Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Charlie's Night Before Christmas

T'was the night before Christmas and Tim lie in his bed,
hoping and dreaming of Santa's full sled.
But before he retired he had just one more chore,
he had to wrap a gift for a friend he adores.

The present was picked and ready to wrap, 
so he wrestled some tape and some paper and crap,

and with the help of his other best friend (Dad),
the final wrapped gift didn't look too bad!

Then to the tree with the package he went,
and stuffed, and crammed and gave it a dent.

Charlie watched on as the parcel was placed
sniffing and nosing as he curiously paced.

And then with a grin on his cute little mug,
Tim wished Charlie a Merry Christmas

and gave him a big hug.

May you all enjoy some love and kindness this Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Charlie's Sister

Through the magic of the internet, I have located Charlie's sister!  Meet Sassy and her boy Jack.  (She sure looks like Charlie doesn't she?  I bet some of you thought that was Charlie!)  Sassy is another North Star dog that lives with a boy near Portland, Oregon.  

I stumbled upon Sassy's blog (being kept by Jack's mom) and discovered that Sassy and Charlie were born on the same day!  Then I re-read my old e-mails from Patty at North Star and found one that mentioned that she had two North Star litters born on the same day.  Charlie and Sassy apparently share the same father (a dog named Huff).  I'm not sure if they have the same mother but it sure wouldn't surprise me in light of their uncanny resemblance.  (Take a peek at our Christmas card photo posted below (for my "virtual friends" please consider this your Christmas card!) and check out their likeness ... it's undeniable, right?)

Sassy and Jack's story is positive and inspiring and I am thrilled to have found another North Star blogger with whom to share stories and ideas.   As an added bonus, Jack's mom is an avid photographer so her blog is loaded with great pictures telling the story of Sassy's bond with Jack and his siblings.   (My personal favorite so far is a photo of Sassy hanging out with all four of "his kids" in front of the fireplace - LOVE THAT.)

When I borrowed the picture of Jack and Sassy to post on my blog, Tim sidled up behind me and immediately said, "that's Charlie."  (He also called Jack "Gabe" -  Gabe is one of Tim's best friends who just happens to have a slight resemblance to Jack but that's another story.)   Turned out to be a great opportunity to talk to Tim about siblings.  (Everything is a teaching opportunity, right?!)  

Friday, December 12, 2008

Decorating the Tree

Every year as we clean up our Thanksgiving mess I start nagging my husband about putting up a Christmas tree and every year he puts me off for at least a week.  So last week we packed everyone up and headed out to our local tree lot to select our very own holiday icon.

Charlie waited patiently in the car while we toured the lot in search of the perfect evergreen pyramid but when the tree man began securing our selection to the top of the car, Charlie unleashed his frustration.  I'm still not sure if the tree man tied up the tree in record time or if he was just a very seasoned tree loader, but let's just say that tree was up on the roof and secured in seconds.  

Once we got the tree home, Charlie wasn't quite sure what to make of it.  He sniffed and circled it, refusing to get within more than a nose-length of the tree.

Our grand plan was to erect and illuminate the tree while Tim was in school leaving the task of ornament placement for Tim.   All went well and Tim happily obliged us with his decorating sensibility (although I must admit to a certain density of decor at about the 4 foot level.)  Charlie was a curious and devoted design partner.  He watched intently as Tim placed each ornament and then dutifully sniffed each one as soon as Tim's hand released it.    
It was great fun to watch, particularly because this was the first year that Tim expressed so much interest in this particular holiday ritual.  Of course, the "boys" took periodic wrestling breaks (I swear these two act like brothers at times - they wrestle every day) ...

... but in the end, they made an excellent design team.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Happy Birthday Charlie!

One year ago today Charlie was just a warm little bundle of puppy loveliness and now ... he's a strapping 60+ pound loving companion to my kid.   I don't have any of his actual "baby" pictures but check out this one from the day he was delivered to Judy the Puppy Raiser Extraordinaire.   I think this was taken in early February.  (I think that the woman holding him is Sharon, another North Star Super Hero.)

We try to use every moment as a teaching moment so we've spent the last few days talking to Tim about Charlie's upcoming birthday.  Tim immediately mentioned "party" and "presents" (his two favorite things) so we decided to indulge Charlie a bit with a little family party.  We made three stops yesterday in the hunt for a doggie party hat and finally found one at Murphy's Paw. (Seems like a potential business opportunity here ... there are loads of costumes, holiday hats, sweaters, and other adornments for dogs but very few birthday hats.)

After scoring the perfect hat, we took a trip to our favorite Pet Food Express store where Tim selected a few new toys for his loyal servant.  Apparently, Tim knows his dog well as Charlie seems quite pleased with Tim's selections.  Tonight he'll be served a special treat of canned food (he'll go absolutely bonkers for this, literally walking around in circles in the kitchen until I put the bowl down on his place.)  After dinner we'll take a walk and then settle in all together and watch Tim's favorite golden retriever movie, "Snow Buddies."  Tonight, Charlie gets a spot up on the bed.  Happy Birthday buddy!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Guardian Charlie

One of the many services for which an autism service dog may be trained is safety.  Many A-club kids have a tendency to wander, or even run away from caretakers or safe locations.  A service dog can be trained to divert a runner and redirect him back to a caretaker or to a place of safety.  (Sort of like a herding function.)  Dogs may also be trained to get in between a child and a point of danger like a busy road or an approaching stranger.

I knew that safety was going to be an added benefit of having Charlie around but since we haven't formally endeavored to train any safety related behaviors yet, I didn't expect Charlie to have a particularly protective instinct.

Boy was I wrong.

Las weekend at 3:00 am while we all soundly slept, our doorbell started to ring. An absolutely ferocious barking snapped me out of my sub-conscious state of dreamy denial.  The next thing I knew, my husband and I were frantically whispering instructions to each other and peering out the windows into the darkness to discern what was happening. Inexplicably, Tim slept throughout the entire episode.

Knowing that people with good intentions don't generally show up unannounced on your doorstep at 3:00 am, (although I do recall one such incident with my brother many, many years back) I phoned the local police and asked if they would send a squad car to patrol our street.  They agreed. So there we stood, in our jammies, noses pressed to the window watching the patrol car cruise our street until eventually their scanning spotlights landed on three unfortunate young men whose big night out ended with a stay in Hotel PD. (According to the police officer, the young men were so inebriated that they may have actually been lost in the neighborhood.    Sorry for the buzz kill guys but you just can't come ringing our bell in the middle of the night!)

When our heart rates returned to more normal levels, we noticed that Charlie wasn't with us.  I don't know when he stopped barking but at some point during all the commotion, Charlie found his way to where Tim was sleeping and lay himself on the floor in between the door and the bed.  He wasn't sleeping.  In fact, he was in a position of full alert with his head raised and staring into the darkness for something ... anything.   It literally took our breath away.  

By 4:00 am the Sergeant called us to close out the incident and we made our way back to bed.  That night, Charlie earned a spot with us.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Model Behavior

Thanksgiving weekend at our house revolves around a few simple traditions:  loads of leftover turkey and hours spent untangling miles of light strings to be hung from every square inch of our house.  This is my favorite time of year and each year seems to be more fun than the last because of Tim's increasing understanding of and excitement about our holiday rituals.  

Most of our holiday decor adorns the front of our house so we all spent the better part of a chilly day sprawled out over the lawn, driveway and garage.  Charlie eagerly joined us and happily sniffed all of our kitsch.   

Of course I was thrilled to witness Tim's enthusiasm about this activity but what was really impressive was that Charlie remained off-leash without incident for the entire day.  Yes, off-leash in our front yard in this crazy state where everyone and all their brothers and sisters own at least one dog.  I attribute Charlie's compliance to Wendy the Trainer  who worked tirelessly with us on the "stay" command (I've learned that it's rarely the dog that can't be trained but the owner who doesn't really grasp the concept of consistency and reward.  ahem.)  Wendy also spent many sessions with us working on getting Charlie to ignore the distraction of other dogs.  (Wendy always makes a point to practice this skill with us at least once during all of our sessions.) 
I'm proud to say that Charlie was BRILLIANT all day and not once did he leave our property.  He was so well behaved that several folks actually crossed the street to admire him and compliment his extraordinary behavior.   And, as always, he obliged me with an appropriate photo to commemorate the day.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thankful, thankful, thankful

As I spent the better part of a day preparing a variety of traditional Thanksgiving delicacies (how the heck did the Pilgrims manage to make butternut squash soup?) and shooing a super sniffy Charlie from the kitchen, I started to think about just how thankful we are for so many things.  This being a blog about Charlie, I'll resist the temptation to give an Academy Awards type speech, but I do think it appropriate to spend a few lines here expressing our gratitude for Charlie.

Top 5 Reasons We're Grateful for Charlie

5.  The countless photo opportunities presented by this dog and my kid (this is perhaps the most selfish of things to be thankful for but I really do love snapping pix of these two together!)

4.  Charlie's unrestrained joy in receiving a scratch, pat, or snuggle from any of us;

3.  The opportunities to meet new people, whether in person or virtually, simply because they're interested in Charlie and his impact on my A Club boy;

2.  The motivation that Charlie gives Tim to speak; (Some might be surprised to see this in the #2 spot on this list.  After all, language is Tim's primary deficit.  We moved across country to put him into his current language based program. We've seen dozens of doctors, psychologists, neurologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, audiologists, technicians, teachers and other "magicians" all with the hope that they could make Tim speak.   We've changed how we speak to Tim and to each other all in an effort to help him turn on the part of his brain that creates speech.   And then along comes Charlie and Tim talks to him like an old pal.  Yes, we are definitely grateful for Charlie's impact on Tim's language.  But rather unexpectedly we discovered that we're most thankful for something else...)

1.  The friendship that Charlie non-judgmentally bestows upon Tim.  Until Charlie came along we were singularly focused on teaching Tim to speak thinking that this would be the ticket to normalcy for him.   But as we spent more time with Charlie, we discovered that Tim was getting something we hadn't bargained for ... a friend.  More than that ... a best friend.   I know that no matter how long Tim lives he'll always remember Charlie fondly because he loves him.  And when I think about all the things we want for Tim, we most want him to love and be loved.

So, Thanks Charlie.  (...there might just be a little turkey in your bowl later!)


Monday, November 24, 2008


See this little sucker?  Histiocytoma ... that's right.  A big fancy latin-ish word describing a benign tumor that appeared on the neck of our beloved Charlie.  After a full-on panic attack, I raced into our vet's office where they quickly dismissed my concerns and advised that this little blob will likely dissipate, without treatment, in the next 60 days.

Of course, they couldn't tell me anything about the blob without giving Charlie a quick little shave.   Charlie was not amused.  (See photo below.)   We're keeping a watch on the blob and will be certain to update Charlie's fans on his status.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pose Practice

It will come as no surprise that I've been plotting a particular photo set up for a holiday card photo this year and of course it includes Charlie.  We took some practice shots yesterday after Tim dutifully selected an appropriate chapeaux for Charlie at our favorite local pet shop.  (Tim's particularity in selecting items for Charlie always takes me aback.  We just about came to blows in the store when it momentarily appeared that Charlie's size was sold out.  Fortunately, a single large hat was tucked behind a row of mediums and thus, the meltdown was averted!)

Once again, Charlie demonstrated his mettle and graciously tolerated the humiliation.  For anyone expecting a holiday card this year, don't fret:  I'll be using a different photo!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Charlie with a Twist

One thing I've really enjoyed about California is the abundant agriculture - literally, surrounding us.   My absolute favorite thing about my overpriced California house is an enormous lemon tree that produces hundreds of lemons for us each year.  One thing I've really enjoyed about Charlie is watching him discover things for the first time.

Now that we're entering the lemon harvest season, Charlie's had an opportunity to discover this delightful fruit.

This little piece of citrus became a momentary plaything for Charlie until he picked it up in his mouth and then promptly spit it out.  (Apparently Charlie didn't care much for the tart sensation on his tongue!)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Owwweee for Charlie

Each week I happily post tales of Charlie the amazing hiking beast along with photos of him effortlessly conquering each pass, ridge, and stream.  Well, I'm sorry to report that Charlie's conquests have not been without a price.  On Monday night we discovered one of these on the wonderdog:

That there is the Brown Dog Tick commonly found in Northern California.  (Latin:  tickus-NASTY-cus;  Greek:  tickus-DISGUSTUS!)  Words cannot adequately describe exactly how vile this little creature is, particularly when embedded up to its armpits in the neck of your dog.  (I'm throwing up in my mouth as I re-live this.)  

Upon discovering this repugnant pest, an immediate search was undertaken to learn how to relieve Charlie of this parasite.   Within minutes we discovered an on-line video depicting the removal of a tick using a circular motion, culminating with the insect releasing the dog and "popping out" of the animal.  (Oh boy, here goes that gag reflex again ....)  

The voice on the video assured us that if we followed this procedure, Charlie would be bug free post haste.  However, the voice warned that it was imperative to remove the entire pest and not to leave the poisonous head in the body of your dog.  (... gag here ....)

So, armed with my best pair of eyebrow tweezers, Andy and I began the procedure with me wrestling a perplexed and very annoyed Charlie while Andy undertook the business of dizzying the bug.  After more than 5 minutes of massaging that little pest, Andy gave the body a little tug and out it came ... that is, out came the body.  (...gag ...)  The head (... gag ...) was still in Charlie.  (GAG, GAG, YAK!)

I spent the better part of that evening worrying about the damage I had done to Charlie first, by not locating the tick earlier, and second, by decapitating the pest while embedded in his neck.  However, a visit to my vet left me feeling relieved when he advised that there did not appear to be any infection and that the bug's head (... gag here ...) would work its way out.

Moral of this story?  Check your dog for ticks after every hike and if you find one, DON'T ask us for help in removing it.  

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Most Accommodating Dog Ever

Among the countless other things I love about Charlie, I have to say that his willingness to tolerate every bit of indignity we throw at him has to top the list.   It seems that he'll do just about anything for his pal Tim.  Only the best of friends would do this!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Best Friend

I think it's fair to assume that most A Club parents worry about the prospect of their children living a friend-less life.   Many of us enjoyed the bliss of toddler-hood reveling in the false security of arranged play dates and "manufactured inclusive fun" for our kids.  But as our kids age, their differences tend to naturally segregate them from their typical peers, cutting them out of social opportunities that, for typical kids, seem to be basic rites of passage.

So, what does any of this have to do with Charlie?  

Back when we first contacted North Star, it was our understanding that the primary purpose of an autism service dog would be to provide a bridge between Tim and typical peers.  Charlie is essentially a lure to typical kids, thereby creating opportunities for Tim to have social encounters and practice his language skills.  In a way, having Charlie at his side makes Tim the "Cool Kid" -  (surely everyone remembers the allure of that one kid in school who always had the cool stuff. )  While we've definitely witnessed the impact of Charlie on other kids, watching the evolution of Tim and Charlie's relationship has been far more compelling.  

This all struck me this afternoon while Tim played in the yard with Charlie.  He'd been disappointed earlier in the day when I explained that he wouldn't be able to see "the boys" (his little pack of blonde brit brothers) and then  moped outside.  It took less than a minute for Charlie to engage Tim and snap him out of his funk.  The two of them frolicked and played for nearly an hour before coming in for dinner.

I derive a great deal of comfort from watching Tim engage with Charlie.  But I was most moved when later that night I asked Tim who his best friend was. Without hesitation he replied, "Charlie."


Monday, October 27, 2008

Charlie and the Very BIG Dogs

In some ways, raising a puppy is very much like raising a child.  That is, it's just as important to expose a puppy to new sights and sounds as it is a child, in particular, an autistic child.  Those of us in the A Club can attest to the nightmare of unexpected sights, changes in routines, or unfamiliar sounds and the in-diffusible meltdowns that can accompany these things.   New experiences can elicit comparable negative behaviors in a dog.  

One of the things that we've been working on with Charlie is how to deal with new sights and distractions.  Of course, Wendy the Trainer provides loads of advice and strategies to expose Charlie to just about anything you could imagine (and if I was a little more diligent in my training efforts I'm certain that Charlie would be starring in a feature film by now.)  However, some of our best training occurs completely unintentionally, almost accidentally.  

Take this weekend for example.  We were out for a routine stroll in a nature preserve close to our home when we encountered several folks on horseback.  We've not taken Charlie anywhere near horses since he's been with us so we really didn't know what to expect.

In an attempt to minimize any agitation from Charlie, we encouraged Tim to speak to Charlie while we secured Charlie with a firm grip at the side of the trail.  We weren't sure how he'd react - frankly, I expected some barking and pulling - but  more than anything he just seemed curious. He watched intently as the animals forded the stream and then went back to chasing the rocks that Tim was tossing into the water.

I suppose this could have been a more eventful incident, particularly in light of Charlie's increasing size and teenager-esque tendencies of late.   At least now we know he's seen horses and next time we'll be a bit more confident about his reaction.  AND, we can check one more thing off the list of things for him to see.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Charlie the Hiking Dog

Anyone reading this chronicle of Charlie's work knows by now that we witness Charlie's influence on Tim just about every day.  Whether it's language development, social skills, empathy or otherwise, there's just no denying that Charlie has proved to be an invaluable tool in helping Tim find his way.

Now I think it's time that I add hiking to Charlie's list of positive influences on Tim.  

While we have always been eager to hike (particularly in CA - the views here really are extraordinary), hiking had become increasingly difficult with Tim as he insisted on being pushed in a converted bike trailer.  Of course, this limited where we could venture and as Tim grew, it became more difficult to push him up anything greater than a slight incline.

Then, along comes Charlie.

I don't know how or why it happened but as soon as Charlie started joining us on our hikes, Tim wanted nothing to do with the bike trailer.   In fact, on our first outing with Charlie, Tim squealed with delight as he watched Charlie scamper up the trail.   Seconds later Tim leapt out of the trailer and took off after him.   Since then we've been able to abandon the trailer and explore areas that were simply not accessible to us before.

These photos were taken on a hike we took a week ago at Del Valle.  It's a mildly steep climb up to an elevation of about 1500 feet.   The views are intoxicating.

 Charlie and Tim both managed the climb like seasoned hikers and seemed to motivate each other both up and down the trail.   Without Charlie I'm certain that these sights would remain unseen for us.   Yet just one more reason to praise the Wonderdog!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Charlie the Cycling Coach

When we moved to CA we purchased a bicycle for Tim thinking that the mild climate and numerous bike paths would entice Tim into a cycling life.  Like many of the other things that came with us from TX, the bike sat undisturbed in the garage for about two years.   Then, quite unexpectedly, Tim took an interest in his bike about a month ago and spent a considerable amount of time riding in circles around the garage.

While we were pleased at his newly discovered interest, we were eager to get him out of the garage and into the real cycling world.  Enter:  Charlie.  

We told Tim that we were going to take his bike and Charlie to a nearby park where they could "ride bikes" together.   He gamely agreed and immediately ambled up into his car seat while we loaded dog, bike, helmet, snacks, and dog gear into the car.

As soon as we arrived it was as though we'd been doing this for months.  Tim jumped onto his bike and Charlie kept pace with him for the entire ride.  In fact, I tried to use our outing as an opportunity to work on some skills with Charlie but he was so anxious to be with Tim that I opted to let him stay by Tim's side.  (I'm sure that Wendy the trainer will have something to say about this but I was so pleased to see the obvious bond that I just didn't have the heart to interrupt it!  After all, that is what we're ultimately trying to achieve!)

Tim obviously appreciated Charlie's support and has since made several cycling outings with Charlie by his side.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More Press for North Star & Charlie!

A few months ago Patty Dobbs Gross of the North Star Foundation sent me a note asking if I had any pictures of Charlie and Tim together that she could share with the folks at the AKC Gazette (the official magazine of the American Kennel Club.)  Being the shameless parent and dog owner that I am, I readily complied and sent terabytes of electronic files to her.   A few weeks later I learned that one of our pictures made the photo editor's cut and would be appearing in the magazine as a part of a story about autism service dogs.

The magazine was published last month and the article provides a view into the world of several families who have obtained service dogs for their autistic children.  It's worth reading but the highlight is most certainly the picture of Tim and Charlie on page 44.  My two boys are celebrities!!!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Hairy Problem

aAfter a few months of living with Charlie I was starting to think that we had gotten the first ever non-shedding golden retriever.  Then, just as I was about to gloat about the wonderdog and his ability to keep my house and clothing fur-free, the shedding began.   

It started innocently enough with the occasional appearance of a hair-bunny on the floor or in a hard to reach collection point like under a cabinet, or on the stairs.

Then I began noticing remnants of Charlie's downy coat on our clothes ...

... in my car ...

... on our furniture, and generally airborne all over the house.  It seemed as though every time I'd pet Charlie a small hair explosion occurred and we'd both be engulfed in a fuzzy golden mushroom cloud.

I mentioned this to Wendy the trainer and she suggested trying an undercoat rake to reduce some of the shedding.   Acting on her advice, I travelled to my favorite Pet Food Express store post haste in search of such a device.

The helpful folks at PFE convinced me to spend a whole lot of dough on a little gadget called a Furminator.  

After dropping fifty bucks on this draconian looking gadget I raced home to test it on my four legged furball.   I admit that I was skeptical at first.  However, a few strokes into the task I became a believer.  Check out the results of just  a few comb strokes down Charlie's back:

And that doesn't even include the skeins of fur on my sweater after completing this short grooming session.  It was truly shocking but I  have to believe that Charlie is more comfortable now that much of his undercoat has been removed ... at least for today anyway.  Until the process is complete (which I don't expect for a few months) I'm becoming more acquainted with another little gadget I picked up recently:

Fortunately these little gadgets are only a buck at Target!  I'll be buying them in bulk later this week.