Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Just a Dog???


I LOVE reading stories about service dogs and how they are helping people of varying disabilities and ages cope and even enjoy life.  For some reason I can’t quite explain though I also have a tendency to read the comments—seriously life would have much less stress if I just--stopped --reading the darn comments.  One commenter on a recent article stated that he/she couldn’t understand why a child would need a service dog and that it was probably just another easy way for parents to get out of doing their job.  That comment absolutely floored me! While I don’t know every person in the world with a service dog, that comment couldn’t be further from reality for the families that I know.  Let me share the service dog concept from our family’s perspective…

Elf is an absolutely amazing, smart, intuitive, well trained, loyal, and loveable super service dog BUT at the end of the day he is still a dog. He’s not a babysitter nor is he a substitute parent for Caden.  We have a fenced yard in small town USA—seriously the police report is printed in our newspaper that comes out once a week if that tells you anything about our “crime rate.” Despite our nonexistent crime rate though, Caden and Elf never play outside without someone else outside with them. Elf is tremendously loyal to Caden but without anyone there to give him commands, I have no doubt he would follow Caden on whatever adventure Caden took him on outside of the gate.  Service dogs also can’t be possessive—a possessive dog is a potentially dangerous dog in public—so Elf wouldn’t have a clue how to protect Caden from abduction. Quite frankly that just isn’t his job. 

Same goes in the house. Elf isn’t going to get up with Caden in the middle of the night or in the morning so that we can sleep in.  As tempting as that might be, Elf’s job is to alert us that Caden is leaving and then it is our job to do the parenting while Elf goes back to sleep.  Parenting just isn’t a part of Elf’s job description either.

Elf is trained to do several very important things for Caden and our family. First he is trained to track Caden. He’s our very own search and rescue dog.  He knows Caden’s scent and that hotdogs and the tennis ball are waiting for him once he finds his boy. He’s always ready for the “Where’s your boy? Where’s your boy? Track!” command. Just because he’s trained to find Caden though doesn’t mean that we tempt fate. We still secure our doors and gates and are going to be signing Caden up for Project Lifesaver in the upcoming week. Elf is an invaluable resource but he’s not our only resource.

Elf is trained to tether Caden.  This is just a fancy way of saying that we can connect Caden and Elf with a specially designed leash and as long as one of us is handling Elf, Caden can’t get away from us. Elf is essentially trained to play stubborn dog that isn’t going anywhere if Caden tries to go in another direction.  This has totally transformed our public outings and we’ve been able to more comfortably go to the mall, to amusement areas, and even sporting events because we know that we have an additional support system in place to help us keep Caden safe. 

Finally Elf has been trained in behavior disruption.  He has a whole host of commands that help break a repetitive cycle or disrupt a meltdown. These commands include kisses, over which provides deep sensory input, and paw.  This is one of those behaviors that has evolved over time. Because Caden and Elf spend all of their time together, after a few initial months of “marking” (us pointing out behaviors to Elf and giving him one of the behavior disruption commands) Elf now recognizes certain behaviors as ones that he is supposed to act upon.  This is the COOLEST thing ever. Caden can be on a crowded playground and Elf is able to pick out his cry over all of the other children.  This same bond is also what makes Elf anxious when Caden is out of his sight—Elf doesn’t understand the concept of danger but he does know that he and his boy are supposed to be together.

Unexpected bonuses of a super service dog for Caden have been decreasing anxiety, increasing ability to handle transitions and open spaces like parking lots, the [occasional] ability to sleep in his own room, and social interactions.  Let’s face it; Caden is one of the most popular kids in his school because you can’t pet the dog, unless you ask Caden first.  Words can’t explain how amazing it is to have children want to interact with a child who isn’t able to initiate interactions on his own.  I also love to watch Caden caress Elf’s ears when he is nervous or getting ready for “needle” day (aka infusion days).  Having Elf present during therapies and work sessions has helped Caden focus more—most likely because he has a constant with him.  

Elf has made every penny of fundraising 100% worth it. He makes every bag of premium dog food, every vet bill for vaccines, heartworm medications, and flea prevention as well as grooming bills totally and completely worth it. It isn’t an understatement to say that he has changed our life.  But at the end of the day he is still just a dog and isn’t a substitute for anything or anyone. Think of it this way: most people don’t stop locking their doors just because they get a home security system.  Same thing here: we didn’t stop parenting just because we got a service dog. Elf is another ally in our quest to allow Caden to just be a kid.
At the end of the day he might just be a dog but to us he’s Caden’s super service doggy angel; to a little boy with autism he’s the best friend a boy could ever dream of.  So is it a tale of a boy and his best friend or a tale of a dog and his boy? I’ll leave that one for you to decide.