When Samuel was first diagnosed and I immersed myself in autism research, I came across a particular aid for kids with autism – autism assistance dogs. I’d heard of seeing eye dogs and guide dogs, but this was a first. Excited that there was something that seemed to promising, I eagerly dove into the land of Google. There were actually several organizations across the country that trained dogs (more specifically golden retrievers and labs) for autism assistance. Reading all the benefits was thrilling to me. Here was something that seemed to be a great possibility for us. And then I read the FAQ’s. Cost of dog: $13,000. Another website, $10,000. Another, $20,000! I know that breeding purebreds is expensive. Add to that the year’s worth of training going into these dogs by professionals and it’s easy to see why it’s so expensive. I get it. But when families of kids with autism face upwards of $20,000 – $100,000 a year for specific therapies that is not covered by insurance, an additional cost of this magnitude seems hopeless.
Granted, these organizations don’t expect families to have this kind of money on hand. They give ideas for fundraising. Some communities may come together to help one particular family for such special aid. But usually, those kinds of things happen more for severely affected kids. At least, that’s how it seems to me. Our son is higher functioning. He is verbal and can communicate his needs. He has behavioral difficulties, scripting, rigidity of routine, social deficits and more, but because he does speak and can communicate, it could be a bit more difficult to persuade people to contribute to our cause when there are so many others who appear to be better deserving because they are more severely affected than Sam.
With that being said, my hopes quickly faded realizing that kind of investment would likely not happen on a beginning teacher’s salary even with fundraising efforts. But Google did not disappoint. I soon found an article online from a newspaper in Arizona that talked about this very hope that had faded so quickly. (You can read the article here: http://landofpuregold.wordpress.com/2007/03/22/golden-retriever-pups-aid-autistic-kids/). Awoman named Fran Elliott created The Hairy Angel Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to breeding and raising golden retrievers and training them to be autism assistance dogs – FREE OF CHARGE! My eyes blinked a few times convinced there was a catch. I raced through the article and re-read it ten times more to be sure what I read was really true, then realized nowhere did I find any kind of contact information. There was no website. As a matter of fact, the article specifically stated that it was word-of-mouth only, but there was still no phone number. I would have to track down this Fran Elliott. Oh, did I mention that the article I was reading had been written two years before I found it? There was no telling if The Hairy Angel Foundation still existed. I had to find out.
So, befriending Google once more, I looked up the phone number for this Larson Newspaper. After three days of calling and leaving messages, I finally got a live person. I explained I had read this article online, gave the columnists name who wrote it and asked to speak with him. As it turned out, that columnist no longer worked there. BUT, the guy I was on the phone with was the editor of the paper and remembered that column. As I waited, he dug it out of the archives and gave me the name and number of this beacon of light, Fran Elliott.
I eagerly called and left a message. She returned my call within a couple days. She explained that they only placed dogs with children at least 7 years of age. My hopes faded again. Samuel was only 2. There were many good reasons, one of which was that since a dog’s lifespan is 12 – 15 years, if a very young child received a dog, they would likely lose the dog in the throes of adolescence which is already a traumatizing time for kids, worsened by special needs. However, no one was yet on the waiting list for the year 2012, so we would be the very first one come spring, 2012.
Over the years, I have kept in touch with Fran, updating her on new addresses and phone numbers as we’ve moved, and I wanted to make sure she was still continuing with the foundation. Last fall, just after Sam turned 6, I called to touch base. They were planning on a litter in November. The earliest we could receive a dog would be September of 2012, just after his 7th birthday. It finally felt like this new hope was within reach. November came and went and I sent an e-mail asking about the new litter. I received unfortunate news. They were unable to procure the litter, but were planning on a spring 2012 litter. This meant that the next earliest we would receive a dog would be sometime around January – March of 2013, when Sam would be 7 1/2.
A few weeks ago, I sent another e-mail asking for an update on the spring litter that should be coming anytime. I wanted pictures of the pups to show Samuel so he could see that at least one of them would be his. Yet again, I received more bad news. Doubly bad. Fran’s husband, who had been suffering from heart issues and surgeries over the last year had been back in the hospital and they missed the spring breeding. The next time they would be able to breed again would be this fall, after he’s 7. This meant the earliest time he would receive his dog now would be next summer sometime, when he turns 8.
My head was spinning. What if the fall litter didn’t happen? I know with autism, early intervention is best. The soonest you can start something with them, the better. What if her husband, God forbid, went back in the hospital and they missed the fall breeding? What if the fall breeding didn’t take for any reason? I quickly felt that once palpable hope slipping through my fingers like dry, hot sand. It stung.
I talked with Kyle about it, and we decided we’d try to figure something out. I had read about autism families just buying a pup and training it themselves. There were benefits to this method that I really liked – instead of the dog bonding with someone else for a year and learning obedience training, and then going through a major transition in meeting a new family and being trained specifically to the autistic person’s needs, Sam himself would be intricately involved in every aspect of the training of the dog from the beginning, helping to strengthen the bond that is vital in his relationship with the dog. We also figured there would certainly be a cost involved in this method, but there would have been cost involved in flying us to AZ, getting a rental car, hotel and food for a week during training in AZ, and then flying home – this time with an animal, likely adding additional charges. There would be cost either way.
Then there was the issue of training. I had no idea how to train a dog, nor did my husband. He’d never even owned a dog before, and dogs I’d owned were just pets and I vaguely remember caring for it much less training in any way. Once again, providence prevailed and I was reminded of a church friend, who I had become closer to since she is also a member of our Kenya Crew mission trip team this May. She just happens to be a professional dog trainer. I knew how to work with Sam, she knew how to work with dogs. Together, we would figure it out. But first, we had to find a dog.
Hello again, Google! After two days of searching the pages of my favorite search engine, I came across a breeder located in the American Kennel Club directory for the state of MD. I saw several listings, but one stood out to me because it was only an hour away. The listing said there were a few males and a couple females available for less than $1000. It gave a name and a phone number. I called immediately. A voice answered. I explained I found her on the AKC website and it said she still had pups available. She did! She had a website for me to look at and told me which picture was the last male remaining.
The dog was so sweet. Very calm and even-tempered. Apparently, he had been quite active the day before and that morning and was likely just tuckered out. But it was suggested this would likely be his termperament as an adult dog.
One of the things that was very important to us was that there had to be a good match between the dog and our son. They seemed to mesh perfectly. We had 24 hours to decide because there were other people waiting for a pup from this breeder. I was persuaded the first time I placed “Shawn” in Sam’s lap and watched his face. This was it! After the rest of the day talking through it, talking with Sam and the other boys about responsibility and spending time in prayer over this huge decision that would change our lives in just one week, Kyle and I decided this was best for our son and our family. I made the call, sent the deposit to hold the dog in our name and signed on the dotted line (so to speak). 🙂 Fred could come home with us the next weekend! We had a big conference that weekend though, so we decided to wait until the following Monday so he wouldn’t be left alone with a babysitter and the kids without our supervision during the conference.
Fred is just four days away from joining our family. Leigh, our dog trainer, came over today for an hour so we could get a training plan in place for day one of his homecoming. She brought us a crate we needed, a dog bed, some toys, treats, a puppy owner’s manual and a clicker for training. We plan on having her come once a week, or at least a couple times a month to help us with training.
Just three weeks ago, we were in line for a longer wait than we originally anticipated. And now, this faded hope is not just some distant light at the end of the tunnel. It’s become a new hope. Don’t get me wrong – I know this dog will not cure my son. But I know he will be a source of much needed aid and comfort to Sam, and I am positive there will be other unforseen benefits as well both for him and the rest of our family. Yes, it will be hard. There will be lots of work and stress. Inasmuch as we will have to work to train the dog to Sam, we realize we also have to train Sam to the dog. But we’ve committed to our son and his care, the best we can give. And we will not stop just because it’s hard. We will persevere and bring this long awaited hope to fruition with the guidance and help of our Lord who has given more hope than a dog will ever bring in the person of Jesus Christ.