Boy and Michelle’s Journey with Service Dog Training; Public Access Day One

I am training my dog to be a service dog for my twin boys that have both been diagnosed on the spectrum.

Today was our first day of public access. To put it bluntly, I was nervous. Service dog training is all new to me. I know I was being a little over-reactive, but the important part is that I took a deep breath, felt the fear and did it anyway.

Our first stop was the post office. After we arrived, I got his autism service vest on. He hopped out of the van and I pottied him.  The last thing I needed for our first experience with the public was an accident. Boy did what he needed to do and we headed in.

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When I walked into the building I felt awkward and out of place. I know what it’s like to get looks when I doll myself up (even then I typically don’t like it), but this was different. People were reacting with mixed emotions to my dog. Some smiled while others looked at him and then looked at me wondering if I had autism. Then others were trying to figure out why I brought my “pet dog” into the building, even though he had a marked SERVICE DOG vest on. 

When the post office clerk saw us she yelled, “He is???” I quickly said, “A service dog, yes.” My heart was racing because I didn’t know if she was going to kick us out. She said, “He is really big” and then mumbled disapprovingly to herself as she walked to the back. My heart sank. I thought, Really? This is the reaction to my lab/bloodhound mix? I don’t have a disability that would cause anxiety and from all this pressure the room is spinning. I can’t imagine what this is like for someone that does. 

My heart goes out to those people. You aren’t able to blend in because people are constantly reacting. In addition, due to lack of awareness, you have to go into defensive mode as to why you have the right to be in the building with your service dog.

After the clerk got her opinions out, Boy and I waited in a long line to send a letter. At first he was going into his “therapy dog mode.” He was trying to greet people, but when he is doing service work he is not allowed to be petted. I was consistent with him and kept him close. He whined a few times in the post office, but was still very engaged and checking in with me for cues. I think he could feel my nerves rattling.

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After the post office we headed to downtown Dallas to visit our friends at The Pooch Patio. I found this cute little boutique, doggy day care, grooming, and dog friendly bistro on-line earlier this week and thought we had to check it out! It was charming and quaint. Honestly I felt relieved to go into a pet friendly place. After the post office experience, I didn’t want to put his vest on; no pressure.

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We walked through two gates to get into the shop. He was cautious so it was really good socialization for him. I gave him a lot of praise and like any man with a stroked ego he was pleased with himself.

While Boy enjoyed his frozen treat the manager and I chatted.

Our next stop was down the road to a cool place, Mutt Canine Cantina. This is a dog park and dog friendly outdoor restaurant and bar. They have a large eating area where you can hang out with furry and human friends. Boy and I enjoyed a lemonade together. He was able to see a lot of other dogs going in and out of the park so this was great socialization.

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Then we headed to Trader Joes to get some organic food of goodness. By the time we got to the grocery store I felt confident enough to put his vest on again. People were very receptive. Many people acted like Boy was a rock super star, which both him and I know that is truth. Some people were curious and I could hear them talk. Others gushed with happiness to see a dog and could hardly contain themselves not to pet him. We did, however, have one person come up and pet him. As a handler, I found this challenging. I can see how for someone with a disability this could add additional stress on him/her.

Something happened with me and Boy in Trader Joes though. It clicked for both of us. He knew I needed him close and focused. He was there for me and not everyone else. He started leaning into me. When I stopped to look at products he moved between the cart and me and leaned into my legs. He was constantly looking up at me checking in and I could feel us communicating. To me this is when the magic happens in the dog training process. Everything in my world lines up when I am that connected to a dog.

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Picture above: Yes, I had to powder my nose so Boy got more socialization. He was enjoying the view of himself and I totally photo bombed him 🙂

As we were checking out with our goodies, Boy placed himself between me and the checkout counter and leaned into my legs. It was as if he knew He was suppose to be there. Maybe I was just handling him in a way that communicated that. Either way, I was surprised and proud of him.

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While at the check out counter another mom said, “Excuse me. Can I ask about your dog?” I said, “Sure.” She noticed the autism logo on Boy’s vest and we started talking about our children and what tasks Boy is being trained for. I also shared with her about the Foundation that Valerie Fry and I are starting here in Dallas. She was stoked and in that moment two moms with kids with autism had a moment. We realized we weren’t alone.

Training autism service dog is different than others because typically the caregiver is the handler for the dog versus the person that the dog is providing services for. Boy and I will be working together to keep my kids safe and provide a better life. I am thankful I have such a great partner.

At the end of our first public access day, we both went into the teamwork mode. I can see how the bond between human and canine helps so much with the service dog team. You know each other and are able to communicate just like a veteran, 40 years along married couple. You just know the little looks and cues.

All in all, I think our first day was pretty great and very insightful on many levels.

  A job well done today, Boy. We are both wiped out.

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Blog written by Michelle Huntting

Changing the World One Dog at a Time

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When I was a little girl if there was any sort of animal around you could bet any amount of money that I would be involved in some way shape or form…. Family get togethers, the neighbors house, and yes, even when it rained I would make sure all the worms would safely find their way back to the soil. I love animals.

I also love people. It has often times been my down fall. I don’t give up on them. When I love someone I love them with everything in me and I forgive them no matter what. It is pretty insane at times.

Put those two things together and well, you have a great dog trainer. 😉 But in all seriousness, I feel like one of the luckiest ladies alive to be able to do what I do and then let’s add in Kenyon K9 Foundation…..

I moved to Dallas the end of last October and met Valerie Fry, another well-respected dog trainer in the Dallas area. We talked about our passion for people and pets and how we wanted to make a difference in our community and the Foundation (over Mexican food I might add) was born.

Kenyon K9 Foundation is a non-profit organization that will provide service dogs for children with autism and soldiers with PTSD. If you’ve known me for any amount of time you will know that both of these things are held very near and dear to my heart. Both my twin boys have been diagnosed on the spectrum and I was involved in the military community for years and saw the affects of PTSD on the soldier and the family.

We need the help of our community to take the Foundation to its full fruition. We just launched a gofundme page to raise the funds that we need for the facility, start-up, as well as operational costs.

If this is something that is near and dear to your heart please help us “change the world one dog at a time ™.”

http://www.gofundme.com/w4vecpc

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Blog written by Michelle Huntting

Pets Make all the Difference; a Mom’s Perspective on Autism

petsmakeallthedifferenceRecently, a mom was crying to me that her son has autism. I know that “I just got soccer punched in the gut” feeling after the doc says my children are “on the spectrum.” I listened to all her heart’s concerns and comments with the autism diagnosis. When she was finished I said to her, “Girl, if it wasn’t for autism your son would never be able to fulfill all that God has for him in this lifetime. He is perfect just the way he is. My sons see the world differently and that’s part of their brilliance. Their “disability” is what makes them genius. Teachers thought Einstein had a learning disability and many other famous people have autism Dan Aykroyd, Gary Numan, and Liane Holliday Willey. They are the ones that changed the world and they are in the history books. Flame your son’s greatness; don’t cry over it.” Throughout our conversation, I noticed her medium-sized yellow Lab would place his head on her lap and she would pet him. When she was done petting, he would either lay down near her or interact with her son.

As rewarding as it is to be a mother of children with greatness, I know the level of stress it brings along and I know it well, but for me my pets make all the difference in the world.

Our lives aren’t easy. Living with melt downs, tantrums, and many times all of us frustrated with the communication barriers. I know that I have to do things just a certain way. Like the green bowl. Cheerios and fish crackers belong in the green bowl. Not purple or blue or even a sandwich bag. A green bowl. Milk belongs in the red cup, and everything goes in order as far as our schedule. If our schedule gets off, our entire day is rough. This is my life. I have learned to navigate it, but even Miss Super Mom here has her moments.

Last weekend I think was the worst for me. I was sick with an ear and sinus infection and had to make a Walmart run on Sunday for groceries before the week started. One of my sons decided he wanted pretzels and I said “no.” I will make a long story short and share that we both ended up sitting in the middle of the Walmart floor crying as I was trying to get my hair loose from his impressive grip. There was a crowd. Autism is an invisible disability so people quickly judge. I know what it’s like.

In addition to being a mother, I am also a dog trainer. And for me and my children I know our days would not be as great without our dogs, Boy and Belle. Pets make all the difference in the world. There are many benefits to sharing our lives with them. Service dogs for kids with autism are sent from heaven. Therapy dogs help teach new skills and provide a bonding experience that sometimes is on a deeper level than with any other person. Then there are our family pets and the endless number of benefits they offer us throughout our lives. funwithboys

Benefits of Pets for Autistic Kids

Not a lot of research has been conducted on the effects of the pet/autistic child relationship, but from what we do know, the results are impressive. Research aside, what I see as a mother is nothing short of inspiring. We all know that social moments can be a struggle for our children. Taking a dog on a walk through the neighborhood or a park can allow for social interaction and a great time to work on conversational skills with others doing the same. Sometimes, the door to a conversation can be opened merely by asking a pet walker the breed of his/her dog. Or, if your child does trick training with the family dog, then this is a great time to demonstrate. One of my favorite books on trick training is 101 Dog Tricks Kids Edition by Kyra Sundance.

Another great lesson with pets for our children is working on grooming and handling skills as this will allow for sensory integration. My kids have learned how to be gentle by petting Boy and Belle. When I teach my boys to use a gentle touch with our dogs, I place my hand over theirs and show them how much the dog enjoys it when they pet just so, stroking with the hair, and in a particular area.

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I do the same when I show them how to brush Boy and Belle. Because my kids are not always the most gentle as they are learning, I use a Kong brush, specially designed with rubber as to not hurt the dog if too much pressure is applied.

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I have also found Carol Gray’s book helpful in teaching my children to understand our pet’s likes and dislikes. Though, she uses the example of a cat, the principle is the same whether cat or dog:

“I have a cat. Many people like cats. Usually my cat likes to be petted. Cats feel soft. Cats purr when they are happy. When I pet my cat, it may make me happy, too. It may be fun to pet a cat. (p 19)”

Because I have two children, petting one at a time can allow for opportunities to learn share taking and the discussion before/after allow for a time to build language skills.

Because I am currently working with my kids on the need to respect personal space, I have a wonderful opportunity to encourage them to practice this skill with Boy. Dogs like space, and we practice by walking around the dogs and not intruding on their space.

When doing activities such as these with pets and kids, it’s always important to keep your dog’s comfort level in mind, making sure you remove your dog after a quick, successful session before any “challenging” behaviors occur. Watch for signs of stress from your dog, and provide lots of praise and rewards for both pet and child. family noonewillknow

Aside from the obvious benefits of pets to the lives of autistic children—or any children for that matter—there are obvious benefits to the parents as well. At the end of every day, some more challenging than others, Miss Belle does her impressive circling tail wag and looks up at me. She seems to be just checking in on me like, “You doing okay, Michelle?” Sometimes I am not, and her eyes tell me she knows. Then, I stroke her soft fur, just so, in the way that I have taught my children. Thank God for pets and their remarkable ability to make our lives whole and complete and for the therapeutic benefits they offer to all of us.

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Blog written by Michelle Huntting

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