My autistic son Andy is 10 years old and is non verbal. My wife had been suggesting a dog in our home would have lots of benefits, not only for Andy but for the whole family. We also have a 12 year old son and a 9 year old daughter.
We investigated the possibility of a specially trained autism support dog but found this to be almost impossible to obtain here in Scotland. To be honest I had concerns about the whole idea. What if it didn’t work out? What about the mess and extra work? I am happy to admit that much of the time I was coming from the perspective of a stressed out and tired parent/ Carer. Each stage in supporting Andy had been a real challenge and we had just emerged from an ultimately successful but exhausting toilet training period.
Andy’s Carer had introduced Andy to her retriever and under her supervision he had made progress. From being initially very unsure he was now comfortable around this large dog and he and his Carer had started walking with the retriever. With great patience, Andy was making progress and the social and physical benefits to him were starting to emerge.
Despite my pessimism my wife began making plans and researching about which dog might be best for our family. Together with Andy’s Carer and her dog the transition work began. A large cuddly toy dog arrived in our home with a bed , food and water bowls and a lead. Andy’s Carer’s dog became a regular visitor and accompanied them on outings and walks.
Jenny’s research had pointed to a Labrador and she had located a couple of possibilities. Again, I moaned about more toilet training that a puppy would require and remained unsure generally.
A reputable breeder emerged and Jen was particularly keen due to the fact that the household was one with several young children in it. This she hoped would help the pups be used to having noisy and unpredictable young children around. Jenny discussed this with the mum in the breeder family and she was very receptive to this. She prompted her kids to stim around the puppy, explaining the purpose to her own kids.
Andy’s Carer continued the transition work , modelling life with a dog using the toy dog and of course her own retriever. Social stories with lots of pictures were used with Andy. A safe space for the dog to have his sleep was emphasised with Andy, using do not disturb pictorial signs.
Jen visited the breeder , met the pregnant bitch and had more discussions. We paid a deposit and it all became very real, especially for me. The doubts I harboured made a last ditch and concerted effort. Jen stood firm.
A healthy litter of half a dozen pups arrived and soon after Jen and Andy’s Carer went to visit. They selected our dog as one that appeared particularly relaxed about being handled. Oh and he was the cutest! (They were all cute ) The mum at the breeders agreed to keep our pup a week or so longer than the normal weaning period to fit in with our plans around a short break. This would then allow us a long and uninterrupted settling in period at home.
We visited the breeder’s home with Andy and the other kids, but Andy refused to get out of the car. This is not uncommon with Andy who struggles greatly with new places and situations. We decided not to force the issue in any way to avoid any negative feelings related to our new arrival.
We all redoubled our efforts in the final lead up period, talking about the new pup and using the cuddly toy dog to model the events that were to unfold. We settled on a name – Bailey- as Andy , though non verbal could produce a B sound. We also liked the name!
The day finally came and Bailey arrived. We did our best to contain the excitement and all behave as normally as possible. Bailey won our hearts immediately. He was gentle but playful. We attempted to let Andy and Bailey interact on their own terms – slowly, cautiously checking each other out. It was a slow burner but all positive and that was fine by us. Bailey was and still is a very quiet dog , who very rarely barks and this certainly helped. Andy’s habit of carrying finger food around with him also helped their early bonding! They began sharing space and experiences more and more.
Andy appeared to really enjoy this engagement that did not involve uncomfortable social intrusion like eye contact and overwhelming questions or demands. Bailey took the spotlight from Andy and that was very agreeable to him. Another major characteristic of their engagement was humour. Andy found Bailey very amusing and still does to this day. He is open to interactions with Bailey at all times, even when waking up. They hang out together during the day. They cuddle up in the evenings. They go in the car together. They are quite simply best friends.
Oh and guess what? Bailey has changed my life. I walk him most days and miss him when away at work. He sleeps on our bed and he makes our whole family complete.