A New Leash on Life
Autism and service dogs aren’t often thought of as going together. One of the most common questions we get from people who see us in public with our fourteen year-old daughter, Abbi, and her service dog, Palua, is, “What does the dog do for her?” I’ll let you in on a little secret – it is what this dog has done for our whole family that is the amazing story.
As Abbi grew, her autism became more and more pronounced. Any break in routine would bring about anxiety and going out even to familiar places brought on an overload. Going to any store would reduce her to screaming on the floor. We left the house less and less. We stopped going anywhere as a family. We stopped vacations, shopping together, movies and even stopped going to church.
Then we heard about service animals working with autistic children. We had a dog at home for most of Abbi’s life. When she was overloaded, she would lay on the floor with the dog and just stroke her fur, resting her head on the dog’s shoulder, and this seemed to calm her. But we couldn’t take our dog out to the places we needed to go. Stores, restaurants and doctor’s offices are all “no dogs allowed” zones. We investigated several groups and finally contacted Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). After an initial application, an interview and a longer formal application, we were invited to participate in team training. This involved a two week in-residence classroom and field training where we learned the intricacies of service animals from canine psychology and first aid to mastering the more than 40 commands that the two-year-old dogs who were ready to be matched with recipients already know. After a final written exam and practical testing at a mall, we finally got public access certified!
But what does the dog do for Abbi? With CCI training, we became a 3 member team: the dog, Abbi (recipient) and facilitator (trained parent). Dogs trained by organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International follow strict guidelines in order to be public access certified. Surprisingly, not all service animals are. However, CCI dogs are taught to never pull on their leash and stay in the same place relative to the facilitator. Consistency and lack of unexpected stimuli are two positives for autistic people. The dog wears a vest with a handle. Abbi holds the handle and the facilitator holds the leash and gives commands to Palua. That handle becomes Abbi’s life line in the sea of chaos everyone else would recognize as a store, or loud restaurant.
Palua is always right where Abbi needs her to be; a constant, predictable and silent companion on the apprehensive voyage outside our home. Palua acts as a human bridge too, drawing people in to ask about the dog and this gives Abbi a chance to talk with them. Whereas without the dog, people would tend to stay away from the girl staring at the ground wearing rifle range ear protection. Palua also will, on command, put her upper body on Abbi’s lap and her face into Abbi’s, immediately arresting “self stim” behavior and provide some warm constant pressure. The dog will lay on Abbi until Abbi falls asleep and has learned to tell exactly when that is. Finally, Palua makes it possible for our whole family to do things together again and to regain some spontaneity and independence. A service dog is not a cure for Autism. But now, Abbi is the girl with the dog instead of a girl with Autism.
Eric Roman is a Bay Area native. He and his family have come to rely on the rich grass-roots support found in the East Bay for families of children with special needs.
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