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by Jackie Pantaliano
Every child begs for a puppy, and Steven was no exception. Bob and I were not initially on board though. Steven is on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. His Asperger’s Syndrome impacts Steven’s sensory system, emotional regulation and social appropriateness. He struggles with transitions; is a very black and white thinker, whose naivete makes him vulnerable to bullying. Highly focused interests mean limited patience for anything outside those interests. He’s very reluctant to try anything new and doesn’t learn well from experience.
Steven’s developmental delays mean that at 15-years-old, with a high IQ, behaviorally he presents more like a 12-year-old or younger. Bob also has three children from a former marriage who have been part of my life over 20 years, since they were 4, 5 and 7. While primarily independent, a portion of our finances, and of course our time, still go towards them. Certainly an exorbitant amount is spent regarding Steven’s care. How could we add the time and expense of a dog?
Bob and I work hard. Although my home-based PR business is flexible, it’s time-consuming. I also voluntarily coordinate an Asperger’s Syndrome support group, and advocate full-time for Steven. Bob’s work hours are round the clock, and we are stretched very thin. However, when Steven’s anxiety and depression increased—especially as he became more aware of his differences–we looked towards a pup for therapeutic reasons. Still we were very reluctant. I never grew up with a dog, and Bob’s parents didn’t get one until he was 18. Steven persisted in wanting an affectionate, playful, little dog he could play fetch with, carry around, and cuddle. Night-time is especially hard, when all of Steven’s worst fears, anxieties and depressions occur. We would do anything to alleviate that pain.
After extensive research, we ended up with our beloved Sparky, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. We would have adopted a shelter animal, but the vet and two dog trainers agreed that with Steven’s challenges we needed to know exact temperament, including a dog we could count on being with us for as long as possible. Heart issues are prevalent in Cavaliers. Knowing the longevity of three generations assures us many years. Cavaliers were bred as lap and foot warmers for the English aristocracy. They’re loyal, affectionate, small, playful dogs.
Our pup has brought more love, affection and therapy to this family than we ever anticipated. His intense, whole-body- wagging greetings are delicious. Petting his soft fur feels like nirvana. Watching Steven play with, hug, carry and coo to Sparky warms my heart like nothing else. Seeing Bob come in exhausted after a grueling workday and brighten at Sparky’s enthusiastic welcome tugs at my heartstrings. However, the biggest surprise of all is seeing the greatest therapeutic effect on me. Since I’m the one who spends time with Sparky while Steven’s at school and Bob’s at work, and because like any child, Steven loves Sparky when he’s in the mood, but not so much when it’s time to walk and feed him, especially when Steven wants to play a video game, Sparky has become my salvation. When I’m feeling stressed or depressed, a game of fetch, snuggle time, or a walk brings me completely out of myself. When Bob’s working late and I’ve been through two-hours of Steven’s tantrums, Sparky lowers my blood pressure and absorbs my tears.
I’ve tried every other calming method—from meditation to massages–and nothing works as well as time with my Sparky. I used to scoff at those “crazy dog people,” who treated their animals like children, and here I am the same way. It’s never too late to surprise yourself. At 48, I’ve become a dog fanatic, and could never again live without one. Sparky is in so many ways a mini-me. He hasn’t seen a person or animal he isn’t compelled to greet. He expresses sadness when someone doesn’t respond to his advances. He’s easily distracted, excitable and enthusiastic. He’s my joy, my haven and my sanity. While he’s yet another one with demands (to be played with, walked, fed, bathed, and snuggled), I receive indescribable rewards back. He loves me unconditionally and passionately and holds no grudges. When I’m depleted he energizes me. When I’m stressed he calms me. When I need a laugh, his antics
make me giggle. I’ve become a “crazy dog-person,” and couldn’t be happier. What a mid-life gift.