How a Dog Rescued our Family

For years we told our son that when he was old enough, we would adopt a dog. Every single birthday we had another excuse.

You and your sister need to be old enough to share the responsibilities. 

We don’t have the extra money right now because Leah is in day care.

Let’s wait until we move into the new house.

Summer time is better because Dad will be off for summer break. 

When Thomas was on the verge of his 11th birthday, officially a tween, I realized we had run out of excuses. Leah’s graduation from preschool was quickly approaching.  No more monthly tuition! We were finally in the bigger house and school was winding down for the summer.

The previous few months had been particularly stressful for our family. Moving in the middle of the school year is not for the faint of heart. We had been in our former home for seventeen years and the transition was hard for all of us.There were times when I felt like I was drowning, barely able to stay afloat. Even though we were thrilled with the new house, there had been a fair share of tears, anxiety and grief.

I have read the research.  There are numerous studies indicating the benefits of having a dog. Dogs promote a regular routine, encourage exercise, lower blood pressure, and reduce anxiety. My sweet Thomas’s anxiety had been particularly high during our move to a new home.  Our family had been through a lot of changes and we needed something to help us feel like our new house was truly a home. I needed to feel like I could stay afloat. Our family needed some sort of anchor to keep us grounded and feel steady on our feet.

It was time. I decided to make a list of attributes for the perfect dog.

NOT younger than 1 year and NOT older than 2 years ( I had raised two babies who were not good sleepers so I was not willing to get up at night for potty breaks.)

• NOT too small (I need a dog that can keep up with our family and I will NOT carry a dog on a dog walk)

• NOT too large (I don’t want my new house to suddenly feel too small.)

• NO Males (I’m biased, my last dog was a female)

• NO jumping on people (I hate when dogs jump on people and Leah is still little)

• NO excessive barking (self explanatory)

• NO history of aggression (I cannot fathom the idea of a dog hurting another dog or my children)

• NO long hair breeds (I hate vacuuming.)

• NO breeding farms (There are plenty of homeless dogs in this world)

• NO hyperactive behavior (We have enough anxiety and stress in our lives.)

I hunted for weeks, searching websites for local animal shelters, rescue leagues and even Craig’s list. I had expected to find dozen’s of dogs that met all of the attributes I had listed. I was a teeny bit picky. Perhaps I was secretly trying to make it harder to find a dog because maybe I just was not ready for the endless dog hair, extra expenses, making room for a dog crate in our beautiful new house, and picking up dog poop. Our previous pooch,  J.J., was our first baby and died just before I became pregnant with Thomas. She was the sweetest dog ever and I still mourn her loss from time to time. I strongly believe in the Law of Attraction. Ask for what you want, have a vision, write it down and make it happen. As my search for the perfect dog continued to lag, I decided to take a closer look at my list of attributes which I realized was only filled with things that I did NOT want in a dog. Instead of attracting the perfect dog I was preventing the perfect dog from coming into our lives. I took a long hard look at my list and decided to re-write it in hopes of finding our new pet. 

• Young Adult

• Medium sized

• Female

• Stays calm when she meets new people

• Rarely Barks

• Sweet and docile toward people and dogs

• Short haired

• Rescue dog

• Easy going

With my new outlook, I was determined to find a dog, just in time for Thomas’s 11th birthday. One day, I came across a Facebook post about a dog rescue program, Making of Miracle Stories of Virginia  (MOMS VA). As I researched the organization I was particularly drawn to the acronym, MOMS. It is clever, catchy and one can clearly see the coincidence of just how perfect the acronym sums up the program. Dogs that have been orphaned through loss, surrender, or abandonment are brought into temporary foster homes until they find their forever home. I clicked on the link to view the dogs available for adoption. Scrolling through the pictures, one dog stood out from the rest. Her name was China. She had the most beautiful soulful eyes and she wore a yellow collar that said “adopt me”.  My throat felt a little tight and I clicked on the description to learn more. She was about 2 years old and and I could not ignore the resemblance she bore to our sweet JJ.  I immediately reached out to China’s foster mom, Cathy, to arrange an initial visit. We decided to meet at a neutral location, the parking lot of Cathy’s employer.

On the day of the initial visit, the kids were beyond thrilled. I warned them that this would be an opportunity to get to know each other but we would NOT be taking China home with us. Mark was quiet, appearing relatively impartial throughout the drive over and I wondered what he was thinking.  We pulled into the parking lot and I immediately spotted Cathy’s car. I could see China sitting up tall in the back seat, neck stretched long, alert, trying to get a glimpse of us. I turned around in the car to look at my kids. There they were, sitting up tall in the back seat, necks stretched long, alert, trying to get a glimpse at China. I smiled as goose bumps prickled my arms.

“Leah and Thomas, it is important that we remain calm and use a gentle voice when we meet China. She is probably a little nervous so we don’t want to appear too excited. She will need to smell us first before we can pet her.” I preached.

“We know Mom.” said Thomas, exasperated at being reminded for the 10th time to be calm around China.

“I’m so excited!” Leah chirped clapping her hands together.

I greeted Cathy with a handshake while China remained in the back seat of her car, still sitting tall, waiting to meet us. After a little small talk, it was time for the introduction. I held Leah’s hand and Mark stood by Thomas’s side. Cathy opened the car door for China, who pranced over to us. I could tell from her posture that she was alert but not in an anxious way. As instructed, the kids remained quiet and let China sniff their legs, arms and shoes. Thomas glanced at me with a look that said, Please. I nodded and he reached out to pet her. Over the next hour, we spent time getting to know each other. We learned that China was from North Carolina and had given birth to four puppies only a few months prior. Oddly enough I am from North Carolina so that coincidence did not go unnoticed. Her former owner had surrendered China and her babies to a local animal shelter. MOMS VA immediately brought the dog and her puppies to Virginia to be fostered temporarily in Cathy’s home. Initially, China was still nursing her babies. Cathy helped ween the pups so that China could recover and regain some of the strength and weight that she had lost while feeding her young. The goose bumps prickled my skin once again as I felt immediate kinship for this devoted mama dog. She was a mom too and had made sacrifices for her little ones. Although not certain of her age, the Vet guessed she was around two years old and was likely some sort of Pit bull mix. I had recently listened to a podcast about the history of Pit bulls and the stigma of aggression.  I glanced over at my children, smiling from ear to ear as China pranced around their feet. As one who prides herself on not judging a book by it’s cover, I was not going to judge this mama dog simply because she had a broad chest, muscular frame and squared off face.

As our visit came to an end, we thanked Cathy for her time, said our goodbyes to China and got back into the car. After returning home, we went on about our day and had dinner. As Mark and I cleared the dishes from the kitchen we had our first chance to talk about China. Let me preface by saying that my husband does NOT make decisions quickly. He needs all the information so that he can mull it over, process it, sleep on it, research it, think about it and then ultimately, after I have grown cranky and restless with anticipation, he will make a decision. You can only imagine how long it took for us to make a decision to sell our old house and move to a larger home. Three years!!  I expected that he would do the same thing in reference to choosing a family dog.

Anticipating that Mark was no where near a final decision, I began to prod him for information about the initial visit. Did he want me to schedule a few more visits with other dogs? Did he know that I filled out several applications with other dog adoption agencies? 

As he helped me to load the dishwasher he said, “I don’t think we need to do anything else.”

Crestfallen, I nodded and lowered my head.

He continued, “Let’s talk to Cathy about the next step. We don’t need to look any further. She’s the one.”

Over the next few weeks, we would spend more time with China, allowing plenty of time to transition before making the decision to officially adopt her a couple of days before Thomas’s birthday. After the initial few days and weeks of establishing a routine, it felt as though China had always been a part of a our family. Not only did she meet each and every attribute I desired (the second list, not the first), she exceeded my expectations in terms of what she has done for our family.

My children adore their dog. Leah watches TV with her feet propped up on China’s back. Thomas takes her on walks and even picks up her poop! When she is resting on her dog bed, they snuggle up to her and rest their little heads next to hers, as she licks their faces and sighs contently. We take her to dog parks and she teaches the naughty dogs how to play nice. She greets friends at the door with a quick sniff and a tail wag. She doesn’t bark that much, usually whenshe hears another dog outside. She lets us know when she has to go outside for exercise or a potty break. She sleeps soundly in her crate at night and waits patiently for us to wake up and start our day. She listens to my children when they re-direct her or call to her. She gives great kisses and stands patiently when I give her a bath. Most importantly, she loves my Thomas and Leah unconditionally. She tolerates their rough housing and does not seem to mind when Leah tries to sit on her back. She could care less if someone takes away her bone when she is chewing on it. She seems to understand that my children are still young and sometimes they do things that can be annoying. If my daughter is crying, China will rest her head on Leah’s lap or lye down next to her.

A few days after China was adopted, Thomas had his first swim meet at our pool. He was very nervous because this was his first year swimming for our new neighborhood swim team. He was sweaty, nauseous, fidgety and asked to go home several times. He paced around the edge of the pool as I watched, feeling helpless intervening when I could. He tried deep breathing.  He tried playing on the playground, hoping the physical exercise would help get rid of the adrenaline cursing through his body. He listened to meditation music on his iPod. Nothing was working and he was on the edge of a full blown anxiety attack. I knew from former experiences that once he reaches a certain point, there’s no turning back. We were dangerously close to the edge when I texted Mark, who was home with Leah and China and asked him to bring the dog to the pool. Moments later, Mark, Leah and China were outside the pool gate. Thomas was still pacing around the edge of the pool so I called him over and told him that China had come to cheer him on. His eyes opened wide and his forehead, which had been wrinkled with worry, softened as he smiled, running out the gate to see his dog, me on his heels. There stood sweet China, her tail wagging, paws dancing as she saw her boy running toward her. Thomas embraced her and within seconds his anxiety was gone. Several of his swim team mates came over to meet China who was thrilled with all the back rubs and head scratches. I watched my son’s body relax and his confidence build as he fielded questions from the other children about his dog. Eventually, it was Thomas’s turn to swim his first heat and his anxiety was gone. He was still nervous but he had a much better handle on his body’s reaction. Mark, Leah and China headed home and I finished out the evening watching Thomas swim several more heats. When I got home from the pool that evening, Mark and I compared notes about China and Thomas’s reactions. I shared with Mark how close Thomas had come to a full blown anxiety attack until he was able to spend some time with China. We both agreed that Thomas needed the support from his dog in order to get through the entire swim meet. Suddenly Mark paused as he thought of something.

“You know what’s weird?” he asked. “It was sort of like the movie E.T.” He referenced one of my all time favorite childhood movies about that cute little alien.

Sensing I was not following his story he continued, “Remember when E.T. drinks the beer and Elliott gets drunk?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He described the part of the movie when E.T. and Elliott were so close that even when they were apart they still shared one another’s experiences, feelings and emotions. I suddenly remembered the scene when ET was sick and unresponsive and Elliott became sick too. Mark explained that after he brought China home from the swim meet she had grown anxious. She started chewing on her dog bed, whined on and off and was pacing around the house. At first, I was puzzled until I understood the correlation he was trying to make. Maybe it’s a little far fetched but perhaps China did absorb some of Thomas’s anxiety that evening so that he could make it through the swim meet. Maybe her presence was enough to help him stay afloat and not feel like he was drowning in his own anxiety, even if that meant that she would have to take on his worry for him.

I started to think more about what has changed since we adopted China. We have a more established routine and we are all getting outside and exercising. She goes swimming with us at the river, takes a ride to the ice cream store with us and most notably, Thomas is learning a new way to manage his anxiety.  I am sleeping better and I have not felt as overwhelmed as I did a few months ago. Even on the days when Mark and I are cranky, or the kids are bored during a long hot summer afternoon, there is always time to snuggle up next to China and let our anxiety and worry slip away. Just last night, Thomas wondered down stairs in a sleepy haze and we found him snuggled up to China on her dog bed. I guess he needed a little extra attention to fall asleep and China was generous enough to share her bed.

As I started to write this blog entry, I decided to pull up the MOMS VA website and that is when I saw something that brought tears to my eyes. I had made the analogy that the stress of moving to a new home made us feel as though we were all drowning, barely able to stay afloat. As I stared at the MOMS VA website I noticed that the “O” in the acronym was a picture of a life float, symbolizing the program’s mission to “rescue” dogs. I realized that the name of the organization, Making of Miracle Stories, encompasses the amazing stories of what these dogs have to overcome before they are adopted into loving families. I was suddenly struck with how symbolic it was of our family’s recent experiences. We gave China a second chance, free of judgement and she, in turn, has rescued our family, keeping us afloat, grounded in what is important, making our new house feel like a home.

Here is a picture of my sweet boy and China sleeping together.

IMG_4513

Below is a link to the pod cast about the history of pit bulls as well as a link to MOMS VA. If you are considering adopting a dog, I highly recommend you consider checking out their website.

http://www.npr.org/2016/05/10/477350069/friend-or-fiend-pit-bull-explores-the-history-of-americas-most-feared-dog

http://www.momsva.org/

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I am a mom FIRST

If you were to conduct a Google search on Sensory Processing Disorder, the following descriptions are what you will likely find:

  1. Inability of the neurological system to appropriately manage input from the senses
  2. Difficulty coping with transitions
  3. High risk for emotional and social problems
  4. Inability to make/keep friends or be a part of a group
  5. Poor self-concept
  6. Academic/educational problems
  7. Labeled as clumsy
  8. Uncooperative
  9. Belligerent
  10. Disruptive
  11. Out of control
  12. Anxiety
  13. Depression
  14. Phobias
  15. Aggression
  16. Parents may be blamed for their child’s behavior
  17. An invisible or hidden disorder

Any ONE of these symptoms is enough to worry a parent. Our son has SPD and an anxiety disorder and over the past 10 years we have had multiple assessments completed and have seen EVERY single one of these descriptions at least once. It’s enough to make me want to crawl under my covers, bury my head under the pillow and stay there until someone wakes me from my nightmare and tells me that Thomas has miraculously recovered.

Supporting our son and helping him to learn better coping strategies is a daily struggle. When I look at the list above, the symptom that is the hardest for me to swallow is number 17, an invisible or hidden disorder. Thomas’s SPD and Anxiety might be invisible to others however, he is very aware of his challenges and struggles to fit in and self manage his symptoms. Thomas requires quite a bit of help from adults in order to recognize when he needs to take a deep breath, walk away for a sensory break or take the necessary steps to get through an anxiety attack. We have only recently begun looking at medication management which makes me want to throw up, which coincidentally is one of Thomas’s biggest phobias, which is another story for another day.

Any parent of a child with special needs will tell you that it’s not just the child that is affected but the entire family. Leah, Mark and I are also struggling with SPD and anxiety but not in the same way that Thomas has to struggle. The past 10 years has had a significant impact on our family emotionally, physically and financially and some days I wish that there was a pill that would take it all away because I just want my Thomas to feel happy, content and relaxed. I want our family to feel happy, content and relaxed.

I recently took the kids to see the Minion Movie.  Leah settled into her seat, in four year old heaven, her hands elbow deep in buttered popcorn, eyes wide, giggling at all the jokes and punch lines.  Thomas, however, had a very different experience. Within the first 15 minutes, I noticed the tell tale signs of a full blown anxiety attack. I went into combat mode and was ready to battle. I began to assess the situation.  Was it the strong smelling perfume of the woman sitting in front of us? What it the sudden darkness of the theater? Was it his own excitement about seeing the movie that has now turned on his anxiety switch? Was it the incredibly intense volume in the movie theater? Quick fact check here:

The federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration requires hearing protection in factories at 85 dB, but its regulations do not cover theaters where peak noise levels have been reported to exceed 110 dB

I could feel the heat radiating off of his body so I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed him tight, which usually helps him feel calm as he begins to regulate. His clammy hands reached for mine and I whispered in his ear that he could go to the lobby if he needed a break. He shook his head no, reaching for his stomach and  then leaning toward me to say that he thought he was going to throw up (again a HUGE phobia of his). I noticed that his breathing was rapid and shallow so I reminded him to take a deep breath. As I pulled him closer to me I could feel his heart pounding against his little chest. I quickly pulled out the ear plugs that I keep in my purse and helped Thomas place them in his ears. He took a few more deep breaths and crawled into my lap so that I could give him a better squeeze, which can be a challenge when your child is 75 pounds and 4 ft 9 inches tall.  I turned to look at Leah who was smiling from ear to ear shoving popcorn into her little heart shaped mouth, completely oblivious to what was going on.  I sat there for a minute, contemplating my options. I could take him to the lobby but then I would have to leave my four year old daughter in the theater alone. I could bring her with us to the lobby but then I would have to tell her what was happening and she always worries about her “Bubba” when he cries. I did not want to ruin the movie for her because she was having so much fun. As my arms started to shake from the viper squeeze I was performing on my son, I felt his muscles begin to relax and breathing return to normal. Eventually he was calm enough to return to his seat and finish the movie, all the way to the end.

Some days I feel raw and vulnerable because I’m not sure how much more I can take. Other days I feel bitter and pissed off and I just want a freaking break, one day without tears, anxiety, or sensory overload. Sometimes our family and friends don’t understand. I feel like we are being judged for being neurotic, over-reacting, helicopter parents. I recently read an article written by a mother of a child with mental illness. She said something that really spoke to me.

“When your child is different, you feel exposed. If your child demonstrates behavior issues, it’s as if you’re walking around with a big flashing neon “BAD PARENT” sign attached to your head.”

I know, I know, I know, I’m not a bad parent. I am trying my hardest. I want what is best for my son, blah blah blah! My brain is telling me all of these things but some days I just don’t believe the rational thoughts that are swimming in my head. Especially tonight. Tonight was an especially difficult night for our boy. A new medication that was supposed to help curb his anxiety and help him feel more calm and focused, had the exact opposite effect. He was yelling, upset, crawling out of his skin and the only thing that would calm him was to crawl into a tight space in our master closet and hide underneath the piles of clothes and boxes because the pressure calms him down. I find it ironic that my child finds tight places calming because I am ferociously afraid of tight spaces.

Our son tries so hard to fit in with the other kids. He’s not as fast, not as coordinated, not as confident. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch and some days I just don’t know what else to do. it. The therapists and professionals tell us, “Continue to encourage him to participate in those kinds of things.” And we do. I search the local Activity guides and sign him up for things like tree climbing, Tae Kwan Do, and guitar lessons. He frequently quits halfway through the season because he cannot bare the thought of performing poorly in front of his peers. We try so hard to help him develop good healthy friendships but I cannot even keep track of how many times we have had to leave a birthday party early because the noise was just too much for him to take. There have been 12:30 am phone calls from other parents saying that Thomas was in tears and just could not make it through the sleepover at a friend’s house.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been accomplishments. He is seeing a therapist who is teaching us new ways to encourage Thomas to express himself and learn better coping strategies. At 10 years old, he finally found the courage to join the swim team. this past summer. During the two months of swim season, I worried every day that he would begin comparing himself to the other children. I worried that the starting buzzer would be too loud for him, triggering his flight or fight response. I worried that he would give up in the middle of swimming a lap and not make it to the finish line, while his peers watched in dismay. I worried when he got strep, an ear infection and another tooth abcess (all at the same time) that he would loose his motivation. I spent the entire swim team season isolating myself from the other moms. I was not willing to be subjected to the comparisons of their exceptionally athletic children to my sweet boy who was finally proud of himself and worked so hard to be an “average” swimmer. He did not come in first or even second or third and was disqualified several times due to an incorrect stroke but he still swam his little heart out and finished each race. More importantly he finished the season!

I am fortunate enough to have a job that allows me to be surrounded by parents of children with disabilities. I help families get connected to resources for their children. I listen with empathy to parents as they explain the frustrations of raising a child with a disability. I attend conferences where I meet wonderful professionals who are doing great work in the disability arena. All of my co-workers are parents of children with disabilities and some have disabilities themselves. I am completely immersed in the disability field and yet why do I still feel so damn inadequate regarding my son and his special needs? Why do I allow his setbacks to nearly break me in two?

Tomorrow, I am conducting a presentation on the program I am directing. The audience will be filled with parents of children with disabilities. I spent most of today working on my power point presentation, researching data and figuring out what I would say and how I would say it. I was starting to feel a bit inadequate as a professional and then we had tonight’s “incident” with Thomas. I realized that sometimes I feel inadequate as a parent, as well. Tonight was a bit of a set back for Thomas because he has been doing so much better.  As I sit and reflect on the day I realize that the best thing I can do during my presentation is be a parent FIRST, and a professional second. I am just like every person that will be in the audience tomorrow. As parents of children with special needs, we have days when we second guess ourselves. We have days when we feel that we just cannot take anymore. We have days that take us to our knees. We also have days when our children make tiny accomplishments and we relish in the glory. We grab onto those tiny accomplishments and let them warm our souls, re-energize our depleted bodies and refresh our exhausted minds. So, tomorrow I will wake up and be a parent to Thomas and Leah. I’ll get them fed and dressed for school and then I’ll head off to work for my presentation. I will try to remember that I am a professional with 21 years of experience in the disability and special needs field but, I will also remember that I am a mom FIRST.