Since the North Star Foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in 2000, it has placed hundreds of dogs with human partners, pairing them mostly with children with autism or conditions such as grief, trauma or serious illness. North Star, based in Storrs, Connecticut, has also partnered its service dogs with adults facing similar struggles, especially service veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here’s a bit of their story.
The importance of breeding, temperament and socialization
North Star dogs are specifically bred for temperament and soundness, with temperament key to ensuring that the dogs work safely and effectively, says Patty Dobbs Gross, founder and executive director of the North Star Foundation. “North Star’s breeding program is 20 years in the making, with several golden [retriever] lines we are developing to possess the level of soundness in both body and temperament for work with children,” says Gross.
The field of canine behavioral genetics is still in its infancy, but researchers do know that careful breeding can produce this soundness, as well as specific canine temperamental traits such as tolerance for children, social intelligence and “biddability,” or willingness to work.
North Star dogs are gently handled and carefully socialized from birth through their early years of puppyhood. The North Star philosophy of early socialization helps ensure proper placement of the proper dog for the proper client—child or adult. Organizers also work to help the person in need bond with the dog and develop a high-quality relationship. During the introduction of dog to person, supervisors monitor the placement to ensure it will endure and help the individual with his or her specific challenges.
The dogs’ training and socialization process begins at birth. “The whelping boxes are set up so that whenever a person walks by, they want to reach in to handle the puppies,” says Gross. “But we only pet the pups that are sitting. If we do that consistently, by the time the pups are 7 weeks of age, they snap to a sit whenever a person walks into the room.”
This “default sit” teaches the pup that it needs to sit to get attention. An added benefit? A sitting dog is not a jumping dog. “That’s probably the thing we are most cautious about in our work with these dogs,” says Gross. “Labradors have an energetic, playful behavior. If they are loving and enthusiastic and they jump up on a fragile child, they could hurt them.”
The key is to match the right dog with the right person, so that’s where the program focuses most of its energy. And while there are no guarantees, the rewards are sweet when the right match is made.
An illustration: Lilly and an emotionally challenged veteran
Gross says one of her first veteran placements involved a man from Hawaii. This veteran, who hadn’t been well emotionally since a tour in Afghanistan, emailed her asking for a North Star dog. “We worked closely with him, and it was one of the nicest placements I have made,” says Gross. North Star had a dog at the time, Lilly, that was “a little too much dog” for the children they were working with, so she partnered Lilly with the veteran.
This veteran’s particular difficulty was flashbacks, which took the form of nightmares during sleep or panic attacks during the day. Sometimes these incidents would occur in public areas such as a bus. “I wasn’t sure what would happen the first time this veteran woke up startled in the middle of night,” Gross says. “His cortisol levels would be naturally high, so the dog would ‘understand’ that her partner was emotionally upset, but what would Lilly choose to do?”
What Lilly did was keep her hind legs on the floor and lay her forelegs over the veteran to comfort him. “The dog would not cloister the man but be partially on top of him, to assure him of her presence when the veteran awoke in panic,” Gross says.
If a flashback occurred during the day, Gross continues, Lilly would respond similarly, nudging the man at the onset of the attack, when he started to “zone out.” “I did not train Lilly to do either of those things,” says Gross. “Correctly bred and socialized dogs just seem to have an inner sense of naturally responding to people in times of emotional turmoil, likely responding to a rise in cortisol and a deep need to comfort a member of the pack.
“I still hear from him almost every year,” Gross says. “He is now known in his community as teamed with his beautiful Lilly.”
A history of helping children with autism
The process is similar when dogs are being socialized for children with autism. Gross, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology, is working to better understand what’s truly going on between dog and person in these relationships. “Now that we know how to breed, socialize and partner these dogs with people in need, the question arises—what exactly are they doing for their child or for their challenged adult?” she says. “This is the cutting edge of this field and what we’re trying to flush out.”
Gross says almost every child she works with, especially those on the autism spectrum, have a degree of anxiety that’s very hard to control. “There are many reasons for this, both cultural and intrinsic to the nature of autism,” she says. “Science has discovered that when a child is anxious, their salivary cortisol levels rise, similar to the veteran and his nightmares or his panic attacks on the bus. Researchers in Canada have found that autism assistance dogs help lower their child’s levels of cortisol when they’re together, and vice versa when they’re apart.”
In the Canadian study Gross mentions, researchers examined children with autism syndrome disorders (ASD) three times—prior to the introduction of dogs, when the children were accompanied by the dogs, and after the dogs were removed from the child’s family. Before the service dogs were introduced, investigators noted a 58% increase in morning cortisol concentration after awakening. The concentration decreased to 10% with the dogs present. The same cortisol concentrations increased to 48% when the dogs were removed. The results lend support for the benefits of service dogs for children with autism, the researchers concluded.1
“Now that we know that point of fact, physiologically speaking, we can separate the autism field from the psychobabble,” says Gross. “This study moves this neurological difference into a physiological light and shows how the assistance dog really helps.”
And how do they help? “Actually, what the dog is doing when they’re with their child, especially when they’re in public and their anxiety levels are high, is alerting the child and the child’s caretakers to the rising levels of anxiety or increasing levels of cortisol,” says Gross. “Then the dogs—and this is a part of their socialization as well as the breeding—take over to calm the child down. The dogs want to calm the child, especially when they’re socialized correctly and reinforced by the caretaker for doing so.”
Gross says specially trained dogs help autistic children feel more comfortable among their peers as well as help their peers feel more comfortable talking with the ASD children. “Most every child loves a dog,” she says. “They’re an ice-breaker, and there’s a common bond between kids and other children with dog companions.”
North Star is not the only facility using this model of training dogs. Gross knows of one in San Diego and about 10 other organizations using similar models. “I take it as a real compliment—I love to think that other people think our model is a good one,” she says.
The future looks bright
Assistance dogs are evolving from the initial model of aiding adults with physical challenges to providing social or emotional support for adults and children with conditions such as autism, Gross says. “And there are other children we serve who have other social and emotional challenges, such as grief or serious illness,” she says. “We have to include them as well in this field of service to children.”
It’s a good time to be doing this kind of work, Gross observes. “I think it’s really blossoming,” she says. “People are going back to the more simple aspects of helping kids with autism. We were so distracted with false issues like it being related to vaccines. Now that people have settled down a bit, I think they’re revisiting the concept that autism is just a normal variation. Let’s look at the therapies available, let’s change the environment, let’s make it more conducive to the child’s comfort and growth. It’s a good time for kids with autism.”
1. Viau R, Arsenault-Lapierre G, Fecteau S, et al. Effect of service dogs on salivary cortisol secretion in autistic children. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2010;35(8):1187-1193.