The Amazing Owen
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This is a long bit of verbage, but it's a really good story.  So go get your coffee and come back and settle in...

Last September I wrote about the fact that we had applied for a service dog for Owen in this entry.  I explained the process in detail there, but a quick overview is that we applied last June and Owen was approved as a candidate in July.  Once you are a candidate you attend classes every three months while you wait for an appropriate dog to pass its tests so that they are ready to be paired.  Once a dog is ready to be paired they interview several people with the dog whom they feel might make good partners. When the interviews are done they choose the best fit.  Last week we finally got the call (well email) that we had been hoping for: could we please come and meet with a dog that they thought would be a good match with Owen.  And even better - it was a dog that we had met and really liked in a training class last year.

So last Thursday we went for our interview.  I really had no idea what to expect as it was our first.  The dog's name is Jigsaw and she is a beautiful black lab/golden retriever mix (I think) with long curly black fur.  She is on the smaller end, which is good for a small boy.  As I said, we had met her before and just fell in love with her.  There were a lot of wonderful dogs that we met in classes or at other functions at St. Francis, but after meeting Jigsaw at the last class I turned to my Mom on the way home and said "I know I'm not supposed to have favorites, but I really would like her."  I don't know why she stood out so much from the other dogs, but she was very friendly and at the same time very gentle with Owen.  He loved her soft silky fur.  So we were hopeful when we went into the interview that it would go well.

The first part of the interview is sitting down with the head of the program who goes over a description of how the interview process works - mostly letting you know that they will interview several people with the dog and if you aren't chosen they can't discuss why because of the privacy of the other candidates.  Then the dog's trainer sits down with you and goes over the dog's strengths and weaknesses and discusses your particular needs to see if there is anything that you absolutely need that the dog isn't suited for.  It seemed from the discussion that Jigsaw is a very sensitive dog, which would be good for being able to sense when something is wrong - like a seizure. And she is very hard working and eager to please. Her weakness was that in the past she has startled and was difficult to calm at two very loud sounds.  But the situations that they described were ones in which I'm not sure I wouldn't have been startled so it didn't seem like a show stopper. 

The next thing they do is to bring in the dog herself.  In the beginning they just sat Jigsaw down with Owen to see how they reacted to each other.  He reached out to pet her a few times and she calmly checked him out. And then they actually asked Mommy to work with her.  Looking somewhat like a deer in headlights I'm sure, I took the leash without knowing exactly what to expect.  I shouldn't have worried, Jigsaw made it so easy on me.  You start out with a game where you hold treats out to either side and get the dog to keep her attention fixed on you instead of the treats.  The dogs know this game and it is to introduce you as someone to pay attention to, rather than a background person that they are taught to ignore.  Right from the start Jigsaw just gazed deeply into my eyes and ignored the treats. 

After the introduction, we moved onto the basics like sit, down, and having her walk with me and then with Owen in his stroller.  She was just flawless.  I can't get either of my kids to respond to commands like that!  Then we moved on to more difficult things.  The dogs are taught to play a game just for fun - they are shown a toy and then told to wait while you hide it somewhere out of their sight.  Then you come back and tell them to find it and off they go to root around until they get it and bring it back to you.  Then the trainer put objects out on the floor and I could tell Jigsaw to "get it" and then point at an object and she'd bring it right back to me.  Honestly, it was like a game to both of us and it was just plain fun.

The real moment of seeing just how seriously these dogs take their jobs came next though.  They said that they were all going to leave the room and that I should have Jigsaw sit and play with Owen.  Once her attention was on Owen and she was relaxed and not waiting for a command I should tell her "Jigsaw, Help".  So they all left and Jigsaw came over to play with Owen, and then I gave the command.  She shot off like a rocket down the hall barking loudly until she found the trainer who was waiting down the hall.  She brought the trainer right back to me and Owen.  I mean, Wow. 

The final great moment was after the interview was more or less done and we were just chatting for a minute at the end.  Jigsaw had been sat down next to Owen's stroller and she started to nuzzle him.  He thought this was great and actually signed "more" for her to do it again. Owen isn't always the most interactive and to see him actually communicating with the dog was great. 

Then we left and began the wait to hear if Owen would be chosen, or if someone else would be paired with Jigsaw.  You try to put it out of your mind.  You don't really chit chat about it much and just get busy with other things.  You try not to have visions of having another pair of hands so that if you drop something you don't have to put Owen back down, get the thing and then lift him back up.  Of having help with doors, of knowing that if he has a seizure at school and I'm by myself with him in the therapy room that someone could go and get help.  That someone would be sleeping with him at night that could tell us if something is wrong.

And then yesterday I put Owen into his stroller at school to head out to the playground and I checked my phone, and there was a text from Daddy - St. Francis had called and said that Owen had indeed been chosen.  So I bounced out onto the playground to share the good news. 

We don't just bring Jigsaw home tomorrow of course.  Jigsaw has spent the last few years in training, learning all of the skills she'll need to be a service dog.  Now it's our turn to do our training to learn how to work with her.  This part of the training we'll do together, learning what each of us needs and how to help each other out.  We will having formal training at the training center.  We will have tests to pass.  There will be just weekends at home with us after we've had some training.  Then longer periods at home with us.  The last step is to be allowed to work in public places.  Even after all the training and tests there is a probationary period to make sure things are really working out.  And even after Owen and Jigsaw graduate then there will be recertifications later on.  I'm sure that there will be days when this seems like a lot of work, when having yet another living thing to take care of will be a hassle - but I'm also sure that the help that Jigsaw can give, both by working and by being a soft, furry, loving presence will be worth it. 

I posted a whole bunch of videos of Owen, and his sister Sammy, doing amazing things over on the Family Blog a few days ago.  Normally I repost all of that sort of thing here, but this is already a really long entry so I will just point you over there to check it out. I will do an entry soon about all the incredible progress that Owen has been making lately, but for today we just wanted to share the great news. 

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