Children, Dogs and the Power of Unconditional Love

Dogs help kids with autism, PTSD, OCD, attachment and developmental delays.

Posted Jun 17, 2016

As a dog lover, I am excited to be able to share here an excerpt from Melissa Fay Greene's newest book: As a reader, I'm equally excited to introduce those of you not yet familiar with Greene to her work. A Guggenheim Fellow who has received two National Book Award nominations among numerous other honors, Greene's work is smart, sensitive and highly engaging.

THE UNDERDOGS tells the story of an Ohio service dog-training academy that became one of the first in the world to place dogs with children with “invisible disabilities,” including autism, PTSD, OCD, attachment issues, seizure disorder, and developmental delays.

In these excerpts, we meet the Keith family of Iowa, whose daughter Lucy, adopted from China, displays symptoms of PTSD and attachment disorder. She finds it impossible to trust or to love her new parents and keeps herself in a state of hypervigilance, on the look-out for clues that she will soon be abandoned again. When the Keiths apply to 4 Paws for Ability for a service dog, it is with the hope that their daughter will find a way to trust—maybe even to love—a good-hearted golden retriever. But nothing comes easily for a stressed, anxious little girl who believes she is alone in the world.

From THE UNDERDOGS by Melissa Fay Greene. Copyright 2016 by Melissa Fay Greene. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Lucy was a cute snaggle-toothed little girl in pink eyeglasses who mostly “passed” at school as a typical child, unless something horrific happened. When the teacher read Charlotte’s Web aloud to the class and Charlotte died at the end, Lucy collapsed into grief and despair and didn’t care who saw her; if the other children were too blind to perceive Charlotte’s death for what it was—an abandonment of Wilbur, who’d loved Charlotte so much!—then they were stupid. But most days she suppressed her anxiety long enough to make it back home from school and through the front door, at which point she’d collapse and rage as if the anxiety were a huge bloodred flag that she’d tucked inside her shirt and could now wave.

Humbled again, obliged to seek professional help again in their endless search for an everyday family life, the Keiths turned to international adoption doctors, child psychologists, and attachment therapists and tried unconventional treatments, including holistic medicine, chiropractic treatment, equine therapy, neurological reorganization therapy, cranial sacral therapy, and changes in diet. Whatever had happened to Mei Ling had occurred before ten months of age and couldn’t be accessed through talk therapy, but diagnoses included developmental trauma disorder (DTD); symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including extremely high anxiety, controlling behaviors, and hypervigilance; trichotillomania (pulling out her hair); obsessive-compulsive behaviors; sensory processing disorder; oppositional behaviors; and night terrors. She was bright—she could count to ten and recite the ABCs before age two. Academics were easy for Lucy, but love was a foreign language. There were happy times together; Eleanor and James treasured moments of silliness and fun with Lucy. “She has so many gifts and blessings inside her!” Eleanor told me. “It’s just that the driving emotion for her is extreme fear.”

One weekday evening in February, driving eight-year-old Lucy home from her guitar lesson in the neighboring college town but delayed by snowfall and icy streets, Eleanor realized they were approaching one of two trauma triggers: Lucy eating dinner half an hour late or Lucy going to bed half an hour late. Any alteration in a day’s pattern would be picked up by Lucy’s inner seismograph as a change, and change spelled disaster. Forced to choose between triggers, Eleanor opted to avert hunger by turning into a shopping mall with a dimly lit Chinese buffet Lucy knew and tolerated. Lucy ate dinner on time. But now bedtime would be an hour later. Heading home, in the backseat of the car, Lucy suddenly recalled a neighbor she didn’t like. “I hate him! I hate the way he talks. Someone needs to cut off his lips.” The bizarre and cruel thought meant Lucy had been triggered. Eleanor tightened her grip on the wheel and primly said, “Lucy, that’s not nice. Don’t say anything else.” Now she needed to cover the remaining mileage efficiently. If she failed to get Lucy into the house before she exploded, it could take an hour just to get her out of the car. From the moment Lucy calmly said, “ . . . cut off his lips,” Eleanor figured she had ten to twelve minutes until the meltdown.

She squealed into the garage, turned off the car, and hustled Lucy into the house, into and out of the bathroom, and into her bedroom so that when she fell apart, the damage would be contained. In her bedroom, Lucy screamed herself hoarse and trashed the place for an hour.

… When Eleanor Keith heard about PTSD service dogs, she researched their appropriateness for children and discovered 4 Paws for Ability. In August 2011, she emailed Karen Shirk with the subject line: “Wondering if we even qualify,” and began: “My daughter is a traumatized, attachment-disordered child.” Karen Shirk emailed back, “ABSOLUTELY.” 4 Paws had been placing dogs with individuals with attachment issues and with PTSD since 2005, six years ahead of the U.S. military. In December 2012, after just four months of fund-raising, The Keiths drove to Xenia.          

Seated in the training circle with other families, James and Eleanor, in a state of almost painful suspense, flashed back to the  waiting room of the Chinese orphanage in which they had prepared to meet their daughter. They sat up straighter when their dog—a yellow Lab named Jolly—hurtled into the room. “Lucy, look! It’s your dog! It’s Jolly,” they said, exhaling in relief, hugging the child, but she weaseled out of their arms and went to stand behind the father. She hadn’t asked for a dog. The situation raised a few urgent questions: What if the parents like the dog more than they like me? Why do they need him? Why am I not enough for them? What if the dog doesn’t like me?

The other parents laughed warmly when Jolly galumphed across the circle beside his handler to meet his new family. He was young and gangly, sloppy and happy. He didn’t like the Keiths specifically—he didn’t know them—he just liked everybody! Soon, if all went well with his training at home, other people would fall away and he would narrow his love to the three Keiths, especially—if all went very well—to Lucy. He slobbered over James’s and Eleanor’s hands, eagerly licking up the treats they offered. While the treat bags were distributed, Jeremy

had said: “Your child should be the one giving treats. If your child is unable to reward the dog, then it’s your job to hide the treats on and around the child. You want the dog to feel: I don’t know what it is about this kid, but whenever this kid is around, good things happen.”

Guided by Eleanor, Lucy’s small hand now appeared from behind James with a treat held upon her open palm. But she didn’t like the dog’s drippy tongue and withdrew quickly.

James liked Jolly instantly. He had nothing against papillons, but he could hardly believe his luck in getting this good, basic dog. It was almost like doing a regular thing for once. Jolly looked like a dog James would have brought home from a shelter, a dog who would ride shotgun in the pickup truck and grin as the wind flapped his lips and ears. But . . . was this the right dog for his anxious girl? A quick side-glance told James that Eleanor was already concerned.

“We give you young dogs,” Jeremy Dulebohn was explaining. “Service

dogs for adults can be placed at older ages. We give you young ones so the dogs can grow up with your children. Kids are full of noises and behaviors that can scare dogs who aren’t used to them. Once a dog gets spooked by a child, it’s hard to reverse that impression. So we place our dogs as young as possible and they get habituated to your children. But it means you may see some puppy behaviors. You may see a lot of chewing and teething.”

Jolly, relaxing at their feet, began to snake toward the nearest dog—one of his best buddies!—and the two, staying low because they were supposed to be “Down,” began mouthing each other’s muzzles. Mmm—mmm-mmm. Then they forgot “Down” and the class and everything except the desire to roll around on the linoleum floor like wrestlers. Jeremy stopped class to help the two families gently recall their dogs. He’s a big puppy! Eleanor realized. Followed by: They’re sending us home with a puppy? I’m supposed to finish training him? Again, it seemed, the Keiths had gone to great lengths, traveled far distances, and spent unthinkable sums of money in pursuit of . . . the average—bringing home a yellow dog—with the risk that they might fail at it.

“He’s too playful and too strong for Lucy,” Eleanor said during a coffee break. James nodded and dutifully crossed the room to have a word with Jeremy, offering to swap out the dog he already liked. Duty had long since displaced expectations of happiness in James’s life. When Jeremy assured James that Jolly was the right pick for their family, James returned to Eleanor’s side with a shrug of resignation, but he wasn’t entirely disappointed...

After ten days in Xenia, the Keiths drove 612 miles back to Iowa in their Chevrolet Impala. They rode mostly in silence, conflicted. James had stayed in bed sick for five days, missing half the classes. Eleanor had sat through every minute, her perceptions clouded by worry and exhaustion. Now they both feared they were transporting a hugely expensive uncontrollable sixty-five-pound mistake across state lines. In the backseat, Jolly looked out the window or gnawed on his Nylabone or licked his front paws or snoozed. Whenever James or Eleanor turned around to greet him, he sat up whacking his tail against the seat. When they called, “How’s your new dog doing, Lucy?” she made no reply. Lucy pressed herself against her door as far away from the big dog as possible.

No one would ever again gallop through their front door prepared to pay such close, devoted attention to Lucy as the shaggy fellow from 4 Paws. In the front hall he shimmied and threw off sparkles of snow from the front yard, then bounded up the short staircase to the living room. He sniffed in the direction of the old cat, who stiffly exited. He bent to investigate the elderly shih tzu, Murphy, whose flattened face of down-flowing fur wore a permanent look of Oh, good grief, now what? Released into the backyard, Jolly tracked along the aluminum fence, looked up at birds, squatted, took a steaming dump in the snow, and ate it.

Back inside, he slid down like the Sphinx on the kitchen floor—front legs extended, head nobly lifted—and waited for the next interesting thing to happen. Jolly was a happy, optimistic guy.

But complicated emotional terrain awaited him. Here were three human hearts confusingly stalled—starting toward him, stopping, and lurching away. Lucy made a great show of disinterest. She ran to her room and slammed the door. She didn’t have a handle on the parents’ intentions: What if they love the dog more than me? What if the dog hates me?

Eleanor followed, worrying that they were blowing the homecoming. “Honey? Jolly’s looking for you,” she said in too pleading a voice from the hall. Lucy didn’t reply. It was obviously a lie. Lucy was right: Jolly was not looking for her.

In the living room, James sat down on the sofa. “Come here, boy,” he said. Jolly came and stood facing the man, and then inched forward. James kneaded the dog’s supple, kid-glove ears. The dog moaned in pleasure.

But then the man remembered that Lucy was supposed to be the dog’s first love, so he got up to move the suitcases down the hall. Jolly tagged along. He was surprised when James suddenly stepped into a bedroom and gently closed the door against the dog. Now Eleanor and Jolly both stood in the short hallway facing a closed door, like two unacquainted restaurant guests politely waiting their turns outside the restrooms.

That night, Eleanor invited Jolly to hop up onto Lucy’s bed. Dogs from 4 Paws were legendary among parents for helping children (and parents) sleep through the night. The longing, after seven years, for an easier bedtime process and for a night of uninterrupted sleep scraped against Eleanor’s eyelids from inside, so she pressed on despite Lucy’s objections. I don’t know if he wants to sleep with me or they’re just making him sleep with me, Lucy may have been thinking. They might want him to sleep with me so they won’t have to lie down with me anymore at bedtime!

But the well-meaning dog was foiled by the twin bed with the slippery satin bedspread. He couldn’t seem to get his footing. He jumped up and slipped off, jumped up and slipped off. He gave up with a sigh and settled on the floor beside the bed. Lucy huddled against the headboard with her knees drawn up and watched with an odd little half-smile as the dog jumped and slipped and failed. It might not have been that she enjoyed watching him fail; perhaps his failure (I fail at everything!) might have made him a little more of a person to her.

In the small hours of the morning, Lucy woke up with night terrors as usual. When Eleanor staggered into the room, Jolly sat up on the floor and looked concerned. “Oh, Jolly,” Eleanor murmured, disappointed, and he woefully thumped his tail on the floor.

Lucy left for school on Jolly’s first morning without telling the dog goodbye. “She’s not a special education student who is provided with an aide or dog-handler at school,” Eleanor told me. “She works at or above grade level. She has no behavioral issues there—she’d be too ashamed to act out at school.” So Lucy left and Jolly spent the day with Eleanor.

When Lucy came in the front door at three o’clock, Jolly was thrilled to see her. Already accustomed to being showered with treats when Lucy was around, Jolly responded to her with Jeremy’s prescripted feeling, I don’t know what it is about this kid, but whenever this kid is around, good things happen!

But Lucy yelled, “I don’t want him!” and ran to her room.

“As usual, she felt trapped,” Eleanor told me. “She felt pressured by us to succeed in bonding with Jolly, so everything about it became, in her eyes, another set-up for failure. If we’d never followed through with our idea and gone to 4 Paws in the first place, she might have thought: I don’t deserve a dog. If we’d given Jolly away after her rejections, she might have thought: He didn’t like me enough to stay. I think she wanted to make friends with him, but anxiety ruins everything.”

James and Eleanor had fantasized that Lucy would let the dog into her affections. After all, no dogs had disappointed or abandoned her in China. On the other hand, Murphy the shih tzu avoided her. “Lucy even worries about whether animals judge her and reject her,” Eleanor says. “And, actually, it is true that Murphy doesn’t like her. He’s deathly afraid of her meltdowns and will threaten to nip if she gets too close.”

Now the parents watched helplessly as Lucy drew boundaries around herself so gerrymandered that neither Jolly’s friendly approach nor Jolly’s indifference suited her. Evidently, for a child with attachment issues, no one’s love is welcome, not even

the love offered by a handsome young pure-hearted pup without a nip in him. In this house, you had to prove you loved Lucy a thousand times before she would trust your love. And even then she wouldn’t trust it.

Melissa Fay Greene is the author of six books of nonfiction: Praying for Sheetrock (1991), The Temple Bombing (1996), Last Man Out (2003), There Is No Me Without You (2006), No Biking in the House Without a Helmet (2011), and The Underdogs (2016). Her works has been translated into 15 languages. She has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Book Award nominations, and numerous other awards for her work. She has written extensively about adoption.