These service dogs are helping children find their way

The North Star Foundation places specially trained dogs with children who are facing challenges such as losing a parent, serious medical conditions, disabilities, or abuse.

About 2.8 million school-aged children in America have disabilities, and over 2.6 million children ages 6-12 have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Patty Dobbs Gross, founder and executive director of North Star Foundation, is working to help children like these through the assistance of her specially trained golden retrievers.

North Star places dogs with children who are facing challenges such as losing a parent, serious medical conditions, disabilities, and abuse. Gross, who has a master’s in child psychology, takes a systems-based approach when reviewing candidates for placements, considering the needs of a child’s entire family.

North Star has paired over 275 dogs with families to date. The foundation has also successfully performed facility placements, in which they train dogs to work in schools and other institutions serving children.

young girl cuddles puppy Gross's daughter, Kelsey, with a North Star pup. (Photo: Patty Dobbs Gross)

The decision to start the foundation was greatly influenced by Gross’s experience with her son, Danny, who was diagnosed with autism and received one of the first autism assistance dogs in the world from Canine Companions for Independence.

Gross observed aspects of therapy dog placements that could improve, such as acclimating the dog to its role with the child.

“I began to dream about what this field could possibly achieve if we expanded our thinking,” she said.

“Having exceptional breeding practices was job number one, and this fall we’ll be delivering our tenth generation of a golden line that I began 20 years ago.”

North Star raises half of the cost of placements, and families provide the other half through fundraising. North Star offers two levels of service to families. The first is the therapeutic placement, in which the dog undergoes training at local facilities with professionals. This process takes about a year and costs $10,000. On the second level, the families and dog train for another year and earn full public access through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

young girl hugs retriever puppy A young girl at the Sunflower Festival at Buttonwood Farm in Griswold, CT, with Molly, a North Star pup in training. (Photo: Jennifer Gross)

The foundation’s name came to Gross while on her deck one night. “My friend, who’s a science teacher, suggested North Star, as it’s a fixed point in the sky that can guide travelers to help them find their way,” she said. “That symbol spoke to me and I hoped it’d speak to others I wanted to reach.”

North Star’s base is Storrs, Connecticut, just ten miles from Ashford, Connecticut — home of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.

“North Star was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2000 and back then, there were all kinds of excited Paul Newman sightings in Storrs,” Gross said. “When I learned of our like-mindedness in wanting to help children, I volunteered at the camp, bringing several golden pups in training there for several summers.”

Newman’s Own Foundation also funded a North Star placement for a Hole in the Wall Gang camper named Leah. Camp marked the first time Leah was able to be away from her family since suffering a brain injury.

Carol Salek North Star dog Lego with his owner, David. (Photo: Carol Salek)

Leah underwent five years of treatment and hospital stays for a complicated brain tumor. During this time, Leah lost her ability to walk and talk and had to leave school for a special needs program. Prior to this, she was an “active, articulate, and social girl,” said Leah’s mother, Abby Robinson. “She became frustrated, depressed, and isolated.”

Leah went to the camp for two summers, which Robinson describes as a fantastic and formative time. “Her physical needs were greater than any previous camper's, so we were pleasantly surprised when the camp agreed to accommodate her and her college-aged aide,” Robinson said.

Camp gave Leah the opportunity to be herself and participate in aspects of life that her condition had previously hindered.

service dog watches child while dad reads a story Lucy the dog keeps an eye on Leah while her dad, David, reads her a story. (Photo: Abby Robinson)

“Having an opportunity to be with others her own age, without her family, for a week was a great experience for Leah,” Robinson said. “With support from camp staff and her own aide, Leah was able to engage in all of the camp activities, including swimming, fishing, music, the talent show, and she even experienced the climbing tower.”

Leah’s brother, Daniel, attended the camp’s siblings program. “It was a remarkable experience for an eight-year-old who’d lived with such a complicated family situation,” Robinson said. “He made friends with other children going through similar family experiences and was able to just be a regular kid, instead of the good and patient brother.”

North Star placed their pup Lucy with Leah. “Probably the most important way Lucy helped Leah was as a means of connection to the community,” Robinson said.

“People tend to avoid persons with disabilities in the community. With Lucy by her side, people, especially peers, were more likely to approach her and engage with her.”

The most significant aspect of partnering dogs with children is the dynamic between them. “The magic is going to come from the native interactions of the right dog, socialized and supervised the right way, with the right child,” Gross said.

founder of north star foundation with child and two puppies Gross and Sarah Grace with two North Star pups. (Photo: Eileen McCarthy)

Establishing respect between the two is crucial. “This is done with many gentle reminders and lots of kind praise for good communication between the two,” Gross said. “Our work is as much about teaching people as training pups.”

The process ultimately helps children who are struggling find their place.

Gross says, “I consider this the cutting edge of this emerging field and I believe this field is going to allow more children to avoid being over-medicated or left behind in the social mix of their schools and communities.”

Headshot of writer Aimee La Fountain

Aimée La Fountain is a Greater New York-based writer and nonprofit marketing strategist. She currently serves as an arts columnist for Gannett and specializes in features and editorials. In her spare time, you'll find Aimée volunteering, traveling, or in the midst of her latest DIY project. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, and Patch.

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