Paula Harrington has a long list of degrees and awards after 27 years working with autistic children, a career that has led her and her clinic from Vashon Island to Federal Way to Tacoma.
Bijou, a nearly 3-year-old Portuguese water dog, has no formal education and often naps on the job.
Harrington has wondered at times over the past few years which of them is better at reaching those children.
“She works miracles,” Harrington said of the dog.
At Class, Inc. in Tacoma, everyone hopes for miracles.
Harrington and her staff work with dozens of children, all severely impacted by autism. It’s a speech therapy clinic that tries to do more for clients than improve their speech.
Without question, the star of the show the past few years has been Bijou. The stories are legion.
There’s the girl who rarely spoke —at home or in the clinic. She met Bijou, picked her up and held her above her head. The dog didn’t flinch, growl or struggle.
Now the girl, 16, comes to therapy, find’s Bijou’s leash and says, “Come, puppy!”
There was the mother who was black and blue when she brought her son to the clinic, said she could no longer control him and was considering institutionalization.
One of Hamilton’s staff members put the boy in a small indoor swing with Bijou. And for the first time in months, the boy smiled, then laughed.
“In the time I’ve worked with these children, I’ve had bones broken, teeth knocked out,” Harrington said. “Some of them have problems with impulse control. Most are severely impacted by autism. Many aren’t verbal when they first come in.”
Three years ago, Harrington first got the idea of introducing a dog to the clinic and its clientele. But it had to be the right kind of dog, so she researched breeds.
“I wanted a dog that was hypoallergenic, so allergies wouldn’t be an issue,” she said. “Some dogs in that category were high strung, and I knew that wouldn’t work. I came up with the Portuguese water dog — and got Bijou when she was 10 weeks old.”
As a pet, the dog was sweet, gentle, playful. Harrington began testing her willingness to be handled roughly.
“I’d pull her fur, put a finger up her nose, grab her paws or tail,” Harrington said. “I didn’t hurt her, obviously, and she passed every test.”
She still does.
There are children who come in for therapy and ask for Bijou as soon as they enter the clinic, children who wouldn’t speak before she arrived. The dog will sit in on some therapy sessions. One young girl with a history of behavior problems will now lie on the floor with her head resting on Bijou.
Among the challenges at the clinic is coming up with age-appropriate activities for older kids, such as a group of 13-to-21-year-olds that meets regularly.
“Some of them may have been tested at a first or second-grade level, but we’re trying to have them do things kids their own age might do,” Harrington said.
Like walk a dog.
That group took Bijou for a stroll last week, taking turns on the leash. Bijou led, slowly, and the kids sounded like any group of kids, laughing and talking to one another.
That alone was something of a miracle, and it has helped produce relationships among young people who may not have had any.
James McCrackyn, for instance, is a 13-year-old who recently lost his grandfather and had been struggling with his absence.
“James was crying, and two other boys in the group, Alfred and Aaron, comforted him. That was huge,” said his mother, Raven McCrackyn. “The thing about group here is that he can be a leader at times, follow at others — just like a normal kid.
“At school, they’re hugely supportive of James, but he’s the only one who ever needs help. Here, he might be able to help someone else.
“And he really loves Bijou.”
At Class, Inc., who doesn’t?
When not on call, the dog likes sprawling on a table in Harrington’s office.
“I didn’t know this, but the breed likes being up on things, and she used to do that on my desk,” Harrington said. “So I bought the table.”
She is interrupted by a child whose father had come to pick him up. Bursting into the room, he patted the dog while she dozed on the table.
“Goodbye, Bijou!’ he said, and raced off.
Harrington called goodbye after him, but he was already gone.