Lovable little Lola takes on big job as therapy dog

If it weren’t for Lola, Marcia Goldman would never have thought to become a children’s book author.

Lola is Goldman’s 5-year-old Yorkshire terrier and the title character of her first published book, “Lola Goes to Work: A Nine-to-Five Therapy Dog. ” The 32-page picture book, with text and photos by Goldman, tells the story of little Lola, a certified therapy dog.

Lola has participated in reading programs at public schools and at bookstores, sitting patiently and listening to children who have difficulty reading as they read to her. She has joined autistic children in the classroom, and Goldman hopes to get her accepted to Stanford Hospital’s therapy dog program as well.

Marcia Goldman with Lola

“It’s ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ with fur,” jokes the Atherton resident  about the book, which is based on her experiences going through therapy-dog training with Lola a couple of years ago. All of the proceeds from sales will be donated to an autism charity.

A leading philanthropist in the Bay Area Jewish community with a foundation that bears her name and that of her husband, John, Marcia Goldman is retired from a 30-year career in special education. For 25 years, she focused on teaching children on the autism spectrum, doing consulting and running her own program in San Carlos, and later working at the Pacific Autism Center for Education (PACE) in Santa Clara for nine years.

She came up with the therapy dog idea soon after retiring. “A friend of mine had her dog trained as a therapy dog, and I wondered if my little 5-pound Lola could do it,” recalled Goldman, who was just getting used to Lola after having had Labrador retrievers and a cocker spaniel in the past.

Ignoring naysayers who thought Lola was too lightweight for the job, Goldman perceived that Lola had a unique character, so she went ahead and pursued the specialized training. Lola passed all the required components, including obedience training, canine good citizenship and behavioral tests.

“At the end, I was fingerprinted and tested for tuberculosis, and Lola underwent a physical examination,” Goldman said. “Then once we were accepted to the program, we were invited to work with autistic individuals.”

Goldman was happy to take Lola to meet the students at PACE, where she had worked. During circle time, each child was given a treat to hold out for the dog. “Lola will do almost anything for food,” Goldman noted.

“She’s incredible in the classroom. It is amazing how the kids respond to her, when they don’t respond to anyone else. Children who never talk say ‘Thank you’ to Lola when she comes up to take the treat from them. One little girl kept saying, ‘More cookie please,’ as Lola went around the circle. She understood that Lola couldn’t speak, so she spoke for her.” Goldman and Lola began making regular visits to the classroom.

Goldman finds that Lola is very intuitive — she’s been known to make a beeline to  screaming children, sitting down next to them until they calm down.

Seeing how much the children liked Lola, Goldman wanted to read them books about dogs during circle time. To her dismay, she discovered that almost all picture books with dogs have drawn illustrations — which autistic children have difficulty relating to — rather than photographs. And it was difficult even to find a book whose hero is a small dog.

Goldman took matters into her own hands and, using the Kodak website, made her own children’s book, starring Lola. She printed two copies — one for the class and one for herself.

Soon, one story about Lola turned into 11, and two copies turned into many, as friends saw the books and asked her to make copies for their grandchildren. A friend who owned a bookstore urged Goldman to write a story about Lola going to work. Then Marissa Moss, the Berkeley-based author of the “Amelia’s Notebook” series who was launching a children’s book publishing company, Creston Books, took on “Lola Goes to Work” as one of her first releases in August.

Goldman is excited about plans for the publication of a second book in the series, “Lola Goes to the Doctor,” in fall 2014, and she’s having fun working with Lola as her muse and model (the dog will smile for the camera in return for a piece of string cheese).

However, the most rewarding aspect of Goldman’s new career is that it keeps her in touch with the work she dedicated herself to for three decades.

She is buoyed by the fact that more is now known about autism and that new therapies are being used. “There was very little known about autism when I first started my program in the 1980s,” she said. “I preferred an approach of being more responsive to the children, rather than taking things away from them in an attempt to change their behavior. I’m happy to see that my approach is being used in many therapies today.

“Early intervention is the key,” she emphasized.

Lola’s therapeutic visits with autistic children and “Lola Goes to Work” all support this early intervention. But Goldman is concerned about the rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism and autism spectrum disorders, and worries whether society is ready to properly help them all.

She may be a rising author, but Goldman is a special educator at heart. Picture books are great for teaching young kids. “But what about all the autistic children who are growing up to be teenagers and adults?” she asks.

 

“Lola Goes to Work” by Marcia Goldman (30 pages, Creston Books, $16) Goldman and her dog, Lola, will appear at 3 p.m. Sept. 28 at Books Inc., 1760 Fourth St., Berkeley, For a full list of upcoming book talks go to www.marciagoldman.com.

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.