By Alexis Morley
When she talks about meeting Dalma for the first time, Doris Dehm smiles and says, “I was so emotional, because you sit there and wait for a new member of your family.”
Dehm isn’t talking about welcoming a new baby to the family, but rather the Goldendoodle service dog she and her husband got for their daughter, Anna, in January 2013. A blonde, bubbly woman with dark-rimmed glasses, Dehm once lived in Lake Oswego and now lives in Australia with her family.
We connect over Skype, where I speak to her in Australia’s morning and Portland’s afternoon. As Dehm talks, Dalma and Anna periodically run into the room, curiously poking their heads in front of the computer’s camera to become part of the conversation. Anna, who is diagnosed with autism, is thin, with dark hair, bangs and a shy smile. Today she’s wearing a lot of pink, which helps to set off Dalma’s curly, white blonde fur.
The two of them appear tethered together by an invisible string. When Anna runs off Dalma follows, watching where the child lands and following if needed. Dehm describes how connected the two of them are, laying together while Anna colors or cuddling while Anna reads. Dalma proves to be more than just a fuzzy friend and provides necessary daily support.
“Anna used to have a lot of fears,” Dehm explains, “for example, butterflies…And now she’s lost that entirely.” Since welcoming Dalma nearly two years ago, Anna’s behavior has improved in other areas as well. Before connecting with Dalma, Anna had meltdowns and would harm herself, and there were also difficulties sleeping and low self-esteem. However, Dehm now sees a marked difference in her daughter.
Along with therapy, “the dog is so effective with helping Anna confront her fears, her meltdowns and her sleep,” Dehm says about Dalma. “The last years have been amazing, we couldn’t imagine the changes [we’ve seen].”
After connecting with other families online, Dehm and her husband decided to get a service animal for Anna through 4 Paws for Ability. The worldwide organization initially required over an hour of video footage of Anna for trainers to get an idea of her behavior, both public and in the home. Trainers then selected a dog that matched Anna’s characteristics, personality as well as the needs of the family.
“We didn’t get to pick the dog at all,” Dehm says. However Anna has allergies and asthma, “so we asked if possible we would like a hypoallergenic dog, and we asked for a bigger one if possible. They said they try to take that in to account but they can’t guarantee if the dog doesn’t match the child’s personality.”
After selecting a dog, training begins. First, 4 Paws for Ability sends its animals to a foster family for six months of socialization before the dog heads to a correctional facility to train with inmates for an additional four to six months. In prison, dogs get basic training, as well as some fun extra skills, such as how to do a high-five and fall over when you shout “Bang!”
Once a dog has been trained the basics, working with the animal on the specific needs of the child are addressed. While the dog is going through this transition, the family also works by completing 12 full days of training at a
4 Paws center. Once the dog becomes part of the family, training continues, but on a much more subtle level.
“I’m still do training, commands, teaching her not to run ahead on a walk, listening when I give her commands, behavioral training (sitting until released at the park), etc,” Dehm says. “It’s easy because the dogs are so well trained. Saying ‘no’ in a strict voice is the only punishment she needs, she knows she has disappointed me.”
Dehm attributes Anna’s behavioral improvements and independence to the fact that her daughter feels dogs are less threatening. “The dog is a much more non-judgmental entity than people were.”
Anna’s improvements are also in part because Dalma is able to take on a unique role in Anna’s life. Before getting Dalma, Anna would push away from her parents during a meltdown, but now Dalma is able to lie on Anna to provide deep pressure and calm her down faster than another person would, her mother says.
Dalma also encourages Anna’s independence and self-confidence by being a friendly, yet calming force. When she thinks about Anna being a teenager and doing things on her own, Dehm says, “I feel more comfortable.”
Before getting Dalma, Dehm and her husband had to take on a role of being “helicopter parents.” Now with the dog, who is trained in tethering though the family no longer uses this method, Anna has a lot more independence “which leads to more freedom, more self-esteem. It’s steps, she knows Dalma’s there and she doesn’t need my hand”.
Many other organizations exists throughout the world to provide trained animals that help provide independence for people with autism.
Autism Service Dogs of America also trains and provides dogs for families with children on the spectrum. Those interested in animal-assisted therapy can contact breeders directly for specifically qualified training dogs for children with autism.
While dogs might be the first that come to mind when thinking of animal-assisted therapy, the options are (literally) much bigger.
Horses are used in both hippotherapy and equine therapy and generally depend on the severity of the disability. Hippotherapy is led by a physical, occupational or speech therapist; trained by the American Hippotherapy Association; horses and patient are matched depending on demeanor and physical attributes; there can be additional staff members that act as a “side walker or spotter” when the patient is on horseback.
Equine therapy is led by a Therapeutic Riding Instructor who is familiar with riders who have special needs; they hold a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) certification. Riders typically are guided by the instructor to learn how to manage and ride a hose with the goal of instilling as much independence as possible. One main difference is that equine therapy cannot be billed to insurance, while hippotherapy can be covered by insurance.
Forward Stride, an equine and hippotherapy ranch in Beaverton, has several therapeutic adaptive riding programs for children and adults of all abilities. The adaptive program includes classes in basic riding, dressage, drill team, western patterns and jumping.
Other large four-legged animals available for therapy include llamas and alpacas, specifically through Mountain Peaks Therapy based in Vancouver, Wash. Mountain Peaks Therapy began regularly visiting schools, hospitals, senior communities, weddings, camps and rehabilitation facilities in 2007 and recently completed its 900th visit.
Owner Lori Gregory describes her introduction into owning llamas as a “fluke.” Rojo is Gregory’s first llama, since joined by Smokey and Beni, and originally was purchased as a way to keep the lawn low. One day, while at a fair, children flocked to the 400-pound red hued huggable llama, and someone suggested he become a therapy animal.
With their gentle nature, soft fur and willingness to take multiple sensory-seeking pats, llamas can be ideal animals to interact with children on the spectrum. Mountain Peaks Therapy allows children to gain confidence and trust by feeding the animals by hand, as well as walk them around when allowed. The organization primarily works with groups, but occasionally does individual therapy sessions with children upon request.
What began as a hobby has now become what Gregory describes as an “obsession.” She says the power of transformations that she’s seen through her work with animals and children on the spectrum. She loves to see how children open up and express happiness around her animals.
The connection between humans and animals is strong and for children on the spectrum, this special bond can provide a unique way to improve on skills and ultimately work toward a more independent life.
“It’s so rewarding to see how people respond in a natural way,” Gregory says. “Parents and therapists in school tell us all the time how it’s hard to get a kid to talk or hug and then our animals show up and they don’t ask anything. The kids just want to hug and talk to them.”