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New Directions in Canine Assisted Therapy: Tales from Four Labradoodles, Part 2

North Star BlueNorth Star Blue

The two labradoodle sisters I wrote about in my last column, Luna and Cocoa, have two lively brothers, Harry and Blue, which we are also placing with North Star children. I picked up North Star Blue myself a few months back and flew with him to Nashville to work with Liam, a seven year old boy with autism. Blue has his sisters’ soulful eyes but his own laid back personality, and I was confident he would be a calm and faithful companion to Liam.

We are currently working on using Blue as a tool for Liam’s therapists to work with as part of his existing therapy program, as well as to incorporate these therapeutic benefits to the home front. The different forms of therapy available for children on the autism spectrum are all potential ways to teach children with autism the social and emotional skills they need to know to be safe as well as happy in our society, and to ensure that they are taught in a way that is intelligent, appropriate and kind. 

Gaining the children’s attention naturally and without force should be our first and constant goal in any therapeutic or early intervention program, with comfort granted to the child during this process being a given here. It’s important to remember that behavior equals communication, and in the absence of verbal skills, messages need to be relayed and understood with a minimum of traditional spoken words. Therefore sensitive attention must be paid to other avenues of information, such an increase in a child’s meltdowns, an uptick in crying or difficulty in sleeping and/or eating, all in the important attempt to gauge a child’s communication about things that can’t yet be put into words. 

I believe there are many roads that lead to raising healthy children to reach their full potential despite the challenges that autism presents, socially, emotionally or educationally; the constant thread that runs across the tapestry of most therapies for children with autism, be it Floortime, RDI, Animal Assisted, Music, Art, Physical or Occupational therapy, is the quality time paid to the children by adults. This one on one time with children with autism is vital to correctly and appropriately educate them with what amounts to special education for the severe learning disability of autism. (This last sentence is mired in the negative, of course, for I could easy rephrase it to say a child with autism is has a profound learning difference, one that could lead him to advanced artistic or intellectual achievement if properly supported; rather than routinely considering children or adults on the spectrum as automatically inferior due to being definitely different, a better frame might instead capture the talents and insights that tend to come with a “maverick” autistic mind, where the visual skills tend to trump the auditory, impeccable social skills don’t mess with integrity of thought or freedom of expression, and the arts rise to a valuable form of both entertainment as well as communication of the very soul, to allow us to bridge the social and emotional gap between typical and atypical developing children as well as adults.) 

Blue’s placement gave me the experience of meeting my very first rock star, by the way, and it should be noted that insomuch as it is a bit tragic to meet your first rock star at the age of 57, still, it is always better late than never in this life. Liam is the son of CHEAP TRICK musician Tom Peterson and his lovely wife Alison and they are both everything you would expect of a rock star couple, along with their talented daughter, Lilah. When I speak of cool, I’m not just speaking of clichéd rock star glitz and glamour here, nor even of the immense combined talent in this small close knit family, but of the impressive degree of this rare quality already obtained by its youngest member, Liam. 

LiamLiam

It’s always seemed to me that children with autism are the true definition of cool, as this timeless word indicates the ability to be authentic in a rather straight laced and conforming society. Children with autism can be our role models for living life free of the restraints of social limitations if we allow them to be, but they unfortunately can also be the canaries in our coalmine. Society’s values should not be ours, knee jerk fashion, and a strong awareness of the politics of autism is necessary to grasp when deciding to fight for a people with autism’s rights in our shared nation. We need to pay attention to the environments our children on the spectrum are educated within, in schools as well as in day care or at home, to be sure they are respectfully treated.

We are just now on the cusp of understanding how to best educate a child with autism appropriately, and I believe the arts provide us a powerful and beautiful way to further our goals here and to allow our children, as well as ourselves, to express what we see in our own little corner of the universe without the luxury of the spoken word. Children with autism are especially gifted in alternate forms of communication; I know that Dan’s visual talents came to him early and obvious (he was reading with impressive comprehension at the tender age of two years, three months, writing as fluently as other children were speaking by the time he went to kindergarten, and editing movies using two VCRs and a lot of patience in middle school); these skills helped him immensely to grow up emotionally healthy and connected to society.  

For Liam, it is music that speaks to him. The more we learn about the brain and how plastic it actually is, the more we can appreciate what the arts offers us by way of establishing communication, connection, and self-expression for children and adults on the autism spectrum. 

I visited Blue on the occasion of his first birthday recently, and to celebrate we went bowling, which was Dan’s favorite activity when he was a little guy. Developing coping skills to temper his considerable tenacity and to help Liam deal with the frustrations that are liberally sprinkled onto any day on the autism spectrum is an important goal for him. I think that dealing with the ups and downs of any trip to the bowling alley will give you ample opportunity to practice being a good sport through roiling frustration or a gracious winner with a minimum of braggadocio.

For me, it was a bit of déjà vu, a gentle lump in my throat, and a lot of sweet moments watching Liam bowl, as well as a very proud rush when I saw Blue slide under the tiny table and curl up for a nap in the midst of thunderous noise and rushing feet. 

When the exciting day was drawing to a close and evening was falling a bit too hard, Liam began to get fussy. When he realized that his mom had gotten him chicken nuggets rather than the French fries he craved for dinner, he began to quickly heat up to a boiling tantrum, but then suddenly something stopped him. 

I am still not sure what it was, although I’ve thought awhile about this; it could have been the way Blue moved his head onto his knee, or the fact that my son Dan was sitting in the back seat next to Liam, telling him it was ok to not have fries sometimes, or maybe it was Alison’s calm voice telling him that she was sorry but there would be no French fries today, but he could eat his nuggets if he liked, or perhaps it was me, in the passenger seat, looking back at him and smiling with all the sympathy I felt, because I happen to really love French fries…

Whatever it was, he suddenly pulled the plug on his own tantrum, which, like a shark, has to keep moving in order to survive. Instead Liam stopped it cold and then said in a surprisingly calm voice:

“I not happy. Pull over!” 

He said this so succinctly, and with such imperial confidence that it made all of us laugh out loud (a real shared belly laugh, not that anemic online LOL cyberville kind of thing). I snuck a look back at him then, and saw him sitting next to Dan in the moving stripes of Nashville moonlight, my son as well as Alison’s, two boys together and two decades apart. 

Liam had gotten the joke and the part of me that thought he would cry in protest at our sudden laughter in outrageous and wounded pride was not anywhere in evidence. He was, instead, intrigued that he has made us all laugh, and I knew he would be using his words more often in the future to gain this response of those around him.

Trial and error….cause and effect…

I continued to sneak a peek at Liam from the front seat even as our laughter subsided, and saw him looking pensive as he quietly absorbed what just happened: in his stage of emotional and linguistic development he had been able to successfully express his feelings enough to avoid a full blown tantrum. Blue was alternately a tool and catalyst in this process that we all helped to facilitate. 

Later that day Alison served a decorated cake to celebrate Blue’s first birthday and we had a party with all the trimmings; this is a family who understands the emotional role an autism assistance dog takes with a child, and that the ups and downs of childhood remain the same for all children, regardless of where they are on or off the spectrum. Without expressive language, social intuition, or a solid way to communicate it can be unbearable to experience emotions that must remain frozen and unexpressed, or distressing to suddenly boil over into a frustrated puddle outside of your own control. 

To allow children with language disorders to communicate, albeit clumsily at first, about both positive as well as negative emotions as they come to develop the ability to cope with their emotios and accept their limitations of power over their environment (as well as realize their power via their own positive behavior) is valuable work.Some of this can be accomplished through the small rituals of family life together, such as with Blue’s birthday party or collectively making dinner or brushing teeth before bedtime; the way a family completes all the tasks of a life spent together is what binds them, and this is ultimately the best education our children (on or off the spectrum) will get on how to live a good life.

Blue’s placement was coincidentally the 200th North Star placement we have created since our incorporation, so it seems fitting to be stepping outside my comfort zone a bit at this point to work in a larger spotlight. In fact, this placement is being included in an upcoming documentary being created by Pyewackitt Productions about Liam’s placement with Blue; titled BOY BLUE, (http://www.boybluefilm.org/#!production-team/c1cyc) to be released next April. 

Stay tuned on this one!
 

North Star's "Party Boy" HarryNorth Star's "Party Boy" Harry

The final pup in this talented litter is Harry. He began life named “Parti Boy,” which was a name that reflected his multi coloring, but when I heard about his happy go lucky personality the connection to the randy prince of England sloshed around like so much wet cement in my mind until it firmed up nicely into my image of a canine Prince Harry. This capturing of imagination is an important aspect of bonding with a dog, and this is why I believe North Star placements actually begin the moment a dog first becomes an idea in a family’s collective mind. 

It is a psychological thing for anyone to acquire a pup, and taking on this task often begins with the naming; this takes on a psychological dimension that sets the stage for a child about to receive an assistance dog to do therapeutic social/emotional work. Shared imaginary play, perhaps with stuffed animals, can help a child to understand their own emotions as well as others and how they tangle up during social interactions. I believe the imagination of a child with autism can be developed despite their tendency to be literal thinkers, and that shared imaginary play can help children on the spectrum to learn social scenarios typically developing children seem to pick up through some magic combination of observation and osmosis. 

This pretend play is fun to watch and to participate in (if invited!), but beware of the tendency for adults in the room to fail to take a back seat with the naturally occurring interactions between pup and child. The adults need to be sensitive in relating to the child and pup in order to facilitate respectful communication between them, but not be overbearing or overly talkative (my bad) or, even worse, completely disengaged. Sensitive siblings and supported friendships with other kindhearted children come in very handy here to help lead the way only children can go over bridges made between the child on the autism spectrum and his or her peers.

And so, I bonded with “Party Boy Harry,” even while he remained at home with Andrea’s family while his siblings joined our socialization program, this seemed an acceptable thing because he bonded very well with Andrea’s four year old son: the two were rambunctious but faithful pals, and based on this report I believe Harry would be a fourth North Star dog from a single litter. 

Harry was then flown up in cargo to Washington State when he was eight months old, where his boy, Zac, on the autism spectrum, lived; this age is rather late in the day for us by way of typical North Star placements, but it seemed ok to experiment with our philosophy of placement when we learned Harry would be available to us. Zac is not only on the spectrum, but medically fragile, and this is why I was thinking of working with a smaller breed for him (Harry is 35 pounds, as opposed to goldens or labs who can be 60 pounds up to 100 and beyond) Their hometown of Seattle was an ideal place to find training support, so this also factored into the mix of this tricky decision.

I breathed a sigh of relief when Zac and Harry hit it off immediately the way I had predicted they would, but I did not anticipate what came next: out of the blue Harry began to bark ferociously at dogs he saw through the window or from a distance on a leash. Once he got loose from Zac’s mom’s grasp in their neighborhood and then charged toward another dog that was mild mannered and very surprised. Although no one, dog or person, was hurt in either exchange, it was mutually decided to end this placement at that point and to move Harry into an intensive board train to see if we could work through this behavioral and training/socialization issue to be able to partner him with a new child on our list (with Zac to receive a pup from Molly’s latest litter, which was born just a few weeks ago!)

Harry then spent over a month with an experienced and gentle trainer in the Seattle area who provided some very socially savvy dogs to play together within a huge field on her property to increase his social skills with strange dogs he spots from a distance; the other dogs would stand their ground but not be aggressive in the face of Harry’s first few clumsy charges toward them, which reduced him immediately to a submissive puddle. He became friends with all these dogs and after a month was moved to a service dog trainer’s home for an additional months long board/train (which is rather like having a doctor take in your child who has a cold, but as I’ve always said, Caution is my true middle name, and I wanted an expert to “proof” Harry to be sure this troublesome behavior toward other dogs he sees from a distance wasn’t one he would take with him to his next and hopefully forever, home.)

I formed a theory about what happened with Harry, using the imperfect tools of hindsight and intuition, and believe that something Andrea told me is a clue to the mystery of Harry’s seemingly fear based aggression toward other dogs he saw from a distance. Andrea had said that she wasn’t able to get her little family of labradoodles to stop “alarm barking” together; she lives in a home with a lovely view of a canyon, and at the lip of this canyon some people walk their dogs, and I believe this alarm barking done at this parade of dogs set up Harry to believe they were a potential threat were they not separated by a canyon worth of distance. 

I can’t be sure this is true, but it is simple enough to be so, and I have adopted this as a working theory and changed our policies to only place North Star dogs with children that are in our program by six months of age. Moving Harry northward at eight months did not prove good timing for us, and as fear period tend to arise in the adolescent dog, I think it’s best for us to have the North Star dog settled into a relationship with a child and forever family by this tender age. This allows us to get a jump on bonding and enjoy a honeymoon period that I believe Nature likes for any relationship, whereby the young compliant pup can bond with a child freely, with no competing adolescent snarkiness roiling beneath the well behaved surface.

I selected Harry’s new family to be one where he would be working with a child with autism and some rather serious medical issues. Harry has a big job ahead of him to keep his boy safe and moving, but first we are going to take our time to raise him carefully and nurture his unfolding bond with Garrett one careful day at a time. 

There were several reasons I chose this family to work with Harry. This family had several emotionally draining circumstances, so completing a dog’s initial training and socialization to a later stage for this family makes sense in this case rather than creating our more traditional earlier and more labor intensive partnership. This family’s need for an assistance dog to help them on the home front immediately was huge, and so Harry is spending his summer preparing for this important role.

At one year of age, all four of these four labradoodle siblings are North Star dogs still in the midst of realizing their full potential; as they are different, so the paths they will take will differ and the roles they will end up taking with their children will vary.

And as always, I’ll be sure to keep you posted…

  1. Autism
  2. Service animals
  3. therapy
  4. Therapy animal behavior training
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