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Golden Retriever helps children with autism at Sunflower Early Ed Center
Star, a Golden Retriever, pays a visit to children at Incredible Years Preschool. His main job, however, is interacting with children diagnosed with autism in the Applied Behavior Analysis program at Sunflower Early Education Center.

The Golden Retriever who recently joined the staff at Sunflower Early Education Center (EEC) is on the job to enhance the lives of children who have been diagnosed with autism.

Star, who is almost 2 years old, provides unconditional love and friendship to the children while serving as a conduit to help with communication skills and social interaction, said Alyson Burkhart, EEC autism specialist.

“For example, if a child has limited vocal skills, Star can be a motivator,” Burkhart said. “When children can relay instructions such as ‘come’ and ‘sit’, they see Star respond to these commands. This can be helpful when communicating with family and friends.

“In addition, Star helps children learn about empathy and compassion,” Burkhart continued. “Those with autism sometimes struggle with learning these concepts from people. Communication and interactions with animals can be effective in teaching these skills.”

Even though Star spends most of his time with children in the EEC’s Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program, he also visits Incredible Years Preschool as often as he can. The EEC and preschool are located in the same building at 1312 Patton; Sunflower Diversified Services owns and operates both.

There was no charge to Sunflower for Star because of private donations, including one from an Oklahoma woman who wanted to sponsor the team of Star and Burkhart to work with children with autism. The estimated cost for an assistance dog is about $25,000.

ABA at Sunflower is offered to children with a medical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder up to age 5 or when they begin kindergarten.

“Star provides a calming presence for those in ABA and at the preschool,” Burkhart commented. “If a child has a rough day, Star is here to offer his friendship. If emotions are running high, Star can be very calming. The preschool students always welcome Star, who loves when they pet him and all the attention.”

While some dogs are trained to serve people with physical or visual impairments, Star is a “facility dog.” He was trained to serve at a location, specifically for children.

KSDS Assistance Dogs Inc., Washington, Ks., provides the training. During the pre-assessment, “the dog’s career choice is made. This is based on skills and personality,” Burkhart explained. “They live with a puppy raiser for 15 to 18 months and then report for formal training at KSDS for six months.”

Burkhart also completed her formal training at the facility in Washington; she passed the Assistance Dogs International test.

“We went out into the Washington community and Star passed all of his tests too,” she noted.

When Star is not on the job, he lives with the Burkhart family, which is home to three other dogs.

“He is always calm at work and even tells me when he needs a little break,” Burkhart said. “But when at home he plays, runs and jumps like any other dog. He gets his doggie time at home.”

KSDS Assistance Dogs

KSDS relies heavily on volunteers, grants and private and corporate donations.

Facility dogs are trained to work in education, counseling, medicine, rehabilitation and other disciplines. They must pass health and temperament training just like guide and service dogs.

Dogs that work in a facility know how to retrieve items, carry objects, tug doors and clothing, and manipulate light switches and buttons. Burkhart noted that Star models appropriate behavior, teaches positive interactions, interrupts hyperactivity and performs many other tasks.

KSDS has provided these services for more than 30 years and has placed more than 600 assistance dog teams.