One of our dogs, "Annie," is a 5 year old border collie that we rescued when she was a year old. She was adopted to be a family pet, and we fell in love with her immediately! She had a very calm, loving personality, so the counselor in me quickly got the idea to train and certify her as a therapy dog. To clarify, therapy dogs do not provide a service to their owners - they go WITH their owner to places where people need comfort, love, and support - such as hospitals or nursing homes. So, Annie became certified as a Happy Tails therapy dog, and we joined a team of others, visiting various places. Annie loved this work, and she got very excited every time I asked her, "Are you a happy tail?!" She knew what that meant and headed to the car!
There's EARLY intervention, and then there's DOGGIE intervention
A few years after Annie joined our family, we also noticed that Annie would consistently go to Abby when she was overwhelmed and having a meltdown. During a meltdown, (which might be triggered by all sorts of things, but that's a different blog topic!), Abby would become very agitated, and would yell and pace throughout the house. She would often end up on the floor writhing around, obviously in extreme discomfort. Annie began going to her and literally climbing on top of her, or she would throw herself down against Abby very hard - amazingly, Abby would almost immediately start to calm down. She'd wrap her arms around Annie, and her breathing would start to slow down, while the agony on her face would slow melt away, transforming to relief. Annie's insight about what Abby needed was incredible. The reason this worked was because Annie was providing the therapeutic technique of deep pressure, which helps calm the sensory system. This technique was made famous by Temple Grandin,Ph.D., one of the most renowned autistics of our time.
We began using Annie regularly to intervene when Abby needed it, and eventually Abby would seek Annie out at the beginning of mounting stress. This resulted in fewer meltdowns and also helped Abby learn how to improve her own self-soothing skills. Although we mainly used Annie at home, we did register her as a service dog, so she would be able to accompany us in public, on occasion. Primarily, she would go to difficult appointments where Abby's sensory system was overloaded - like the doctor's office, and the dentist. Nowadays, Abby has matured and developed much better coping skills, and only needs Annie on rare occasions at home.
Unfortunately, when Annie was about four years old, she developed a mild from of canine epilepsy, and began taking medication every day. The side effects of the epilepsy and the meds caused Annie to become rather anxious, and we couldn't ask her to "work" anymore in public, so it was fortunate that Abby no longer needed her in public. Annie's personality really changed after the epilepsy diagnosis, and she became "snippier" with other dogs - she used to love playing with just about any other dog. Curious for some professional feedback, I took her to a canine class for "socially awkward dogs," hoping to get some feedback and advice. Would you believe that my aspie daughter's service dog got the award for "most socially awkward dog" in the class?! The trainer told us that Annie didn't read the body language of the other dogs appropriately, and that she sent out mixed social signals, making the other dogs uncomfortable around her. I just had to laugh because this sounded very familiar!
So, yes, my dog is an aspie! Abby was thrilled to hear it! Interestingly, my son, Aidan, also has a history of epilepsy, but he outgrew it right around the time Annie was diagnosed with epilepsy. He firmly believes that Annie took his burden from him. She is certainly the most loving and loyal companion a family could ask for!
Do you know anyone with an autistic service dog? Do you wish you had one? Send us your comments!
You might also like the "Ask Abby" video blog about Annie.