The Buddy System
Connect with a Dog, Connect to the World
David Williams and his autism assistance dog Buddy.
Photo by Dale Williams
What if there were a specially trained dog that could help your child stay safe, develop greater confidence, sleep through the night, become more socially adept, and improve their reading and speech skills? Most parents would jump at the chance to have such an amazing animal in their home. But for some families—those who have a child on the autism spectrum—a special dog such as this, can play a critical role in their child’s development.
Today, one in 68 children is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. There are many effective speech, behavioral, and physical therapies available to help kids with autism, but one of the most powerful—and one most people don’t know about—is how adding an autism-assistance dog to the mix can literally transform a child’s life.
Patty Dobbs Gross of Storrs, first became interested in the positive interaction between dog and child 25 years ago when Canine Companions for Independence gifted a former wheelchair assistance dog named Madison to her family. “I never truly appreciated what a dog could do until my son Dan, was diagnosed with autism,” says Dobbs Gross.
“I knew that assistance dogs could help people who were visually, physically, or hearing impaired, so when we got Madison and I saw how much she helped Dan emotionally and socially, I thought, ‘Why not train dogs specifically for children on the autism spectrum?’” In 2000 she launched the North Star Foundation, a non-profit organization that places assistance dogs with families across the country and around the world.
“These dogs really act as social facilitators,” explains Dobbs Gross. “They help mitigate the average person’s fear of differences. The dog provides a conversation starter, which can be the basis for positive social interaction. In addition, many of these kids don’t get invited to play dates or sleepovers, so an assistance dog can fulfill the role of companion and playmate while still acting as a potent therapeutic tool.”
Traditional assistance dog programs place fully trained canines with their human owners when the animal is around two years old. North Star has a different approach. Dobbs Gross raises litters of golden-retriever pups in her home, allowing her to develop insight into each dog’s disposition and potential. After taking into account a family’s lifestyle—laid-back or active? city-dweller or suburban?—along with each child’s personality, Dobbs Gross then weighs the “temperamental fit” between puppy and child, and so begins the matchmaking process. They grow and learn together, allowing the child and dog to truly bond.
The results are remarkable. Children who previously only spoke in whispers or not at all, want so badly to communicate with their dog that they begin to speak. With a trusted companion by their side, children who were plagued by chronic sleep disruption and night terrors are finally able to sleep right through till morning. Kids who habitually had public meltdowns are suddenly able to quell their anxiety, thanks to the calming influence of their canine friend.
Three years ago, Ridgefield’s Jill and Alex Horning acquired North Star’s Regis, to provide support for their 13-year-old son AJ, who is on the autism spectrum. “When you have a child with autism, it’s not just the child who has autism, it’s the whole family,” says Jill. “Regis has been a source of humor, joy, and comfort. We are all so incredibly thankful for this dog.”
Gross’s personal journey as “anautism Mom,” along with the story of her pioneering work in the field of breeding and training assistance dogs is featured in The Buddy System, a new documentary by local filmmaker (and Wilton Magazine editor) Megan Smith-Harris. “The message of the film is simple,” she says. “A child who connects with a dog, connects to the world.”
The non-profit production, funded in large part by contributions from Wilton residents, was made over a three-year period and chronicles the stories of several families and their North Star service dogs.
This spring—timed to dovetail with April’s Autism Awareness Month—The Buddy System will officially roll out at film festivals across the country. The documentary will also screen locally at the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival in late May. Community screenings and television distribution will unfold later in the year.