J-Bear and Me

learning to navigate the world, j-bear style

Tag: service dog (page 1 of 6)

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.

Of Brooklyn and Blossom

service dog on leash

we miss you brookie cookie

The comparisons are inevitable. Every day we see things that either sharply contrast or deeply coincide with our previous experience. It cannot be helped, we talk about Brooklyn even as we’re praising Blossom. That lovely golden girl is here every day even though she is not.

This will perhaps be the last time I talk about this in any detail. Brooklyn was stolen from us. There’s nothing I can do about that now. In fact, because 4 Paws for Ability chose to act in a deceptive manner and passed her on likely without any of her previous history to a new family, I would not do anything even if I could. I would support the new family she is with in all the ways we were not supported. I would fight to help them make this work, not because we have Blossom and APAW but because I know the deep horrible pain ripping her away would cause. It never should have been done to my child and I will never allow it to be done to another so long as I can help it.

Brooklyn is gorgeous, gentle, sweet…. The right heart with the wrong upbringing. The puppy years are so crucial for a service dog. They have to be exposed to so much during critical periods in order to stand a chance at a successful working life. Brooklyn’s upbringing was limited. She was not out in the world for most of it, she was in prison. Do I blame the prisoners? Not at all, ever. They gave her all they could and clearly put their heart and souls into her training. She had a lot of beautiful skills and qualities, she just could not overcome her anxiety and her fear.

I wish I had known in October 2014 all that I  have learned in the time since then. I wish I had learned all that Blossom is now teaching me. It maybe could have changed Brooklyn’s life in a positive manner… but that cannot be changed now.

And Blossom is here, mothering us all and healing such a deep wound as best she can.

pillows

she really does love to sleep on pillows

It’s not perfect. I won’t lie and pretend everything is sunshine and rainbows. We have plenty to work on, which is the nature of new relationships. There is a wonderful trust though between she and myself. She is very in tune with me which makes working on everything else easier. She catches nuances that we knew existed thanks to Brooklyn and acts upon them. She loves the social aspect that will be a part of her job as a social bridge for J. Kids circle around her and her tail just wags and wags. She has a tremendous foundation of training on which we can build. Now it will be a period of fine tuning her training to see if she is a perfect forever for our family.

I’d be lying if I said I did not want her to be the one. Every day her sweet face and charming nature win me over more and more. She’s pretty much the embodiment of all I could have wished for in a 45lbs standard poodle body. I never saw a smaller dog as his best friend and yet, it’s just fantastic. She races around the apartment with him. She snuggles him to sleep. She checks on him when he’s out of school and before she lets herself sleep for the night.

goobers

goofballs before Blossom’s haircut!

There will be challenges. Her obligation to APAW is very important and precious. You cannot run an organization like APAW and not take advantage of your every asset. Blossom is entirely that. It’d be shameful to not forward her genes on to the next generation of service dogs as well as her general way of being. She’ll raise her pups in her own shadow, something that is invaluable. It will be hard when she’s limited by the demands of this obligation but it is not forever. The interruptions to her service will, long-term, seem ever so brief and will only happen a very few times.

J is a unique boy who had a unique need, a whole left wide open in his heart and world and a family struggling to help him. Blossom is a special dog, filled with so much skill and love but a noble job to birth and raise the next generation of service dogs. It’s not a combination that could work for many but we are hopeful it will work for them. If not, then at least for a while Blossom has had a home where she was loved and cherished while she awaited her forever and J had a tremendous friend during his own long wait. It’s truly a win-win for all involved.

We miss Brooklyn and love her. We just happen to love Blossom too, so very much. Onwards and upwards.

Openness

These past two weeks have had a theme, I think. That theme is building.

The meeting with J’s new doc started the building process of a new path to help J garner the most appropriate tools to assist him for where he is at today rather than where he was at when he was three years old. It is going to be a process, likely a long one at that, but it is laid out and we all know what it is we want and how to focus on getting it. Everyone involved already and who will be involved in future will be focused on J’s best interests first and foremost. There will be no veering from him being the center of his care rather than an arbitrary rule book decided by others who have never met him. He will be respected, loved and guided so he can grow and thrive. It’s a situation that fills me with hope, anxiety, relief and optimism all at once: Anxiety over new things yet to begin; hope, relief and optimism that we have opportunities to focus on what is most important to us.

That meeting rolled nicely into a long, open conversation with the founder of APAW on Monday. She is remarkably easy to talk to and we discussed how things should progress in terms of J’s future partner. The open honesty with which she and her organization conduct their business should not surprise me by now and yet it does. If I ask a question, I am not given a run around. I am given a clear and honest answer. It does not matter if that answer is one I like or do not like, it is the truth and it is what it is for good reasons they are always open to share.

When we began the efforts towards a service dog back in 2013 there was never a feeling of “wow, these people actually care about my child”. We were just another client of many and shuffled through like we were checking out at the grocery store. We filled out forms, we did as we were told, we shuffled along ignorant that things did not have to be this way. There were only a few moments during training where it seemed like J mattered to anyone but us, despite his worshipful views of some of them. The on the ground training staff… Well, I can’t blame them. When you’re moving that many dogs, it’s hard to get to know every client deeply. That’s not on them. They don’t run the show.  Their big hearts can only do so much at once.

The difference between that and now blows me away.

black poodle puppy

Eclipse as a young pup. APAW poodle in training. Photo courtesy of APAW’s website

The focus of our conversation was dogs, of course, but also J-Bear. It was as meaningful to her as it is to me making sure that what is decided upon in terms of his future partner meets his needs. His healthy understanding of what is going on is not an added bonus now, it is an essential part of the process. His hurt does not mean nothing to them. His concrete manner of learning things is not disregarded. I didn’t have to bring some of my concerns up, they were anticipated and answered before I could because she, the founder, saw them.

So there’s a plan.

The first step will be to have some poodle weekenders come stay with us at our home. These are poodles on retreat. I have already been teaching J that sometimes, poodles need a break from poodle house and they want to come vacation with us. They hang out with us, he can play with them but they are not forever dogs. They visit, but they don’t get to do things like cuddle in bed with him or go to school necessarily. They come, we have fun for a few days and then they go back to their house. This is a process we hope to start this weekend and see how he manages. From here, we can work towards all future steps which will be determined based on how he manages over these visits. Right now, like any five-year-old, he’s pretty excited about a poodle visit! He loves poodle house (his name for APAW) and it will be fun for him to have one to one time with a poodle.

If this works and J adapts to this, fantastic! If this does not work, we have learned that too and we can move on with future planning from there.

Do I think it will work? I think it has a strong chance. He has a beginning grasp on the concept of what we’re doing thanks to him being a frequent guest at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The whole process is being presented to him very differently than how Brookie was, too. Everything related to the dog is out in the center of our home now. He will be in the loop on when to expect there to be a dog, when to not expect there to be a dog and most importantly whether or not to expect a dog’s (any dog, not necessarily a specific dog) return. We have firm answers now that he can rely on.  It’s miles above what we went through last year.

Am I ready for it to fail? I prepare for the worst while planning for the best. If this goes poorly after a couple of trials, since one is never quite enough to get a full picture with J, we’ll not push him further and we’ll work on a new plan. We have the luxury of not needing to hurry. He needs a partner but if the right one isn’t ready yet, we’re able to sustain him until that day. The right one is always worth waiting for and always worth working for. We are building towards a bright future and are happy to be laying foundations with care alongside tremendous people. Things are looking bright!

 

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.

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.

Clean Up, Aisle 5!

I am having some anger issues tonight. Something has me ready to spit nails so unlike those who hurt us this year, I am going to do something helpful. There are a lot of new service dog teams out there who  might need this, so here goes.

Your dog will lose their bladder or their bowels at some point when it is bad for them to do so. It happens to every team. It should be an isolated incident but it will most likely happen during the course of your time together. You likely will have a bag with you at all times anyway so here are some handy things to stow in it in case of emergency:

  • Diapers: Yes, you read that correctly. Grab a few diapers, preferably larger than small baby sizes, and have them on the go in your bag. You can clean up a wet mess in no time flat with one of these suckers! Open, throw down, wipe up. Fold the diaper up, throw away. Alternately if diapers aren’t easily had, feminine pads can do in a pinch. Diapers just absorb more!
  • A folded flat cereal box: This one was recommended by a trainer. They suggested having it ready for if you see dog about to squat for an accident, but that is not always possible. If you do have time to get it out before  your dog fully squats you slide it under their rear and let the accident happen there. This was never quite possible for us, accidents occurred too fast.
  • Clorox Wipes: You can usually buy these (or Wet Ones) in travel packages for throwing in your bag and having to wipe an area down quickly after you clean up the mess. It’s your responsibility as the handler to make sure the area is the same when you leave as when you arrive, these go a long way towards that goal!
  • Baggies: You can use large ziploc bags, old plastic shopping bags, or in a pinch dog waste bags to pack up the mess and dispose of it quickly.
  • Hand Sanitizer: Until you can get to soap and water, tide yourself over with trusty old hand sanitizer.
  • If for some reason you cannot clean up or you can only partially clean up the mess, direct staff to the area and offer apologies. They cannot clean up without knowing what’s happened and most are quite understanding. This is most likely to come up with your child is having a hard time with the situation or your dog is actively ill and you need them to get outdoors before the mess gets worse. Never just leave a mess. Your responsibilities as a handler dictate that you make sure that you never leave such a thing behind without at least trying to help.

The most courteous place to dispose of the offending items is obviously outside but sometimes circumstances make this tricky. I found finding a restroom made this easiest as they usually have a bin for sanitary waste. It also allowed a moment for hand washing! Usually, though… Your best bet is to drop it outdoors in the first available bin.

It is also important to remember to not scold your dog. It’s going to do exactly zero good for either of you to do so. Make it a non-thing as much as possible. You clean up, you carry on – preferably stepping outside at the very soonest moment to make sure that if anything else needs doing it can be done somewhere appropriate. It may be sad and shocking when accidents happen but it’s no more fun for them than it is for yourself. Do your best to remain calm, clean up and move on. Believe it or not, most stores have seen worse at some point in their existence.

Hopefully this can help some of my friends who have newly graduated or who are just about to meet their new family member. Good luck out there and remember accidents happen, it’s only when they happen regularly that you have to worry!

 

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

 

What He Needs to Be Fair

Here I go again, off on a tear about who knows what, right? But hear me out, I beg you.

We have had a run recently of negativity within our home community. It is kind of stunning, honestly. This negativity was never felt during the period where Brooklyn was actually ill and struggling with a few things in public, it’s come during a time where Brooklyn has been on point when working. She has been docile, attentive, friendly and keyed into her tasks. She’s been a joy to work with and a wonder to have in our lives, especially as we watch her and J continue to grow their bond.

But then it starts. The stares. The derisive behaviors. The active detractors who figure that this is something bonus; something extra that J gets just like all his special education services and he’s cheating other people by doing it. They show up with their unruly pets, their bad attitudes and their harsh judgements of our situation. The weather has warmed now, at long last, and with it we have returned to our routine of having some playground time after school. This is very important to J, and Brooklyn is right there with us. She sits watching him and his classmates play, minding where they all go and bothering exactly no one but the people who are pointedly determined to be bothered by her presence.

This is my attempt to educate. I know there are some people who are just so hard-hearted and misguided that this will never get through but I want to always know that I have tried, and tried my best.

equality versus fairness

Credit belongs to someone the internet has long obscured. This image is fantastic.

The difference between “equal” versus “fairness” or “justice” is the key to all of this. When you are looking at the services my son receives and the fact he requires (yes, requires!) a service dog in public spaces as him receiving extra, bonus things you are truly seeing them wrong. I would love for my son to be in a regular classroom with regular worries and a pet dog at home that only friends who come over to play might meet. This is the typical life. This is the life most people just about to have a child anticipate. This is not J, though. He came into this world with his own agenda and his own way of operating that happens to be autism. He needs extra support to be able to do what most people take for granted. This is not a bonus to him, this is helping him function and helping him to access the world around him in a way that is meaningful, comfortable and as close to equal to his neurotypical peers as possible. These things are not some fun toy for us, they are how we make life not just bearable but great for him.

I listened to a mother outright object to all the services special education students receive because they “take away” from her child’s education. I was appalled. I was hurt. This mother has never sat through an IEP meeting, never sat through hours in doctors offices listening to deficiency after deficiency rather than strength after strength; never filled out disability paperwork with the state government so that services might be covered, never fought for fairness and justice for their child on a daily basis. I do not wish that she did have to go through any of that yet I also wish she would stop and realize the cruelty of her words and thoughts on the matter. Would she also begrudge a child with a wheelchair or crutches the extra time it may take them to proceed from one place to another? What about a child with epilepsy the time out of the day it may take when a seizure suddenly strikes and people must attend to them? These are not paths families choose, they are paths we find ourselves on.

This post may never reach the notice of those who need it most. The people who judge us for Brooklyn in our local community will still exist and I am working to reach out to them on a local basis, to educate them as to why she’s present and what she means. I write this because if I can feel the sting of their looks, their choices and their actions my son very likely does too. I am his mother, I want him protected from that harshness as much as humanly possible. Isn’t that what all loving parents want for their kids? Now to get the adults involved in this to see and understand this too. We want fairness for all our kids, not equality. Let them all have what they need to succeed and grow without judgement and without hatred. It’s not a lot to ask, really.

————–

Just the standard reminder we are still fundraising to celebrate J’s birthday by sponsoring a class of service dog teams graduating from 4 Paws! You can read about our effort here!

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.

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