It would not be unusual on any given day, at any given time, to see my neighbor Nancy Goldberg walking her adorable dogs, Baxter and Skippy. A 9-year old Labradoodle and 4-year old mini Golden doodle respectively, the two dogs walk in perfect unison, well behaved and enjoying the day.
It would also not be unusual to see a third canine, be it a Golden Retriever, Yellow or Black Lab, or another Labradoodle puppy cheerfully following along. At least once a year, or sometimes more, Baxter and Skippy share their amazing family with a new “brother or sister” who will not stay more than a few months. At the time of this writing, Cooper, puppy #10 is happily following the pack.
The Goldbergs – Nancy, her husband Ron, and their two sons, Ryan, 17 and Justin, 15, have been raising puppies for the North Star Foundation http://www.northstardogs.com for the past seven years. What began as Ryan’s “Mitzvah” project (a charitable endeavor for a child becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah) has become a family tradition, and the savior for many young children.
North Star Foundation is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help children who face social, emotional or educational challenges with the help of animal assisted therapy, school visits and dog placements. North Star puppies are specifically bred to have the temperament necessary to help these children. The Goldbergs have trained puppies that have gone to children with autism, depression and Rett’s syndrome. These dogs have helped their new owners, kids between the ages of 6-12, to socialize, be less lonely, and have responsibility. In the past 15 years, North Star Foundation has created over 250 assistance dog partnerships all over the world.
It’s the Goldbergs’ job to get these adorable puppies ready for their new home. The dogs must be housebroken, crate-trained, socialized and able to follow basic commands before they go home with their new owners. As any of us who have dogs know very well, training a puppy is hard work! But Nancy and her boys just see it as a way of helping people, and their dedication to this cause is sincere and selfless. Throughout the training, they also work with the families to ensure a smooth transition to the pup’s forever home. This includes multiple family visits to their home when geographically possible, giving the child and the puppy time to bond.
The day I interviewed Nancy, she had woken up in the middle of the night with Cooper, cleaned a mess while I was there, and was putting on her rain gear as I was leaving to take him out again. (It was pouring!) The boys help out after school and on weekends, walking, feeding and playing with the puppies – an integral part of their training! Ron is supportive and can often be seen with leash in hand on weekends. When I asked if she was done, and if training ten puppies was enough, she said, “I can’t stop now! There are so many more children who need the dogs.”
Nancy is passionate as she explains that often, a dog is the only friend these children have. Some are non-verbal, and one of the kids who got a North Star pup started speaking to the dog first! For many, walking their new dog opens the doors of socialization that until having a service dog seemed completely closed. The puppies also help others get over their fear of differences, and promote acceptance and understanding.
Each of the puppies raised by the Goldbergs has a remarkable story, and Nancy’s family keeps in touch with all of them via email, Facebook and visits. The most touching story to me was that of Rex, puppy #6, living with a girl suffering from Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder, in Olympia, Washington. Although Rex was not trained to recognize seizures, he knew something was wrong with his owner one night, put his paw on her chest, got her parents’ attention, and aided in getting her the medical help she needed. (Yes – WOW!)
I would be remiss if I did not mention that the Goldbergs are not alone in this town.
Molly Davis first introduced Ryan to this great cause. The Davis family has raised many North Star pups, along with the Vardi, Braverman and Koenig families. Sophie Vardi and her friend Elle Braverman raised siblings Beau and Susy for their Mitvah projects. The Fogels, who could no longer refuse daughter Lindsay’s persistence, are training Ruby, Cooper’s sister! This is truly a labor of love, and must be embraced by all members of the family to get it right.
To learn more about the North Star Foundation or to make a donation, visit them online http://www.northstardogs.com or on their Facebook page. A new documentary, “The Buddy System,” is currently in production. It highlights two North Star pups and their placements with children on the autism spectrum. Nancy, Ryan and Justin are featured puppy raisers in the film, which can be previewed on their Facebook page, The Buddy System Documentary.
As the first in my new series, “A Caring Community,” I thank Nancy and her family for being a true inspiration and for helping to change so many young lives.
If you know of someone in your community who is helping to make a difference in others’ lives, please email Anna at Connectionsnj @gmail.com or call 908-903-1799.