It has been all over Facebook, Twitter and all kinds of social media lately: The picture of a sweet little boy greeting a golden retriever and laying with him like they’d known each other forever while his mother looks on in tears. It’s the moment a little boy met his autism service dog. It’s a great moment, a moment worked for for a long time and hoped for and wished for. It is, I would hope, the start of many more moments like that.
Every time I see it though, I flinch. The reason I flinch is likely not what you would expect, either. This was one moment in time. It is a moment in time that is beautiful for them, yet it is not representative of the majority of experiences. Let me tell you our story, and let me share with you what the journey can be like.
My son was diagnosed with autism in August of 2012. He was just past 2 years old, gifted with a charming smile and sweet looks but lacking words or interest in communicating. He had his way of relating to the world and, heartbreakingly at the time, we had no idea how to bridge the gap between his mode of relating and our own. He was involved with the local Early Intervention program, had multiple therapies going pretty much immediately after diagnosis thanks to them and we threw the doors open wide in terms of finding what might work to open his world up further. Whatever it would take for him to be able to find himself, we were down for doing it even if it meant using flashlights to speak Morse Code.
It was in early 2013 that I happened to start looking up service dogs. I’d seen something in passing about service dogs working with children but knew literally nothing about them. I searched, I read, I considered… then I did that all again and again. We settled on a program, did the application and got accepted. I began fundraising for his dog in April of 2013. We finished that fall and were scheduled to meet his dog in October of 2014.
The moment the world saw in the picture of the boy and his new dog? We had that. Right down to the golden retriever. Right down to the boy turning beaming and comfortable. I didn’t cry, no, but I was blown away. We thought we had a Hallmark moment, the one everyone wants.
This is life. Life does not work that way, sadly, no matter how badly we want it.
Brooklyn, the beautiful girl to whom my son was matched, is a radiantly beautiful cream colored Golden Retriever with the sweetest, most tender gaze. She has a heart as big as the sea. She wanted to please so, so much. She doted on her boy, she attended well to me when I handled her, she knew her tasks. It was hard work though, especially when it became clear Brooklyn had struggles.
Service dogs are not robots. They’re dogs. They have needs that require diligent looking after. You also engage in constant reinforcement and training to make sure needed skills stay sharp at all times since you do truly come to rely on them. This was amplified with Brooklyn due to anxieties and health issues. We did all we could, supporting her as much as we support our boy. We reached out to the people who trained her for help. We trusted them to support us, given they claimed they would support their clients through anything.
It turned into a nightmare. My son’s dog was wrenched from us and sent to another family while we withstood being accused of the worst things. My son’s stability – something important to any child and even more so for an autistic one – was destroyed as was his trust. This dog had, despite her struggles, opened his world up. She’d given him language he’d previously not had, allowing him to start speaking more confidently at 4.5 years of age. She allowed him the peace of mind to sit through an eye appointment where we learned he was significantly far sighted. His best friend, his helper, his support… gone.
It is an understatement to say we were devastated and wounded. No, this is not a typical story of what a family seeking these dogs goes through, however… Neither is the picture going viral right now. Thankfully, there’s a lot more to our story.
November 2015 saw us reeling from the betrayal of Brooklyn’s placing agency. We could, foolishly, have waited and let them try again but it was clear they had no interest in doing anything in my son’s best interest. I looked local now, drawing on all the knowledge gleaned over the past two years of being engaged in this process. I knew what he needed, I knew how dire our situation was with him and I knew we could not risk having another golden since he immediately thought of Brooklyn and grew despondent when the dog did not act just like she did. What did I find? Poodles.
American Poodles at Work (APAW) is a service dog organization placing poodles. They are located in Massachusetts about an hour from our home. I reached out to them so certain we’d be turned away given our first experience. The answer I received was warm and welcoming. We were invited, my son and I, to come meet some of their dogs and interview with them to see if we would be a good fit for their program.
This is where I did actually cry. We met several dogs that day: Charlie, the elder statespoodle of the organization who has well-earned a blissful retirement after being their demo dog for years; Eager, one of their then most recent litter of puppies; Twinkle, a feisty mini who had a lot to say; and Blossom, lovebug mother to Eager and devoted deliverer of smiles. Blossom would not give up on engaging me or my son. She kept bringing us her toy and waiting for us to play with her. I didn’t know it then, but that’s her magic. She sees a need, she answers a need.
We were accepted to the program. I was relieved. My son would have a helper, it would just be a long while until they might arrive we thought. It takes upwards of 2 years to train a service dog from birth to puppy, and unless an unmatched dog already in training was a perfect fit… we’d be waiting on that.
March 6, 2016. Not long before this, I had joked with the program director of APAW that we needed a Blossom. Blossom, being a breeding mother, requires a home that can live without her for the time she is required to be at the agency to whelp and raise litters. She had no placement at that time. I had a little boy who was losing himself more and more every day. He was without his sparkle. He was combative at school and at home. He was hurting and so was I, since I could not heal his pain.
Blossom came home on short visit that day. That fateful, amazing day. She cuddled him immediately and played with us all. She found out she loved to be on the couch, loved to help my son go to bed and just plain loved being the focus of people’s attention in our home. Within a couple of weeks, she was in our home full-time. Blossom is considered “in training” not because she has anything left to learn – her training is impeccable – but because I remain in training and we’re constantly working on our bond and working relationship. It’s a great relationship we’ve built, but like all things involving living creatures, it constantly evolves and adapts. We will hopefully graduate APAW’s team training by the end of this year or early next year, should schedules allow.
But why did I write all this? Didn’t we have those picture perfect moments?
Well, we did. But that’s not our story. Those moments are wonderful, but that’s not what this dog means to our family. There was no instant “this is perfection” moment with either dog. The moment I realized Blossom was my son’s perfect long-term match was not seen until well after it happened. You see, my son was hospitalized in May of 2016. He had such violent outbursts and was putting himself and others in danger with them. Everything that had occurred had spiraled painfully to this point. The outburst that landed him in the hospital was particularly explosive and frankly, even I was scared by it. Blossom was present. I thought for sure this spelled doom for them as a pair since she was still relatively new to us. I brought her back to APAW just until I could get my son safely settled and able to be around her again. A week later, she was back.
She walked up to him like nothing had ever happened. Whole hearted, open-hearted love radiated from her along with the sheer joy of seeing her small, silly friend. He registered total shock at seeing her, too. “Blossom come back”, he said with awe to literally every single person we came across. He thought dogs left and never returned.
Through his worst she did not waver. She only loved and forgave and returned. She accepted, adapted and continued.
Every day I put in time training, grooming and working with Blossom. There are no days off. If she goes to school, looks like I am going back to elementary as well. This is the deal I signed up for the moment I signed a contract to fundraise back in 2013. This is the investment I am willing and able to make in my son’s well being, knowing this is a tool that works well for him. There are vet bills, grooming bills, food bills, toy and gear bills… Every last penny, every last hour and every last ounce of frustration or exhaustion is worth it. I hear him speak in full sentences now. I hear him tell me stories of his day. It’s his own unique manner of speaking, to be sure, but he’s telling me so much. He has rebounded and surged so far forward from where he was last year at this time that it blows me away.
If you are considering a service dog for your child, I highly recommend reaching out to Canines for Disabled Kids. It’s a great place to get feedback on programs and what this all entails. Try to get as many independent views of agencies as possible. Find what works for your family and understand that those pictures viral stories portray are not every day life. They are snapshots that you hope persist for those in them, but there’s so, so, so much more behind the scenes – and so many other pairs that do not look anything like that on day 1. I am always happy to answer questions and help.