Good-bye to Bravo

February 22, 2008

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Some of you know Bravo from training classes over the past several years. Some of you know her from watching the Constructional Aggression Treatment DVDs. She is the brindle Greyhound that worked as a decoy. She was the fine dog this column was named for.

This week Bravo was trying to get up from her bed and her leg suddenly sustained a spiral fracture, a break that should have taken a lot of force to cause. She spent a night with our vet before we opted to see a veterinary surgeon. I spent quite a bit of time sitting on the floor with her yesterday late afternoon, just talking and stroking her ears, her favorite thing.

It turned out that Bravo had bone cancer (osteosarcoma). This is a leading cause of death in Greyhounds. Because she has had a series of health problems lately and it was estimated that with amputation we could probably expect another 4 months with her, we decided that we could give her a gift of freedom from pain.

My 20-year-old son, Jesse, and I went to the surgeon’s office and spent some time with her today although she was sedated. We were with her when she was helped to go. It was a peaceful end.

Bravo came to us at Christmas of 2001, a terrified, overwhelmed, severely underweight Greyhound with very little experience of the world. She suffered from separation anxiety until my husband decided to just not lock her up when we left the house. After that she did just fine.

On her first day in our home, a cold winter day, she took a drink from my water garden, then walked forward and found herself in 2 feet of water and no understanding of how to get out. She learned how to get in and out of the water garden after that, and on warm days laying in the pond was one of her favorite ways to cool off.

A few days later we approached a Papillion and her owner on a walk and Bravo crawled inside my coat and wrapped herself around and between my legs. She was terrified of the small dog. Our cat, Mouse figured out that he could torment her by walking behind her. She was afraid of him too.

But those early frightened days didn’t last. Bravo soon discovered TTouch and became a big fan of attention from humans. The first time she saw children was at the vet’s office. Two tiny tots looked in the window. She went to them and looked them up and down, rubbing dog snot on the window. She adored kids forever after. Bravo loved all people. She loved nothing more than greeting new people and inviting them to rub her silky ears.

On one occasion at the dog park a big, beautiful Borzoi arrived and was surrounded by a gang of Goldens and Boxers who were up to no good. Bravo trotted into the fray from across the park, got in beside the Borzoi who was bucking with fear, and put her nose to the ground. She walked peacefully along until he got the idea and imitated her. The Goldens and Boxers stopped, shook themselves off and backed away. The Borzoi, still bewildered, went about his business of sniffing the park. Bravo came to me, exhausted and ready to go home.

Bravo was the lead decoy dog for the Constructional Aggression Treatment procedure, working with a lot of scared and angry dogs to help them find better ways to deal with the world. She did important work and she did it well.

Bravo came into this world in April 1999, bred for a life as a racing hound, but she didn’t spend long in that life. She was better suited to keeping the yard cleared of squirrels and making sure she had the first choice of dog beds and making sure there were toys all over the downstairs of the house, just in case.

On her last night at home she slept on the couch cuddled up next to my husband, getting her ears rubbed, her very favorite thing. The next morning she ran outside and around the back of the house, the important first act of any good day. She came in and ate, and found her way to her bed in my office. After a short nap she tried to get up and her good old bones just couldn’t hold on any longer.

~~

Some of you have asked what you can do to remember Bravo. The best gift of all would be a donation to ORCA, the Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals, at the University of North Texas. Write ORCA in the subject line and “In memory of Bravo” in the memo line.

Mail your check to:

ORCA Treasurer, Department of Behavior Analysis, P.O. Box 310919, University of North Texas, Denton, TX 76203-0919

Bravo

April 1999 to February 22, 2008

Adopted into her family on Dec. 22, 2001

Kellie Snider, BS, MS

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Photo by Kellie Snider, Copyright 2008

Background Music: Got to Be More Careful

by John Cleary and the Absolute Monster.

I have become concerned about the recent trend to use dogs to “supervise” children with autism. Some people have stories about wonderful things that happened when children were paired with assistance dogs. This is great for them, but the experiences are not necessarily universal.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder and the abilities and skills of one person with autism may vary dramatically from those of another, there are some for whom a dog may be an excellent choice as a pet and companion, if the person is interested in having a dog. However, for many of these high functioning people, so long as autism is the only disability present, there is no real need for an assistance animal since they are capable of caring for themselves. These people should be included in deciding whether they will get a dog or not, and what kinds of training the dog will receive.

The children with autism that are given assistance dogs are often not capable of participating in the decision to get a dog, nor in the training of a dog. In some cases, through no fault of the child, the animal may be mistreated. This is not because the child is “bad”, of course, but only because he isn’t capable of providing the kinds of guidance and care a dog needs, and because he may not understand when the dog is being hurt. Despite the romantic notion that dogs understand that children with autism are different and remain gentle with them, it is not clear that this is true. Although there is an idea in the culture these days that dogs are a lot like people with autism, there is no evidence that this is true, either.

For children with autism the assistance dog is usually placed in the family when it is still a young puppy and the parents are responsible for most of his/her training. Unfortunately the parents of children with autism are often overwhelmed with the enormous responsibility of raising a child with autism and adding the responsibility of training a service dog is asking a lot of them, even if they are initially quite motivated to do it.

Perhaps a greater concern is that among the diagnostic symptoms of autism is an absence of social interest. In other words, people with autism may not read facial expressions or body language appropriately or at all. They often do not like being touched. They do not make eye contact or look directly at other people or animals. They may respond in abnormal or unusual, sometimes dangerous, ways to tastes, tactile stimuli (whether pain or seemingly mild sensations), sounds, smells, and visual stimuli. They often do not care about animals, and may not like being touched by animals.

Unless and until a child has exhibited a positive response to animals on multiple occasions, an assistance dog is not recommended. Animals may be used in various kinds of therapy, including behavioral treatment to help the child learn to tolerate animals, under supervision for limited periods of time. Often pairing children with autism with assistance dogs is done because it makes grown-ups who do not have autism feel good.

Last but not least, the life of an assistance dog is challenging. For most assistance dogs the positive relationship with his partner is what keeps him going. It is difficult to forge interpersonal relationships with children with autism. For the dog assisting a child with moderate to severe autism, sometimes this social reinforcement is not available. It is up to other family members to ensure that the dog’s needs are met and that nothing happens toward which he may respond with aggression or fear.

If a dog is to be placed in a family to help a child with autism, the parent must always be present and responsible for the dog during every interaction he has with the child. This is for the protection of the dog as well as of the child. It is an unfair and potentially tragic mistake to assume a dog can be a nanny or a supervisor for any child, especially one with autism. Likewise it is unfair to expect a child with autism to be responsible for the safety and well-being of an assistance animal.

If a parent of a child with autism wants to get a dog, that is great, but the adoption of a dog into any family must be taken seriously. Talk with others with similar experiences, determine what the dog’s needs are and how those will meld with those of the adoptive family. Will the family have the time, wherewithal and money to care for a dog in addition to a child with autism? Caring for a child with autism is expensive. Is there enough money in the family to care for a dog’s needs should he become ill or injured?

If a dog is to be placed with a family of a child with autism there should be a guaranteed return policy. No matter what, the family must be able to return the dog to his breeder or assistance dog group if it doesn’t work out for any reason.

It is simply not safe to entrust a child with autism to a dog’s care unless an adult is in charge and on task in overseeing all interactions. Nor is it safe to entrust a dog with a child with autism except under adult supervision. A dog adopted into the family must be trained, and assistance tasks may be helpful, but perhaps not as helpful as solid manners training.

Kellie Snider, BS, MS

Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst

Speaking up for those who have no choice.