Dogs Help Children Find Their Way

Patty Dobbs Gross, Executive Director, North Star Foundation

North Star Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to place assistance dogs with children who face challenges. To date we have helped over forty families meet the social, emotional and educational goals of their children on the autism spectrum, through the use of well-bred, well-trained dogs.

Our dogs play a different role than traditional assistance dogs. While most assistance dogs need to have a multitude of trained skills, such as turning on or off light switches, our dogs tend to face less technical tasks, such as comforting a child through a tantrum by offering a relaxed presence and focused attention. On the surface, a long, attentive “down/stay” seems easy, and not especially glamorous to train; however, the ability to stay calm in the face of a child’s loud emotional upset requires a dog that has a mellow, nonreactive temperament and a long history of understanding that children’s tantrums are sound and fury that signify nothing. We select and socialize our dogs to safely and effectively intervene in the face of a child’s meltdown or anxiety.

We are committed to finding the optimal fit between child and dog, and then supporting this team as they grow together. The pups we select have a genetically heightened ability to read the social cues and establish strong communication with a child. North Star puppies are raised in puppy-raising homes, and have supervised contact with their designated children as early as possible. Traditional assistance dogs are placed with their partners when they are over two years old, but for a child with a developmental disability delayed placement could negatively affect bonding between the child and the dog. By two, a dog’s temperament is well established. If the dog has not had exposure during the early months to the child in question, or to the specific challenges s/he presents, the dog might react unpredictably. Children with autism or other developmental disabilities often display unusual behavior; sometimes they throw loud tantrums or fail to grant the appropriate body space that we unconsciously and consistently grant each other. Dogs depend greatly on nonverbal communication, and are apt to be uncomfortable with violation of personal space.

When we select a puppy to work with a child, we look for superior social skills and a large measure of intelligence and problem-solving ability. We then nurture these qualities. A concept called “intelligent disobedience” is especially valuable. If a blind person approaches an open manhole, it is desirable that the dog ignore the command to “Go forward,” and instead lie down in front of his/her partner. This quality of understanding needed to interpret their environment and protect his or her partner, is largely found in the dog’s genes, but must be nurtured. Our method of training North Star dogs is completely positive, and we reward a dog for thinking for itself. A pup afraid of physical correction can become too afraid to think for itself and disobey a command. For example, if a child suddenly takes off, you need a dog that will shadow him—even if the dog has been given the command to stay in the yard.

Supervision is essential to creating a successful placement. We must establish optimal behavioral patterns right from the start. Dogs take their cues about relationships from humans; training is just a concentrated form of communication about what behaviors we want to encourage or discourage. If a child with autism does not make it clear to a puppy that playful nips hurt, then the puppy will naturally nip more. It is important for the child’s caretakers to ensure that the relationship between child and puppy is consistently gentle and mutually enjoyable.

Above all, a child with autism should be fully integrated into his or her own family. Therefore, all of North Star’s placements are family-based, with every member given a special job to perform. The dog becomes a focus of attention, increasing both communication and fun for the whole family. Parental involvement is crucial and, although time-consuming, can be pleasant. Incorporating a well-bred and well-trained puppy or dog makes time spent working on a child’s social, emotional, and educational goals more focused and fun. Attention must be consistent and educated, but the parents I have come to know pay this type of attention to their children already! Parents get to love this dog as much as their children do, and enjoy the emotional support the dog gives them so freely. Job assignments are created to help the dog form individual bonds with every member of the immediate family. For example, jobs such as feeding will be given to the child with a challenge, but we also try to draw the rest of the siblings into walking or grooming the dog.

For a child with autism, spoken language can get in the way of successful communication. After an exhausting day struggling to communicate with humans in words, spending time interacting nonverbally with a dog is a welcome respite, and can greatly reduce the frequency of meltdowns. “Time out” can be a positive thing, when the dog is present to provide comfort. Children with autism often have great difficulty in generalizing learned speech to new situations and people, due to their overly selective attention and tendency to respond to a limited number of cues. An assistance dog can act as a bridge to help children generalize speech out into natural settings, both the home and the outside community. Adults can help the child rehearse stock responses to the fairly predictable questions people are likely to ask when they see a well-trained dog wearing a vest with a patch that reads “Please Ask to Pet Me.” People who may have shied away from starting a conversation with your child often relax and rise to the challenge when a dog is available to help structure the questions and comments.

However, perhaps the most important way North Star dogs help children is to increase their self-esteem and feelings of social and emotional competence—including empathy and theory of mind. Actively engaging a child in raising a puppy teaches responsibility, and also helps the child take another’s perspective. As dogs are much simpler to understand than people, they are far easier for children with autism to relate to. Most of the children become very solicitous of and attached to their dogs, and these relationships can become stepping-stones to more socially and emotionally complicated relationships with people.

See, and The Golden Bridge: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged By Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities (Purdue University Press, 2006). North Star Foundation DVDs are available to families of children with challenges free upon request: “Raising Your North Star,” “Northern Lights,” and “Home Before Dark.”