This is the story from start to finish about our journey to Massimo, our autism assistance service dog. I hope you find it helpful to your journey. Blessings from us to you.
As I write this, I am reflecting on a series of events that took over 4 years to achieve. Maybe even longer since the initial thought gleamed into my mind. Wow! Impossible to believe that we are here now. Before I could publish this, one of our favorite autism podcasts called Autism Parenting Secrets actually interviewed our Service Dog Company. Here is the link to the podcast: https://autism-parenting-secrets.simplecast.com/episodes/service-dogs-can-be-life-saving-HNK7tBtl
The Start of the Journey
In their toddler stage of life, the twins already showed the capacity to wander off in different directions. We lock the doors, windows, etc , even now, but the potential for a safety catastrophe to occur was ever present, just as it is today. Shenanigans for little creative minds just grow exponentially as little minds develop. I remember an acquaintance mentioning to me that a family living near them had a special needs child and had a service dog. Hence the small seed of an idea was planted in my mind.
If you can’t remember what my house looks like all locked up , please click the link here to read that post: https://faithhealthautism.com/category/autism-friendly-home/
Service Dog Research
Get to work Mom! is the idea whenever I get into this mode. I think for a while, ponder the needs, and start researching. And this is where the journey really begins! What is a service dog? How does this work for autism? How can this help our family in particular? Is a service dog worth the effort and expense ?
Service dogs by definition and according to the ADA (American Disability Act) is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. So how can this help with autism? And how does this work if the disabled person is not able to control a dog ( hold the leash and keep the dog under control)?
Landing on the Right Service Dog Company
As it turns out, many service dog agencies cannot train autism service dogs for children since the child does not have the maturity to be able to control the dog, a requirement in certification. I did do some initial research and then casually mentioned to our autism specialist that I was interested in seeing how a service dog could help provide us with additional support. Our specialist mentioned that he knew of a company in Ohio that did this particular kind of service dog, although the name of the company escaped him. I did some more research and landed on 4 Paws for Ability in Ohio.
This is the starting point of the next phase of our journey. 4 Paws has a decent website with several video clips. ( It’s also been updated a few times since the start of our journey so videos are even better now.) You can find 4 Paws here: https://www.4pawsforability.org/ I watched and pondered for a few days before bringing my husband into the conversation. He watched and pondered and we both mutually agreed that a service dog really would improve both the boys safety and comfort.
The Journey to the Service Dog: Part 1, Phase 2
We arrive at the next phase of our journey. Now in the year 2019, I, the mom, fill out all the intake application forms. The intake coordinator at 4 Paws did connect with us fairly promptly as I recall. The next couple of months was a series of initial paperwork, phone interview, and more paperwork to help understand the significant impact of the commitment that having a service dog involves. 4 Paws did a great job with both encouraging us that it could be done and in helping us understand the actual process to obtain the service dog that would meet our needs.
Our children do not have seizures like many autistic children fall victim to. But we do seem to have elopers, and our boys will often elope in 2 different directions at the speed of lightening. This is a problem when only one caretaker is home and that caretaker has to figure out which direction to go. We needed a service dog that could both assist at home and track a missing child. The 4 Paws facility can train dogs to track. BINGO!!! This was the answer we were looking for. We signed the contract with 4 Paws officially in 2019. We definitely had the feeling that we were signing our life away just like when we bought our house. Moving on to the next phase…….
The Journey to Service Dog: Part 1, Phase 2
We are officially under contract with 4 Paws. What’s next? This is a BIG one. Funding. Many service dog companies, and 4 Paws in particular have highly specialized breeding programs for service dogs. You cannot randomly pick out a puppy somewhere and then have it trained. The mommy and daddy dogs are specifically chosen for their genetic health and temperament that is specifically sought after in the tasks that are needed for service dogs to provide. There are on staff vets, full time staff, full time trainers, etc to keep all of this top notch, and this costs money.
According to 4 Paws, the average cost to raise one dog from birth to service dog certification is about 40-60K. That’s right. A good quality service dog does not come cheaply. And they are certainly not free. 4 Paws charges families a fee ( currently that fee is 20K) that a family has to fully provide before they can be placed into a class. Families are allowed to fundraise, have events, accepts charitable gifts etc. to help raise the funds for their dog. At this point, the dog that you will receive has not been identified and the likelihood is that your particular dog has not even been born yet.
The Part About the Finances
To us, this was a huge hurdle. We don’t have a large support system; we both work full time. 4 Paws did allow us to only buy 1 dog and place 1 dog to help with both boys, with the option to add in and additional dog at a later time if the need arose.
We did do some fundraising and worked extra hours. There were some people in our church and our community who generously donated to help us raise the funds. The rest we did on our own by working extra hard. I think in total it took us about 6-8 months to raise our funds fully. We turned in the final total amount in July of 2020. Right in the middle of the COVID shutdown. We didn’t know how it would affect us with all the delays, and we just kept the faith that all would work out just like it was supposed to.
The Journey to Service Dog: Part 1, Phase 3
The final phase in the first part of our journey was our official class placement. Our contract was signed, our funds were raised, and now we eagerly awaited our class assignment. The huge hurdle in this part of the journey is time. From the time that funds are completely raised till the day you travel to service dog placement class can be 2-2 1/2 years. And that is after the dog is fully funded. We were initially placed for class in November of 2022 but knew that class was likely to change based on the COVID delays as all the classes that were caught up in the delays had to be re-organized. While we waited, we watched. We watched the live presentations of the new puppy litters, wondering which one our dog was in.
At 4 Paws, all the dog’s training starts from birth. with evaluations for abilities and personalities. These dogs go to quite a few interesting places to train. There are puppy volunteer trainers, inmates in the prison program, and college students who take the dog out to class and in society. All these areas increase a dog’s social skills and adaptation to stimuli that help the trainers know which dogs are more companion worthy and which dogs can truly function in a service capacity.
Once a dog is identifies as service dog capable, they will at some point in the few months prior to placement enter advanced training.
The Journey to Service Dog: Part 1, Phase 4
After all the COVID shuffles, our family was pretty confident that we would be delayed just a bit into early 2023. We penciled this into the calendar. Now we wait. And watch. And wait. and watch.
The fun part of this is that is you look on facebook often enough, you will see both the puppy litters that are introduced and the class graduations for the classes ahead of you. And this does generate excitement from time to time. At the time of the completion of our funding, 2022-2023 seemed so far away. And it is an incredibly long wait. However, every time we would see a post, graduation, litter of puppies, it gave us hope that eventually our day would come.
We spent 2 summers after that with the boys being out of school and eloping everywhere. Keeping our hopes alive and knowing that we are on the class list did help keep our spirits up as we waited.
The Wait is Almost Over
About 6 months or so before class, we got the call to turn in our videos. Now we are getting there. Excitement is welling. When it’s time to send in videos, you know that you are finally on the home stretch!! Woo Hoo.
They want videos of everything: good behavior, meltdowns, family routines, a whole home tour, etc. They need to see everything to be able to choose the dog that would match your families individual needs and personalities. I still laugh when I think of some of the videos I sent in, thinking “Well, you asked for real life so here you go!” Truly, while I was filming our house tour on my iphone, one of my twins had found some garden shears and was chopping my hydrangea to bits.
We turned in the completion of our videos along with some additional paperwork in July of 2022. This paperwork was slightly more specific with questions such as ” Where would you like your dog to sleep?,
It was at this point that we knew we were approaching the finish line goal for our class. The excitement was building as the months passed. Shortly after we got all our videos turned in, we were officially notified that we were heading to service dog class in January of 2023. Hooray!!!! We had finally made it…….
This exciting life saga of our service dog journey continues with Part 2.. so click here to go directly to the rest of the story. https://faithhealthautism.com/the-journey-to-the-service-dog-part-2/. See you over there! Come meet our dog!