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Raising Our North Stars: Kumari's Puppies from Six to Eight Months

North Star's Rex and AmyNorth Star's Rex and Amy

Kumari’s litter is now eight months old, with four of these well bred and carefully raised golden retriever pups in the midst of being shaped to work with children on the autism spectrum.

The little girl in this picture is Amy, and she has been living with Kumari’s son, Rex, in the state of Washington for several months now. Rex is working effectively with Amy already, although they have been relating in environments which we may not normally associate with therapeutic or educational work. This space we see Amy and Rex relating in is just her bedroom, after all, and not as formal or familiar to learning as a classroom setting, but when working with assistance dogs and children who face social/emotional challenges we need to be flexible about what we perceive as appropriate educational environments. The transitions in a young child’s life that happen between dinner and bedtime are quite sensitive, and meltdowns as well as seizures can frequently occur during these times; having a child work with an assistance dog on the home front can be like having a physical touchstone to safety by way of potential alerting behavior and all that this offers, as well as a responsive security blanket.

We have chosen to create an early and communicative bond between Amy and her North Star dog in the hopes of developing this seizure alert. Our hope is that Rex will someday come to alert us in advance of Amy’s impending seizures, but it is important to note that we can’t train Rex to do this, we can only set the stage for this successful alert by creating strong and pleasant associations for Rex to Amy’s seizure states, such as the hot dog pieces that Amy’s mom gives him when he maintains a solid and steady down stay next to Amy while she is in the process of seizing and recovering. Rex is being socialized to pay attention to Amy during these times, and trained to hold a down stay, fully prepared to take any commands Amy’s mother gives him next; this leads us seamlessly into the work of creating a seizure response, which can be done even without the accompanying alert. We will need Rex to be fully on board with his role in these events, not because he fears what happens if he doesn’t, but because he has learned to serve his child according to how we shape his behavior by way of our communication with him to do so.

One important genetic trait that serves as a precurser to this accomplishment is a quality known as “bid ability”. This trait, along with a submissive and tolerant canine nature, will allow the pup to take a child on the autism spectrum as leader. We need our North Star dogs to have these genetic temperamental features in evidence when we select them to work with a child, as both native talent in reading social cues along with an enthusiastic embracing of the role of servitude to a child are important qualities for an autism assistance dog to possess as well as important for us to recognize and encourage. Cut and dried training alone can’t create these genetics influenced qualities, and it is my strong opinion that simple obedience is highly overrated in the service dog field, especially within the field of autism assistance dogs for children.

In addition to seizure alerting, dogs can also alert us to low blood sugar states, sudden blood pressure drops, early stages of cancer, and such emotional states as strong anxiety and grief. A different form of alerting than we are used to thinking about may be behind our dogs’ focused attention on their children or family members who are very anxious or unhappy; these emotional states are communicated to both other humans as well as canines, but we differ in how we recognize and respond to them. Dogs obviously relate to people more physically and less verbally/intellectually than how we relate to each other, and in general they are also more driven to seeking calm states of mind within themselves as well as in us, especially those of us lucky enough to be considered a member of their “pack”. We as parents of children with special needs also encourage our children’s calm states of mind, naturally, as well as our own, but we are more complicated than canines and also want our children to finish their homework, sit up straight and scarf down their vegetables, none of which is typically on a dog’s radar; we may also prize a clean home, mowed lawn and hefty bank account. A properly socialized and train autism assistance dog can act as a parent’s best helper, and a good chunk of the reason why is that unlike us, this dog won’t take his eye off the true prize: a calm and happy child and parent, no matter what challenges the day may hold.

There are many signs a child is growing anxious, an emotional state that precedes many a roiling tantrum, and a talented and well socialized dog can alert us to these upset states before they arrive in full force. Many dogs will also try to comfort and distract an upset child due to his or her commitment to calming those around him. Norweigan dog trainer, Turid Rugaas, who hails from the fjords of Norway, wrote a slim book about the calming signals dogs tend to send each other as well as us entitled __On Talking Terms With Dogs: __Calming Signals (Dogwise Publishing; 2nd edition, December 14, 2005). Some dogs are genetically better at delivering and receiving these calming skills than others much the way some children are born with better social skills, and just as any journey is better with the wind at our back, so it’s better to select a pup slated to work with a child that has a demonstrated good working knowledge of these calming signals to help us to communicate better with our working canine partners. These calming signals can also help the dog communicate with his or her child, who can be taught to communicate right back using these valuable insights. A talented parent or therapist can use all this knowledge to use assistance dogs as therapeutic tools to good result, and the deeper the bond the child as well as parent has with this dog, the more powerful the result.

North Star's JoJo and his boyNorth Star's JoJo and his boy

Canine alerting to and communicating about people’s physical and emotional states is a fascinating and not yet fully understood concept. Better understanding of this phenomenon may well help to change our current perception of how we define a service animal in terms of how public access is awarded. Here is a link to a blog my friend, John Ensminger, wrote, which introduces some interesting thoughts about how assistance dogs slated to work with people who face social and/or emotional challenges might be awarded public access based on the dog’s specific alerting ability to the person he or she serves: www.doglawreporter.blogspot.com

It should be noted that it is a myth that a dog itself earns public access; it is actually the team of dog/child/handler that we create at North Star that earns this valued status. A valid way to determine who is awarded public access for the children and adults who use assistance dogs to help with social and emotional challenges in our shared society may be to award this status to teams that first working safely and effectively in the private realm by demonstrated alerting behavior and focused attention paid to the child or adult in question, but this would not take the place of the need for the team to pass standards that any working team needs to pass to be awarded public access. Here is a link to an informative page from Assistance Dogs International, who have been helping to set standards for public access since 1987 and whose guidelines we follow here at North Star for our working teams in public: http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/standards/assistance-dogs/

Kumari son, JoJo, is currently working with two siblings on the spectrum, a brother and sister, who live in Oregon; this is a picture of JoJo with his young boy, who has grown increasingly gentle with the consistent work of his mom and JoJo’s board/trainer, Cheryl. This level of personal attention to both the dog’s training as well as the child’s teaching allows us to meet in the middle for safety as well as effectiveness of the progress toward reaching a child’s social, emotional and educational goals. This work certainly can and should be measured when possible, as this field is still emerging and is certainly full of happy surprises; this is a place where mystery still dwells and the potential to change the course of a life exists in a way that is safe, effective and fun, for you can’t teach anything much to a child or pup if it’s not in the context of play. The supervision of this adorable team of child and pup takes time and energy, but this is work that can dovetail with the work of early intervention, with the dog serving as a tool in the hands of parents, teachers and therapists.

Take a moment to read JoJo’s relaxed body language in this video of his learning to walk with his boy in a three way system of leashing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQL7-2D3jrs

This is a dog that is happy to be working! Despite this clear joy he is radiating, it is best to remember that it takes energy for young dogs to relate to young children, as they need to consistently remember that the children are not puppies, and the mouthiness their furry siblings love is not highly prized by their short two legged friends, nor by the taller two legged adults in the room!

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

This placement has carved out a wonderful socialization and training program for JoJo, which will continue when he arrives to live with his children full time next month. Great respect was paid to everyone’s developmental levels so as to avoid creating frustration, as the little boy that JoJo is working with needed this extra teaching and training time to get him up the learning curve of communicating with his new pup respectfully and appropriately before they could live together.

The third Kumari pup, Nardi, moved in full time with his boy, Jack, just this past month, and already these two are working well together. According to Jack’s parents, Nardi has been instrumental in helping Jack to sleep independently, which is the first time he’s been able to accomplish this feat. This reflects Jack’s ability to transfer his sense of security from his parents to his North Star dog, much the way a typically developing child transfers the sense of security he derives from his parents onto a blanket or small toy as an aid in independence. (My own son Danny used both his chunky black video tapes as his touchstones to security before his assistance dog, Madison, arrived to provide a more appropriate tool to this purpose!)

In this picture you see Jack and Nardi sharing a nap in the car on the way to their recent shore vacation; this level of relaxation with each other is a benefit of the public access feature of autism assistance dog placements with children, as having Nardi welcome on this vacation is understandably important to this family. The hook to hang public access upon would be the demonstrated success in achieving not just independent sleep at night for Jack, but also to help create a calm relaxed mood for him during North Star's Nardi and JackNorth Star's Nardi and Jack daylight hours, as well as help with those tricky transitions that never take a vacation.

A good time was had by all; here they are, paddle boating together…

And last but not least we have Ben, the fourth Kumari pup, continuing on his path of good development. He is now being raised in a second puppy raising home in the Philadelphia area, and is receiving the most intensive training to date as compared to his brothers, as he is going the farthest away from us, to England to work with a teenage boy on the spectrum named Oliver.

It is no more difficult for us to raise Ben without weekly visits with his boy, except for the challenge of creating the specific socialization piece, but we can get around this need for specific socialization by focusing on Ben’s socialization with teenagers and children with autism in general. Above we see Ben at a parade where he met many young people as well as a plethora of sights and sounds; Ben’s new handler will step up regular visits with a wide variety of children, but most especially teenage boys and/or children with autism, to give Ben more experience relating to his own teenage boy with autism when he finally joins him late this year. This is an example of beginning with the end in mind, and it is a simple tenet we try to keep in mind in creating our assistance dog placements with the children we serve.

Our international placements have later timetables for placement due to geography and the lengthy paper trail you need to walk when bringing an assistance dog into a different country, but with careful socialization these placement can still be successful when the dog and child are introduced early in the dog’s second year of life. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on this placement, as well as our others, in the months to come!

North Star's Ben and puppy raisersNorth Star's Ben and puppy raisers
  1. Animal-assisted therapies
  2. Autism
  3. Service animals

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