Denver - September 18, 2013
Marianne is often reading something called Facebook. Me, I don't see the charm of being "friends" with people you don't know and by "don't know" I mean "can't sniff." If dogs had something like that it would be called Tailbook and would definitely have a scratch n' sniff feature.
Anyhow, one evening last week I heard Marianne exclaim "Elephants!" while she was reading her Facebook page.
"What’s up? Are we getting a new pet?" I wagged my tail hopefully.
Marianne frowned. "What on earth would make you think we're getting an elephant? Do you know how big they are?"
"Slightly bigger than Meryl?" I guessed. "I dunno, why were you shouting "elephants" just now?"
"Because Kari, a Facebook friend, just happened to casually mention she used to train elephants! That is NOT a casual statement. I'd love to know how she became involved in that job, what it was like and hear more about the elephants themselves." She narrowed her eyes at me. "Hey, I have an idea. Why don't you ask Kari about it for your DogBlog? She is also raising an autism service dog named Puzzle, so you can ask about him, too. You should send Kari an email right away!"
It was my turn to frown. "How come I have to do all the work?"
"Do you have a DogBlog written for next week yet?" Marianne asked sweetly.
"Well, no, but…" I sighed. "OK, you're right. I am interested in Puzzle, so it's not a bad idea. I want a foot rub when I'm done typing, though."
Marianne patted my head. "Fine. Off you go."
Here's the result of my conversation with Kari:
JEB: First things first, Marianne is poking me and INSISTING I ask you about the elephants. Jeez, she's annoying. Anyhow, what's the story? Where did you work and what did you do?
KARI: I worked at Busch Gardens in the zoological department. I started out part time with all of the hoofed mammals (zebras, giraffes, gazelles, etc) then moved on to a full time position working with rhinos and hippos. It was during a job shadow for my company's career ladder program that I discovered the Asian elephant area. I fell in love with the elephants immediately and was fascinated by how closely the trainers interacted with them on a daily basis. As an elephant trainer I had the privilege of working one-on-one with each one of the six female elephants...first by spending a great deal of time developing relationships, then moving on to feeding and cleaning, then eventually training husbandry behaviors for the health and well-being of the elephants to include blood draws, foot care, weights, medical procedures, artificial insemination, and many other behaviors that provided mental and physical stimulation for the herd. I interacted with the public during educational presentations, behind the scenes tours, and camps. We also participated in research and had many public relations opportunities during my years spent with the elephants.
JEB: And how did you get into that line of work?
KARI: I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be an animal trainer. At 12 years old I trained over 30 behaviors to my Dalmatian simply because it was fun for me and stimulating for her. In addition, working that closely with an animal allows you to form an incredibly intimate relationship with them. There is nothing else like it and no perfect way to describe the bond that is formed. When you can communicate with animals through behavior, you are able to achieve an impressive level of communication.
JEB: Amen. You are a very smart human!
KARI: I did not, however, have any idea that I would be working with elephants. I always assumed it would be marine mammals. I sort of fell into the land-mammal side of animal care and training and, once there, never looked back.
JEB: What did you learn from the elephants?
KARI: I do not talk much about my time with the elephants unless asked directly by someone who stumbles onto the topic of my previous career. When I do though, I always tell people that the elephants helped to shape the person I am today...they changed me and for the better. I learned patience, perseverance, determination, solid work ethic, compassion, critical thinking skills, creativity, and a love for life and all that it can provide (both good and bad). The elephants also taught me the power of positive reinforcement training. The elephant training field and many parts of the animal training world as a whole is inundated with negative, force-based training. I have seen, first-hand, the damage that can be done to an intelligent and social animal when negative training methods and abuse have been utilized. The results are devastating to the animal's psyche. I will always be an advocate for positive reinforcement and have applied the methods I learned from working with elephants to myself as well as my family....and even other people (shhhhhh, don't tell anyone that!!!)
JEB: Your secret is safe with me. I am so glad that Canine Companions uses positive reinforcement. Praise and cookies, that's the ticket! Do you miss the elephants?
KARI: Everyday. Very rarely does more than a few days go by where I do not think of them in some form or another. Sometimes my heart swells with a sense of pride for what they taught me while other times it aches for what I feel I lost by leaving.
JEB: That's sad! Do you go back and visit?
KARI: I have visited several times since I left a couple of years ago and plan to try and visit at least once a year for as long as possible! I still have many friends that work with the elephants.
JEB: Do you think you might do that again someday?
KARI: I have learned the value in the cliché "Never say never." So I will refrain from saying it in this case!!
JEB: OK, enough elephants -- on to the good stuff: PUZZLE! OMD, he's cute and I don't say that about many pups because *cough* I'm so cute myself. Readers, check out his photo above. How did he get his name?
KARI: Puzzle got his name from the symbol of autism...an incomplete puzzle or puzzle piece. Autism is a bit mysterious as no one truly knows what causes it nor is there a true cure. Many find this sad and frustrating. I prefer to view it, not as a disease, but rather a different way of viewing the world. I have found autism to be chock full of challenges and incredible surprises.
JEB: I don't know much about autism, though I know some of my CCI colleagues are placed with kids with autism, so please enlighten me about how dogs can help. What tasks will Puzzle do?
KARI: I have an idea of the tasks I would like for Puzzle to perform although I am very aware that these can and will likely change. My boys and their behavior is constantly changing and thus I need to make sure that my training with Puzzle is dynamic and flexible in nature. I may eventually teach Puzzle something called tethering. Tethering is when a child is in some way attached to the assistance dog, usually by a long strap that is part of a vest or waist belt. Many autistic children demonstrate "eloping" which is basically a fancy word for bolting. They often do this with little regard for their own safety which can lead to tragic accidents or a lost child. At all times Puzzle would have either myself or my husband as his handler and would never have a child tethered to him without one of us working him on leash. Autism assistance dogs can also be taught to locate a lost child which is called tracking. It is possible that we will teach Puzzle to track although it takes a great deal of additional training and with mixed results.
JEB: (Gulp) That's amazing. Anything else?
KARI: Another task I would like to teach Puzzle is to provide firm but gentle pressure for my son Nick should he have an anxiety attack or go into sensory overload. Many children on the spectrum have what is called Sensory Processing Disorder which is basically a mis-wiring or misfiring of the sensory systems of the body. Nicholas is sensitive to many sounds and textures. He can also easily become over-stimulated in public places if there is a lot of activity or noise. I recognize many of the triggers leading to a meltdown and will make an effort to teach Puzzle to identify these as well. Deep pressure can have a very calming effect on a child with sensory processing challenges. Puzzle could provide this pressure by leaning or even laying down on Nick's legs. Nick also loves the feel of Puzzle's fur and touching or holding it has a calming effect on him. Finally, I would like to teach Puzzle to interrupt stemming behaviors in my son, Nick. Autistic children often have a behavior(s) that they repeat over and over again. The repetitive nature of the stem can have a calming effect on a child's behavior, function as an avoidance behavior in some situations, provide some type of visual or auditory input needed by the child, or just become a habit. Whatever the reason, stemming can interfere with a child's daily life activities and thus, a reduction of the behavior can be useful. Puzzle could be trained to gently nudge or step in front of Nick in an attempt to break the behavioral cycle.
JEB: WOW. I had no idea. Autism service dogs are incredible!
KARI: Yes, and as you well know, dogs often give back much more than just the behaviors they are trained to perform. Many autistic children have so much locked up tightly inside of themselves that often appears to be inaccessible to the rest of the world. This can be in the form of information, language, skills, or emotions. Dogs seem to have an uncanny ability to help people unlock their minds. They provide comfort and give them the strength they need to reach out and tap into their full potential. Dogs do not judge or place too many demands on others. They also give unconditional love. What is not to love about that? There are stories that have been told about children connecting with animals better than they do with other people. Even if Puzzle does not make it as an assistance dog, he is already providing such a valuable service for my kids. It is a win-win situation no matter how you look at it!!
JEB: What can you tell me about your boys?
KARI: Puzzle's boys are William, age 5, and Nicholas, age 3. William was our first child which means he was the one who made us, as parents, feel like fish out of water. He suffered from fairly severe silent acid reflux and, as a result, hovered just above the "failure to thrive" percentile for weight. Talk about feeling completely helpless! Reflux is a disorder that causes so much discomfort and pain without an easy solution or cure. Perhaps because we were first-time parents or perhaps because we were so worried about his health and well-being, it was not until Will was close to 2 years of age that we accepted the fact that he had a language delay. My mother is a neuropsychologist and had worked with many children with developmental disabilities so it was she who gave us the gentle nudge in the right direction. Now, at 5, Will has been through 3 years of successful early interventions, has an IEP, and is currently attending a school with a teacher who really cares about him as an individual and has a natural ability for working with unique kiddos. William has a diagnosis on the autism spectrum (Asperger's) along with Sensory Processing Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Will has strong interests in trucks, tractors, geography, barns, and anything to do with buildings. He was crowned the class architect in his classroom last year. He is sweet, gentle natured, energetic, sensitive, intelligent, funny, and has a thirst for knowledge. We call him our question maker.
JEB: And Nicholas?
KARI: With Nicholas we knew he was a bit different earlier than we did his older brother. I would like to say this is because we were more familiar with what to look for, but I think it is because Nick's differences were....well, different than anything we had previously seen. Like Will, he had a language delay, but he actually had quite a few words down by 18 months and then...lost them. We also knew by then that he had an issue with motor coordination as he had a clumsy gait and was constantly running into things and falling. Nick did not have issues with reflux but, instead, had an aversion to many food textures and smells. This is often a characteristic of Sensory Processing Disorder which we knew was a commonality between both of our boys. While Will is considered to be "over-responsive", Nick is considered to be "under-responsive" which means he may seek more experiences that provide specific proprioceptive input to his body. This can include spinning, running, jumping, bumping into things on purpose, banging his hands, feet, or head on things, and falling. Both of my boys are extra sensitive to certain sounds, tastes, and textures! Some more than others. Nick also has a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, high functioning but not necessarily Asperger's. He has been able to read since he got his language back at 20 months old. When I say read, I mean could read the subtitles of movies. He has what is referred to as hyperlexia. He also has an ear for music and has been known to bang out Mozart or Beethoven on pots and pans to the point of easily being able to recognize the tune. Nick is sweet, sensitive, energetic, intelligent, has a great sense of humor, and loves anything to do with sea creatures, airplanes, trains, or music.
JEB: Gee, I'd love to meet them someday. They sound wonderful. How did you find Puzzle?
KARI: Puzzle was the result of a careful and well-planned breeding. We located a reputable Golden Retriever breeder fairly close to home and filled out her thorough questionnaire. Then my husband and I scheduled a visit to discuss our backgrounds to include everything from family, personal interests, careers past and present, and goals for the new puppy. It was not information that was necessarily required by the breeder but we wanted her to feel comfortable sending a puppy home with us. We also wanted to know everything about how she raised her puppies. It did not take us long to make friends with her and we knew that it was a friendship to last a long time!
JEB: Did she know that you had a job in mind for Puzzle?
KARI: Our breeder was thrilled that we were considering one of her pups as a candidate for service. We met Puzzle's mother on our first visit and immediately fell in love with her and her personality. We had our 2-month old daughter with us and the mommy-to-be Golden Retriever gently climbed into the chair I was sitting in to investigate. Her gentleness and curiosity was palpable. That did it for us! Choosing which puppy to take home was a joint effort between me and our breeder. I respected that she knew the puppies best, having watched them grow and progress, and I had confidence in her ability to identify the qualities of a service dog candidate. Because of my background in animal training, I also had a strong grasp on the qualities that would make a good candidate. Puzzle exhibited many of the essential characteristics such as confidence, curiously, a gentle nature, natural intelligence, problem solving skills, and a strong love for people but not an over-dependence on them. It is always a gamble when you take on a puppy to train for service but so far, so good!
JEB: Not to brag, but I'd like to think I have all of those same traits! Are you affiliated with a service dog group?
KARI: No, not formally. I have consulted with a few organizations but Puzzle is considered to be an "owner trained" assistance dog. Even though I have extensive animal training experience and also recently worked at a reputable dog training facility before moving to another state, I am not currently working as a dog trainer and would not formally call myself one.
JEB: What kinds of things is Puzzle learning?
KARI: So far he has learned basic obedience behaviors such as sit, down, sit-from down, wait (stay), loose-leash walking, target touching, following a target, and some fun behaviors thrown in such as shake and spin. He rides very well in a car and we have worked on desensitizing him to many environmental stimuli to include strange people, children, other dogs, noises, smells, and a variety of strange and potentially fear provoking situations. I am always very aware of Puzzle's body language and never push if I sense ANY fear or stress in a situation. Additionally, I only use force-free, positive reinforcement training with the little guy. Puzzle is doing amazingly well with all of his training and I am very proud of his progress. Even though Puzzle is considered a Service Dog in Training, I give him PLENTY of time to just be a puppy!
JEB: OK, I had to ask Marianne about "target touching" which she says I'll learn when I go to Professional Training. Otherwise, he's learning a lot of the same things I am, and I'm glad to hear he has plenty of "puppy time" like me. Do Will and Nick help with his training?
KARI: In an indirect way, the boys help with Puzzle's training. Will loves to help give treats but this is sometimes a hindrance rather than a help during sessions! Both boys do help a lot with desensitization to a variety of stimuli including movement, sounds, and touch. My husband and I have taught them to be very gentle with Puzzle which, in turn, has taught Puzzle to respect and trust "little people." William will be more of a help later in Puzzle's training when we work on training him to provide comfort, redirection, and tethering.
JEB: How do two boys share one assistance dog?
KARI: Although the boys share a household with Puzzle as well as some of the responsibilities of caring for him, they do not technically share him as an assistance dog. Puzzle is a tremendously positive influence on Will's life. He provides an outlet for fun as well as teaching opportunities for sharing, responsibility, appropriate play behavior, comfort for his anxiety, and much more. In a way he is an Emotional Support Animal for Will but will likely never accompany him in public as an assistance dog. On the other hand, Puzzle's training directly benefits Nick. It is Nick who will learn to work alongside Puzzle with tethering, Nick who will reap the benefits of the deep pressure or comfort that Puzzle may be able to provide during anxiety attacks, and Nick who will be redirected by Puzzle during times when his stemming behavior becomes excessive. It may be a bit confusing on Puzzle's Facebook page as a I do talk about both boys and share their experiences as they relate to Puzzle and his training. However, I do so because all three of their lives are intertwined and one cannot do something without affecting another. That is what makes this journey so fascinating so I have the desire to share all of it with anyone who will listen!!
JEB: Marianne wants to know if your work with elephants prepared you for this training in some way.
KARI: Absolutely! I learned almost everything I know about animal training and behavior during those years spent with the elephants. During that time I worked with some of the most influential people in the industry. I had an amazing mentor who had an intense passion for large mammals and extensive experience in the field. He taught me valuable information about behavior and psychology as well as how to implement it in a variety of situations. When we trained together, we did not have to speak much because we could anticipate each other's responses as well as the responses of our animals. It was the greatest experience of my life and my heart hurts every time I think about leaving it. It was a difficult decision but I am grateful for what I was able to take away from my career as an elephant trainer. It has helped me to be a more successful parent for children with special needs and I suspect it will continue to help me with my future career path.
JEB: Do you have other pets?
KARI: Yes! Our house is full with two other dogs, a 9-year old Alaskan Malamute named Panik, a 9-month old Bernese Mountain Dog mix named Merlin and two 6-month old kittens. Merlin is Puzzle's newest best friend and will hopefully be a therapy dog sometime in the near future.
JEB: Final question: any similarities between Golden Retrievers and elephants?
KARI: I am not sure whether I am the right person to ask as I have only ever had ONE Golden Retriever! I can tell you that Puzzle is a special dog. One of a kind really. And I am not the only person to have come to this conclusion. Ask anyone who has been touched by Puzzle, literally and figuratively, and they will give you an earful! Some of the qualities that the golden fuzzball shares with one of the elephants in particular is an intense desire to learn, playfulness, an uncanny sense of humor, a love for any sort of reinforcement whether play, touch, attention, or food, and a crazy high intelligence.
So, there you have it. Elephants and a Golden Retriever named Puzzle: who would have guessed they'd be so similar? Thanks Kari, for a great interview. Check out Puzzle's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/#!/AutismAssistanceDogPuzzle?fref=ts. You can even Friend him, if you don't mind missing out on the sniffing part. Tell him Jeb sent you!
Chow for now!
Check out Marianne's book, "Let the Dogs Speak! Puppies in Training Tell the Story of Canine Companions for Independence." Available to order in print and e-book format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Independent booksellers.