Wednesday, June 8, 2011

8 month old Chunks, an Autism Assist Service Dog's Journey

 Chunks at his first Dog Powered outing.
 Sebago Brewery 5/3/2011

Eight month old Golden Retriever Chunks has been coming to Gooddogz Training classes  since he was  9 weeks old.  Chunks lives with his two autistic kids, and the hope is that he will be a service dog for one of them.  The family contacted me when they were considering adding a dog.  At that time  I advised them how difficult it is to train your own service dog and suggested they contact  service dogs organization like  NEADS in Ma.  Like many programs, NEADS requires that you train at their facility for a few  weeks prior to graduation for concentrated training.  It has been my experience that many working families with young kids cannot commit to this. It is especially difficult for busy parents.  I have had a few families try to train their own Autism Assist dog for their kids, and in all cases the families didn't realize just how much time and work was involved. Ultimately the dogs were not granted public access, but in all cases the dogs helped the children pretty much straight  away with  therapies, and especially sleep routines.  As a trainer, Mom,  and animal lover it is hugely rewarding to work with families and help them to utilize dogs to help kids.
The canine/human bond never ceases to amaze.

Chunk's family was set on getting and training their own puppy, and I was not successful in swaying them to get a trained dog from a  service dog organization.  The family was set,  and ready for,  and wanted a  puppy.  Many people do not want to wait the often 2 years for a trained service dog.  It should be noted here that most service dog organizations are much more affordable than people think,  and many have  funding available.

Many people who have met Chunks  have  asked me if it is  necessary for dogs to bond with special needs kids as puppies to be successful.  There are service dog organizations who place fully trained dogs with children and there are also organizations who introduce dogs to their  families at young ages.  Those dogs often spend huge quantities of time with their kids, and the transition is gradual from puppy raiser home to forever homes. Raising a dog for Autistic kids has it's challenges. One of the many challenges of a service dog for an autistic is child is that  many of the kids are prone to outbursts and dogs need to be  acclimated to often unpredictable behavior .  Bottom line is that you need a dog with a rock steady temperament, who is task trained, with a very high level of training and socialization. These are very big paws to fill and as with life, there are many paths that you could take to get to your ultimate destination.

I am not going to lie, Chunks is goofy. He is big and sweet and well, goofy!  Chunks' time in training classes  had up until very recently been spent mostly  socializing, and  teaching his Mom how to handle him and to teach and reach him .  I have offered to take Chunks for extended periods of time, but as is often the case, the dog is already an integral part of his kid's daily lives and routines.   Ideally I would like to see him leave his home for a bit for concentrated training, but all I can do is suggest it. Chunks is doing well, but a kid's service dog is a huge job and I can't stress enough how much training a dog would need to be successful.  (Of course I know his family is reading this!  *waves hello*)

I have written before about Dog Powered, a Maine  group of service dog owners who offer each other a lot of support. Dog Powered usually meets one time a month for training and a group outing.  I have been privileged to be a part of their group for several years now,  I have brought several of my client's service dogs, and have also helped them with their specialized training issues. This past Friday, I attended their monthly meeting with both of my  trainer hats on to  help the group with distraction training. I was  thrilled that Chunks could attend. Chunks' Mom dropped him off in the morning on her way to work, and  his Dad picked him up after lunch at his first restaurant outing at Sebago Brewing .  To say I was proud of Chunks would be an understatement.

Chunks started out goofy and within about 10 or fifteen minutes he was pretty chill and working.  I think the one thing that I will never forget (besides Friday the super cute Golden puppy), is that halfway through our meal, the staff seated AN INFANT at the next table.

That baby was so close to him that the diaper bag hit him in the butt!  All I could think of was "wow! we really fooled them!" But it wasn't that we fooled them, under Maine law Chunks had every right to be in the restaurant. He is like the big kid at the playground that everyone thinks is older and expects greater things of. Chunks held his down stay pretty much for the entire hour.   Chunks big thing (all dogs have something right?) is that he LOVES kids.  I could visualize him getting up and slurping that baby big time.  Of course I did not let that happen, but if  I was that Mom, I may  have asked for a different table. Among ourselves, we discussed moving Chunks, but we let it all play out and well, all well that ends well right?  Chunks did what all good service dogs are supposed to do in public, and  ignored  them.

Good boys Chunks and Tom

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