Photo Credit: Joe Daly (@joedaly_ca on IG)
~ the anthropomorphized experience of an Autism Companion dog,
living his best life in SoCal with an S2C Practitioner & her two autistic sons ~
Well hello, everyone. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Riley and I am a bonafide, certified Good Dog! Oh, I don’t mean I’m the kind of “good dog” you dub every cute, head-tilting domesticated canine you meet, but rather I’m an actual “Good Dog!” from the fabulous nonprofit in San Diego, CA known as Good Dog! Autism Companions. That’s where my rise to fame began and how I found my way to my furever home.
Today I work as an autism companion for two siblings (ages 15 & 16) whom I like to call my “Hu-Bros” or human brothers. Sometimes I also get to sneak to work with their Mom, aka my “Hu-Mom”, where I hang out with her rad clients who all spell to communicate. Technically woofing though, those outings are just field trips. I’m not a “facility” therapy dog. My job is to be a companion dog who only works at home. Luckily though my Hu-Mom knows I L-O-V-E to be around people – especially autistic people – and when the boys head off for school she occasionally takes pity on me and brings me to her work. If we’re being rigorously honest with one another though, I also happen to have some codependency and anxiety issues which are the other reasons she brings me along. Those personality traits of mine are what contributed to my “career change.” Originally slated to become an autism service dog I ended up becoming the first Good Dog! Autism Companion dog because of my endearing quirks. More on that in just a minute.
Photo Credit:Denise Conrad Photography (@lifeiscandid on IG)
At this point you might be a tad confused by all the different terminology. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Ok, Riley, break it down for me… there are service dogs, therapy dogs, facility dogs, companion dogs and even emotional support dogs? What’s the difference between them all?” Well, I’m so glad you asked because I have fantastic news for you. At the end of this article you will find an S2C lesson my mom wrote to help clarify that exact topic. Bonus! Without question, these categories can be very confusing to humans. Thankfully we dogs don’t have to figure that part out. We just follow the commands we’ve been taught, to help our people, which keeps things really simple on our end.
Now back to my career change. Originally bred to be a service dog I had great aspirations. As a young pupper, I fell asleep dreaming of my future life as a brave service dog. Lying amidst my litter of siblings I could already picture myself trained to perfectly assist one special human, able to tolerate a wide variety of experiences, environments & people. And protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, wearing my superhero cape, I mean, my service dog vest with pride I would accompany my human anywhere (s)he needed to go. Ah, it was going to be incredibly grand!
Truth be told – my career did indeed start out fabulously! I loved my trainers and I loved stepping one paw closer every day towards my dream. But as I grew so did my individual differences in regards to sensory processing. Loud trucks, for example, really startled me and weird objects ahead in my path would paralyze me until I could visually discern whether they were friend or foe. These things (among others) are what led my trainers to label me as too “reactive” to be a service dog. “Reactive” means that if I’m afraid or startled by something in the community I will ignore my training and react, usually by barking but sometimes by retreating or freezing. Now in all fairness I’ve noticed that my reactions aren’t much different than many autistics who get startled or feel afraid. Well, ok… the humans don’t usually bark. But they do sometimes cry or shout and they definitely freeze or sometimes run. So what’s cool about the fact that we share this common trait is that I really do “get” them and can empathize with them. What’s not cool about it is that being like them was not an asset to my career. If I am too much like them then it’s impossible for me to help if we both experienced the same stressor at the same time. You can see the dilemma there. Gaaah… insert career change!
Well, when life throws you a lemon you know what you gotta do, right? You bet you do – chase that lemon like a long lost tennis ball! No, no, wait… that’s not it. You make lemonade, silly. Ok so here’s where my story gets incredibly good…
When it was time for me to be released as a companion dog my Hu-Mom’s name had risen to the top spot on the “Release List” at Good Dog! Autism Companions. As the benevolent Universe would have it, I joined her family in June 2019. Hindsight being 20/20 we all agree that this was exactly how things were always meant to be.
After adjusting to my new digs I began to practice at home all the commands I’d been taught to help a child with autism. Without anybody even asking me I naturally began to use my grounding presence and calm demeanor to help ease my Hu-bros’ stress levels. (There’s a great research article you can check out here that shows that’s true… dogs CAN lower stress levels in children with autism: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101019121814.htm) Within just a few weeks it was clear that my arrival had made a noticeable improvement especially in my younger Hu-Bro’s over-reactivity to life. Within two months he was smiling, happy, even belly laughing again. Within five months of my arrival his overall regulation had stabilized so much that teachers, extended family members and friends were in complete awe. The serenity and balance they’d always wanted for him had been restored. And I’ve been told my work as his companion dog has been a HUGE factor in that. Wow!!!
When people use the phrase “The Life of Riley” they usually mean that someone has a carefree, easy, enjoyable life. I don’t know too many folks who can say they have that. For me, that eponymous adage means that life has brought me exactly where I’m supposed to be. As an autism companion dog I get to use my personality traits for the benefit of my fellow sentient beings every day. Not only am I perfectly imperfect but I’m loved all the more for my uniqueness and I excel at my job. This truth fills my heart with purpose and joy. I’m not sure how much wisdom a 2.5 year old golden retriever can get credit for but from my short experience it seems like everyone would do well to live a “Life of Riley.”
Photo Credit:Denise Conrad Photography (@lifeiscandid on IG) Sign by Chelsea Woolen (@countitalljoyshop on IG)
Riley basks in the sunshine & surf at home in San Diego, CA with S2C Practitioner, Dawnmarie Gaivin, her boys Evan & Trey, and a mischievous rescue kitty named Baxter. Riley can be followed on IG @Riley_the_gooddog.
For more information on Good Dog! Autism Companions check out their website: www.gooddogautismcompanions.org