This is another piece that will be in Northern Virginia Today’s print edition
Connor is Autism Spectrum. Our pets were always integral parts of Connor’s life. When he was six, Connor took one of our older, very patient dogs through Agility classes. At nine, he began showing Foster who was still a pup in conformation. Shortly after, Connor finished a United Kennel Club Championship title on the little dog. In 2010, Animal Planet was looking for human interest stories for an upcoming Dogs 101 episode. Connor was just the human interest story they wanted. An Autistic child brought out by the love of a special little dog. However, the episode failed to get one vital lesson out to parents – it was edited out of my interview. I guess reality does not make for good reality TV. Dogs are NOT a magic cure.
What we had was no magic canine cure. It was a combination of factors, good planning and a tad of luck. I have been working with dogs since 1982 including about six years of pet therapy work. We knew the importance of preparing dogs to be around children long before a child arrives. Since birth Connor had been carefully managed and taught how to behave with dogs. At age 2, we got the devastating news: our son was Autistic. We started intervention work immediately. Luckily Connor has a less common form of Autism which is fairly easy to manage if the work is done well and from an early age. If not the outcome can be different. I will state what we did was a lot of work with Connor and the dogs. Our dogs are from good sources (good breeders or diligent rescues) and were carefully raised. We also have realistic expectations.
When I get calls from parents wanting to know if I can make their special needs child and dog just like Connor and Foster, I cannot give an answer past “It depends.” First, I di not to service dog training. I have to refer that out. Second, tou have to remember the factors in the mix. The needs of the child, the work done with the child, the time the parents can devote to working with animal and child, expectations for the dog, choice and source of the dog, etc. Even if the child has greater needs than Connor, if the parents know what truly needs to be done and have reasonable expectations, there is a greater chance success. Problems are more likely to arise when the parents are in denial of the severity of the condition, have unreasonable expectations or assume they can pull any dog from any source and miracles will happen. Additionally, if the child has fears of animals or aggressive tendencies this can lead to a less than desired outcome.
Then there are the articles saying how a child raised with animals becomes more compassionate and responsible. Children learn first from their parents. The pets are along for the ride – be it good or bad. I have worked with families whose children were exceptionally good with animals. I have met with clients who felt a dog should tolerate risky behaviors from children because that was how the children expressed themselves. Do not ask what lesson the pet should teach the child – ask what lesson you will teach the child about the pet.
No animal will be a magic cure or inspirational teacher. However, in the right situation, a pet can greatly enrich the life of any child.
Spring of his Sophomore year in High School (2015) Connor completed a personal project as part of his International Baccalaureate Middle Year Program certificate (grades 6 – 10). He discussed the use of animals and technology with Autistic children. Please read the quotes from specialists he interviewed and take them to heart. My IBMYP Autism Project
Karen Peak is the owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training and the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in Prince William County.