On The Cusp: Connections Between Special Needs Dogs And Special Needs Kids

This is one of my favorite photos of Suzy for so many reasons. Looking at her, you have no idea that when she was alive, she was a fear biter and, she was dog aggressive.  She lived on the cusp of what was acceptable/ safe behavior that,  if unchecked, would get her into serious trouble.

I knew the triggers that acted like invisible switches that would move her into the red zone.  Figuring this out took some time, but once I realized that her behavior was predictable, I could defuse what could have been a scary event.

She came to us when she was four months old.  Someone had tied her up to a mailbox on the other side of town and left her there.  She was one of the most stunningly beautiful puppies I’d ever seen. How could I leave her in a shelter, waiting to die,  because no one had come forward to claim her?

I brought her home after taking her out to where my husband worked so that I could introduce the two of them to each other.

What we pieced together about part of her life before she came to live with us was that she had been teased to the point of meanness or she’d been physically threatened by kids. The only small child she was comfortable around was ours. I got to see this side of her one time.

I had opened the front door so that one of my son’s friends could come in. Suzy was in a sit by my side. Without any telltale body language to signal her intentions, she lunged for this child, ripping a small hole in the bottom of his shirt. My immediate reaction was to grab Suzy by her collar while telling her “NO!” in as deep a voice as I could manage as I hauled her off to her crate. She and I had both moved so quickly that my son’s friend wasn’t entirely sure what had happened.  Later, as I talked with this boy’s mother, I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Oddly enough, if Suzy was around anyone over the age of sixteen, she was fine. She had that typically aloof shepherd tendency to size someone up in a nanosecond: if she sensed that whoever was coming into the  house was being welcomed by her humans, she’d get a good sniff and then wander off.

Suzy would live with us for ten years before we lost her to cancer. She was always a take-your-breath-away beautiful dog … with special needs.

In some respects, raising Suzy mirrored some of what my husband and I were experiencing raising a special needs child.  Back in the day, before autism and autism spectrum were buzz words on almost every parent’s lips, the generally accepted vernacular was ADD and ADHD.  Mix this with a few neurological side dishes and you’ll get an idea as to some of the challenges we had. It’s been a long parenting journey.

Some things even out with time, some things stay the same, and some things amaze and delight you as they will for parents everywhere.

Not so surprising to me, my son can walk into a kennel filled with dogs or he can sit and watch an obedience class and he can accurately read dog behavior.  Those subtle physical markers that most dog owners miss? The set of a dog’s tail or whether that dog’s ears point straight up or are flattened down? My son can tell you what these behaviors mean.

He learned this when he was quite young when it was easier for me to haul him off to dog obedience classes (with Suzy) than to find a babysitter.  He learned because he grew up with dogs … because my husband and I valued the kinds of things that happen when people and dogs live together:  that unspoken, generous and forgiving energy that are wrapped into a dog’s ability to love unconditionally heals some of the growing pains of being a kid, not just a special needs kid.

The thing about special needs kids is that they grow up. And some of the challenges they had when they were kids resolve themselves. Some don’t.  As parents, we have to start asking a whole different set of questions as we support our kids through their early adulthood years. I’m not sure that I’ve found any good answers at this stage, but, knowing what can happen when kids and dogs work together is a magical place to begin. 












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