Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dogs and autism: My son’s bond with a very special Labrador

There’s something about dogs and autism, or at least there’s something about dogs and the specific autism of my oldest son, Steve.  Today marks the approximate anniversary of the birth of a very special, unique dog, our faithful Labrador mix, Angel.  What Angel brought to our family, especially to our son, cannot be adequately described.

We never knew exactly when Angel was born; SPCA personnel estimated that it was in the last few days of December 1998 or early in the first week of January ’99, so this seems like as good a day as any other to commemorate her birth.

Lab puppies like to eat redwood trees.  The bark is their favorite part. Redwood trees can survive being stripped of their bark.  My wife didn’t really need those shoes.  Labs like to leap into the air and snatch mockingbirds and scrub jays in flight.  Labs are supposed to retrieve dead birds and carry them with gentle jaw pressure to people.  Angel’s method was a bit more robust; no birds survived, but the ones who were lucky enough to observe these antics from above quickly learned that our yard was a no-fly zone from ground level up to an altitude of about 7 or 8 feet.  Similarly, a salesman who ignored the sign on the gate to our enclosed front entry and foolishly trespassed by scaling the fence learned that standing very still with a heart rate up around 140 while a ninety-pound dog stares at you from a distance of a few feet, ears perked, tail erect and slowly flagging (not wagging)  is no one’s idea of fun.

Over time, Steve and Angel established an unbreakable bond.  He spent hours in his favorite place–the backyard–with Angel as his constant companion.  Steve has been almost completely nonverbal since losing his expressive language at around the age of two, but he trained Angel in his own unique way to respond to gestures and behavioral cues.  Her ability to sense Steve’s moods far exceeded the already impressive social hierarchy-related perceptive skills characteristic of the species. Steve found in Angel someone who seemed to anticipate his responses to the sights, sounds and situations that produced in him irritability, fear, or anger, and then provided a calming influence.

We all loved that dog, but Steve’s connection with Angel was something that, if a pet owner is lucky, he or she will experience once in a lifetime.  At times they seemed to respond to each other before the eliciting stimulus even occurred.  My strongly ingrained skeptical agnosticism is tested whenever I contemplate the relationship between my son and his dog.  I could apply Occam’s steely blade to the issue and come up with several simple models, but to what end?  Sometimes, for me at least, accepting mystery is the simplest path, and if the simpler path is also comforting, I’ll permit myself that indulgence from time to time, especially when it involves my family.  Does that mean I invoke some kind of metaphysical woo-woo explanation?  No.  It simply means that I don’t chip away at the emotional importance of the phenomenon by dissecting and examining it in detail.  It’s enough to say, “I can’t completely explain it, and in this case, that’s okay.”

Angel died peacefully on the bright autumn morning of October 20, 2009.   It took Steve time to understand, and we still cannot know with anything even approaching certainty what his specific conception of death might be.  For weeks afterward he looked for his dog, and our attempts to comfort and explain may or may not have helped ease his path to acceptance. Several weeks after Angel died, as I drove Steve through our neighborhood on the way to the store, we passed a park where a man was throwing a tennis ball to his dog–a black lab that bore more than a passing resemblance to Angel.  This upset Steve greatly. I won’t describe his specific response, because his obvious anguish at the time still haunts me, but it seems clear that he thought that dog was Angel and that she now lived with someone else.

Steve is resilient.  We have two new labs (just over a year old now).  Steve likes them, but he hasn’t yet shown signs of establishing the kind of bond he had with Angel.  Perhaps he will, eventually, or maybe once is enough for him.  Meanwhile, we wait and hope.

Angel, 1998-2009

(Originally published on 1/1/10.)

Post and photo © Pseudocognitive All rights reserved, forever.


  1. That was one beautiful dog.

  2. Aye, that she was. Best dog we ever had. We have high hopes for our Labs we have now, but it's too early to tell if they'll attain the significance for Steve that Angel had.

  3. Very moving post. I volunteer with my dog, a King Charles Spaniel at a retirement home and will soon start to visit children with special needs at a local school. Charlie's connection and joy he brings to the elderly is something I hope he can also accomplish with the children. We will be starting in a few weeks and I'm eager to see their interaction. He's often frisky, sometimes calm, always radiating happiness.

  4. Thank you, Jeanne. The school my oldest son attended until he "aged out," which my youngest son still attends, brings in therapy dogs periodically, and the students really respond well and enjoy the dogs tremendously.

  5. Lovely meditation on Angel and Steve. How are the new dogs doing with the boy?