Paws and Effect: The Service Dog Story, Part 1

Ok. This subject is likely going to require multiple posts to cover the whole story so this will be the first of however many it takes.  I'm thinking three, but don't hold me to that. 

When Josh was about 5 years old my mom sent me an article from the Vancouver Sun newspaper about an organization in Canada that was training dogs to work specifically with young, autistic children.  I had been thinking about a dog but had no idea that this was even a possibility until she sent me the article.  It started with the mother of an autistic child who approached this group that were training dogs for people with other types of disabilities.  Her son was a "runner" - in the autism universe, this is the term we use to describe children who take off anywhere and everywhere at any time, without warning, with no regard for their own safety.  Some will even wake up and leave their houses in the middle of the night.  Trying to hang on to a child like this is impossible.  This mother was desperate and was hoping that there would be some way for National Service Dogs (this is in Canada, by the way) to help her.  The trainers decided to give it a shot.  They trained a dog that would be a part of a team: adult, child, and dog.  The child would be tethered to the dog with a special lead hooked to the vest of the dog, this being about 3 feet long.  The dog would be handled by the adult.  This ended up working well for this child and he actually developed a bond with the dog that literally changed everything for him and his family.  This led the folks at NSD to think maybe they were on to something here and as the story came out, they started getting more and more calls from parents of autistic children.  They decided to focus solely on training service dogs for autistic children at that point, developed a training program, and started accepting applications. 

I investigated this thoroughly.  Josh has never been a "runner" in the classic sense but these dogs were helpful for so many situations, I knew it was a good idea for Josh.  Once he got too big to sit in the grocery carts, he was loose, and at that time, was NOT interested in holding my hand or being held on to in any way.  Then trying to get him to stay with me would cause a tantrum... which was something I tried to avoid whenever possible.  I figured with the freedom for him to move around without being "held" but still safe and not loose because he would be tethered to the dog, it seemed like a fantastic idea and one that just might work.  There was also the hope that he might develop a bond with the dog and be able to take it to school, maybe it would help keep him more calm and focused.   NSD is a Canadian organization though, and we are in the states.  They were taking applications from families outside Canada, but Canadians were given priority on their wait list.  So I did a lot of research to see if there was anything similar in the U.S.  At the time, there was not.  Service dog organizations trained dogs for those who were blind, in wheel-chairs, had epilepsy or were deaf, but no one was training dogs to work with autistic children - that being the other issue, no one was training dogs for anyone younger than 16 period, regardless of their disability.  Not that I could find anyway and believe me, I looked long and hard. 

We decided to apply to NSD, even if it meant a long wait list, feeling it would be worth it in the end.  We did, and were accepted, but the wait was going to be about 2 years, possibly longer. 

I started getting impatient though, I really wanted this for Josh.  So after about a year on the NSD wait list, I started looking around again for something in the states or even anything similar, didn't matter where it was.  That's when I found 4Paws  who are located in Ohio.  I'm not sure why I didn't find them initially but I don't think they had been working with autistic children at the time I started checking in to all this.  They were when I found them though, and not just for autistic children, they trained dogs for children and adults with many different disabilities.  For the autistic children, the dogs were not only trained as service dogs, but also as tracking dogs, if you felt that was a skill important for the dog to have (ie. in case your child ever wandered off or was lost somehow).  I got in touch with them and ended up applying to see where it would put us as far as wait time for a dog.  NSD bred their own dogs to use in their program, which was a big part of the reason for the long wait list.  4 Paws used all kinds of dogs, including rescued dogs, as long as they met temperament and health standards required for training.  This made the wait list much shorter for them.  I contacted NSD to find out how close we were and was told it would still be another year or so.  4 Paws said we would likely be able to get our dog within the year.  So I had NSD take us off their wait list and set us up with 4 Paws. 

The process to get the service dog required a written application from us stating why we wanted a dog for Josh, how we thought it could help him and our family.  We needed letters of reference and recommendation from teachers, friends and doctors.  We had to submit a video of Josh and the family.  Mostly of Josh though, so they could get an idea of what he was like to better match him with a dog.  I made sure to get a tantrum on the video, so they could see what he was like when upset - better to know ahead of time to make sure they chose a dog that could handle that.  We did everything we were supposed to including submit the required donation.  Both NSD and 4 Paws asked for a certain amount as a donation to the organization, they obviously need to function somehow.  You can donate the money yourself if you have the means, or you can fundraise.  The difference was this: NSD asked for it, but, if you were unable to raise the full amount by the time you were up on the list for getting a dog, you would still get your dog.  They guaranteed a dog to anyone that they accepted on their list.  With 4 Paws, you are not eligible for a dog UNTIL you meet the required donation amount.  Neither is right or wrong, just different organizations functioning the way they feel is best for them and what they do.  What that did mean though, was that with 4 Paws, you had power over when you could get your dog - fulfilling the requirement sooner put you at the top of the list.  With NSD, your place on the list is set when you are accepted and you cannot do anything to change that.  I don't want to get in to the ethics of all this, I have conflicted emotions about it to this day.  Both organizations do wonderful things for our kids. 

Our requirements fulfilled, we were notified that we had a spot in a training class that was to take place in March of 2006.  I was so excited I can't begin to tell you.  The hardest part was waiting to meet Joshua's dog.  They send you an e-mail with a picture and note from your child's dog anywhere from 1-2 weeks prior to your training class.  This was something I had been working on for a couple of years by this point and we were so close... I had all sorts of visions in my head of how it be, how Josh would develop this amazing bond with his dog... how much it would help.  March arrived, and so did our e-mail.  Her name was Ellie.  A beautiful golden lab and she was anxiously awaiting our arrival so she could meet her new friend Josh. 

... And this is where I will leave the saga of the service dog for now.  I know, I know, don't hate me, I just can't fit it all in to one post and this is a good spot to break it  (of course that will be more obvious with the next post, but you just have to trust me :P ).