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The Happy Hannah Dance

This is a guest post by Teresa Foden, Assistant Editor of the IAN Project at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Sometimes you look at a rescue dog and wonder why he was dropped off at the shelter. This was not the case for Bailey. He was a mess. Transported north more than 500 miles in hopes that someone at a dog-rescue event in Maryland might be fool enough to adopt him, he barked, he yelped, he yanked the leash…and this turned out to be Bailey on his best behavior. In line to be euthanized at an animal shelter down South, Bailey, a Catahoula leopard dog who flunked his tracking training, had danced when the staff delivered his food. It was described as a four-step sort of canter dance, really something you had to see to believe. It saved his life. But now it looked like he had “flunked” adoption, too, his antics keeping potential adoptees at bay (oh, I forgot to mention – he bayed, too). As volunteers for the rescue organization, we agreed to take Bailey home, temporarily, until another volunteer could retrieve him. Hopefully, it would be soon.

But one of our twin daughters, Hannah, found in Bailey her four-legged soul mate. Hannah had always been a little different from other children, but most people, well, adults mostly, found her endless monologues about dogs – their behavioral psychology, their strong loyalties, even their genetics – somewhat engaging and endearing. And when that didn’t work, she had this hopping sort of dance she couldn’t contain when she was happy. We called it the “Happy Hannah Dance.” But that all changed in middle school, when teachers lost patience for her idiosyncrasies and she became the brunt of teasing from her disdainful classmates. At 12, she was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Rather than giving her comfort that there was a name that explained her difficulties, that there were other people who saw the world through a similar lens, the official confirmation that she didn’t “fit in” was devastating for her. The Happy Hannah Dance was over.

In the following months and years, Bailey grew to be a central part of our family. When Hannah says, “Sit,” (sometimes) he sits. When Hannah says, “Lie down,” (sometimes) he lies down. When Hannah says, “I love you, Bailey,” he crawls into her lap on the floor and they seem to become one. During Bailey’s time with us, we have watched Hannah grow to trust not only Bailey, but herself. She and Bailey have been engaged in a metaphorical dance. Like many families, we have seen a relationship with an animal contribute to the emotional healing of someone with a disability. It’s hard to put into words, and we are left saying inadequate things like, “Those two, they saved each other.” Like others with similar experiences, we wonder if there is any possibility that what we see is real enough to be actually measured, scientifically tested in a research situation, and someday delivered to children. Is there a way to harness the bond that seems to arise naturally between many children and animals to treat something we don’t fully understand, something like autism?

Read IAN’s Dogs, Horses, and ASD: What Are Animal-Assisted Therapies? to find out more about the state of the research into animal-assisted therapies.

Learn about the Interactive Autism Network and how you can participate in autism research.

  1. David Shanahan
    January 30, 2011 at 11:24 am

    My son was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s. We are presently working at getting him enrolled with the local therapeutic riding association. I would love to get a dog but we are in an apartment right now.

  2. January 30, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    What a wonderful, moving story! Our daughter, Lauren, 15, also seems to bond so much to animals – particularly dogs. She, too, knows so much about dogs, breeds, traits. We have our own “therapy” dog – Nelson, a terrier mix that we rescued. Lauren and Nelson are so happy together. Lauren also had such a difficult time with middle school and now goes to an alternative learning center for children with autism. She was bullied too and struggles still with social interactions with kids her age. I think therapy dogs are an excellent idea for so many children on the spectrum. I bet research would proove that. I know Nelson has helped Lauren in so many ways!

  3. Stephanie
    January 30, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Teresa: You should know about the READ program at the Kennedy Krieger Lower and Middle School where trained Delta certified Therapy Dogs come to school twice a month and children – most on the Autism spectrum – read to the dogs in a fun, relaxed, non-judgemental atmosphere. This is the second year of our reading program and we have seen remarkable things happen. The bond between dogs and children with autism is real, powerful and empowering!

  4. Katie Wright
    January 31, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Today I read a news story about an ASD 6 yr old who went missing a few days ago
    Thank goodness this story had a happy ending!
    The boy was found with his Jack Russell right by his side, doing his best to
    kept the boy safe, I’m sure.
    So glad this boy safely returned home.

  5. February 8, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    We have had a golden retriever almost every day at our school for 13 years. She is the pet of one of our staff who very carefully orchestrated her early years with us to make sure she was well received. The bond between the dog and most of the students (not all!) is remarkable, especially with our non-verbal students. The dog will tolerate noise and unusual behavior and is exceptionally patient in waiting for the students to play with her. It is truly a wonder to watch the interactions between the dog and our students!

  6. February 19, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Wonderful site!, now in Rancho Cucamonga, Autism treatments HBOT4u.com
    Rapid Recovery Hyperbarics

  7. Tonya
    March 11, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Teresa, This is wonderful! Maybe the measure of true love & caretaking is in the love between the two. How can science prove that love creates miracles? :)

  8. February 16, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    I truly believe that having a menagerie of pets (chickens, dogs, a cat and horses) has brought my 11 year old son farther than any other therapy we have tried. Last year we acquired an autism assistance dog from 4 Paws and it has made a world of difference. Intially it was his love for chickens that we used to incorporate into goals and social stories for school, even taking a few of his pet hens in to show to his classmates. Then we became involved in fostering dogs and it opened up a whole new world. He loves just spending time with his animals as he says they help him feel peaceful. Quite remarkable for a boy who couldn’t even begin to express his feelings a few years ago!

  1. January 30, 2011 at 11:47 am
  2. January 30, 2011 at 11:06 pm

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