I stayed up late last night, scouring the internet for books on how to help a human to adjust to a dog.
Everything that came up related to how to adjust was related to the dog (acclimating a dog to a new home, understanding dog behaviors, how to train a dog, etc.).
Anything related to humans were primarily anthologies of how much dogs helped and changed their lives - or dealing with the loss of a pet.
Nothing on: Here’s what to do when it’s hard on YOU.
Here’s the deal: I have a dog, Egon, who is well-tempered and well-behaved (you can read more about him in my essay I Have a Therapy Dog, Sort of).
Ever since I adopted him in September 2021, I’ve had a hard time incorporating Egon into my life. It’s not him. It’s me.
As I type this, I’m sitting on my coach and he is sleeping right beneath me on the floor.
As I look down, he is lying on my super soft blanket that I had warmed up next to the heater while we went for our morning walk. I like to wrap it around me as I write. It must have fallen off the couch.
I’m a little bothered. That warm blanket was supposed to be more for me. I’m also a little touched that he enjoys it as much as I do. So I’m certainly not going to interrupt his happy slumber to take it back.
Now I’m cold. I can’t turn on my space heater without disrupting Egon because his body is pressed against it. So do I wake him up or remain cold? Do I temporarily suffer or honor my needs?
These are questions I face in my everyday life as an autistic person. It’s like my dog brings up all of my internal issues.
This could be seen as a gift or an opportunity, but I am definitely not there yet.
Egon causes me to continuously adjust and alter my life. It has been difficult. My entire day is different as I navigate having him by my side.
While Egon has brought immense benefit to my life (his companionship, getting to know our neighbors better on our dog walks, and more), it is still difficult to adjust to life with him. Sometimes, I just want to go home and paint. I don’t want to walk him. I don’t want to provide the mental stimulation he needs.
I recently watched an episode of Schitt’s Creek where one of the characters was given a book called, “Opening Your Heart to Animals: A Guide to the Benefits of Caring for Something Other than Yourself.” The book was used as a joke in the show, hinting at how the character was only used to taking care of herself.
But this is truth for me. I’m willing to admit that. I’m single, no children, and live on my own.
To add to that, I’m autistic. I love my routines. I enjoy getting lost in painting, reading, writing, or whatever fixation grasps me.
My dog sometimes grates against these things, such as routine. Because my autistic mind takes in so much information constantly, a routine is comfortable and soothing. I know what to expect and I have a little bit of control on the amount of information coming in. It limits overstimulation.
Prior to Egon, I had a lovely morning routine. I woke up naturally (usually as the sun came up), would make myself some coffee, and would snuggle into my couch to write my morning thoughts and read according to my desire level. It was a gradual awakening, as well as such beautiful space for my mind. My mind is alive with thoughts in the morning and I do better the rest of the day if I give those thoughts a place.
Once I got Egon, he wanted to greet me with frantic kisses the moment he heard I was awake. The kisses didn’t feel like genuine attention - they were to get me out of bed to take him on a walk: in the freezing, jarring cold with many unknowns - such as whatever neighbors, dogs, or cats we might interact with.
When we come back inside from our walk, I feed him, and he may sleep for another hour. Once he wakes up, he is restless. He wants to interact. It’s natural, it’s what dogs do. AND it interrupts my life.
Which leads to the second issue he brings up: hyper-vigilance and attunement. Due to the heightened five senses, autistic individuals are often hyper-aware and hyper-observant. I am adept at reading body language, facial expressions, tone, and more. The input is something that is extremely difficult to turn off.
I find myself constantly trying to read Egon’s body language and facial expressions. I try to discern what he wants, and then also decide how much of it to meet (I’m only going to take him on walks so many times before I lose my mind).
It’s exhausting for me to be constantly evaluating. I want Egon to be happy. I want to be a good dog owner to him.
Which leads to my deeper issue here. I don’t really know enough about dogs to know what’s appropriate care and tending. This is my first adult dog since I was a kid (and unfortunately, we weren’t very attuned to our dog’s needs as a kid, so I don’t want to follow that model).
And of course, my mind just drifted off to how we treated and disciplined our dog. This tangential thought leads me to my next issue: over-thinking and rumination. As an autistic person, it’s like my brain easily thinks of a million thoughts at once.
Any minor concerns leads my brain to overthink on all of the ways I can solve it.
This past month was actually more enjoyable than most in my entire life. And yet, here I am perseverating on my adjustment issues with my dog. Minor problems can occlude the good (such as the joy he brings me, how much I enjoy the casual interactions at dog parks, that I feel safer at night, etc.)
I over-think about how to resolve issues, and then I become resentful that Egon is taking up this space in my mind.
Again, it’s not him. It’s me.
I started working with a trainer again to work on some of Egon’s behaviors. She suggested that a morning jog would help with Egon’s restlessness. A MORNING JOG. I internally lost my shit at that suggestion. I do not want that kind of exertion in the morning. I’m looking for ways to make this easier on me - not harder.
But I also want Egon to be happy.
Which leads to my final point: over-caring. As an autistic person, our hyper-connection to the world around us leads to deep levels of caring.
I care about Egon. This essay clearly reflects I’m over-caring to the point it’s negatively impacting us both.
All of the difficulties I have mentioned in this essay (overstimulation, overthinking, rumination, overcaring, hypervigilance, hyper-awareness, etc.), are also things that come up as I interact with other people and navigate the world.
I need a break from them sometimes. To have no input and to just be. It’s why autistic people need a great deal of time to ourselves. To recalibrate. And to just enjoy being without any of that.
And this is the hardest thing with Egon, with another being present, I no longer have that. There is no complete relaxation.
There are little ways I am dealing with this (such as taking him to doggy day care), but it doesn’t negate that my entire life is different now.
I wish I could be the person who says, “Oh my god, my life is so much better now that I’ve got a dog,” and then prattle on about all the ways my life is enhanced.
That is not my lived reality. Yes I love Egon and the sum total of our relationship and his presence in my life is positive, but it is not without its very real challenges.
I provide art therapy for autistic individuals that is grounded
in the lived reality of being autistic.