About two years ago we got an assistance dog, a golden retriever named Stitch, for MJ and SJ (see my last post for an explanation of the initials). A lot of people ask questions about Stitch, so here’s a post with all the details. I’ll cover our story, the reasons why we got Stitch, and how it’s working out. I’ll provide some other references at the end. Throughout the post, I’ll refer to Stitch as an “assistance” dog although others may use the terms “therapy” or “companion” dog. Any of these could apply to Stitch. This post will probably get a little long. You’ve been warned!
How It Started
About three years ago, my wife attended a workshop on autism put on by a the State Department of Education. She happened to sit near a teacher who worked in the autism program in our school district. They talked a lot and the teacher told my wife about an assistance dog that one of her students just got. My wife immediately took to the idea and began looking into the organization that placed the dog with the student.
My wife makes decisions easily, and it was probably that same night that she told me that she wanted to get an assistance dog for our boys. My first thought was “What a crazy idea. How could a dog be of any assistance to someone on the autism spectrum.” My second thought was “This is just another angle to overcome my resistance to getting a dog”. You should know that we’ve been married long enough for me to know better than to say my first or second thoughts out loud. I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure that I expressed my doubts about the benefits and the additional work of having a dog. The boys were both diagnosed within the previous year and this seemed like the time to simplify, not complicate our lives.
My wife continued doing her research and within a week or so she had a printed information and video tape from the foundation the teacher mentioned. She read the material, watched the video and I could tell that her desire to get a dog for the boys was growing. I reluctantly sat down one evening to read the material. Within 10 minutes, I was convinced that we should get a dog. It was clear to me that the woman who ran the foundation knew autism and knew dogs. Her view of autism was very holistic and very focused on the needs of the autistic person. Her knowledge of dogs was extensive and included training, breeding, and placements for children with disabilities. She was not presenting a dog as either an intervention or a cure. I still find it hard to describe the perspective that I had as I read the materials and watched the tape. I remember knowing, almost intuitively, that this was a good thing, a really good thing. There was aboslutely no downside, other than some additional work and the cost. It simply felt right.
The Reasons Why
During our initial discussions, the foundation director encouraged us to think through our reasons for wanting a dog. We set out three objectives for an assistance dog:
- Help MJ calm down when he became frustrated, had a meltdown, or was anxious or agitated for any reason.
- Be a bridge to other children socially. Dogs often draw children and we hoped that the boys would benefit from increased opportunity for social interaction.
- Help us find SJ when he ‘disappeared’. When he was younger, SJ would sometimes leave the house when we weren’t looking (We quickly installed hooks on the screen doors, out of his reach). While that stopped, he would still sometimes isolate himself and not respond when called. We would eventually find him, contentedly sitting in the bottom of a closed closet, under a bed, behind some furniture, in the garage, or somewhere similar. We had been through enough panic that the idea of a dog to help find him sounded great.
How It Worked Out
To be objective, I’ll compare how things worked out with our objectives and then describe some of the unexpected benefits and challenges.
- Help MJ calm down – This worked out better than we had hoped. MJ was excited about getting Stitch and the two connected from the start. Unfortunately for MJ, the frequency and intensity of his meltdowns, anxiety and agitation got much worse before it got better. Stitch is critical part in working through these crisis. When he’s upset, MJ will lie on the floor and hug Stitch . The benefit seems to be primarily due to his emotional connection to Stitch, but I suspect the tactile experience of touching Stitch is calming as well. There are now far fewer metltdowns, but there are periods where MJ just needs to be with Stitch.
- Be a social bridge – This did not turn out to be as much of a benefit as we had hoped. It has increased the quantity of social interaction, and has had an impact on the quality of interaction, but in a different way than we expected. It’s helped MJ become more articulate and clear spoken, but hasn’t really increased the connection with peers. There are times when Stitch helps the boys connect with peers but the benefit is strongest there are other connections as well. In hindsight, our objective here may have been somewhat misdirected. Expecting the nature of the interactions to change was not really appropriate.
- Find SJ – fortunately, by the time we got Stitch, about 15 months after our decision, the need for finding SJ had almost disappeared. Nonetheless, we did lots of training and practicing, with SJ intentionally hiding and my wife or I giving Stitch the command to “Find SJ”. He always did.
Unexpected Benefits and Challenges
Stitch received a good deal of training before we got him and we continued to work with a local trainer afterwards. MJ was very involved, attended all the classes, lead Stitch through most of the exercises and practiced at home. He was proud of his role in the training and he had the opportunity to enjoy satisfaction in his success. This was a huge benefit, and we used it as an opportunity to both celebrate and further develop MJ’s skills.
Stitch is definitely a social bridge for the family. Stitch gets lots of attention in public, especially when we are at an event centered around Autism. When Stitch spent some time with us at the ASA conference in Providence this summer, we rarely walked more than 30 feet without stopping for someone. There have been numerous opportunities in which everyone in the family has shared some extra attention because of Stitch.
While Stitch was very easy to train, he did like to leave the yard and roam the neighborhood. Neither the command “Come” or treats were enough to get him to return. This lead to a lot of frustration and quite a few back yard baths after Stitch rolled around the mud. We had to put up an “invisible fence” to keep him in the yard. MJ watched the training videos did almost all the training himself, under mom’s supervision. Stitch learned very quickly and has only left the yard once since we put up the fence.
I admit to feeling somewhat uncomfortable taking Stitch into public places that do not usually permit dogs. Stitch’s role is very different from that of a dog assisting someone with a physical disability, and it is rarely a necessity to have Stitch along with us. There is no visibile indications to others that the boys need any type of assistance, although Stitch does wear a ‘saddle’ that says “Assistance Dog”. We don’t take Stitch to many public places and when we do, I’m always expecting someone to say, “You can’t bring the dog here.” It’s never happened to me but I’m still not completely comfortable having Stitch with us in some places.
Interstingly, as much as MJ is connected to Stitch, he does not want Stitch to sleep in his room. They cuddle before bedtime but, when it is time to go to sleep, Stitch has to leave. I think that it is completely a sensory issue for MJ. It’s certainly not a problem for us, but it was a surprise the first time MJ wanted Stitch to leave.
The bottom line is that I would do it again in a heartbeat. I did not grow up having dogs as pets, so I’m not necessarily enamored with having a dog as part of the family. Despite this, I recognize that Stitch has been an incredibly positive addition to the family. We are all better for it.
If You’re Thinking About a Dog
We got Stitch through the North Star Foundation. The director, Patty Dobbs Gross, recently wrote a book called The Golden Bridge: A Guide to Assistance Dogs for Children Challenged By Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities. I haven’t read it yet but I’ve been impressed with Patty’s knowledge and approach since I first read her materials. There are links to other organizations that place assistance dogs on the North Star site.
I’ll offer a little advice if your considering a dog. First, breeding is the single most important factor. Patty once said that breeding accounted for about 95% of the important characteristics of the dog. Second, make sure that your expectations for the dog, your capability for training, and the role of organization providing the dog are all in sync. There are a lot of different ideas about what an assistance dog is, how much they are trained, and what their role is. You need to make sure that you have the same expectations as the organization with which you work. It’s not necessarily the crazy idea that I initaly thought it was. Yes dear, you were right!