Struggling with a Stuffed Snake

Dancer stays away from the stuffed snake now, thanks to the purple spray bottle of vinegar.

Dancer stays away from the stuffed snake now, thanks to the purple spray bottle of vinegar.

I stared into Dancer’s pleading eyes, stroked her sweet face, smelled the pungent apple cider vinegar on her snout, and told her, “I know, I know, it’s not easy being a service dog.”

Then I paused. “But you’re not going to get Zander’s stuffed snake. Ever.”

It was just one of those funny/exasperating/blood-pressure-spiking kind of nights that’s not uncommon among special needs (and other) families. And, of course, it began not long after I, The Mom, got on the phone.

I was having a sad and tender conversation with my brother about the night he spent in the nursing home with his wife as her mother prepared to die. He was admiring the skill and compassion of the hospice staff when I heard Zander implore, “I need help.”

Zander (who twirls rubber snakes and tubing like a prize-winning rodeo roper) had Dancer’s long leash that’s tethered to the backyard deck post in his hand. He tried in vain to untether it so he could twirl away.

“Sorry Zan-man, you can’t play with that leash. How about your green (a coil of irrigation tubing)?” I asked. He was, as you’d expect, undaunted. There was a good 5-10 minutes of me saying trying to convey “no” without saying that word and setting off a major meltdown.

Finally, I placated him with a six-foot, stuffed snake (the kind you get at a toy store, not a taxidermists) and settled in to my brother’s story of how his mother-in-law’s roommate asked to stay in their room so she could be there when Joan died because they’d developed a strong bond.

My settling lasted seconds. Dancer, who knows well how to “leave it” when Zander starts to twirl his ropes and snakes, just could not resist this long, lovely chew toy. She is still a teen-ager, after all, and she had the same gleam as a 16-year-old with a biological need for speed when he or she finds the family’s one fast car with keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas.

Zander yelped. I commanded, “Leave It!” and Dancer took off, the snake trailing behind her like a long Chinese kite.

Out came the spray bottle with pure apple cider vinegar (which, for the uninitiated, is at the top of the hierarchy of vinegars used to deter dogs from all manner of bad behavior). A spray to the snout got her attention, and what passes for peace in my house was restored.

My brother, a parent and long-time dog lover, understood my barking “no” and “leave it” during our conversation and took no offense, thankfully. At one point I told him, “It’s like having another child, sometimes.”

An outsider might question what service a teen-age service dog running away with a prized stuffed snake offered our family. They might wonder, too, if it would have been easier to have gotten a fully-trained service dog rather than taking on training a one- (and now two) year-old myself.

My short answers would be “a great service” and “sure.”

My more nuanced explanation is this:

One service Dancer performed with her naughtiness was to reinforce what I had just taught Zander: you can’t have everything you want. Some things are just not yours to play with. Zander gets his snake. Dancer gets her leash. And not visa versa. This was a teachable moment among “siblings.”

She reminded me about the importance of setting a limit and sticking to it. One thing I’ve learned from parenting a child with autism is that the thing you let slide “just one time” will become the pattern you live by or spend months undoing. We let Zander use our big, jetted bathtub “just one night.” Guess where he took a bath last night and where he will again tonight?

Which brings me to the “easy” question. Yes, it would have been easier to get a dog that was, in effect “fully loaded” and not “half-baked.” But we get the benefit of customizing her training to Zander’s needs as we go along. (I doubt that most trainers work on leaving alone all manner of toy snakes and rubber tubing.)

And there’s the deeper lesson of “Easier is not the same thing as Better” that I need to work on daily (OK, hourly). Not to get too cosmic here, but the Night of the Stuffed Snake reinforced for me that struggle (be it from a night of minor mishaps or nine years raising a child with a complex condition) begets humor, it coaxes self-discovery, it forges inner strength, and it strengthens the roots of love between parent and child, human and dog.

It also reminded me that life does not pause between funny and sad, tender and hard. These dichotomies often come all at once, all in a big jumble. And you have to make a moment, later on, to pause and pick through the jumble to find your own skein of peace.

So if I could amend the events of the night, I would change but one thing.

“I know, I know it’s not easy being a service dog,” I’d tell Dancer. “But it is so, so good.”

One Response so far.

  1. Laura Makings says:

    Dancer is so, so good! Love that dog and all she is to your family.