I can not pretend to really comprehend what life is like with an autistic child. But I can see, in my visits to see Meshi’s progress, how life for an autistic child and his family can change, just through the simple process of adding a dog – the right dog! – to the family.
Meshi somehow knows that she belongs to Amit, and that he is her first priority at all times, even when Amit’s older brother offers her a treat or a game. This is not a result of training, it is the result of a bonding that occurred from Meshi’s first days in her new home. Amit can be difficult – he can shout at her, pull her coat instead of petting her, tease, ignore her, try to run away – none of this matters to Meshi. Not only does she belong to Amit, but he belongs to her, and even at her young age, she accepts the responsibility.
Since Meshi has been a part of the household, life has changed. Amit’s father told me that before Meshi, he could never talk to his friends and acquaintances when he went for a walk with Amit in the park near their home. His attention had to be constantly on his son, and he had to hold his hand all the time, as Amit otherwise could in an instant run off and not respond to calls, a potentially dangerous situation. Now, Meshi is with Amit. She blocks him from running off, attracts his attention and distracts him from inappropriate behaviors, and is his playmate and companion as well as guardian, always patient, always attentive, always loving. Amit’s father can walk along talking with his friends, knowing that Meshi will not let Amit get too far away. It has even become possible for Amit to go down to the park below the family apartment with Meshi and walk with her alone, while father or mother watch from the window. Amit can start to build up independent behavior which will help him in future.
Amit’s parents are now able to get a good night’s sleep without him waking them; Meshi sleeps with him, reassures him if he wakes up, and keeps him calm and secure so that he can return to sleep.
Meshi still has many more things to learn to make her an effective service dog, but she has already proven herself.
Meshi has two older sisters, Micki and Nikki, who are now two years old. They are both working service dogs, and have been working for over a year. They have a different specialization, both of them are working with epileptic teenagers.
Before the dogs joined their families, Tom and Ehud, both severely epileptic and often having up to several severe attacks a day, were very limited in their activities. They had to wear a helmet at all times, to protect their heads from injury at the sudden onset of a fit, which could cause a blackout and fall. But worse was the emotional effect; they were ashamed and embarrassed to spend time with other teenagers, as they never knew when an attack would occur. They could never go out without someone accompanying them. Even going to school was dreaded, as attacks often took place there as well.
Micki and Nikki do not cure the epilepsy. But they do change the quality of life. Both of the dogs, by making use of their intense connection to their boys and their keen senses and instincts, have learned to give warning in advance of epileptic episodes. Even a few seconds of warning is enough for Tom or Ehud to sit down and prepare himself, and to alert help if necessary. Sometimes the warning can be a few minutes or more in advance.
But even more, having the dogs gives them confidence and the ability to participate in teenage social life. The dogs are an icebreaker, a point of conversation, and something special and positive. Ehud travels alone on the train with Nikki, to come to practice sessions with her. And I saw Tom recently, accompanied by Micki, at a “happening” in a local park, which was for the benefit of organizations that assist with a variety of health problems. In the past, Tom would never have been willing to expose himself to a crowded public situation. On this day, he was able to stand in front of the crowd and explain what Micki does for him, and afterwards to talk with a number of kids of his own age, including a pretty teenage girl who also has problems with epilepsy – Tom was proudly explaining to her the advantages of having a dog, and taking her phone number to stay in touch.
These wonderful dogs, that I am so proud of having bred, are representative of many – some dogs are changing people’s lives…