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Life with an Autism Service Dog
Part I: Getting started
Riley with Jingle, her new autism service dog.

It started with a crazy longing for a dog. We don’t need a dog. We already have three cats and our children are high-need. Our daughter has Asperger’s (a high-functioning form of autism) and our son has autoimmune issues. My hands are quite full, but somehow I’d find myself looking at petfinder.com, or the Greyhound rescue sites, or the Golden Retriever rescue sites. I’d stare longingly at the faces in need of adoption. I’d send their photos to my husband’s e-mail at work. He’d e-mail back, “We don’t need a dog.”  I knew he was right.

Then, about a year ago, I was asked to review the book A Friend Like Henry by Nuala Gardener. It is about a boy with autism and the amazing gains he made with his Golden Retriever by his side. My wheels started to turn. Is it possible a dog could help with the intense meltdowns our daughter experiences when she becomes overwhelmed? Is she “autistic enough” for a service dog? With the encouragement of fellow bloggers I checked it out and found 4 Paws for Ability. It is one of the only organizations in the country that places service dogs with children under 18, and yes, they do train dogs for children with Asperger’s.

4 Paws for Ability does not let people purchase service dogs. Each family must fund raise between $11,000 and $14,000 depending on what the dog will be trained to do. The dogs receive between 400 and 600 hours of training before being placed with a family. The families must also be trained and are required to attend a ten-day session in Xenia, Ohio, where 4 Paws is located.  

We thought it would take at least a year to raise the funds, but once my husband and I got over our pride and asked for help, the money came pouring in. Musician friends altruistically performed a benefit concert in our hometown in upstate New York. Friends, neighbors and a local church made generous donations. The power of the Internet was lassoed and virtual friends who’d followed my blog came out of the woodwork to donate money. One blogger friend organized a fund-raising autism/mommy blogger dinner in Boston with author John Elder Robison who wrote a book about growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s. 

To our amazement, we raised $11,000 in less than two months. The goodness of people is overwhelming.

Then came the waiting. For ten months we didn't know who our dog would be. In the meantime, we had to videotape Riley’s meltdowns and send the tapes off to 4 Paws. As the time drew near, they studied the tapes and matched her with the perfect dog for her.

Jingle is her name-o! We met her this week. She is an adorable Australian Shepherd/Boxer mix and we are here in Xenia, Ohio, in the middle of training. I’m typing this from our hotel room. (Yes, we bring the dog back to the hotel with us every night for ten days!)

I'll be blogging throughout the training, and will continue to tell our service dog story at my blog Full-Soul-Ahead! It is a thrill for me that The Bark will be featuring some of these posts on its website. We hope you will join us for this incredible ride.

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Michelle O'Neil has contributed to A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism and Special Gifts: Women Writers on the Heartache, the Happiness and the Hope of Raising a Special Needs Child. She has written for Literary Mama, The Imperfect Parent, Age of Autism and she is a contributor to Hopeful Parents. She has a nine-year-old daughter with Asperger's and a seven-year-old son with autoimmune issues. Follow her further adventures at her blog, Full-Soul-Ahead! fullsoulahead.com

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