I adopted my dog Egon for my 36th birthday. I’d been thinking about it for a while and I decided it was an appropriate time in my life.
Little did I know, adopting Egon would bring one of the biggest autistic meltdowns of my life. Once he was in my home, I realized I didn’t really know if I could be everything he needed. Furthermore, it was obvious how little I knew about dogs as I tried to figure out what he wanted and needed. On top of that, I was overwhelmed by the changes to my daily routine. It also impacted my work, as I brought him with me to see clients. I tried to work with a dog trainer, whose methods and style only made things more difficult and confusing.
It’s been a year now since I adopted Egon. Things are SO MUCH better. I’d like to distill the key points for anyone else struggling to integrate a new dog into their autistic life.
1. It was hard BECAUSE IT WAS HARD. In the beginning I often beat myself up wondering, “Why is this so hard for me? Why can’t I just love my dog like everyone else does?” Looking back, it makes perfect sense why it was so hard. It grated against every aspect of my autistic challenges. He also had difficult behaviors that I did not yet know how to handle. He also didn’t know what was expected of him, so he had not settled into his calmer version of himself. It all felt horrible, and then I felt even worse that I felt horrible. That’s the layer I would shave off. It’s ok if it is hard and feels hard.
2. Find a trainer that aligns with you. I tried two trainers that were not good fits for me. The first used corporal punishment and was inconsistent and eradict in her scheduling and methods. The second couldn’t tailor training to my autistic self (meaning she insisted I do things that didn’t work for me … like waking up and taking Egon on a run first thing in the morning). My third trainer respected who I was. He found creative solutions to work with me. He taught me how to relate to Egon and teach Egon what behavior I did and did not want. He practiced with me so I didn’t get overwhelmed. In short, I needed someone who honored who I was and worked with me as I am. It made all the difference in the world for my relationship with Egon. It took away the majority of the fear I had that I couldn’t communicate or understand him properly.
3. Get the tools you need. There were certain things about Egon that drove me nuts. For example, he would sit by the door and whine to be let out. As soon as I let him out, he would whine to come back in. That constant back and forth drove me nuts. I finally bought a screen for the front door that he could walk in and out. IT CHANGED EVERYTHING. Our time at home was so much calmer and he was so much happier. It also used to bother me how he would get in my visual space while driving. I finally bought him a doggie seatbelt so he has to stay in the back of the car. This made me so much more calm while driving.
4. It’s ok to honor your needs. I used to feel bad that I wasn’t doing everything I possibly could for my dog. For example, I cannot go on epically long walks or runs in the morning if I want to have enough energy the rest of the day. For my body, what works better is gentle, brief walks spread throughout the day. At some point, I accepted that it’s ok to find a compromise between Egon and I.
5. Know it will get better with time. I wasn’t sure things would get better with Egon. Some people even told me that after you adopt a dog, their bad behaviors come out with time. I was terrified because it was already difficult. In reality, Egon is sooooo much better now. He no longer chews things during my therapy sessions. He’s getting better at barking less. He now knows appropriate behavior around other dogs. He now remains calm at home when I’m writing. His separation anxiety is reducing and he’s not knocking things off the tables when I’m gone. He no longer pulls on his leash. There are just so many things that are better. Yes, some of them took training, but now it’s a lot easier.
Most of all, Egon has dramatically improved the quality of my life. By forcing me to walk every day around our apartment, I’ve gotten to know all of my neighbors by name. I actually feel like I’m in a community. Everywhere I go with Egon, he facilitates natural and easy conversation.
Now that we know each other better, we’re also far more comfortable around each other. I understand him better and he understands me better. He even recognizes the tone in my voice when I’m done with a therapy session and jumps up excited for some attention or to go on a walk. I can now better discern what he wants and what he likes or dislikes. We’re learning each other and it feels good.
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