North Star Foundation is a nonprofit organization, with a mission to place assistance and therapy dogs with children who face social, emotional or educational challenges. We have been incorporated as a nonprofit for eighteen years, and have created 325 kid/canine partnerships in this time, using well-bred and well-trained North Star dogs as therapeutic tools for the children served.

Over half the children we serve are on the autism spectrum; we also place North Star dogs with children with other developmental differences, serious illnesses, or anxiety. We use a different model of placement than the traditional assistance-dog model most people are familiar with; this is due to the different roles that our dogs play. 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), North Star dogs tend to have less technical tasks. They’re usually responsible for holistic duties such as alerting to a child’s anxiety, or comforting a child through a tantrum. This comfort doesn’t come from a task to be trained, but simply from the dog’s intelligent breeding, careful partnering, and specific socialization for the North Star dog’s job description.

The pups we select to partner with our children have a genetically-heightened ability to read the social cues of their children, which helps to strengthen the communication that develops between them. North Star puppies are handpicked for both temperament, as well as soundness, and then raised in enriched environments and carefully-selected puppy raising homes (with supervised contact with their children as early as possible). This allows the child to be on the ground floor of training from its very earliest stages. Our strongest commitment is to find the optimal fit between child and North Star dog, and to support this team as they grow together.

Traditional assistance dogs are placed with their partners when they are over the age of two years…but, for a child with a developmental disability, this delayed placement has the potential to influence the success of bonding between the child and the dog. By the age of two years, a dog's temperament is also well-established; however, with no experience in how to interpret autistic behaviors, the dog may react unpredictably (which we typically try our hardest to avoid). Children with autism or other developmental disabilities often display unusual behavior…sometimes they throw loud tantrums, or fail to grant the “personal space” that we unconsciously and consistently grant each other. Dogs depend on nonverbal communication, and are apt to be uncomfortable with violation of "personal space."

Proper supervision is essential to creating a placement with a child on the autism spectrum…because any pairing of a dog with a child with autism (or a related developmental disability) comes with risk. The same communication difficulties that children with autism experience can also exist with dogs. Dogs take their cues from humans regarding how relationships are structured; 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 his/her puppy that playful nips hurt, then the puppy will naturally nip more. It is critical for childrens’ caretakers to ensure that their child’s relationship with their puppy is consistently-gentle, and mutually-enjoyable. 

Careful breeding and puppy selection go a long way toward reducing training time and increasing safety, as does establishing optimal behavioral patterns right from the start. Interestingly, there are desired qualities in a North Star dog that cannot be trained; they are recognized, carefully-nurtured, and supported. A concept Guiding Eyes for the Blind refers to as "intelligent disobedience" is valued in any assistance dog for both adults and children. If a blind person approached 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.

The dogs we use at North Star are from genetic lines known for sociability, within breeds known for their social nature. The pups we place are determined to form individual bonds with every member of their immediate family. This inclusion of a child with autism's siblings is a unique feature of our philosophy of placement…because the most important group a child with autism should be fully integrated into is within is his or her own family.

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, as the pup matures with their child on the ground floor of training and socialization. We focus on selecting and socializing our dogs correctly right from the start of life, to be able to have the dog safely and effectively intervene in the face of a child’s meltdown or anxiety states. We stress the importance of appropriate and educated supervision for these interactions, from family members and professionals alike.

The early nurturing and training of an assistance or therapy pup is important to consider. If a pup grows up afraid of physical correction, this pup may well become too afraid to disobey a command and think for itself when we most need this skill. It is the interplay between nature and nurture that matters the most here; this is a dynamic, not a static, process, between the child as leader, and the pup as a (hopefully!) attentive follower.

All of North Star's placements are family-based, with every member given a special job to perform with their North Star dog. The job assignments are created with bonding issues uppermost in mind. For example, to facilitate bonding, 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 the placement, with jobs such as walking or grooming. At North Star, cut-and-dried training takes a back seat to therapeutic work with the children we serve. The pups are tools to meet their children’s needs, via intelligent use of puppy power.

A North Star dog becomes a moving focal point of the child’s attention, and this helps immeasurably to increase the communication, as well as fun, that takes place within the home. The nonverbal avenue of interacting with a North Star dog is an important advantage here, as sometimes spoken language can get in the way of successfully communicating with a child with autism. When a child with autism (who has had an exhausting day) is struggling to communicate in a manner that is foreign to him, spending time with a dog is a nice way to structure all-important down time (with the language of unconditional love), which can reduce the frequencies of meltdowns. The concept of a "time out" with an assistance or therapy dog, as this dog reliably holds a down-stay, can comfortably smooth over the rough edges of a child’s day, so to speak.

On the surface, a long, attentive down/stay seems easy. 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 from the get-go. A dog must also understand that children's tantrums are sound and fury signifying nothing, except for impending rewards towards calm canine behavior. Correct socialization for our North Star dogs is an important aspect of our philosophy of placement, and our puppy-raising program is second to none by way of the heart and soul of this volunteer service.

We create our public-access partnerships in three-way and four-way forms when seeking public access, which include one or both parents along the way. A North Star dog who first receives our therapeutic level of certification (with their child and parent/guardian in tow) is then eligible to continue training and socializing, to earn their public role under our umbrella. When a North Star dog is accepted to work with a child in the school system, an adult-designated hander will be offered six private sessions with a North Star trainer. This ensures development of the necessary handling skills to support a North Star dog’s job with a child. Insurance for the life of our North Star teams is part of the package of a North Star placement with full public access.

More research needs to be conducted on animal assisted therapy, to know how best to help children who face the social, emotional and educational challenges that autism presents. This is an emerging field, and at North Star, we are committed to not only staying on top of the latest research, but also contributing to it, rather than simply waiting for knowledge to trickle down to us.

I’ll leave you with a video Dan created to help celebrate our ten-year anniversary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uceofN098-8                                                

And here’s Dan’s latest effort, released just last year, which reflects our most recent North Star partnerships.

ANGELS LEARN TO FLY: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB80kbP-JUc

Please feel free to ask me any questions you might have!  You can reach me by phone at (860) 423-0664, or via email at pattydobbsgross@gmail.com.