Honestly I think the biggest development of the day is the relationship Caden and Elf are forging. As many of you know Caden has been adamantly opposed to having a service dog but now that he has met Elf, he just thinks of Elf as his dog. Interestingly that mimics our attitude toward Caden’s autism; yep he has it but he’s so much more than that one label. Elf is a service dog but he’s also a really cool and fun friend to play with. Key phrases of the evening that made me want to do a happy dance: Daddy, I like Elf chasing me. My dog got the ball. Do you think Ry Ry will want a dog like me? While we are learning to speak Elf’s language he is apparently learning to speak Caden’s because he can now respond to some of Caden’s commands such as jump and come which thrills Caden!
We began day 5 with another track. Elf is improving with each track and Jeremy assures us the process will continue to get quicker as the dogs memorize their child’s scent. Service dogs memorize a specific scent that they then look for when given the track command whereas search and rescue dogs search for a more generic human scent. The key to success seems to be total and complete trust in our dogs and lots of practice. The amount of work that we’ll need to take home with us in terms of daily practice time is overwhelming but when you hear Jeremy retell how many emails he receives of the dog finding its child in a situation where prompt recovery prevents a tragic outcome (children found at lakes, headed toward busy intersections, etc.) you realize that even if you only use the track command once in the next 10 years, all of the practice and time will be more than worth it. It is both a sobering and empowering thought.
We also were introduced to tethering. This is going to be interesting because the dogs understand the process and I think as handlers we do as well; this is one of the few times though that we need the children actively involved. We have options as to what the tether strap will be attached to on the child; it could be a vest, a backpack, or anything else that the child can wear. We decided to let Caden pick out a dog collar that he’ll wear like a belt—thank goodness the store had a black collar with white paw prints that he fell in love with. I am starting to realize that having a service dog is kind of like traveling with a baby, you need a lot of supplies. In addition to just plain dog stuff we also need to have Elf’s work harness, leash, training collar, tether, child’s leash, tracking leash, mutt matt, treat bag, potty bags (we all know that I am fascinated with the potty command but what I want to know now is if can we train Elf to potty in the bag so I don’t have to pick it up off the ground? And in case you are wondering, Caden is absolutely fascinated with Elf’s poopsy too), chew toys, and the child’s wearable tether item. Forgetting anything could be disasterous—kind of like when we took Caden for a road trip an hour from our home and he blew out his diaper. We didn’t have a single baby wipe but we had a lot of mess and the only gas station didn’t have anything we could buy, borrow, or beg. I think we are going to buy a service dog back pack for one of us to carry so that we don’t end up in the same deep poo that we did with Caden on that trip!
Our homework tonight included practicing in public. Like idiots we decided to stop at Walmart on a Saturday night. Caden was proud to hold onto his own little leash but we frequently skipped aisles because they were crowded and we had no idea how to maneuver the dog, kid, and shopping cart. Other homework included practicing the ever growing list of commands using the word-hand signal combo, just the word or just the signal for each. I think if I was going to tell someone anticipating their class one thing, it would probably be to expect a lot of work. The dogs are trained and know their stuff but unless you kidnap a trainer, you are going to have to learn in 11 days what most of the trainers obtained degrees in. Classes are long and intense and you have to practice. Second thing I’d share is to actually wear the darn bug spray during tracks. I have golf ball size welts from the other day’s track as does Caden. My poor heart has no idea what to do between the caffeine I am chugging and the Benadryl I’m washing down. Then there’s the extra exercise that we all get during a track—I’m telling you when the command is given you’d better be ready to run. Then again that’s a good thing—wouldn’t want to have to wait for Elf to wake up and have some coffee before he decided to track his boy. And you know what? I think Caden really is starting to be Elf’s boy.