Brent Kennedy student Max Benson was looking for a guide dog. Two-year-old Creston stray Budster was looking for a home. As Andrea Klassen reports, both found what they were looking for — and a little bit more, besides.
Visitors to Max Benson’s house get the grand tour. Max, age 8, introduces Buddha, the family cat, shows off his bedroom filled with posters from Where the Wild Things Are, points out the drawers housing his taekwondo uniform, and demonstrates the proper way to shut the door to the room containing the Bensons’ gerbil (“There was another gerbil, but Buddha ate it,” he explains).
There’s a new addition to introduce as well: Budster, a two-year-old service dog who became a permanent family member about a month ago.
“Did you notice he has a heart on his head?” Max asks, pointing to a patch of white just above Budster’s eyes before flopping down on the couch with a video game, dog curled up at his side.
Max’s condition isn’t Aspergers or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, though it acts a bit like both. His mother Michelle describes it as “a complex developmental behavioral condition.”
“It’s a lot of the same presentation, where there’s a lot of social difficulties,” she says. “There’s a lot of rigidity where he’ll get stuck on things and really focus and he absolutely cannot move from that.”
Budster has two main purposes: to keep Max safe, and provide emotional support.
“Max doesn’t have a really clear sense of danger, so he’ll talk to people he doesn’t know or if something is interesting he’ll just leave, he wouldn’t necessarily look to see where I was,” Michelle says.
“And if somebody was nice, he’d probably go with them. I’ve always been worried about that. It’s something I love about him, because he’s not shy with anybody, but at the same time it’s a bit scary for me.”
When Budster’s training with Max is finished, the dog will walk on leash with him, but respond to commands from Michelle. That way, they can be called back if Max wanders, or gets too close to something dangerous.
And when Max gets stuck or overwhelmed, petting Budster has a therapeutic effect.
“I’ve had Budster at the school a couple times when Max has had some difficulty. Max has just sat on the floor, really stuck and unable to move on,” she says.
“Budster at one point just laid across his lap, and in 15 minutes he had worked through what he needed to work through and went back to class and carried on with his day.”
There’s also been a third, unexpected perk to getting the dog. Max’s class spends 30 minutes of every school day walking the Slocan Valley Rail Trail. When Budster (and Michelle) started joining them, he quickly become a star attraction at Brent Kennedy Elementary.
“Other kids are approaching him, talking to him, asking him questions, and that social piece is another area that’s really tough for him,” says Michelle. “It’s a bit of a gateway into some of those interactions.”
Unlike some of the dogs Diana Miller trains from puppyhood, Budster wasn’t originally meant to be a service dog.
Miller, who runs Helping Paws dog training in Creston, had been looking for the right service animal for Max for nearly a year when the Collie-Lab cross was brought to the animal shelter where she volunteers. When no one claimed him, she invited Max and Michelle out to visit.
“I was looking for a dog that had a calming effect on Max, so I needed a dog that was not reactive, not excitable, was just very calm and sensible,” she says. “And Budster fit that bill perfectly.”
Watching Max interact with Budster, Michelle says she noticed changes immediately.
“You can really see Max relax. His speech became slower, he became more articulate, he became more aware of what was going on around him,” she remembers. “You could literally see his whole body and demeanor change. So I was like, yes, this is totally what he needs.”
Max isn’t the only one whose behaviour is changed through their partnership. Though she doesn’t know for sure, Michelle suspects the dog has a history of abuse. When he first came for a home visit, sudden movements made him flinch and noisy situations made him skittish.
“His confidence is growing too. The first time we went to taekwondo class he was shaking, growling, didn’t know what was going on, and the last two times I’ve had him there he’s calm, lies beside me and just keeps an eye on Max.”
The bond between them is already growing noticeably as well. Where Budster originally deferred to Michelle, he’s now staying closer to Max.
“He sleeps beside him on the floor right beside his bed,” she adds. “There’s different things happening now that definitely are new.”
It hasn’t all been smooth going, of course. Because Budster is still in training, taking him out in public can be difficult — in large part because many people don’t seem to recognize an on-duty service dog.
“You’d be surprised at how many people just come up to a dog and don’t even ask if he can be petted. So we’re constantly saying ‘he’s a service dog, you can’t pet him,’” says Max, looking up from his video game.
When he’s on the job, Budster wears a blue vest with a stop sign on it, to discourage people from interacting with him. But it doesn’t always help.
“Adults, even, they don’t even read,” Max adds. “You know they can read, but they don’t.”
When people pet the dog during his work hours, “It takes Budster’s focus off his job, which is Max,” Miller explains. “If people come up and start talking to the dog and petting him, Max could just wander away and Budster’s focus is lost.”
It also usually means a lengthy explanation of what a service dog is doing with the family. While she says she feels like education is part of her job, Michelle admits keeping track of an eight year old and a dog, while educating the public and running an errand, has its stresses.
“It’s just one more thing. It’s really tough in the beginning, because both of them require so much attention and energy.
Max’s classmates, however, seem to be catching on to the rules quickly.
“They’ll come up to us and say, ‘hi, I can’t pet him right now because he has his vest on, right?’” says Michelle. “So the kids are getting it.”
Kids with Max’s condition don’t receive government funding the way those with autism do, so the Bensons are also shouldering the cost of the dog alone (about $4,000, though it would have been almost double if they’d gotten a puppy).
A separate account to hold money for Budster has been set up at the Nelson CIBC. Donations can be made to account No. 00270-82-95735.