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New Directions in Canine Assisted Therapy: Tales from Four Labradoodles, Part 1

North Star LunaNorth Star Luna

North Star Foundation is now in her fourteenth year of incorporation as nonprofit; to date we have helped over 200 children all over the world socially, emotionally and educationally by virtue of their assistance or therapy dog placements. We are trying to pioneer animal assisted therapy for children who face social emotional or educational challenges such as autism presents, as well as to educate on this emerging field to keep it a safe and effective concept for the children we serve.

I am currently in the midst of writing a series of ten columns for Purdue’s groundbreaking site on the human animal bond, focusing on the different forms North Star assistance dog placements with children are taking as time passes. I am leaving these columns behind like breadcrumbs on our long and sometime difficult journey, with my hope moving forward that others will be able to travel farther some future day by way of helping children via animal assisted therapy. My dream is that children who face challenges such as autism won’t have to struggle any longer to merely survive, but to instead easily thrive, inside their homes as well as within their communities.

I don’t believe I am being overly optimistic here, as animal assisted therapy for children is an emerging field that holds much promise for children with not just autism, but varied social, emotional and/or educational challenges such as grief, anxiety, abuse, neglect, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or serious illness/disability. This list is surely just a partial one, for at this stage of the game your imagination needs to be tapped to intuit the big picture here: animal assisted therapy can help a significant number of children who are struggling in our stressed out, recession soaked society. The simple but overwhelming need for therapeutic techniques, tools, and talent for children who are challenged socially and emotionally in our society should raise the bar for a heightened level of study as well as support for the practice of this valuable early intervention.

And we should be careful to remember in the rush to serve children who are waiting that this is a field where the devil is in the details; get them wrong and you’re apt to regret it. Our paramount concern should always be square upon the children we are serving, as it is their needs that must rule any day; this may be a new field, but our children will never be used as guinea pigs within it (although, ironically, it’s actually beneficial for children with autism to have guinea pigs as pets…check this link out this link to see why I say this is so):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/02/27/172965436/how-guinea-pigs-could-help-autistic-children

Having more creatively designed and rigorous evidenced based studies done as we sift through emotion laden anecdotes and word of mouth testimony so rife in the field of autism assistance dogs and therapy dogs for children would be quite valuable. We need to develop this emerging therapy with the wind of scientific study at our collective back to keep it safe as well as effective for our children.

 As always, North Star will continue to strive to be the unmoving light to keep us focused on our children’s needs, come what may.

I want to add that our children on the autism spectrum are perfect, despite all this effort to early intervene, even if they can be wildly inconvenient, seemingly unlovable, definitely undervalued and/or consistently unusual communicators. Every child deserves to become who they are, even if it scares those prone to conformity or who are inclined to worship the status quo; this is true even if doing so dashes some dreams while creating a new one, rising like a phoenix from the pale ashes…

Unique is the new normal.

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This particular column will focus on four labradoodle siblings we have placed this past year at North Star who have recently turned one year old: Luna, Cocoa, Blue and Harry.

These four North Star pups have been bred for temperament as well as soundness, and are all currently in the process of being partnered with their children on the autism spectrum; before we can fully understand labradoodles and why they sometimes succeed as well as fail in our assistance and therapy dog program, we first need to break it down to understand the two breeds that make up a labradoodle, tracing both their poodle as well as retriever roots.  

Immediately we hit some trouble with the standard poodle part of this equation, and a case in point was Lila: she is a lovely black standard poodle, very well bred and raised from birth, that I accepted into our program several years ago. I spent a few months with her and she was my favorite standard I had raised to date by a country mile: I really enjoyed my time with this bouncy, smart and playful girl. I remember at one point thinking of keeping her to begin an in- house standard poodle line, but I kept her back from this as well as any specific placement plans for a few months due to our low rate of success with this breed to date (just a paltry 50% success rate as recently as 2010); I wanted to wait until Lila was at least a year to decide which way the wind would blow here, as I wanted to be sure I could move forward safely and with high expectation for success.

I was heartbroken when at the next experienced puppy raising home Lila went to after my time with her, with an experienced service dog trainer, Lila not only growled but lunged at a man who was limping while walking with him; the sway in his walk caused Lila to perceive this as such a threat that she followed this growl with a lunge forward. (Fortunately, I was able to find a good home for Lila with someone who understood her limitations, and North Star’s loss was certainly their gain.)

In reviewing Lila’s case, as all failure in our work should be analyzed to be avoided, no real root cause was discovered, but it was noted that the line that she came from should be eschewed in the future for caution’s sake. This was an excellent pedigree as far as soundness as well as conformation, but it was not a line that was bred specifically for temperament. It was true that Lila was raised with two lovely girls and lots of TLC, but it’s my belief that an assistance or therapy dog for a child requires a very specific genetic temperament that is rare to simply stumble across, even in clean show lines.

As good luck would have it I then found a breeder in Wisconsin, Mary, who raised her line of standard pups with the same quality of pedigree, but also a specific focus on breeding for temperament as well as a top notch socialization program with her many children, many of whom have been adopted and worked through attachment disorders with the help of the pups they whelp and raise together.

Getting to know Mary in cyberspace, and then ultimately in person one frozen Wisconsin evening when I picked up my first standard pup from her, was quite valuable. Buddy has since blossomed into a wonderful companion with full public access for his child, Brianna, who is on the autism spectrum, and I don’t think it was simply the genetic line that Mary cultivated, nor only the creative socialization she and her children offered the pups with such care and gentle spirit that should take the credit here; it is surely an interplay of both, a dynamic, that is at work for us here.

If Mary taught me that standard poodles can have great potential for working with children by way of temperament, another advantage for this breed is that standard poodles have hair, as we do, as opposed to fur, as most dogs do, and so are considered a hypoallergenic breed. I am not convinced that any dog is 100% hypoallergenic (and certainly not a labradoodle, whose hair is mixed with the Labrador retriever’s fur); still, it may be a matter of degree here, and a school or facility may be smart to think kindly upon a standard poodle or other hypoallergenic breed as facility or therapy dog candidate for the advantages listed in this paragraph, or even labradoodles as a way to decrease, but not eliminate, potential allergens.  

However, I always approach standard poodles with caution (especially any that Mary didn’t breed!), as I’ve found the aforementioned cautious nature of a standard can have a real kick of aloofness and tendency to grumble and snap that just doesn’t work well with children with special needs; my highest quality placements come from knowledge of my pups’ unfolding temperaments along with that of the children I’m serving, to best decide with confidence which puppy in a litter should go to which child. I think of this concept as “temperamental fit” and even when I’m initially quite sure, there is always a bit of finger crossing as Nature can be capricious (and, at times, a real flaming bitch. She is to be dealt with, regardless, if we want to stay in the game and keep the children safe.)

Quirky, grumbly and cautious are traits from standards that can trip you up, but when speaking of labradoodles we have to consider the other half of the equation. We’ve placed about a dozen Labrador retrievers since our incorporation, from three separate very high quality breeders around the country. In general we have a high degree of success with this breed, but it is important to note that a typical young a lab can be a bit of a bull in a china shop, as they can be so strong and impulsive and can grow to be so large; even when selecting service dog candidates from service dog litters, one must take great care.

One lab pup we attempted to place with a child, a gorgeous black lab named Scarlet, came to us as a young pup from a quality service dog line in the Midwest who mainly provided service dogs for adults with physical challenges. Although Scarlet arrived as a lovely, healthy, sound and social puppy, she grew into a huge mass of energy, capable of leaping over coffee tables in a single bound. She had a lovely temperament, this was true, but far too much energy and strength for the job of working with a child in the 24/7 way an assistance dog is expected to do (with mandatory breaks given in the course of any working day, naturally.)        

And so when turning to the concept of labradoodles to be partnered with children, we must do our research on the specific sire and dam of the labradoodle pups we were considering by way of the prospective temperament, size and potential genetic concerns before looking at the litter for prospective assistance dog candidates for the children we are requested to serve.

Regarding labradoodles in general, I have three things to say about them, and the first is that when labradoodles failed in our program, they tended to fail in large, grumbly and expensive wash outs.

The second thing that should be known about labradoodles is that they are considered trendy, and for the consumer this just isn’t a good thing. Due to current market demand, labradoodles run for $2,500 and up, and most of the pups cited at these prices are just not worth the green stuff. I have worked with an even dozen labradoodles over the years and while I find that this breed is very much a function of the individual quality of the sire and dam’s contribution to the equation, one cannot assume that most expensive labradoodle you can find is the best. (Caution!: nor does the inverse hold true!)

Hybrid vigor should be wind at your back, but the breeding pair as well as potential assistance puppy should also pass muster not just on paper, but in person, so come alone when you first observe a litter you are interested in selecting a pup from for your child, as your child may unwittingly coax you into making an unwise choice of the bold puppy that trotted up to you first. Talk to the breeders about the different pups’ personalities (if he or she doesn’t know the details here, then this is a scarlet flag that the litter has not been handled much; a very bad sign for a potential pup to work with a child, especially if public access is desired.)

The third thing you should know about labradoodles is that not all labradoodles are alike; if you lined up a dozen labradoodles in a row you would see what I mean: they really and truly vary tremendously in looks as well as temperament (keep in mind some labradoodles may have mini or smaller moyan poodle blood rather than the standard’s, and so have different sized frames and temperamental quirks).

Canyon Court Labradoodles out of San Diego breeds a lovely tempered and intelligent line of low shed and medium size (35 pounds on average) labradoodles. There lines go back to Tegan Park, a breeding kennel in Australia that began to develop this new breed with an eye toward reducing the allergens of the potential pups while keeping temperament as well as soundness in mind. We have created many very successful North Star placements for children that needed the smaller size of their assistance dog with a lower risk of allergens but with no loss of the warm and social personalities that have come to define North Star dogs; we’ve placed a dozen Canyon Court labradoodles in our fourteen years of service to very good result. 

I tend to use Canyon Court pups when I think they have an edge over our own in house goldens due to their small size with a specific child (Canyon Court’s line runs from 30 to 40 pounds, with traditionally bred goldens and labs running closer to 80 – 100 pounds and my own line averaging 65 pounds). Canyon Court pups also have warm playful and pleasing personalities with children, and they give me the security I enjoy with my own golden pups from my own line that they will grow, within the right environments, into stable and therapeutic canine companions for children. Watching children play with these pups in a fenced in yard is downright charming and Disneyesque, rather like watching Bambi play with Faline in the fields. 

We placed four Canyon Court labradoodle pups that were born a year ago from this line, and I want to mention here that the only way we were able to do this was that Andrea & Eric, owners of Canyon Court, deeply discounted the price of these pups from $2,500 (worth every penny!) to much more manageable sums. This savings is important when you consider that for any placement we put into play, we have to have a reservoir of cash to follow it, money that I think of as a rainy day fund. We already have and pay for insurance, but this is for the catastrophic and not the smaller tragedies that happen on occasion such as  puppies in training swallowing socks (this actually happened to us three times in the past decade; twice we escaped with a large vet bill and puppies that bounced back, but once suffered the very sad loss of a lovely standard poodle named Teddy who did not recover from emergency surgery. In our sad experience at North Star, poodles and poodle mixes are most likely to ingest clothing, but retrievers are more likely to chomp on your dining room table legs: please let forewarned be forearmed.)

Finding the right pup for the right child is a complicated task, but one we should never sell short. Partnering up our four doodle pups with the children on my waiting list is still a bit more art than science, but the overlaps of need of our four children with autism as well as the consistency of temperament you achieve when you breed specifically for temperament for many generations make this work a much smoother process than you might think. I sometimes even do this while dreaming and believe intuition should not be sold short, but nor should it be over relied upon either; when making placement decisions, I factor in temperament tests, written journals of observations of the pups, questionnaires and notes on conversations with parents to gain valuable information, and I have discovered that when I gather up enough information, these decisions just seem to make themselves.      

North Star Cocoa and friends at schoolNorth Star Cocoa and friends at school

The four mellow and kid loving Canyon Court labradoodle pups have just celebrated their first birthday and are all doing beautifully: sisters Cocoa and Luna both spent time in a puppy raising home in Pennsylvania with a second grade teacher named Ms. Skalaski, who shared the excitement of raising these sisters by allowing the pups to hang out with her second grade class. Ms. Skalaski should be congratulated on her ability to multitask these two goals for pups and children in a way that created great fun and excitement among the small fry. 

Here are a few quotes from letters Ms. Skalaski’s children sent to me recently about their time with these labradoodle sisters:

“Dear Luna, you make me feel so happy because you’r nice, furry, lovable, cute, adorable, And I love you a very very very lot. From Emily.”

“…Luna makes me feel happy because she tickles me. Luna is the best dog ever. I hope Luna is happy.”

This last one was from a letter from Taylor, who made me smile at her adorable unfolding sense of empathy. Love invites you to take others’ perspectives; this is really the very heart of our work. Taylor has clearly opened both her heart as well as her mind to Luna, and I think that children like Taylor can lead the way to better social inclusion (mindful mainstreaming) of children with autism in the future, as seeing real children like Charlie and Gordon with autism through Luna’s eyes is a powerful paradigm shifter for a child to reach this level of empathy and caring. The playground may come to reflect this shift in our children’s thinking, and help make bullying a thing of the past.

And finally, here is a very insightful letter is from a little one named Sasha:

“Dear Luna, I love you because you alwase kiss me when I’m sad. You are alwase playful and squeeze your squecy toy. I wish you could be with us longer and I hope you have fun at Charly and Gordon’s.” 

This letter makes me feel newly inspired, as this little one is so eloquently reflecting her appreciation of Luna’s unconditional love as well as her recognition that she is consciously moving her love forward onto “Charly” and Gordon, the two brothers on the spectrum who are now living with Luna in Massachusetts (and having a wonderful first summer together!). Taylor is demonstrating a precocious bit of empathetic development that is not just wonderful, but necessary to pave the way to a more harmonious and healthy society in our children’s future. We want Taylor to influence her peers, not be drowned out by a growing chorus of bullying voices as middle school approaches. This would negatively affect the education of the children being bullied, naturally, but perhaps even that of the quiet bystanders who lose their childhood conviction and native courage to the brute edge of conformity as they grow up, the power coming from their fear of not fitting in. This is not an appropriate atmosphere from which to expect our children to learn anything positive.  

Mrs. Skalaski’s work is educational psychology at its finest, and she is to be commended for the energy and creativity she offers her lucky students…

North Star Cocoa and his friend LucasNorth Star Cocoa and his friend Lucas Luna’s sister, Cocoa, who also spent time in Ms. Skalaski’s class last fall, is now living in Massachusetts with her girl, who needs just a touch of emotional support and receives it from Luna, who does not discriminate between the sibings of this close knit family. Including siblings on the ground floor of our placements is an important component of any placement we create, as we aim to strengthen all family bonds, and never detract from them.

This particular placement enjoys great support from their tight circle of family and friends from their Boston-Strong neighborhood; this is not just a Hallmark sweet thing to say, but a necessary one to have for children who have special social or emotional needs for best outcome. Children with even mild social and emotional vulnerabilities can, and do, easily slip through the cracks of our system, especially as they get older and society begins to expect so much more of them. This is why it is so important for us to keep safety nets in play, which can include the living breathing safety net of a canine companion. North Star dogs have infinite patience with children's repetitive nature, unlimited forgiveness for social transgressions, and consistent admiration for their many gifts. It takes an astonishingly pure heart to achieve these heights and we can only aspire to this state of mind.

My next column will focus on the Cocoa and Luna's brothers, Harry and Blue, who are also working with North Star children...

 

  1. Autism
  2. Dogs
  3. Service animals
  4. therapeutic effects
  5. therapeutic interactions
  6. Therapeutic intervention
  7. Therapeutic Processes
  8. therapy

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