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New Directions in Canine Assisted Therapy for Children: Rethinking Puppy Raising

''North Star’s Mia and Savannah''''North Star’s Mia and Savannah''

I first met Savannah many years ago, when she came to my home to pick up her first North Star pup for the raising; her grandmother had called me that very morning to inform me that I had kept Savannah on my waiting list to raise a North Star golden for far too long. I felt terrible as it was true, and so my eyes searched North Star’s latest batch of golden pups tumbling over each other in the whelping box even while Laurel wasn’t finished scolding me; I understood her avenging angel spirit with her special granddaughter and was not offended by the upbraid. Attending to lists and keeping paperwork in order are not my specialty, but as I’d let Savannah fall through the cracks, her grandmother had rightly issued a clarion call.

The pups were four months old now and only one of them, a lively male named Beau, still needed a puppy raiser. I usually want the most docile of pups going to these first timers, the kind of pup a kind family like Savannah’s could raise in their sleep. This pup was apt to be more of a challenge, and I was actually on the border of not placing the pup at all for being too active, although he did settle down nicely with focused attention.

He bounded over to me when I called him, and I took this as a good sign. As if he knew I was continuing to think about him, he held my gaze and his bouncy energy quieted for a few nice moments. He had been starting to create a bit of havoc with his quieter sisters, who would become quarrelsome with him even as he wagged his tail like a golden flag and play bowed to them like a geisha girl, but now, with concentrated attention, he was calm.

Beau is available for the raising, I ventured, anxious to make peace with the woman on the line, but he is a bit rambunctious. I added this to be sure she understood what she was getting into as I reviewed our puppy raising policies with her. Laurel assured me her passel of kids, grandchildren and great grandchildren offered her enough of the rambunctious stuff to know her way around it, and she then won my heart by offering to drive out in the pouring rain to pick up the latest candidate for the raising within the hour of reviewing our electronic puppy raiser’s guide. A puppy is like a child, I told Laurel in shorthand, and she said she got that, and in fact already knew that.

Laurel then told me that she thought I should know that Savannah had a disability from birth that involved her face as well as her body, but also that Savannah was also a talented young high school sophomore with a gift in being able to communicate with both children as well as animals, despite or because of being hard of hearing. In her understated way, Laurel assured me that Savannah would do North Star proud.

I already knew that Savannah was smart and funny girl by the e-mails we’d exchanged, but I confess it did alarm me later that day when a wisp of a girl strode toward me with her arms confidently outstretched to receive twenty five pounds of wriggling golden puppy in the pouring rain. We stood, both of us soaked by the strength of the downpour, but I hesitated for only a moment before handing over the pup, who shivered and melted immediately into those matchstick arms; Laurel stayed behind the wheel while Savannah slid with the pup into the backseat. There was a moving veil of water on the window between us, but we exchanged nods to indicate job well done before they were on their way.

And so began a brilliant career as an autism assistance dog puppy raiser. Since that day Savannah has raised sixteen North Star autism assistance pups successfully, and over the years she has became something of a legend in the quiet corner of the nutmeg state of being the true puppy whisperer, able to charm the most recalcitrant pups (as well as recalcitrant children) into calm compliance with her small voice and commanding presence.

With Savannah, actions always speak louder than words.

There is a lot that goes into serving as a puppy raiser for a struggling nonprofit with a lack of staff and overstretched executive director (yours truly, and on rare but memorable occasions, quite apologetically). Savannah needed to learn to be the squeaky wheel on necessary occasion, and she was soon able to gently let me know when I wasn’t being fair to her own needs despite my commitment to be. I think this is a very important point to make, as I believe many an initially successful fledgling organization has gone down when the overstretched ED becomes removed from the constructive criticism and input of other key players in the organization. Being untouchable, even in terms of available information, is always a mistake, thin skin is not attractive, and misunderstanding which side the bread is buttered, or where the bread comes from, or what it takes to buy it, or market it, etc. can be quite exhausting; after a while you can go down if you’re not careful, overstretched and beaten down just as surely as this metaphor.

Savannah ended up helping me to create a vibrant puppy raising community at North Star in Connecticut with her way of leading by example. She brought her pups to high school, where several students expressed interest in raising pups for us as well. Puppy raisers may have their own unique needs to be factored into the equation just as the child being served, and to balance these needs along with those of the puppy being raised can be tricky. To then also add the community and their complicated needs to the mix as Savannah does so effortlessly allows this work to reach the height of effectiveness, as autism should be treated within a social context, as it’s not a “condition” to be treated indoors, out of the line of sight.

Savannah continues to find herself so beautifully within a culture that didn’t always make it easy for her to do so, and for this I am exceedingly proud; the fact that she chooses to put her unique talents toward helping the children we serve at North Star is truly humbling and inspiring to me. She recently completed raising her 16th North Star pup, Mia, and is soon to begin raising North Star puppy #17, a lovely labradoodle named Blue.

Savannah is also developing into a crackerjack photographer of the pups she raises. This is not a surprise to me, as I am getting used to uncovering hidden talents in this extraordinary young woman, who just turned 21 this month…

Happy Birthday, Savannah!

May the road always rise up to meet you, as well as the lucky pup by your side ~

''North Star’s Loki and Lauren''''North Star’s Loki and Lauren''

This poignant picture is of puppy raiser Lauren and Mia’s brother, North Star Loki, saying goodbye last December before upcoming finals and holidays kept them apart for a while. Lauren is a student at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, and she and her friends, Sam and Carly, have created “Dickinson Dog House,” a unique type of fraternity that is more into kibble than kegs. Last year they raised a lovely pup named North Star Dino for a boy with autism in Massachusetts named Christopher; you can see this placement profiled and prepared for their spot on Chronicle.

We drove the two pups, Regis and Loki, to Pennsylvania become the next North Star pups to be raised at Dickinson Dog House. Of the two golden brothers, Regis is the first to be living with his boy, AJ, in Connecticut as he was always a bit more mellow, temperamentally speaking, than his feisty brother; the boy Regis is serving is also older, and his family has less children, allowing us an earlier transition date. The young boy with autism that Loki is being trained to serve has an even younger typically developing sister who is frightened of dogs, so this is one placement we want to have a long and slow transition to achieve in as smooth a way as possible.

Here is a video clip of the day we arrived with Loki to his forever family in New Jersey; Loki was technically there to serve David, but his typically developing little sister, Ella, would soon become an integral part of this placement!

It should be noted that Ella’s fear of dogs was a factor we absorbed in developing our training protocols right from the start; although we weren’t perfect in matching behavior plan to actual experience here, we came close and corrected ourselves quickly, according to plan. There is always the short distance between perfection and reality to keep in mind in any planned therapeutic work with children (“mind the gap!”), but fortunately for us, children tend to be good communicators, even and sometimes especially those with autism. Finding the path to successful communication and keeping the child in social/emotionally appropriate environments during early intervention is good; combining this with a top notch home program is even better, and topping this off with an autism assistance dog that, when appropriate, can help with the process as a therapeutic tool.

It’s easy to feel lost in this emerging field, as we ourselves are part of the process. With social/emotional placements, it’s not hard to see how and even why others relate socially and emotionally to a therapy or autism assistance dog. Earning your sea legs in a flow of a different type of communication can be confusing and dizzying; at times you just have to go on faith and experience in deciding how best to move forward rather than forming a too solid opinion based on what happened to somebody once in a similar circumstance, or in a magazine article, or you heard about in a conversation with someone close to you. Labels can bring painful blisters of misunderstandings on the skin of all your relationships. There just isn’t any way to not be dramatic to express this thought, for the pain can be intense when accepting a child’s difference via a label such as autism. Keep in mind there is as yet no blood test, so someone quite educated worked hard to evaluate your child; the label that comes is more than a bitter pill to swallow, it is a toxic one, and in moving forward there is but one true enemy: ignorance.

This is why education is an important part of our mission at North Star, and so we salute Lauren and all the kind young folks at Dickinson College in this puppy raising column. I’ve long known that the best North Star puppy raisers have a high degree of emotional intelligence and a fair amount of Zen at their core; the best handlers of North Star dogs are not terribly verbal with their pups, but allow their nonverbal body language to compensate for the missing verbiage; they learn just to be comfortable together in the spirit of calm, open and affirming behavior. This is easy for the dogs we breed and place with the children we serve to do (although we have our work cut out for us to get even a well bred and well socialized North Star dog to be comfortable in public.)

As the years pass we are weaving therapy into all the placements we are creating with the children we serve. Children tend to open up their hearts as well as their minds when they are relaxed and engaging with the right dog (the wrong dog would bring the opposite effects, naturally: the sting of rejection, the terror from a growl, the agony of a dog bite, or the pain of simple indifference due to inferior training and social skills on the part of a dog are all something that can be disturbing to children. Forethought goes a long way here, and beginning with the educated end in mind seems wise.

Forest green is the color of the vest Loki wears around campus, which entreats others in gold embroidered letters to please to pet him and I hope that students who bump into this North Star pup in training not only feel the warmth of the golden that stands before them, but also stay to appreciate the message that Loki brings to them: people with developmental differences have always been around us, we just used to tuck them away along with our finer sensibilities. Autism is not a scary epidemic: it is a genetic difference that brings to the table unique talents and different set of behaviors than some norms. It is important to understand that how you personally react to nonconformity will impact what your attitude is toward a person with any kind of difference, especially that of autism with the social misunderstanding and misreads that are par for autism’s course. Sometimes it is hard to recognize prejudice if you too busy laughing at an unkind joke or looking at the floor because you don’t know how to confront cruelty when it is coming from someone you know, someone standing right in front of you who needs to be educated, not encouraged to continue to intimidate and socially bully someone in a semi socially acceptable way.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, and so this means it blends into the norm in a bell curve shape. This means that anyone can display autistic traits; anyone is potentially guilty of not taking others’ perspectives, of not taking the time to make eye contact with those we love as well as those we casually interact with, or of having an ugly meltdown in the middle of a stressful day. Education includes purposeful shifting of attitudes, which ends up key for our work with children with autism, as you cannot understand or treat autism outside of a social context.

The students at Dickinson College are in the midst of forming their generation’s new social context for autism, even and hopefully especially as they interact with Loki. Now that they are older and on the brink of adulthood, they are wise to examine their attitudes about just who they suspect they are better than, and why they are under this false illusion. I have learned that no one is better than any other: some have just learned more or have been given more challenges to overcome.

My son Dan, on the spectrum, has more integrity and valor on his worst day than most any person I’ve ever known, on the spectrum or not, on their best…it used to enrage me when others shortchanged Dan with distant or dissing attitudes in my presence, but eventually I came to just be mildly amused that the trappings of autism was misleading them to think my son had nothing to offer. The irony here was that the folks most apt to do this were the ones most in need of the lessons Dan could have taught them: humility and tenderness and a deeper understanding of the nature of love in all her lovely forms.

Many thanks, students of Dickinson College, for proving what I have suspected all along, that despite the pain of the past five recessionary years and the enduring sorrow of 9/11, my generation has managed to raise some really fine children who know that the future belongs to those who are paying attention with their hearts as well as their minds, for it’s only an illusion that these can be separated without consequence. I want you to know that enlightenment doesn’t always have to come with pain, nor even the terror of boredom; sometimes enlightenment can come in the form of a social and emotional dance you do quite unexpectedly on a day you might have needed a lift, or during a lucky day that you happen to bump into an angel unaware.

I hope you remember during these magic college years that it’s not money you are really after, nor glamour or fame, for all these fade fast; you are seeking a way to be in the world that reflects who you are and who you are becoming. You need a way to understand who you are when you relate to others or are (finally) alone. You need to think about the ways they are disconnected from the universe (and what can be done about it), the way you feel as one with who you meet and all you see (and how you can increase this experience), and the way you understand the sorrow that is sprinkled over all our lives as well as the tragedies that strike us when we least expect them.

Take it from me and my half century of hard won faith and experience: it’s all as meaningful as the coming spring…

To all my beautiful North Star puppy raisers, I want to tell you how important you’ve been to our mission to help children who face challenges…

Seize this day!

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