Ms. Claire's Excellent Adventure
Canine Assisted Educational Initiative
Kari Dunn Buron
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think the 'Claire Buron Project', as we have come to call
it, began years ago when I read about the positive effects
of dog ownership.
began thinking that if owning a dog could lower a person's
stress level, and if just petting the dog could release
pleasurable hormones, then maybe a dog could help calm
highly anxious students with autism in a school setting.
By profession, I worked with ASD students on a daily basis;
I knew their difficulties with language, with socialization,
with sensory issues. I witnessed the huge amount of stress
and anxiety these students lived within daily. Could canine
therapy help them?
The Journey Begins
Sometimes life has a way of bringing you the answers you
seek, and two events occurred in 2004 that brought our
puppy training program to life. In May I had the pleasure
of visiting the Orion Academy, a private high school program
for students with Asperger Syndrome in California. The
school uses puppy training as a way of teaching nonverbal
social communication to students. Hmm, not only could
such a program focus on relaxation, I thought, but also
on nonverbal social communication. Later in the year a
colleague gave me a 1995 article from a presentation at
the 7th International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions
titled "Relationships Between Young People with Autism
and Their Pets" by J. McNicholas and G.M. Collis.
The article indicated that pet therapy could benefit individuals
with ASD in learning relationship-building skills, such
as proximity seeking, greeting, giving and receiving comfort,
sensitivity and play. It was this article that prompted
me to add a third goal to my puppy project outline: relationship
In January of this year, my wonderful husband
gave me a beautiful yellow lab puppy for my birthday.
He named her Claire, and our program began to unfold.
Claire and I enrolled in the Twin Cities Obedience Training
Club, starting with the Puppy Socialization class and
then moving on to Level One Obedience. Claire was fortunate
to have a wonderful teacher, Danielle Muellner, for her
obedience class who not only made the class fun for both
of us, but also helped me understand the strategies involved
in slowly shaping the behavior I wanted to see. I decided
to train Claire myself in tasks that were specific to
my autism program objectives.
After about 3 months, Claire had acquired basic obedience
skills and I had trained her in enough different program
tasks that we were ready to start working with students
in a classroom setting. Arrangements were made for Claire
to visit a self-contained elementary autism program located
in Otter Lake Elementary school in White Bear Lake, MN.
The CID (Communication and Interactional Disorders) Program
consists of 15 students with ASD in 3 classrooms from
6 different school districts. The children are highly
anxious and many demonstrate explosive and aggressive
behavior. We also partnered with Courage North in northern
Minnesota, to work with students there. Courage North
is a summer camp for youth with Asperger Syndrome sponsored
by the Autism Society of Minnesota. Parents of all the
children who would be involved in the pilot programs were
contacted for permission and to ask about any fears or
allergies we might encounter.
Specific program goals and activities were
designed for Claire and the CID program students in the
areas of Relationship Building, Nonverbal Social Communication
and Relaxation. (See Sidebar). Visuals were incorporated
to prepare students for Claire's arrival and support student
understanding about the program. Two Social Stories
(Carol Gray) with accompanying pictures were written to
support the students' understanding of "Claire Day"
and the schedule and activities.
We also made a Claire Day sign for the therapy
room door, a list of things to do with Claire, a sign
with words that make Claire happy, and Claire's very own
5-point scale for students to rate her energy and activity
5 = Too high! Not following directions
4 = High energy but following directions
3 = Walking or standing, looking and listening
2 = Sitting down, mellow.
1 = Sleepy. Laying Down
Claire and I spent an average of 6 hours
a week working with the students in the CID program over
a period of 4 months. The program's sensory therapy room
was used for 1:1 time for each student and Claire. I initially
assessed the student's abilities and responses to Claire
and then created individualized task lists and visual
choice boards to use for each session. Sessions varied
from 15 to 30 minutes depending on the level of student
interest and engagement. The student's communication system
was utilized for all of the sessions (verbal, Picture
Exchange Communication System or other assistive devices).
When possible, I grouped students and structured social
turn-taking games. An example of a game we played was
Claire's Favorite Toy".I took photos of several toys
available to Claire and made a visual illustration and
then put all the available toys in front of Claire. I
instructed students to "Look at Claire, guess her
favorite toy." Well, Claire will always choose the
tennis ball when given a choice, but most of the students
guessed their favorite toy (usually the bubbles). This
provided a great opportunity to have students watch Claire's
behavior again to see what she is looking at and make
a second guess.
I did all of the instruction for this pilot
project with the assistance of some wonderful Educational
Assistants. As the project progressed, several teachers
joined us to observe their student's responses. My long
term goal is to have the program run independently without
me once initial training takes place.
Don't Eat The Deer Poop!
The Relationship Building objective was by far the most
successful at both the elementary school and later at
camp. The social motivation to be with Claire surpassed
my greatest expectations. I had always considered myself
at least moderately fun to be with, but now both students
and campers rushed to greet us whenever Claire and I were
teachers at Otter Lake reported that their verbally limited
students were bringing the "dog picture" to
them to request time with Claire. One little girl, who
rarely speaks, took her teacher's hand and said, "Out,
dog, now!" indicating that she wanted to leave her
classroom and go see Claire. Several camp counselors reported
that their campers would participate in non-preferred
activities for a chance to go visit with Claire. One student,
who was highly motivated by the opportunity to play with
Claire, invented new games for Claire to play, including
the rope ball catch and the squeaky toy turn taking game.
Two of the students, and then later several
of the campers, gained new skills by working in pairs
with Claire. They worked on turn taking and what might
be called 'parallel socialization'. My goal during these
times was to create opportunities for the peers to interact
and hopefully enjoy each other's company. One story worth
telling involved two students who were taking Claire for
a walk in the early spring. The girls were sharing by
trading off the job of holding the leash. All of a sudden,
Claire saw and began to eat some deer poop (ever present
in the spring in Minnesota). I said in an exaggerated
voice, "Oh no! Claire, don't eat the deer poop!!"
Well, we all three just laughed and laughed. Two weeks
later we were about to take Claire for another walk when
one of the girls, who is quite echolalic, said, "Claire,
don't eat the deer poop!" Then the other girl, who
uses many visual prompts in her school program said, "She
needs a sign!" So we made a sign. The experience
was social, fun and engaging for all of us, but most importantly
between the two girls.
"When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit
close by and nuzzle them gently." I remember reading
this some time ago in a paper titled "If a dog was
the teacher you would learn stuff like
author is unknown but the wisdom lived on within our program
At the start of the program there were 4
students at the school who were afraid to visit Claire.
In the beginning we had these students just watch Claire
from a distance. When they felt comfortable, we asked
them to throw the tennis ball for Claire to retrieve.
An interesting observation was that Claire seemed to sense
their reluctance. When she would retrieve the ball, she
would stop about three feet from the anxious student and
nose lift the ball back to him. Everyone who witnessed
this was amazed at Claire's "sixth sense". Claire
often went over on her own to students who were having
a tough time. She would just lie down next to them and
let them pet her. Remarkably, she began doing this early
on when she was only 4 months old.
The students enjoyed helping Claire relax
when she would get really excited about her tennis ball.
Putting a weighted blanket on her, rubbing her tummy and
holding her tight were some of the ways they helped her
Learning to Watch Claire
children who worked with Claire at the school and at camp
also achieved the nonverbal social communication goals
we created for the program. Students and campers both
loved to use the "Chuck it" (a toy used to throw
the tennis ball). This toy, once it was mastered, helped
the students throw the ball farther and demonstrated for
them the importance of having Claire's attention prior
to the throw. If she wasn't looking, she often ran off
in the wrong direction. This activity became Claire's
favorite and was later used to teach Claire to retrieve
in the lake at camp.
Teaching Claire to respond to signs rather
than just verbal commands turned out to be a favorite
activity for the students. It demonstrated for them that
using too many words with Claire only confused her; showing
her what you wanted always worked the best.
Overall the program was a success with students at both
the CID Program and camp, and Claire has been invited
back to each setting. The potential for this type of program
is great. Puppy therapy provides a warm, natural, engaging
avenue for students to develop social skills, practice
language and communication and become more comfortable
with peers. Claire became a topic of conversation among
students and that helped them use their newly acquired
skills outside of direct program time.
continue to expand Claire's roles and work out new activities
and objectives for the students. Claire is will be one
next month and she and I continue to take obedience classes.
I would like to stress to all interested
in undertaking such a project that while I am a trained
autism specialist, I did not have any significant prior
experience training dogs. I read several books on dog
training and using Labrador retrievers as helping dogs,
but most of all, I gave Claire lots and lots of time and
attention. The commitment cannot be taken lightly and
at times both Claire and I were exhausted.
I am so very proud of Claire and am often
in awe of her insight and gentleness. She forms connections
with ASD children in ways that challenge my 'education'
about autism and how to best teach these kids. It's an
ongoing learning process for all involved. Claire has
added so much to my life - she has truly become a friend
Kari Dunn Buron is an Autism Resource Specialist for ISD
#916 in White Bear Lake, MN and has worked with individuals
on the autism spectrum for over 25 years. She is the founder
and coordinator of both the ASD Certificate program for
educators at Hamline University and Camp Discovery (a
camp for youth with Asperger Syndrome). Kari is the author
of When My Autism Gets Too Big, a co-author of The Incredible
5-Point Scale (both published by the Autism Asperger Publishing
Company), and is currently co-editing a textbook with
Dr. Pamela Wolfberg, Educating Learners on the Autism
Spectrum: Translating Theory into Meaningful Practice,
to be released in 2006 by AAPC. Kari welcomes comments
Claire Buron Puppy Training Program Goals & Activities