J-Bear and Me

learning to navigate the world, j-bear style

Tag: autism service dog (page 1 of 3)

Our Story: Life with an Autism Service Dog

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.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Herron

Photo courtesy of Stephen Herron

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.

j and blossom in the backseat of the car, j in his carseat and blossom sniffing his hand

Blossom’s First Day Home

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.

little boy as a red angry bird, salt and pepper poodle as a pink angry bird

J and Blossom, Halloween 2016

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.

In Poodle We Trust

A friend I made through APAW tossed around the phrase “In Poodle We Trust” as something we should put on t-shirts for a potential fundraiser. Those of us who live with APAW poodles, or wonderful poodles in general, learn that you come to trust the instinct and wit on these dogs pretty fast.

Blossom first came home with us the first week of March. She visited for a long weekend, stole all our hearts, took diligent care of a sick and miserable J and then went back to APAW for a few days. The following weekend we attempted to bring home a sweet boy named Valor. He is charming, adorable, energetic… but his energy was a complete mismatch for J. They overwhelmed each other in all the wrong ways. Valor, who holds no grudge, went back to APAW and Blossom came home for what we hope to be forever.

j and blossom in the backseat of the car, j in his carseat and blossom sniffing his handShe fit. I can’t explain it. It’s like a million tiny missteps occurred at the will of the universe to bring her and our family together. An organization lied and deceived us. J’s heart was broken. Blossom had potential situations fall through. Everything just kept happening until one day, as a joke, I said to the founder of APAW that it was Blossom I wanted for J. Everything about her was exactly right and I prayed a puppy would be born that walked in her shadow. I didn’t have to wait. The original was right there, waiting and fate took over.

She has read us all from day 1 when we met in the lobby of APAW’s former location. She saw broken hearts. She saw a reticent little boy and a troubled mom. Her, her cohort Charlie and her son Eager didn’t let us stay that way. They showed off what is so special about their breed and drew out laughter and joy. I am a sucker I’ll admit but I was won over, fully and completely. J soon was as well.

The day she came home with us, she was anxious about the change of setting but still had our numbers. It took her longer to get used to Papa Bear but soon she was snuggling on the couch with him in the evenings. She knew when J was getting sick just what to do and where to be, all without direction. She knew how to calm him, how to make him smile and even better, how to make us laugh. Her utter love of fetch can keep J happy for hours…

Until times came when she wouldn’t play it.

I thought I was ruining their bond when she’d refuse. This is Blossom after all, she lives for catching her tennis ball or her kong bone! She loves to run and play and chase, yet… she refused. Every time J would start, she’d come over to me and lay down, watching him like a hawk. I could not convince her to engage. J would inevitably get very upset and unless redirected it sometimes landed in a pretty intense meltdown.

But other times, they’d play happily for hours. Hours!

It did not make sense and I beat myself up terribly over it. I was failing them as partners. There was no bond. I ruined this somehow.

Turns out, I couldn’t see what was actually going on.

blossom in the foreground and j in the background on the couch, j holding a long silly pink dog toyBlossom doesn’t refuse a preferred activity for giggles. There has to be something there, which I can see now. She saw that J’s energy was not in a healthy place. He was radiating something sharply negative and she was reading it and responding. I saw this behavior from her again last week, through the ER visits and episodes leading up to them. If J is in a good mental state, Blossom is relaxed. She is aware of where he is but she’ll pay attention to other stuff too: kids nearby, me, squirrels, passing leaves caught on the wind. If his mental state is poor, however, her attention will not be deterred from him.  You could stand in front of her and she’d fight her way around you to see where he is. She is saying “something is wrong, I need to keep an eye on this”.

This explains the way she greets him after school, sniffing him over a couple of times and getting her read on the afternoon ahead. This explains her behavior in our home, whether she’s playful or not playful. This all finally makes sense through the lens of hindsight and where we now stand in terms of understanding our sweet boy.

It wasn’t that a bond was failing, it’s that they have made an incredible bond that is different from the one I thought he needed. I thought he just needed a friend that helped out. It turns out he needs a mix of a keeper, a friend, and a mom to look after him and support him right now.

And here she is. We call her Blossom and in her we now trust as our extra eyes and nose.

Blossom went back to APAW for a short vacation last week starting Wednesday morning. She enjoyed staying with her poodle friends and celebrating the first birthday of her sweet puppies, all of whom are working towards their own careers now. Yesterday, I went for training class thinking I might not be taking her home with me again just yet. The moment I was with her again though I knew that was a wrong choice. I need her, too. If I am going to get through this with my sanity intact, it will be with her by my side.

She is home, now. I hope forever barring times she returns to APAW to bring more beautiful service puppies to be into the world. J is so happy she came home and so happy she’ll be visiting him regularly.

The only thing better right now would be for him to be home. Soon, though. Soon.

This and That

I am really good at these posts that have a lot of random bits but not enough of each bit for a real meaty entry. Buckle up and hang on for the ride!

——

J has been fighting within himself for a couple of weeks now.  It is hard for me to explain what is going on. People in general, no matter how they are wired, can often encounter this rift between what they are feeling and their ability to express said feeling. It seems right now that for J, that rift is more of a large, deep and tumultuous gulf. It is understandably upsetting and frustrating to feel things that you want to express and let out but you do not know how to do so. This often leads to outbursts, to acting out, to just him not being himself.

Frankly I cannot blame him. I’d be equally inconsolable if I felt lost in my own skin. I just don’t know how to reach him in these moments.

I sit, patiently waiting. I set boundaries and make my expectations as clear as I can. I get frustrated, too. I get upset. I’ve broken down and cried once with him in my arms. It’s not pretty, it’s not perfect, it’s not fun.

A lot seems to circle back to grief. Loss is becoming real to him. J’s way is to slowly come to a full realization of an abstract, difficult concept. He’s always observing, thinking and putting pieces together but those abstract emotional things are plain hard for a concrete, linear thinker. He’s realizing that there can be massive upheaval. He is realizing that his beloved girl was forever taken from him. He cries for her regularly and grows possessive of his precious stuffies.

No matter how long you saw this coming it still shocks the system and weighs down the heart.

We have light now, though. We will get through this.

——–

Who knew light could arrive on four prancing feet and covered in the softest, curliest fur?

J and I volunteered at APAW last week and for the first time in months, we both were light and free. J was so proud to have purpose. I hold back tears typing this because I had not seen that centered boy since June. He listened well to Jillian, APAW’s caring leader, and greeted the volunteers and their dogs amiably as well as some clients. He beamed over kisses doled out by sweet Empathy, a poodle in training, and chatted about the different dogs the whole drive home.

The class made it easy to realize that no matter how long our wait for his perfect partner is, it will be worth it. We are with people who care for him and his best interests now. What his needs are matter first and foremost when it comes to making a great match for him. There can be no deadline set for this. An arbitrary date will not produce perfection, it will merely limit prospects and possibilities. Would we rather a partner sooner over later? Of course we would. I would be lying to say bringing home a puppy tomorrow wouldn’t put me over the moon… But I am realistic. We engaged APAW because they make it their business to be subject matter experts in what they do. They have welcomed us into their fold and let us help in any way we are able, so the love we have ached over carrying since Brookie was snatched away will not go to naught. It will be shared with all these lovely poodles we meet and we can happily watch them on their journeys.

Do I wonder sometimes if a pup I meet will be J’s one day? I’d be lying to say I didn’t, but it is easier to immediately think “wow, they are sure going to make someone so happy”… Because they are, no matter what their role. Someday, it’ll be J’s turn and we’ll be okay until that day comes.

Puppy kisses help the time pass a little faster, though. I cannot complain about that!

 

—–

Those of you who have experienced life with IEPs for your children or as an educator know that every 3 years, re-evaluation must occur. J is in the midst of that right now and let me tell you,  I am nervous. It came as a great relief to learn that his beloved preschool teacher is doing much of the evaluating for him, so he is agreeable and trusts her. I know how much J has grown and how much he’s gained. He is so smart and quick, it’s just always nerve-wracking to see what people put down on paper to attempt and quantify your child. It’s not hard to see where his weaknesses are but here’s hoping that his strengths are seen and celebrated, too.

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.

Dear Santa: (A Doggy Wishlist)

Since J was so brave in seeing Santa this year, of his own accord and out of the clear sunny blue I might add, I figure Santa is the guy to direct this vaguely tongue-in-cheek letter to. Keep in mind that no family involved with 4 Paws for Ability gets to choose their dog. That’s never how it works. You give them as much license as possible to choose the match and as many details as possible to make the match work. 

Dear Santa,

I know I am writing to you early. It seems to be that kind of year, a year where we are jumping fast at that which can offer us even the slightest glimmer of hope. You’re a guy with eyes everywhere so surely you know all too well the pain J and our family have endured this year. J lost his best friend and trusted helper, something not even his mama can make all better for him. There’s no amount of kisses, hugs and “it’ll be okays” that will make this right…

So I am asking for a little magic.

Here is what we’re hoping for in a dog. I am hoping you can pull strings and find this perfect pup for him.

  • Easy going: We live in a busy town on a busy corner with lots of random happenings. Fire engines, police cars, random pedestrians, crazy trucks, random animals… You name it, we have it. It’s not a terrible place to live but it is definitely a shock to the system to a creature that may be more well suited to peace and quiet. His pup needs to roll with the random of our environment like the rest of us do, right down to not getting crazy if they spy the cat upstairs being her weird but sweet self.
  • Loving: Oh, the heart his pup should have. They should be doting enough to keep tabs on him yet wise enough to understand that sometimes the best action to take is to simply be. His girl knew this. If he was struggling but wasn’t ready to reach out for her  yet, she laid nearby. If he was starting to key up and the people around him hadn’t noticed, the signs were read and she knew where to be to help him undamage his calm. His partner should be nurturing without being overwhelming; loving and wise yet resilient enough to know that sometimes, all they need to do is just be there in his sphere without expectations.
  • A little playful/silly: This household is lost without laughter. A little tinge of mischief reminds us on the bad days exactly why we keep moving forward. A slightly silly, impish streak is enough to keep us on our toes and remind us that we have not one, but two silly monkeys in the house, something we miss so much right now. It keeps J delighted to see his antics engaged in and those are moments of great beauty to witness.
  • Strong: J is a growing boy, taller every day it feels like. He is so, so gentle and considerate of animals and younger children but he can be a stumbling clod, too. He is going to nudge tails or paws at some point and though it will be rare, he needs a partner who will understand (with our loving help!) that it was an oops and not a regular thing. He needs a strong partner that can handle tethering without being phased, especially since J loves it when his dog walks a little ahead of him and makes tension on the leash. I don’t care for when he does that either pup, so we’ll work on getting him to walk close together just as we did with Brookie.
  • Patient: J has a thing, you see. He loves noses, ears and tails. He is not, for anything, rough. It was his gentleness with his girl that blew us away given his clumsy nature with the adults in his world. He does love to touch noses, tails and ears the best though. This requires patience on the dog’s part and hopefully the ability to learn that this is a language J uses for comfort and companionship. There is no yanking, no pulling, no harm… Light touches and pets are his modus operandi.
  • A learned avoidance of stuffed animals: Oh, pup. This one will be hard but if you do not know not to touch the stuffies already we are going to work on this together. Stuffies are J’s friends. They mean an intense amount to him, each and every one. He relies on them to get him through the hard times while we await you and still will be protective of them when you get here, so we need to be sure we can succeed in this mission of Leave Stuffies Alone ™.
  • No golden retrievers: It doesn’t matter how much goldens have won over the adult’s hearts… J shuts down when faced with one now. They do not respond exactly like Brooklyn because they are not her. For his sake, please, do not bring another pure golden baby into our lives only to see the team fail because it could not even begin to forge a relationship.  Give him anything else, any other breed sturdy enough to do the job just please not another golden.

Santa, we just want our hearts to be full again. All of us. We don’t want any more days of only getting glimpses of J lighting up rooms with his smiles, charm and laughter. These are things that used to be the norm and not the exception. Please, he’s been so good and tried so hard, I hope you can help.

With great love,

J’s mama

Orange is the new Brooklyn

a prison ID with the image of a golden retriever looking alertly at the camera and her name BROOKLYN noted as the inmate in question

Prisoner 62210.5

Yesterday the prison programming helping 4 Paws for Ability welcomed back returning inmate Brooklyn. Now dubbed “Crooklyn”, she has been sentenced to 2-4 weeks to help rehab her for life on the outside. This is not what we planned nor is it what was expected. I’ll be honest, I was fighting mad at the idea that things were not going to go as I had been told they would.

Brooklyn is separated from her boy not so we can enjoy a leisure vacation of some nature prettybor because we, her people and her family, don’t want to deal with what she is struggling with. The reasoning is far from that. The dedication we have to Brooklyn is on level with the dedication we have to her boy. Her health, her welfare… All of her best interests are what drive the choices made for her. The idea of returning her to prison was painful. The moment Jeremy told me that was the plan, something inside me cracked harshly. I was abandoning my girl to another stint of being shuffled from person to person like she was unworthy or undeserving of consistency, love and stability. This is what my mind said.

This is not, I pray, the reality of things.

She will be with a prisoner who can give her something neither I nor a trainer or foster family can right now and that is focused, constant observation and care. Prison is a controlled environment for many reasons. This is to Brooklyn’s advantage. If something behavioral happens to trigger her issues, it’s going to be far easier to pinpoint. If it is something physical that is failing, it’s going to be easier to notice. My dedication to her may be strong but my eyes and attention are not laser focused on her 24/7. I have J and just life in general to cope with. The prisoner caring for her will be all about her for their time together. They will be a long-term member of the 4 Paws program experienced with the wide variety of dogs that come through it.

This stranger will help us make her whole. This stranger has an integral part in her future now. It is hoped that this is one of the prisoners who had her in their care before, as they already are a part of her, but I will likely never know if that was the case. The prison program gave her love she could not find elsewhere before and I am praying and trusting that this is exactly what will happen now. I’ve never wanted to hug someone in jail so much before but whoever these people are, they truly have my undying gratitude.

smilesThe sentence Brooklyn will service is 2-4 weeks. Two weeks from now we should get an update about how she’s doing. The hardest part? Prisoners can’t send photos. They can’t let J FaceTime with her or anything, for obvious reasons. It’s not their fault, but it is very hard on a little boy with autism and we’re going to have to figure out how to make do. Thankfully he has many stuffed dogs who are working hard to fill the too large empty space in our home and lives right now. The hope is that she will be home in time to start kindergarten with J in September but only time and patience will tell.

Thank you everyone who has been following our story for your support and love. This is very, very hard to go through but it helps knowing there are so many people out there who care and who want to see this team reunited and stronger than ever. A special thanks to the 4 Paws for Ability training staff (especially head trainer Jeremy, senior trainer Jennifer and Brooklyn’s trainer Shelby as well as Yrisma for their special assistance of Brooklyn through this) as well as the amazing little group of 4 Paws foster parents who have stepped up to be Brooklyn’s surrogate foster parents in the stead of prisoners who cannot offer extended support. Without your support, this would all be nearly too much to bear. Thank you.

to be reunited soon

to be reunited soon

 

Forward and Back

The past two months or so have been chaotic, to say the least.

First, Brooklyn came down with a bad bladder infection in April. We got her in to see her vet and all was well, so we thought.

Mid-May, she got nasty sick one morning. Just boom, all over the floor. Several times in a row. It’s my nature to think the worst and vomiting or diarrhea in dogs can go from zero to emergency fast, so we went to see her vet. Her vet is amazing. He is a friendly South African gentleman with a warm demeanor and genuine love of his job. He has never made me feel crazy for my worrying, that’s for sure, and took our girl’s care quite seriously. She had a low fever and some other symptoms, so he did blood work and got her started on some meds to soothe her belly. The blood work showed mild elevations on her liver function tests plus slightly low platelet count. She wasn’t bouncing back as she should have.

Off to the veterinary emergency hospital we went!

The care we found there was as warm and loving for her as at her regular vet, so we are blessed. They thought they noted something odd in her belly the first visit we were there but it turned out to have just been food, thank God. She still wasn’t herself, even after her repeat blood work came back relatively normal*. They believed she had leptospirosis. This is an infection that is generally vaccinated against but some strains are not covered. This potential diagnosis terrified me. Lepto had almost killed a 4 Paws dog just last year. Whatever it was that brought us in to the vet so early is our biggest blessing right now. They began treating Brookie as though she were positive for the illness that day so that she and her boy would be safe. They also discovered her bladder infection had either recurred or not gone away, so she was treated for that as well.

We are getting her back to perfect health a little more every day. Her diet is currently a challenge due to the strong antibiotics, but that strain shall lessen in a couple of days when she is finished one of the two she is on. The one thing that none of this health scare has managed to either find the cause of or remedy entirely are her accidents. These accidents have occurred since we arrived home. We cannot fully find a rhyme or reason to them. The moment we think we have a functioning theory and a probable solution, one happens outside the bounds of what we’d theorized and we’re back to square one.

So now, we face our girl returning to Ohio for evaluation by her trainers. It is hoped that the remedy is a quick, simple and easy one. It all depends on whether or not the behavior is replicated while she is there. This is like J-Bear and the neurological symptoms he’s had over the years, though. We can describe everything surrounding when they happen but we certainly cannot trigger them to happen ourselves. I am scared of what the future holds if they cannot see what we’re experiencing or worse, there is no quick fix. Brooklyn is as one of us now as J. She is a very important part of our lives. She will not be left behind, no matter what. I promised her that the first day she came back to the hotel with us, and I feel I am letting her down taking her back. My only comfort is that it will be temporary, no matter how things shake out. We are her family. 

—————————

J, through all of this, has tried to be a very grown up boy all things considered. He shows deep concern for Brooklyn and like we always know, he’s always watching and listening. He knows she takes medicine. “Brooklyn medicine, not Jacob!” he emphatically reminds me. He knows she doesn’t feel good sometimes and he offers to kiss her boo-boos, even though he can’t quite tell what they might be. It is very tender and very sweet. She checks on him regularly and in return, he does the same.

The loss of his biggest support has been expectedly hard. Changes like this show their repercussions slowly with him. He builds up pressure inside until one day, or across several days, it all explodes in an ugly mess. His vocabulary is growing but it has not yet grown to include an easy array of words with which to express how he feels, so we struggle. He tries, though. He tries to describe everything he possibly can now.

It is a stark, remarkable change from where we were just two years ago as he entered preschool.

Now we wait and face the challenge of a summer without his Brooklyn. It will be hard and painful, going through his birthday, through doctor appointments, through activities and school without her. It will feel like a limb is missing in a lot of ways. Let’s hope we can return her to her place by his side very, very soon.

——————-

*= I say “relatively” because some of the counts were just on the cusp of unusual but not truly anything remarkable. 

Done Her Job

Last night was a doozy. J has these episodes where he wakes up and if he can’t be immediately soothed back to sleep, the world somehow ends. The crying and falling apart is heartbreaking to see and extremely difficult to settle.

Brookie doesn’t like to hear her boy upset. She gets agitated so once she came into the bedroom with us, she hopped on the bed. J’s initial reaction is to push her away. Brooklyn is a sensitive girl but not when it comes to this – she knew her job. She pushed close and laid her head across him (the “lap” command, which she’s been shown to do at these times before). She kept him firmly snuggled between herself and me until he was dozing once more. She looked up, a sort of “yep, did my job” expression, and hopped off to go lay in her bed in the living room once more.

This morning, some of the same unsettled behavior returned as we headed into school. Again, Brooklyn did her job. He was upset walking down the hallway so she nudged him with her nose to get his attention. He was fine by the time he entered his classroom and we’re hoping for a great day.

It’s hard to explain to people what Brooklyn’s jobs actually boil down to when it comes to behavior disruption. The behaviors she’s responding to, like the crying and the agitation, are things that we have shown her are things she should be responding to. It is a very hard process, showing Brooklyn this, because your instinct is to focus on soothing your child rather than teach a lesson to anyone else about it. You want to comfort them yet sometimes your repertoire does not include the needed antidote for what ails them. This is Brooklyn’s cue to step in and step up. It is a process that began the day they met and slowly grows a tiny bit every day until we have moments like we’ve had this week where she successfully brings him back to a good place faster than we could have without her. She offers a sense of uncomplicated peace and reassurance that not even a parent can quite muster. Parents grow impatient. Parents get anxiety. Parents feel their child’s hurt and pain. Brooklyn sees past it. She sees a situation she’s been taught before and knows that when her boy is calm again, so many good things happen. She knows that no matter what, he will be calm again even when the people standing around think he’s lost for a long time. Patiently, peculiarly and perfectly she loves J back to his best self and marches on with her day once she has.

She is such a good girl, this Brooklyn. She is confident enough to withstand the initial rebuffs her boy might give, sensitive enough to know when he needs her despite the rebuffing and silly enough to always be able to do something unexpected to make him giggle once more. This is one hell of a learning process but I have to say I am loving every minute of it. Every day, these two do something that amazes me. There’s little better in this world than that.

Free? Not So Fast…

There are many who balk at the amount of money it takes to breed/acquire, raise, train and back up a service dog through their working life. It makes sense, given that we do not generally see dogs as expensive to obtain and that their training is not a tangible object like a car or a computer.

It took us six months of fundraising to meet the $13,000 we’d committed to fundraise in J’s name for 4 Paws for Ability. That’s a little under half the full cost of what it took for them to give Brooklyn all she needed and then for them to back her up during her service life. When I say “back her up”, I mean that anything that happens that we struggle with we can call the trainers and get assistance. If there is an emergency with her, they will assist us where they can. If she needs refresher training or something happens that means J needs a new skill from her, she can go back to their facility, learn the skill then rejoin our family. Brooklyn is expected to have a career that lasts around eight to ten years, ten being a longshot. Realizing that what we fundraises goes into 4 Paws for Ability being by our side in her working life for that long suddenly puts the amount raised into sharp perspective.

There are organizations that can, and will, prey upon the desperation of parents. The moment you hear your child is disabled, you become painfully familiar with the word “no” or worse, being told “yes” but price, distance or other factors making the resource you’d been approved for next to impossible to obtain. When you are willing to do anything for your child and are acting out of haste rather than carefully planning your next step and choice, you’re susceptible to snake oil salesmen. They prey on our community hard selling anything from supplements that range from useless to harmful to even offering “free” service dogs that turn out to be ill-matched, ill trained and potentially even a hazard for the household in which they are placed.

Please, if you feel the service dog road is one you’d like to explore for your child, I urge you to do your homework. Contact several organizations. Learn their credentials and see if you can talk to families who have worked with them. You can check out Canines for Disabled Kids (http://www.caninesforkids.org) for information as well. They work to support teams of service dogs with children, be they in a 3 party team like Brooklyn and J or be the child old enough to handle the dog on their own. They can offer some perspective on various agencies, though they may not know every agency as some of the more shifty ones pop up as fast as dandelions in summer. Check out the organizations non-profit status and explore their ratings online. There’s information out there that will help you make the best choice for your child.

It’s tempted to go the easiest road, but that road in this case might be the worst thing for your child in family. I know it’s hard to face the idea of fundraising so much money, then to wait a year to a year and a half until the dog is actually in your home. That process can be painful at times, yet the moment  your child and dog meet there will be little sweeter in your life. The process also enables you to get a taste of what the work load will be like once you bring your child’s service dog home. It is not easy, or free, but it is worth every single moment put into it.

kisses

This meeting was 18 months, thousands of dollars, countless hours of work and worry in the making. It is worth all of it and so much more.

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