Life with An Autism Service Dog, Part II

Wherein “kisses” are learned.
By Michelle O'Neil, October 2009

[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. 

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!

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