Have you been wondering what it’s like to add an autism service dog to your family? There is a lot of information out there and as an organization who has been providing service dogs for over 12 years, we get a lot of questions from parents seeking answers. Service dogs are quite a big commitment and it’s important to do your research when beginning the process of seeking the addition of one of these amazing dogs to your family.
But what is it really like?
What is it like, putting aside all the “love at first sight” stories and the confusing web of information out there? To put things into perspective, we would like to use stories from our most recent delivery, Splash, the Doodle who just became Ty’s autism service dog.
Meeting Your Potential Service Dog
Puppies with the title “service dog candidate” must prove themselves and pass through many challenges along the way to becoming a full-fledged service dog. Before being matched with a family, a puppy must grow into several important qualities:
- Confidence – the key to success in countless situations
- Drive – the desire to do the job
- Proper Temperament – to offer assistance and become a cherished family member
Splash began his training in the spring of 2018, at just 8 weeks old. As a puppy, he excelled everywhere he went and was a pleasure to work with during his socialization period. We knew he had a strong mentality and a happy-go-lucky personality. As training progressed and his public outings and socialization became more and more challenging, his strong working nature ensured his ability to complete the task at hand. We were sure of it. He was passing through the program with flying colors.
What constitutes a perfect match?
In January of 2019 , we asked Ty’s mom to bring him down for a visit. With years of experience matching dogs to families, Splash gave us every reason to believe he would work amazingly for Ty as his autism service dog. An energetic little boy is a perfect match for a spunky Doodle that’s ready to take on the world.
Ty and his family made the trip and met Splash in person at our facility. Some would like you to believe that when the perfect match is made, sparks fly and music fills the air, just as in the movies. But in reality, the perfect match is made when we see a child who seems tolerant of the dog and a dog who is willing to approach the child and offer some love. This new relationship, like any relationship, requires work. From the beginning, there is going to be a lot of time and energy spent working toward the bonding between the service dog and child. It rarely happens when the two are instantly inseparable.
Reality was the case in Ty and Splash’s meeting. At first, Ty remained aloof to Splash’s existence. Afterall, he was in a completely different place with so much to look at! With guidance from his parents and brother, Ty began paying Splash a little attention and throughout the visit, everyone agreed Splash would be a good match. Capable of offering loving affection but strong-minded enough to work through Ty’s worst meltdowns, Splash offered the right stuff to encourage Ty’s parents to continue with the process.
The Foundation of the Relationship
After meeting its family, the service dog candidate begins specialized training for the needs of the child it will be working with. There are many different things a service dog must learn while in training.
- House manners – that means no counter surfing or sifting through the trash!
- House breaking – go potty outside
- Basic obedience – on leash control
- Advanced obedience – off leash control
- Tasks – the specialized skills that will offer aid to the service dog’s owner
- Environmental Stability – the ability to work in all areas of the public
- And much more!
For months, Splash worked on perfecting the tasks and skills he would need to specifically aid Ty. In June of 2019, he was ready to become a permanent part of Ty’s life. For four days, Carlos and Sherry, two of our service dog trainers, would spend long hours working with Ty’s family to ensure they are comfortable handling Splash and able to effectively use his skills to work with Ty.
Deliveries begin with the basics. As with anything, it is always sensible to start from the ground up. Though some other parts of the delivery may be more exciting, nothing could be accomplished without first learning the basics.
On day one, Ty’s parents started learning how to walk with Splash, instruct him to lay down, sit, stay. Basic control would be the foundation of their relationship with Splash and lead his role in the family to success. Typically, we ask that parents keep their children in school or with other relatives for the first day. Some families are surprised by this but when you think about it, it makes quite a bit of sense. When learning something new, it is best to learn without distractions. For the majority of parents, handling a service dog is a new skill they must acquire. Quickly. So, to start, one-on-one time between parents and their child’s new service dog proves to be most effective.
Settling into a New Life Together
After school, Ty and Splash took their first walk together. Nothing magical happened but it doesn’t have to. The first walk leads to a million more, the beginning of new habits, and growing tolerance of the new addition to the household.
Back at home, they started the process of settling in and bonding. This is the beginning of their new life together. It’s important for the new service dog to become comfortable in its new home. It’s also important for the child to become accepting of its new family member and partner. These take time and though I would like to tell you just how long, it differs from each person and dog. Some happen almost immediately, others take months or even a full year. I’ve learned through the experience of so many families we have delivered service dogs to that it is not fruitful to focus on how long it takes for perfection. But rather, celebrate in the small victories. When a child who refused to pet the dog reaches out and gently swipes the dog’s tail in passing for the first time, that is a moment to be ecstatic over, as it will lead to more and more steps in the right direction. Likewise, when a dog who bonds first to the parents travels to the child’s room on its own for the first time, it’s a cause for celebration. So begins the bonding process between Ty and Splash.
Incorporating the Service Dog to Build New Routines
For most parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their child’s needs and reactions to things shape every moment of their daily life. Every parent adopts routines and habits to build a safe and happy world for their child.
The addition of an autism service dog means that some of the old routine and old answers to problems need to be reworked. Not only is a service dog a loving companion, but also a tool to be used to mitigate the disability.
Ty has a history of meltdowns during moments of frustration. In order to help decrease the intensity of these meltdowns which could lead to physical harm, his mom would always get on the ground with him and hold him tight until he calmed down. As Ty grows, it may be impossible for his mother to accomplish this.
This is where Splash comes in. Splash was trained to lay over Ty as a form of deep pressure therapy using his body weight. When introducing a new answer to a situation, it can often be unnerving for many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. “Out with the old and in with the new” typically requires a transition period in order for the “new” to have the full effect we eventually want it to have. Routines can often be slow to shift but that is not a bad thing.
But here’s another reality. When new things such as service dogs are introduced, oftentimes negative behaviors can worsen for a short time. For example, during Splash’s delivery, Ty started to have a meltdown during a party. His mom did as she always had and held him tightly. But this time, Splash laid over both of them to also supply deep pressure. This new addition to the situation caused Ty to act out further and hit his mother during the process of a meltdown, something he had not done in a long time.
Does this mean that the service dog’s assistance only made things worse? No. It is simply something new that will require some getting used to. Shortly thereafter, Ty calmed down and, using hand-over-hand, Ty’s mother had him pet Splash to relax while Splash continued supplying calming deep pressure therapy.
Service Dogs are a Lifelong Commitment
During the delivery, the parents learn how to handle their child’s new service dog and maintain its training. Though the delivery must come to an end, the journey for the new service dog team just begins. Ty’s family understood the challenges they faced after the trainers left Splash with them and they were up to it! In a comment to Splash’s trainers after they had gone, Ty’s mom stated, “I don’t think people understand the commitment, but in the long run it’s worth it. We work hard training everyday! Splash is amazing and we are so happy he is part of our family.“
Families who have been through the process and utilize their service dogs daily followed along with updates of Splash’s delivery, offering encouraging and loving words:
In conclusion, when time frames and expectations are set aside, the magic of a service dog’s assistance can easily be seen through the small, daily progress made and the bond that grows through time and experience together. It may be hard work but they say “the best things in life dont’t come easy.” Are you up to the challenge?
If you have been thinking about adding a service dog to your family, we understand it can be an overwhelming task simply to get started. Research. Ask questions. Seek testimonies. And educate yourself on the definition of a service dog.
If you have any questions about autism service dogs and their benefits, let us know in the comments below!