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New Directions in Canine Assisted Therapy: Recycling at its Finest

My last column on failure is deliberately followed by this one, which highlights North Star dogs whose initial failure ended up just a bump on the road toward a better temperamental fit with a different North Star child. It should be noted this new child may not be the next on our waiting list, as thought is always given to selecting a child from our list whose needs best fit into the picture of what this particular dog can comfortably provide. We need to understand that we are no longer talking about the relative tabula rasa of a puppy who is as impressionable as hot wax, but of a half grown dog who has had experiences that need to be recognized, bonds that are in the process of being broken and formed, and a new environment to wrap his young canine brain around.

This experience can be perceived as a failure or success at the end of our day at North Star, and the effort expended frustrating or fun, but I personally see it as a very positive thing when I can help this confused pup realize his or her potential as a companion to a new child; creating new frames on the fly around the twists and turns needed to be taken in this field in order to stay positive is surprisingly easy when you have lived in  a family with an autistic member (or members) for a decades. In such families like mine necessity is always the mother of your invention. Developing the skill of being flexible is just a thread in the hidden silver lining for families who faces autism’s challenges: you won’t catch us sweating the small stuff if we can possibly help it.

The new frames I speak of ultimately morph into a proper mindset, and it can be best summed up by my own wonderful mom as simply going with the flow, but despite the familiarity of this sentiment or the radical shift it will take in terms of paradigm, I believe this is a crucial skill to master when you live with someone on the autism spectrum.    

In the beginning of rebuilding neural pathways from typical to atypical places, the necessary changes you must make to create your new normal can feel as real to you as driving down a highway: I remember vivid dreams I had when Dan was newly diagnosed where I was literally driving blind, like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, but without having nearly as much fun. I would wake up drenched with anxiety with my heart pounding like a jackhammer.

And so I found myself struggling to open my third eye, even when I have never relied on this particular vision to this necessary extent, as the stakes were so very high. Fortunately my own personal anxiety factory could be shut down during waking hours by simply closing the front door and ignoring all electronics. Inside our home everything was always normal, our own new normal, and this was not just valuable work to do as a family, it was the heart of what we needed to accomplish together to build our family’s new paradigm about our lives.

In retrospect I can see I did the right things to carve out a place to be a family that went beyond simple location. Even without fully understanding the import of why certain things were being done or particular attitudes being formed or broken it all seemed to boil down to steering clear of the roads that lead to the land of fault or ocean of blame.

But all my happy Monday morning quarterbacking aside, I do wish we’d known certain things back then, and if I could whisper in my own younger ear I’d suggest I relax a bit with the marital division of labor debate (although the typical family next door might get away with the 50/50 division of labor woman’s magazines recommend, with families with a young child with autism it’s 100/100, 100% of the time.)

I’d also cuddle my babies more as I had no idea how quickly they would grow up, and I would try harder to not let worry seep into these precious moments to affect the color my present day. I was aware of these goals even back then, but life happens and hypnotizes you into believing trivia is important.

It’s not, of course, and the big picture should always be respected and understood. Here, are two examples of successful North Star placements created from the ashes of an initial failure:

      

North Star Ben was originally to be placed with two teenagers on the autism spectrum who lived with their parents on the island of Antigua. The boys’ mother, Carol, was initially very excited to receive a North Star dog, and described their home as an idyllic place to raise not just her sons, but their future pup, a handsome boy I originally named Ben. He was a Kumari pup that I delivered myself, a big happy boy who was placed at four month in an excellent puppy raising home in New Jersey to be raised in our training and socialization program while we walked the paper trail to be able to bring him to Antigua.

But life happens, and sometimes divorce happens, and this is what occurred with this placement. Carol and her boys were then forced to relocate to England, and although we had little problem with continuing Ben’s placement irrespective of the shifting borders, unfortunately this placement failed due to a combination of factors that stemmed from the complications of an international move as well as the internal struggles of divorce and post-divorce planning; in this case these factors combined to end this placement.

The upshot here was that our puppy Ben was now free for placement with another North Star child, and at this point in time it is not (and actually never is) a case of just going to the next family on our waiting list. Creating an intelligent temperamental fit is always our central goal for any partnership between child and North Star assistance or therapy pup, and if this temperamental fit isn’t achieved, then there will be surely be nonconforming products, root cause analysis and corrective actions to deal with in the future (my husband Ron is in charge of quality control in his day job, and his view of North Star as a business was quite valuable for me when founding North Star’s policies and procedures for dealing with failure.)

For a short time Ben was all dressed up in his North Star training vest with nowhere specific to go. I thumbed through my waiting list’s questionnaires with potential families for him on my mind, finding a family in Louisiana with two boys on the autism spectrum and a pond on their property; they were requiring a dog to serve these boys both inside as well as outside the home, but in doing further research on this potential partnership, it was found that Ben was actually water obsessed, a worrisome observation as if we’re not careful Ben just might have lured the boys to the water’s edge rather than vice versa. As extreme caution should always rule every one of North Star’s days, we kept looking for a family to be able to realize Ben’s potential.

The next family that came to my mind from my stack of questionnaires had a son named Timmy with autism as well as some medical procedures in his upcoming future. Charlie was the name they selected for their dog, and switching Ben’s name to Charlie wasn’t difficult at all, in fact, Charlie adapted equally well to all three of his early environments before he reached California’s soil of his forever home with Timmy and his baby brother.   

The rest of this story flows as smoothly as a Hallmark movie: Charlie slipped into Timmy’s life, and was able to receive full public access and work successfully in the hospital with Timmy to help him through his medical procedures. This is a field where all’s truly well that ends well…

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It sure looked to be a failure I was facing when a client named Cheryl called me late one night, upset because the North Star golden, Candy, that I had placed with her gentle and high functioning son on the autism spectrum, Wesley, was not working out. I was disappointed as well as surprised, as I knew that Wesley and Candy had a snug temperamental fit as they were both quite mellow and sensitive; I also knew that Wesley really liked dogs and had the ability to be gentle with them, that Candy loved children, and that she was very well bred and socialized. (Candy had been donated to North Star from breeder named Clairyce Gaston, who was a literal rocket scientist as well as golden breeder extraordinaire.)

But instead of the success I was anticipating with this Arizona based placement, Cheryl had grown increasingly agitated as the days and weeks passed following Candy joining her family, even with their private trainer working with her on a weekly basis. She claimed that there was something essentially wrong with Candy, and her complaints ranged from her not obeying commands, to her undue anxiety. I privately thought Cheryl was the anxious one, but tried my best to reserve judgment until I had more information.  

And then something curious happened: Cheryl claimed there was something physically wrong with Candy’s tail. Up until that last comment I had been playing a form of whack-a-mole with her complaints, banging each one square on the head as soon as I could, but this one gave me pause. When I suggested this may mean Candy was fearful and that she may need to soften her approach to communicating with her, Cheryl took offense, believing she could not be a factor in the dynamic of their relationship. She then told me the placement was over, but even when making arrangements to fly out to the west coast, I believed I’d be able to fix this one in person as there had been no complaints about my primary concern, which was Wesley and Candy’s developing therapeutic relationship.

But there ended up no fixing this one: Cheryl arranged to meet Ron on a very busy sidewalk at lunch hour around the corner from where she worked for immediate pick up; Candy was on other end of a tight leash, very clearly terrified of the traffic, the noise, and the woman who began to bark orders to prove that she was right: Candy didn’t even know how to sit!

Except that she did, of course, in nearly every environment she found herself in but this one. Candy could sit, and was happy to do so, but not like this, within a relationship with a woman who couldn’t begin to read her signals and a river of people flowing by her on hot cement. Ron noted that Candy’s tail was indeed flattened against her body due to what looked like fear, not any injury or congenital condition. The fact that Candy had always been relaxed and happy prior to placement was a huge red flag here, wavering like the shimmering heat waves from the Arizona sidewalk in the noon day sun.   

We were handed a big zip lock bag full of medications along with Candy’s leash that day, and I opened it with Candy tucked away in the back seat of the rental car; it contained prescription medication meant to combat canine anxiety, along with many herbal supplements Cheryl had been using without my knowledge or consent, to try to cure what she thought ailed Candy.

On impulse I threw the bag away the next exit we hit heading north, and instead of flying home with her later that evening on the Red Eye to Connecticut, I decided to have Candy stay for a while with a boy named Parker, who as great good luck would have it was a child on our waiting list who lived in the next town over. Many years have passed since that day, and Candy has never left Parker’s home, except for the frequent trips they took around the country together. They created a very successful partnership, focusing on agility competition in their work together.

Being able to document all our North Star dogs’ history as well as their breeding and early socialization is very important in supporting our ability to grow as an organization, for avoiding failure with the children we serve is our bottom line and doing so means analyzing the information available intelligently and with a wide open mind to create wiser policies for the future. I left Candy in Arizona with one very happy little boy, this is true, but it is equally true that I inadvertently broke the heart of another boy who was just as vulnerable and just as worthy. Preserving the placement is always job #1 at North Star, but when this is no longer possible, as in this case, every effort should be made to analyze the root cause of failure so that its identification can help to avoid similar failure in the future, even if we eventually hit success with our North Star dog and the right child and family to be served.

And so the take away here is our need to create our placements in a three or four way partnership with our children’s parent(s), and to consider every member of the household when selecting candidates for assistance dog placements to heighten the chances of success. Screening the parents who apply for North Star dogs has become an increasingly sophisticated process here at North Star, as we offer relationship based therapy that lasts up to a year’s time to complete their North Star dog’s certification, which is a process that requires trust as well as the dovetailing abilities to cooperation and compromise. Communication needs to be of the meta variety, and our focus needs to remain unwaveringly on the child/dog team at hand, with their needs being the white hot center of our work together. Adult ambition needs to be consistently snubbed, adult needs held in check, and fun courted at every turn.      

Parker ended up doing agility with Candy, who ended up having nothing at all wrong with her tail...she wags it freely in the breeze as she does agility with Parker. Here is a clip from a CBS Evening News clip that documents this happy pair:

Parker and North Star Candy​​Parker and North Star Candy​​
 
  1. Animal-assisted therapies
  2. Animal behavior
  3. Autism
  4. Bonds
  5. Service animals

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