Considering a Service Dog? Meet My Monty
Having grown up a dog-lover, the concept of bringing a Service Dog into my life was an intriguing idea, yet, something I thought I would only ever contemplate. Then I did it! I Filled out the application, hit the send button, and never looked back. Ten months later (February 2017), I was matched with Monty, a beautiful yellow Labrador Retriever from the NEADS organization (National Education for Assistance Dog Services, located in Princeton, MA). NEADS is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization accredited by the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) governing body that establishes industry standards and practices. Their mission is to, “provide independence to people who are Deaf or have a disability, through the use of canine assistance…Service Dogs become an extension of their handlers and bring freedom, physical autonomy and relief from social isolation to their human partners.”(NEADS.org) NEADS trains six specialties of Service Dogs supporting Veterans, physical disabilities, and social-emotional disabilities.
My Monty is a Social Therapy Assistance Dog, specializing in trained social behavior and emotional support. Once we completed our training together, he would come to work with me in my Social-Emotional Learning Center (Learning Solutions, LLC, in Norwood, MA), supporting and instructing clients ages 3-18 years old around social communication and emotional regulation. When not helping me to work with clients, Monty would live at home with my family (husband, 3 sons, and 2 turtles). Two of my sons are diagnosed with High Functioning Autism, with one looking forward to his arrival, and the other anticipating anxiety at his arrival. My youngest son (typically developing) was hoping for a best buddy; my husband was simply excited and grateful he was housebroken and well-behaved. My hope was that this beloved new addition to our family would provide a common connection between my children, and possibly between them and the social world.
The day Monty and I first met he was just shy of two years old and had grown up under the care of NEADS trainers in a minimum-security correctional facility, with weekend community puppy raisers. He had already been loved, nurtured and trained by a committed team of diverse individuals striving to make a difference for others in the world. The result was a 73lb., healthy, mellow, amazingly trained, canine colleague who was now my responsibility. Truth be told, I was slightly nervous he would be more than I could handle. Monty stared at me with curious, big brown eyes, while he allowed me to pet him, whisper to him, as well as feed him treats I had been given by his trainers. We were beginning our first week of training together and he was ready to “give it a go”.
The next 8 days were a whirlwind of drills, care classes, community experiences, and bonding designed to establish our relationship foundation, and get me up to speed with how Monty expected me to communicate with him, and anyone around him. My family welcomed Monty with a mixture of excitement, instant love, and also confusion. They quickly realized he was not like “other dogs,” but rather an extension of me, his new partner. This came as a bit of a surprise to my children, who had dreamed of getting a dog that would be “man’s best friend.” Rather, he was Mom’s shadow! It took a bit for them to adjust to the specialized manner they needed to learn in order to interact with Monty when he was in “work mode,” as well as the family time he was able to relax and be a loved pet. I began my adjustment of not only readying myself (and my kids) for the world each day, but now also my new partner. I will do my best to explain not only the visible aspects of his job, but also the unique lessons Monty inspires me to try each day as well.
First, Monty’s job “attire” : When at work, Monty is required to where a specific uniform called his “Cape” and “Gentle Leader.” The Cape designates his training and role as a Social Therapy Assistance Dog. The Gentle Leader rests comfortably across his face, and around his neck. This leash does not serve as a “muzzle” as Monty is able to open his mouth and act/do the same things with or without it on. The Gentle Leader leash is modeled after Animal Science that a mother dog will correct her puppy by placing pressure on the same facial points that the Gentle Leader does. When on, the Gentle Leader provides Monty’s Therapeutic Partner (Me) a way to direct and correct Monty’s actions, and placement within a group. Subtle pressure is applied by the Gentle Leader when pulled briefly in an upward motion, and then quickly released.
When Monty’s workday ends, I remove his handsome attire, and verbally acknowledge he is now off duty and able to enjoy being a family dog. Monty loves his “free time!”
While at work in either the Social-Emotional Learning Center or travelling between school consultations, workshops and meetings, Monty has been overwhelmingly welcomed. This was a relief as I was initially unsure if the diverse environments I worked in would understand the calming effect and inspiring motivation Monty instills in both children and adults. During school environment work Monty and I can be distracting to the excited students and staff, so I do have to be sensitive to this. The best way to respect learning environments is to quickly, and calmly, direct Monty to place himself quietly in an out of the way spot, until there is a need for him to interact with myself or another.
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