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Doggie Boot Camp, Day 1. The Tail Wags The Dog

May 7, 2013

Today was the day.  The day that was to usher in a new era of peace, love and understanding (sorry Mr. Costello) for my family and I–all courtesy of one big, soft, spry, gentle and all around sweet little golden retriever named Merrows.  For Kat, Drew, Alex and I, we’ve been hoping this time would come for many years.

I posted one photo of our introduction on my Facebook page.  (I haven’t yet embraced the ability to post one here–yet.  Sorry.)  The photo shows an eager Kat holding Alex on her lap as she sits cross-legged on the floor.  Alex’s left arm is outstretched, tentatively patting Merrows’ head.  A slightly blurred Merrows, she with the long, strawberry-tan fur, stands at attention, patiently letting Alex do so.  Alex is obviously smiling.  To the uninitiated, it would look like a budding friendship.  Wonderful.

If that is the only image that you reference of our first day here at Doggie Boot Camp, all the better.  The rest of Alex’s day at camp–and my day, for that matter–wasn’t so good.

The old, ADHD, crabby, uncomfortable, whining Alex showed up a few minutes later and didn’t really go away for the next 5 hours.  After meeting Merrows, Alex rose from Kat’s lap and wandered away.  One of Alex’s behaviours is to stand in a corner, or just with his back against any barrier, a wall, fence–and hunch over just a little, grunting.  This is Alex trying to poop.

Recall that Alex has historically had difficulty pooping.  He’s on a gluten-free diet, and we avoid giving him lactose as we’ve seen evidence of correlation between the two.  We mix soluble fiber and a little laxative into his liquids.  He might have decent bowel movements one day but for days in a row, just sticky little extrusions clinging to his butt cheeks.  He had several of these today.

Before I describe further the day’s events, let me set the scene on what Doggie Boot Camp looks like.  It’s held in a large, kind of tired looking old VFW hall.  Single story, grey brick and aluminum clad.  A big, fenced in parking lot and yard behind the place.  Inside, your nose tells you who lives here.  The distinctive scent of dogs is pungent.  Occasional barking–very occasional–these are very well-behaved animals here–can be heard behind a large sliding partition.  This is not a public veterinary clinic, though one is on staff and obviously busy.  At least 50 dogs are kept here most times, all in kennels with their names clearly labeled.  Good doggie names like Delmar and Merry and Clank.  These light beige boxes are sometimes stacked with the smaller breeds of dogs enjoying the higher perch.  Staff, mostly women, but at least a half-dozen men, walk around with purpose, attending to each of these creatures.  Whiteboards hang on the walls with little placards of the dogs carefully organized into columns.  File cabinets full of medical records are kept nearby and often referenced.  One gets the sense that this space is utilized as efficiently as possible.  Most not-for-profits tend to be.  It is clean, but not antiseptic.

As we walked into the building, we entered a large, open space ringed with folding chairs and, for those who grabbed them first, a few comfy, well-worn sofas.  All the families staked our a few places to sit.  Everyone is dressed casually.  Each family brought along the child receiving the dog, and in most cases, the other child siblings.  As I mentioned, we brought along Drew.  Behind the great circle of chairs were shelves full of toys, mini trampoline, a TV, a Wii video game console and lots of big, squishy play mats to help keep the kids occupied.

There were bagels and coffee.  Staff introductions were made.  Everyone was very cordial and welcoming.  If anything made me feel most reassured, it was the reaction of most of the parents to Alex.  You see, Alex likes to wander around.  Probably the ADHD working here, but Alex has no problem crawling onto complete stranger’s laps.  Or trying to wiggle behind someone who is obviously quite comfortably sitting on a soft couch.  Or gesturing to be picked up.  Or…just wandering.

And there is me, Helicopter Daddy, hovering close behind to grab Alex when he shatters that invisible personal space bubble that most ‘normal’ people have.  My apologies are quick and meek, “Sorry…c’mon Alex.  Let’s let them enjoy their coffee without you on their lap.”  Or something to that effect.  Most reactions were the same, “Oh, it’s no problem”, they would say calmly.  Which is likely true.  But it still stresses me out having to hover, chase, apologize.  All.  The.  Time.

Eventually, after a few minutes of introduction, each dog was led into the room by his/her trainer.  All are on leashes.  Wonderful, beautiful creatures.  All are about a year old at this point.  Retrievers, Golden and Labrador, some poodles and at least one German Shepard.  What seemed like a phalanx of photographers followed.  Usually it was just the parents, friends, and at least one staffer capturing the moment.  The children, each with different levels of ability, would respond in their own certain way.  All of the dogs were embraced.  It happened in a blur and was glorious.

And then the training began.  Time is not wasted here.  Class is from 9:30 to 4 each day.  Some days at the facility, other days at the mall, or the store, or the zoo.  All designed to allow the handler to learn to command and control the dog in as many varied public and private situations as possible.

I didn’t get to see much of this initial activity.  As I said, I was with Alex.  After a few minutes with Merrows, Alex decided that wandering around was much more to his liking, so off we went.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature chose to bring the rain today–a light but consistent variety.  One that required a raincoat and umbrella.  I came prepared with both.  But having to hold Alex while holding an umbrella got old fast.

And then the whining began.  I brought Alex back to the hotel for lunch.  Happy boy soon refreshed.  Then quiet, and what’s this?  Oh, just Alex offering his hand, full of feces.  He had decided to “dig” into his behind.  And then show me what he found.  Yay.  Shower time for him, and a change of clothes.  Newly attired, I headed back to camp with him.

But he wasn’t happy there.  More wandering.  Now the whining again.  Remember that Alex cannot easily be reasoned with.  His ‘receptive language’ is very good–meaning you can tell him something and he will probably understand what you said to him.  But that won’t always make him happy.  It certainly didn’t today.

Lightning-fast little hands, self-flagellating *smacks* as his fists would strike his head before I could block them.  On went his helmet.  Down came the tears.  Was he thirsty again?  No.  Hungry.  Nope.  Did he need a new diaper?  Usually, but if I changed Alex whenever he had a skid mark in his diaper, I’d be changing them every 15 minutes.  I’m just not that good.  We went for a short car ride, as that typically makes him feel better.  Not today.  We walked in the rain.  I carried him in my arms in the rain.  We ducked back into the back seat of the car to escape the rain.  I held him, I sang to him, I recited ‘Goodnight Moon‘, one of his favorite books, to him.  Nothing worked.

Finally, 4 pm rolled around.  Kat and Drew appeared at the car–Kat beaming.  “I did so well!” she said.  And this I did see.  Believe it or not, Kat is terrified by dogs.  She was mauled twice by dogs when she was a little child, and has feared them ever since.  So, no kidding, she just being in the same room with a dog is a grand accomplishment.  I was so proud of her.

Together, we climbed into the car.  Alex still wailing, wearing his helmet again, digging into his bottom some more, we drove back to the hotel.  There, I sighed, pulled down Alex’s pants and proceeded to change his diaper again.  “Maybe he’s impacted again?” wondered Kat.  I got her a latex glove and left her to do something that I am not at all skilled at.  Indeed, Kat found the impaction.  Lots and lots and lots of smelly, sticky impaction.  I will spare you any further details, though you, dear reader, are probably grossed out already.  Afterwards, Alex was fine.

I was bushed.  Before we went to bed, Kat and I thought about the day.  Kat thanked me profusely for allowing her to spend so much time with Merrows today–to bond with her just as I hoped she would.  She would be training Merrows most of our time down here, because of my traveling for work, she will be with Merrows the most.  Makes sense.  I’ll pick up what I need to know with Merrows, too, soon enough.

It dawned on me earlier this afternoon as I struggled to corral Alex.  The same simple, short, calm commands we will learn to use with Merrows are ones we have been trying to use with Alex.  I sighed deeply with this realization.  So far, our ability to be successful with Alex has been halting, in fits and starts, with what I see as only a little progress.  Knowing that it is probably a lot easier to teach a dog than it is to teach a child with autism doesn’t make me feel much better at the mountain we have to climb.  A ‘better place’ may indeed exist someplace far away for us, and the journey is long.  It begins with just one step, than many more.  Good thing I like to travel.  I’ll get moving.

Tomorrow will be better. Merrows, our sweet girl, will actually be joining us at our hotel for the rest of our stay.  And for the rest of her life.

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From → Alex, Autism, Family Stuff

One Comment
  1. I hope Alex’s tummy feels better soon. I know when it does, he will be able to focus on his new friend and will give you that great big smile that we all know and love!

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