J-Bear and Me

learning to navigate the world, j-bear style

Month: December 2015

Good Riddance, 2015

It’s been a year, as many of you know.

We started the year so positive. Even when we were under 5 feet of snow with drifts well over our heads, everything was okay. J-Bear was healthy. Brookie had arrived. Everything was going to be great now, right?

Then the accidents kept happening, in public of all places. The warning bells really began to ring when they happened at home. Something was just wrong. She was sick, and then she got even more sick.

We loved her through it. Even J doted upon her, for she was as part of us all as he is.

The accidents continued. Accidents and service dogs don’t mix. We knew she was an anxious girl but we just couldn’t figure out the crux of this issue.

And I stupidly trusted the wrong people.

Brookie went back to Ohio. I never should have brought her, but I did. From there, I was bullied and lied to repeatedly, backed into a corner by the founder of 4 Paws constantly and disallowed contact with any other. When I did reach out to the head trainer, I discovered things were not as they were depicted.

3 days later she was taken away. 3 days later, we were accused of abuse… but put into the July 2016 class.

Folks, the tale you’re being told about our experience with 4 Paws for Ability is a sham. We were in a future class. I asked, in November, to be removed from the class and have funds sent to our new agency to secure a dog there for J. If we’re such terribly abusive people, why on earth would they have placed us in a class or given our funds to another agency to place another animal in our home? Why would all of Brookie’s vet reports note a dog in wonderful condition who was extremely sweet and loving? Why would none of our vet care (her regular vet and the hospital she was cared for by) be contacted about such allegations? Why would no local to us who actually spent time with us regularly be reached out to?

Instead, in October 2015, Brookie was placed with another family. This family lives in a foreign country and I cannot state this enough: They are absolutely innocent in everything going on here. They are likely completely ignorant of what has gone on and of this dog’s full history. My heart hurts for them. I fear them getting hurt as we were. I do not want this poor dog disrupted anew, nor do I want to see their child ache as mine does. They are likely good, kind people who were out to do for their child what we did for ours: give them an amazing resource and a bridge to a world frequently inaccessible to them. I want success for them. I want joy, peace and calm for them. I want them to know how loved she was, and for them to have every possible tool to make this work.  This is why I will never publicly identify anything about them. I want them protected, not harmed or bullied like we have been.

That’s not coming from 4 Paws for Ability, who handled this situation appallingly. This is an organization that has the pieces within it to be tremendous yet without solid, positive, committed and transparent leadership will do nothing but flounder as it is right now. Their clients deserve well trained, ready to work dogs that go home prepared for their new lives… the way things used to be many many months ago there. The trainers have the skills, they just need the ability and resources with which to exercise these skills without upper level greed and blindness disrupting the process.

Also, if your big thing is to brag that you only have 80 foster homes for 400 dogs, as their director has done… That’s something you need to clearly reevaluate. Not a bragging point.

2016 is the year I do not get bullied. It is the year we find collaboration, healing and a tremendous opportunity to learn. I will get to take part in the raising of J’s new dog from the very start I hope and for that I am overwhelmingly excited. Learning is something I love, and learning something that will help my child for many years to come is a gift for which I can never repay this group enough. I am excited to also be able to give back to them and help them further their mission. They are good people, kind-hearted and dedicated. It will be nice to just spend time with them and the dogs of the program… Nice as well as healing.

2015, you destroyed me and my family in a lot of ways. You devastated my mental health… but I will fight back. Worse than you has not killed me yet though it has tried. I have lost a lot of people who lied and called themselves friends but I have gained so very much more.

2016 will be good. I can’t wait to share that with you all. Thank you again, for all the love and support you offer. We could not do this without you.

Raising a Puppy

There are a few options that were made available to us when we met with APAW as to how we would proceed in terms of a service dog for J-Bear. The options are to either wait for a 1.5-2 year old dog, fully trained and finished; bring home a dog most of the way through their training but much younger and work with them through their finishing training (6 months to 1 year of age) or to bring a puppy home and be their puppy raiser/socializer. This is a lot to take in and consider given the amount of work that would go in to bringing home a very young dog or a puppy, plus we have to weigh how dogs create bonds and how to best plan for the best bond between J and his new partner.

That said, we pretty much ruled out waiting for a 1.5-2 year old dog. It is not that a dog at this age and stage of complete training could not possibly bond with J. There’s a lot of amazing dogs out there that could roll easily with the slings and arrows of a kid with autism but it would potentially not come easily to them. J’s weird would not come with easy fluency, it would be their second language that possibly never quite got perfected. This isn’t the best route to a strong relationship.

The option we are hoping for is to bring home a puppy and become the puppy raiser for his dog. It seems mildly insane since, well, it’s not like a day in life with J is always simple and straightforward yet it offers such an amazing opportunity. It is a great learning opportunity, a great chance to let J be deeply involved with his dog’s future and the highest probability that he and his pup will speak each other’s language with natural ease.

There are a ton of questions people generally have about what this would entail. I asked for some of your questions on Facebook earlier so here’s some answers. Remember, I am a student in all of this rather than a scholar. I am learning both from asking people who are pretty expert in puppy raising as well as reading pretty much everything I can get my hands on. If you’re a puppy raiser or trainer and have anything to add, please definitely reach out!

Can you look at a litter of puppies and pick out the ones that could be good service dogs? Or is it less about temperament and more about training?

I could not, for love or money, look at a litter and pick out which dogs might be good for service work and which ones might not. All I see are cute, wriggly puppies! However, service dog organizations that breed their own dogs work on this even before a puppy is a glimmer in their mama’s eye. The dogs are bred for temperament, good health and other desirable traits for the service tasks the organization predominantly trains for. Their heritage is carefully studied, their genetics vetted and the overall health of each parent’s line taken into great consideration. Once the litter is born, the caretakers and/or trainers are deeply involved with them from the start. They spend the time getting to know each puppy and their development and over years of working in the field have honed the skill of identifying the strengths of each pup and the likelihood of them being good for service or other tasks.   When you consider a fully trained service dog, it really is as much about training as temperament but as a puppy, it is temperament and trainability that matter most.

How is being a service dog puppy raiser/foster different that a family that adds a puppy to their family?

When you start, a lot of it is kind of the same! You must housetrain the dog as well as kennel train them, teach them good manners and begin them on basic commands. You should socialize them as soon as their vaccinations allow it and put forth the effort to teach them to be a good canine citizen in your little corner of the world. You should have them meet many different people, hear many different sounds and teach them that new and uncertain situations are not necessarily scary. It helps them become confident and calm as they grow up rather than perhaps skittish or furtive.

The two paths diverge when your puppy starts that socialization phase. When a puppy is being raised to be any kind of service dog, the socialization process is stepped up. The puppy goes everywhere humanly possible with their handler. It is on the handler to make sure they are safely exposed to a wide, wide variety of people, places and things that most of us might never think of or that we take for granted passing by in our day-to-day life. J’s puppy, for example, will need to learn early on to be calm and comfortable with the chaos of a playground. They will need to be comfortable visiting doctors offices and hospitals, museums, stadiums, amusement parks, airports and subways. The earlier that these things become normalizes for the puppy, the better.

It’s very easy to write about making a puppy comfortable with all of these experiences, it is a very different experience to actually do it. It involves a lot of time, patience and repetition as well as carefully reading the dog to make sure you are not pushing them beyond their comfort zone too far, too fast. Thankfully, we have already had a fearful dog. If you keep  your eyes open, recognizing their limits is easy enough to do and gently coaxing them through fears until confidence can be established is rewarding.

There’s also the question of basics in terms of training. You teach manners and expectations along with basic commands like sit, stay, heel and come. You’re teaching the pup how to behave while in restaurants, how to stay out from underfoot in stores and how not to be nosy towards strangers while you’re waiting in line or caught in a crowd. A lot of this is reinforced more in advanced training but the basics start early on for the pups to make sure it is muscle memory for them.

I know there’s a lot of details I am missing. It’s a thing that I do. If there are more questions that I can answer (or get the answers to!) or if there are further questions based on what’s here, I am always happy to help. There’s going to be a lot of learning in the coming year and I am looking forward to sharing that with you all.

Oh, and posts with 100% more puppy pictures.

The Fallout

There is a subject I skirt. Sure, if you talk to me regularly you’ve likely heard me mention it, but I surely haven’t brought it up at any length publicly yet.

The fallout of Brooklyn’s being taken from us for J has been stated. He has suffered regression, a major surge of anxiety into his life and a general feeling of instability that leaves him clingy and uncertain. He works, every day, to regain ground that he lost but there are a lot of things that just are completely wrecked for him at the moment. We can’t ignore that, we can’t escape that and we work to rectify that. What others stole we will restore, I have deep faith in that.

Meanwhile, I ignore the destruction wrought on myself.

Every day I beat myself up for getting on that plane in June and bringing Brooklyn back to Ohio. I had misgivings when I dropped her off, but I trusted. Should I have trusted? I do not feel I should have no, though I feel the person I trusted possibly was as mentally knocked about in this situation as I have been if not more so. I shook as I stood there in the facility letting her go and detailing her very specific care to the staff. Everything felt wrong, and every day I have to face the regret that came with not listening to my gut and misplacing my trust instead.

let my son get hurt. I know, logic screams that is not the case, but my brain doesn’t always function well with logic. The wound was made. It’s going to be a very, very long time to heal. I feel hurt, broken, unworthy. I feel like a failure, a person who breaks promises, a person whose earnest nature was taken advantage of and whose words were manipulated for the gain of others. I feel used, abused and tossed aside. I feel lied to and cheated.

I feel like I have an open sore that will never heal over.

Everyday I fight crippling anxiety and depression lately. I don’t want to function. Frankly, I want to stay in my bed and hide from everything. It hurts to go out in the world. It hurts to do bare basic necessities. The only reason I put one foot in front of the other is J. He’s brave enough to keep going and keep shining and I cannot completely fail him again.

Our visit to APAW for our interview with them was a light in the darkness. I am very upfront with my own disability and they know it is there. They understand psychiatric disabilities. They will not put me in a position to use my illness against myself. This I can see by what they have done.

Every day I still hurt though. Every day things still feel wrong. Every day people still sit back and blame me for their choices and actions, like my family actually did something wrong.

I know we gave Brooklyn the finest care and the utmost love.

I know she had a happy, safe and adoring home with us.

I know we followed the rules to a T because my mental illness would accept little else.

Still, every day I have to live with the doubt that was planted. And I will never get resolution. A death? The story is ended. There is no ending here, there is just an open and gaping void with no rhyme or reason. Nothing ever had to be this way and somehow, we will move forward thanks to great people and a great community who actually believe in us.

Remember, if it seems too good to be true it nearly always is.

What Happens Now

The changing of agencies brings with it a lot of new questions, I imagine. Here is an idea of why we chose APAW, what happens next and what we are hoping for.

Why did you choose APAW? There’s a lot of agencies out there! 

When it became clear that a change of agencies was needed everything became even more overwhelming than it was before. There are a lot of places that advertise placing service dogs with children with autism, but deeper searching revealed that either they did not place with children so young as J or that they had serious marks against their reputations. I spoke with one agency that with one email sent up all the red flags that had us turning away from the agency we were already with. There was no way we were going to go through that again! Other agencies looked like they might work but multi-year waits or distance were big drawbacks, drawbacks I wasn’t certain we could weather at this point.

I spoke to not only APAW itself, but to people who worked with them, an outside agency that we have worked with since we finished fundraising with the other organization and looked through the background of the staff. It was not a hasty, emotion-made decision. Everyone I spoke with was positive, honest and transparent. Then, we had a several hour interview with the founder of APAW who proved to be an absolute delight. She treated both myself and J with patience, humor, respect and clear personal interest. We were not numbers, J was a person in her eyes. She paid mind to how he interacted with each dog she introduced him to, answered my questions honestly and clearly and gave a great insight into the organization she runs. I knew the moment we walked out of the interview this was who I wanted to work with and who would likely help J best.

What happens next? Will it work like before?

This journey is likely to look a lot different from before. This is one of the things that appealed to me the most. This go, we will be able to hopefully volunteer within the organization as well as work towards J’s dog. Now, the fundraising for the dog was complete two years ago. That money is now with APAW to pay for the placement of J’s dog. However, rather than wait 12-24 months until a dog is fully trained to bring the dog into our home, we are hoping to bring a younger dog in training to live with us instead. This dog could be as young as a just out of their mother’s care puppy or slightly older.

Seems weird, right? Why’d we invite an unfinished dog into our home?

The hardest part of service dog relationships, especially for people on the autism spectrum, can be bonding. It is even harder when the human side of things is a young child. Young children are even more unpredictable than adults and it would be a lie to say J doesn’t have some behaviors that would take some getting used to, namely his volume. The younger we bring a dog into our home, the more normal this all will appear to the dog. They will grow up understanding J’s language as one of their first languages, something incredibly important for any dog but especially poodles who form their social understandings early and solidify them. The noise of our neighborhood, the number of people, the sirens from the police station and fire station, the weird noises the wind makes against our old windows, J’s sounds and randomness… A young dog would grow up with this beside their boy and it would be a part of the air they breathe, just part of their day to day life. An older dog might have to work hard to grow used to a lot of this and runs the risk of never fully acclimating.

The dog will go through full training and eventually go through a class and graduation with us just as other organizations do, the upbringing will just be done in the most advantageous way for a full, life long and happy match. The best way to explain it is we’ll be the puppy raisers or foster family, APAW will be the trainers.

Note that there is nothing wrong with receiving a 2+ year old dog as a service dog. In fact, most organizations place in this age range, especially for guide work or mobility work. These dogs work magnificently for their partners and it is a method that clearly works for a lot of people, it just is not the most likely for success in a case like J’s.

What is the timeline for J’s new dog?

This is fluid right now. Frustrating answer, right? Yet, somehow, it does not feel that way here for us.

The placement of a dog in our home, be they on their training journey already or just starting out, all depends on availability and suitability. They are aware of what we need. Now, it is a matter of whether or not there is a dog started on their training or if we await the next litter(s) of puppies and see if one of them is a decent match.

Yes, you can tell early on if a puppy is likely to have a service career. It involves being a subject matter expert who spends long hours working with their litters getting to know how they behave, but over years and experience it becomes something known instinctively. We are still working with dogs and children here and when working with those groups, there is no such thing as complete and utter certainty. Things can go awry and APAW is by our side to work with us just in case that eventuality comes to pass. They know the hurt we’ve already suffered. They are eager to see that hurt not happen again for us yet we are all aware of the inevitable risks.

Personal hope? I hope that J’s new dog is able to join our home in the early part of 2016. That is a hope, not a definite. We’re in the waiting now and that’s where volunteering we hope will come in. As volunteers we can get to know APAW better plus do something positive with our wait, however long it may be.

If there’s any other questions, I am always happy to do my best to answer.

Our New Journey

It is with great pleasure that I get to share this now!

Our new partners in the journey to reach a service dog for J-Bear is American Poodles at Work (APAW). They are located in central MA, so none too far from us, and are a small organization focused on their strengths. They work primarily with people who require mobility assistance dogs, psychiatric service dogs and a handful of autism service dogs. The placement of dogs from APAW stays within a 200 mile radius from their home base so they can be involved with their clients, something else we deeply appreciate.

But, you might ask… why poodles?

J-Bear currently shuts down when faced with a golden retriever, one of the most common dogs used for service work. Labradors he is open to, but they can still skirt the line of his ability to bond. When I saw APAW and realized there was zero chance of him receiving a dog who by appearances alone he would struggle to bond with, I was intrigued. Poodles are natural people pleasers and when raised with good socialization lead long, happy working lives. We met a half-dozen APAW dogs several weeks ago and had the opportunity to see these dogs shine doing what it was they love. The elder statesman of the group, Charlie, really blew me away. Here he is showing off his stuff in Dogs 101’s episode on the poodle: http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/dogs-101/videos/poodle/ – He is the big cream boy showing off on the white background and in various other bits of the segment.

There are other selling points, such as poodles being low allergy dogs due to having hair rather than fur and the fact that they as a breed are generally very sturdy in terms of their health and known breed issues. They have a long, active life… Something that coupled with a loving, caring home will give J-Bear a partner for many years to come.

He needs this certainty and comfort. We need the ongoing, positive and friendly support of a great organization.

APAW has stepped up and we are so, so looking forward to seeing what the next year brings with it. We are uncertain as to timeline in terms of when J will meet a new partner but as things progress I will of course update. We’re hoping for the first half of 2016 but we’re working with dogs here, which means anything can happen.

LUV from @SouthwestAir

Those playing along at home have known how terrible the past six or so months have been for our family. It just felt like bad news at every turn, from being separated from Brooklyn to having her torn from us completely and so many other little things along the way.

One day on a lark, I tweeted Southwest Airlines. We needed help if we were going to get to Ohio. I never thought they would respond. Then, shock of shocks, they did!

tweetsIt’s an understatement to say I was blown away. Someone took the time to just reach out to us. It was the first time that someone outside our community seemed to be listening. It was the first time that it looked like something good might begin to happen. It gave me the strength to go out in search of our new journey, a journey that will begin so much closer to home and without the baggage from before.

Ultimately, we do not need the assistance anymore. I had a wonderful exchange with Southwest over private messages and I learned how to get other non-profits in touch with them over needs they might have for travel as well as saw that compassion truly is a core value of theirs. They likely receive thousands of tweets in the course of a day, more when there’s foul weather and reason for anger. No one had to reach out to me and yet, people did. They did so with care and kindness.

Thank you for showing us LUV, Southwest. I hope that someday soon we can plan a real vacation with J’s new partner and come travel with you all!

 

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