They say it takes a village to raise a child and for sure the same thing can be said about raising a service dog, particularly one trained to help an autistic child. Last week we celebrated with that village. Thank god there are villages like these.
Leila is the second dog Winnie raised. Her first dog, Henna, was a happy-go-lucky free-spirited bundle of energy that literally bounded into a room.
Leila could not be more opposite.
Leila was always a quiet and composed old soul, even as a puppy. Even her kisses were gentle and carefully measured. We always joked that she took her job as a service dog in training very seriously, always the consummate professional.
She did very well in guide dog training (no surprise!), but a series of minor though persistent health issues caused the vets to decide she wouldn’t be a good match with a blind person, who couldn’t make a good visual assessment of her. Thus she moved into the Heeling Autism program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, where she thrived.
She spent over a year (over a year! waiting for updates on her progress was torture during that year!) learning to be a companion to an autistic child. She learned how to be tethered to a child, she went to various schools to learn how to settle in a classroom full of activity, and she went on many outings to Target and other places learning how to shop with a cart in a crowded store. Her many, many training activities were all designed to make her the perfect and steadfast friend for a child who needed her.
The idea behind service dogs for kids with autism is to help keep them safe and help them better relate to the world. In a practical sense, the dog is tethered to the child while out and about and learns to act as an anchor if the child tries to run away (autistic kids often lack an understanding of danger). In an emotional sense, the dog forms a strong, loving bond with the child and offers them comfort, security, and a way of engaging with the world around them.
Can you imagine what that’s like as a parent? (I can now, after tearfully listening to story after story about the respite these dogs bring to families. I went to the graduation knowing it was a tearjerker occasion, but seriously! You. Have. No. Idea.)
The highlight of her training for us (besides hearing she was graduating, of course) was finding out that she was moved from the kennels to live with a foster family. Living with the foster family gave Leila the chance to get back into the daily rhythm and routine with kids, and she was lucky enough to live with a family with two wonderful children. We called Olivia, the girl she played with, watched TV with, hiked with, even slept with, “Leila’s practice girl.”
Our hearts filled with joy every single time we got a picture of Leila and Olivia, clearly they were an excellent training team.
And finally, word came that Leila was matched with a 9 year old girl with autism. Leila would be going to her forever family with an important job to do.
But first, there was a graduation ceremony to attend.
To say a Heeling Autism graduation is emotional is an understatement.
There were about 50 people at the graduation we attended last week, ranging from the recipient families (just the parents), the puppy raisers (like Winnie), the foster families (like Olivia’s), and the staff and trainers involved in preparing these amazing dogs for service.
No one warns you about what ensues (and that’s probably for the better). The tables are arranged in a large square around the room, so everyone has a view of everyone else and the dogs (who settle perfectly under the tables, of course).
Then they bring out the microphone and that’s the beginning of the end (at least if you’re wearing eye makeup).
Thank goodness they also bring out the boxes of tissues, too.
While passing the microphone around, each person has a chance to talk about why they’re there, how they got involved and what role they played in the lives of these graduating pups.
One of the guide dog trainers said it best. “Rather than an invitation, they should just send every person a box of tissues with the day and time to show up. That would probably get the point across,” she said.
Whew, it was intense.
But intense in such a good way.
It’s intense to hear the stories from parents of these autistic children who have struggled for so long.
It’s intense to hear from all the raisers and trainers who put their hearts into teaching these dogs to be angels on earth.
It’s intense to hear about how these kids react to meeting their dogs for the first time.
And it’s most intense having the chance to reflect on how incredibly lucky I am to be in the role of puppy raiser rather than recipient.
Only by the grace of God go I.
Meeting Leila’s new family was just incredible. They are the sweetest, most sincere and appreciative family you can imagine and within a few minutes of us meeting they asked if we were on Facebook so we could keep up with Leila’s adventures with their daughter.
This means the world to us.
Snarky social commentary about the value of Facebook aside, it’s also a bridge across hearts and souls right now. It lets us not say goodbye to the puppy Winnie raised, trained and socialized, but instead watch this new chapter in Leila’s life unfold and cheer her on with her new family.
And believe me, nothing in the world could feel better.
Watch her life and love story here: