Labor Day to Earth Day

When you live day to day with young children, especially a child with special needs, just getting through the day can often be daunting.  Unless you are especially good at paying attention or you’ve instituted specific (usually with professional help) interventions, recognizing significant changes in your child is hard. When your contact is less regular and you are the professional help, and especially if you pay attention, the transformations can be downright magical.

So it has been with Sam and Bubbles. I have written often of this experience in this blog, but here, in honor of Earth Day 2012, is a snapshot to look at my experience with Sammy and Bubbles.


When Bubbles and I first met Sammy — in the fenced in backyard of his home September 5, 2011 – Labor Day–his initial reaction to Bubbles was  horror. If he could have climbed inside his mother’s head, he would have. Sammy’s family had indicated a few issues they thought a service dog might address. First and foremost was safety  — Sam regularly bolted away without regard for his safety. His language was poor, he made limited eye contact, his smiles seemed to be generated by something going on internally, not in response to the environment around him. He was prone to hitting people, especially if those people happened to put together the letters N and O into the word “No”. Like a wild child, he clambered all over the furniture, pulling down and often breaking anything in his reach. Going out in public he bolted at any opportunity and struggled when held. Already 5, he was fast on his feet, aware when anyone let down his guard. He was getting too big to carry. Tantrums were common.

The strain on the family was obvious. He was unable to use a public restroom and his family kept a potty in the van when they did go on outings. Sammy, an only child, had no social relations with any children. After school and on weekends he was often isolated in his fenced in backyard playing in mud, sand, and dirt in his own little universe. He was starting to explore ways to escape the yard.

In school, which was very structured and consistent, Sammy reportedly did very well but was rigid. When the order or structure deviated, he had trouble and outbursts.

My goal was to place a well-raised and much-loved dog into the family home and to create an action plan for helping Sam and his family. We we worked together both at home and in public. We went together on outings once or twice a week, and my work with them included group dog training classes, home visits, indoor swimming pools, shopping malls, doctor appointments, sledding, The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame (my gosh, the escalators!), holiday events and parties, the Natural History Museum and towards the end of our 6 month contract, horseback riding therapy outings.

(Many of the adventures included my youngest daughter, Sophie. Her role and relationship with Sammy was the unforeseen icing on the cake. The two bonded immediately and deeply. For her 13th birthday Sammy painted her a portrait of the two of them that is cherished.)

Sam's painting for Sophie


One Year Earlier

Yesterday Sammy and his father brought Bubbles to an Earth Day DIP (Drop in Play) in my fenced in backyard.

Bubbles was happy to visit the old homestead and got right into playing with her old dog friends and a new one. I had to let Sammy know Sophie wasn’t around. In the past, that would have led to multiple queries of “Where’d Sophie go?” and possibly a tantrum. In the past he sometimes bolted into my house or car or, when possible, escaped out of the fenced in yard. Initially Sophie or I would wrangle him and eventually I directed the responsible adult (his parents or aunt)  to do so. Yesterday he redirected calmly and thoughtfully and didn’t bolt. He and Bubbles played together on the playground structure in my yard and he was calm and content as the dogs played about.

His language skills have vastly improved and he was sweet and cooperative. My other clients and their dog left and only Sammy and his father and my dogs and Bubbles remained. Dad told Sammy it was time to go and he calmly cooperated. I said goodbye and then heard a bit of a struggle at the car. I guessed Sammy needed to go potty and sure enough, back they came. I offered to take him inside myself and into the bathroom we went. Sammy politely took off his coat, sat on the toilet and grinned with relief. He flushed, pulled up his pants, washed his hands with soap and water, dried his hands, put on his coat, and said a few times that he couldn’t go further into the house this time, which I agreed with. He walked back outside with total cooperation.

I admit, I was gobsmacked by the immense change I saw in Sammy.

To those parents whose children are cooperative and not flight risks, those who have friendships and play nicely and don’t hit and are able to share toys and are fun out in public, those who don’t have issues using public restrooms and are gentle and sweet and use language appropriately, Sammy’s behavior may not seem so utterly cool. But to anyone dealing with hitting, kicking screaming, crying tantrums, struggles in public and at home, this amazing change will strike you as it did me.

And the coolest part? This is only the beginning because I know these two young energetic blondes have so many life altering adventures ahead.