San Diego County's Very Own Little Miss Muffet

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Everyone knows the tale of Little Miss Muffet…well there is a real life Little Miss Muffet and there are no spiders that could ever scare away this one. Little Miss Muffet is an Autism Service Dog trained by Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs, Inc. of Solana Beach. Upon the launch of the Leash-on-Life Program, the Autism Service Dog branch of the non-profit volunteer-run organization, Little Miss Muffet played the vital role as the first ever TLCAD trained Autism Service Dog. With the high demand for Autism Service Dogs, and TLCAD being the only service dog organization in San Diego County to offer such a discipline, Muffet was quickly matched with Jolena Gonzalez, the young member of a U.S. Marine Corps family. Jolena is now six years old and her mother, Becki Cook, is elated to finally be the busy mother of six children, one of which has just turned two years old, without the additional stress that formerly had kept her hopeless that there would ever be any relief. The lives of the members of the Cook family have completely changed for the better over the past year, since Muffet's placement with them.

Jolena was diagnosed at age three with autism. She has since retained a primary diagnosis of classical autism, but has also added multiple additional diagnoses including mild hypoxic cerebral palsy and oral-motor apraxia. In layman's terms, Jolena has a hard time talking, moving and dealing with things. Life before Muffet contained multiple daily "meltdowns" for Jolena. These meltdowns, brought on from sensory overload when out in public as well as at home, would climax into episodes of uncontrolled disruptive behavior that would last up to three hours per instance. Since the arrival of Little Miss Muffet in December of 2007, the meltdowns have decreased in frequency to an average of one per month with the recovery time of mere minutes in comparison to the hours it would take prior. The relief granted by the entrance of this dog into their lives is immeasurable to the Cook family. For the first time since Jolena was born, the family can proceed with their daily activities without interruption. Before Muffet, the family would have to carefully plan any activity and decide whether Jolena would be able to be a part of it without issue – this put a giant strain on the family unit being able to spend time together.

Muffet has also played an important role in keeping Jolena safe. Prior to Muffet joining the Cook family, Jolena would dart off in public – often into traffic in a parking lot – two to three times per day. Now, Jolena is tethered to Muffet with a belt that goes around Jolena's waist or with a vest that she wears and then is attached to Muffet's service dog vest. Becki Cook has control of a separate leash attached to Muffet's collar and Jolena holds a soft handle that is also attached to Muffet's vest allowing her to walk independently as opposed to being carried or having to be pushed in a stroller. If Jolena were to try to bolt now, Muffet is trained to lay down acting as a heavy boulder would, allowing Becki Cook those precious 30 extra seconds to get to her daughter before any harm can occur. Opposed to the two to three times per day that Jolena would bolt before, the occurrences have reduced to only two to three times in a four-month period. With Muffet's help, Jolena has been able to recognize that these actions are neither safe nor appropriate. Another behavior that Jolena would perform was answering the front door whenever someone would knock or ring the doorbell – whether the caller was a stranger or not – and then run outside. This provided another opportunity for her to bolt into the road if Becki could not reach the door before her daughter did. All of the locks and alarm systems in the world were not effective in keeping Jolena from performing this action. With Muffet loyally by Jolena's side, she again allows Becki an additional 30 seconds to reach her daughter when this happens by blocking the front door until Becki can answer it, thus prohibiting Jolena from being able to get to it first. Muffet was so effective in helping to eliminate this behavior, that it only took three tries by Jolena before she learned to wait until Muffet was released from her position by Becki to open the door. These are only two out of the several examples of benefits Muffet has given to the entire Cook family.

Prior to the addition of Jolena to her life, Becki Cook was a flourishing professional horse trainer. The amount of time needed to care for Jolena left little to none for Becki to accomplish much else. She states that the biggest change Muffet has granted her is the ability to go back to work. She can now hire regular babysitters when needed, as opposed to the previous reliance on a health care worker to provide supervision over Jolena. 

The Cook family recently relocated from Camp Pendleton U.S. Marine Corps Base to a horse farm. With Muffet loyally by her side, Jolena has been able to go about the farm visiting the animals and engaging in the activities of a normal child. She can now be supervised from a short distance, granting the family much needed relief, as well as allowing Jolena the independence children of her age begin to experience. She has become a more proactive member of the family and is responsible for her share of "farm chores" that she eagerly completes.

Becki Cook has explained that one of the main difficulties for a child with autism is making transitions from one activity to the next. The calming effect of Muffet on Jolena has turned the daily task of awakening and beginning the day, something most would never think of as a daunting task, from a difficult and often failing challenge to an effortless and subconsciously accomplished daily habit. Each day begins with Muffet gently awakening Jolena allowing her the fresh outlook that every growing child needs. Even with giving every last effort she had and all the different methods she tried, Becki herself was never able accomplish what Muffet effortlessly achieves each morning.

The formalities of allowing Muffet to accompany Jolena to her new school are currently underway. In the meantime, though, the teachers and school staff are using models and pictures of Muffet as a cueing mechanism for Jolena's behavior. "WWMD? – What would Muffet do?" is the popular catch phrase heard in the classroom throughout Jolena's school day. This new tool is allowing the very bright and sweet-natured Jolena to advance from basic coping skills to more advanced social and functional skills. Her constant focus on self-control has been replaced with learning how to dress herself, learning how to write, learning to accomplish assigned tasks and even learning the basic skills of toileting independently. These functional skills have granted Jolena the ability to function on an academic level more equal to that of her peers, whom she is gradually being mainstreamed with for the first time.

"Muffet has offered stability to our once volatile family. The transition of moving to a new residence has not produced the anticipated difficulties that had been a part of previous moves. Muffet's job of blocking the front door when the doorbell rings, preventing Jolena from bolting out, is no longer needed since the behavior is gone. The "emergency down" cue, performed by Muffet to prevent Jolena from bolting in public, has all but been removed from practice as the behavior has diminished. Even with the dramatic improvements seen in the behavior of Jolena, she remains attached to Muffet's harness while out in public for the sake of safety. The necessity, however, of a leash in my possession at all times has reduced with the development and steady growth of Jolena's responsibility and positive behavior." ~ Becki Cook, April 2009

Muffet has been the answer that the Cook family has spent so much time desperately searching for. She has played a key role in making life safer and more enjoyable. Muffet is neither considered a Lassie in a cape nor a parent figure to Jolena – she is a tool that is used to make Jolena's life better. She is adored by the Cook family and treated like the treasured jewel that she is. Muffet has given Jolena the chance to learn, grow and engage in the activities of other children her age – this chance was one that once was thought to be nonexistent.

Fara Khaleeli