98: At Your Service

98: At Your Service

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

At Your Service

Fun fact: When formal guide dog training began in Switzerland in the 1920s, all of the dogs trained were female German Shepherds.

Recently, I went to the movies with my husband and two daughters. It was the first time we were able to go on this kind of seemingly commonplace family outing, and it was made possible in large part by a sable-colored German Shepherd named Teddy.

Teddy came into our lives about a year ago at eight weeks old, ready to be trained as an autism service dog for my nine-year-old daughter. Training began the first day we brought Teddy home. There were the basics, of course, with housebreaking, crate training, the good-boy list, and the no-no list. And then there was the bonding list. Bonding would involve my daughter interacting with Teddy by feeding, grooming, or snuggling with him, among other things.

When she allowed Teddy to snuggle contentedly on her lap for an unheard-of twenty minutes during his first week in our home, we were amazed and hopeful. Maybe this wouldn’t be as hard as we’d thought.

No such luck.

My daughter often struggles with doing anything new. If we had so much as a different-looking workbook page in homeschool, she would have a meltdown, and it could take as long as three days to get her to do it calmly.

So it was with her bonding tasks. Initially, it was a meltdown just waiting to happen. But after a few months, my daughter began to accept the dog. Now she will calmly correct Teddy if he doesn’t listen when she tells him to sit. And she can bathe him without gagging at the texture of his soapy fur, laughing as he shakes water all over her. She seems to walk taller and more confidently with Teddy by her side.

The first formal class Teddy attended introduced him to the most important and oftentimes most difficult lesson a service dog can learn: to lie down and wait calmly until released, no matter what. Young as he was, though, Teddy’s energy was quickly expended, and soon he began to use class time to take a nap. Many times, he had to be woken to take his turn at a task!

From that point on, obedience and socialization were the name of the game. As Teddy learned a few commands, my daughter gained a greater rapport with him. Puppy nipping had made my daughter wary of much interaction with Teddy for a time, but his new and improving manners did a lot to help restore my daughter’s confidence, and she learned how to politely tell him no. My daughter began doing her “reading aloud time” with Teddy snuggling by her on the couch. To further increase their bond, she worked while tethered to him as she sat at the table for school.

Teddy went out with us as much as possible. Now there were new rules for him to obey. No personal grooming, scratching, or shaking in public. No sniffing, particularly at any food. No eating any food from the floor or offered by strangers. Only greet people when given permission. I started with low-traffic stores that had little to no food around to tempt him. From there, we worked our way up to grocery shopping and, finally, restaurants. Although Teddy was not always perfect, his eager-to-please disposition helped us greatly with teaching and correcting him. I was often surprised at how easily he handled new situations and stressors.

I have been amazed at the difference Teddy has made in my daughter’s life. One day, while running errands, my daughter was tired and resisted going into a store. She was pulling me toward the door and getting louder by the second. I quickly found an empty aisle and had her sit on the floor with Teddy for a moment. He leaned against her side, their preferred method of deep pressure. After about a minute, she began to calm and pet him. I asked if she was ready to continue, and she said she was. Just like that. Nothing had ever worked so quickly to calm her in the past. What could have become a major meltdown was alleviated in a minute. Not only did she complete the errand after that, but she was laughing and happy.

After this first year in training, my daughter is already so much calmer about dealing with loud noises with Teddy around. In the past, we have barely succeeded in getting my daughter to enter a theater because of the loudness. This time, she went in confidently with no hesitation. Despite this being Teddy’s first experience, he didn’t hesitate either. At one point during the movie, I moved Teddy down to a lower step from where we were sitting, thinking he was squishing my daughter’s legs. My daughter responded to this by moving onto the floor to sit beside him. I got the message. She wanted him touching her. She needed that reassurance. I felt hope blossoming more fully in me as I saw one of my dreams realized in the wonder of having the whole family together at the movies.

For months after the event, my daughter still talked about her experience at the movies, often saying, “What’s your favorite movie?” — her way of asking us to guess her favorite movie. And what movie did we see that is now her favorite? It is called Max, about a boy and a German Shepherd.

~Kristin Stuckmyer

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