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New Directions in Canine Assisted Therapy: Developing Canine Bonds with Children with Autism

This column focuses on the still unfolding fate of four golden pups delivered by North Star Molly this time last year. Three of these pups are now working in our program with their carefully chosen children, with their sister, North Star Angel, now working as a therapy dog in New York.

Angel is now working toward her TDI with her handler, Judy, and she will also receive her clearances before delivering our sixth generation in a line that we have been developing at North Star for two decades for children who face social, emotional or educational challenges.  We chose  to use a different stud for Molly's second, and final, litter, due to the possibility this deformity was genetic in nature. Bear is owned by Karen Lamb in Colorado, a breeder with wonderful temperaments in her golden lines that we have employed in the past very successfully with the children we serve together.   

North Star Angel was selected to join our breeding program due to many attributes she has that are desirable to pass on with assistance or therapy dogs for children: she is gentle and tolerant, she is small (barely 50 pounds) and exceedingly sound, and she is affectionate, especially with children and the elderly.

North Star Angel as lovely therapeutic toolNorth Star Angel as lovely therapeutic tool 

She is also very beautiful, but that last quality just came with the package. This relates to what they found in Siberia when they were breeding fox for temperament; by the time they hit their tenth generation, the tame fox cubs looked like the Disney kind with upturned noses and big expressive eyes, just like Angel’s own. 

This study is fascinating to me, as their work in Siberia parallels my own in the States; they work with fox cubs and I work with golden pups, but we both strive to consciously breed for a particular temperament over a long period of time. Breeding for temperament is a pioneering field that holds real promise for discovering how to best deliver Animal Assisted Therapy to children; to me, this field is cutting edge and in moving forward we need to communicate by way of anecdote as well as further scientific study, for it takes a global village to raise children sensitively, appropriately and intelligently.

Yours, mine and ours… 


On the link below you can see the two of Molly’s pups in my arms, Loki and Regis, at the tender age of 9 weeks, when they were just about to leave for Pennsylvania to be raised by two college students at Dickinson College. This was to be a pilot program as part of a service project to raise assistance puppies in training.

Even then I knew that Loki was more sensitive than his more easygoing brother, Regis, and also that he was more cautious and cuddly. I partnered him with a family in New Jersey who have three typically developing and very nurturing sisters with a sweet and rather quiet brother on the autism spectrum named David, thinking this would be a good temperamental fit. Here you can see our first visit to David’s home, where we received a bit of a surprise by way of an adorable challenge named Ella.

I kept my fingers crossed that fall as Loki and Regis were raised by the kind students at “Dickinson Dog House,” and I received many positive reports about both brothers from them. The pups roamed the campus with volunteers, and earning public access did not appear to be a challenge for them. What was hard, especially for Loki, were the separation issues that arose from when the college students were on break, as well as from each other whenever the two brothers were apart. The two brothers also began to fight more than in their peaceful past together, and although this is understandable as pups mature and assert themselves, this report was a message to me that it’s best to separate siblings from each other by 16 weeks of age, when they have a readiness to take this step to be on their own.

When the semester ended and Loki was moved to a temporary puppy raising home during the holiday break apart from his brother, he began to show real concrete signs of separation anxiety, and his bark when crated for any length of time was shrill and stressed.

Clearly he needed his forever home, and fast. Most North Star dogs are more resilient to the occasional and necessary transitions in their first year of life that our socialization and training program may bring, but Loki faced more of them than average with the school calendar breaking up the year so frequently, causing disruptions to his developing relationships with others. When yet another transition over spring break brought a report that he growled at a stranger who took away his bone, I couldn’t place him any longer in a home for a North Star child, as our policies forbid working with a dog that growls at people after six months of age. I couldn’t bear to put him in yet another puppy raising home to work through this fresh resource guarding issue, the way we’d need to do if we intended to place him simply as a pet dog with any children in the home, as I needed to work through his issue before I let him grow beyond my small circle of influence. My mind spun around this issue until I suddenly remembered Sophie.

Sophie was a charming little girl I first met when she was adopted by my friend, MaryAnn, years ago. Sophie was from China and she was also deaf; when I first met her she was picking up the North Star pup she was going to raise with MaryAnn for a child with autism in Pennsylvania. MaryAnn and I both spent time explaining to Sophie what this process would be like, and we kept their puppy raising experience as short as we could make it to ease the eventual loss of North Star Zizi to his new family, but it wasn’t until years later we learned that Sophie didn’t actually understand the puppy raising concept as well as we thought she did, and that she had been heartbroken and confused when Zizi left.  

I remembered now that Sophie’s mom, MaryAnn, had recently called me to say Sophie was ready for her own dog to help her face some upcoming challenges. She also had a younger brother now named Shane, also adopted from China, who is blind. I knew Loki could live up to the challenges of living with these children, at least within the context of his forever home with my competent and kind friend MaryAnn, and so I called her and she immediately agreed with my thinking. She bought Loki for his pet purchase price as we could not guarantee he could earn public access, and Loki then slid into this special home easily. MaryAnn had already absorbed three adopted children from different countries with a variety of emotional and physical challenges to overcome, and the entire family had the skills to work through Loki’s lingering insecurity and separation anxiety together. Below are MaryAnn’s words: 

"Our family's relationship with North Star Foundation began more than ten years ago when we were completing the training for our third Seeing Eye puppy. A fellow puppy raiser for the Seeing Eye told me about an exciting opportunity to raise a young pup for a child with autism. We had decided we would not be raising another Seeing Eye pup after our Vandy went back for formal training, as we were not able to commit to the 18 or so months required for the Seeing Eye program. I remember the phone call from my friend Connie that night as if it was yesterday. 'Connie', I told her, laughing. 'Don't even get me started with this!'"

"Connie had chuckled, because she knew as a teacher of blind children and a parent of four children, raising an assistance dog for young children would be exactly what I would love to do. Before we ended the conversation, I told her that I was too busy as we had lots of things going on, but wished her luck with her new pup. The last thing Connie said to me was 'Look at their website, I think you will find it interesting.'"

"I laughed again and said good-bye. Two days later a friend called with the news that Connie had died of a massive heart-attack. Stunned and grief-stricken, I decided to do as Connie had asked me, and I went to the North Star website. Connie was right, I did find North Star 'interesting' interesting that we raised not one, but four pups for North Star in the years that followed!"

"Three more children joined our family through adoption since Sophie came home, and I have followed North Star’s great work and progress from a distance. Our son Shane, who is blind and developmentally delayed, began showing that he might benefit from an assistance dog, and I emailed Patty. It was then that she mentioned Loki, and his need for a family who could be patient with his needs, and could see the potential in his gentle and sensitive nature."

"Not unlike our adopted children, Loki came to us after being in a few ‘homes’ and after having suffered through some ‘losses’ of those who loved him. He was a bit worried and quite attached to our daughter Shannon as she is close to the age of the wonderful college girls who loved and nurtured him. He was cautious at first but settled in with the other kids and soon was a part of the family.

Loki is in the process of beginning more formal obedience training, and we look forward to helping him reach his full potential as he fills our home with love. I can just hear Connie chuckling as she looks down at us, with four children and one beautiful Golden who have found their ‘forever’ home."

North Star Loki and SophieNorth Star Loki and Sophie

The take away here is to keep the separations in a North Star assistance pup in training’s life to an absolute minimum, especially if the pups are especially sensitive. I also believe I let Loki’s plight linger too long, as I should have pulled the plug when Loki first began to have trouble, even though this program was so well intentioned and organized, but I chose to ride it out, thinking all dogs that have their needs met besides consistency would eventually thrive.

I stand corrected.

In theory, it seems enough to only focus on the training when considering an autism assistance dog candidate, but any dog is more than the sum of his training program plus initial potential. Dogs, especially dogs bred to be companions or working dogs for children, need to love you and feel this love returned to them; the bonds we form with them will be molded into other bonds in the North Star assistance pup’s future family. Later, we may need to literally teach the pups how to love the child we want them to serve, as many children with autism are light on appropriate feedback at first, but this work is easier now that we are able to tap into science for clues as to how to do this; it turns out that the way to a dog’s heart is literally through his stomach, as the area of a dog’s brain lights up when someone presents food to them that is the same area that lights up when we are describing feeling love.

Here’s a link to take you to an interesting article from the New York Times about this study:

It is important to understand the qualities of the specific pup as well as child before we begin to train the pup for any kind of service work with a child. This includes recognizing those dogs that crave a one on one bond to the exclusion of a more social nature, a quality that Loki possessed more than his sisters or his brother Regis. To overemphasize the importance of training through problems arising from temperamental mismatch at these sensitive stages is to misunderstand this work as well as the working dog, and to remain unaware of the source of the power of this therapeutic tool as well as the potential pitfalls of this field, which runs the gamut from the danger of a bite from a dog not socialized or temperamentally suited to this type of work with children, to the deep disappointment of a child we may have been able to help with more intelligent thought applied.

North Star’s work fits like hand in glove with such relationship based therapies as RDI or the Sonrise program, or the concept of floor time by Dr. Greenspan. ABA principles are powerful building blocks for any early intervention program, but the medium of delivery must be gentle, relationship based and as low on the coercion scale as you can get it; here Mary’s spoonful of sugar is a good metaphor for getting the medicine down: the pups are sweet enticements to for a child to pay attention and develop pragmatic language.

The pups also serve as magnets for attention in public, as well as conversation pieces that structure the unfolding dialog in a way that evens the pragmatic playing field for the child we are serving, to allow them to participate in the unfolding dialog.

And if you are inclined to pay attention to the details, you’ll recall that David is now waiting for a new North Star dog, and remember that this does weigh heavy on me. Here is the place to share our news that North Star Molly delivered nine healthy pups on July 20th, one of which will be handpicked for David and his sisters. Here is the first picture taken of the pups at the tender age of two days old.      

North Star Molly's new puppiesNorth Star Molly's new puppies 

Loki’s brother Regis also had his own bumps on the road to absorb: he and his child, AJ, needed to sand their initially rough relationship to keep from getting snagged on trouble. This work may on the surface seem unattached to any goal we may have for AJ, but upon closer inspection we can see that working with AJ to teach him to give Regis the space he needs to interact comfortably is a valid skill to not just develop, but expand upon in terms of granting others’, including peers, the necessary body space they require to form a comfortable friendship. Having a healthy relationship with a dog allows a child on the spectrum to take that helpful half step to understanding peers’, siblings’ or parents’ perspectives.

Here are Jill’s words to describe the upheaval that followed Regis’ arrival at AJ’s home:

“When he finally arrived, just before Christmas, I think we were unprepared for the transition, the work, and the bumps. I have read countless stories of that magical, mystical connection between a service animal and a child with special needs. I was hoping that such a connection would be ours, right from the very first, but magic is not real and, like autism, nothing is ever as easy or as smooth as we would hope. Regis is a quiet, contemplative dog, who was, I think, a bit taken aback by the chaos that follows in our wake. His boy with autism, my son, loves him fiercely, strongly, and, at times, oppressively, which Regis does not always appreciate. So we have spent a lot of time, shaping the relationship between Regis and his boy, working on building the connection, trying to extend the time they both are willing to spend with each other. Hoping for that magic, I don’t think I was prepared for how much work it would take to build that connection between the boy and his dog. Even after six months, we are still working, shaping, correcting (the boy, not the dog) and practicing!”

On his end, Regis was just as much as adolescent as AJ, and the two of them are coming of age together with all that this entails. This is a placement that time will help to buff and polish, and one where I am glad to be working with a very talented trainer, Mary Horne, on this endeavor to give Jill as much support by way of not just training, but structuring interactions between pup and child so that the time spent together is safe, appropriate, educational and fun (in this very order). I worked with Mary on several successful North Star placements to date, and know that her sensitivity will help Jill to create the subtle changes in routine that make all the difference in smoothing out the rough edges in this relationship.

For this placement, we are also fortunate to be working with AJ’s family, as Jill is such a devoted and intelligent mom; she and the rest of the family help Regis to unwind after being on the job with AJ, as even if he is a tolerant dog this is not a place to push your luck. Someday Regis and AJ will work together effortlessly, but until this day we need to continue to structure and supervise their time together. 

There is a silver lining here, as there always is if we care to look for one, and it is that the work being done with AJ in terms of how he loves his dog (ie, not oppressively) is a valuable social/ emotional lesson that is much harder to work on with a younger sibling or a peer, who can be so much more complicated socially and emotionally to understand than a North Star dog.

North Star Regis at Show & TellNorth Star Regis at Show & Tell

This is what makes a placement therapeutic, this focus on how a dog can fill in the gaps of a child’s needs as he grows up, in a positive and educational way. The need for companionship, for comfort, and for community connections run deep in all of us, not just those with good social skills; assistance and therapy dogs can help to fill these needs for those challenged by autism or face other social/emotional challenges. How this process will unfold is best informed by scientific research, as following personal theories will run the risk of reflecting our biases and our own individual limitations rather than intelligent thought. 

The link below will take you to a study conducted by USC Professor Olga Solomon, who is conducting research on animal assisted therapy with children with autism, along with her thoughts on how assistance and therapy dogs help children to better relate to others. 

Dr. Solomon believes that interactions with quality therapy dogs provides children with “simple, predictable and rewarding social partners,” which allow the children to not only feel fulfilled, but also to expand their skills when relating to others such as peers, parents or siblings.

“Dogs could be like a catalyst in a chemical reaction,” she says, which to me is a simple but brilliant thought.

The process of supporting animal assisted therapy with children with autism at this early stage of understanding should be more about observation than manipulation. I often advise parents of children with autism just receiving their pups to hold back and think of themselves as a lifeguard to a child learning to swim rather than a choreographer of a dance.  


The final of Molly’s four pups, last but definitely not least, is North Star Mia. She is a very playful and lively girl who is working with a boy named Joel, who is on the autism spectrum. Joel is also quite playful with plenty of energy to spare, and the two of them bounce off each other nicely for the most part. Separating them when the energy is too raw and intense is a good thing for this placement, and Annette, like Jill, is a strong and involved mother who is setting the limits here for both dog as well as child.

On her part, Mia is very tolerant of Joel and vice versa; but she does need (along with Regis and other North Star dogs) time alone in her crate to unwind and have a good chew on a marrow bone (much the way some may use a martini for this purpose and the way I use Ben & Jerry as my own personal therapists at day’s end…to each his own and everything in moderation!)

Joel and Mia’s relationship has been developing for many months now and will continue to evolve during the rest of this year as they work with their North Star trainer Carol Ahern of Blue Max Dog Training and Behavior Modification. Carol is working with Joel’s parents to best support the developing relationship between boy and pup. In the future we will no doubt be able to reap the rewards of this careful partnership, as they do greatly enjoy each other.

Here are the two of them on the fourth of July weekend, soaking up the sun as well as the warm feelings between them.   

North Star Mia and her boyNorth Star Mia and her boy
  1. Animal-assisted interventions
  2. Animal-assisted therapies
  3. animal companionship
  4. Autism
  5. Dogs
  6. Human-animal relationships
  7. Service animals

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