(Wo)man’s Best Friend

If you asked me to describe myself, one thing I could absolutely say about myself is that I am not an animal lover.  I had a few pets in my life but if truth were told I never really enjoyed the experience.  It did not feel natural to cohabitate with an animal and quite frankly I rarely ever felt safe or comfortable around them.

So when my husband brought up the idea of getting a dog I was less than happy about the suggestion.  Over the course of a year or so this topic would come up periodically.  At first he presented it as a question, to which of course I would flat out respond “Absolutely Not!”  He then moved into persuading me by using the boys as bait.  Saying how it would be great for the boys to grow up with a dog and that Sydney might enjoy it as well.  For a brief time we had explored the idea of a service dog for Sydney.  Research had shown that service dogs could help special needs children.  In Sydney’s case a dog might serve as a good distraction from her self-injurious behaviors.   We decided against that idea for many reasons, but mainly because if we were to get a dog, ideally it should be a pet for the whole family.

Eventually my husband felt that the way to persuade me was to email me pictures of very adorable puppies.  So periodically I would get emails of golden retriever puppies with little notes attached that said, “Please adopt me”.  I continued to stand firm in my position and strongly felt that we had too much going on to take on the responsibility of a pet.  Of course this did not stop my husband.  He continued his search and still more emails of cute puppies would find their way to my inbox.  However, this time they came with the promise of being fully trained.  He even went so far as to say that I really wouldn’t have to do much at all for the dog.  He assured me that the boys and he would take full responsibility for it.

Much to his dismay I refused to relent.  Then one day he came up with a perfect solution.  We would adopt a dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.  These were dogs that were born and bred to be service dogs for the blind but for whatever reason were unable to make it through the program.  He presented this option to me one night and enthusiastically told me it would be a win/win for all.  Not only would the dog be well trained but also he or she would likely have a great temperament to handle Sydney’s erratic behavior.  Sadly he told me that there was a waiting list, which could take up to two years.  I thought to myself, two years buys me a lot of time, I will agree to this because hopefully over the next two years the novelty will wear off.  My husband and the boys were ecstatic.

Unbeknownst to me at the time we had some very good friends with some very good connections.  One night my husband casually tells me that he spoke to our friends and “great news we have been put on the priority list and will likely be getting our dog in the next 6 months”.  Of all the things in this world that I could have connections for, this would not be the top on my list.  But it was too late this dog was coming whether I liked it or not.

In January we got the call that a dog was available for adoption.

His name was Ritter and he was a yellow Lab.  So the next day my husband, my boys and I drove to pick him up.  We decided to leave Sydney at home so as not to overwhelm her.  I had been preparing her slowly for our new addition and had real concerns about how she would respond.

I had mixed emotions that day.  On one hand I loved seeing my boys so excited to get a dog.  They couldn’t wait to meet him and play with him.  On the other hand as I am sure you all know all the promises of taking care of him would soon get boring and the responsibility would fall on me.   The truth was I already had enough on my plate and I made it very clear to my husband that if this dog gets in the way of my daily routine in anyway I would not be happy about it one bit.  And more importantly if Sydney has difficulty adjusting to him, or worse if Ritter is overwhelmed by Sydney’s tantrums we would have a big problem.

As I stood in the room where we were to meet Ritter for the first time I found myself feeling overwhelmed.  I was about to bring home a 70-pound burden and another chore on my list of many.  But like any supportive wife and good mother I put a smile on my face and went with the flow.  For a moment there I felt like Ritter and I stared each other down.  Kind of feeling each other out.  He was quiet and gentle and obediently followed us to the car and we brought him home.  Everyone was elated except me.

It has been 3 months since we got him and I am baffled at what has transpired.  Much like I predicted the novelty wore off rather quickly about taking responsibility for the new dog and yes my daily routine had to change because neither the boys nor Chris were coming home mid day to walk him.  But as the days weeks and months passed Ritter and I got to know each other.  And what began to unfold was quite remarkable.

As you know my daughter has special needs.  Her syndrome is rather complicated but in a nutshell she experiences rather significant tantrums both self-injurious and aggressive in nature and can come on rather suddenly.  She has very little control over them and little to no ability to regulate her outbursts.  She can be happy, warm, and loving in one breath and in the next she can be crying, hitting herself and others and running all over the house.  Quite frankly it is exhausting and rather debilitating to my psyche at times.  It is tough to remain positive and hopeful in the midst of these episodes.  But more than that it is tough to not feel alone.  Of course I am beyond fortunate to have an incredibly supportive and loving husband and we are a big support to one another.  But the reality is he is at work and I am at home getting the brunt of these episodes.

It is hard to explain in words what Sydney experiences and the toll it takes on all of us.  And since her diagnosis is so rare it is hard to build a local community for support.  So basically it can be very isolating.  But what has transpired between Ritter, Sydney and myself is something that I would have never expected.

I had seen little things begin to take shape like how he would sit with her while she would take her bath and he would greet her every morning when she woke up.  At bedtime he would sit and listen to the stories and sit beside her while she got into her pj’s .  He sits right by her chair at all of her meals.  He listens and understands her commands to sit, go down, and stay.  Despite the fact that her speech is very unclear and difficult to understand, he gets it and he hears her.

But what took place the other night was the most remarkable of all.  Sydney had one of her tantrums.  It came on rather suddenly and intensely.  I was even taken off guard.  We were sitting in her room and she suddenly struck Ritter, herself and then me.  She got up and began throwing herself on the floor.  I quickly tried to redirect her and distract her back to a calm place, but it was clear I was having a rough time.  Suddenly Ritter got up and began barking and mouthing Sydney.  I panicked!  My first reaction was that he was so disturbed by this and he was going to hurt her.  It went on for a few minutes and as I was using every trick I knew to calm her, I noticed that Ritter did not stop running circles around Sydney.  Suddenly Sydney stopped and began asking me “why Ritter Arf?”  I looked at her and Ritter and I was speechless.  I told her because you were upset.  And then I looked at Ritter and the most amazing thing happened.  Ritter looked right at me and I know it sounds crazy but I felt like he said, “I am here for you and we are in this together.” I went to pet his head and he put his paw in my hand.  Tears began to roll down my face and I no longer felt alone.  Ritter got it and he knew what Sydney needed and what I needed.

A year ago if you asked me if a dog could be your best friend, I would have adamantly responded NO.  Today, with absolute sincerity, I can tell you that my best friend, my most loyal companion, is an amazing dog named Ritter.