Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dog tales part deux

In life we make many attempts. That's how we have success and make discoveries, but inevitably some end up in failures. The trick is to make decisions as best we can and take failures as lessons that help us progress and do better the next time around... Easier said than done!

When we chose Schatzie, our mini dachshund, in 2004, our criteria were simple because we were young and had no kids. We took our time, did lots of research, chose a breed and a breeder very carefully. And the result was an amazing success. When we chose Kimura the shiba inu, in 2012, however, our criteria were more strict and we went too fast and did it under the grief of Schatzie's death. We chose both the breed and the breeder poorly and it was a resounding failure... uh, I mean a valuable lesson!!

After months working with Kimura, we had to admit that the situation was not good for anybody and we had to make the very hard decision to find her a new home that would suit her better. Every dog had their strengths and weaknesses, but our main problem, and the one that turned out to be insurmountable, was to make Kimura understand the family hierarchy and to make her accept the fact that Cédric was a master and not another puppy, Cédric being more or less non-verbal and incapable of demonstrating his "dominance" over her.
So at the end of January, we parted from Kimura. The decision was very hard to make. I felt guilty for having made the wrong choice in the first place, for not doing more to improve the situation and for making Cédric go through another loss. I also felt cowardly for not trying longer and giving up, sad of losing this adorable little animal and of making her go through this separation and major change, and sad of ending up without a dog (for me and Dave but also for Cédric).
I really wanted a dog, because I love them, but also to keep Cédric company as he doesn't have siblings. But I promised myself (and Dave) not to make the same mistake again, and therefore not too make too fast a decision and to do everything to ensure that the next attempt would be a success.

It's an interesting fluke that in the fall, Dave heard of service dogs for autistic children!
After researching the topic, we were considering it even before deciding to re-home Kimura. The advantages reported by professionals, research and the families who have them are incredible! A service dog can provide:
- increased security: with the use of a tether, the dog can be attached to the child to prevent him from crossing the street without looking, getting lost at the mall or jumping in a lake or river;
- more independence: for the same reason as above, the child can walk a little further with his dog, without always having someone holding on to him;
- more socialization: the security and the independence allow more outings and therefore more opportunities to meet people and the presence of the dog is comforting and makes the social contact less scary;
- less hyperactivity: for some reason, the presence of these dogs calms children down;
- healthier sleep patterns: for those same (metaphysical :) ) reasons the dog, especially if he sleeps with the child, helps to regulate sleep patterns;
- reduced stress: in the child and the parents, studies show that the levels of hormones linked to stress lower significantly after acquiring a service dog;
- help with sensory needs: the child can pet and hug the dog and some dogs even lie of the children to provide deep pressure;
- less tantrums: the dog feels stress before it even manifests itself and calms the child down or warn a parent or adult of an imminent tantrum;
- protection against food allergens: the dog can be trained to sniff gluten or casein and to warn the parents of their presence;
- immeasurable friendship: even though the connection sometimes takes time to be established, in most cases, an incredible attachment develops between the dog and the child, for some stronger than with anyone else, even the parents, and the dog's name is sometimes one of the first words a non-verbal child utters.

I'll stop now, but I'm sure I'm forgetting some!

After realizing all that, it was difficult for Dave and I to imagine NOT getting Cédric and ourselves a service dog. But that too is easier said than done!

One option is too choose a very sweet and calm puppy and do it yourself. Some do it and I was very tempted, but Dave was worried about the amount of work ir represents and the possibility of failing. The second option is send an application to one of the charitable organizations who provide service dogs. There are two who serve our isolated little corner of Northern Ontario: National Service Dogs and the Lions Foundation of Canada Guide Dogs.

There are also a few associations in the US who ask applicants to raise funds to finance the dogs before receiving one.
And finally, there are simply paying services.

Even though it may seem strange at first, we chose the last option!
There are a number of reasons which motivated our choice:
- the approval was immediate: for the charitable services, an application must be sent, which can take time to be evaluated and might be refused;
- the dog will fully belong to us: the charitable organization retain legal ownership of the dog and can take him back at any point (I'm sure it's rare and justified when done, and I understand that it is a necessary precaution but the idea bothered me a little);
- the dog will stay with us for retirement: the charitable organizations can chose to place the dog with someone else and I find the idea really sad;
- the training will take place at home: the majority of services require a trip of a few days, without the child, to train whereas with the service we chose, the trainer will come to our hometown to introduce the dog to his new environment and train us;
- the dog will be custom-picked: most services, including the free ones, train a large quantity of dogs and choose the dog that works best with each parent or family at the time of training, whereas in our case, the dog will be chosen especially for our needs (size, temperament, etc.) and will also be trained for Cédric's specific needs;
- and finally, we will be able to pick the dog's name: it's a trivial aspect but it really matters to me, we already won't be able to pick the breed, the colour, the gender, ... because it is the need for a specific temperament that takes priority, so this will allow us to make the dog ours in one way before he even joins us (and it gives me something to do in the meantime... I already have a small list)!

So we chose the Thames Centre Service Dogs, located in Southern Ontario. The trainer has been working with dogs for a long time but she also has a son on the spectrum which motivated her to train service dogs. She only takes a few families at a time which makes it a faster more personalized approach. She also works with the local Ontario SPCA who allow her to give temperament tests to the dogs who seem to have the potential to become service dogs and to take them if they have the right personality, and the idea that the service dog might be a rescue is really neat!

In the meantime, we are dog-less... But before Kimura left, we had started taking a training course with her. When I talked about our situation to the teacher, she generously offered for me to bring Cédric to the end of the class, during the puppies' free play, so that he remains used to the presence of dogs and gets this animal contact at least once in a while! I really thank her for that!

Considering the length of this post, I'll address the cost and financing of our service dog another time!