Our 4 Paws Adventure – Day 3 – The First Track

*This post is part of a series originally posted on my former blog, Stinker Babies. I’m reposting here for families who are interested in learning more about the process of being matched with a service dog for their children. This series was written during March of 2013.*

This morning’s training was a bit different. The class was split into two groups for search training. Wandering is hugely prevalent on the autism spectrum and Caleb is no exception. Autism-related wandering and elopement have given me quite a few scares. April and her classmates are all dogs with great noses. They’ve all been trained in scent tracking and today, they got to practice tracking their kids.

We volunteered to go with the second track group. By “volunteered,” I mean that when they asked for people who wanted to go in the first group, we looked at the ceiling and the floor and the dog and the kids. Anything to have just a couple more warming hours. Spoiler Alert: It never really warmed up.

After reviewing what we learned yesterday, we worked on those commands with a dropped leash and then out of sight. April rocked it with the obedience practice. She was, however, super excited to be with her pals today. We quickly learned that we’ll need to show up to class a bit early so we can let her run a bit.

Halfway through the morning session, our group bundled up and piled into our cars to head to the park. One by one, each child walked a different path with a trainer and they hid inside a different stand of trees. As soon as we pulled into the parking area, April was on super high alert. As each child walked off, she did not take her eyes off of him or her. She was practically trembling. Then it was our turn. Caleb and I walked with one of the trainers into a new area. We had been inside the little wood for just a minute before April came bounding in. She found him. In what must have literally been about 90 seconds. Two minutes at the most.

When you’ve seen some of the absolutely heartbreaking stories in the news about spectrum kiddos who have wandered off, you know that even seconds can make a life or death difference. And then you see this dog track and find your child in such a short amount of time?  You know you’ve just witnessed a total miracle. We’ll get to do it again tomorrow. This time, I’ll get to witness this miracle from the end of the leash and watch April do her thing. Today?  All I know is that she found my boy. Her boy.

This afternoon, we got our mutt mat and learned the “place” command. An example of this one would be if you were at home and you ordered a pizza. When the doorbell rings, you would tell the dog, “place,” and she would go to her mat and lie down until you released her. This cuts down on the number of terrified pizza delivery guys and gals.

According to Caleb’s 24-hour EEG, he is not having seizures so April isn’t trained to do seizure alert. About half of the dogs in our class are trained in seizure alert. We got to watch them practice their seizure alerts today. It was incredible. I totally got tears in my eyes seeing the amazing difference they will make in their families.

After class, we took April out to the yard and I threw the ball for her for about 20 minutes. The kids got to play on the playground. Then it started to snow a bit. It was such a great way to end the day of training. Tomorrow morning, we’ll do a track in the park and then after lunch, we’ll go to the mall for our first public access practice. Eeek!  I hope we do alright. After tomorrow afternoon, we’ll be allowed and expected to practice with April in public places. This is where it really counts. This is what our service dog certification test will be based on. The obedience work lays the foundations but the public access is what will be tested. No pressure!

On that note, I’m gonna go look over the notes from today. Hope everyone has a great night!  

Our 4 Paws Adventure – Training Day 2 – Bringing Her Home

*This post is part of a series originally posted on my former blog, Stinker Babies. I’m reposting here for families who are interested in learning more about the process of being matched with a service dog for their children. This series was written during March of 2013.*

As I write this, I have a beautiful black lab sleeping peacefully at my feet. Despite the way it started, today has been a long but very awesome day.

We didn’t have to be at 4 Paws until 10 a.m. today so I figured, hey, why don’t we sleep in half an hour later and just try to leave by 9:30 a.m. We got down to breakfast right at 9:00 and I was so proud of myself for getting there exactly when we planned. Until we remembered that breakfast service ended at 9:00. Oops.

Today at training, we worked on longer “downs” and “sits” and then added distractions. When a service dog is given a command like “down,” there is an implied “stay” so the dog is expected to lie down until she is released (“free” in our case). Even if someone drops a french fry in her space. I was so incredibly proud of April!  She was a total rock star, even when they were throwing Pupperoni treats right in front of her or bouncing a ball right next to her. We also learned “heel” and auto sit. That means that she walks on the handler’s left and keeps her shoulder right in line with the left leg. When I stop, she automatically sits and waits for the next command.

I was already totally impressed. But then?  After training was over, we took her out to the yard to run around and play before heading to the hotel. She had a playmate in the yard and immediately just took off. This was the first time I’d seen her in her natural “dog playtime” mode. She was like a little fireball of energy. And when we said it was time to go, she walked out of that yard like a champ. All business.

Blew. My. Mind.

We brought her home to the hotel with us and she has been a perfect angel. I know we’re going to have challenging moments with her, but right now I am just enjoying this miracle.

april kids hotel

We had a couple of fun stories I wanted to share and then I’m headed to bed!

We were sitting at dinner tonight and were almost finished up when I happened to glance out of the window. I accidentally let out a squeal, grabbed the kids jackets and yanked them outside. It was totally snowing. Okay, it was a “flurry” but it was beautiful!!  When we got back, I checked the forecast. This has totally made my kiddos super excited. Okay, me too. If it’s going to be below freezing, we might as well have some fun with it!  (And all you snowbound friends, please keep your tar and feathers at a minimum.)

So yesterday, when we were introduced to April, they gave us a bag of kibble to use as treats. I was being conservative with it for a while until someone mentioned that the dogs hadn’t eaten breakfast yet in anticipation of lots of treat opportunities. I felt so rotten for not giving her all of her breakfast. This morning was the same story. So I was all proud of myself for taking the initiative and grabbing a bag of kibble for her to eat some breakfast. Until 30 minutes later when they brought out a bag of kibble that had been personally measured for her. Oops. So she’s been kinda gassy today. After an especially potent few minutes, I took her out to go potty. It was my first poop bag experience. I did the best I could. From our potty spot, I could see the dumpsters. I walked over and couldn’t figure out how to open the gate so I took aim and threw the bag as high as I could. The wind caught it and blew it onto the sidewalk. As I walked over to pick it up, I realized the fence was only a front and the entire side of the dumpster was accessible. Oops. So I took another shot with the poop bag and the dang wind caught it again. I am so very glad there were no witnesses to this very smelly, very gross few minutes. Although, April did look pretty disappointed in my throwing skills. The bag did eventually make it into the dumpster, though. No worries.

So I think I’ve earned a nice hot bath and an early bedtime.

Tomorrow, we do our first track!!  If I can still feel my fingers when we get back, I’ll tell you all about the search training!

Good night from Ohio!

Our 4 Paws Adventure – Day 1 – Meeting April!

*This post is part of a series originally posted on my former blog, Stinker Babies. I’m reposting here for families who are interested in learning more about the process of being matched with a service dog for their children. This series was written during March of 2013.*

Today was the day.

My eyes flew open before my alarm had even finished the first beep.

Today was the day!

Even with all of our excitement and nervous energy, we still managed to be 40 minutes late to breakfast.  But I know us and had planned accordingly. So we just ate a bit faster and we left the hotel right on time.

We headed to 4 Paws and arrived right at the suggested half hour early. I expected to have beaten most of the group there but when we walked in, the place was buzzing! Half of the large room is devoted to training exercises with seating around the edges. The other half of the room has tables, video games, toys, movies, puzzles, sensory activities, and all sorts of other things to keep the kids entertained.

There were kennels nearby.  With dogs in them.  Were they ours?  Were we allowed to go closer and investigate?  I hesitantly started moving down the row.

The fourth kennel on the left had our girl in it.  She was right. there.  We bent down to say hello.  She quickly sat up and backed away.  She seemed a little nervous with all of the excitement and commotion going on around her.

Then I started to get nervous, too.  What if she doesn’t like us?  What if it turns out that she’s not ready?  What if the bond doesn’t form?

There are 12 families in our class.  After an introduction of 4 Paws staff from Jeremy, the training director, and introductions of each family, bags of treats were passed out to each family.  My heart started to beat faster.  One by one, the dogs were brought out and introduced to their new families.  One by one, I watched as months and years of preparation, planning, struggle and hope came to a beautiful fruition.  One by one, each family shed some happy tears and beamed with joy as they embraced the newest member of their family.

Even though we were anxious to get our girl in our arms, it was a beautiful experience to go last and be able to witness these eleven families change before my very eyes.

And then, suddenly, there she was.

As the trainer led her over to our family, I just hoped that she would like us and grow to love us as much as we already loved her.  They say the quickest way to a dog’s heart is through her stomach so we just shoveled treats into her mouth.  So far, it seems about right!  She came right to us and enjoyed all the attention and kibble.  

meeting april

I have no words for what this day has been like.

As for April?  I’m already like a biased mother.  She is the sweetest, smartest, most beautiful dog that has ever lived.  We worked on “sit” and “down” today.  And by “we,” I mean the humans.  The dogs are already awesomely trained.  We just have to practice together and get her used to our voices giving the commands instead of the familiar trainers.

We rocked it today.

Between all the crazy emotions and anticipation and lack of sleep and a trip to Walmart, I am so beyond exhausted.    Apparently, so was Gracie.  While we were walking around like zombies at Walmart, she said she had to go potty.  She totally fell asleep on the toilet and slept through the rest of the trip back to the hotel.

One day down, ten more to go!  And I’m not sure how I feel about that yet.  I wish we could stay in this safe cocoon of a learning environment for a few months.

Tomorrow, we will start right in with training and practice from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.  Then, April will come home to the hotel with us and she will be that much closer to being ours!

It’s a Girl! Meet Our Service Dog!

*This post is part of a series originally posted on my former blog, Stinker Babies. I’m reposting here for families who are interested in learning more about the process of being matched with a service dog for their children. This series was written during March of 2013.*

As most of you know, we’ve been waiting on pins and needles for our official Match Letter from 4 Paws for Ability.  This letter would tell us which of these adorable wonderdogs would become a part of our family.

Friday morning, I was startled awake by a crazy dream and it led me to post this in our private Facebook group that only the families can see.

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Exactly 2 hours and 30 minutes later, we saw this post in the public group for the March class:
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Five minutes later, the first match was received.  Someone posted, “WE GOT OUR MATCH!  They’re coming!!!”  At that moment, I started bawling like a baby.

Two minutes later, I refreshed my e-mail and there it was.  An e-mail from the wonderful Karen Shirk with the subject line, “Dear Caleb.”

I took a deep breath and clicked.

And just like that, all of the disappointments and frustrations and discouragement and hard work and hope and patience and lessons learned along the way…It was all resolved in a beautiful reality.

Our goal, our dream, our hope had a beautiful face and name.

I am so honored and thrilled to introduce you to our new girl who will be joining our family in just 10 days.

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Meet April!

She’s a beautiful black Labrador Retriever who will have her first birthday on March 15th.

(Which also just so happens to be our 10th wedding anniversary – how’s that for a sweet “coincidence”?)

Every time I look at that sweet, smiling face, I start crying again.  I just can’t believe we have our match.  I cannot believe that we will have her in our arms in just ten days.

We are going out in just a bit to shop for our sweet April.  I’m going to try to contain myself even though I feel like I should be on a new TLC reality show, “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant (until one week before I had a baby).”

Just like bringing a newborn home, there will be some major adjustments going on.  The training class will be intense and every day for eleven days.  Because our family lives so far from 4 Paws, I feel the pressure of getting it all in and getting it all right before we leave.

But now, whenever I start to get stressed, I just look at that sweet girl’s smile and I just feel that it’s all going to be alright.  I can look past the initial adjustment phase and see how it will be in a year, two years, five years, ten.

And that makes everything worth it.

We started down this path to a service dog exactly two years ago.  There have been some major roadblocks and detours.  I can’t help but feel it was because we were meant to be with this organization, this group of families, and this particular pup.

We were officially accepted into the 4 Paws program last February.  I remember, on our anniversary last year, seeing Karen post pictures of a brand new litter just born that day.  Knowing the age range of the dogs placed, I chuckled as I thought how sweet it would be to be matched with one of those babies born on our day of celebration.

It’s been a very long road.  But in just 10 short days, that road will end in Xenia, Ohio.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 12.12.48 PMAnd April is there.  Waiting for us.  Waiting for her boy.