Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Should "Super Dog" go to Kindergarten?

So I had an absolutely ridiculous instant messaging exchange the other day. Something like this: Friend: “So you’ve had the dog for what a month or so now?” Me: “Yea a little over a month.” Friend: “Seems like Caden still has autism.” Me:  “Um yea, he does. I’d better check on the kids and see if they’re back from the moon yet or not.” Okay, so maybe not the moon part, but did someone really try to equate a service dog with a cure for autism?  Wow, that’s all I can really say about that one other than Wow, Wow, and yet another Wow. 

In a bit more intellectual news I’m learning that there’s a lot more to having a service dog than the name would imply—interestingly that’s how I feel about autism each and every day as well. Anyway the law in a nutshell states that a service dog can go into any public place that a person can as long as the dog is under control and well maintained (i.e. no fleas, proper grooming, really just the basics in good dog care).  

Now it starts to get complicated in public schools though. When you think about the areas really open to the public during school hours you quickly realize that visitors can come in the front door and then immediately sign in at the office. From that point, where they are allowed to go depends on why they are there.  In a sense then classrooms aren’t necessarily public areas and in many instances you need to rely on the good will of the school system to allow your service dog to stay with the child.  Caden attends a public charter school—enrollment is less than 100 for ages 3 through 9th grade but Children’s House (preschool and kindergarten) has a fairly high enrollment this year.  Long story short is that the teacher has her hands full and I don’t want to do anything to add to that. 

When I start to think about Elf going to school with Caden I have a few hesitations.  One, like I already established, the teacher has her hands full and I don’t want a dog serving as a classroom distraction and the kids most definitely get excited when they see Elf.  Maybe they would eventually get use to his presence but I can only imagine it would be a crazy few days until they settled into the routine. Two, I’m not sure Elf and Caden have reached that point in their relationship where Elf would be beneficial to Caden in an educational setting.  We are still working on behavior disruption; starting Thursday though Elf will attend Caden’s speech therapy sessions at the hospital so that may give us a better sense of how they’d do in an educational setting. Three, I don’t know how we’d work an aide into the Montessori classroom without disrupting some of the basic principles of the school and learning environment. We picked this particular school, even though it is a mainstream school, for many reasons including their educational philosophies so we don’t want to do anything to undermine those. Finally, I just learned today that dogs are actually considered taboo or unclean to particular ethnicities and/or religions. It just so happens, that there is a child in Caden’s classroom who is of this particular heritage. I don’t know if this taboo or belief applies to the child or their family but I also can’t really think of a polite and nondiscriminatory way of asking “so are you by any chance xyz; have any religious or philosophical problems with dogs?” Can’t ask the question but also don’t want to inadvertently create an environment where this child and their family no longer feel comfortable or accepted.  Never in a million years did I expect that type of philosophical issue to be a challenge when we set out to get Caden a service dog.

I honestly don’t know what our next step is.  We’ll probably see how they do in therapy on Thursday and watch them over the next few weeks while we also work on updating Caden’s IEP at school and assessing where and what his needs are. Thankfully at the moment, Elf is able to go to college with us every day so he continues to be exposed to people and practicing obedience daily. We’re also finding fairly easy ways to incorporate tracking training with Elf and Caden into our weekly lives. Now I have to say just because we think he’s amazing we are no longer referring to Elf as a service dog, instead he’s super dog and given all the tail wagging he did today, I’m pretty sure he knows it too. And just in case you’re wondering if we happen to stumbling across the overnight “cure” for autism, I’ll be sure to blog it asap……..