Some readers will know that at few weeks ago, our much-loved family dog Wanda died. She was not far off her twelfth birthday, so I guess a decent enough age for a Labrador. Although I had hoped that our apparently fit and healthy dog would gradually get rickety and arthritic over the next couple of years, rather than being victim to a swift, cruel and nasty illness which meant that she was dead within ten days of me first taking her to the vets, thinking something might be up.
Wanda was originally an autism assistance dog for our autistic son, now aged 15. She came from the charity Dogs for Good, formerly called Dogs for the Disabled. This led to some amusing exchanges in the early days when people exclaimed “She doesn’t look disabled!” or “She doesn’t look autistic!” when I answered their questions about her.
We signed up for the assistance dog programme when our son was four, although there was a gap of nearly three years before we were finally matched with a dog. The most visible aspect of her role with my son consisted of him being attached to her jacket out on walks, especially in busy places. I realise that this potentially raises some ethical issues, but in my son’s case, he enjoyed it from a sensory point of view, because Wanda went along at a fair lick, and he liked the sensation of this. It seemed to help him relax and take in his surroundings, rather than being overwhelmed by them. Of course this should never be done against the child’s will, and in fact it’s difficult to conceive of how it could work, from a dog-handling perspective, without the co-operation of the child.
Wanda’s relationship with my son, with me, as well as our family unit, was complex, and this is something I have been navigating and thinking about since she died. When you sign up to the assistance dog programme, one adult has to be the ‘team leader’ i.e. the person who will do the dog-handling training, and it must be someone who is predominantly home-based.
For me, this meant, to start with, a seven-day residential course where the dog is with you at all times day and night, a great deal of follow-up support and ongoing training once you return home, and a continuing programme of training, care and skill-maintenance which the ‘team leader’, must carry out.
If this sounds hard, it wasn’t, although it is quite a commitment to take on. But having definitely not been a ‘dog person’ before Wanda came to us, I was very quickly really smitten by her. She had the most fabulously warm, relaxed and responsive personality. The training she had received from the charity was truly impressive, meaning she could stop, start, turn left and right, ignore distractions, pick up and drop items and follow a range of other instructions with ease. I could leave her in one place and she wouldn’t budge, even if I was some distance away, until I gave her a signal and then she would come straight to me.
But Wanda was also playful, affectionate and sociable. She had clear ways of communicating when she was in the mood for a game of ‘chase around the coffee table’ or ‘find the squeaky toy’, or that she wanted her tummy tickled. Wanda loved charging about with other dogs. And very quickly, she blended into our family, and we blended into her.
My son started school full-time at the age of eight, and over the intervening years gradually spent more time at clubs and other activities away from the home. He shot up in height and the harness-led walks were soon no longer viable. My husband continued to go out to work, and I stayed with Wanda most of the time, working part-time or from home. Battles over my son’s support were relieved by long walks in the woods with Wanda, the intensity of my PhD alleviated by strolling through fields, alongside rivers and coastal paths with her. We did a huge amount of exploring, often off the beaten track. Usually in the middle of some form of academic writing, I would compose sentences and paragraphs in my head, sometimes stopping to write them down en route, while Wanda waited for us to get started again.
Wanda was extremely adaptable: she was trained to go into cafes and supermarkets, doctors’ surgeries and hospitals. She could go into any environment without difficulty, and so I pretty much did everything with her, and went everywhere with her. She came with us on day trips and holidays, to friends’ houses and pubs and restaurants. I even took Wanda to Birmingham with me when I was spending a lot of time at the university there, renting a cottage on a farm on the outskirts of the city from which we also did long, exploratory walks. This was partly for practical reasons, so that I could look after her, but it was also undoubtedly because I liked her company.
Since Wanda died, I’ve been really gratified by the response of my friends and family, and people on twitter, to what feels like a huge loss. But it’s also made me aware of how we humans always seem to need measurements and comparisons to try to make sense of emotions, that we understand feelings by saying what they are not. I understand completely that there are worse losses to bear, but that doesn’t mean to experience a sense of bereavement over an animal is somehow illegitimate.
And with my autism researcher’s hat on, Wanda’s death has made me think a lot about the therapeutic and charity model of support dogs, of which there is an abundance of research evidence in the disability, special educational need and health fields. They show that dogs can help with a plethora of affective, health and practical needs, and of course some assistance dogs perform extremely important functions for people who are deaf, have epilepsy or are blind, for example. But I also wonder if we underestimate the simple aspect of companionship that a dog can bring, and see a close bond with an animal as being somehow of a lower order than relationships with humans. In my view, there’s no need to make such comparisons or distinctions, as long as we realise that if dogs look after us, we must also look after them.
Wanda was an animal capable of learning many skills and she was brilliant at pretty much everything. She had the mildest of temperaments but was astonishingly good at defending herself on the couple of occasions she was attacked by other dogs, managing to extricate herself from the situation unscathed. But in many ways Wanda was also a very simple creature: if she had food, walks and affection, she was happy. And so Wanda was always happy. Despite all of her skills, tricks and training, it was her mild, playful and affectionate nature which infused our home and seeped into some of the empty pores of our lives. Who wouldn’t miss, and mourn, such a companion?