Monday, June 21, 2010

Why dogs have been the greatest therapy yet...

The only other 'therapeutic intervention' that worked as well as the dogs is the recent addition of Art Therapy--my son LOVES being creative and is doing so well & is so comfortable it's hard for the therapist to see his Asperger's traits (other than sensory processing disorder).  On to the pet therapy..

My son had been begging for a dog for quite some time. We had a few Betta fish & gold fish over the years. My sister has 2 dogs that my son adores (except the one that bites his ankles). My son adores my cousin's police-academy-reject German Shepherd. Several of our neighbors had dogs. So one hot April morning we were out and about and spontaneously I asked my son if he wanted to take a trip to the county animal shelter. (Of course the answer was a resounding yet). I called to get directions from our location and their hours. When we arrived several of the dogs were out at a PetSmart adoption fair.  There were some large dogs and some loud dogs (neither appropriate for condo/apartment living).  The dog we found on the shelter's petfinder website was no longer considered suitable for adoption due to illness. My son was disappointed.  The one mid sized dog was very strong and didn't seem right for us.  The staff knew of a couple of dogs that were out at the adoption fair. The young girl helping us didn't know who had been adopted and who would be coming back. Even though it was close to closing time, they offered to allow us to wait until the adoption van returned.

So we waited. My son checked out the cats. I reminded him that I am highly allergic to cats so that would be a really bad idea.

And we waited. Another tech came out and looked us over, she thought that one of the dogs would be perfect for us. She just knew. Even though she had just been returned by another family the other day, the management felt that an unsupervised toddler was the problem, not the dog.

Then the van arrived.  The tech excitedly came back and said that the Puggle was still available.  What on earth is a Puggle? She explained that a Puggle was a Pug-Beagle mixed breed. Small to medium sized. Lots of energy. And then I saw her, tail between her legs. She looked a little sad. We were told her name is Laurelei. The volunteer walked the dog over, and my son turned around. It was love at first sight. The Puggle's tail started wagging and she looked like she was smiling. The techs took us into the adoption room.

She said they had her as a stray. They weren't sure but they couldn't get her to play.  She brought a tennis ball in.  I sat on the couch. My son stood up. The dog in the middle. My son bounced the ball. The dog jumped up happily and snagged the ball and jumped in my lap. I tossed the ball back to my son and the cycle repeated.  My son giggled pure joy. The dog wagged her tail like there was no tumorrow.

The shelter tech looked at me and said, "I'm really sorry, but it seems that you have been adopted." My son's face lit up.

It all happened so fast. They found a collar & leash and a kennel so we could safely take her in the car. I filled out the paperwork. My son sat with the dog. And then she was ours... After we put the kennel in the back seat, my son said she looked uncomfortable. So he put his PRIZED favorite baby blanket in the cage with her. (Now that was a surprise!)

My son excitedly called my mom to tell her. Mom asked to speak to me, "Are you freeking crazy?!?" I told her wait and see. We met her at Petco (we had nothing for the dog). She took one look at my son's face and the dog's face, shook her head and said "Okay I see what you mean." Mom-dar at work, my gut told me this was a wonderful thing. Then my son said "Oh, and her name is Roxie."

Now it wasn't always rainbows & sunshine. This dog caused a few severe panic attacks in my son, like when she got off the leash & tried to go swimming in my mom's in ground pool. Or when she shredded my son's stuffed animal. But it's been much more good than bad. Even school called to find out what changed at home because my son was so different in school.  He woke me up at 6AM so we could walk the dog in our PJ's. Took responsibility to make sure she had food & water.  He even started writing her name on his homework & classwork pages instead of his own. His happiness increased 100 fold.

Coming over to help walk Roxie in the morning while I got ready for work & my son got ready for school became a therapeutic routine for my mother. She had something to look forward to each morning. (a huge breakthrough for my mom since she was totally devastated by losing my father in 2008) And Roxie loved to walk with her. My mom even said that walking Roxie helped with her anxiety & sadness.

Then my son started saying that I needed a small dog to carry in my purse. (Have no idea where that came from.) It was a joke between us. Since Roxie was "his" dog, I needed a dog too.  Whatever. We live in a small 2BR condo.  Flash Forward to August 2009...

We had to go to the pet store to get more food. A local rescue group was outside with dogs & cats for adoption. Of course we had to check them out. We found Oscar, the one eyed Chihuahua.  It was the end of the day and I was asked if I'd be willing to foster Oscar for a couple of weeks until the rescue had another adoption fair. Since our Roxie was adopted from the county animal shelter (and they have strict standards) and I was able to give a vet reference, the rescue manager gave us the go ahead. Oh boy. The timid Chihuahua was excited. They loaned us a cage and off we went. Roixe had no problem with Oscar, though she is more playful than he.  Unfortunately Oscar develped kennel cough and started losing weight. The rescue gave us medication, advice on how to get him to eat. We confirmed with our vet that Roxie was not at risk since she had her vaccine several months ago. Poor Oscar couldn't walk more than a few feet without coughing up a storm. My son was heartbroken at his suffering. He made sure Oscar had all he needed. He carefully carried him so he wouldn't have to walk so far to go to the bathroom. Comforted him after he needed a fluid bolus for mild dehydration. We kept him 5 weeks as a foster and it was time.  Oscar was now healthy. We decided to keep him but we had to bring both dogs so the rescue could see that they got along. 

It was funny when we broke down the rescue cage, Oscar dragged his bed on top of the cage as if to say "please don't make me leave".  The rescue was impressed not only how well the dogs got along, but how friendly Oscar turned out to be. (Most chihuahua's don't like children & are one-person dogs)

Since Roxie is younger & more energetic, she is great to run around the block with. Oscar is more of a couch potato. So my son started to read to Oscar. And Oscar would just lay there with his head on my son's shoulder and listen.  My son's reading skills advanced by more than a grade level.  Oscar is good to lay on my son's lap or snuggle in bed with him. Roxie has lots of energy. She is great to play fetch with and just be silly together. The physical therapist even "prescribed" that my son has to play tug-of-war with Roxie to increase his core strength.

From these dogs my son has made many gains. He has increased his empathy and sympathy. He has learned to be more patient and tolerant. He has learned to share better. He beams with pride when classmates get excited over his dogs when I pick him up from school.  He understands now that it is okay for them to pet the dog, because Roxie loves him and they are going home together.  His mood has been much brighter. His outlook has broadened.  It's kind of funny when my son lays on the dog bed with Roxie and shows her the games he is playing on his netbook.

In turn the dogs seem to watch out for my son, we jokingly call them the muttly crew. This year as a "Christmas Present" we purchased passes for the county off-leash dog park. (see photo at right). My son gets excited to watch Roxie run full speed trying to race the big dogs. (She usually tires them out & wins. Her only "loss" was to a greyhound & a Great Dane.) My son cracks up trying to get Oscar to run after him. He thinks it's hilarious that Oscar walks around trying to get someone to pick him up & carry him rather than exercise.  Oscar has taken to following my son around lately.  My son asks why, I tell him it's because he tastes like chicken. (And my son eats A LOT of chicken).  Oscar's tail starts wagging when I say "Bed time, Blue".  He follows my son upstairs so he can snuggle in my son's bed.  Sometimes my son is cranky and doesn't want to be bothered, but he usually softens when the dog starts following him. He realizes that the dogs love him no matter what.

At school, his 1:1 age has realized that if my son gets writer's block then ask him about his animals.  Unfortunately he is rather obsessive about his dogs & animals in general.  More unfortunately the aide has decided she's tired of hearing about the animals so she tries to steer him away from writing/talking about the dogs. Which then causes my son to be more likely to shut down & start ignoring staff and by default no work gets done.

My son is proud of his dogs. He loves when people stop us on walks to ask about them.  He is much better at letting others check out the dogs & pet them.  He has a few books about Puggles & Chihuaha's so he can learn as much as he can.  He loves watching Dogs 101 on The Animal Planet. I think he's watched the episode on designer dogs 100 times!  He likes to collect items to donate to the rescue group and the county animal shelter. (It helps that the mom of one of his Cub Scout buddies is the manager at the county animal shelter.)  Even if he goes into a situation where he would be overwhelmed, if there is a dog in sight all is well. Having these dogs has helped with some of his social skill deficits--the dogs are an opening to meet and talk with new people. Both are cute (if I do say so myself) so they often attract attention.  They are good sensory tools since they are warm, weighted, and really soft. My son has learned more about responsibility and empathy. He has even started 'preparing' the dogs for vet visits (reminding them when we are going, what will happen and that it will all be okay).

While he has shut down & ignored teachers & other therapists. He always makes time for the dogs. He laughs a lot more because of the dogs. He talks more because of the dogs (even if it is about the dogs).  He has drastically improved is reading out loud. (The dogs don't criticize they just love him & (usually) listen.) The dogs have even helped my mom to heal a bit from my dad's suffering & dying. (I strongly suspect that she has had many conversations with Roxie, but Roxie won't tell me what she has said. :) 

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