Caleb and the “collaborator” Darcy
Grief and trauma can impact all area of a young person’s life. School is harder, relationships more frightening, the normal “losses” of childhood (leaving grade school, having a friend move away, switching teachers) more difficult.
Our son Caleb experienced several great losses before the age of six. By the time he was placed with us for adoption at age 10, his experiences with grief, confusion, and disappointment made many things painful and unnecessarily difficult. He had a negative idea about himself—that he was a “bad son,” or the “worst student,” or that “everyone hated [him].” We know that children internalize loss and find ways to make sense of it that means they are the problem. Heartbreakingly, this filled Caleb with a constant low-level anxiety and doubt, a huge fear of rejection, and a mistaken sense that if he “messed up,” the world would fall apart (as it had before). Anything related to past neglect, abuse, or loss triggered huge panic and physical reactions in him.
Resilience, consistency, and love are all ingredients that help children like Caleb begin to move in the world in a new way. Unconditional love is key. And yet, their anger, grief, shame, and fear often cause them to have emotional reactions (“behavior”) that continues cycles of disappointment and loss (being “in trouble” at school, missing school, hurting loved ones). As his parents, we love Caleb unconditionally and slowly, slowly the months passed as he tested us and learned that yes—our love is true, and we are constant.
But there is something special about the love of an animal. We saw right away that Caleb has an affinity for and gift with animals. We have a small pet dog, Remy, and on our first outing with Caleb they fell in love. We also saw that Caleb cares for all animals—birds, worms, neighborhood cats. We started an informal “pet sitting” business for him where he would care for the animals of friends and families. His first sleepover was with a dog named Oliver. He wrote a song for his favorite turtle, Hazard, and played it on guitar whenever Hazard stayed with us.
One-on-one therapy with a counselor was difficult, both because it was hard for a young person to open up (again) with a new therapist, and also because his longtime therapist had died suddenly before he was placed with us. So much loss. We found an equine therapist, and two horses named Jonny and Buzz Lightyear facilitated healing, communication, and trust. Unconditional love. Full-body connection, an attunement to how emotions are felt and experienced physically.
We knew that pursuing a psychiatric service dog for Caleb might be the next big step in helping him learn that he is capable and loved. I explored three different service dog agencies. Medical Mutts is the only one I would trust to train and match a dog with my son. Also, the mission of providing training and placement for “mutts” is deeply resonant with Caleb’s experience of himself. He was also once wanted, but then discarded. He knows what it means to be seen and discover family, purpose, and possibility. His heart breaks for Darcy’s time before she came to Medical Mutts, and he loves telling people how capable she is, how gifted, how she is “meant to be.” (He’s talking about himself.)
The staff at Medical Mutts spent a great deal of time understanding Caleb, our family, his strengths, and his needs. Darcy coming into his life has been transformative. They have a physical bond, and a non-verbal bond, that is astounding to witness. He trusts Darcy, and he knows that if he “messes up,” she loves him now less. She checks in, looking up at him, snout pointed to his face, body language, and scent. He checks in with her, accordingly, a pattern of new growth, giving her feedback in all the ways she can see, smell, and feel.
Before the age of 10, Caleb had been expelled from two elementary schools and was badly underserved. He reads incredibly well, and plays multiple musical instruments. But he had access to no instruments or lessons, and had no books of his own when he came to us. He’s clever, compassionate, and a fantastic public speaker. But school remained a trauma trigger, and many typical settings produced so much panic in him that he would run away—he’d “elope from the classroom” and climb trees, or find dogs in yards near his school and sit down and pet them, crying and feeling great anger.
Darcy has been with us for four months. Because Caleb is her “person,” he is growing into responsibility, maturity, and a kind of calm. He lays with her and cuddles her with his whole body, finding stillness in their connection. His overall anxiety in any setting is greatly decreased. During situations where it might otherwise become acute, he is learning to turn to Darcy as a “collaborator” (Caleb’s word). Instead of running away, or beginning a cycle of destruction or grief, Caleb turns to Darcy and begins a new kind of cycle: communication, asking for help, receiving love and attention, and staying present in challenging situations.
The first quarter of high school has passed. Caleb is working at home, but school is hard. He is in the high school band, and that’s also hard. Darcy collaborates at his side, and is with him when he takes breaks during class and music, to keep from being overwhelmed and remain able to work. He is working in grade-level academic classes for the first time. This quarter, he got an A+ in Biology, and a B- in Algebra. Caleb likes telling people this. He likes telling people that he’s “an A and B student.” He loves that on school picture day, Darcy also got her picture taken, because she will get an ID, too. Darcy is helping Caleb have a new sense of himself. Not as someone who has been rejected or is unwanted—but someone loveable, capable, smart, and growing into health and flourishing. Darcy is able to do this in ways dozens of us (parents, teachers, social workers, therapists, pastors) were not able to do, and she does it in the most straightforward way. And Medical Mutts made this possible—both in their commitment to preparing dogs for meaningful, transformative work, but also in their ability to train us and help Caleb see himself as able to facilitate working with Darcy.
I believe he learned more in his ten days with Medical Mutts than he did in many semesters at school or hours of therapy. The motivation is deeply intrinsic, the love is real, and together—as collaborators—the places where Caleb can succeed are unlimited.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. is an author, researcher, dog trainer, consultant, and Executive Director of Medical Mutts, a non-profit organization specialized in the training of medical alert dogs for conditions such as seizures, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, etc.