We Help Children Find Their Way

by Patty Dobbs Gross

North Star Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to select, train and place assistance dogs with children who face challenges. To date we have helped over fifty families to meet their children's social, emotional and educational goals through the use of well-bred and appropriately trained North Star dogs.

Over half the children we serve are on the autism spectrum, although we also place North Star dogs with children who face a serious illness or who have suffered a loss. Our main task at hand for all our placements is to have North Star dogs help their children socially, emotionally and educationally, and so we use a different model of placement than the traditional assistance dog model that most people are familiar with; this is due to the different roles that our dogs perform. While most Seeing Eye or Wheelchair dogs need to have a multitude of trained skills, such as turning on or off light switches and picking up dropped items, our dogs tend to have less technical tasks such as comforting a child through a tantrum. This comfort doesn’t come from a fancy trick to be trained, but from the dog’s very presence.

On the surface a long down/stay seems easy, and not especially glamorous to train; however, the ability to stay calm in the face of a child's loud and 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 but impending rewards for calm canine compliance. We focus on selecting and socializing our dogs correctly to be able to safely and effectively intervene in the face of a child’s meltdown or anxiety states, and we stress the importance of appropriate and educated supervision for these interactions from families members and professionals alike.

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; these qualities are then shaped through the interplay of nature and nurture. Our method of training North Star dogs is completely positive, for a dog raised with correction based training is often anxious and useless in situations that require a dog to have a level of "intelligent disobedience" (i.e., if a child suddenly takes off you need a dog that will shadow him, even if he has been given the command to stay in the yard. This quality cannot be trained, as it is a function of the quality of the breeding along with a training program that offers a dog rewards and encouragement for the act of thinking for itself.) We work with our children's parents, teachers and therapists as we take a holistic approach to our placements. Anyone on a child's team can help to create a North Star dog's role, with siblings especially important members of this team in our work within the home.

Proper socialization is key to our work at North Star Foundation, and therefore we seek puppy-raising homes that are similar to the homes where our North Star dogs work; this puppy raising home often has children who correspond in age with the their puppy's ultimate owners. The children often correspond or visit each other, which pulls the child with a challenge back into the community and helps to deepen the experience for our puppy raisers as well. We also present programs at schools that our North Star children attend, to help their peers understand the challenge that they must face. We believe there is no better way to teach tolerance and model acceptance than through the eyes of a puppy being trained to help a child.

Although our waiting list to receive a North Star dog is quite long, we also serve as a source of information and referrals for families who contact us. We have put together a list of ten organizations that place assistance dogs for children that is available upon request, and we are also happy to advise anyone with a specific question relating to selection or training of an assistance dog to work with a child. We provide this service free of any charge to keep kids safe, as it can be dangerous to partner a dog with a child with challenges incorrectly.

I have written a book entitled THE GOLDEN BRIDGE: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged By Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities (Purdue University Press/March, 2006). I have also produced several DVDs about the work we are accomplishing at North Star Foundation. These DVDs include “Raising Your North Star,” about how we select and train the pups we use in our work, “Northern Lights,” about how we incorporate our dogs into children’s therapeutic programs, and “Home Before Dark,” which documents our work with children on the autism spectrum. These DVDs are available to families of children with challenges free upon request, as education is an important part of our mission.

I believe that together we can make a difference in the lives of some great kids, and help them to find their way to a happy adulthood. Donations are both appreciated as well as greatly needed for us to continue our groundbreaking work, and all donations to North Star Foundation are considered tax deductible, as we are a not for profit organization (tax # 31385).

I thank you in advance for any help you can offer us, and we in turn are ready to offer help to any family who requests it, striving to be as constant a source of light and direction for families of children with challenges as the real North Star…


Kind regards,

Patty Dobbs Gross
Executive Director
North Star Foundation
20 Deerfield Lane
Storrs, CT 06268
“We help children find their way.”

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