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Raising Our North Stars: Kumari's Puppies at Eight to Ten Months Old

'North Star Ben and Friends''North Star Ben and Friends'

North Star Kumari’s puppies are now ten months old and well into their adolescence, a time when pups seek to learn their boundaries; as a result, we will find ourselves setting more limits for them, hopefully with consistent and fairly predictable consequences when they are broken. Limit setting becomes an increasingly important task for our families and puppy raisers to accomplish during this developmental stage, as well as for our half-grown assistance pups in training to accept. Consistent and well-timed responses to these assistance dogs in training’s behavior will work wonders in convincing them to continue to respect us with behavior according to our wishes, not their hormones, even when their burgeoning sense of confidence seduces them to bolt past you through the doorway to reach the great beyond.

Nearly all the families of the children receiving one of North Star Kumari’s pups are on the ground floor of training now, with consistent help delivered by positive local trainers. North Star’s Ben is the only pup who is still living in his puppy raising home in New Jersey, continuing his training program to prepare him to work with his boy, Oliver, who has autism and lives an ocean away in England. We are keeping Ben very well socialized with children at a local school and we are continuing to expose him to many public access situations to prepare for his upcoming transcontinental transition.

Establishing limits extends both ways in terms of respect and sometimes the limit needs to be set for the child. This month North Star JoJo hit some trouble when he was reported to be jumping up and mouthing his child more, behaviors well on the wane when he initially came to live with his children a month prior. JoJo’s behavior was seen as disrespectful and disruptive to the children as well as their mother, and a review was started to examine the factors at work and come up with a training plan that would move us forward successfully.

It was discovered that the younger boy of the two children served, an adorable 4 year old with a moppet of brown curls and warm brown eyes, had begun to take toys away from JoJo when his mom’s back was turned, causing games of tug of war with this cherished toy and reversing our work of developing JoJo’s soft mouth. We then had to work together here to establish limits with the child as well as the pup, and if we failed to do so this placement would surely have come off the rails, even though it has less to do with cut and dried dog training than with the interactive dynamic of the placement.

Sometimes children need to be reminded to rise consistently to the challenge of meeting their dog’s physical needs, which sometimes occur at the most inopportune of times. This occasional bad timing can be seen as a negative (ie, the day was going smoothly until this event threw a monkey wrench into the machinery), but this moment can also be seen as an opportunity to teach the child how to cope with the many inopportune moments that will be sprinkled into the course of any given day of adult life. Coming up with strategies for dealing with the stress of the disruption to the day as well as practical solutions to the specific problem at hand is key to work on together with the child via this experience with caring for his North Star dog. Developing coping skills often brings a welcome measure of peace to children which had eluded them when they were too painfully vulnerable to the buffeting winds of fate.

'North Star Nardi and Jack''North Star Nardi and Jack'

North Star’s Nardi continues on his journey with his boy, Jack. Here you can see them hanging out on a summer’s day, and their body language says it all: these two are completely bonded and very relaxed and happy together. Everyone in this team, including North Star Nardi himself, worked hard to create this dynamic duo, although they never forgot to include the fun in teaching the fundamentals. Nardi is now going everywhere with his boy, and is comfortable on both land as well as sea.

North Star Rex continues to work with his girl, Ella. This placement has been a particularly smooth one to create, in part due to Ella’s Mom’s relaxed attitude. Raising a pup, even an assistance pup in training, just isn’t rocket science; at its heart this is intuitive work that dovetails with positive parenting. It’s been my experience that adults involved with a North Star placement sometimes make this work unnecessarily complicated and serious minded, usually due to misplaced perfectionism or an idealized notion of what an assistance dog can do for a child. It’s my opinion that of all the potential benefits to a child with a social/emotional challenge such as autism, the most important one is to make the child happier and more relaxed, and this is especially important in this age of high anxiety. This benefit is often the last to be touted on talk shows, but I believe it is the entire cake of the placement, with everything else just frosting. Although we’ll spend most of our time frosting the cake of our placements, I never lose touch with the fact that at heart this is a simple field because pups and kids are simple creatures.

Not all our “people rules” make sense to dogs, and it will help us to consider this when forming training plans for the teenage dog. Understanding canine behavior and communication gives us an edge in avoiding potential pitfalls of living with an adolescent dog; knowing how a dog thinks allows us to use our intellectual edge to set up the environment for success, which is a far better bet than forcing canine compliance for desired behaviors. I avoid “train with pain” mentalities with assistance dogs slated to work with children for pragmatic reasons in addition to my philosophical ones, as the physically punished dog will soon realize the small fry are not as strong as the adults in his or her life, and may well come to take advantage of this fact. North Star dogs continue to be socialized through this vulnerable changeling stage of adolescence to please people via their behavior because they genuinely want to and have been heavily rewarded for this mindset, not because they are simply avoiding painful consequences if they don’t. This sets us up for future success when a child is expected to serve as the North Star dog’s leader, as respect will need to flow in all directions for the environment to stay therapeutic for the child and assistance dog team.

Developing a really reliable recall with our assistance dogs in training is extremely important to do now, but as luck would have it this task is a very simple one. Our early work with the pups established intelligent and predictable communication, and nearly every time the North Star pup came when called, a high value treat has accompanied this event in order to properly communicate the importance of this behavior to them. (Not every time though; just ask the Las Vegas folk about the power of a variable reward system.) Simply continuing this work will keep this important progression going of developing a rock solid recall.

All interactions between North Star pups and their children should always be gentle and respectful, and most quality assistance dog organizations believe this to be true. On occasion in my role at North Star I run across video from other partnerships with different organizations between children and autism assistance dogs and I cringe at the abuse some of the dogs are taking when tethered to a screaming child who is trying to flee, or to the abuse of a child with a sensory challenge who is continually assaulted by a rude and undisciplined teenage dog tethered to them.

Ignoring the needs of any creature is dangerous, even when the intent is innocent by way of ignorance. This can be easier to do then you think with the dynamics of “group-think” at work. Many years ago I heard of a group of mothers that, on cue, would pick up their children with autism and collectively force them to be held, no matter how much they screamed and flailed. This is cruel in a misguided more than overtly mean way, but I still believe the children were very badly treated, as they were likely on sensory overload in the strange crowded house and this event triggered their “fight or flight” chemical (cortisol) when neither one was an option. To be suddenly picked up and held tightly against their will by a parent who is iron clad in conviction by virtue of the strength of Connecticut conformity that they will not be putting their child down no matter what the child’s response is abusive to my mind, but I’m equally convinced that the majority of people in the room were innocent of this abuse by way of intent, as they were simply absorbing the culture’s belief of the refrigerator mother theory of autism, and were trying to reach their child through what they perceived was the outer dysfunctional emotional skin; the “damage” somehow needed to be burnt off to get the attachment going, the eye contact finally established, the bonding to now be hopefully as powerful as the imprinting of a duckling on his mother. It’s a concept born of the lingering belief in the now well debunked refrigerator mother theory of autism (Bettleheim’s widely held theory in the 60’s about autism being caused by the psychological inability of the mother to establish a connection with their child.) I do understand the reasoning even if I disagree with it, after all, the lack of eye contact and withdrawal would support this theory in a past paradigm so painfully innocent of the power of genetics.

We know more now, thanks to evidenced based research. We know that there are biological and/or genetic roots to autism, and that it is inappropriate to try to “cure” a child on the spectrum, as autism is not a disease. Nor can you “defeat” autism, as this sets autism up to be the enemy when it’s actually a sensory and social/emotional challenge that needs to be respected and worked with; we know that children with autism respond well to ABA (applied behavioral analysis), early intervention, creative communication, special education, and tolerant environments. And we now know that assistance dogs can effectively decrease the cortisol levels of the children they live with, and to me this is real progress. Here is a link to learn more about this groundbreaking Canadian study.

For the child’s parents, these months of dancing with an adolescent dog can be quite tiring; in addition, the bloom is off the rose as far as pure puppy charm is concerned. The moment between infatuation and love with its eyes open is always perilous and, in fact, this is the moment I am most thinking about when I speak to a parent of a child seeking a North Star placement for their child. It can be frustrating to raise any teenage creature, and I know this well as my youngest child of four, Kelsey, just turned 20. In the space of a mere decade I managed to raise four children through the roiling waters of adolescence and raise over 100 dogs through their adolescence; the thing that got me through my worst days was to remember what my mother always told me when I was convinced this was all just too difficult a task for me to accomplish: this too shall pass…

My son with autism, Dan, just turned a quarter century old (time flies when you’re early intervening!), and this summer he graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with an MFA in filmmaking. Here is a video he created about the experience of our journey home together after his graduation:

Adolescence, whether in canine or human form, does indeed end, even though you may experience days it feels as if it will roil and churn forever; fortunately children and puppies grow into themselves and developing reason arrives not like the Calvary, but rather like the lines on my face: in a slow and steady progression. And then, if you’re lucky and do things mostly right, your adolescent creature will all too soon grow beyond you to take their place in the world.

This is when you learn that sometimes the only thing worse than living with an adolescent is having to learn to live without them.

My next column will come when Kumari’s pups are a full year old and ready to become assistance dogs no longer in training…

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