Chester, an autism service dog from National Service Dogs (NSD), joined our family on October 26th. We applied to NSD for an autism service dog two years ago. While the wait list was lengthy (I think it's down to 18 months now), at the time, Max was only 4 years old. We weren't ready for a dog quite yet - I figured that when Max was 6 years old, that would be about the right age. During our wait, Milk-Bone generously sponsored Max's service dog for $18,000. NSD also raised money for Max's service dog through their annual Easter Egg Hunt For Dogs Event. When I got the call in September that Max would be getting his service dog in October, I was excited and nervous and OMG is this really happening??
I rushed out and bought a dog bed for Max's service dog "to be". Max, who has never slept on a pillow, immediately claimed it as his own. I rushed back out and bought another dog bed for Max's service dog. In the meantime, Animal Planet aired an episode featuring National Service Dogs and two families who had autism service dogs for their sons who have autism. I watched it and bawled my eyes out. I wasn't sad, but uplifted with the possibilities that were opening up for Max. We started talking with Max about the fact that he was going to be getting his very own dog. While he was excited, he didn't totally understand what it would mean to have an autism service dog. In retrospect, neither did we.
And then came Chester. The incredible trainers at NSD matched Chester to Max by reviewing 2 weeks of Max's behaviour data, Max's busy schedule, and meeting for a follow-up with myself and Max two weeks before team training in Cambridge. They also took how well I worked with him into consideration. As lead handler, they had me work with all seven of the service dogs that were going out as part of the Fall 2012 class. I like to think Chester and I had a special bond right off the bat, but really, he was terrific with all of the families. The picture of him chewing on his bone was the first picture I took of him when they brought him to me and told me he would be Max's autism service dog at the end of the first full day of team training. I was on cloud nine. And after a week of team training in Cambridge, I headed home with Chester to introduce him to "his boy".
We had been told not to expect any Disney moments when introducing our new autism service dogs into our homes. Often children with autism take months (some even years) to bond with their service dogs. It took Max a couple of hours to feel comfortable to even approach Chester. He started out by petting Chester with his feet and worked his way up to petting him with his hands. At the 3.5 hour mark, Max was laying on Chester, and I started to cry with relief.
Later that night, Chester passed out on the couch (it had been a long week of team training for both of us). Max was very happy having Chester with him on the couch and one of my favourite photos of them was taken as Max reached out to pet his dog. My heart continued to melt.
The next morning, I went to check on Max and Chester, wondering how their first night sharing a bedroom went. They were chilling out together, neither in a hurry to get moving. Truly amazing. Later that day I took Max on his first walk with Chester. He wasn't even hooked up yet, but he held onto the handle attached to Chester's harness like his life depended on it. For the first time in Max's 6 years, he did not try to bolt when we went on a walk together. More tears on my part.
When Max is playing with his iPad on the couch, he counts on Chester for support.
When we're on the road, Chester keeps a close eye on his boy.
When Max has to go to the dentist, Chester keeps him company in the waiting room.
On walks, he reminds Max to stop and look both ways before he crosses the street.
And when Max isn't feeling well, he has his back.
There is so much more to say, but the thing that stands out the most is that we feel blessed to have Chester as part of our family and most importantly as Max's autism service dog. He has brought peace to our home, and a calmness to Max that brings joy to our hearts. We are only two weeks in and I can't wait to see what the future brings for Chester and Max. Stay tuned for more of their adventures!