blind adult, and so training for a Seeing Eye dog takes years with long months of kenneling to accomplish, with up to two hundred commands to be firmly cemented within the dog during this time, and at an expense of over $30,000. This is a price tag that makes these types of placements limited, and when we turn to the concept of assistance dogs for children with social, emotional or educational challenges, a much more populous group than blind adults, we would be well advised to try to lower this price tag to allow more children to be safely served. North Star has borrowed real estate’s concept of “sweat equity” when creating an assistance dog placement for a child on the autism spectrum, not just for the savings, but also the advantages accrued when the child to be served becomes involved with their specific puppy right from the start.
Training and socialization can then unfold with the end in mind, and the sustained contact throughout the puppy’s first years of life is an ideal time to deliver services to the child. This is a commitment of up to two years’ time from beginning of the placement to full public access certification, time to be spent in weekly private and classroom training hours as well as in writing e-mails and talking on the telephone or in person during training visits. This work can be seen as relationship based work, rich with animal assisted therapy opportunities that factors in the child’s family as well as extended family and teachers/therapists in order to surround the assistance dog team with support in the planned program for the child. These plans can range from the detailed (such as having an autism assistance dog woven into a child’s IEP) to the casual (such as having the North Star dog accompany the child to his weekly soccer games in an attempt to structure the social conversation with the children on the field).
Touching base frequently as the pup is being socialized and trained creates a sustained therapeutic environment for the child as well as his or her family; creating the safest and most effective autism assistance dog placements require a service rich philosophy of placement. Saving funds is not the only reason this is a sound concept; inviting the child onto the ground floor of socializing and training helps to encourage the child to develop a method of communication with the North Star dog, who is genetically and environmentally primed to respond socially as well as emotionally with the child. Here, it is indeed the journey more than the destination that matters.
Truly meeting children’s with autism’s social and emotional needs is important to keep in mind when creating the assistance puppy or dog’s job description. It is crucial to remain open and flexible when creating the jobs that an autism assistance dog is going to perform for the child, as the child’s needs first have to be understood before any role for the dog can be created; for instance, if the goal of a North Star dog comforting a child through a tantrum is deemed important to achieve, the child’s parents first have to decide what is the proper distance from the melting down child would be to create an island of calm the child may choose to join if they like. This available comfort cannot be forced, however, for you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force him to slay his thirst, and the autism assistance dog can only offer comfort the child can accept or deny. I advise parents in this situation to lay a towel down onto this spot carefully chosen to be a distance from the melting down child most comfortable to him or her, and to then sit there patiently with the North Star dog, petting the dog and trying to stay calm in the face of the storm of emotions. (Most people know that when petting a dog ''their'' blood pressure goes down, but this benefit is also true for the dog; here socialization of the dog is taking place to encourage them to think of the child’s usually very loud meltdown to be “sound and fury” signifying nothing but an ear scratch and some kind words. In subsequent meltdowns, the pup will come running as he’s been taught this is a part of his role through the avenue of the timing of the positive rewards.) Sometimes parents choose to speak softly to the dog while their child is melting down , saying things they believe might comfort the eavesdropping child such as, “Don’t worry, Buddy, she will be ok…she is just feeling very upset now but will soon feel better again,” (with these words chosen to expand the child’s current emotional knowledge.)
Other times just bearing silent witness is enough to allow a child to work through his or her feelings fairly independently, and then he or she will then be welcomed into the parent’s/dog’s island of calm to comfort the child and allow them to resume the rest of the day, already in progress. In either scenario, the dog’s role is merely a long down/stay, but the parent’s timing and decisions regarding distance and discourse will be important to perfect to create the best opportunity to allow a child to master his or her strong emotions and learn to regain calm with minimal help from his or her assistance dog and/or parent. Ultimately, we are all responsible for working through our own strong feelings without the direct help of others, and developing this important skill should be seen as a social/emotional goal of anyone’s childhood.
The team we create around the placement will consist of the child, his or her parents, extended family, friends, therapists and teachers; together they will create as well as implement the autism assistance dog’s role in the child’s life, both inside and well as outside the child’s front door. A North Star dog becomes a moving focal point of the family's attention, and this helps immeasurably to increase the communication as well as the fun within the home as well as out and about in the neighborhood. The nonverbal avenue of interacting with a dog is an important advantage here, as sometimes spoken language can get in the way of successfully communicating with a child with autism. For a child with autism who has had an exhausting day struggling to communicate in a manner that is foreign to him, spending time with his dog is a nice way to structure critical down time, which can greatly reduce the frequencies of meltdowns in the first place. The concept of "time out" with an assistance dog reliably holding a down-stay to provide comfort can be seen as a positive way that a child can have the rough edges of his or her day smoothed over and need not have any punitive intent.
An assistance dog can also act as a bridge between the activities of a therapy session or school lesson and a child's home program, providing familiar cues and structure to pragmatic language and taking the sting out of transitions for the child. This helps to generalize language learned in a speech therapy session or within the classroom, and to translate it into pragmatic (social) conversation spoken in the larger world beyond the school or therapist’s room. Children with autism often have great difficulty in generalizing learned speech to new situations and people; this is due to their overly selective attention and tendency to respond to only a limited number of cues. Using an assistance dog as a tool for teaching pragmatic language at home and in the community can be as simple as rehearsing stock responses to the fairly predictable questions people are likely to ask a child who holds the leash to a beautiful and well-socialized dog wearing a vest with a patch that reads "Please Ask to Pet Me." As children with autism tend to be dependent on verbal cues provided by others, this positive and predictable social response is a valuable tool to help to develop speech within natural settings in the home as well as the outside community.
Folks who may have shied away from the responsibility of starting a conversation with a child on the spectrum, as well as keeping it in motion, often relax and rise to the challenge when a dog is available to help structure the questions and comments. I like this thought, for it reflects a truth that I think we are just beginning to understand in our society: you cannot fully understand or treat autism outside of a social context. Helping typically developing people feel comfortable with children with autism’s differences by employing an assistance dog as way to structure interactions between them is a simple but powerful way to create an environment conducive for the child to join his or her social universe in a vital, not marginalized, way. In public, an autism assistance dog can carve out islands of calm admit the chaos for the child on the spectrum, who is apt to frequently experience sensory overload with many social activities in our society, but in order to use an autism assistance dog as a therapeutic tool to its maximum benefit in public, the people in the environment have a role. We went folks to stop and admire North Star dogs, but we hope they will stay long enough to appreciate the child on the other end of the leash.
Valuing differences is something that should be taught to all of our children; North Star puppy raisers learn this lesson early, as I believe there is no better way to teach tolerance than through the eyes of a puppy being raised to help a child on the autism spectrum. ''North Star puppy raiser Sophie with North Star's Zizi.''