Lots of people have been asking about the dog you see in so many of our playdate pictures , even my own personal profile photo, and gladly I can answer! The dog you see, goes by the name Bo aka Bo Bo, and does not belong to me.
Actually he doesn’t really belong to anyONE! Bo is a member of the Horse Boy tribe here in Elgin Texas. That’s right , I said TRIBE. Bo, plays a magical role here at the Horse Boy Foundation’s playdates. Every weekend here at The Horse Boy Foundation we serve local autism families and those with other neuro-psychiatric conditionsin the Texas area free of charge. This is where a wonderful dog like Bo comes in!
Some people use the term therapy dog, but not us. Why? Well...the services and sessions we offer here at Horse Boy Foundation we do not refer to as therapy. Instead we provide playdates which are sessions where children with autism and other neuro-psychiatric conditions are provided a safe and fun environment to learn kinetically with our specialized tribe who have been trained in Horse Boy Method and Movement Method.
Bo, however , was never trained. He was born with the gift and talent of bringing out the best in every human being he encounters. Bo accompanies the children and families on playdates and the impact of his presence is nothing but magical....He is an exceptional example of the unique characteristics that are necessary for a canine working with children on the spectrum.
There has been much research on animal assisted therapy and the proven benefits and healing effects of dogs as well as other small and large animals. However, when working with children on the spectrum, we take care in the animals we use to provide such benefits. Not every dog is appropriate for working with autistic families and if one is not careful, something which should be healing can turn harmful.
So what makes Bo an ideal and exemplary playdate dog for a our families?
Well, for starters, Bo is an older, mature dog here on the ranch. He’s very calm, a dog of few words but very communicative and loving. He doesn’t bark or “yap”, nor does he rush into your personal space . His very nature is non-threatening and non-intimidating. He simply places himself where he is needed. The kids love to bury Bo in the sand and he lays quietly allowing them to cover his body completely. If he hasn’t fallen asleep, he will eventually get up and shake which the kids love to see how the sand cascades and projects off his fur and back onto the ground. Bo also accompanies families on long walks in the woods, sometimes with the company of goats and other animals who also feel safe in his company. It is because of his quite nature children are drawn toward him and feel safe in forming a deep connection with him. It’s quite common to see a child cuddling Bo and some begin to express their feelings for him verbally,“ I love you Bo”. At playdates having a dog like Bo can help us to work on social skills for the families , where we can explore feelings and behaviors we would like to encourage, and also behaviors we may want to modify . We can also introduce the concept of gentle touch and pressure vs hard touch which requires motor control and proprioception, all the while Bo does not react negatively to children who innocently pull or tug on his body. And although Bo is extremely tolerant and laid back, if he has had ‘enough” he will simply walk away and sit by himself, where usually the child will miss him and this provides us an opportunity to explain why Bo may have got up and left and what behaviors would encourage Bo to come back and stay; this requires complex perspective taking, emotional awareness and some theory of mind. However through the help of Bo we can experientially introduce and build these social and cognitive based concepts in the mind of the child more easily because the child is intrinsically motivated and interested in having a connection with him. Why? ....Because interacting with Bo is less stressful for the child, and it is nearly impossible for a child to learn when they are stressed. Stress is a product of the hormone cortisol whose function is to kill brain cells that link the reptilian brain (Amygdala) with the intellect (Prefrontal cortex) , effectively blocking access to the intellect while stress/cortisol is being produced. Therefore we use Bo, especially when teaching social skills, because most often it is in interacting with people that children on the spectrum experience the most stress. Once the child learns and develops these social tools with Bo they can slowly begin to generalize these skills beyond Bo... to other animals, and eventually to the trickier Homosapien species, which is us....all other human beings such as family members, and peers.
And whilst we know dogs are amazing and friendly animals , even a simple thing like a sudden high pitched bark even out of excitement and happiness, can really trigger a negative reaction from a child on the spectrum. This will instantly trigger their Amygdala and fight or flight response which not only takes a child into the cell danger response but also can make a child permanently afraid of dogs, which is why not all dogs are appropriate for playdates; even if a dog is considered to be sweet and friendly, a child with autism can have sensory challenges related to certain sounds and pitches like that of a dog barking in excitement or barking constantly. This is why it is so important for us to create a safe space for children to learn.........and having a wonderful dog like Bo helps us do exactly that :)
I wish that every family and all who aim to serve autism families can find your own Bo :) The Bo’s of the world are out there you just to have to keep a keen and magical eye out!