Yes, I know. I totally succumbed to a dad-worthy pun for the title. Consider it a nod to the man of the house who has a torrid love affair with all things punny. He lives to see my eyes roll, I’m just sure of it.
But bad puns aside, we do have a new adventure beginning here at the Sparks abode. It’s an enormous commitment, but well worth the time, energy, and destroyed shoes that I am certain are in our future.
Meet Max. He is in an Australian Shepherd/Newfoundland mix with a big job: he will become our middle daughter’s service dog.
Brinley is six years old and has moderate to severe autism, which means that nearly everything she does throughout the day is difficult for her. Even the smallest daily tasks require extensive supports and planning. Getting dressed? That can become a WWE brawl if the clothes feel funny, or if she isn’t into the shirt going over her head today. Brushing her hair? We have literally had a neighbor knock on the door to make sure everyone was okay because her screaming was that loud and distressed. Sitting at her table at school and doing her work? That took months of work and establishment as part of her daily routine before real progress started to happen. And let’s not even talk about what happens when we break her routine. Currently, our school system is on Spring Break, and Brinley has struggled enormously this week. Even the things she loves and has asked specifically to do, have resulted in violent, shrieking meltdowns with her hands over her ears and her body flailing. It’s heartbreaking to watch. How do you cope when your baby can’t even enjoy her favorite things because she is too overwhelmed by her internal drivers?
Enter Max. We are calling him Miracle Max, after one of my all-time favorite fictional characters from one of my all-time favorite movies, The Princess Bride. Max is truly a little miracle that appeared in our lives. We have been fundraising for a service dog since last year, with the intention of applying for one to be trained for her through a dedicated service dog organization. However, the cost is astronomical (typically between $15,000 and $20,000) and we have a two year wait for the dog to become part of our family. There are lots of benefits to using this method, but several drawbacks as well. Through never-ending research, we found several other, far more affordable options. Having raised just under $9,000 already, we were fatigued at the idea of asking friends and family to help us raise another $11,000. We became intrigued by the idea of working with a local trainer to raise our dog from a pup and have a large hand in its service training, but the task seemed so daunting. To be honest, it still seems daunting, but at least doable.
We happened upon this sweet pup at an adoption event, when our oldest daughter begged to go pet the animals after our Target run. It’s something we do often, but we are never in the market for an animal. We simply enjoy loving on the animals. However, the second we spotted Max, that gut feeling just tugged at me. This little guy was special. I called Drew to bring the little girls so that we could investigate this possibility further. I certainly hadn’t expected to go out for groceries and come home with the animal that would become what we had prayed for over the last few years! But once, he arrived with Brinley to meet her potential pup, it was obvious that we hadn’t stumbled onto this little guy by accident.
It was love at first sight for Brinley and Max. She is typically interested in dogs, but not overly so, and tires of petting one after a few moments. With Max, however, the attraction was instant and lasting. She kept going back to him, burying her hands in his luxuriously soft fur, and giggling when he licked her face. She hugged him and said “Awwww! He likes me!” over and over again. My momma heart melted, and I struck up a conversation with the volunteer, who connected me with a local trainer. This trainer had worked with several local families to train service animals, and if we chose to pursue this path, we would be directly involved in the process. In fact, she would be guiding us on HOW to provide the training and we would ultimately be the ones putting in the time and effort to make it happen. While this approach, of course, had some drawbacks, it seemed to us that the potential benefits outweighed them. We loved the idea of having our dog home and bonding with Brinley from day one, as well as the very personal and responsive method of training. Waiting for two years (or more) for the dog to become a part of our lives at all was one of our biggest concerns. We wouldn’t be able to connect until Monday, but we decided to take a risk on this puppy, as people were lining up with hopes of adopting him. The rescue was amazing at working with us to ensure we had a contingency plan in case he didn’t “pass inspection” so to speak. We toted him home on that Saturday afternoon with hopeful, but anxious hearts.
Wednesday morning the moment of truth came. We met with the trainer, whom I instantly “clicked with”. I learned more about dogs in those couple of hours than I had in my entire life! She was a wealth of knowledge and a very thorough evaluator. We discussed everything from Brinley’s personality and struggles to our weekly routine to the layout of our home. In the end, she advised me that he had a great temperament and would likely become and excellent service dog, but gave all the potential pitfalls of training this way. She was honest but encouraging. Cautious, but optimistic. We walked away feeling the weight of uncertainty had lifted off of shoulders but was replaced with the enormous burden of responsibility for training this nine-week-old puppy through to adulthood to be the helper our daughter needs.
We enter this journey with extraordinary hope and great optimism. We have no illusions that this will be an easy undertaking. This will, essentially, become my full-time job. But I am prepared to do whatever it takes to give my baby girl what she needs. And as it turns out, Miracle Max is already working his magic. He has slept with Brinley since coming home, and she has slept all night without getting up and getting in our bed. He has laid next to her for several hours while she played on iPad and looked at books, all the while stroking his soft fur. His mere presence was clearly a source of comfort. Most impressively of all, he has instinctively responded when she is upset, licking her face to calm her at the outset of what could have been a monstrous meltdown with no prompting from us whatsoever. It was simply his natural reaction to comfort her. Cue the tears from Mommy!
In fact, just having Max around already seems to be a calming force for Brinley. In fact, last night when she was upset, she went over to him and buried her little face in his fur. No meltdown, just whimpers, and a burst of frustrated words. I was speechless. Sure, she is still having meltdowns where we can’t let him near her yet for his own safety, but he’s ten-weeks-old. He’s not trained to help her yet. What we do see in him is an instinctive drive to respond to her, to ease her pain. You can’t train that into any animal. It’s simply a part of them or it’s not.
Miracle Max is still a puppy. He’s a baby, really. So he behaves like a puppy. We have a long way to go before he is truly a service dog. There is a year’s worth of “basic” training and socialization. Then there is the official evaluation (which we will be preparing him for from day one, so it’s very unlikely he will not pass it) and then the real, official service training portion begins. It will be a year and a half to two years before he is a fully functional service animal, but in the meantime, he’s still Brinley’s buddy. He’s her comfort and her grounding. And that alone is worth every penny, every frustration, every tear that comes with this approach to his training.
I’ll gladly sacrifice a few chewed-up shoes for that.