I know I said I'd talk more about Buddy and our experiences with him later and since I just finished writing a piece for The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, website and soon-to-be-published book (I have a link to the site on my Links page), about service dogs and autism, now seemed like a good time.
I'll be honest, it was harder writing the piece than I thought it would be, I'm not in a great place with Buddy these days. Our experience with Buddy has not been what I had hoped or thought it would be and there a number of reasons for that. First let me say that this has nothing to do with service dogs in general for autistic children, I still feel that they are of great benefit and still think it is good for Josh to have a dog. I'm just not sure Buddy is the right dog for us. Which is a really hard thing for me to say (or write) given everything we went through to get him.
If you remember the posts about our journey to get Josh a service dog, you might know that we started out working with one organization, later switching because I didn't want to wait another year after already waiting almost 2. There are two reasons why 4 Paws is able to get dogs to people faster than National Service Dogs or some of the other groups out there now. First, your place on the waiting list is not set in stone. If you are able to meet your "fundraising"/donation requirements, you get assigned a training session. With some of the others, like NSD, your place on the list is your place. Period. Is this fair? You could argue either side and make a good case. The second reason is that 4 Paws does not rely on a breeding program for the dogs that they use. They take rescued dogs, donated dogs, and some that they have bred. But most are rescued and donated. This means they have access to more dogs more often than some of the other organizations. Which on the surface seems like a good thing.
There are issues that arise from the combination of these however, that can lead to things not working so well down the road. This is the situation we have with Buddy.
Buddy was a donated/rescued dog. There were different stories floating around about his puppy hood, the one that was passed on to me was that he had been a baby when the family that owned him was displaced by hurricane Katrina; they could not keep him where they ended up, so he was given to another family; they couldn't keep him either but felt strongly that he had a great temperament to work with children so they drove him all they way from somewhere near Louisiana up to Ohio and 4 Paws. He had in fact, just been brought to them when I was there the first time we went out for training - the time that we came home without a dog. When we went back in August, he was ours. Anything seem not quite right with that? He had only been with them for 5 months. Five. Months. This is a dog that was to be certified to go anywhere and everywhere with Josh and I, that is expected to behave in every situation imaginable, and he'd had all of 5 months of training. If you look at most working dog training organizations you will see that their dogs are trained for much longer. If he'd come from their own breeding program it might not be such a big deal because those dogs are essentially born in to a training program. But he simply showed up on their doorstep with a questionable history and 5 months later he was our "service dog". Yes, he was temperament tested and he is a very sweet dog. However he has a lot of issues, ones we did not discover until after we had him at home, that I believe are related to his past and there doesn't seem to be any way to get rid of them.
Things started out fine. There were some things I knew we needed to continue working on, but we took him everywhere except school without any real difficulty. I had to maintain a lot of control when there were a lot of people coming to him, that's when he would get really excited. We kept working on it. We had all been told that we would have to continue working with the dogs when we got them home, but I truly was not prepared for what it was going to take to get this dog where we needed him obedience-wise to go to school with Josh, as that was the one thing I had really wanted him for. There was also tracking, which we had to continue practicing on our own after training, which I did, for almost a year. It got to the point where it was too much. On top of everything else I have to do/deal with, Buddy just wasn't doing any better with certain things despite my doing everything I had been told to do.
I suppose in a way I gave up. It was like, after a good year of reinforcing everything I'd been taught, everything they told me to do, he was still no where close to being ready to go to school with Josh and in some ways his behavior around other people was getting worse, not better. And by worse I mean not minding his business - he would constantly be trying to make contact with people, try to get attention from them, things he was not supposed to be doing while working. We'd be at the check-out of the grocery store and he was in a "down" while we were standing in line. Next thing I know, he's scootched over and is licking the feet of the person standing behind us, or wrapping his paws around them. Oh yes, he's a herding dog, apparently. He goes after people's feet. He'll pin Josh in a corner and not let him out for no reason except that it's in his genes somewhere. This is part of the issue with using rescued dogs, especially when you have no idea what kind of dog you are dealing with. His herding instincts are very strong, but that's not so hot for a service dog. Most people, including Josh, do not like to be herded. He'll wrap his front paws around your ankles and take you down if he can. He will also nip at people's feet and ankles, another strong herding instinct. I was told in training that they'd seen some of this behavior, so I was to tell him "no" every time I saw it. Well, 4 years and 25 bazillion "no's" later, he still does these things.
His speed is also an issue. I mentioned he was fast. He still is, has not slowed down at all. He runs, constantly. In the house, out of the house, up the stairs, down the stairs, leaving and coming in, all have to be done at warp speed by Buddy. He tears up the carpet because of this and he knocks people over. He took me down in January when I had him out in the rain one night and it was such a bad fall that I tore my ACL and sustained a small fracture at the top of my tibia. Yes, really. He's knocked Josh over in the yard, he's tried to knock over my little nephews as well. He's not trying to be aggressive or mean, this is Buddy's way of having fun, but it's not the kind of behavior you want in a service dog. And I can't do anything about it. It's just who he is. But I can't send a dog to school or frankly take him too many places when he continues to behave like this.
He's been ok when we have taken him places like Disney - when he's harnessed up and under my very firm control he's ok. But it does take a lot of control from me and going through security at the airports and getting off and on the planes is a nightmare, he wants to follow his nose everywhere. He was very well behaved in the hotel the last time we went and we had no trouble in the parks, but when he's in close proximity to other people, like when we were getting on and off rides, it was really, really hard to control him. Four years in and it shouldn't be like that.
At home he's just completely lost his mind and I'm not really joking. We can't rough house, practice our karate, or laugh a lot or use funny voices or he goes nuts - he'll race over and start barking like crazy, sometimes even growling. This was happening even when we first brought him home. I even called the trainer in Ohio to ask what to do and the answer, as always, was " just tell him 'no' when he does it and use his training tab, eventually he'll stop". The training tab was like a cut-off piece of a leather leash that attached to his choke chain, so you could reach down and give it a little snap if you needed to correct him. So I did this. Have been doing it for years now and the behaviors have not gone away. All I can think is that this dog was so traumatized in his situation as a puppy, he can't help reacting this way. He literally goes bananas when there's any kind of physical contact or loud playing going on.
He is truly the neediest animal I have ever encountered. You could pet him 24/7 and it wouldn't be enough. He gets jealous if people show attention to each other or one of our other pets and he'll butt in. I truly believe most of these behaviors stem from his early time in whatever situation he was in. I know it's not his fault. But he's just not right for us. He's a phenomenal tracker, has a nose, speed and stamina to be the best search/rescue dog you've ever seen. He would be very, very, good at it. His tracking skills are amazing. He's just not a good "service dog".
I'm not really sure what to do at this point with him. I haven't been in contact with 4 Paws in a couple of years now, part of my frustration came from not getting what I felt I needed from them, simply telling Buddy "no" every time he did something he shouldn't wasn't working and they weren't offering me much more than that. So I kind of gave up on them too. I should bite the bullet and talk to them though, Buddy would certainly be better utilized in a different capacity and we sure could use a dog that doesn't knock people over and go nuts with normal every day family stuff. It's so hard. We've had him for 4 years and in some ways I know I haven't helped. My attitude toward him isn't a good one even though I know none of this is his fault. I guess I'm angry that we didn't get what we thought we were getting, what we had worked so hard for, went through so much for... and there is a service dog at Josh's school, that I see every day when I go to pick Josh up, that is exactly what I imagined WE would have. He's calm, he walks with his boy without an adult having to hang on to him for dear life so he won't go too fast, he doesn't pay attention to others, he just does what he is supposed to do. It's such a wonderful thing to see but so painful for me because we don't have that. I cannot in a million years imagine how I would send Buddy to school with Josh. So I have to look at this all the time, this reminder of what we had wanted but still don't have and it's hard.
I'm just not sure what to expect from 4 Paws at this point so I keep putting it off. I guess I won't know until I get in touch with them.
Don't misunderstand this - I am still very much an advocate for service dogs for autistic children, including Josh. When Buddy is doing a good job, it's been wonderful. Easier to manage Josh in situations that otherwise would be a problem. And he's a terrific ambassador. People are curious about the dog. Why he's attached to Josh, there are always a lot of questions and it's great to be able to educate people about autism without it being in a negative situation. I just think Buddy would be better with a different "job" and we would be better with a different dog.
I'll keep you posted if/when I get up the nerve to talk to 4 Paws again (they actually own the dog, so yes, I do have to talk to them).