Michelle O'Neil

Michelle O'Neil has contributed to A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism and Special Gifts: Women Writers on the Heartache, the Happiness and the Hope of Raising a Special Needs Child. She has written for Literary Mama, The Imperfect Parent, Age of Autism and she is a contributor to Hopeful Parents. She has a nine-year-old daughter with Asperger's and a seven-year-old son with autoimmune issues. Follow her further adventures at her blog, Full-Soul-Ahead!

News: Guest Posts
Life with an Autism Service Dog
Part V: Pup-Peronies, fan clubs and channeling Temple Grandin

[Below are three excerpts from Michelle O’Neil’s blog about her daughter Riley’s autism service dog.]


Give That Dog A Treat!
Riley is not allowed to go on the Internet without permission. Period. Today she did it, and I had to follow through with consequences, banning her from the computer for 24 hours. She pitched a very big fit, screaming and stomping all the way up to her room. Jingle followed her. I grabbed two Pup-Peronies from the kitchen cabinet, and marched upstairs to her room. Jingle stood on the floor beside the bed, watching Riley carry on.

I pressed the Pup-Peronies into Riley’s hand, and walked out of her room, closing the door behind me. As I shut the door, I saw Jingle hop up on the bed. She loves Pup-Peroni.

Riley and Jingle remained in her room for about ten minutes. Then they came downstairs, and Riley played happily with her brother for the rest of the evening. No more meltdowns. No talk of the computer.

I’ve been finding when Riley is upset, if I just put the Pup-Peroni in her hand, she starts breaking off pieces and feeding them to Jingle. The change of focus, feeding the treats, seems to put Riley’s brain on pause long enough to hop off the fret merry-go-round, the continuous loop of upset that can often go on for an hour or more.

This was the first time I left them alone behind closed doors to work it out. Riley is the kind of kid who can’t tolerate unkindness to anyone, especially animals. She implodes, rather than lashing out, so I knew Jingle was safe with her.

It felt liberating to be able to hand off to the dog, what might have taken me much longer to accomplish. No twenty minute “talking it through” going around and around in circles.

We wound up having a great night.

Thank you Jingle.

The Jingle Club
Jingle has a fan club. Everyday after school, she is mobbed by children and grown-ups on the playground while Riley swings and Seth plays. There were a bunch of little girls who used to play “kitty cat club,” where they would all pretend to be cats, but they’ve changed it to The Jingle Club. They form a huddle around Jingle, and chant, over and over, “We love you Jingle! We love you Jingle! She’s a good girl! We love you! We love you!” There are so many children around her you can barely see Jingle in there, rolling on her back in ecstasy, absorbing all the attention.

In the photo, left, Jingle wears the hat of one of the girl’s mothers.

This rescued puppy from Kentucky is doing pretty well for herself. I guess that’s what happens when you radiate pure joy, and love everyone you meet.

Maybe I’ll try it.

Channeling Temple Grandin
We hang a bag of recyclables on a door knob between the kitchen and the hall leading upstairs. It’s elegant, yes.

Jingle over the last few days had developed a phobia of the area. So I channeled Temple Grandin and put myself in Jingle’s place. What I discovered through my detective work is this:

When Jingle passes through the aforementioned area, her wagging tail thrashes the recycle bag, making a scary clatter. She is convinced there is a loud monster behind the door, waiting to get her. In fact, she’d taken to checking behind the door before proceeding very cautiously, and only if you had a treat in plain sight to motivate her. She was basically terrified to leave the kitchen.

So, we took the recyclables off the door knob, and I had her walk the dreaded two foot path one billion times last night, feeding her minuscule pieces of Pup-Peroni. She is 99% over her fear.

Dr. Grandin, I hope I did you proud.

News: Guest Posts
Life with an Autism Service Dog, Part IV
Jingle and Riley go to martial arts class.

[Below is an excerpt from Michelle O’Neil’s blog about her daughter Riley’s autism service dog.]

Last night Jingle went with Riley to martial arts for the first time. I wasn’t sure how it would go, because there is a lot of yelling, etc.—a lot for her to get used to. She is trained, trained, trained, but she’s still a dog. She has fears and feelings.

Jingle did very well. She held her “down” the whole time. She startled a few times over the noise, but she was more surprised than anything. She didn’t bark. You could tell she wished she could run along and play with the kids, but she stayed put. I fed her treats sporadically to give her incentive.  

The incredible thing for me wasn’t about Riley. This is “therapeutic” martial arts, and there is an older boy in the class who has autism (more than one actually but for this post we’re focusing on one in particular). He appears to be more severely affected, at least socially, than Riley. He lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw Jingle. He carried on a lengthy conversation, telling us all about his own pets. His blue eyes twinkled as he talked of his cats; he called them his “purr balls.”  He was animated. He made eye contact. He was really sweet and funny. They’ve been in the same martial arts school for over a year but last night was the first Riley and Seth got to know this boy. He’d never even acknowledged their presence before. None of us had ever seen him smile.

Way to go Jingle!   

And power to the purr balls!

News: Guest Posts
Life with an Autism Service Dog, Part III
Jingle knows her girl.

[Below are excerpts from Michelle O’Neil's blog about her daughter Riley’s autism service dog, which she got earlier this month. In these entries, O’Neil writes about the second half of training at 4 Paws for Ability with Jingle.]

Day 5, Behavior Disruption
Today at training Riley came running in from the kid’s area, crying. She stomped up and down a couple of times and shrieked, “I was trying to tear a picture out of a coloring book, and it ripped, and I crumpled it up and now all my friends are MAD AT ME!!!! WAHHHH!!!!!”

“Riley, why didn’t you ask for help?” I asked.  

That did it.

“I’m not a baaaaaaby!” she wailed.    

I sat her on the mat in front of me and immediately gave Jingle the “lap” command. Jingle sprung to action, she started down by Riley’s knees, and I gave her treats as she inched her way up to Riley’s lap. After the treats, she just stayed there, her body providing deep pressure. I talked to Jingle in a soothing tone, telling her what a good girl she was. Riley started to pet her. We just sat like that, petting Jingle and I could feel Riley’s body start to relax. It didn’t take long, maybe five minutes, definitely less than ten. Then, when she was calm, Riley just got up and marched herself out of the room and back to the play area. We didn’t need to discuss it. She was okay.

This is exactly what we were hoping for.  I sit here trying to think of a pithy ending for this post, but there are no words.


Go to Bed
Last night, we put the kids down in the next room, and my husband, Todd, stood at the door to the bedroom. He looked at Jingle, motioned with his arm toward the door, and said, “Jingle, go to bed!” She hopped up from the floor, ran into the bedroom and jumped up onto Riley’s bed. She stayed with her all night.

She knows who her girl is.

Day 6, Can I pet your dog?
Prior to meeting Jingle, I thought there would be a “mitts off” rule around Riley’s service dog. I imagined myself having to correct adults and children alike, “No, she’s working,” etc.  Some folks receiving service dogs will undoubtedly do just that, but 4 Paws says it is for each client to decide. Chloe, a teen reader of this blog who just got her Asperger’s service dog in August, says it sometimes feels invasive when people approach her dog. I have already been stopped numerous times at the mall by well-meaning people who ask about Jingle. I love introducing her and talking about her but I guess that could get old.

We’re going to have to figure out what feels comfortable for Riley. So far she has been open to it, but we will absolutely let it be her prerogative, and I guess she might feel differently about it on different days. Perhaps we can put an “I’m working” sign on Jingle when Riley doesn’t feel like interacting with people out in public, and take it off when she does.

We made our second trip to the mall today and Jingle was the perfect angel. She held the heel command even when I took her into loud busy stores. She is so smart! She didn’t want me putting the Gentle Leader back on her!  

Riley had another upset today, came in crying from the kid’s area, and we practiced the “over” command again. We got Jingle to put her body over Riley’s lap, and Riley pet her as we praised her. Jingle is definitely motivated by the treats at this point, and not by an altruistic goal to help Riley, but they are bonding more and more with each passing day. Todd is still her sweetheart (full tail wags when he comes in sight), but she’s responding better to me.

Jingle sat on the seat in the car today with her head on Seth’s lap, which thrilled him to no end. We also let him give her the peanut butter filled Kong, but are saving the Pupperonis (doggie crack) for Riley to give. Todd and I are using biscuits for the obedience piece. We are all feeling a little bit more relaxed about the whole thing, and not like we have to get everything perfect, right this minute. It is a process, one that will continue to evolve long after we’ve left 4 Paws and headed back to Cleveland.

Day 7
I know it makes no sense, but when a staff member at 4 Paws showed me a picture she carries of Jingle on her cell phone, and said, “She’s been one of the staff favorites,” I felt such pride! As if I had something to do with her good looks and winning personality.

Jingle is such a good dog! Today we practiced more obedience, and the “touch” command. When a child is upset/crying, the dog is taught to touch them on the leg, “Tap, tap, hello? Look at me kid! Whaddya say we change the subject? Aren’t I cute? Got any treats?”   

We are having to modify the command, because we found out today (thankfully on me) Jingle’s nails are powerful! It’s like she’s digging a rake into your thigh. So, Jingle is only touching Riley’s sneaker for now. We will work on touching the side of her paw, to the side of Riley’s leg, more like a brush with the back of her paw rather than the clawing action she’s got going on now. Jingle is intense. You tell her “touch,” and she wants to do it. With gusto!

“See what a good girl I am? I will really touch like I mean it!”


Yesterday, we watched the dogs practice tethering. It was amazing. The tether strap is attached to the child’s belt, or vest, and the dogs lie on the ground and will not budge. This gives kids with autism so much more freedom out in public. The parents don’t have to constantly hold onto their hands. Riley doesn’t need tethering, but Todd and I both helped by acting as the kids for the training. We tugged and pulled and those sweet dogs, just did what they were trained to do. Even if they were pulled, they stayed in the down position, being dragged slowly across the floor if need be. For those autistic kids who are escape artists, it is like lugging a 50-100 pound weight depending on the dog. It really slows them down. All of the dogs have had basic training in tethering but we were fine-tuning. Tethering is going to open up the world for these families.  

Day 8
Jingle peed in the elevator! She got so scared, it just kinda happened, even though she had gone potty on the way into the mall. I’ve not spent so much time in a mall since I was a teenager with permed hair working at the Oakdale Mall in Johnson City, NY. I was sixteen, blowing all my money on clothes and hair products. Ah, those were the days.

Wait, where was I? Ah yes, Jingle peed.

Even though she is a well-trained dog, there are always going to be situations she is unfamiliar with. She is not a robot. She is a dog, and she has fears and feelings. This is why it is important to get her out as much as possible, in as many situations as we can while we are here, and after we go home. The great thing about Jingle is she’s a quick learner. First time in this particular elevator, she pees. Second time. She was fine. She was scared of a certain set of stairs at the mall too, but we went over them just a couple of times and she did much better.

We’re back at the hotel now, chilling out. The kids are watching Arthur, and Jingle is snoozing on her Mutt Matt. The Mutt Matt is Jingle’s “place.” A “place” is a little rug or matt the dog uses when put in a stay-type mode. It is the spot she will stay on in class if she goes to school. The “place” command is a stay command. They are allowed to move around, stand, stretch, but they have to keep at least two paws on the matt. Jingle will push it, she will be completely off the matt with just her two hind paws on the outside seam, but she’s technically still on her “place,” so we can’t get on her. If Jingle has been put in a “place” command she has to stay for as long as we tell her, until we give her the “free” command.  It can be minutes or hours. All of the dogs understand “place” and it is incredible how they stay on those matts, even if someone deliberately drops a treat a few feet away to test them.

It will never cease to amaze me how you can have 13 dogs in one room, all of them behaving.

Day 9
Today we worked on more obedience and went over many possible scenarios that might play out when we get home, like meeting other dogs. Then, Jeremy the trainer put the fear of God in us about a condition called gastric torsion, which can happen if a dog gulps down its food too fast and then runs around playing wildly after a meal. What happens is the food sits like a huge heavy lump in the dog’s stomach, and then when they get running around, the stomach can flip, twisting the tubes where the esophagus and the small intestine connect to it, creating gas build up and bloat. Jeremy lost a beloved German Shepherd to the condition and his main reason in scaring us half to death was to drive home the point, “Listen to your intuition if you think something is wrong with your dog.” His vet blew off his concerns.

Hmm….a doctor blowing off a “parent’s” concerns. Sounds vaguely familiar.

Listen to your Inner Guidance. Got it. Absolutely. Will do.

Tomorrow is the big test. If Jingle passes she is officially our service dog and we can take her home! She’ll be at the mall with Todd (since between the two of us she loves him best) demonstrating all the commands. She’ll be walking through crowded stores, dealing with strangers, navigating the food court, sitting under a table, heeling, sitting, staying down. She’ll be doing the elevator again (please don’t pee Jingle or you won’t pass)! Todd has to demonstrate he can handle her well.

Yes, she loves Todd, but she knows who her girl is. Any time Riley comes near her the tail goes wild, and today at training Riley crossed the room on her way to the bathroom and Jingle never took her eyes off of her. She watched the bathroom door until Riley came out and watched her again as she walked all the way back to the play area.

So, if all goes well, tomorrow we head home … and Jingle meets the cats. Insert scary music.

Pray for us.

News: Guest Posts
Life with An Autism Service Dog, Part II
Wherein “kisses” are learned.

[Michelle O’Neil writes about the first days of meeting and training at 4 Paws for Ability with her daughter’s autism service dog, which she received this month.]

Day 1
We are in our hotel suite with Riley’s new doggy! We are exhausted from all the excitement. Jingle is a very sweet dog, a good match for Riley. We were told she’s 35 pounds but she’s taller than I thought she’d be, a lean, young dog with lots of good energy. She loves to play and is very submissive to other dogs. She does not know what to make of being here with us and seems a little lost. She was in a foster home most of her life and did one month in a women’s prison. It is so cool to sit in a room with 13 dogs all day without any of them causing any trouble. Hardly any barking, no jerking leashes, no jumping.

Riley meets Jingle:

Day 2
Last night Jingle was spooked by noises outside the hotel room door and she barked a few times in the night. I tried to soothe her, “It’s okay, Jingle. You’re okay.”  I got out of bed to pat her and comfort her a couple of times.

Today we learned DO NOT TRY TO SOOTHE A BARKING DOG. A firm “NO” command will suffice. Soothing only rewards the behavior we don’t want. Ooopsey!

These dogs are well trained, but they are not used to us. We have not been their trainers. Our voices are unfamiliar. Our commands sound different. They don’t know if we’re serious, or if they can push it. They do not respect us yet.  

Jingle is a sweetie, but she’s young. She is very excitable, but she takes a firm correction really well. Riley is getting more comfortable with her. She was skittish at first, afraid to give treats for fear of being bitten. She’d give a command, and then pull her hand back before delivering the treat, confusing Jingle.

Today, Riley learned a few tricks for Jingle to perform. Jingle already knows all the tricks, but taking direction from us is different. The tricks are not part of what a service dog is required to do, but the trainer says they are an important part of bonding the child and dog, (KIDS LOVE TRICKS), and a huge part of the socialization piece these dogs play for a lot of kids. She will be the kid with the cool dog who does tricks!

There is another nine-year-old girl in the class who is much like Riley. So much like Riley, that neither makes the first move, and they’ve hardly spoken two words to each other, but for Riley this other girl’s presence seems like a relief.

4 Paws has a great set up with a playroom adjacent to the training floor. The kids are allowed to wander back and forth, and sibs have so much fun, all within eyesight/earshot of the parents being trained. The staff is really cool about kids coming in and out and kids with autism can hoot and holler and no one bats an eye.

Day 3
Today we got into the meaty stuff. Behavior disruption! This is the whole point of having a service dog for Riley, to help her with the meltdowns. Eventually, hopefully, Jingle will be able to redirect Riley before the escalation occurs. Today, a 4 Paws staff member indicated she would be role-playing a child crying (which sent Riley running from the room covering her ears before the scene even unfolded). The dogs are taught to nuzzle, to put their head in the child’s lap, or to go “over,” which means putting their whole body across the child’s lap for deep pressure. The dogs are very attached to the people who trained them and it is sweet to see them interact with each other.

Jingle needs to get used to Riley. She’s accustomed to responding to the trainers imitating meltdowns, but not Riley specifically. So for now, when Riley starts crying, we reward Jingle. She must associate Riley crying with getting something good. We are saving her very favorite treats for meltdowns. Lucky for us, homework tonight was meltdown city. Riley was so tired. She cried and screamed. She hit herself.  She ran from the room.  

Jingle scored with a lot of treats.

Jingle, Riley and I wound up on the bed together. Jingle did “lap” on command, and Riley pet Jingle until she felt better. Jingle was so relaxed (and tired from her hard day of training) that she fell asleep and Riley inspected every inch of her face. Riley softly stroked Jingle’s whiskers, she ran her fingers over her eyebrows and around her nose.

“I like her black mustache,” she said.  

“I like the pink spot on her nose,” I said.

Jingle let out a content sigh.

We skipped the rest of tonight’s homework. Bonding was more important.
Day 4 (KISSES)!

If you think getting a service dog means you’re going to show up and receive a dog that just automatically does what you tell it to do, good luck! Prior to this training, Todd and I could not imagine what we’d be doing for ten days. Ten days? Are you kidding me?  Now we’re kind of hoping 4 Paws doesn’t notice if we stick around for an extra week or two. There is so much to learn! The whole service dog thing is a relationship. The dog has to know you and trust you.

The best part of today was KISSES! When we first got here, germ-o-phobe Riley could hardly tolerate the feel of Jingle taking a treat from her hand. She’d wipe her hands repeatedly on her pants, and was very grossed out at the possibility of saliva. The girl won’t share a cup or water bottle with her own mama.

Today, she allowed the trainer to put peanut butter on her hand and command the dog, “Kisses!” Riley wavered back and forth. Yes she wanted to do it. No she didn’t. Wait, yes she did. Finally she decided to go for it. With a blob of peanut butter on the back of her hand, she commanded the dog, “Kisses!” Jingle licked the peanut butter, and got a treat. Over and over.  Riley let it happen. She enjoyed it. She bonded with her doggy and didn’t freak out about germs! When we finished that little segment, she got up and I was sure she’d run to the bathroom to wash her hands, but she didn’t! She just went and played! I am probably the only mother celebrating that her child didn’t wash her hands, but I was seriously teary over this. Riley was just living. She wasn’t worrying. 

News: Guest Posts
Life with an Autism Service Dog
Part I: Getting started

It started with a crazy longing for a dog. We don’t need a dog. We already have three cats and our children are high-need. Our daughter has Asperger’s (a high-functioning form of autism) and our son has autoimmune issues. My hands are quite full, but somehow I’d find myself looking at petfinder.com, or the Greyhound rescue sites, or the Golden Retriever rescue sites. I’d stare longingly at the faces in need of adoption. I’d send their photos to my husband’s e-mail at work. He’d e-mail back, “We don’t need a dog.”  I knew he was right.

Then, about a year ago, I was asked to review the book A Friend Like Henry by Nuala Gardener. It is about a boy with autism and the amazing gains he made with his Golden Retriever by his side. My wheels started to turn. Is it possible a dog could help with the intense meltdowns our daughter experiences when she becomes overwhelmed? Is she “autistic enough” for a service dog? With the encouragement of fellow bloggers I checked it out and found 4 Paws for Ability. It is one of the only organizations in the country that places service dogs with children under 18, and yes, they do train dogs for children with Asperger’s.

4 Paws for Ability does not let people purchase service dogs. Each family must fund raise between $11,000 and $14,000 depending on what the dog will be trained to do. The dogs receive between 400 and 600 hours of training before being placed with a family. The families must also be trained and are required to attend a ten-day session in Xenia, Ohio, where 4 Paws is located.  

We thought it would take at least a year to raise the funds, but once my husband and I got over our pride and asked for help, the money came pouring in. Musician friends altruistically performed a benefit concert in our hometown in upstate New York. Friends, neighbors and a local church made generous donations. The power of the Internet was lassoed and virtual friends who’d followed my blog came out of the woodwork to donate money. One blogger friend organized a fund-raising autism/mommy blogger dinner in Boston with author John Elder Robison who wrote a book about growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s. 

To our amazement, we raised $11,000 in less than two months. The goodness of people is overwhelming.

Then came the waiting. For ten months we didn't know who our dog would be. In the meantime, we had to videotape Riley’s meltdowns and send the tapes off to 4 Paws. As the time drew near, they studied the tapes and matched her with the perfect dog for her.

Jingle is her name-o! We met her this week. She is an adorable Australian Shepherd/Boxer mix and we are here in Xenia, Ohio, in the middle of training. I’m typing this from our hotel room. (Yes, we bring the dog back to the hotel with us every night for ten days!)

I'll be blogging throughout the training, and will continue to tell our service dog story at my blog Full-Soul-Ahead! It is a thrill for me that The Bark will be featuring some of these posts on its website. We hope you will join us for this incredible ride.