By Alexandra Kolkmeyer
Issue 102, September/October 2000
Our 18-year-old son, Sonny, awoke from his surgery and screamed. "Reynolds," he yelled, his mouth and nose filled with the effects of anesthesia. "Come here!"
He didn't call for Mom. He didn't even ask for his favorite person in the world, Dad, who he refers to as Dr. Feelgood, Dad's DJ name. No, he much preferred his best friend, the 105-pound Golden Labrador asleep near the heart monitor. Reynolds ran over to the bed and put his huge head on the mattress to comfort Sonny.
After 12 surgeries, we were grateful for the place Reynolds had in Sonny's life; competing with a dog wasn't a bad thing. After all, it had taken a couple of years before Reynolds realized that the person in the hospital bed could only speak about 500 words. But when Sonny called his name now, he could understand the message, even though the words were not well articulated. It was a happy accident to get these two together.
Sonny was born with Down syndrome. The true tragedy hasn't been his condition, but rather the doctor who wanted to institutionalize him, the school that refused his admittance, the babysitter that insisted I remain at the childcare center. These predisposed philosophies only sparked our desire, which persists to this day, to promote inclusiveness for our son.
There is a theory among some parents of special education children that friends and acquaintances who stay around for more than one year are paid to be there--therapists, teachers, aides, nurses, doctors, and staff at neighborhood convenience stores.
In my son's life, even these people haven't been a constant. Each year, the special education system here sends Sonny to a different school. Sonny's social fabric, his comforter over the past 15 years or so, rips with every new start. Therapists get replaced; he's had 57 to date. Teachers change--over 25 now and counting--and classmates move apetway or get left behind. Disabilities are incredibly isolating.
I can't remember the last time someone took a walk with Sonny when he was in his wheelchair, or talked on the phone with him more than a minute due to his hearing impairment and stutter, or invited him to the movies, since he is also visually impaired. Fortunately, Sonny has Reynolds, his canine companion.
My anxiety about Sonny's ever-decreasing social circle was increasing when I found out about Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) through an Ann Landers column. We got on CCI's waiting list for what seemed to be forever. Finally, two days before Hanukkah, we got a call. They had a dog. He wasn't perfect, but did we want to come out and train with them for two weeks? We did.
When we arrived, we walked into a kennel of 20 dogs. The trainer, a wonderful and dedicated woman named Allison, said, "Quiet." Nineteen became silent--all but Reynolds. As we walked closer to see the dog, he jumped up on the gate and scared Sonny half to death. Sonny bolted and would not return until the next day.
Due to our son's particular hearing impairment, loud sounds hurt. On the second day, Reynolds Dog, as Sonny now calls him, did not understand and scared him away again. Dad was not convinced this was such a grand scheme after all, and Sonny concurred. However, after waiting almost four years, I was not about to go home without a friend for my child.
The next day we tried a younger and smaller setter. She was beautiful, but had a high-pitched voice that always made Sonny cry. I went back to Reynolds, apologized for deserting him, and asked him to give me a break until Dad and Sonny could be convinced. He did. We left with an additional 100 pounds in our van and drove home.
Reynolds was a social replacement, so he didn't have to be perfect in my eyes. It takes patience to allow the dog to get used to the "owner" and vice versa. The adjustment period for Sonny, who is largely nonverbal, was about 18 months.
One of the more difficult hurdles was the confusion caused by sharing a common language. I would tell Sonny to "come here," and Reynolds would come. Then there were environmental adjustments, like escalators. There are few where we live, so when we went to the airport, both dog and boy had major fears to confront. By now, however, we've learned how to practice our skills with the dog; and now, four years later, Reynolds and Sonny fit together like needle and thread.
All of us have had many adventures with Reynolds Dog. Once we took Reynolds to the birdhouse at the zoo. As a pheasant landed at his feet, his eyes asked me, "Am I working?" I answered, "You'll have to leave the bird," and he walked on. Later, I was pushing Sonny through some sand, and the wheelchair got very stuck. "Pull!" I commanded. Reynolds quickly used his 105-pound frame to help me out. I was grateful, and Sonny had a new hero.
This four-legged friend has definitely had a positive impact on our son's quality of life. Commanding a dog takes patience, skill, and love, and Sonny has managed to learn all three. In return, Reynolds never tires of playing ball--a joy for me to behold; in 18 years, no one has ever dropped by the house "to see if Sonny wanted to play ball."
Reynolds's most amazing feat is the positive attention he attracts to Sonny. So many people ask Reynolds's name and age that Sonny has developed a whole new vocabulary around his dog. When we go to the hospital (every nurse knows us by now), Reynolds makes everyone smile. Sonny can now actually undergo an entire surgery without crying.
We do, however, have to educate the public about service dogs. Even though all service dogs are granted full public access, we have been denied services, seated in storage rooms at restaurants, been made to wait while others were seated, or flatly been refused admittance to events. Recently, a commercial airline neglected to give us the bulkhead, relegating Reynolds to the aisles; on the return flight home, one woman made a public scene about "dogs on the plane." Nevertheless, every one of these unpleasant stories is counterbalanced by the doors Reynolds opens--the friends he makes, and his outstanding ambassadorship, both for the differently-abled and for CCI.
To this day, Reynolds continues to be Sonny's only full-time friend. But now we believe that it is enough. Is it enough for Reynolds? I believe he got everything he asked for--except for a cat of his very own.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Canine Companions for Independence National Headquarters. PO Box 446 , Santa Rosa , CA 95402-0446 . 800-572-2275 (Voice/TDD). firstname.lastname@example.org. Nonprofit organization that provides highly skilled assistance dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness.
Assistance Dogs International, Inc. c/o Freedom Service Dogs, Inc., PO Box 150217, Lakewood, CO 80515-0217. 303-234-9512. email@example.com. Publishes Legal Rights of Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs, and Service Dogs , which includes a summary of state policies regarding service dog access; $6.00.
Delta Society National Service Dog Center . 289 Perimeter Road East , Renton , WA 98055-1329 . Voice: 800-869-6898. TDD: 800-809-2714. delta firstname.lastname@example.org. www.deltasociety.org . Provides advocacy education, referral, research assistance, and other information and services regarding service dogs.
Assistance Dog Institute. PO Box 2334 , Rohnert Park , CA 94927 . 707-585-0300. email@example.com. www.assistancedog.org . Promotes research and development, and provides education about, assistance dog programs.
Guide Dogs of the Desert. PO Box 1692 , Palm Springs , CA 92263 . 760-329-6257. Fax: 760-329-2127. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.guidedogsofthedesert.org . Specializes in rescuing and training shelter dogs to assist the blind and multiple handicapped blind.
Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. 371 East Jericho Turnpike, Smithtown , NY 11787-2976 . 516-265-2121 or 800-548-4337 outside of the New York metro area. Fax: 631-361-5192. info@GuideDog.org. www.GuideDog.org .
Paws with a Cause® National Headquarters. 4646 South Division, Wayland , MI 49348 . 800-253-PAWS (Voice/TDD). Trains hearing and service dogs.
Alexandra Kolkmeyer lives with Dr. Feelgood in Santa Fe , New Mexico , and is the author of The Clear Red Stone and The Bar Mitzvah Boys
Photograph by Maggie Heinzel-Neel