Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Tigger has been with us just a little over two months now -- which is hard to believe since his larger than life presence (I mean that literally -- he is 70 pounds and growing!) is already a fixture in our home. We've fallen in love with him and I know he loves us back.

Tigger is the friendliest, most affectionate dog I've ever encountered -- in fact, I think his love of people, especially children and the elderly, is going to be one of his biggest challenges as a serious service dog. He often gets distracted by his love of love, and can forget what he is supposed to be doing (it took me an extra half hour to pick up a prescription from Target this week because of all the old folks Tigger had to love on -- though this is my fault, too. He is so sweet that I don't have the heart to stop him!).

Tigger is also very smart. Smart enough to learn and follow many commands; and smart enough to decide when he doesn't want to follow them. Like a little kid, he tests his boundaries to see what he can get away with; eating Simon's leftovers and the cats' food, stealing toys, and barking at strangers passing by the house (I'm pretty sure he just wants them to stop and say "hi") are his most frequent infractions. Over the past several weeks Tigger has figured out that I don't like to yell, Olivia is a big mush for his fuzzy face, Brian is the "alpha" but has a soft spot for happy puppy antics, and Simon is... well, Tigger still seems to mostly see Simon as the "other puppy."

It hasn't been love at first sight for Simon and Tigger, which has been hard for me to admit even to myself. Along with everyone else, I wanted the "Hollywood ending" to our boy-meets-dog story; particularly after the incredible outpouring of support given to bring the two of them together. A part of me knew that it couldn't be like that; because it has always taken plenty of time for Simon to adjust to anything different, and this dog is whole lotta different. I knew this, but it wasn't what I wanted, and I worried about their relationship. A bond with a service animal is something that can bring stability and safety to Simon's life on a long-term basis, which (like any parent) I desperately want for him.

So, being me, I had to do something (I'm really not a wait-and-see person. I'm not sure if this is a fault or a blessing?). Though I know that some things can't be forced, I also know that most things can be helped along if approached in the right way, so I did some research (you're shocked, I know) and then I looked for some help.

Since the autism seems to me to be the biggest challenge in this (or any!) relationship, I started out by researching autism and service dogs, more specifically service dogs for people with autism. I wanted to know what those relationships are typically like (if there is such a thing as "typical" when it comes to autism), and I wanted to know what a service dog can do for a person with autism. We know what Tigger can do to help us with Simon's seizures, but it occurred to me that maybe there are other things Tigger can do for us when it comes to his cognitive and communication disabilities.

I found out that the autism service dog relationship  (it is worth it to mention that most of what I found had to do with children and autism, not so much about adults...no idea why) generally starts as a 3-way, not a 2-way relationship. The dog, the child in need, and the caregiver(s). The dog knows that the child is not the alpha, so a broader relationship is needed with the child taking on as much care for the dog as they are able. Over time some children are able to care independently for the dog and establish a 1:1 relationship but like all things with autism and disabilities, this varies depending on the individual.

In regard to a dog's autism-related service function, I found a ton of information on their therapeutic benefits both at home and even in the classroom (there are even reading programs that use the dogs in schools!) -- but this is mainly what I was expecting. Judgement-free companionship, developing empathy through caring for an animal, and establishing a bond through both nonverbal communication and verbal commands are all great for kids on the spectrum; we've already seen this with Simon. But... these are benefits that could be obtained through use of any well-trained and kid-friendly pet. They are not by definition a service animal's role.

What I wasn't expecting to find is that service dogs for autism have a very conventional service-dog role (even more conventional than a seizure dog!). An autistic person's safety and functionality are compromised because their perception of the world is impaired. Traditionally, a service dog is trained to pay attention to what their human cannot, and then assist that person accordingly. It is generalizing a bit, but essentially this concept isn't any different from the way a blind or deaf person uses a service animal -- something most of us are pretty familiar with.

I honestly don't know why I had thought that they would do something more avant-garde. In retrospect it makes complete sense, and I even wonder why more people aren't using service dogs for autism currently -- though interest in it does seem to be on the rise.

After all the research, my next step was to determine what to do with all the info. To figure that out, I knew I would need help. Training both Tigger and Simon for multiple purposes is going to be quite an undertaking.

First, I spoke with Tigger's trainers from Noelle's Dogs Four Hope about what had been going on with Simon and my thoughts on how Tigger can help us, not just with the seizures but with the autism as well. Much to their credit, they are not only willing to help us train Tigger for both purposes, but they have been excited by the opportunities it presents and have been actively doing their own research and communicating with us about what we can do moving forward. (They are truly awesome people!)

Next, I made an appointment with a behavioral psychologist. We'd been offered this service ever since Simon was diagnosed with autism, but I'd put it off thinking that it was really only meant for parents that had "lost control" of their particular situation. This is another great example of "Laura being wrong" (how many are we up to on this blog?). The more I thought about it, the more things I realized I needed help with. Not because Simon is out of control, but because I want to find as many ways as I can to help Simon be as successful as possible. We are in many ways blessed, but we also have a lot of challenges; Simon's relationship with Tigger is just one (safety awareness, attention difficulties, and coping with stress are a few more..). Last week we met with our therapist for the first time and I think it was a very positive step. He thinks we can address all of the issues we brought up, and we made some great goals. Best of all, he thinks that Tigger's presence in Simon's life is a GREAT thing. He confirmed that developing a 1-1 Tigger-Simon relationship will take time (a lot) and work (a lot) but the benefits for Simon have the potential to be huge. (He also didn't seem think that I am crazy, which is a nice bonus.)

So, we have a lot to work on, but I can say that already we have made a lot of progress -- Tigger knows that Simon is the one that feeds him, he will sit for Simon on command, will walk nicely beside Simon when he practices holding the leash, and he only steals Simon's goldfish crackers when he is pretty sure Simon isn't looking. Simon also recognizes that Tigger is his dog. He will answer questions about Tigger, he seems to enjoy the process of feeding Tigger, and he likes to give him commands and treats. He doesn't even mind when Tigger plays with his toys (Tigger loves any ball or stuffed animal). Simon also continues to talk to Tigger a lot, mostly using complete sentences, which is pretty amazing.

We may not have had our love-at-first-sight Hollywood beginning, but the drama is well underway, and I do believe that we will have our happy ending. The boy and dog will live happily ever after, but it may take quite a storied arc to get us to that conclusion.

Stay tuned! 

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