Hey you, would you like to meet my new dog?” I looked over at Shane. Did he just say that??? I couldn’t believe my ears and my heart skipped a beat. It was the first day of what we had coined “Mouse Training”. Shane and I, along with Shane’s new service dog, Mouse, were at a CVS in a Worcester mall. Thankfully the clerk immediately jumped into her role and said, “Why yes, I would”. Shane very confidently went on to introduce his new dog. I was filled with joy, mixed with relief, and whole lot of hope. Had we done it again? Had our instincts guided us down the right path, again? I could not wait to call Ray and share this small triumph. Day 1 of “Mouse Training” and already things looked promising.
At three years of age Shane was diagnosed with Autism. Autism is a neurological disability that typically involves delays and impairment in social skills, language, and behavior. Receiving this diagnosis was devastating, to say the least. The world of autism was new to us and very frightening, we had a lot to learn.
So our journey began …
For the last 10 years our family has been very fortunate to work with many, wonderful therapists, teachers, doctors, and consultants. We’ve joined many support groups, gone to many trainings, workshops, and conferences to learn and grow in our knowledge of autism. This was now our world.
Many times along the way we’ve been able to find answers through the professionals we consult, latest research, books, along with other friends and parents. However, Ray and I often find it is our gut feeling, our intuitions, that usually lead the way. Admittedly, most of the time it's a hit, sometimes it's a miss. Often programs, therapies and potential opportunities just feel right, just like this day with Shane’s simple exchange with the CVS clerk. I wondered and hoped if we had been lucky enough to be right again.
It was a year ago that I learned of a new line of service dogs for children with autism. These dogs are often referred to as “Social dogs” or “Therapy dogs.” Ray and I watched documentaries and began to read about the successes families with a child on the autism spectrum were having with a canine companion. A social dog would help with Shane’s therapeutic goals of increased socialization, task adherence, and sensory regulation. Out in public, with Mouse by his side, Shane would be able to work on his social skills by drawing people in to converse with him about what else his dog!
Shane has a love for animals like no other. He is happiest at a zoo or a pet store where he seen with a smile from ear to ear. Elephants have always been his favorite, but animals in general have an interesting effect on him. We see a calmness that comes over him while watching animals of all kinds. We were intrigued; we felt given Shane’s social challenges and love for animals this was an opportunity we should consider.
In January of 2005, Ray and I took Shane to NEADS (National Education and Assistance Dog Association) in Princeton, MA for an interview. The interview process was very thorough with questions regarding Shane’s various activities, his moods, his anxieties and his behavioral issues. Most of all they wanted to learn how Shane’s autism affects his daily living so they could then begin the matching process for the right dog and train her according to Shane’s individual needs.
It soon became obvious to Ray and I that not only were they trying to plan for a match for Shane, but with us as a family to take on such a unique dog. This needed to work both ways. We were thrilled when Shane was accepted to the program, then the waiting began. We waited an entire year and then finally, the week before Christmas 2005 we received the long awaited call … Christy, the trainer at NEADS, said they had a match for Shane and that she was an adorable Chocolate Lab named “Mouse”. Needless to say we were ecstatic!
On January 9, 2006 we started our training. With Christy, Mouse had already been through intensive training at NEADS, now Shane and I needed to learn how to work with her. Initially, I trained for two days then Shane joined me for another four. We stayed at the NEADS campus house and trained each day. We learned so much and were so fortunate to work not only with Christy, but Dan as well, NEADS’ Autism Specialist. Christy, Dan and myself provided the perfect team to teach Shane all he needed to know about his new dog. We worked hard and on January 16 our hard work had paid off. Shane, Mouse and I passed our certification and brought Mouse home. We had one happy boy, and an equally happy dog!
We also learned that it would be sometime before Shane could manage Mouse himself and this has become a goal for us. Hopefully someday he can be independent with her care. We have found Mouse provides more than comfort and companionship for Shane at home. She also accompanies us out in public, an important part of their bonding and continued training together.
Our family is so thankful for this incredible opportunity; the people at NEADS are truly wonderful and have been there every step of the way. We are all absolutely crazy about Mouse, she is amazing! She is so lovable and friendly and feels like a “LeBlanc” already! Each day we see Mouse and Shane connect more and more, he loves to play chase with her, (“Mouuuuse, come get me!”), feed her, brush her, and walk her. I love to hear his giggles as Mouse showers him (literally) with kisses when he gets home from school.
Through Mouse, Shane is learning many valuable lessons, he’s learning to take care of her and that she needs him as much as he needs her. He is also learning that people are very interested and curious about his dog, and that it is he, who holds the answers as well as the ability to share them. Ray and I enjoy watching them together, we see a boy who now walks a bit taller and shows an air of confidence we hadn’t seen before. Very quickly they are becoming pals. Shane is very proud of her and loves to introduce her. Usually he introduces her by her name but every once in a while we’ll hear him say, “Would you like to meet my new friend, Mouse?” For this we are most thankful!
NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans is a national non profit organization with nearly 30 years experience training rescued dogs and donated/sponsored puppies to assist people who are deaf or physically disabled in leading more mobile and independent lives.
Assistance Dog recipients travel to NEADS' pastoral 15-acre campus in Princeton, located in central Massachusetts, for one-to-two weeks of advanced training before returning home with their new canine partner.
Since 1976, NEADS has trained nearly 900 Assistance Dog teams, now living in 30 states throughout the country. NEADS receives no state or federal funding, and relies solely on the generosity of individuals, small businesses and corporations, foundations and service organizations to partner people and dogs.