It is well past time that I give an update on young Benjamin, our golden retriever-poodle cross puppy who will hopefully grow into an assistance dog for Lil Z. He is 8 months old now and well and truly settled into life with our family.
As I’ve written before, his arrival had poor timing since Lil Z ended up in hospital the day after he arrived. QB collected Ben on a Thursday afternoon. He was a bit nervous when he first arrived, but by evening he was pretty relaxed. Even our cat seemed to accept him (probably because she established early on that she was boss). We were thrilled that he still showed interest in Lil Z.
Although cuddles with Vegemite were far and away his favourite thing.
Overall, by evening, he appeared to have settled in quite happily.
Our trainer strongly recommended that Ben be crate trained, and it was a good recommendation. Ben made it through his first night in the crate without any crying or accidents. Considering QB and I were braced for sleepless nights on par with a newborn baby, we were surprised and pleased the next morning.
And then Lil Z had a major seizure and she (and I) ended up in hospital for a week. Not the start to Ben’s life with us that I would have chosen. And I worry that it may have caused problems in establishing a bond between the two of them.
When we finally got home from the hospital a week later, Ben and Vegemite had already established a close bond. But Ben was still interested in Lil Z and they immediately realised they shared a love of naps.
Since Ben’s arrival we’ve been working hard to make him what our trainer calls ‘bomb proof’. He has to be able to go everywhere without getting scared or anxious. So from a very early age he has been out and about with us – going for walks, school drop-off and pick-up, coffee runs (I’ve personally ensured he has no fear of cafes or coffee machines), and anywhere else we go where dogs are allowed. We also take him twice a week for training at our trainer’s puppy and dog school, where he gets to interact with other dogs and is learning basic commands and obedience.
He’s doing pretty well with most of his basics. He is house-trained and follows most basic commands. Although he went through a phase of stealing and chewing things (particularly shoes and the girls’ toys – we have several amputee Barbies now), he now only chews his own toys. He is also crate trained and actually puts himself to bed in his crate (which is in the girls’ room) every night when you give the command “bedtime”.
However, he is still a puppy, so his training is far from perfect. He gets over-excited, especially when he sees other dogs. He pesters visitors to our house mercilessly to get attention. And although he’s house trained, he will try to get away with weeing on the lawn, rather than going to the spot at the back of the garden we’ve chosen for him to go. And he has an inexplicable fascination with rocks (that resulted in him having to have one removed from his stomach after he swallowed it). And he and the cat drive me crazy by teasing and squabbling with each other (although I think they both secretly love each other).
Hygiene around our house has definitely taken a turn for the worse since Ben’s arrival. He doesn’t shed, which is brilliant, but leaves and grass stick to him and end up all over the floors. When it rains, there are muddy Ben-prints around the house, unless you catch him and clean his feet as he comes inside. And although he hasn’t yet started alerting us to seizures, we do jokingly call him the vomit response dog, because he always comes when he hears Lil Z being sick – eager for a chance to wash Lil Z’s face and hands and clean up the floor. One day I found Ben and Lil Z cuddled together on the floor: she had his paw in her mouth while he licked her face.
Training him is hard work, and I’m not convinced that we’re doing a great job. He doesn’t “go” in the house, but we haven’t yet trained him to go on command. We should be taking him out and about more than we do. We’d like to spend time doing training exercises every day, but the realities of life mean that we don’t do a great deal of practice during the week. I’m not sure we’d be up to the task at all if I didn’t work from home, our au pair wasn’t very dog friendly (she takes him out for long walks that totally wear him out) and QB and I have little social life – so plenty of time during the weekends to dedicate to dog training classes.
And although Ben is interested in Lil Z and vice versa, it is going to be a challenge to get them to form a real bond. As a puppy with lots of energy, he far prefers running around the garden with Vegemite to sitting patiently while we help Lil Z stroke him. Letting Lil Z interact on her own with Ben can also be problematic since she tends to kick and hit him (not hard enough to hurt him) when trying to touch him. Although Ben has a beautiful nature and doesn’t respond to Lil Z giving him a thump, it doesn’t seem to help the bonding process.
And with Lil Z being so vulnerable since Ben arrived – with her leg in a cast and the changes in medication making her sleepy – we have been guilty of stopping Ben from interacting with her too much. It can be hard not to tell him off when he goes near her, since he is usually so bouncy and likes to get in her face. We have to be particularly careful not to tell him off or say “no” too much when he is around Lil Z, or we will end up inadvertently teaching him to stay away from her. It can be a tricky balancing act, and I have at times wondered if getting a puppy and letting it grow up alongside Lil Z is actually aiding the bonding process – or hindering it.
But we’ve had our successes, too. One afternoon Lil Z was unhappy and unsettled. Ben laid down beside her and I helped her to stroke his paw. It immediately soothed her and both she and Ben fell asleep – holding ‘hands’. You can’t really expect anything better than that.
At the moment, I think it is too early to tell if Ben will grow up to become the assistance dog that we hope he will be. He is intelligent and has a great temperament, but who knows if he will be able to detect and react to Lil Z’s seizures or respond to her in the ways we want him to do. And even more likely than Ben failing is the risk that QB and I will fail – fail to find the time and energy to dedicate ourselves to the level of training he requires.
Despite this uncertainty, none of us regrets the decision to get Ben. He has become (in the words of our trainer) a ‘family therapy dog’. His love and devotion to Vegemite gives her greater emotional support, which she needs as the sibling of a child with special needs. Ben stepped into that role on his first morning, when Vegemite hugged him while we waited for the ambulance. And the rest of the time, the two of them just have lots and lots of fun. He fills the gap of playmate and companion that has been left by Lil Z’s disabilities.
Ben’s happy – and often just silly – nature cheers up the whole house and he’s often responsible for lightening the mood. Taking him for walks or playing with him in the garden blows away the cobwebs and makes you feel better. Brushing him in the evening can be downright therapeutic. And getting out to dog training classes gives us something new to do and discuss – since neither QB nor I have any experience training dogs, we’re finding it interesting and rewarding.
So, a few months into our assistance dog experience, what have we learned? Well, quite a lot actually:
- It is a big job. Even making Ben ‘bomb proof’ takes a lot of effort and extra planning. I’m not sure we’d be able to do it if I didn’t work from home and our au pair wasn’t willing to take Ben out with her regularly.
- It is expensive. Ben wasn’t cheap and we’ve invested in a “lifetime plan” for training (and that excludes the special lessons that he will need later to train him for his assistance dog role), not to mention food, toys, and grooming. But compared to the cost of an assistance dog in Australia (which begins at around A$25,000), I suspect doing it ourselves will turn out to be considerably less expensive.
- There are no guarantees. We have been lucky with Ben – he has a great temperament for working with kids. But many assistance and guide dogs flunk out of their training programme for all sorts of reasons, and it may turn out that Ben simply won’t be able to make the grade and pass his test to become a qualified assistance dog. This could also be as much due to the inexperience of QB and me as it is for Ben’s personality.
- Bonding between a dog and a non-verbal, non-mobile child isn’t easy. Ben likes Lil Z, but he loves Vegemite. And Vegemite loves him. Making sure that Lil Z fits into that equation is going to be a challenge.
However, despite it all, we wouldn’t trade our family therapy dog for anything.