Two years ago Ethan, Oliver’s autism assistance dog, joined our family: he and Oliver met each other for the first time in March of 2014, following 10 days of training for Catherine and I at Lions Foundation Dog Guides facility in Oakville, Ontario.
Here’s a photo of their first meeting:
The general plan for new autism assistance dogs working for school-age children is that they spend 6 months to a year with their new client before they start going to school. This time allows for a bond to develop between dog and child, allows the dog to be comfortable with the child and the child with the dog, and ensures that the transition to the complexities of school life will be smooth and positive.
For many logistical reasons beyond our collective control, this transition to school happened a little later in Oliver and Ethan’s case: almost two years from the date Ethan came home with us from Ontario he went to school with Oliver for the first time this week.
We’d been keeping the school up to date on our plans for Ethan and Oliver since Oliver was accepted to receive a dog guide in the winter of 2014, and everyone in the school community was open to the idea and to working with us to make it happen. In the months since then the English Language School Board developed a Service Dog Policy (which we’re quite happy with) and we kept Oliver’s teachers and educational assistants in the loop as we moved closer to the introduction of Ethan to the classroom.
In December of last year we had confirmation from Dog Guides that Tara, Ethan’s original trainer, was available to come to Prince Edward Island this week to help introduce Ethan to the school. And on Wednesday morning Tara arrived.
This is how the week went from there.
We woke up on Wednesday morning at 6:30 a.m. as we usually do. Ethan came into our room and climbed up on the bed, ignorant of the excitement and change to come:
I drove Oliver to school, leaving Ethan at home, and then hurried back.
Just after 9:00 a.m., Tara knocked at the door. Ethan’s recognition of Tara was immediate and obvious, and it was all he could do to keep within the bounds of acceptable service dog behaviour when she came in and sat down.
We spent a few hours reviewing things with Tara, telling her about our adventures with Ethan, about Ethan’s bond with Oliver, and about some of the things we’re apprehensive about. She gave us a briefing on what to expect for the rest of the week.
Just before 11:00 a.m. Tara followed us to the school and we sat down for a meeting with the Principal, Vice-Principal, Autism Consultant from the English Language School Board, Resource Teacher and Oliver’s classroom teacher, along with the Principal and Resource Teacher from Colonel Gray High School, where Oliver will be next year.
We had a positive, wide-ranging conversation covering everything from Ethan’s role as an autism assistance dog to who would pick up the dog poop should the need arise. The two years of discussions we’d been having with everyone paid off here, as all were already on board and ready for Ethan’s introduction; most of what we discussed was the logistics for a smooth transition.
After a break for lunch, Oliver joined Catherine and I, his educational assistants and homeroom teacher, along with Tara, in the unused classroom that’s been set to be a home for Ethan’s crate (where he’ll go when, for one reason or another, he needs to be apart from Oliver; gym class, for example) for a crash course in service dog handling.
Oliver has the benefit of some fantastic, open minded, generous educational assistants and teachers at Birchwood, and they gamely jumped into the training process with both feet, learning the basic commands Ethan responds to – stay, down, leave it, forward, wait – and practicing walking around the classroom and the hallways with Ethan. Lots of questions were asked, and all were answered. You could see the collective comfort level grow by the minute.
The school day was over by the time training was over, and it was time for Oliver and Ethan to jump into the deep end together: they headed off to Minecraft Club, where I found them an hour later when I returned with a mat for Ethan:
Ethan did exactly what he was supposed to do, sitting patiently at Oliver’s side as his time in Minecraft Club continued on as it ever was.
On Thursday morning Tara showed up at our doorstep just before 8:00 a.m. to walk to Birchwood with Oliver and I. When we arrived at the school I handed over Ethan to one of Oliver’s educational assistants, turned around and walked home.
By myself. For the first time in a long, long time.
It wasn’t until that moment that it hit me that this was all happening, and that my daily routine – drop Oliver at school, walk to my office with Ethan, hand Ethan over to Catherine at the noon hour – was done, and that I was going to be making a cold, lonely walk to the office from then on (I may have to get myself a dog!).
Catherine and I returned to the school just before 10:00 a.m. for a school-wide assembly hosted by Tara. She showed a DVD introducing the Dog Guides program and then went over the rules about Ethan in the school for students and staff:
- Don’t call Ethan by name, or try to get his attention.
- Don’t feed Ethan.
- Don’t pet Ethan.
These rules are designed to keep Ethan safe, and to ensure that his sole focus is Oliver.
The assembly was an emotional time for me too, both because the DVD reminded me how powerful dog guides can be for all their clients, regardless of the program they’re in, and also because I got to see the community of students and teachers that Ethan will be immersed in, gathered all at once, and to witness their attention to the proceedings and their helpful questions for Tara (if you’re sharp you’ll be able to spot both Ethan and Oliver, apart for the moment, in this photo):
At the end of the assembly the students repaired to their period 4 classes, Oliver and Ethan with them, and Ethan’s life at the school formally began.
We returned to the office for a brief follow-up, a final review of the Service Dog Management Plan, and for thanks and goodbyes.
And then Catherine and I got in the car and drove home, Ethanless, confident that everything was going according to plan.
This morning, Friday, Oliver and Ethan and I walked to school as we usually do, I handed Ethan over to another of Oliver’s educational assistants, and Tara spent a last morning shadowing them to make sure everything was working. Our new routine becomes routine.
At the end of this week I’m more convinced than ever of the valuable contribution to Oliver’s well-being and education that Ethan is going to play at school, more impressed than ever at the professionalism and thoroughness of Dog Guides’ programs and trainers, more grateful than even to Lions Foundation and Lions clubs across the country for supporting Dog Guides, and more satisfied than ever that Oliver’s attending school in a community of flexible, caring, dedicated educators.
Thank you to everyone who helped to make this happen.