Merrill & Hunter in the grocery storeMerrill & Hunter in training session

Hunter in the Portland paper

Today, I’m going to copy a post written by Dagny (my daughter) about Merrill, my 4th grandson who is low-functioning autistic. He just recently got his service dog and they are both in training. I’ll let Dagny tell you about a typical day in the life of a little autistic boy, his dog, and what it’s like to have a handicapped child who looks normal, but isn’t…. In Dagny’s words…. “We had another up and down training day… but not on Hunter’s end of things. He did fine. It’s the people that acted horrible.

We started off the morning by going to our local grocery store, myself and Hunter, and Nick (age 12). Nick carried the basket as I focused on Hunter, and we cruised right through the deli and bread areas without even a sniff from Hunter. We wandered over to the frozen foods, and picked up a few things there. As I was reaching into a freezer, I looked up to see the two managers on the other side of the registers, staring at us and talking quickly to one another.

Now, as Hunter was sitting quietly, watching me, and wearing a huge bright orange vest that has “Service Dog” plastered all over it, I thought they would realize that this wasn’t just someone bringing their 80 pound pet Lab in for a stroll, but an actual working dog.

Turns out I was wrong.

The managers walked to the head of every aisle, following us through the store. I finally decided to say something after 10 minutes of this, and started walking towards them, when they turned and walked, briskly, off to the office. I figured that they had finally realized that they were in the wrong, but again, I was wrong. As we stood in the check-out line, I looked over and realized they were peeking out the office door at us!

I get the feeling that as soon as we left, they ran off to count those “free for kids” cookies, just to be sure Hunter didn’t eat them.

Hunter, however, did very well. There was a bit of looking around, but he stuck close to me and stayed away from the shelves the whole time. We even went down the pet aisle to pick up some new treats, and he sat when asked to, and just waited for us to choose something. He did wag his tail in a rather hopefully manner when something came off the shelf and went into the basket that seemed to be dog related, but Nick started off with the basket and when I told him to heel, he came right along without pause.

***

The bulk of the day we spent at the yarn shop. When I had people in, I asked them to please ignore the dog as he was working, told Hunter to stay, and went about business. Nick sat nearby with a foot on his lease in case he decided to break the stay. Only once the shop cleared out would I release him, and we would do a few minutes of work – Sit, Stay, Down, Heel, Watch Me, Lean. I hand-feed him his morning meal through by click-and-treat.

When Merrill arrived from school and we got ready to head out, I put on Hunter’s work vest and told Merrill “hold Eesha” (Merrill’s name for Hunter is Eesha). Merrill held onto the vest the whole way to the car, but was apt to wander off with his eyes when a car passed. We’re still working on a tether to go from Merrill’s harness to Hunter’s vest, but it really needs to be perfect for Merrill before we try to use it, and I want to test it at the park with another adult before I attempt to use it with just myself to handle both Merrill and Hunter’s leash.

***

We made one more stop on the way home. Now, normally, I agree with how Walmart has kind of taken over the business landscape for a lot of small towns, but let’s face it, when you need to feed 4 kids AND buy underwear, Walmart is the place to go.

Things could not have been more different than the grocery store.

By the time we got to Walmart, Merrill was a little tired, and he clung onto Hunter’s vest as soon as we got out of the van. I think I will need to make a handle in the tether itself, because holding onto the vest when the dog is still a teenager meant that there was a lot of bumping and crowding going on. Not Hunter’s fault, he wanted to be close to Merrill when Merrill showed signs of over stimulation and stress.

We walked through the front doors, and the Greeter smiled, said “good afternoon” and actually looked happy for us to be there. We walked around the entire store to pick up some sewing notions, and some groceries. Every staff person either smiled, or glanced at us then went back to work. A few said “Awww” as they saw Merrill leaning on Hunter’s back when we stopped to rest. Hunter stood and waited so patiently during those rest times, exactly what he’s supposed to do.

We passed a father and son near the movie section, and when the little boy called out “Look Dad, they DO let you bring puppies in here!” his Dad looked over, smiled, and said “That’s not a pet, that’s a working dog, see his vest? That little boy needs some extra help, and the dog helps him stay safe in the store.” I smiled like a fool, and mouthed “thank you!” to the father as they passed.

Finally, when we checked out, the cashiers and front line managers again smiled at us before getting back to work. By this time Merrill was on the verge of falling asleep and/or a full melt-down, so I told Hunter to Wait (stand and stay) and Brace, then draped Merrill’s arms over his back. Merrill put his face down on the vest, and leaned a bit on Hunter. I paid, and Nick got the bags just as Merrill stood up again. We walked out the door, again passing the Greeter, who called out “thank you!”

Merrill was asleep before I finished buckling him into his car seat. I took off Hunter’s vest and gentle leader, and took a few minutes to treat him and rub all over. He hopping into the van, and we headed off. I’m still nervous about going into public, especially when Merrill is with me, but how nice it is to end a day on such a good note!

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