Life with a Side of Special

I have a toolbox – a figurative toolbox.  When life with my son, Bridger, who has complex special needs, throws me a challenge that I otherwise have no solution for, I go to this toolbox for the answer.  I search here for answers to every transition that my son goes through – transitions gaining skills, transitions losing skills, transitions in behavior, in communication, for continued safety and quality of life for the rest of our family.  Usually the answers I find in my toolbox involve a new piece of adaptive equipment.   Sometimes the answer is as simple as a lanyard to connect his self-soothing “chewy” around his neck so he will stop throwing it and then get mad every time he does.  I consult my toolbox often and can always find an answer to a new challenge.  

Except for that one time that I couldn’t.

A couple years ago we were entering a new phase with Bridger.  He was transitioning from being a “little” boy to a “big boy”. It was an age when switch toys that blink and beep are no longer fascinating to him.  Yet, the age-appropriate activities of Legos and video games that his typical peers were happily engaged with were far beyond Bridger’s abilities.  Behaviorally this was causing a challenge.  I didn't have an answer. I didn’t know how this next phase in his developmental life would work, but I knew I needed to put some “tools” in our toolbox to bring the peace to know that we were ready to tackle the challenges of the coming years.

One afternoon, while frequenting our favorite accessible playground, we met the park manager who had with her an adorable little Labrador puppy donned in a mini “Service Dog in Training” vest.  She shared with us about the remarkable organization that she and the dog were a part of, Canine Companions for Independence.  She is a “Puppy Raiser” who cares for a puppy of the most carefully bred pedigree.  She introduces it into the world of loud sounds, commotion and distractions and trains them to ignore it all and obey a series commands.  The puppy raisers keep the dog from age 6 weeks to 18 months.  After 18 months the dog is sent to the main center for “Puppy University”.  This is an intensive training course where they receive an additional 6 months of training to become a Skilled Companion.  If the dog graduates from the training, it is then matched with a recipient from the application list to participate in a 2 week team training for placement to receive the certified Service Dog.

After we returned home from the park, we immediately researched Canine Companions for Independence and began the application process – starting with a lengthy application.  We submitted photos of our family, our home, our yard, and pictures of each of Bridger’s pieces of adaptive equipment. We had phone interviews, documentation and letters of recommendations from our doctors and therapists.  Lastly, we had to travel to Long Island, NY for the final four hour in-person interview.   That interview involved lectures, demonstrations, hands-on testing and evaluations.  These dogs were fascinating! They were trained to keep their nose in line with your leg and never be forward of that point.  They were trained to stay within 6” of the wheelchair at all times – even when you move.  To watch a dog stay within that proximity of a moving wheelchair and not get its paws run over was incredible!  We constantly get our feet run over by Bridger's wheelchair -- even when we maintain a few feet distance from his wheels.  It was exciting and intense.  We left with a hope that Bridger would receive a call that he had been accepted into the program.

That call came a week later and our name was placed on the two year wait list to be matched with a dog.

Finally, after a year on the wait list, we received a call from CCI that they had a dog to match with Bridger and we were invited to come to New York for the intensive 2 week Team Training process.  It was a grueling two weeks as I was trained as the “facilitator” for the pairing of Bridger and the dog - performing the commands to the dog that Bridger could not perform for himself.

An amazing dog, Tyrone, was chosen for Bridger.  Although, it was pretty clear to all of us that Tyrone chose Bridger himself!

Fast forward two years now, and we have an amazing tool in our toolbox.  Ty (shortened so Bridger could say it) came to us knowing what to do – it was Bridger that had to learn how to use this tool in his life.  It has been fascinating to watch as Ty has become his arms and his legs.  He picks things up and puts things down for Bridger.  He opens doors and closes drawers.  He is his playmate and his companion.  He is his confidence and his calming influence.  He is his best friend.

I would have never imagined a few years ago that Bridger would have a big green dog kennel sitting next to his little green wheelchair.  His service dog has become a wonderful addition to his life.  I continually reflect with awe at the places we are going, people we are meeting and beautiful sites we are seeing because of our unique journey with Bridger.  And a doggone amazing journey it is!