Elizabeth B. is the Owner and Director of Thames Centre Service Dogs of Ontario, Canada, an organization that trains service dogs for children with special needs including FASD. She is a mother and step-mother of five children and partner of ten years. She is an author, public speaker, consultant, and advocate for service dogs and their handlers and has been working with dogs for twenty years.
Brianna Montgomery: Hello Elizabeth! It is such a pleasure to speak with you. I thank you for agreeing to speak with me today.
Elizabeth B.: I am happy to.
BM: Let’s get started. Tell me a little about yourself.
EB: I am currently 47-years-old and was adopted by my amazing parents when I was 5. I was diagnosed with FAS when I was 14, along with PTSD.
BM: How has having FASD affected your life?
EB: When I was younger, it definitely affected me in school in terms of having multiple learning disabilities. It made school very difficult for me. I remember my first grade teacher calling me the “R” word and that stuck with me my entire life.
BM: I’m sorry to hear that. That’s such ignorant thinking and horrible for you to have to endure.
EB: On the positive side though, my amazing mother went in to the school with her war bonnet on and said ‘how dare you say that to a child.’ She has been the biggest advocate and supporter of me for my life. If it were not for being adopted by these amazing people, I truly do not know where I would be.
BM: That’s wonderful. Family is so essential. You’ve shared with me how FASD affected you when you were younger; tell me a little bit about how it affects you now?
EB: There are physical effects to having FASD. For example, I have multiple medical issues that require daily care. I am also going deaf very quickly and we can’t find out why. I now have hearing aids. I know I will lose my hearing eventually down the road, but considering everything that I have been through in my life that is really not as big of a deal as one might expect for me. It’s just another thing on the hill that has been my life. You get on with it.
BM: I’m sorry about your hearing, but it’s admirable what a positive outlook you have on everything. You aren’t letting FASD hold you back. Other people could really learn something from you!
EB: I have had a great life, but not without many, many challenges. As a teenager I was extremely challenging for my parents and I really put them through the ringer. I was trying to figure out who I was and I was dealing with the abuse I had experienced prior to being adopted. That mixed me up emotionally a considerable amount and for many years I did not have a relationship with my parents. I felt like they didn’t understand me. It was only until I finally grew up and became a parent myself that I realized just how important parents are.
BM: It sounds like your parents, especially your mother, have been so essential in your growth. That is fantastic. Tell me a little bit about your family. I know you had mentioned that you have children.
EB: I have a life partner who I have been with for ten years. He’s an amazing, miraculous man in that he puts up with me on a daily basis. He is extremely understanding and supportive. I have five children from our blended union. My partner has three sons and I have a son and a daughter. My eldest stepson is 30-years-old with autism and he is in the process of finding a new job and a new walk in life. My second stepson is 28-years-old and he is an executive for a company. My third stepson is 24-years-old and he is on his way to college to study IT. My daughter is 24-years-old and is a budding photographer with talent beyond imagination. My son is autistic and has recently changed his coursework in high school to academic so that he can go to university.
BM: What a great family and such wonderful successes! Has having two autistic sons been challenging for you and your partner?
EB: The biggest fear that I had was that my FASD was somehow related to my son having autism. I know that FASD is not genetic, but there is guilt associated with my son having autism even though there is absolutely no way that I could control whether he has it. I never drank during my pregnancy and didn’t even take Tylenol. I was paranoid, even militant about being absolutely clean during my pregnancies. I did not want any of my issues to be passed on to my children and yet here I have a son who’s born with autism and a daughter who suffers from depression. It’s natural for a mother to wonder if there something that I did or could have done differently to change this outcome. Intellectually, I know there is nothing that I could have done differently. Emotionally, I don’t necessarily know that.
BM: I understand that with autism everything is so unknown.
EB: Having a special needs child and being someone who is considered disabled by the outward world, I think it lends you a significant amount of patience that you would not normally have to deal with the issues that come up. My patience with my son is limitless.
BM: That’s an incredible quality to have.
EB: I’m often very quick to spot other children in the community who have special needs whether it be FASD, autism or another disability because you recognize the behaviors. You recognize the behaviors in yourself or in your own child. You are more inclined to go and offer the other parent assistance when their child is melting down, instead of doing what many other parents may do and just think that the child needs to be disciplined better. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
BM: Absolutely. They need more love and care.
EB: They need more understanding. Society as a whole generally does not have much understanding when it comes to special needs children unless the special need is visible. The cruel thing about FASD and autism is that they are both invisible. You cannot recognize a difference between these children and others because there is no wheelchair, no crutches and no major deformity that would isolate them as being different.
BM: That’s so true. That’s why FASD is so difficult. Even with an “FAS face”, the disorder is invisible.
EB: If you look at the FAS face, there are traits about the face that society finds attractive. One downside that people do not consider is that with FAS you are usually a pretty good looking individual and because you are good looking society expects more from you. That is a tough burden to carry when you cannot meet the average expectations of society, let alone the extended expectations.
BM: I agree; that’s very true. I understand that you have your own service dog organization, tell me about how you got involved working with service dogs.
EB: Prior to working with service dogs, I was working on rehabilitating dogs with aggression and other behavioral issues. I did that for about twenty years. I always loved working with dogs. I preferred dogs over people because they are less judgmental and manipulative…unless you have a cookie in your pocket, then a dog will manipulate the heck out of you.
BM: Very true.
EB: Dogs are very easy to read behaviorally and you always know where you stand with them. When my son was diagnosed with autism I began to look at including dogs in to my son’s life in an extended way and I found out that they had autism service dogs. I became trained to train service dogs for people with autism and I very quickly expanded my training to include psychiatric illness, brain injury, disease and disorder, and FASD.
BM: Tell me about your organization, Thames Center Service Dogs.
EB: I started the organization when my son was diagnosed with autism and we started including other issues in to our training protocol, including FASD. We are very advocate minded in terms of our clients and our service dogs. We make sure that we are there for the duration of the service dog’s life. Once the client receives the dog, that is not the end of our involvement. We become part of their family. We are continuously there to train for any additional services that the client may need and we love every single one of our clients and our dogs. In addition to the organization, I am the person that developed the psychiatric service dog protocols for Ontario and I developed the FASD service dog protocols for Canada.
BM: It sounds like you have done a lot of amazing work. We in the FASD field along with individuals with FASD and their families are so thankful for you and your efforts.
EB: I have also begun a psychiatric service dog program here in Ontario. We deal mostly with veterans with operational stress injury. We have a commitment to providing service dogs at a reduced cost to our veterans. It’s our own way of saying thank you for all that you have done for us.
BM: What an amazing program. They deserve it. Are there particular dog breeds that are good for service dogs?
EB: I predominantly use Labrador Retrievers because they are a “bomb proof dog.” They have such wonderful temperament and it takes a lot to upset a Lab, if at all possible. Having said that, all of our dogs are thoroughly temperament tested to make sure they are “bomb proof” before they even enter our training program.
BM: I understand that is very important.
EB: We also use Standard Poodles for extensive health issues such as asthma or allergies or medical issues such as feeding tubes or colostomy. If it needs to be a cleaner environment, we will use the Standard Poodles because they are less allergenic. There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog; please make note of that!
BM: I am aware of that now. Thank you.
EB: Standard Poodles are a low shed and low dander dog. It’s mostly the dander that people are allergic to, not necessarily the fur.
BM: I have heard that Poodles are easy to train and are very well tempered dogs, is this true?
EB: Yes, they are. They tend to be a bit goofy until about the age of one year. They are quite hilarious. They are the jokester dog and if you have a sense of humor, you’ll be laughing a lot.
BM: That’s wonderful. What do these service dogs bring to those with FASD and other special needs?
EB: I’ll give you two examples. My first example is a little girl that I work with and she has FASD. She suffers from severe anxiety. Her anxiety is to the point where her vision becomes affected if she becomes too overstimulated. She can occasionally have seizures as well. Her dog is a companion dog that goes to school with her every single day and offers her support. When she becomes over anxious she will go and lay with her dog and the dog will comfort her and provide her deep pressure therapy, where the dog will push against her. Pushing is comforting. If the dog sees that she is becoming overstimulated, the dog will go and alert her as if to say ‘come and spend some time with me.’ The dog could also alert her teacher to let the girl know to go and lay on the dog bed with her dog. Example number two is a young man who becomes extremely violent when he’s confronted. Instead of lashing out and hitting or destroying things, he will go and lay with his dog. The dog will cuddle up to him and wrap her paws around him. They lay together and the anxiety and anger will dissolve. Since his parents have gotten the dog for him and the dog has been trained to do its job appropriately, they have not had one hole put in their wall, no broken doors and no damage done whatsoever. Prior to the dog being there, they were repairing something every week. Their son’s ability to manage his anger was simply non-existent and having the dog has given him an outlet to go and spend time with his dog and be left alone and not confronted. She handles his anger and encourages him to pet her which is a calming technique. A bond has developed between them.
BM: Wow, that’s so amazing to me. It’s absolutely marvelous what dogs can do.
EB: There is a basic instinctual understanding between children with FASD and dogs. It’s an animalistic behavior that they can relate to and understand. No one is pushing and prodding the child to do things that causes them high anxiety; instead they have a buddy on an even level. They know where their buddy stands, their buddy knows where they stand, and when they start getting upset their buddy knows that they are getting upset and says ‘come with me.’
BM: That’s incredible. You have touched on some of the techniques that are used by service dogs for people with FASD like deep pressure therapy, petting, and cuddling; are there any other recommended techniques?
EB: There is night terror and nightmare rescue. When the child begins to stress or make noise in their sleep the dog will climb on the bed and provide deep pressure therapy thus enabling the child to relax and go back to sleep. If the child wakes up, having the dog there to pet and cuddle is far more comforting than having a parent come in and touch the child. This is something that is very important for people to understand. When a child with FASD says ‘don’t touch me, that hurts’, we mean it. It is physically hurts. It is not said for attention seeking and it is not said to make you feel guilty or bad. It is an actual honest statement. At times when we are very, very anxious, physical touch feels like sandpaper on our skin. It hurts. It is easier for us to take the touch of a dog than it is for us to take the touch of another person.
BM: That is very important to know. Do you have a service dog for you?
EB: I sure have my own dog, of course! I had my own dog up until last year. His name was Maxwell and he was a 165 pound Rottweiler. He was solid mush. He got the reputation of being our “Wal-Mart greeter” because he would run out and say hello to everyone who came by. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He went everywhere with me until last year when he passed away.
BM: I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s hard to lose a companion like that, I know.
EB: It’s a very tender spot. Now, I am training my new service dog; his name is Sir Winchester. He is currently 5 months old and he is coming along beautifully.
BM: What breed is he?
EB: He is a mix of Labrador Retriever and Dutch Shepherd. He looks like a Yellow Lab with a bit more perky ears.
BM: Very cute. How do your service dogs personally help you and your FASD?
EB: When I go out in to the community and speak, which I do often, I have great difficulty with public speaking and I become overly anxious to the point of having panic attacks. Having my dog there pressing up against me is just enough to keep me from becoming overly anxious. Also, there are some people in the world that for some reason I don’t feel comfortable near. It could very easily have nothing to do with them and it could be a memory trigger from my past or whatever. If my dog feels that I am uncomfortable, he will place himself between me and the other person and press against me to let me know he’s there and I’m okay.
BM: It’s wonderful that you are training the dog and then in the end the dog helps you.
BM: Tell me a little bit about your public speaking appearances. I also saw on your website that you are an author and have done many TV appearances.
EB: I have done a lot of public speaking in regards to veterans and service dogs and trying to allocate funds from Veteran’s Affairs Canada for service dogs for veterans. I’ve been in that battle for the last five years and haven’t made much headway, but I’m not going to give up.
BM: Don’t give up. They need an advocate.
EB: I have no intention of it. I have gone around the country introducing the concept of psychiatric service dogs and the benefits that they can provide. Most notably, less involvement by EMS personnel because the assistance is already there from the service dog. EMS is less likely to be called, thus saving tax payers more money.
EB: I have also just started speaking out about FASD. I have just recently come out of my own FASD closet. I am writing my first article for Adoption Magazine with regards to having FASD. I have done a couple other articles with regards to service dogs in the community and have done three separate articles for Disabled World Magazine. I also just had an article published in City Parent Magazine. I wrote a portion of a book called Lab Stories that was published by Scott Hall. I have a story about one of our service dogs within that book. I have also been accepted to publish a book called Living with FASD.
BM: Please let me know when your articles come out and your book becomes available, we would love to feature them on the NOFAS website and in our NOFAS Weekly Roundup newsletter. Is writing a passion for you?
EB: I really enjoy writing. I find that it comes relatively easy for me, especially when I have my subject firmly planted in my brain.
BM: Do you have any other passions beside service dogs and writing? What makes you happiest?
EB: I love being with my family. I think one of the greatest joys that I get is cooking for my family. The biggest reward that I get is doing a huge Christmas dinner, and I do mean huge. I usually make turkey, roast beef, and ham with an entire dessert table. I like when everybody is on the sofa after dinner and cannot move because they ate too much. That’s when I am grinning from ear to ear.
BM: I’ll be stopping by your house next year.
EB: You are welcome. We always have an empty space at our table for someone that has no one to celebrate Christmas with.
BM: That’s a wonderful tradition.
EB: That’s a rule at our house and a lot of times we have someone new come. No one should ever be alone around the Holidays.
BM: Absolutely. That’s wonderful how warm and welcoming your family is.
EB: The other thing that makes me the happiest, like any other mother, is seeing my children succeed and exceed expectations.
BM: You are a terrific mom. I have just one question left. What is the one message that you would give to women that are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant?
EB: Even one drink can hurt.
BM: Simply stated, but powerful. Thank you for sharing your story with me. I have learned so much about the incredible use of service dogs and only hope that everyone with FASD gets the chance to have one. Keep up your incredibly important work!
EB: I will, thank you. *After this interview was conducted, Elizabeth’s service dog, Winchester, passed from complications of a birth defect. He is very sadly missed and this interview is dedicated to his memory.
*After this interview was conducted, Elizabeth’s service dog, Winchester, passed from complications of a birth defect. He is very sadly missed and this interview is dedicated to his memory.