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.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Teaching Moments

Every day we have with Charlie seems to present another opportunity to teach Tim some type of life skill or concept.  Lately some of our most poignant teaching moments have been related to the concept of responsibility for another being.  

We've been trying to talk to Tim about taking caring for others and treating people with respect.  Recently we've opted to broaden this concept to include the routine care of his pal Charlie. 

Then he turned to Charlie, looked him in the eyes and said, "OK Charlie."  And then the dog happily gorged himself in that inimitable golden retriever way.

At first I thought that this was going to be a one time event and that the novelty of being the dog feeder would quickly wear off but I've been pleasantly surprised by his consistent attendance to this duty each night (I still feed Charlie in the morning.)   Aside from the positive impact this little routine has on Tim & Charlie's relationship, I'm really pleased with Tim's understanding of the need to take care of Charlie.  (Those of you in the A Club can certainly appreciate the difficulty in teaching compassion and empathy to an ASD kid.)  I can't wait until I can teach him about the responsibility of cleaning up after his dog!