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New Directions in Canine Assisted Therapy for Children who Face Social, Emotional and Educational Challenges

''North Star Luka and Isabel''''North Star Luka and Isabel''

Every assistance or therapy dog placement we create at North Star is a carefully developed relationship between a child and a specifically bred and socialized North Star pup. Knowledge of the temperament of a pup slated to work with a child, as well as an awareness of the needs of the child, will dovetail to inform the development of an optimal “temperamental fit” between the child we serve and the pup we select; paying attention to the nature of their partnership will help us to best support the dynamic process of their unfolding relationship.

My next set of columns written for Purdue’s groundbreaking site on the human animal bond ( will demonstrate the different forms our service dog placements with children who face social, emotional or educational challenges are taking at North Star Foundation as the years pass, as education is an important part of our mission.

I will be profiling ten different North Star placements we have in progress, and I hope to leave columns behind as if they were breadcrumbs on our journey for others to take this path farther into the future. I don’t believe I am being overly optimistic here, as I think Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is an emerging field that holds much promise for children with autism, as well as other children with varied social, emotional and/or educational challenges such as grief, anxiety, abuse, neglect, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or serious illness.

When approached by a parent of a child who faces a social, emotional or educational challenge, I ask the parents just three questions:

1) Does your child like dogs? (This to see if their child is on board with our plans for a canine companion, or even apt to welcome such a partnership)

2) What are the envisioned benefits for the child? (And here we can often find unrealistic or dangerous notions, along the lines of fantasies the North Star dog will be like Peter Pan’s Nana, who literally helps kids to fly right), and

3) Is someone home at least part time during the day or have the ability to have the dog accompany them to work/school? (As our dogs can’t be left alone all day but must be furthering their daily training and socialization to serve their role in a child’s life for years to come.)

Finally, I ask the family if they have a fenced in yard. This last question was added after a painful loss of a North Star dog who was hit by a car without a fence to contain him when he went to follow his boy a few years back. Sometimes all you can do with a tragedy is to learn a lesson and move painfully on, keeping it close to heart, and so we now require a secure fenced in area for the child and pup to relate (and have partnered with United Way to build such enclosures for several of our North Star families to safely enjoy).

It is joyful to be in the presence of a therapy or assistance dog with children, especially those who face a challenge and have been struggling socially and emotionally; it’s not just the child who is affected as the dynamic of any room the dog is in will be impacted, nearly always evoking positive emotions such as happiness with a simultaneous dropping away of negative emotions such as anxiety, defensiveness and despair. There is also a new readiness to communicate openly about thoughts usually kept guarded in our attempts to conform to society’s expectations of what we express to each other on any given day.

When I travel with a North Star dog strangers stop me frequently, and I have found that if I make eye contact and smile they will readily tell me what is on their mind as they take a breather from their day. It always extraordinary how deeply people will relate to me when in the presence of a lovely dog that melts into their arms; it relaxes them, naturally, but I believe that the therapeutic aspect of what happens next is dependent on who is on the other end of the leash. Attention needs to be paid now to how therapy dogs and assistance dogs can be specifically employed in the course of their working life to help reduce the effects of stress, anxiety and isolation on the people they serve.

In terms of creating a role for an assistance dog on the home front, it needs to be noted that a therapeutic environment is not therapeutic if you threaten your child within it, as one North Star family suggested doing several years ago. Their thought was that the North Star dog, Beau, should be removed to his crate to punish their child for the boy’s unexpected physical lashing out at the dog. Beau remained placid during these attacks, but I wanted him removed from the home, post haste, and the child go back to working with a therapy dog in school he had previously worked with successfully, one closely supervised hour at a time for a few months before we reintroduced the dog, but the family and their trainer were both adamant about the above plan, and so I had to end the placement. The family didn’t understand this, but to use a dog in a way that is inappropriate is to do much more harm than good. Here emotions threaten to rule a day where logic should prevail, and even if no danger of a bite would have ever been realized, we would be setting this poor dog up to hate the child he’s with, suddenly hit by him seemingly out the blue and then being crated for hours while the child, and perhaps parent, screams with frustration; the atmosphere would be brittle tense in the home for the sensitive dog, who has no canine way to help anyone emotionally due to the black wire bars of the crate that force him to stay alone and still until the fight is long over, perhaps even until the morning’s light.

I include this story here to show how a North Star dog can be used for the dark side, as a tool for gaining control and submission rather than a guide to reach levels of respect and harmony through communication and social interactions. How parents and professionals decide to use an assistance or therapy dog with a child as a tool to fashion their early intervention program will determine how effective, as well as how fun, it will be. Both of these are important to achieve, for even if the elusive happiness factor is hard to pin down scientifically, I still regard it as a goal of all North Star placements; most children’s happiness when around a specially bred, trained and socialized North Star pup is pretty hard to miss.

Dogs are developing into emotionally sophisticated companions for us, perhaps by virtue of our dovetailing evolutionary paths; recent research is finding a “functional homology” in existence between dog and their owners, discovered by the recent use of MRI’s. Dr. Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of HOW DOGS LOVE US: A Neuroscientist and his Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, found that dogs’ brain processes are activated in similar ways as ours when experiencing positive emotions, which may be an indicator of the similarities of human and canine emotions.

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot help but notice the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of an important brain region called the caudate nucleus. In both humans as well as canines the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex and is rich in dopamine receptors. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, and although we can’t infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity, caudate activation is a tantalizing clue to the similarities of our emotional responses as reflected in brain activity.

“Many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions,” Berns explained. “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.”

In dogs, that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food, the smells of familiar humans and the return of an owner who had briefly stepped out of view. Although this isn’t technically proof that that dogs love us, this similarity in brain function is an exciting discovery for the field of therapy and assistance dogs, especially those for social and emotional challenges such as autism presents.

An article, “Dogs are people too” , written by Dr. Berns for the New York Times Sunday review elaborates on his findings.

Animal Assisted Therapy for children is a field ripe for more scientific study. This field’s future belongs to those who can grasp the need to keep things as simple and intuitive as children and dogs themselves.

Last spring we were blessed with a new litter of puppies out of North Star Molly and her sire, Star Crowned Crule of Ocotilla. This litter was nearly two decades in the making to create a high level of soundness, both physically as well as temperamentally. Our current supply of well-bred service dog candidates for children has run alarmingly low of late, as an increasing amount of people are interested in the service of autism assistance dogs for children, but cutting corners on quality rather than waiting for the right pup to partner with a vulnerable child to meet demand immediately is a grave mistake. Some fields just can’t accept any degree of collateral damage, and this is one of them. It’s all about the numbers here; one bite delivered to a child by an assistance or therapy dog is one way too many. Funding work for quality breeding and early socialization of pups slated to work with a child is money very well spent.

Mother Nature is capricious, and sometimes quite cruel, and despite this stellar breeding we lost one of the puppies at the tender age of four weeks, North Star Missy. Here is a link to a video where you can listen to the message I prepared for the children who were following the puppies’ progress.

Children cannot and should not be ignored when death touches their lives in any corner of their universe. Communicating to our children about the state of grief can be as simple as sharing our feelings with them rather than skirting around them, but this should be guided by what our children can emotionally understand and incorporate to avoid anxiety from developing. Even a mild degree of social/emotional deficit can create roiling emotional water for the child, as well as the child’s entire family, especially during times of transition.

When children are very young, or face a language or communication barrier, other ways can and should be found to allow children to carve out their own personal emotional landscape in a healthy manner for them, to create a place where they can explore the concepts of love and birth as well as death and pain; a place where they can return to update their knowledge of the events in their own lives. This can help to prevent anxiety that can harm children who are not well prepared for the more difficult parts of life they are apt to hit when the illusion of parental over protection fades. To me, it feels more art than science to communicate with any creature without verbal language, and the act of doing so offers the benefits of any creative state of mind. It’s also fun to be creative in our approach to not just early intervention, but Saturday morning.

Molly’s four surviving pups, Regis, Loki, Mia and Angel, are now five months old, and thriving in our program. Three of Molly’s puppies, Regis, Loki and Mia, are now in training homes, being prepared to work with their three children who are all in different places on the autism spectrum; we will be following up on their progress in the columns to come. The pups’ sister, North Star Angel, will now join Kumari pups, North Star Nahly and Nola, as well as North Star Zumi (an 18 month old King Charles Spaniel) to serve as therapy dogs as well as breeding dogs to continue our North Star lines, which have been carefully cultivated for soundness as well as canine temperament conducive to working with children who face challenges.

Angel is not the first North Star Angel we have known: our first Angel was a lovely dog now eight years old who was partnered as a young pup with two children who had just lost their mother, Sharon. I have a video clip of Angel meeting her children on our second DVD “Northern Lights.” It’s a bleached out and fuzzy image in this era of HD, but I very clearly remember this day as I was so sad within it, as was the children’s father, Mike. I remember the lines etched into Mike’s face that day as we stood, along with his older son, watching Courtney with her new puppy. We were all thinking of the woman not there rather than the puppy that ran around our deep green lawn, and only Courtney, at four years old full of blonde ringlets and faith in life, could freely share the puppy’s innocent happiness; even Justin, a changeling at age twelve, could not seem to escape the weight of his mother’s recent death even for a blessed moment on a lovely summer day.

To support children where they are at developmentally within the grieving process is to offer a chance for the entire family to heal; time needs to pass to help absorb the huge loss, but here it may well be the canary who will eventually lead the coal miners out of that very dark place by virtue of their young hearts and strong wings. Healthy children have a capacity to remain open to life, and our attempts to allow them to do this can help us to find our own way out of the anger and despair that grief can use to torture adults; we may have it all over babies regarding the intellectual and experiential side of life, but these tiny ones have us beat in terms of their purity of observation, their vision unmarred by intellectual gymnastics of complex emotions, and the ravages of guilt and other insults of negative emotions that often emanate from complicated adult social agendas.

Mike later invited my husband and me to a dinner he and the kids prepared the first Mother’s Day after Sharon’s death, an invitation we were both very moved to receive. While there, Mike showed us the warm places he had crafted for Angel in his home to keep her safe and comfortable, places he had drawn up blueprints for and created by hand; I could easily see then that Angel would be among the most well cared for pups I’ve ever placed, and that the tenderness of Angel’s care would reflect the tenderness of love for a woman they had lost.

North Star dogs don’t cure autism, and nor do they wipe out grief; to know what they can’t do is to understand what they can: to provide companionship and love, with all the physical and social benefits this offers the children we serve.

Here is a picture of Courtney and Justin, all grown up; they took this picture expressly for me upon my request for this column, and it does move me that they chose to both touch their Angel as the shot was snapped, for she was meant to be such a touchstone for comfort for them.

''North Star Angel and her children''''North Star Angel and her children''

I know that North Star will surely outlive me, mere flesh and bone that I am; but the passion and support behind North Star’s work is something more intangible, and definitely outside my personal borders: wherever I travel, I find like minded people furthering this idea of Animal Assisted Therapy for children who face social, emotional or educational challenges, trying to help children with a cutting edge concept with ancient roots.

  1. Animal-assisted therapies
  2. animal companionship
  3. Autism
  4. Counseling
  5. Literature
  6. Service animals

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