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.
Clients who have struggled to connect with peers, to exchange reciprocal conversation/small talk, or even participate in social group are suddenly pulling up a chair to pet Monty and share comments and grins concerning Monty with others. Staff who work diligently to meet the needs of their clients but also balance a home life are slowing down a bit to give him a hug and ask a colleague how their day is going. Monty impacts clinical work with our clients in many creative ways. Children from preschool to teenagers are motivated to be in the room with Monty, and allow him to activate their social curiosity. Below are some examples of Monty’s work, in even just a short eight weeks:
- Non-judgmental, calm presence to sit with a client who may be feeling sad, depressed or upset An attentive “ear” to listen to a client who needs to talk about events, topics, experiences that are stressful and/ or upsetting
- Petting/Stroking Monty’s back in a repetitive, calming motion; paired with deep breaths as a soothing strategy
- Monty often wears items attached to his uniform (bandana, pin, etc.) that he will give to a friend to keep with them so the friend does not have to feel alone.
- Monty is able to accompany friends into the community in order to provide a comfortable presence that reduces social anxiety.
- Monty does not bark (“speak”), toilet or at times move, without verbal direction. This allows him to be a less intimidating dog for others to approach and get to know; especially if they are nervous due to experiences with other less trained dogs.
- Monty’s behavior is predictable. He looks to others calmly, and waits for their direction. Clients feeling sad/distressed after a challenging experience can write down their thoughts, feelings, and experience and leave it with Monty in his “Cape” pocket.
- Clients feeling sad, lonely or just in need of a calming friend can read books to/ with Monty, listen to music, or just close eyes and regulate together.
- Monty plays “hide and seek” with clients who are burrowing under pillows and bean bags; for Sensory Integration regulation.
Communication/ Social Skills/ Language Support
- Monty has a sensitive ear that hears words easily. Clients can practice articulation when speaking to Monty.
- Once Monty hears and/or views a command direction from his communication partner, he needs thinking time to process this information, and then demonstrate his action. He reminds us that we often need to slow down and give our communication partner time to think, before we repeat our words.
- Monty understands and reacts to different voice volumes, tones, and facial expressions.
- Monty has been trained to give eye contact to his communication partner (“think with his eyes”). This is how he is able to understand his directions, and share the same thought as his communication partner. Monty enjoys modeling this skill with clients. Here are photos of Monty modeling “shaking hands/ paws.” Monty had to first sit, attend, and give eye contact to his partner. Then listen to his partner’s words, share his partner’s thought, and demonstrate this through his action(s).
- Monty works on personal space boundaries. When he is unfamiliar with someone, he waits until he is introduced before he approaches. The more familiar hi is with another person, the closer he is willing to get. Sometimes Monty gets too close, and his communication partner needs to remind him to think about personal space. Sometimes others get too close to Monty, and he tells them this with his non-verbal body language.
- Monty works on understanding levels of relationship(s) [Stranger and/or acquaintance]. There are people he will only ever interact with once, so he does not act familiar with them. There are people he will interact with frequently across life environments, so his mannerisms and behavior adapts with the memory of each experience with specific people [safe friendship, unsafe person]. Monty understands there is also his family members he will live with and emotionally be closest too. His behavior adapts to this relationship as well [family and “therapeutic partner” Tracey].
- Taking turns and understanding when/when not to wait is important for Monty. This way he can participate in interactions and group activities with positive social consequences.
- Groups can work cooperatively to design and make dog toys for Monty and his NEADS and/or shelter friends.
- Monty can inspire new motivation in others to participate in group activities. If you spread answer cards on the floor, group members can ask Monty to “touch” the one he thinks is the answer! The group can decide together if he is correct.
Monty was raised for two years with multiple handlers who taught him, cared for him, and supported him in learning the safe and skilled behavior expected of him. He experienced many environments and interactions across aspects of work, community and in the home. Monty has several skills he is able to demonstrate and model for clients, but most importantly:
- Quiet, calm body.
- Safe mouth.
- Safe body.
- Impulse control and wait time.
- Keeping his body close to the person and group he is in.
- Social Support.
- Listening to others to know what he should/should not do. To know what behavior they expect of him.
- Transitional Support.
- When Monty makes choices or demonstrates actions that are not expected or appropriate for himself or others; he requires redirection and help from others.
- Time with Monty can be used as a positive reinforce for Clients completing work/ activities.
Daily Living Skills
- Monty needs to have his teeth brushed on a regular basis. He is able to do this alongside a client learning how to brush his/her teeth as well.
- Monty needs to have his hair brushed on a regular basis. He is able to do this alongside a client learning how to brush his/her hair as well.
- Monty sometimes requires deodorizing sprays to help him smell more pleasant around others. He is able to do this alongside a client learning how to use deodorant.
- Monty often snacks on healthy foods for his body such as fruits and vegetables (apples, carrots).
- Monty has a double leash that can be used to help clients as they learn/practice walking on sidewalks, crossing streets, visiting others within the community, making purchases within the community, taking public transportation, stopping safely versus bolting, etc.
- Monty requires regular exercise to keep his weight regulated, manage excess energy, and keep his body in shape and healthy. Monty can share active games and play with others to encourage exercise.
- Monty requires help from others to prepare his meals, toilet, clean up after himself as well as other life activities.
Together with the help of clients he can experience this care, and encourage time management and responsibility in growing clients.
- Monty requires help to “get dressed” for work with his Cape and Leader/Leash. Clients can help while practice fine motor skills of buckling, zipping, pinching button, etc.
- Monty understands that in life there is a time to work, and a time to play.
Getting a Service Dog was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Monty and I are impacting the lives of our loved ones and the community of clients we are privileged to work with each day. I’ve learned that the calming presence of Monty transcends age, background, and differences. Loving Monty is easy; believing in the effect Service Dogs have on humans is natural. Being proud of the support Monty provides to others is priceless!
If you would like to learn more about the NEADS organization, or to make a 100% tax-deductible donation to our supportive fundraising effort:
Go to NEADS.org
Scroll down to Sponsor a Client Search and click Tracey Stoll Click Donate to this client givedirect.org donation options
Tracey L. Stoll, M.Ed., B.C.S.E., A.C.A.S. is an Educational Consultant and Founder o f Learning Solutions, LLC; a Social-Emotional Learning Center located in Norwood, MA. She has over 20 years professional experience in Special Education, and holds certification as an Advanced Autism Specialist. Tracey lives in Westwood, MA with her husband, 3 sons, and Monty her Social Therapy Service Dog partner.
- Have You Considered How a Dog Could Enhance Your Child’s Life?
- The Puppy – A Story from Chicken Soup for the Soul
- Considering a Service Dog? Meet My Monty
- “Every Dog Has a Gift”
- Through A Dogs Eyes
This post originally appeared on our May/June 2017 Magazine