How Our Pooch Helped Our Son Engage with the World
We are a family of 5, 2 of us play acting as adults, 2 of us getting trained in being adults and 1 of us getting away with being a lazy dog!
Hail Caesar….. (that’s our English lab, part crazy, part sage and fully adorable)
Our son has autism which makes life fairly unconventional in our household. One of the challenges we had with him was that we had to work very hard to have him engage with his environment and thepeople in them. It was actually one of the first “symptoms” that prompted us to get him assessed for a developmental delay.
He stated receiving fairly intensive early intervention by the time he was 2 year 4 months old, however, I have to admit that the shock of the diagnosis overwhelmed me and for a while, I lost my parenting mojo. In my defence, we had just moved cities and I also had an older child who was just 5 and struggling to settle into the new city and school as well.
My husband (God bless him ! ) has always loved dogs and had been scared to suggest we get one knowing how difficult I found the whole change in our circumstances. However like the change in season, every few months he would let slip his desire to get a dog. I pretended to be deaf and went about my business! We moved to a new home and while our son was doing well I did still worry that he wasn’t engaging with the environment as much as he should, and the onus of that fell squarely on my shoulders, I being the stay at home parent.
Those of you who have been in a similar place will understand that keeping a child on the autism spectrum engaged and involved with you takes a lot of patience, ingenuity, and creativity. We have been told that the best thing for a child on the spectrum is to be kept actively engaged for 8-10 hours a day. Now if that doesn’t make you run for the hills I don’t know what will. Keeping a neuro-typical child engaged in any activity more than 30 minutes deserves a prize of some sort, so keeping my hyperactive 4-year-old autistic son would need a special mention!
I finally agreed to take the plunge and get ourselves a pooch after my older child started whining for one ( the whining of a 7-year-old is VERY hard to bear !) and my own research (albeit secretly ) that indicated that having a pet of any sort is very beneficial for kids on the spectrum.
Enter Caesar !!
An English lab with fabulous pedigree and cute as a button.
He officially entered the family as a 7th birthday present for my daughter but we knew from day 1 his heart firmly belonged with the boys of the family, my husband, and son.
I won’t lie and say it was or has been easy from the start. He chewed things, climbed on things and was a crazy little chap. He didn’t seem to get NO and also was always hungry !! But what was also undeniable was that my son couldn’t look away from him !!
It started as apprehension at this furry toy-like creature who seemed to move around an awful lot and thus improved my sons scanning abilities.
Then came the age-old game of fetch, where Caesar would run and get a ball or toy thrown at him. My son loved this game and could now stay focussed on this activity for an extended period of time (to start with 10-15 minutes).
My sons first few words were also directed at Caesar. The loud and very emphatic “CAESAR NO”!
My son if left alone would love lining toys up, as I suspect do many kids on the spectrum. This solitary activity would keep him engaged for hours and while I tried very hard to break it I had to constantly be creative and badger him into stuff I wanted him to do. With Caesar around, this solitary play reduced drastically.
As our son grew and got more verbal, a lot of his language was around his dog. My son has always been a very emotionally happy child and very loving too and this affection was now directed at Caesar who reciprocated wholeheartedly. A boy and his dog were becoming best friends.
Now that my son is 8 and learning ADL skills, I have taught him to take care of Caesar. He fills his bowl with water and also puts his bowls of food down whenever he’s at home. Recently when Caesar hurt himself, my son accompanied him to the vet and held his face while the doctors were attending to him. This is empathy and connection as only a pet can bring.
So when we first got Caesar I harboured fond hopes of him being a resource or guide dog for my son, the kind shown on TV that help their humans navigate the world. That bubble burst very early on for a number of reasons.
- Caesar was very hard to train for everything except toilet training. He loves and still does chew on anything (read ANYTHING) that is within reach. As a result, we have a spotless, clutter-free home and the kids have learned to put away any shoe or toy they value. (a very glass-half-full type of person, Me)
- here are very few (if any) trainers in our city (Gurgaon) that we found could train a pooch to be guide dogs, and all the youtube tutorials we watched didn’t help us any
- On a serious note after a lot of soul searching we decided we liked Caesar being his own crazy self because that unpredictability is what held our son’s attention
This does not mean to say you shouldn’t attempt to train your pooch or that dogs can’t be trained into fabulous resource dogs for kids with special needs. I know of trainers in Bombay, Chennai, and Bangalore who specialize in this area. We have just not made that effort, that’s all.
A few pointers as I end this piece
- A dog is wonderful but takes a lot of work and effort from the adults in the house, so only go in for it if you are absolutely committed to the idea.
- Choose a breed that is known for its gentlenesses around kids, such as labs or beagles. If in doubt do seek advice from dog lovers or vets
- Do not expect life-changing miracles in the snap of your fingers. Think marathon, not a sprint.
- Invest time and energy in building the bond between your child and pet, it doesn’t always happen in an instant.
- Allow your child to nurture your pet too, feeding, brushing and walking your pet will be as beneficial to your child as your pet.
My pooch has brought more joy and laughter to our already happy home, and while there are days when I’m pulling my hair out there are more nights than not when I go to sleep thanking my stars that Caesar is asleep outside.