learning to navigate the world, j-bear style

Tag: service dog (Page 2 of 6)

What You Don’t See

There are a lot of things about the relationship between J and Brooklyn that are hard to explain. It’s even harder when you’re in public and put on the spot with the question of “Well what does she do?”

It is easy to answer this question sometimes. Quite simply, if you’re seeing Brooklyn engaged in any of her tasks besides tethering, we’re in a bad place. Her tasks are largely for use when things are not good. They are stopgaps to help either bring J back to center when he starts to unravel or they are emergency rescue tasks because the worst has happened and he has run off, out of our sight.

You do not want to physically see her working.

The presence of this 68 lbs golden retriever seems superfluous to the untrained eye. I understand that. She seems like perhaps an extravagance. It’s okay for you to think that when you do not know. I do not expect the world to know. I cannot expect the world to know. That’s impossible. Not everyone realizes that before her, the grocery store was a challenge requiring intense advanced planning that would either leave us only able to fill half our grocery list or someone having to stay home while the shopping was done alone. Hospital or doctor visits started with screaming that could begin as early as the moment we parked and lasted well into the waiting room and beyond. School days would sometimes begin with out-and-out battles trying to just get into the building.

The world outside our tiny circle couldn’t know this. They weren’t there. They see now the beginning of the new chapter, where things go wrong but don’t stay there nearly half so long. The chapter where the going south actually happens less. The chapter where my son walks into a crowded, loud, overwhelming waiting room and rather than completely fall to pieces he merely puts his arm around his best friend, who lays still so that he can feel the comfort of her warm fur and unending patience.

But what the world does not see, we do. We see it every day.

I now have two “children” in my care, both challenging and both amazing. J grows leaps and bounds every day and Brooklyn gives him the confidence to continue doing so. There are still things that right now are just not within our reach but we have great hope they will come closer and closer as time progresses, things like plane travel or theatres or stadiums.

We will get there and all with the help of this fluffy golden girl to bolster the courage we already know he bears.

The Moment

I should be writing about training but for now this strikes me as more important. I can write about today and tomorrow together in one post, right?

Brooklyn came back to the hotel with us tonight. J did attend the morning of training today but not the afternoon, so he was surprised in a major way when I came through the door with Miss Brooklyn herself by my side! Now, as fascinated as he is with her, he’s til now been reserved. He’s enjoyed her, but always in a very controlled manner. The only environment he had access to her in was chaotic and confusing to him, so it was too overwhelming for him to truly know her.

Then she stepped into his world.

I was nervous. Not going to lie, I was very nervous. I was uncertain how she would take to the hotel room and more importantly, how they would take to each other now that they were in a more natural environment for him and a completely new environment for her.

I was an idiot. I am so, so happy to report that.

He was timid at first with approaching her, giggling nervously and jumping away. He repeated again and again “J doggie, good doggie” or “Brooklyn J” in his singular manner of speaking, growing less nervous and more overjoyed the more time passed. I got her settled and shown around then gave them a ball stuffed with some good treats for them to play with and all walls and reservations between them crumbled. They could have played that game all night! He rolled it, she dutifully trotted after it, snatched it up, snuck a treat out and brought it right back! Those of you who follow us on the J-Bear and Me Facebook page have already seen a little video of this… It went on and on.

That was not the moment that it became clear just what this all meant to J. This was (forgive the terrible quality of the photo):



You see, while Brooklyn rested on her mutt mat J disappeared into the bedroom. Moments later, out came J with three babies in his arms.He set them down carefully and gently introduced Brooklyn to one of them. He did this all quietly and seriously, holding it while she sniffed. She had tried to pick one up earlier while J wasn’t around and was corrected so this was not even an issue when he did this. She was tender with him and he was simply in love.

I only got hints of the beauty of this decision before. The moment he sat on her mat showing her his best friends, that was the moment. They found their language and he found in her not just a dog but a friend, showing her incredible trust by allowing her to “share” the stuffed animals with him.

My son has a new best friend. What could be any better than that?

Training: Day 2

Welcome to day 2 of training: corrections, distractions and tricks.

Today was a lot of teaching we handlers how to be the people our dogs need to be. The dogs are trained. They would not be in this class if they  had not learned all the skills they need. It is the adult handlers who truly need the training because even if you have had another dog you need to learn to speak the language, for a lack of better word, these dogs speak. They are praised and corrected in a specific manner and we spent a lot of today going over that.

The thing I am having the hardest time with is judging my leash. I need to leave enough slack to let Brooklyn know I am confident in her and her skills but have enough hold on it to be able to give corrections as needed. I tend to hold too snug, which I would imagine is a typical newbie thing. When we have the dog actually coming back to the hotel with us I will get ample opportunity to practice this and I cannot wait for that. Brooklyn is a gentle soul through and through – she does not need a tight hold and does not need strong corrections. I do not want to upset her by being clumsy to such a gentle lady so practice will ensue!

We went over sit and down again, this time with distractions. Oh, the distractions. They challenged these dogs with everything they love: pupperoni and balls! The goal is for them to not break command to go after the beloved item. You offer distractions that are far more abundant than they are likely to get in public. They threw pupperoni all around them, threw the ball around the room, bounced it right in front of their faces and hey – kids even ran around them yelling and acting out and the dogs did great. We all had to learn how to keep them in line to prove that we’re holding them to the same rules their fantastic trainers and fosters did.

We did more of the corrections when we were working on how to help the dog follow our lead when we are walking. When the dogs are not in a “heel” command they can walk at our side in any position provided they aren’t pulling on the leash. It’s a “free walk”. Our dogs have not learned our pace yet however, so we have to teach them. They adapt fast though as we bring the dogs around the room turning 180 degrees to go the other way to make sure the dogs are paying mind to our movements. You master this in the training room not because they think it’s fun to have the dog walk around a confined space with you for a prolonged period but it makes you more prepared for the moment you walk out of the training facility. Brooklyn and I did great in the middle of the room but at the door, she wants to run ahead. Outside is fun and different, so she is ready to go. A little correction is needed to bring her back into pace and she does a beautiful job afterwards.

Also, on the topic of outside, I have to say she’s a potty time rockstar. That’s all the details you all need.

The day ended with the fun stuff. We did “shake”, “five” and “high five”. Brooklyn is so giddy to do whatever you ask, especially when she sees the treat bag. She gave any child who asked any one of those three commands… but she preferred J. It helps that the best treats come out around J. These commands are part of a group of fun tricks the dogs all know to help create social bridges for the children. Children with special needs often have a difficult time making social connections with peers and adults but with their dog, they can offer to show them the tricks their dog can do to start a dialogue. This will open a lot of opportunities for them, and J just loves getting “five” from his girl.

I know I am missing things. The day was hectic but tomorrow we bring our girl back to the hotel with us. This will be when it sinks in with J that this is for real, even though he did call her his dog a few times today.

As ever if you have any questions, feel free to ask!

For now a couple of pictures that you might have seen already:


A boy and his girl.


Like this face won’t melt hearts.

Training: Day 1

Well, we’re going to start a little further back than training. We drove over 14 hours to get to where we need to be for training. It was … long. New York is bigger than you think and so it Ohio. We were exhausted, but we added an extra day to our journey on each end just to be prepared to recover from such long drives. The hotel we are staying at is nice: Friendly staff, clean and wonderful premises and an easy enough location to find close to where we are training made it a great choice. We were extra lucky that on the day after we arrived we were able to meet three 4 Paws for Ability fosters and two service dogs in training. J was delighted but is now under the distinct impression t hat dogs are supposed to come visit him in the hotel courtyard.

We’re working on that.

This morning training began with meeting all of our dogs and hearing a little bit about 4 Paws and the experience the training director has. All of the families involved in this class are just tremendous. They are kind, engaging and all “get” it. We’re all there together to do the best thing we can for each of our kids and we all accept our children exactly as they are. That’s a feeling you cannot bottle when you’re raising a child with any challenge. It is a rare gift to see them in a place of total unconditional acceptance and you are presented just that the moment you walk through the door.

Each dog is introduced one at a time and there is a lapse between every couple of dogs. This is because they are introduced to you by their trainers. The two women who trained our class’s dogs each brought one dog in at a time, spent some time chatting with the family then went out to get another. We were one of the last families but the wait was worth it. As the previous post shows, Brooklyn is gorgeous. She is as gentle as she appears, excitable only over high value treats or her beloved ball. She settles quickly, loves easily and is keen to just be adored by those around her. She made herself right at home with all of us easily, which is a rare treat. Remember, most of these dogs are most intimately familiar with their specific trainers right now. That is to whom they are bonded. They will be distracted by them during the first days of training and constantly have the desire to be with them. We are strangers, us families to whom they have been matched.

That’s where food comes in.

The children are given bags of dog food that are their dog’s breakfast. They can feed it to their dog to start their bonding process. It’s small, but every little bit matters and these dogs love their food. The child and the parents can do as they wish to give the dog their food: Place it on the ground, let the dog eat out of their hand, sprinkle it like fairy dust… Whatever gets it from point a to point b. Jacob handed a few pieces out of his hand but mostly put Brooklyn’s food on the floor. She loved it. I fed her from my hand* and she loved that too.

By the time this was done J was done, too. There were so many people, so many new things, so many new interactions that he was overwhelmed and frightened. He chilled at the hotel with his dad while his grandma and I returned to training. The afternoon was just the basics like how the gentle leader works, how a training collar works, how to hold the leash and how to confidently and appropriately give the dog basic commands. We all had a chance to practice and it doesn’t matter if you’ve handled dogs before or not, you learn a lot and they help you along where you need it. I learned how to work with Brooklyn when she’s presented with something new and extraordinary to keep her calm and accepting of such situations, which is wonderful to know as J’s behaviors change regularly. We practiced “sit”, “down” and “free”…. Sit is self explanatory, “down” means to be down with all four elbows on the ground and “free” releases the dogs from commands.

It was a busy first day but amazing. She is just so beautiful I am in awe of her. She will return with us to the hotel on Wednesday and I feel that will be the day this starts to really become permanent in J’s mind.


*= I have a really nasty apple allergy. Brooklyn’s food contains apples. Guess whose hands were blowing up like balloons during training from feeding her? Laugh all the laughs, people. I know I did (and I am better now thankfully!)

The Many Questions

There are so many questions that come up in a journey like the one we’re on. They are asked by a wide variety of people ranging from those who know us and J very well to those who have only fleetingly encountered our story online. Most questions are fair, and should you have one you’d like answered, feel free to ask. You can always inbox me on our Facebook page if you do not feel comfortable posting it publicly.

Here’s some of the biggest questions. I did do a brief Q&A when we were fundraising for 4 Paws that covers some of this so if you’ve read that, this might be redundant in places!

Does J really even need a service dog? What can a dog even help him with?

This question always comes across to me as more confused and uncertain than it does potentially accusatory. When you realize what a very, very small percentage of the disabled community uses service animals and how rarely most people encounter them in day-to-day life, the question becomes all the more fair. When we do not see something or engage with it, it’s really hard to understand it.

J’s dog represents three things to him: comfort, security and independence. Brooklyn will be able to mitigate anxiety driven behaviors via commands from her handler that will draw J’s attention to her, giving him a focus and place of peace when he is overwhelmed. She has at least 3 actions she can be asked to take, and as we get into training and work with each I will detail them further. He has a very, very hard time accessing things that most take for granted: A grocery store or mall can be completely heartbreaking torture for him right now. I can plan trips to these places with the precision of military special ops and still end up in a situation where he cannot cope. This is not anyone’s fault, it’s just life in our world. Brooklyn will mitigate that.

His dog is trained to also maintain safety for him. She will be able to tether with him when we’re out as a team under a handler’s care, ensuring he cannot bolt off somewhere dangerous. She will also be able to track him should he vanish. There are those who scoff, claiming these dogs cannot possibly do that for these children… I cannot see why they scoff unless they have not themselves witnessed a dog track a child. I’ve had the chance to witness it on video several times now and every time I am amazed. They do not falter, these dogs. They find their child and in an emergency situation, this skill is mission critical. Remember, my son is attracted to water and trains and has zero sense of danger. We need every advantage we can to bring him back should he ever run off. He’s tried a few times and thankfully we’ve caught him but he’s only going to get bigger and faster, as kids do.

Is he really autistic?

There is no “look” for autism. No one “looks” autistic. The disorder is characterized by a series of behavioral and cognitive traits, not by appearance. When J so chooses, he makes splendid eye contact and will utterly melt your heart with a soul felt smile. Most days, however, he’s much more content to do as he does, engaging the world in his slightly either side of typical manner. That is his autism. He is a sensory seeking, object studying, train loving, hugs and squeezes needing little boy who struggles with communication but works hard at it every day. He is in a classroom of several other children with varying needs. You cannot tell on sight what any of those needs are… You just see several amazing kids who happen to be fighting big battles to make their way in the world.

If you take anything away from learning J’s story, I pray that it is the understanding that autism is deeply individual. People on the spectrum may share traits. They may share habits. They may share interests and disinterests just like the entire world does… but there is no one single autism. It is a spectrum for a reason and each individual diagnosed with autism is like a different star in a dynamic sky.

How come service dogs are so expensive? Why didn’t you find an organization that gives them “for free”?

The quotes on that question are important. There is little in this world that is actually free. There are organizations that do place service dogs for various disabilities with little cost to the recipient except time. The waiting lists are long. It’s the trade-off for the low-cost to the recipient. Some of these waiting lists can be 5+ years and many organizations will not work with such young children.

We did not lay out $13,000 of our own money for this dog. That is now how 4 Paws for Ability works. When you’re accepted into the program you become a fundraiser for them, sharing their message with the world. You raise not just the money to place your dog but awareness for their cause. We are their biggest advertising campaign. The money we raised is just about half of what it can cost to breed, raise, train, place and support a service dog through their life. Our dog will be supported through her whole working life by trainers and staff who are on call whenever we might have a question. If there is an emergency, they’re there for us. If our dog needs refresher training, they’ll help. They connect us with other families who are going through similar things and give us a home within the organization along with placing this well-trained dog with our child.

Sometimes, $13,000 seems far too little.

Can  you ever write anything short?

Nope. That’s why I blog.

PS: Super excited I spelled “recipient” right without spellcheck.

Skidding to a Thanks

Last night at midnight, our fundraiser with Ride to Give ended.

It not only met its goal but exceeded it. That in and of itself is amazing, right? However…

It gave us a community. We have our 4 Paws family online and nearby and now we have this incredible extended Ride to Give family joining us. Our family has grown exponentially overnight and I am looking forward to what that will mean to J and Brooklyn’s future together.

You all gave us hope, peace and relief. We’re hoping that you find joy, humor and awe in what’s to come with J and his girl. I have been sharing his journey from the start thanks to the release that is writing a blog, now we have even more people to hop on the ride we’re on to see just where it’s going to go.

When we start training, the posts will be very Brooklyn-centric. We’ll be learning everything we need to do to make J and his girl successful, and it is tradition in a way for 4 Paws families who are willing to chronicle their class time to share with future classes as well as their own families. After they graduate… Watch out, world! The real adventures shall begin.

We skidded to a halt after our amazing Ride to Give race, that so many helped us finish in record time. Forgive me if over the next week I might be a little more quiet than usual, we have a lot of rearranging and packing to do to prepare for our new girl. I am not abandoning all our new friends and followers but focusing on J, Brooklyn and our new family as it is going to soon be. It’s kind of like getting ready for a new baby, right?

Thank you all again. Now sit back, relax, and get ready for what promises to be one heck of an amazing ride upcoming!

It’s A…


Everyone, I am so pleased to introduce J’s best friend, the newest member of our family:

This is Brooklyn. She is part of the Cities Litter born on 11-21-2013 and named by the Falzarano family in honor of their beautiful son Hawke. Hawke passed away before he could meet his service dog because of a seizure disorder. This is the second litter they have named, as each of their sons have a city middle name themselves. If you would like to learn more about Hawke and his family, please go here.

This is our beautiful new girl!

brooklyn boy

She is an English Cream Golden Retriever. Look at her swooshy tail! J will be -over the moon- for her, and given her heritage she ought to have just the right amount of mischief to fit into our family seamlessly.

I thought at first that Brooklyn was a boy. It was hilarious to find out after I emailed family that I had to email them again and correct her gender, but I am sure she will forgive me my faux pas.

That beautiful face right there? Everyone who has cheered us on and helped us along the way has made this possible. That smile is as much for you all as it is for my beloved boy and in 11 days, we’ll get to see them both together for the first time! I cannot wait, and we have plenty of tennis balls awaiting her!

Where We Are

I look at where we are today and I cannot help but to be awed and humbled.

Last year,  midway through our fundraising for 4 Paws, I wrote a post about how important the dog would be to us and how yes, I am very determinedly focused on the cause of getting the dog and getting to the dog. You see, I had been mocked. I had been mocked harshly for working on “my precious dog” like it was some frivolous, useless cause.

That person is gone. They didn’t get to continue this journey with us. It feels like the rest of the world took their place instead and it blows me away.

When you engage in the 4 Paws for Ability program, it changes your life before you even meet your dog. You apply, you speak with Karen Shirk, the executive director and you sort out just what would be best for you and your family. 4 Paws is good at what they do. They know how to best help our kids, even when we’re not entirely sure of that ourselves. Then they link you up with a support group filled with families who have stood where you stood. The group combines new families just starting their fundraising, people who are finished fundraising and await their assigned training class and families already with their dogs. There is additional support from families and individuals who foster dogs and support the 4 Paws program.

You are never alone on the journey, not even when you truly feel like you are.

Then of course angels step in your path all along the way, like the Ride to Give Army, like all the absolutely amazing people – friends, family, strangers alike – who helped us raise the initial funds to be placed in our class. You make lifelong friends and your family simply grows. People get to know your child and join their journey…

I said to my mother Monday that my son finds his people. This journey, from the start til today, is living proof.

Twelve days stand between now and when my son will meet his friend, his companion and his helper. We do not know what they look like yet or what their name is, but the moment I do believe me I will be shouting it from the rooftops. If I could there’d be billboards from here to Boston and back again to celebrate the occasion! Everyone will know and when there are photos of them meeting, I will be quick to share them too.


Because it’s the help of all of you that made it possible. You’re bringing a boy and his precious dog together. Like our fundraising t-shirts said… There’s nothing like a boy and his dog.


The image from our t-shirts, courtesy of the generous Derek Benson.

PS: For those new to the blog, I refer to dog regularly as Dog to be Named Later. I was a seven season employee of the Boston Red Sox. Baseball has a wonderful place in our family, hence the dog’s current in flux name being that. 🙂

Everyday Miracles


J doing what J does best: consume donuts.


Where do I even start this post. I am going back and forth between shaking and crying and for one of the rare few times in my life, it is not over something horrible happening.

That’s what I am used to, you know? Bad news, all that good stuff. I am a pro at disasters. You give me something amazing and I walk around it warily like it’s a velociraptor preparing to strike.

But goodness comes. Miracles happen, and they come out of the clear sunny blue.

Not too long ago the organization Ride to Give  helped one of J’s classmate’s family fundraise to get them from their home to Ohio for training with their service dog. We applied, but we continued fundraising on our own. And everyone – We did a great job. Every one of you who shared, who donated, who participated in the giveaway, and who just supported us made it pretty good. We raised part of what we needed – enough for one major cost, but we still had a shortfall.

Then I get a message: We can help. We had, that same day, sat looking at numbers and realizing the enormity of what lay before us. Medical bills, car repairs, household expenses… Life adds up, and it’s been adding up fast this year. J’s dog is so, so important to him; to his future and his comfort that any sacrifice was on the table to make this happen for him.

This tremendous organization showed up and has reached out to help remove our greatest burdens of fear and stress. Ride to Give has taken up J’s cause and is helping us raise additional funds for our travel and our dog’s care.

There are not enough words. There are not.

To those who found us through Ride to Give, thank you. You are giving a family peace. You are helping my son meet a service dog who will see him through hard days to come. Medical tests will no longer need to require horror. Visits to new places will not need to be faced like a battle in a long war but instead the adventure they actually are. He will have comfort. He will have security. He will have an even brighter future, and now, you’re all a part of it. Welcome to our little online family. I look forward to sharing J meeting his dog with all of you.

Thank you. The words are small, but they’re from my heart and I cannot say them enough. Thank you.

J’s campaign can be found here: https://fundrazr.com/campaigns/bsve8/ab/b3pd72

A Gentle Sweetness

There are times I stand in awe of my son. I imagine most parents do this, especially as they see their tiny child develop into this independent person that surprises them in ways they’d never quite anticipated.

You see, my clumsy and boorish boy happens to be one of the gentlest people I know.

Oh, there’s tiny children playing with him in a play area? They’re scared of the slide? He walks up the slide from the bottom, meets them at the top, sits down and shows them how to slide down. I do not make this up. He repeats the process several times until the very little ones are following him. It is all done in pantomime: Not a word is spoken, yet every message is perfectly conveyed. He does not bowl them over, harass them or get frustrated with however long it takes to see every child ushered down the slide. He repeats, again and again, and leaves me blown away.

His big thing right now is babies. He loves babies. Baby people, baby animals… He loves tiny little new creatures of all sorts. Our friends have a beautiful baby girl and when he sees her in her mother’s arms, he lights up like it’s Christmas morning. His favorite thing to do? Run over and gently tap her nose. He knows not to be rough, or quick, or harsh.

I would be lying if I said he has not had a few run ins being just a little bit too exuberant around animals, specifically cats. He learned, through Loki’s very vocal manner, that one does not grab tails abruptly. Loki was not harmed, nor was J. A very important lesson was carried away and he has been much gentler in his approach of both Loki, his aunt’s cat, and Lenny, his grandparent’s cat. That’s the key thing: He learned, and quickly at that. This bodes well for Dog to be Named Later.

Maybe I am odd, and it would not be the first time, but this all seems so amazing to me. My experience with both male children and adults has not been positive. They have always been brash and harsh and hard for me to be around with rare exceptions. My son’s family tree has a few very bad apples on it and yet here he is, a shining example of all that is good. He is a rough, freshly mined stone right now, slowly being worked into the magnificent gem he’s meant to be. If this is how he at the start of the process, I am that much more eager to see the grown man he becomes. If he manages to retain even just a sliver of this natural compassion and concern towards the world around him he is going to do great things in his life, even if the ripples never extend far beyond a small area. The lives he will be touch will be changed for the better, and I can think of nothing more noble or wonderful for my son to leave his mark with.

Just think, in less than a month, he’ll have a sidekick to help him on his way to doing that too. We can’t wait.

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