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Raising Our North Stars: Kumari's Puppies from Two to Four Months

Kumari’s puppies are now four months old, and from this lovely litter of seven golden retriever puppies, three females have been selected to be kept back for North Star’s evolving breeding and therapy programs, with the remaining four male pups assigned to children who are on the autism spectrum which they will grow to serve. One of these pups, JoJo, is now with our most experienced North Star puppy raiser, a young woman named Savannah who lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut that I consider the true puppy whisperer. Three of the pups are being raised in New Jersey: Rex is being raised by an experienced volunteer puppy raiser, Nancy, and her family, whose two boys help tremendously with socializing their North Star pup in training. Ben is the third Kumari son who is being raised in the Atlantic City area for a teenage boy on the autism spectrum that lives in Antigua, which will end up being our fourth international placement, and Nardi is the fourth son who is already working with his child with autism, Jack, thanks to an extraordinarily talented team of trainers, Judy and Janet.

North Star's Nardi and his boy JackNorth Star's Nardi and his boy Jack

Here is a clip from the day the pups were all together before they parted ways, investigating a bird call in tandem:

I watch this clip today with a whisper of nostalgia, despite it’s being filmed just last December; to me, it seems a lifetime since that beautiful morning, as just a few days later I heard about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It happened on a sunny morning to which I woke up quite happy because my youngest daughter, Kelsey, was to fly home from college this day; I have four twenty something children and she would be the last to arrive and kick off our long awaited holiday season. For me, filling up my empty nest was to be my true Christmas present, expensive as it was just to get them all home to me, finally, finally…

Later that morning it would be Kelsey who let me know what happened in Newtown, telling me through tears from an airport in Charlotte…instead of making sugar cookies that afternoon I spent my time in the whelping box, glued to the television as I cuddled with the pups, watching with the rest of the world what was happening: there were interviews with the devastated parents of the lost children on the six o’clock news, their grief as palpable and heavy as something solid lodged deep in the back of your throat. There were pictures of the children, their innocent smiles as beautiful as they were fragile, and profiles of those who lost their lives heroically, their decisions made in an instant that forever memorializes their character.

It always astonishes me when I am reminded how connected we all are, even when grief stricken due to the disasters that so often spur this recognition. On the evening news there were thick rows of colorful flowers, piles of stuffed animals and lots of loving messages written in shaky print at the site, with additional piles of stuffed animals for distribution (and supposedly a warehouse full of gifts sent to the surviving children from all over the world!). There was a report from a tiny town in Scotland where this act resonated with fresh heartbreak from their own brush with a similar tragedy; there was even a van handing out free pies to town folk and a plethora of media cameras to capture it all for the rest of us to watch as we struggled together to understand what happened.

We all came together by virtue of our human nature. Nearly all of us love children, our own and others, and want to surround them with enduring safety and kind care. This sense of caring about the survival of our young is woven into the strands of our very DNA; these roots plunge deep into the very bottom of the connected souls of nearly all who form our global village.

Picking up Kelsey at Bradley that evening I saw that even the homecomings were subdued, yet the hugs a bit longer before people finally parted, picked up their suitcases and sadly moved forward…we are finally together again, but we can’t forget what one loner with an assault rifle took from us.

The puppies that leapt into Kelsey’s arms when I finally got her home were heartbreakingly innocent of all that had happened, but I could tell they knew by the way we held them close how we were feeling; they would become rather still and extra attentive to see what role they should take in this dance of animal assisted therapy. If AAT didn’t work with me, I wouldn’t be pioneering this field of assistance dogs for children, and this was a day I let the puppies help me. In the days and weeks to come nearly everyone who visited the pups were equally shaken and drawn to the angelic innocence, perhaps because this reminds us of what we most miss.

Whatever transpired between the pups and all the visitors they saw who were affected by this terrible tragedy, however we communicated our heartbreak and allowed the pups to soothe it, it served to lay the foundation for the work that the pups will ultimately accomplish under North Star’s umbrella.

I’ve been on the front lines of prejudice against people with autism for over two decades now, and I have seen the stigma of autism slowly but surely being chipped away by the tipping point of enlightenment, but from the day first day I heard Adam and Asperger’s spoken in the same sentence I have been afraid of the impact of our war on bigotry in my own community. On our best days at North Star we understand we don’t dwell on the erosion of progress that can happen with the toxic stream of prejudice that we are forced to wade through in our family’s life together, and it felt like a clear and stunning defeat in our personal war of hearts and minds. At dinnertime my family and I would glumly review the snatches of conversation we heard or snippets of print that reflected misinformation about those born on the spectrum: everyone had heard disparaging and untrue things about autism since the shooting, and we all winced at this professional loss, like hunched players on the field, penalized unfairly.

Right from the start the reporting of this terrible story was tainted by wild rumor and just plain false information: the initial television news reports had the gunman identified as being Adam’s older brother Ryan. I heard reports that Adam’s mother, Nancy, alternately had a close tie as well as an adversarial relationship with Newtown schools, and that she homeschooled Adam through certain part of his education. It was clear that Nancy had been found shot to death in her home, most likely while she slept, and that the gun used in this crime as well as the shootings at Sandy Hill were all legally registered to her. Nancy was reported to frequent the local gun range, at least one time accompanied by Adam, who wore earplugs on the day of the massacre as they use routinely on the gun range to prevent hearing loss.

(This small tidbit of information may make no sense to someone unfamiliar with someone on the spectrum, but it did to me, who knows the lure of structure and routine for those with autism; those on the spectrum tend to love rules and to follow them even if they occasionally make little logical sense, such as protecting your hearing when your life is about to end. I keep thinking about this fact and wondering why our clear laws against murder couldn’t have been drilled into Adam’s head before any other rule that he would be expected to follow in his lifetime, such as wearing earplugs before firing a weapon.)

Nancy’s sister in law was filmed speaking on our local six o’clock news, conveying her opinion of Nancy’s philosophy as one of a survivalist. One newspaper interviewed people that remember Nancy occasionally frequenting a local bar, where people said she was very nice but did not speak of her younger son very often; a drinking buddy remembers her as sad but stoic. Another business in Newtown remembers her bringing Adam there when he was young, but not having brought him around for years.

It is now up to us to wonder how much we can hold Nancy responsible for what her son did, especially with her not here to narrate her life with Adam. Even if we are inclined to blame her, what would this blame even be for? Encouraging and supporting the wrong interests in her single minded son? Not being firm enough, or being too strict, or too lenient, with him? Not protecting him from bullying, or, as I am often accused of, overprotecting her son?

Personally, ticking down this list will be for me like sinking into familiar quicksand of confusion, as I remember wondering how I was to blame for my own son’s developmental difference in this very manner for far too many years. Danny was diagnosed in the long shadow of the refrigerator mother theory of autism, and the reasons I was somehow to blame would shift with the passing of time, but the theme of Mom as source of any child’s unexplained difficulties was pretty consistent in those days, and it is still an ugly cultural knee jerk reaction today.

Twenty years ago it was also like autism was something you could give a baby with a cold mothering style, or something you could catch if you got too close, the way we used to think of AIDS. In my own Naugatuck neighborhood Danny was left out nearly every birthday party and teased on the bus daily; the school district was initially quite hostile to my attempt to provide Danny with a mainstreamed education and during an important early intervention year I kept him home with me when the only placement they offered him was segregated. They finally sent him out of district, to the Stephen August Early Intervention Center in Cheshire, an amazing (and integrated) place that taught me how to better communicate with my brilliant and exceedingly kind son, as well as teach Danny how to communicate with me and his young classmates.

If Nancy failed to connect her son with the outside world; if she instead pulled in with her son and isolated him, perhaps she had less choice than you may think about how else to integrate him in a society where children with Asperger’s are so frequently bullied. I would imagine an even higher percentage of children with autism are to this day simply ignored.

Neither reaction is appropriate to someone who is enlightened about autism.

No matter what blame Nancy may receive for her Adam’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school, it is undeniable that she was the first victim of the son she was not able to reach by herself.

Like so many others, I also wanted to offer some comfort to the surviving children of Sandy Hook. As I serve as Executive Director of North Star Foundation, a nonprofit created to help children by partnering them with assistance dogs to help them achieve their social, emotional and educational goals, bringing a North Star therapy dog would be an obvious choice, but the puppies in the whelping box were not even old enough to last a few minutes in the cold. And so I sat in my overheated home and celebrated a bitter sweet Christmas with my family and friends; it ended up a holiday where people meant everything and the few presents exchanged were opened perfunctorily.

There were some type of service or therapy dogs lined up in a field in Newtown on the news, ready to offer comfort to the surviving children and families in Newtown, and as time passed many of my friends expected me to follow suit. I knew I shouldn’t just drive on down, as there is actually a rather strict protocol to bringing trained dogs to disaster sites such as Newtown became that morning, but it is not like me to worry too much about protocol, and it actually wasn’t that which stopped me. It was true that I only had puppies in training to offer, but I know I could have tried harder to figure out how I could share them with the children who needed them most. I remembered then why grief placements were personally the most difficult to create for me at North Star, as there is so precious little to offer the grief stricken, and so much for them to accept. Years ago, I made one grief placement with a lovely golden named Angel, given to children who just lost their mother the week before. I kept choking up when trying to speak to the father, Mike. I stood next to him and watched his little girl, Courtney, play with Angel with her blonde curls flying and tiny hands clapping…his son, Justin, joined her at times, moving a bit slower and sadder, but still able to be charmed and distracted for a moment or two. I gave him instructions for the care of feeding of Angel that he paid much more attention to than your average North Star Dad. Mike said later that just having something to do with his Sundays helped, and having his children cheered by Angel was invaluable; now, nearly a decade later, Mike has remarried and the children have largely grown up, but I recently touched base with him and wasn’t surprised to discover that he is still taking excellent care of his Angel.)

Truth be told, I was up to the task professionally, but I was afraid to go down to Newtown for a different reason, not just because of the grief it held for me, but also due to some rather unresolved feelings. For me, the highway south is both the road to Newtown as well as Naugatuck, the place I lived as a young mother with a child newly diagnosed with autism. Danny was born just six years earlier than Adam, and so I had something in common with Nancy, but unlike Adam, my son prospered as the years past, and gained slow but steady acceptance by virtue of his unique charm as well as his talent; rather than homeschooling him, we always sought the best and most appropriate mainstream education for each and every year of Danny’s schooling (for his father and I this familiar task is only just now about to end, as Danny is about to graduate from USC’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts with an MFA in film editing. More impressive to us is the fact that he’s grown up to be a warm, generous man with equal parts humor, kindness and integrity.)

Although success can seduce you into glossing over the challenges along the way, it was actually very difficult to get Danny an initial appropriate education in small town Connecticut in the late 80s. I was quite driven to not just receive the appropriate education the ADA had just decided to grace us with, but to also reduce the emotional overlay that I knew could descend upon the best of autistic childhoods, as above all I just wanted Danny, as well as all my children (and yours too!) to be happy.

I am a strong Irish woman, but even I was greatly tested by the consistent bashing of my head against the rocks of conformity and prejudice to even begin to receive an appropriate education for Danny (the powers that be once put him in a classroom where one side of the room held one teacher and one blackboard, and the other side of the room held a different teacher with a different blackboard; children were facing in different directions and Danny was expected to block out one teacher’s voice to attend to the other, his auditory processing disorder completely disregarded.)

And there was the time I once screamed bloody murder at the principal of Danny’s elementary school, with a baby on my hip and a toddler at my side, for failing to protect my autistic kindergarten son from a group of fourth grade bullies on the bus, but for better or worse, not all of us can be this assertive.

None of us should ever have to be.

As tired as we are of Colombine, of Aurora, and of the growing list of other places that now include Newtown, we need to rise to the challenge of understanding an event that will change us as a nation, one way or the other. Don’t be too sure that this horrific act will necessarily inspire peace across the land; sales for assault rifles skyrocketed the days following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School along with magazine clips designed to increase the speed of any assault.

But to scratch beneath the surface of the familiar gun control debate is to find the other issues that we need to address in this blue new year, together. I think it’s going to take cooperation and effort to effect true change that can make a lasting difference not just for our children, but our grandchildren as well, and this is to try to understand how Adam failed to become a part of us.

All of us know parents who are a bit to the left or right of mainstream, those that drank too much or were neglectful, mothers not enough of a presence for their children, or way too much so, fathers absent or whose presence does not contribute to a stable environment; certainly not all these children of wayward parents grow up to be mass murderers, but many will in fact grow up to face prison time or a lifetime of depression. It would seem society should create a safety net for all children, a support system for a dysfunctional family that would allow the children to absorb concepts to counterbalance the ones they might have picked up, or will be picking up, at home. Perhaps school should expand their goals for the students they serve far past test scores as holy grails, and begin to focus on the social and emotional growth of all our children. Can we allow any child to grow up this unconnected to the mainstream, and if so, still continue to allow such easy access to assault rifles and violence on various screens?

Keeping guns out of the wrong hands seems the only thought that all civilized people in our nation can agree upon, and perhaps it can serve as a starting point for our national dialog on this tragic event. So far, this dialog is starting out polarized, clichéd and confused because this issue just doesn’t fit easily into the container of any simple position or singular sound byte, but it is crystal clear that the time is now to come together and create a safe society for the most vulnerable among us.

Danny didn’t know what a Ninja Turtle was until he was seven years old and couldn’t conform to the expected social behavior of his peers inside his mainstreamed kindergarten classroom even if he wanted to, but he knew the name of every one of his classmates despite the lack of social acknowledgements he offered them. He had also memorized the entire cassette and text of the story of Peter and the Wolf. On the second week of kindergarten he surprised the teacher that he hadn’t spoken a pragmatic word to as yet by raising his hand and answering all of her questions about the musical correlations between haunting melodies and various characters in the story.

Madison, his assistance dog, helped to break the social ice, year after calendar year…he was a frequent visitor to all Danny’s classrooms, and helped tremendously to form and sustain friendships between him and the children in his new town, Mansfield. They actually cared about Danny’s education in this town that exists in the shadow of UConn, and they did not view our relationship as adversarial. Danny began to thrive there, thanks in large part to several boys who befriended him (thanks especially to one extraordinary boy in particular, Brendan, who served as Danny’s angel unaware).

And I think it’s important to add that there are more than a few true heroes among Sandy Hook Elementary School on that tragic day; including a little boy who did like Ninja Turtles and who led two of his classmates to safety at Sandy Hook with his own super human powers, inviting them to walk in front of him as they left that terrible place. I’ve spent over twenty years of my life working with typically developing children who want to help me in my quest to integrate all children with autism into mainstream classes in a kind and supported way; I have found that the children who help me the most are the ones most gifted in being able to put their God given talents to use by guiding others rather than competing with them, or bullying them, or simply ignoring them…

But perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered even if Adam had been included in the mainstream, perhaps he couldn’t be saved from day one of kindergarten, or day one of a top notch early intervention program, or even day one of his very life, but how can we possibly know this? It’s the old “Nature versus Nurture” debate, and at the end of the day it doesn’t seem to be an either/or issue, as it is an interplay between the two that matters most; to me, this is the reason we need to have an open dialog to explore these issues on both sides of the equation together as a country, despite the difficulties we face in doing so.

What ended up important to Adam? How did he spend his time while he spiraled downward? Did it matter that he frequently played violent video games, as reported, or if he watched some of the blockbuster movies released just this fall…I myself am a bit of a movie buff, and in the two blockbuster flicks I caught this past holiday season I saw heads being literally ripped off, people being forced to bite their own fingers off, and a familiar hero taking sardonic delight in breaking young arms and legs like matchsticks. Does this violent video backdrop affect the young people we are raising, our current bumper crop of future citizens? Could it be the sense of vengeance and vigilantism that these games and movies provoke in people that causes some vulnerable minds to turn to the dark side? Perhaps not in the vast majority of cases, where young people are also surrounded by love and peaceful relationships with others to counterbalance this visual orgy of violence, but perhaps yes for a vulnerable child with a communication challenge who is surrounded by violent images, dire predictions and firearms year after isolated year.

Certainly there was a fracture in Adam’s immediate family: according to reports there had been limited contact between Adam and his father and older brother over the course of the last two years, shrinking Adam’s world significantly smaller as he matured to manhood. Firearms, cyber and real, seemed the main focus on Adam’s life, and if the reports are true that he had Asperger’s, it should be noted that I also heard a report that he was incapable of feeling any physical or emotional pain. I angrily snapped off the TV at that one before I could be hypnotized by the mind numbing stupidity of this assertion. Who dares to state with confidence that this young man was incapable of feeling pain? All this assertion proved was that this was a young man completely removed from empathy or services that society might have offered to help him fit into a society that was not prepared to make it easy for him to do so.

A child’s environment can take a social and emotional toll on a vulnerable young boy, and although the details of his childhood are still fuzzy, it is clear Adam grew up to be a troubled young man with seemingly no career path, no friends, and as far as I’ve heard, no contact with the outside world except for the occasional interaction of a rifle and a target at the gun range. I have been reading as much reported history on Adam as I could in an effort to understand the incomprehensible, and I can find little else that Adam had been doing with his time save for spending it on his computer, which he smashed to pieces before traveling in his mother’s car to Sandy Hook Elementary School to brutally end twenty six beautiful lives.

A childhood spent surrounded by violent video games, firearms and target practice undiluted by other influences sets us all up for danger, especially if it is a child with a vulnerable mind to begin with; our children certainly absorb what we surround them with, and I believe this is especially true for our children with special challenges. They are also uniquely capable of reaching extraordinary and pure heights of artistic creativity and achieving a deep connection with the world that surrounds them, unfiltered by the pitfalls of pop culture and unswayed by the siren song that seduces most of us to crash into the rocky shore of conformity.

Today my son Danny is a handsome young man, with incredible integrity and a keen sense of humor; he is a gentle a person as you will find in this world, and very gifted in several ways. He is also sometimes blunt to a fault and is dysfluent in speech (he describes this experience as his words getting bottle necked on their way out). He has a small but very warm circle of friends and family, and is already receiving awards from the powers that be in Hollywood for pictures he has edited, receiving recognition for the sensitivity and intelligence he brings to his chosen craft.

To those who walked the journey of Danny’s childhood with him, all this comes as no surprise, for Danny carried chunky videotapes around with him while other toddlers dangled blankets. Danny might have had trouble making eye contact or waiting patiently, but he read every word I wrote with chalk for his older sister Jennie that fall when he turned two and was diagnosed with his own label; this was my Annie Sullivan moment, and I wrote words for him with pink chalk for hours, at first writing simple words such as “dog” to symbolic words such as “eight” to the important ones like “Mommy,” and when his tone indicated he knew what Mommy meant, that he knew who Mommy was, this was the moment my life as his mentor to the typically developing universe truly began, and every day I’ve been lucky enough to share with him since then, over two full decades of time, I have lived up to the responsibility of this role.

I did not let my precious and precocious son read the phone book but surrounded him with books, videotapes, educational toys and typically developing children. I didn’t let him watch commercials, much less violence, but I did let him go to town on Sesame Street. I took daily walks with him, even though this exposed me to neighbors’ prying eyes, especially when Danny would scream at the top of his lungs and force me to carry him home like a writhing sack of potatoes when I ended the walk (this went on for six months, until he understood that Mommy meant what she said when she said “We need to go home now.” He wasn’t even putting two spoken words together as yet, so he couldn’t understand something as socially complicated as the fact that a school bus carrying his sister Jennie home was about to arrive.)

Six months later Danny would look up at me on a hike and say, “Uh oh, it looks like rain. I think we better turn back now.” My mouth dropped open at that one as he hadn’t yet put two words together, and only someone as acquainted with Bambi as I was would know where he picked up this sentence, lifting it from his precious Disney tape whole cloth, using it appropriately because the sky had indeed been darkening; I had not noticed because I had been chattering away to him like the squirrels that darted this way and that across our path.

Perhaps you think me heroic for all these efforts, but please know that it started with the motivation of pure unadulterated fear; it has only been the gradual contribution of time to a slow enlightenment and the deepening of my love for Danny that allows me to spend time with him because I genuinely want to, not because I have to in order to “early intervene”. Spending time with Danny now means going to a ballet in New York City, a wine tasting in California winery, or a movie set in Toronto, Canada. Danny knows how to live and he graciously takes me for the ride: in the space of just one lifetime we have not only hopscotched the country and zipped between cultures, but we have also traveled together to understand what life means if it’s not about money, power or status.

We talk about this kind of thing twice a day by phone as we now live on separate coasts, and my role occasionally returns to being a translator of the social universe for a man still learning a language that used to be foreign. It is frustrating to me that the success of any particular day Danny has is more dependent on the people he spends this day with, for intolerant and dismissive people can easily block his way by leaving him out or simply making him feel alone by virtue of their superior social skills.

It very much matters how we think of children with autism, because they are vulnerable to our prejudice and ignorance about them. Like rare orchids, they are delicate as well as beautiful. Like everything else under the sun it is up to us how we value what we find on this planet. Just a generation before Danny was born they would routinely institutionalize children with autism, in my day the crime was segregation, and today’s child with autism is bullied and ignored rather than given the appropriate education and respect they deserve.

Assistance dogs are an effective way to break open the social atmosphere wherever they go with their children, and this is a somewhat hidden benefit of an assistance dog partnership with a child as it is not widely understood how cloistering our tight fitting cultural skin can be to someone who is not mainstream. Everyone relaxes in the presence of an assistance dog, and in this way the dog’s function can include soothing John Q. Public’s fear of relating to people with developmental differences in order to allow them to relate to someone who really needs them to be included in the fabric of the community in which he lives. I like to think about this, as it shifts the onus from the child as the one who has to change to be included, to those in the child’s environment wherever he or she may roam who need to do the growing and changing. It very much matters how a child with autism’s energy is received, the feedback he or she is given, and the social atmosphere in any room they step into…when he enters with a well-bred and well-socialized assistance dog, the child’s reception is bound to be warmer in tone, with richer verbal prompts for pragmatic language cues.

A decade of interactions like this is bound to make a difference in a child with a communication challenge’s life, and even if the science is still trickling in, the studies are in agreement of the power of animal assisted therapy for a child which a social or emotional challenge. It remains to be proven as to exactly why this is a powerful concept, and how we can best harness this power; even if no one company can profit from this knowledge, still, as a society we should cares for the most vulnerable among us.

Early intervention, low cost therapy, evidenced based teaching techniques and mainstreamed appropriate and supported education for all children with autism is the way to go…not only for these children and their families, but for all of us, for we are all connected in increasingly obvious ways.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I heard during my research for writing this article was a rumor that Nancy may have told Adam that she believed the world was to end on the very day I began writing these words to you: Friday, December 21st, the day a misread of the Mayan calendar caused many to predict this day would bring a violent end for all of us.

If this is true, I can only imagine what a young man with limited social knowledge and communicative skills is to think about the world a week from a day he may have been sure would be the end of time. Out of touch with a society who may have challenged this belief, Adam’s world consisted instead of thousands of dollars of violent video games, multiple firearms, and a computer that he took pains to destroy before he drove his mother’s car to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

When you have lived over half a century like I have you easily see that these doomsday prophesies are cyclical (I stopped buying into them after Y2K), but according to reports Nancy reportedly did believe in this particular doomsday prophesy, and supposedly even communicated these beliefs to her troubled son, who as far as I can tell was completely isolated from the world save for his mother, his computer, and his television set. Should I blame her Nancy for this? Should I blame society, or a school, that failed to integrate Adam?

Or should I reserve all the blame for Adam himself, heaping it onto frighteningly thin shoulders already hunched just barely removed from his teenage years?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I’ve never been more certain of how much I love all my children, especially the ones I want to honor, the children of Sandy Hook Elementary school, both the victims as well as the survivors…

And I know that I will also remember the troubled boy with a familiar label and startlingly tortured eyes, but I will recall him as a young boy who didn’t get the help he needed. We don’t know what transpired between Adam and his mother during their time on earth together, or in the last few months they shared while he spiraled downward, but we can know that whatever the questions that will be raised and answered in our nation’s coming dialog, the answer will most certainly have something to do with the awesome and healing power of love…

A North Star dog named Justice finally made her way down to reach the surviving children in Newtown, handled by a North Star volunteer with far less history in the Naugatuck Valley.

Here is a picture of North Star’s Justice doing what little she can to offer her simple comfort.

North Star's Justice at NewtownNorth Star's Justice at Newtown

Kumari’s daughter Nahly is now in training with me and my son Christopher, preparing to offer what therapeutic comfort she can to children we serve doing North Star’s work. Socializing her is literally child’s play, but the most extraordinary things about Nahly and her siblings are their love of children; this quality is at the heart of every North Star dog.

I finally stepped up to offer Nahly’s services as well as North Star placements to the children of Newtown through a channel that opened up to me, and I will take Nahly down if our services are ever requested to comfort the children via animal assisted therapy, but I confess that on the day I drive down I will have shaking hands upon my steering wheel. I know that this day the North Star pup at my side will be just a glimmer of the reflected innocence and beauty of the children they serve. My role is becoming an increasingly minor one as I come to understand that the magic of animal assisted therapy is not a heavy handed, top down concept but one with delicate grass roots…not interfering is every bit as important as contributing carefully when needed…

I’ll write more about Nahly’s siblings in my next column: they are all slowly being shaped to become quality therapeutic tools for the children they will come to serve. Their roles in their children’s lives and the benefits accrued from the use as therapeutic tools will ultimately be created collectively by the child’s therapist, teachers, parents, neighbors and friends. The pup is alternately used as a bridge to connect the child and others to similar emotional states, a conversation piece to structure pragmatic language, and a touchstone to security to allow the child to best focus on the interaction before him.

In private, the pup will help the child most emotionally; children with autism need this as their lives are apt to be emotionally difficult due to the social challenges they face, but children suffering from trauma or a significant loss need this golden touchstone just as much or more. Sharing time together with a talented assistance puppy is quite healing when the pup is draping him or herself over a receptive child and maintaining eye contact throughout. Please note that this is not a pup who is wriggling to get away or biting the hand that feeds him, as we made the decision to start with the best in terms of behavior as well as soundness of the North Star pup. The most common consequence of using a rescue or haphazardly bred or socialized dog to attach with a child with a social/emotional challenge is when canine health, native temperament or genetic structural concerns derail the placement; of all these potential pitfalls for a successful assistance dog partnership, the most painful is when this fault lies with the canine temperament.

Temperament, canine or human, is clearly the result of an interplay of nature and nurture; to think it is either/or is to fail to understand a concept that I believe we need to be aware of in order to keep our children, as well as our North Star placements, safe from harm.

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