How a Special Dog Helped My Daughter With Autism


Pablo kept our daughter safe and happy


Three weeks after our dog Pablo died Erin finally said, “Pablo’s not coming back.” The days after his passing were filled with questions: “When can we pick him up?” “When will Pablo come home?” It’s hard for anyone to imagine life without their first love, for Erin, who has autism, it was impossible.


Pablo, a Black Lab with caramel, colored eyes, joined our family eleven years ago when Erin was nine, and he was three. He had velveteen ears, a white patch on his chest, and a significant drooling problem. I had never owned a dog before and couldn’t help but ask the trainer who placed him with us, is that normal? It turns out it’s not, but Pablo was not a typical dog.


Pablo was a service dog trained to help children with autism and their families. Erin is the oldest of our four children, and while her three brothers grew to adore him, Pablo was her dog. He was charged with keeping her safe and happy.


As a child, Erin tended to wander. I had lost her on more than one occasion. It happens in a blink — when it takes to reach for a bunch of bananas, feed a parking meter, or pick up a younger sibling. A mere glimpse of something enticing, and she was gone.


Tethered to Erin by a lead attached to his bright blue vest, Pablo was trained to bolt in place if he felt her stray. At the same time, when Pablo moved in a certain direction, Erin knew to follow. Holding fast to his harness, Erin regularly walked the two miles from our house to the library, their home away from home.


Upon reaching their destination, he’d sit beside Erin for as long as it took to find just the right book, often stretching out, knowing it could take a while. Every visit, the librarians greeted the duo by name. At the same time, Patrick, the owner of our local bookstore, always offered treats and pretended to look away as Pablo closely inspected boxes of books lining the floor.


Pablo helped Erin get around and interact with others


Customers frequently stopped to engage Erin and her gentle guide, allowing a child with communication challenges and a tendency to get lost in her world to see, be seen, and interact with those around her. Pablo grounded and heightened Erin’s senses and ability to relate to others.


Most profoundly, he bolstered her sense of self, acceptance, and being loved. They shared an intensely affectionate relationship. He was direct with his wants and needs, with no facial expressions or subtleties to decipher, and Erin knew that whatever the day may bring, Pablo loved her. While her dad, brothers, and I and a host of therapists and teachers encouraged ‘appropriate’ behavior, Pablo only wanted love — and half her hamburger.


Erin knew Pablo was her dog. She beamed when people stopped to admire him. Our boys loved it too. Behavioral challenges frequently attracted unwanted attention, making the most mundane of family outings a high-stress affair. Pablo turned that equation upside down. Her brothers were so proud of him and grateful that their sister had found such a faithful and fun friend.


To the boys’ infinite delight, he once inspired an entire elementary class to cheer “Pablo! Pablo! Pablo!” through the halls of the Norwalk Aquarium and almost incited a monkey riot at the Palm Beach Zoo when a group of visitors turned their attention away from them and to this large, furry creature. Pablo never failed to command attention and spotlight when and where attention must be paid.


Pablo sensed when Erin was not well


Moments before Erin had her first seizure, Pablo appeared uncharacteristically agitated, moving in circles at the entrance to the bathroom where she was playing in the tub. I remember wondering what he was doing as he squeezed past me to sit beside her, when Erin started to convulse. Pablo sat next to me as I started to freak out. He probably knew that was going to happen, that I would react the way I did, that she and everything would be ok but he waited it out beside me just to be sure.


Pablo always made sure we were all ok. He saw us through the highs, lows and doldrums of eleven years. He spoke the secret language of boys, playing ball for hours, content to sit and snuggle while watching the big game. He was a best friend with a bottomless appetite and always up for sharing a snack. Best of all, he was safe haven and a no judgement zone. He didn’t care if your shoes matched, if you played well or struck out, if you won or lost – just that you came home.


It was hard to see Pablo age


It gutted us all to see him slow down. He wrestled with dental issues and a skin condition in his final months. His hips grew weak, and cataracts obstructed his vision. Most disconcertingly, he began to wander. He didn’t know what he wanted or where he was supposed to be. He knew he was destined to keep on the go, to keep us safe, and he knew he was failing.


We all did, except Erin.


Erin never saw a problem. She just saw Pablo. Even in his last days, he could barely get up from his bed. She’d wish him good morning, bring him treats, sit beside him and tell him about her day. “See you in the morning, Pablo”; she said every night.


She never anticipated a time he wouldn’t be there, as much as we explained that Pablo was tired, that he needed to rest — these were not explicit enough terms, but as it turns out, none exist. Erin does not know what dying means, and for now, heaven is somewhere she wants to be to see Pablo. I tell her he is in a good place; he is happy. Maybe not as happy as he was with you, I backtrack, reading her face, but he will be when he sees you again.


I miss him too. He was a good dog. This she understands.