How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Service Dog
I want to introduce you all to my constant companion, third child, and the best life partner I have ever had: Sedna St. Rila (here ever after known as Pup or Princess Fluffbutt). When a friend of mine had surprise(!) puppies, I honestly felt drawn to having one. I have cats, and wasn’t looking for a pup, but the cats are on the back side of their teens and not likely to be with me much longer. They do many things for me around the house, wake me up with the alarm, assure I get up, snuggle with me when I’m low, pester me to sanitize my surroundings and theirs–all of which is very useful for a beautiful rainbow like myself. Problem is, they aren’t big enough to demand I wake on time, stubborn enough to help me when I really need it, or allowed to go with me into the jaws of my daily life.
Why Not Get Help?
So, I started doing the research into getting and training a service dog. Guess what? I really could get help for some of the daily life things that were exhausting me. Maybe you can, too.
The problem with being an aging autistic is that all those reserves of energy I burnt up in my 20s, 30s, and 40s trying to have a “normal” life are simply not there anymore. I reach burnout faster, stay there longer, and recover slower. Unexpected blows to my stress response can trigger a rapid spiral, and a complete withdrawal from life.
I am determined to have a life at this point, but not at the cost of my health. Frankly, I’m frightened at just how much my life might shrink over the next decade if I don’t find a way to help me conserve my energy. Enter the service dog, and hope.
Pup is being trained to help me engage with people, so I have a way to make approaches. She has been trained to “say hi” on command. People are much more likely to wait for me to stutter out requests, and then be open/receptive to them with Princess Fluffbutt wagging her fuzzy tail at them and licking their hands. It helps. A lot. I’m not longer terrified of asking anyone anything, and I am a different (less disabled) person when out and about. On top of emboldening, the ability to ask folks for what you need means I don’t sit and stew and tie myself up in anxiety knots knowing I need to ask for something, wondering if it is safe, scripting and rescripting how to phrase my request. That alone saves scads of wasted energy. In the course of this, she also has a very good sense for who we should and shouldn’t trust. There are very few people she hasn’t wanted around us, but when this does happen, I don’t waste time or effort trying to figure it out, we just leave.
Deep Pressure Therapy (the BEST weighted blanket, EVER!)
She also provides deep pressure therapy when we are out, and the sensory environment is too rich for us. She leans against my legs, sits or stands on my feet, and will lean across my lap if things are really bad. This has also been a huge revelation and help. I always have support now, and I don’t have to wait to go places with another person to get it. Talk about liberating!
We are working on light protection duties. She is well on her way here, but it will take some time before she gains enough maturity and wisdom to do this part well. She is to provide a barrier, so folks don’t approach or touch me without consent/warning.
As a massage therapist, sometimes my clients feel very familiar with me, and think I would be okay with a tap on the shoulder or a surprise hug. They don’t always know that I don’t recognize faces and their approach is, in the moment, the same as a complete stranger’s would be. Pup is also getting to know all our people, and lets me know who is from our pack when I can’t place them–this is also a process, so stay tuned on how this part of our training goes. She is easily distracted, overly cautious, and high energy right now because of her puppy status, but I’m hoping this all settles in as she grows and I can rely on her for this as well.
Yeah, But Why a Malamute?!
A lot of people are curious about my choice, and I think the Universe provided the perfect companion for my needs. She is high energy, yes, all the better for me to get out and move my body, too–I can’t wait until she is grown enough to pull my bike or run alongside. She is stubborn, but if she weren’t she wouldn’t be able to tell me when the sensory overload has reached critical mass (something we are also working toward), and that it is time to leave. I’m pretty stubborn, too, so a less than obstinate companion would not be able to do their job well–plus I just wouldn’t respect her if she was a push over. She loves to pull–all the better if I reach meltdown/overload and need to get to an exit quickly. She is big enough to provide good pressure and make others approach carefully.
Kicking Off a Series of Articles
I’m going to be blogging here about my adventures with her, because I need a space to put down and process some of the things we encounter on a daily basis.
Finding the information I needed to move forward with this process was truly hard to find. Some organizations out there have financial interest in getting you to think that you can’t train your own dog, so we will talk about the options and the actual legal requirements. There are a few legal requirements, and people like to talk tough, so knowing your rights and responsibilities is essential to beginning this process. I’m happy to share what took me hours to figure out.
There are good and bad training suggestions out there, and I’m hoping my take on some of them with help someone else doing the research for themselves. I will likely review some YouTube channels, books and blogs to help you teach yourself how to to right by your new helper. I’m not a training expert, but I am autistic–which means I’ve done some work I’m happy to share with you.
You can always purchase a service dog from an organization, they come mostly trained and ready, but at a huge expense (unless you are lucky enough to win a lottery). Still, if you have patience, and can invest the time researching and learning to train your partner yourself, I highly recommend you do so.
We will talk about getting and training a dog yourself at length as well–how to decide what characteristics you will need in a helper, some resources for task and work ideas that may help your selection process, and then some good advice on how to pick your specific companion.
Why Raising Your Puppy Might Be Best
For those struggling with issues that are primarily psychological in nature (e.g.: PTSD, anxiety disorders, bipolar, autism, etc.), you really should get a puppy and raise them up from the beginning, with the partners tethered together 24 – 7.
The dog will naturally learn to recognize when the handler needs help, and they can work through the rough spots together as they arise. Also, bonding will take place that will encourage this sort of partnership to develop naturally.
Now, that is what I am doing, and there is a reason that I’m starting the chronicles of our adventures together after we have spent about 6 months together, and the majority of her infancy has passed. It is HARD work to manage your disability, raise a puppy, research how to train, and work that training. So take that into consideration, and make sure everything in your life can support this beautiful relationship and investment in your future. Things seem to be reaching a more even pace for us now, so I’m hoping to reach out and help some of the rest of you who might be searching for help.
Preview of Coming Attractions
What I will leave you with today is the thought that you CAN train your own service dog, and many of the folks reading my autistic blog probably SHOULD if they want this kind of partnership. My next installment will be about the legal requirements set aside for service animals through the ADA as administered by the Department of Justice. From there we’ll talk about ways a partner can mitigate disability symptoms, then expect some postings about training resources and selecting the right partner for you. Once those bases are covered, I hope to start talking about our daily adventures in regular installments.
Thanks for reading! Hope you’ll come back for more.