Monday, June 30, 2008

We've got the dog - Now What?

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, Charlie is currently in training to become a fully certified public access service animal.   What that means is that Charlie is still very much a puppy with lots of puppy behavior to overcome and we're participating in a large part of his training.

When Patty from North Star first suggested that Charlie might come live with us during this part of his training, I have to admit that I panicked.  I've never had a puppy nor have I ever endeavored to train an animal so I feared that I'd subject Charlie to all sorts of mis-steps and faux paws (tee hee) which would ultimately un-do some of the great work accomplished by Judy the NJ puppy trainer.   (See my first post for more on Judy.)

Patty sensed my anxiety and assured me that we'd get as much support as we could possibly need, both from the folks at North Star and from a local trainer.  I'm happy to report that she followed through on her assurances.

Shortly before Charlie arrived, Patty arranged for us to work with Wendy Krehbiel of Tell-a-Tail dog training based in Livermore, CA.  Wendy has been great and extremely accommodating.  In fact, when we first spoke on the phone I mentioned to her that I wasn't certain how Tim would react to having a dog in the house.  Wendy immediately proposed a trial visit with one of her own golden retrievers a few days before Charlie was to arrive.  It was a great idea and served to be the perfect initiation for Tim.  Check out this pic of Tim with Wendy's Zachary. 

Then, a mere three days later, Wendy came by on the very day that Charlie arrived just to make sure we had some essentials down.  The first few days were a little nerve wracking -  but with some basic advice from Wendy, and some encouragement from the North Star team, Charlie managed things like a champ.

Since that first weekend, Wendy has met me weekly, both at home and out in public, for hands on training sessions with Charlie.  It's been incredibly productive and we've been able to make great progress on a variety of commands.  I've even got him "doing his business" in a designated area in our yard and we're getting close to getting him to pee on command only.  (It's pretty amazing.)  We're also enrolled in one of Wendy's Family Dog group training sessions run through the Pleasanton Parks and Recreation department.

Wendy's approach is clinical.   She has a solid background in basic Skinner psychology which is as effective in training animals as it is with kids.  In addition, she has made herself completely available to us, often sending e-mails or calling just to check in to see how things are going.   I get the sense that she's as excited about training Charlie (and us) as we are about having Charlie.

Perhaps the most important aspect about Wendy is her eagerness to work with my autistic kid.  She was very candid about her level of experience with special needs kids and earnestly seeks out my advice on the best manner to engage Tim.  She's got lots of ideas about ways to teach Tim to work with Charlie and ways to teach Charlie to serve Tim.  Her attitude and commitment have given us a great deal of confidence.

Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the constant support that we get from the folks at North Star.  I routinely swap e-mails with several of the members of the North Star team and they often provide us with training suggestions or other information specific to Charlie.   In addition, the Director of the foundation is coming for a placement visit next month to check in and make sure things are going well.  To date, we really feel as though this whole dog thing has been a very collaborative and positive experience thanks to all of the folks who have been working so diligently with us.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Dash and Splash

One of the best parts about becoming a North Star family is getting the opportunity to meet new people and experience things we never imagined.  Thanks to our brilliant trainer (her name is Wendy Krehbiel and she runs the dog training business known as Tell-a-Tail ... more about her in another post) we were introduced to the sport of dock jumping up in Pittsburg, California.  

If you want to see instinctive dog behavior unleashed, check out dock jumping.  Some of these pups were amazing - soaring off the dock like flying squirrels and then happily belly flopping into the bay.  It was quite a sight.  Check out some of these flying fidos:

This little shepherd dog was absolutely possessed!  Check out this shot of him going after his bait:

We all enjoyed it - Wendy even offered to take Charlie out for a dip but I think he preferred to hang out on the dock with Tim and Andy.

Of course, Charlie was not the only reluctant jumper.  Check out this guy who desperately wanted that toy but just couldn't get his head around taking the plunge:

The fabulous Wendy was actually the emcee of the entire event and she made a point to make sure that we all enjoyed ourselves.  She even debuted Charlie to the crowd explaining that he was a service dog in training.  (I get the sense that Charlie and Wendy are bonding ... she just has better cookies than I do!)

Most importantly, Tim really seemed to enjoy watching the dogs leap into the bay.  Although we weren't able to stay to see the finals, we did manage to see two of Wendy's own dogs take the plunge.  Check out Renegade hurling himself off the dock:

It was a really fun family outing and I'm sure we'll go again.  For more information, check out Splash Dogs.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

An Interesting Podcast

I was surfing around the web today and stumbled across a website called which has a link to a recent interview of Patty Dobbs Gross (the Executive Director of the North Star Foundation.)  It's extremely informational and Patty did a great job explaining the mission of North Star.  If you have a few minutes, it's a worthwhile listen!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

People Are Noticing

So by now, everyone who knows us knows that we've really fallen in love with Charlie and the magical effect he's had on Tim.   What I haven't been so sure of is whether or not anyone else could see the magic.  Well, yesterday it was confirmed.  

Tim attends summer school 5 days a week (in our county all special ed students automatically go to summer school to avoid regression.)   Today when I went to pick him up from school, Charlie joined me and we waited patiently on the lawn in front of the school for Tim's aide to escort him out.   When Tim spotted us he lit up and pulled his aide over to us.  As usual, he started bestowing all his love and affection on Charlie while Charlie obligingly sat there and loved him right back.  Seeing this happen, the savvy aides were very quick to jump in and start asking questions to Tim about his dog.  He told them his name and then gave some commands to Charlie (sit down - Charlie was already sitting but who cares - Tim was talking!!!)

Amid this little joyous moment the summertime school principal approached me and admonished me for having a dog on campus.  I apologized and quickly removed Tim and Charlie from the lawn and loaded the crew into the car.  

I'll admit that I stewed a bit on the way home but I understand her position and I really don't want to be one of those annoying dog people who thinks that the rules don't apply to them (although it's easy to forget that with the WONDERDOG.  Eventually Charlie will be certified for full public access but until then he's just an assistance dog in training and is not technically accorded full access.)   By the time I got home, I was over it and just determined to leave Charlie home for future pick ups.

Shortly after arriving home, the phone rang and the caller ID indicated it was the School District calling.  Oh boy, I thought, here we go.  (In my house, calls from the school district are never good news.)  I answered and it was Tim's summer school teacher - a woman I'd only known for less than 2 days.  She explained that she was so excited by Tim's response to Charlie at pick up time, and so disappointed by the principal's position on dogs, that she had taken it upon herself to reach out to another autism teacher in our district to figure out a plan to use Charlie in working toward Tim's language goals.  Together they devised a plan where I  will bring Charlie to edge of school property and she will walk Tim out to us about 10 minutes before school ends so that we can all have a mini language session, facilitated by her, where Tim talks about Charlie.   After I got over the shock of such a positive call from the school, I was thrilled.

Of course, this whole experience says as much about Tim's teacher as it does about Charlie.   She obviously understands Charlie's purpose and wants to take full advantage of the teaching moments that he provides.  I'm just thankful that someone else sees what we've been seeing - the truly magical effect that Charlie is having on Tim. 

Monday, June 23, 2008

Charlie & Keira Take on Manhattan

Judy, the magnificent puppy trainer, has a friend, Eric, who happens to be a magnificent film maker.  He's been kind enough to supply me with a link to a little movie he made about Keira & Charlie visiting the Dachshund Festival in Manhattan this spring. Check it out:

The Protocol of P**

At the risk of delving into what might be considered vulgar territory, I need to ponder a bit about some of the less desirable attributes of dog ownership.  While walking Charlie late on a lovely Northern California evening, he stopped for a "constitutional" right on the sidewalk.  Of course I was prepared for this (I pride myself on being a very responsible dog owner.)  Certainly no one argues that in the event of a #2 stop it befalls on the owner to remove the offensive matter.  However after attending to Charlie's product that lovely night, I found myself wondering is there a protocol for pee?  

Although he's been with us less than a month, I have found myself in the vexing circumstance where my angelic dog suddenly squats on a neighbor's lawn.  I must shamefully admit that I typically mutter various encouragements to hurry along and then scurry out of the area as quickly as possible.  Is there a critical step here that I'm missing?  Am I obligated to carry some type of squirt bottle to alleviate the inevitable circle of burned out grass that follows a visit from a dog?  Please comment if you have advice on this.  

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What Does an Autism Dog Do?

If there's one thing I've discovered about having a service animal with you, it's that it is impossible to get far without being stopped by an admiring passerby.  I find myself wondering if Charlie wasn't wearing his identifying "work vest", would people be as intrigued?  Nevertheless, when we are stopped the questions are almost always the same:  1.  is it ok to pet the dog?  and 2.  what does an autism service dog do?

So the first answer is always yes.  It's ok to pet the pooch.  Eventually the answer will be yes but only if he's in a sit or down-stay position.   He's still a puppy so our success rate on that little practice leaves much room for improvement.  Suffice it to say, we're working on it.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complex.  I think it fair to assume that many people think of service animals as animals who perform service related tricks like opening doors, turning on lights, or making cheesecake (see the dogs of New Skete for that last reference.)  An autism service animal is as unique as the child it serves.  Because autism is a spectrum disorder and every person on the spectrum presents with a unique set of behaviors/symptoms/deficits/etc., each service animal is trained for a specific child.  By way of example, many children with autism are "runners" meaning that they have a tendency to wander or run off without warning and often with the tenacity of a small freight train.  In that case a service animal may be trained to come between the dog and a road - essentially a herding function - to keep the child out of harm's way and within range of his caretaker.

Being that Tim is a child of few words (he has very little language) and, consequently, limited social skills, Charlie the service animal serves two main functions:  to present socialization and language opportunities.   From the first meeting between Tim and Charlie the power of the animal-kid relationship was apparent.  Tim expressed so much interest in Charlie and such prolonged engagement - something that we haven't seen with his peers.  Charlie responds well to Tim's attention and returns it in kind with tail wags, nose nudges, and paw taps. 

We've also experienced what Patty Dobbs Gross (Director of the North Star Foundation) describes as the magnetic effect of a well trained dog.  Charlie is truly a force of nature in that we are constantly stopped and asked the same questions.  For a kid like Tim, this is a great opportunity to practice language with a high rate of success by repeatedly answering the repetitive questions (i.e. "what's your dog's name?", "may I pet your dog?",  "how old is he?", etc.)


All that aside, for us the most exciting part of having an autism service dog has been hearing Tim's voice as he talks to Charlie.  I'm sure it sounds a bit hokey but Tim has spoken more to Charlie than we've heard him speak to a peer.  For us, this is thrilling and we're optimistic that this recent burst of "dog talk" will soon become a generalized skill for Tim.  Until then, we're just going to enjoy watching Tim and Charlie bond like old friends.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Charlie's Trip to Santa Cruz ... sort of ....

So today was supposed to be Charlie's first exposure to the distinctive California surf culture found only in Santa Cruz.  After trekking the 50 miles of highways and roads through the Santa Cruz mountains, we arrived at our favorite beach, Seacliff, about 5 miles south of Santa Cruz.    Within minutes of our arrival at the ranger's booth, we were awestruck by an incredible force of nature just out to sea - lightning bolts splitting the sky just seemed to appear out of nowhere.  Thus, in the interest of avoiding some type of freak electrocution, we opted to u-turn right out of there and head back home.  

The consolation prize for my disappointed kid was a stop off at the San Jose airport to do some jet watching (one of his favorite pastimes.)  

To our delight, Charlie seemed to enjoy the outing with us and didn't complain once about being denied a trip to the beach.    Maybe we'll try again tomorrow.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Every Dog Has His Blog

To all those who dare to explore this indulgent little spot, meet Charlie.  Charlie:  this is everyone.    Charlie took up residence with our family in Northern California a mere 3 weeks ago and since about day 2, I have had this inexplicable desire to blather on and on about him to any audience I could find (some of whom I'm certain were completely captive and desperately seeking a polite conversation exit strategy.)

Some say that timing is everything and I recently befriended a zealous blogger (see  I'm most certain that without her acquaintance, this blog would not have been born and I would continue to bore countless unwitting victims with endless drivel and excruciating detail about our life with this happy puppy.  So to those of you that have been spared, direct your gratitude to Shannon.

On to the subject of this blog.  While Charlie's good looks are patently obvious, it is his lesser known qualities that make this canine a very special animal.  Charlie is an assistance dog in training.  He was provided to us by the lovely folks at the North Star Foundation.  This wonderful organization breeds, trains, and places service animals with families of children who have autism.  Turns out that my kid is one of the lucky ones who is just beginning his North Star story and Charlie is his increasingly loyal servant.

First a quick history about Chuck:  He was born in Dec 2007 in Connecticut while in the care of Patty Dobbs Gross, the founder and executive director of North Star.   Then in February Charlie and several of his litter mates were sent to various puppy trainers.   Charlie was lucky enough to relocate to the loving home of puppy trainer extraordinaire, Judy of New Jersey.  (More on her later.)   Check out Charlie and some of his siblings on their trip out of Connecticut to New Jersey.

The next several months found Charlie living with Judy and her accommodating long haired dachshund, Keira.  I don't know exactly how she does it, but Ms. Judy apparently has magical powers over animals and she turned Charlie into a wonderful puppy.  She spent several months training him in the basic canine niceties (i.e. housebreaking, basic commands, and keeping his paws off people and furniture.)  In addition, because Charlie had been selected for my kid, she spent loads of time socializing Charlie in situations that mimic many of the daily routines of my son.  As a result, Charlie is very comfortable and polite around kids, schools, and other dogs.  (As an added bonus, Charlie enjoys occasional trips to various coffee shops which works well for me.) 

 Here's a pic of Charlie with Judy's Dachsie, Keira:

Here's another one of the marvelous Judy with Charlie the day before she gave him up to send him to us:

So, back to the point of this blog.  Now that Charlie is with us, I have a huge desire to obtain information, ask questions, share stories, and simply comment on my observations about life with this dog and on life with a service animal.  This is where I hope all of that will happen.