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Doggie Boot Camp, Day 12. Dog is my co-pilot.

May 20, 2013

When we last left our plucky pooch Merrows and her fortunate but frazzled family, they were about to take the Service Dog Public Access Test.  Would they prevail against the forces of evil distractions such as cute 3-year-old girls carrying corn dogs?  Or perhaps another canine with their majestic mien and seductive scent?  Would the rear of their handler’s vehicle provide them any roadblock to redemption?

Amateur alliteration aside (thankfully), Friday was Merrows and Kat’s final exam.  (I’m two days late with this because I was feeling crummy.  Keep reading.)  After a week and a half of practice, it was time for them to perform.  And did they.  Kat shepherded Merrows through her paces at the local mall, including an extended “down” in the ever-so-tempting food court.  Neither reported the slightest difficulty.  Kat wisely stacked the deck in her favor with some of Merrows’ favorite doggie treats–a product called “Bil-Jac”, which oddly looks like clumps of browned ground beef–but isn’t exactly.  Whatever…it worked just fine to motivate Merrows to be the most obedient and calm canine she could be.

It was an easier day for me, too.  Still left juggling the hand grenade with the missing pin otherwise known as Alex, I was left in charge of packing up our hotel room with him, while Drew and Kat were off at the mall.  This, too, required some juggling, as every time I attempted to run something out to the car, Alex wanted to come with and protested loudly in the only efficient way he could lately–whining and punching himself in the head.  Ugh.  I worked fast.

When Kat texted me with word that all was well and that we could come by the mall to pick them up, I dropped what I was doing and did just that.  The next step in the process of certifying the newest service animal on the block was filling out many forms and other bits of paperwork.  Some were typical, others a little different.  We had to certify that we would never take Merrows to any ‘dog park’ or similar gathering of a whole bunch of recently cooped-up-and-now-set-free dogs in a relatively small space.  Sounded sensible to us.  With the time and money invested in our Merrows, it seemed to make perfect sense to shield her from any undue risk.  Kat did a lot of signing.

By 2:30pm, each of the dogs and their handlers had made it back to the training center for the grand graduation ceremony.  There, Karen Shirk, the founder of 4 Paws for Ability, gave a very nice talk about all the service animals and just how special they are.  Another treat was to see almost all of the kind men and women who had given of their time and energy (and homes) to foster our dogs.

‘Tori’ was the sweet young lady who cared for and worked with Merrows since she was 5 months old.  She shared with us a beautiful bound book of photographs and memories of her time spend with Merrows.  It was easy to see the bond they had forged together, for as soon as Merrows heard Tori address her, Merrows immediately “sat”, then smiled and wagged that long, soft and bushy tail of hers back and forth.  Tori was happy for us, but we could see it was a bittersweet time for her, too.  We promised that we would pick up where she left off, and that Alex’s life will be forever better with her sweet girl Merrows in it.

Around the big training room each of the families sat.  Jeremy, the director of training at 4 Paws, passed around a microphone for each representative of the family to say a few words.  It was very touching to watch and hear the fondness that each dog’s presence had made in the recipient child’s life already.

I was born of two very passionate parents.  My Mom and Dad have never shied away from letting their feelings out.  So, when the microphone was handed to me, a wave of emotion spilled out of me.  Mr. Cool, the guy I usually thought I was, was replaced by Mr. Blubbering Sap.  I choked up as I introduced my family and especially Alex.  By now, all of the other families have seen of Alex what my family and I see of him every day.  When he’s “on”, he’s really a charming little guy.  When he’s pissed off, give him plenty of space.

So when I tried to coax some intelligible words into the mic, I wound up rambling.  What I meant to say is that although Alex and Merrows are not yet fast friends, I am certain that her presence will indeed bring them closer and closer together.  And this, eventually, will have a profound positive impact on his quality of life.  I know this.

I also spoke of the simple reason we were fortunate to be there at the training center in the first place.  Some of you probably know the story.  Kat had a dear friend named Barb.  Barb was a longtime public school teacher–very modest, but extremely dedicated.  She never had children of her own but she doted over both Drew and Alex–even when he was a fussy newborn.  Barb developed cancer, which quickly spread.  Knowing that she had little time left in this world, Barb dreamed of leaving a lasting legacy behind if she could.  She knew of our longtime wishes for a service dog, but also the long waiting period–if we qualified for one at all.  Barb put up all the money for Merrows and then some.  Barb died this past February.  In lieu of flowers, she asked for donations to be sent directly to 4 Paws For Ability.  Barb is proof that there are angels that come to earth for a few years to do beautiful things before they head back upstairs for the rest of eternity.  Thank you again, Barb.

I finished blubbering and passed the microphone along.  By now, Alex had enough of being inside (we’d only been inside for 10 minutes or so), so I headed outside again with him.  I’ve been doing this most of the time in the 12 days we spent at the training center.  Me with Alex in the playground.  Or with him walking down the street to the bridge to watch the water flow over the rocks.  Or standing next to him as he sat in our car and had a snack, or poked at his iPad or, on more than a few occasions, thrashed around in protest while wearing his protective helmet.  I grew especially weary of that.

Unfortunately, while I was outside, I missed the class picture.  You know, the one where every family and their pooch squeeze together while cameras attempt to capture the scene.  At least Kat and Drew were there with Merrows.  But I felt it kind of ironic that Alex, the kid desperately needing the dog, was too bent out of shape to be still enough to come inside and have his picture taken.

By 4pm all dogs had been christened Certified Service Animals and received tags on their leashes that said just that.  Each was given a bright red vest to wear with a patch on it from 4 Paws and the words “Service Dog” affixed.  One by one, each dog trotted out with their charges; Fiesta with Maggie, Vectra with Shawn, Focus with Seth, Meatball with Coby, Twingo with Brandon, Zephyr with Ty, Mr. Pibb with Chase, Camaro with Damien, YoYo with Lilly, Georgie with Kara and finally Merrows with Alex.

I hugged Kat and whispered in her ear, “Let’s start this new chapter in our lives now.”

We loaded up, punched our destination into the GPS and headed out.  Although we had carefully carved out a big open spot for Merrows to lay in the back of the car, she ultimately wound up hurtling the rear seatback and snuggling between Drew and Alex, her snout resting on the armrest between Kat and I.  Westward we rolled.

We rested for the night in suburban Indianapolis at my brother’s home.  Good thing, too, because Alex was not enjoying his time in the car.  We couldn’t put our finger on exactly what was upsetting him so much during this entire journey, but never had we seen him so upset for so long.  Historically, Alex has done surprisingly well in our cars.  And we’ve learned by experience that any trip longer than 5 hours is asking for trouble.  Still, Alex would begin to whine in as little as 15 minutes.  It was a long two and a half hours to Indy that night.

Same thing the next day on our final stretch back home in the Chicago area.  The constant din of Alex’s whining, the occasional smack of his fist against his head, or whack of his helmet against the window were never completely ameliorated with food, drink, book, diaper or iPad–his usual salves.  It required I dig deep into a mostly dry reservoir for patience and solitude lest I aim for the nearest cliff to drive us all off (kidding!).  Eventually we made it home to a lawn desperately in need of mowing and a refrigerator desperately lacking beer.  But we made it.

Today marked the first “regular” day at home with Merrows.  Kat took her and Drew to the local nursery to practice a typical run to the store.  I stayed back with Alex.  We went to his favorite playground and swung swung swung again and again on the swings.  Later we played show and tell with some relatives and practiced tracking around the neighborhood.  Merrows was the star of the show, as usual.

Alex was better, but not quite where he was over two weeks ago, before we started this journey.  Tomorrow is back to school and its’ familiar routine for him.  Alas, the rest of his school year will not be with Merrows at his side.  In Friday’s commencement address, Karen Shirk had mentioned how she did not want any dog going to school until the school had handlers that were as well-trained as we are now.  This made complete sense, especially given that Merrows and Alex are not quite peas and carrots yet.  It’s gonna take some time for Kat and I to verify the proper support in the classroom not just for Alex, but for Merrows too.  I laugh now, but I was incredibly naive to think Merrows was just gonna hop on the bus with Alex in the morning.  What did I know?  Nothing.  What do I know now?  Just a little bit more than nothing.

As I mentioned in a previous post, we really do have another child in our home.  It’s up to us to raise it as best we can, to correct when necessary and to keep safe.  Merrows is fitting in wonderfully–she’s so easy to love.  At this very moment, she is asleep only a few feet away.  When I get up to go to bed, she will rise and follow me.  Eventually she will sleep with Alex, but not just yet.  She will attach herself to him, and hopefully vice-versa.  She will be the good, faithful co-pilot that Alex needs for a long, safe flight.

From → Alex, Autism, Family Stuff

  1. Barb Clark permalink

    All of your accounts of your family at 4Paws have been fantastic!! I feel so privileged to have been a small part of the training. It was wonderful meeting the very special families that make having a special needs child seem normal. All of you have my deepest love and hope that the newest member of your family is all you hoped!! I still wish that all of you lived near each other…the boys played so well together!! Drew is an awesome young man and so is Alex!!! I look forward to following their progress as well as you and Kat & of course, Merrows! Have a great summer!’

  2. Lots of luck to you all! I’ve been following your blog; we were in the June 2012 class. My son Zachary’s SD is Twinkie. I enjoy reading about other family’s experiences. Coming home with an SD is indeed akin to bringing home a new baby…really more like a toddler. It’s a ton of work but so worth it! Zach loves Twinkie, and she loves him! 🙂 Twinkie has made such an impact on Zachary’s life and ours; we wouldn’t trade her for the world and can’t imagine our world without her in it.

    Here’s the link to to their FB page if you’d like to follow them…in all of your spare time, of course!! LOL

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