Almost 20 years ago, when my man and I married we never would’ve imagined that the vest of a service dog would hang in our entry way. Well, I guess there’s a lot of things I could list off that we never expected. If you’ve followed our story for a length of time, you know that just Little E alone has brought many things we didn’t plan for, let alone the rest of our kids and ourselves!

When we realized the need for an Autism Service Dog to keep our daughter safe, we signed up with an agency that took us for a ride. Our hands were tied to speak up until after the dog was placed in our home. We yearned to let others know so no one else would have to go through what we did, but we had to wait so as to not jeopardize getting the dog we so desperately needed. (To read further about what that now bankrupt agency did, click here to my husband’s blog.) Because of all of the false promises and information given to us, I’ve removed a lot of that part of the story from my blog. What that agency did to us and many other families threatened to leave us angry and bitter, but instead we chose to focus on the positive and take the high road.

When Hazel joined our family, I distinctly remember a conversation with my man in our backyard right after the supposed dog trainer had left for good. We spoke out loud what we both had been thinking internally but were afraid to voice…we’d just fund raised and paid a lot of money for a trained dog, but she was definitely not service dog level. It was in those moments when we decided that we would invest in Hazel to help her become what we needed her to be. There was no room for giving up.

Although our service dog experience has not been what we expected, nor what I’d imagine is normal for a service dog placement, we’ve learned a lot along the way. We’ve even learned that non-dog people with no previous dog experience can become dog lovers. Well, maybe we’re not quite dog lovers, but we are definitely lovers of this dog. Hazel has become family and we can’t imagine life with out her.

Hazel was supposed to come to us with the ability to track Little E should she go missing, but only had about a 50% success rate. She was supposed to be capable of being tethered together with Little E, without pulling her and us adult handlers. She was supposed to be able to sense when Little E was overstimulated and “cuddle” with her with deep pressure. She was supposed to bark and alert us when Little E was climbing a tree or fence. That never happened. She came to us under-trained and under-socialized. Looking back now, I realize that Hazel had a lot of anxiety, but not having had a dog before, I thought what my observations were crazy. I should’ve listened to myself.

But I don’t want you to get stuck there because we haven’t. Although adding Hazel to our family has been more work than we expected, we are not done yet. She is a work in progress as we work with a trainer on the tasks we paid for her to do. She is a great dog that has blessed us with things that have become a bonus. Her presence alone has changed things for the better. Although Hazel was supposed to be able to be tethered to Little E to prevent bolting in public, we no longer need her to do that. Little E simply gets in her spot, walking alongside her dog, without a fuss. She stays close to Hazel without us having to ask her to. And then there’s the language, Little E’s language has exploded since Hazel has joined us. Also, sleep issues are no longer an issue. Hazel sleeps with Little E and they both sleep through the night. Every once in awhile we hear a middle of the night Gigglefest, but compared to the nightly screaming, crying and visits to our room, I’ll take it.

Some may look at the relationship between Little E and Hazel and question if they are even aware of one another, but that arms-length relationship is not out of bounds for autism. Here’s the thing that I do know, Little E may appear to not care if Hazel is there or not, but if she’s not there, Little E will voice, “Where’s Hazel?” As the dog trainer says, they have an “understanding.” I believe they are more aware of one another than is visible with the naked eye. So much of the invisible happens between a child and dog that I will never understand, but I get to watch in awe as Little E’s Autism Service Dog unlocks things in her that don’t have a price tag. It makes me wonder how an animal could change the life of other children on the spectrum.

Adding Hazel to our family has been like adding another child. I still walk into PetSm*rt and feel like I did the first time I entered B*bies r’ Us–overwhelmed and wondering what the heck all this stuff is for. Although this is not how I thought it was going to turn out, I rest in knowing that He allowed things to happen this way for a reason and am confident that He chose Hazel for us. The bumpy road required to get her here was uncomfortable, but I know that she’s here for us as much as we are here for her. And the amount of weekly work, time and money required of us to get her where we want her to be is priceless when I put into perspective what her simple presence has done for Little E.

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