Many people with significant challenges due to an autism spectrum disorder can suffer from a behavior called “eloping,” where they run away. In many tragic cases, this includes darting into traffic or bodies of water despite not being able to swim. As a result of this, I have sensors on my windows, latches at the top of my doors, and a GPS tracker in Constance’s jacket. Still, the fear of her being hit by a car when she was at school or in the community without me was always present. Motivated by one too many news stories of eloping ending badly; I decided that I needed to get her an autism service dog.
Despite being a strict vegetarian for my entire adult life, my love of not eating animals never manifested in an ambition to own a dog or cat. They seemed like they required the kind of attention that I couldn’t reasonably commit to given the constraints of my career. However, as soon as I realized that my daughter needed a service dog, I was fully committed to getting her one and adding it to our lives.
It was no easy feat to get her a service dog. I contacted all of the organization’s and companies that provided services dogs to individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. Most had full wait-lists and weren’t taking new applications. Still others I disqualified due to peculiarities, such as that the dog would always legally belong to the organization and could be taken back at any time including during the organization’s mandated surprise visits.
Eventually, I found a place that trained the dogs with the skills my daughter needed. They had a cumbersome application process involving my going to a friend’s home and having my daughter videotaped interacting with a dog. A friend hosted us and borrowed a neighbor’s dog. Our application was approved after I passed the subsequent interview and signed a contract saying I would have a fenced in yard at the time of placement.
After an applicant is approved for the dog, the organization requires you to raise $20,000 for them. The fundraising must be completed before applicants are added to the wait-list. They want you to raise the money in the community and not just write them a check. Public fundraising helps the organization expand their number of supporters, raise awareness, and market the organization. In retrospect, the fundraiser was also good for my daughter because it allowed people who cared for her to create some unique memories with her.
To raise the money, I organized a fundraiser at an independent toy store. Years prior another friend organized a “Sensory Friendly Santa” event at her store. I admired that she planned a special event to cater to kids with Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Epilepsy, and other sensitivities. Since she no longer had the storefront or event, I decided to organize a sensory friendly Santa event as the fundraiser for the service dog organization. Friends and family volunteered as Santa, Elves, photographers, and gift wrappers. Dressed as the world’s cutest elf, my daughter happily played with toys for both days of the event. The highlight of the event was when one of the special needs parents told us that this was the first family pictured they’d had in years due to their child’s challenges.
While my friends and family were extraordinarily generous with their time and talents, they were even more so financially. As a result of their donations, after the event, there was nothing left to do but to wait until a dog completed the training program that met my daughter’s needs.
A year later, the dog was ready. I had to travel cross-country and spend a week in training to become a certified special needs dog handler. After the first day of certification, they told me I would be bringing the dog back to the hotel with me. As we entered the hotel, an English Cocker Spaniel went wild barking and growling at our new service dog. In what I discovered was his unflappable nature, he just stood patiently next to me while the batty dog was pulled away by the leash. A group of men gathered by the hotel bar saw the exchange and clapped for my well-trained dog. I didn’t tell him them that I’d owned him for 8 hours and deserved no credit. Instead, I just agreed that I have a perfect dog.
Constance immediately bonded with him. He was at the hotel for only a few minutes before they both took a nap, blissfully cuddling together. It was so sweet. Over the next two years, she had him she enjoyed walking with him at parks in particular. People would run up to praise her for her beautiful dog, and she would smile and concur.
Since Constance's passing, her dog hasn’t been the same. My constant crying is a poor replacement for the adventures out in the community that he had with my daughter. I moved his bed to my room. I’ve added long walks to his routine. I get comfort from being able to pet and hug him. He is now serving as a wildly over trained comfort animal.
I fear that keeping him for myself instead of giving him to another family in need of an autism service dog is selfish. I worry that I am projecting my feelings of affection for him above all other dogs into a fictional believe that he has unwavering love for me above all other potential families. He’s such a small part of who she was, but I just can't let him go right now.