Things back home are going smoothly. When I arrived on Saturday night, we all had to go through a strict protocol to introduce Hope to the family. Everyone complied nicely and I think that we are all getting along well as a result. It was a huge relief to see that things had been operating brilliantly in my absence. Barry deserves a medal for his performance as head-of-household over the last week. The team pulled together and I can’t see that anything fell through the cracks.
Zoe and Lena are already in love with Hope. Zoe, who struggles with a bit of general anxiety, feels like Hope has added a measure of serenity and security to our household. I think she is relieved that I am home and this big trip is behind us, but I also think that she is amazed by the temperament of this wonderful dog and she is basking in Hope’s affection for her. Lena just likes a big fluffy animal that she can grab. Bella doesn’t tolerate being messed with too much.
Gray didn’t really have much of a reaction to Hope on Saturday night or Sunday during the day. He would run his hand down her back when she walked by, but I couldn’t see that he really thought about her or noticed her at all. And then we returned to our weekly routine this morning…
When it came time for me to take Gray and Lena to school, I put Hope’s service pack on and got everyone ready to head out the door. To my amazement, Gray just walked over to Hope and picked up his handle on the back of her pack. He didn’t look at me or make a big deal about it, he just started walking towards the front door with the handle in his hand and Hope walked with him. They escorted each other to the car and everyone climbed in like we had been doing it for years.
On the way to school, Gray slipped his hand under her pack and gently rubbed her back. Then, he fell asleep. It was truly unbelievable to see him so calm in the morning. When we arrived at school, I got him out of the car along with Hope and told him to hold his handle. He took it easily and walked nicely into the building all the way to this classroom. This is notable because, on a typical morning, I would be struggling to hold onto Gray while I unloaded his back pack and put his shoes on his feet while he pulled and struggled to get free of my grip in the parking lot. After I gathered everything and securely gripped his hand, he would generally walk a few feet and then break away from me as soon as we passed the playground. Then, after running after him and dragging him into the building, he would stop in front of every classroom or whine and protest until we reached his class. None of that happened today. We were calm and normal-looking as we hit the front door and greeted his teacher.
THIS is and excellent start! I’m feeling very optimistic.
Time to head home!
The goodbyes were hard last night. It felt strange to know that Kati would not be meeting us this morning. Today, I am on my own. I am writing on the plane and I am marveling at the difference in how I am feeling compared to when I was flying to Portland 6 days ago. I am relying less on faith and more on confidence in my new skills. I don’t know how to predict what life will be like at home, but I believe more firmly than ever that this is the right path for us.
As I look back on this week, I understand why the program works the way it does. On a personal level, this week has been a break that I really needed. It has been years since I have been “on my own” and free of the duties of childcare. It has been years since I have had time to think about other things besides autism and behavior management and medication dosing. In this new environment, I have been free to clear my mind of mothering 2 girls and a boy with autism to make room for learning the skills required to be a good dog handler. I have opened up and given myself over to Kati and the program so that I can absorb all of this new knowledge as my only priority.
Truthfully, I feel a little guilty about how wonderful this trip has been. It really has been a vacation. Kati loves food like I love food. To say that we have made the most of the incredible Portland food scene is an understatement. Five days of 2-3 hour lunches eating unbelievably delicious food is hardly a hardship. I rationalize that we have a lot to discuss and the more I tell her about my life, the better equipped she will be to help our family. In reality, we could have had our discussions in any environment, but the fun we have had together (Hope, Kati and I) has bonded all of us and I know that our friendship will be lasting.
Today we had our final exam and we passed! After a long discussion with Kati to test my new-found knowledge, we headed down to the water front to do the skills test. I didn’t feel nervous at all. I felt sure that we would pass with flying colors. I was right. The two of us put on quite a show of teamwork and Kati was impressed.
As I write, I am in my hotel having a little quiet time before our graduation dinner. Kati has taken Hope to go meet her puppy raisers at a coffee shop so that I won’t have to witness their sadness about her leaving. After they have said their goodbyes, we will all meet up for dinner to celebrate the end of this phase and the beginning of Hope’s new life.
I have to admit, it feels strange to be without Hope at this point. On one hand, I miss her. I have grown accustomed to her being by my side and I have grown comfortable with considering her needs throughout the day. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a relief to be by myself and know that Kati is taking good care of her. I didn’t realize the weight I was carrying in her presence. Over the last five days, I have been concerned with her well-being both physically and mentally. I find myself running through the commands in my head and trying to anticipate which ones I will need to use in each upcoming scenario. I consider when she will get to eat or go to the bathroom. I worry about making mistakes that will permanently damage her ability to be the best dog possible for Gray and our family. I think I have officially turned into her mother!
Now that Kati and Hope are gone, I am feeling the relief that I felt the first time I handed Zoe to a babysitter and walked out of the house alone for a few hours. I didn’t know how much I needed the break until I got one. I think this is a good sign. I think this means that we are a part of each other’s lives in a permanent way now.
Hope and I are getting comfortable with each other now. I feel good walking with her and going in and out of public places. I feel sure that she will behave the way she has been trained and I’m feeling better about being able to keep up those skills. I am working to maintain a calm confident energy with her and it is coming more naturally to me now. When Kati leaves us at night and we are alone together in the hotel, it feels easy and she curls up next to me at the foot of the bed.
Last night we went out with Kati and Laurel (another member of the ASDA family) to dinner and the theater. When we got to the theater, they had reserved just 2 front row seats for us. Although this was lovely, it was also a tiny bit awkward. We really needed 3 seats. Also, the stage was not elevated, it was level with us at the floor. Also, Laurel brought her puppy-in-training. Things looked like they might now go smoothly. I was sorry that Laurel had to sit apart from us, but I felt grateful when Kati sat next to me. I really did not know how things would go.
When the play started with a strobe light, a crash of thunder and an actor screaming on the stage 3 feet in front of us, I started thinking that this was just too much to ask of a dog. I was wrong. Hope just looked up at me with an inquisitive look that said, “What’s wrong with that guy?” I gave her a quick pat on the head and she settled in for the remainder of the show.
Unfortunately, Laurel’s puppy was not doing as well. After a couple of minutes of yelps and squirms, Kati popped out of her seat and went to get the puppy out of the theater. She gave me a reassuring pat and then she was gone. I considered, for a moment, whether I should leave as well. I looked back to see Laurel in her seat and I decided to see what happened. Ninety minutes later, Hope was calm and cool as the show reached its dramatic finale. Screaming and chair throwing and a snap of a bull whip did not arouse more than a position change in her.
When the lights came up, I felt incredible. If we could make it through that with perfect behavior, we were in great shape. After the show, I reconnected with Kati and Laurel in the lobby. We all felt very proud about Hope’s new found love of the theater. Kati congratulated us with effusive praise. The bond between us is growing nicely.
I feel like I am becoming a religious convert. My new religion is dogs. I am a believer!
The old me:
We have a pug named Bella that is 11-years-old. We got her when she was a puppy just a few months after Barry and I got married. Before the kids came along, she was everything to us. She was immediately treated as our equal and had all the advantages of the human world like people food treats, hanging out on the couch and sleeping in bed with us. We actually bought a house for her because we wanted her to have a nice backyard.
Over the years, with the addition of 3 kids, we have become very lazy with the training that we initially gave her and her care in general. She spends about 80% of her day on the couch asleep. We rarely take her for a walk. We rarely “play” with her. Although we all love her very much, she has become an accessory in our home and a nuisance when it comes to stealing food, barking out the front window, and snapping at me or the kids. Lately, she has become somewhat aggressive whenever food drops on the floor and someone tries to pick it up. Two weeks ago, she bit me when I tried to block her from running out the front door.
Barry and I thought it was just old age. We thought that she has just become a lazy grumpy old lady. Nothing to be done, just leave her alone.
In general, I thought dogs were people; specifically, poorly behaved children. Sure, you could make a dog be obedient, but you have to start very young and be very diligent. Who has time for that? I also thought it was just part of dog ownership to deal with all of the hassles that they can create.
The new me:
In Hope I am reborn! (Sounds pretty religious, right?)
One thing that I think is really smart about this program is the preparation process that goes along with the training. Before coming to Portland, I had required reading. One of the books was Cesar Milan’s book Cesar’s Way. This was a great read because it started to change my mind about the basic nature of dogs. I started to learn more about pack behavior and dominance. I started to learn more about rules and making dogs happy with their lives by setting boundaries. I started looking at Bella differently: It’s not age that has made her difficult and grouchy. Our pampering and lack of discipline has made her difficult and grouchy.
Now that I have been here training for a few days, I can see that these things are true. There have been moments when I have started to feel sorry for Hope. I never would have believed that a dog could resist people food and I could never really understand why it would be so bad to sneak her a little bit. Now, I know that by blurring those lines between master and owner, we confuse our dogs and make them feel insecure. She is a happy dog. She doesn’t bark or get excited or snap or growl. That is not because she has been punished or mistreated. It is just he opposite. She doesn’t do those things because she is fulfilled by her place in the world and she knows it well. She is happy and secure under the leadership that has been shown to her. I only pray that I can continue on with that very precious guidance!
Meanwhile, back home, Bella is in for some changes when I return. She used to be a pretty well-behaved dog. I know she has got that in her still. It is up to me and Barry and the kids to help her find her happiness with a new structure that she can rely on. She will find comfort in her new position as the obedient follower. I am still working out what, exactly, that will look like, but I feel confident that we are all going to be better dog people through this experience.
If you have children, you will be able to understand how strange I felt when I drove away from training today with Hope in the back of my car. I have been mentally preparing for her arrival for months: buying supplies, reading books and talking to experts. Now, I am here to get her and, after 2 days with supervision, it is time to take her on my own. Sound familiar? I know I can’t compare the responsibilities of a newborn baby with a dog, but that is the feeling that came rushing back to me as I pulled onto the street. It was that familiar voice that said, “Who is that stranger in the back seat that you have to take care of for the rest of her life?” Of course, I didn’t have to worry about keeping her alive, but there are a lot of things to remember. The pressures are similar. What if I make a mistake and screw her up completely? What if I undo all of her training? What if I forget to feed her or lose her???
I tried to calm myself and remember that we will take some time to get to know each other. After a couple of hours back in my hotel room trying to decide what to do with her, I decided to just go for it. We leashed up and headed outside on a long walk to dinner. I felt good with her by my side and I think she felt safe with me. After about 45 minutes, we ended up at a very swanky restaurant. I put on her service pack and confidently strode inside. No one gave me any problems and the questions from other guests and employees were very kind and appropriate. Hope sat silently at my feet while I enjoyed a 4-star meal with a cocktail. After dinner, we took a cab back to the hotel and had a lovely long sleep.
Maybe this will be easier than bringing home a newborn after all…
The anticipation of meeting Hope was bigger than the actual meeting. I think, in my mind, I imagined her waiting for me as the elevator doors opened: Standing on her hind legs waiting to extend her paw and gaze into my eyes with a look that said, “I am about to make everything easier.” Of course, I didn’t imagine her talking…I’m not delusional. I just expected her to be some super-dog from another planet that would fix everything.
The reality was that, as I came downstairs to meet Kati, the trainer, I didn’t know if Hope would be with her or not. In fact, it took me a minute to realize that Hope was sitting beneath Kati’s chair at the table in the lobby. I resisted the urge to fall to my knees and squeeze her sweet face. The dog behavior books that were assigned reading before I arrived warned me not to exhibit such behavior. Instead, I just squeezed Kati (not her face, just a regular hug).
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. Kati and I walked around the city and a mall and had lunch and sat and talked for many hours. We both had a lot of questions for each other. Hope just followed along calmly. My job today was to observe and learn by example. I tried to listen carefully to all the explanations of Kati’s actions and commands. I continued to squelch the urge to reach out and touch Hope with a friendly rub. There was a pull in my chest the whole day that made me want to grab her and roll around on the floor with that sweet dog.
On the practical side, it is now time to realize that MANY things in our lives are about to change. I still have faith that they will change for the better, but it is clear to me that there will be a lot of work and new habits to build before we get to the new life that I imagine with our service dog. I will not be bringing her home and just getting back to my normal crazy life. My life is going to be different now. The life of our whole family will be different. I’m a little scared of that.
I’m finally on the plane. After a 15 month wait, I’m going to get Gray’s dog. What lies ahead is a leap of faith for me.
One evening, last October, I flipped on a recorded episode of the Today show while Barry finished putting our older daughter to bed. After they were asleep, he plopped down on the couch beside me. The segment that caught our attention was about some crazy manager at a fast food restaurant who assaulted a mother in the restaurant with her autistic son and his service dog. It was not a terribly interesting story, but after it was over, Barry turned to me and said, “I wonder how an autistic kid would use a service dog?”
Good question. I was thinking that myself. I jumped up and headed over to the computer to do a little internet research:
It was like a lightening bolt hit me when I realized that OUR autistic kid needed a service dog! I stayed up way too late that night reading all I could and looking at applications for various organizations. When I crawled into bed well after midnight, I told Barry, “We are definitely doing this.”
As I write this now, I am sitting on a plane to Portland where I will meet our sweet miracle dog in about 12 hours. I still have no proof that this will work out the way I hope, but I have faith. What is it I am expecting? I’m not totally sure. Magic?
Here is what I know:
We have a simple list of things that are required to make our lives livable.
1. Gray needs to be potty trained. We are on our way, but after 3.5 years of working on this skill ever so diligently, we are still not quite there.
2. Gray needs to stop disrupting our family with his tantrums and hyper-manic episodes. It makes him miserable and it makes everyone around him miserable.
3. We need to be able to go out in public as a family without the fear of Gray running away into a dangerous situation. He has bolted away from us in parking lots, playgrounds that are close to busy streets, and even our own home is not a place that we can be sure he will stay put. We deserve to go visit friends or walk around the mall or check out a street festival like other families do. Up until now, I have had to resolve myself to leaving him with a babysitter or therapist whenever we want to do family things with the girls.
If we want to eat with him in a restaurant, it needs to be somewhere with a booth where I can corner him in or a table that is backed into a wall so that Barry and I can keep him corralled close by. This restaurant better have french fries immediately available and I generally have to apologize to at least a dozen people about Gray interrupting their meal with his bouncing, running around, stealing food off their plates, or general loud squeals and possible tantrums. It is not pleasant.
If we want to visit a friend’s house for a barbecue or a birthday party, I have to make sure that the house will have all the doors locked and all the gates are secure and I will spend the entire time following Gray around making sure that he doesn’t escape the premises, or destroy someones belongings or strip naked and poop in some corner. Obviously, there are only a very few very close friends who are willing to invite Gray into their homes.
If we want to go out anywhere that is truly public (farmers market, walk in the neighborhood, trick-or-treating, or the mall), an adult must be assigned to pay attention solely to Gray. He will hold your hand for a while, but after about 15-20 minutes, he tires of that and wants to run around without regard for his own safety and proximity to the family. Within 30-40 minutes a meltdown is almost guaranteed because he will not want this adult grabbing at him every 2 seconds to keep him with the group. Now that he is really too big for a stroller, we don’t go to those places with him anymore.
SO, HERE IS THE FIRST BENEFIT
Tether training happens when Gray wears a belt with a tether that secures him to his dog’s vest. The adult who is supervising Gray will then hold the dog’s leash and away they go into the community. The idea is that Gray will become accustomed to having the dog by his side. After a short training period, he will learn to ignore the tether that is attached to him and just follow the lead of the dog. Since the dog is able to follow commands and stay with her pack, Gray will learn to come along. The tether will serve as his cue to stop or go as his dog does. This should serve him both in open environments where he is expected to walk with the group as well as in seated environments where it is not appropriate to get up and wander around.
WE HOPE THIS WILL BE THE SECOND BENEFIT
Additionally, Gray and his dog should grow a bond. She will sense when he is getting upset and perhaps help him to calm down more quickly. Perhaps her calm energy will influence his. Perhaps the sensory input he gets from stroking and rubbing her will reduce his need to stroke and pinch other people.
AND THEN THERE IS THE EXTRA BENEFIT
Finally, perhaps our family can stop having to apologize so much to everyone around us. Gray looks pretty normal until he starts squealing and screaming and throwing shoes at people and pulling hair. It is never a fun moment when you have to explain to a stranger that your son (brother, grandchild) is autistic and therefore acting strange for a reason. Perhaps the dog will just make that announcement for us. When we walk in somewhere with a dog in a vest, people will notice, right? They will give us some extra latitude. And, perhaps, with the dog, Gray won’t need so much latitude anymore.
If this works, life is about to get REALLY good.