Where do I start telling the story of my beautiful Cocoa? It’s been so hard to delve back into the memories, as it still feels very raw and painful, but perhaps this is the right moment to not only scatter her ashes, but also share the wonderful memories Cocoa gave us during her short life. It would have been Cocoa's birthday!
I was a single mum, alone in London with my son who has autism - yet despite his autism, my son was very sociable and wanted to be with people. I wished for him to have a sibling but that wasn’t possible.
We had contemplated having a dog for very long time. When my son was diagnosed, I applied for Autism Assistant Dog with Dogs for Disabled. I even produced a theatre play to fundraise money to support this wonderful organisation in the hope that we would be considered. They couldn’t keep up with the demand, so a course was created where parents could attend and learn about how to choose and train a dog for a children with individual needs.
My son was always a very active boy (that is an understatement!) and we have spent most of our days out in nature where he could run and feel comfortable, but there was danger and obstacles at every corner. Whatever the weather you could see us around Hampstead Heath or any other local parks. His energy was relentless and 3 daily walks became essential.
My son was also a runner. No sense of danger, loved the bushes, never walked on the path and if he did, he was hugging people. I had started making him all sort of bright t-shirts a) so I can see him in the bushes from the distance b) to give surprised people notice that this child won’t bite.
He would have an orange t-shirt with ‘Autism FREE HUGS’ on it, or bright yellow ‘AUTISM I am non-verbal but I understand a smile’ to diffuse the shock of some walkers.
Each walk was a traumatic experience for me. Losing him was a daily risk and often a daily occurrence as he was growing older and faster.
It was only natural to consider a dog as we already lived the lifestyle, but being an animal lover my concern was that we can’t just have a pet dog, as I don’t want to be in a position where I have to look after two running in the opposite direction, and having to choose which one to chase. My other thought was whether my son would accept a dog? He really struggles to share my attention with anyone, even when I’m on the phone.
We started by having my friends dog round and teaching my son to walk the dog and how to look after it. It was clear that he was enjoying this. I had carefully researched and educated myself in choosing, training and managing a dog for service and found a bloodline of labradoodles that fit the gentle character of a lab, at the same time the youthful and bouncy energy of a poodle to keep up with my son.
Training the dog came easy as the similarity between ABA - Applied Behaviour Analyses for teaching autistic children - was an advanced version of what one needed to accomplish with a dog. Compared to teaching a child who is not socially motivated, and a dog that would do anything for my attention and a treat.
I also wanted to make sure that we could cope with the cost of having a dog and when this became a concern, the online autism community stepped in and helped out to then follow Cocoa’s story from daily Facebook posts. This motivated and encouraged other parents to consider a dog. Later on we also lent Cocoa to families who wanted to see if their children would benefit from such a companion.
She came to us at 8 weeks and changed a single Mum and an autistic boy’s house into a family home. Isolated life, being hidden away, went to the side and in our local community we were stopped and chatted with others. The love for Cocoa ‘Autism dog in training’ next to a little boy won so many hearts and she was very quickly known and loved. We made a new friend and my son started to feel included and often part of a group of dog owners and walkers who accepted him in and kept us company. For myself the world opened up too. I had somewhere to go when my son was at school and someone to talk to.
Cocoa was on strict training and she loved it. No pet gets this much attention and love. My local Wet Fish Café agreed for her to come in and practice ignoring food falling on the floor and people inviting her to jump about. She was so smart and read me and my body like a book. Most of all she was spending so much time with my son that she knew him better than I did.
She was only 6 months old, still not even her full size, when she was walking my son to the main road where he was picked up by the school bus, when she noticed his pull to the side as he wanted to run on to the road and she cut his way and sat on his feet to stop him. I was shocked, amazed, surprised….
I will never forget that moment. As this routine was happening every single day, it was later evident that this wasn’t a coincidence, and she consequently saved my son’s life many times in the same manner. On one occasion almost falling off the pavement. My son was attached to her on one side and I had the main lead too, so I pulled her just in time.
She knew sooner than I noticed when my son was due to take off. It was so unpredictable and hard to follow at times.
Despite all the love and attention she was getting from others, Cocoa was able to focus on my son. Even off the lead in play time with other dogs, Cocoa always had one eye on Ethan. She would abandon the play to follow him into the bushes and then run back and forward from him to me, till we were close together. Proximity training was successful.
Retrieving, finding Ethan, stopping him, slowing him down and keeping close distance between the three of us, was the most needed and most important job for Cocoa. She loved it. It was like play.
She not only saved Ethan hundreds of times from going missing, but also allowed for Ethan to have some freedom and independence as he was growing and didn’t want to have a Mum on his back all the time.
On some occasions, we have lost each other, but as Cocoa couldn’t find me she would stay with Ethan. Where so many locals would know us and be alert why Ethan and Cocoa are alone and step in to reunite us, some other strangers would find a sign on Cocoa’s harness with my phone number and information on what to do. We have escaped and avoided tragedy whilst still enjoying some sort of freedom and outdoor play.
One of the biggest challenges that my son had was walking. He could run ‘till the cows come home' as long as it was in nature or a park. To navigate pavements, side walks, roads, crossings, people and most of all open spaces, he really struggled. Sensory Processing Disorder at the early stage was unbearable for Ethan. Holding hands was intolerable for him. We’d practice walking in the evenings when there was less ‘information’ for his brain to process. That worked well but he would still stop every few steps as if walking on eggshells. I have also drawn lines on pavements with charcoal to mark directions for him. He would learn familiar walks but if we had to turn around, change direction, everyone would know how hard this was for him. Not having anyone else to stay with him, if I had to go to the shop or pharmacy, I had to make this work and we practiced this for many hours.
What was very clear to see was that Ethan was distracted while walking with details that we are able to simply ignore. He would walk with his head turned to look ahead with the corner of his eye. I suppose that was helping him. When I was training Cocoa in the street, my son was learning to walk at the same time. Cocoa had to walk on the outside of the pavement like a gentleman used to do, with Ethan between us, him attached to her harness, me controlling the lead. The magic that happened in the process was life changing. When Ethan was disorientated by looking around, Cocoa and I would continue walking, teaching his body to move forward when moving his head from side to side. This may seem easy to you, but it would force Ethan to stop or fall. With practice we walked in perfect harmony and later on I started to notice that even without Cocoa playing in the park, Ethan could navigate the path and stay on it for at least a few meters. Over the years the distance at which he could walk straight on the street grew and later he didn’t need for Cocoa to be attached to him.
Till today (13 years old) Ethan still walks on the street against walls or the pavement edges. This process also taught Ethan to stop at the pedestrian crossing for a chat with a friend, wait for the bus, wait in the queue… all the tasks that every autism parent know to be extremely challenging.
On public transport, where we would usually face abuse as my son was making all sorts of noises and me having to constantly explain and excuse him, now the brown, teddy like, hazel eyes, cutest Cocoa was softening the reactions from the public and saving us humiliation and more often producing smiles of sympathy and understanding. If you as a parent experience as much hassle from each bus trip as I have, most times having to leave the bus prematurely, you would know how grateful I was to Cocoa for keeping people away from us. Coming home after an outing without the stresses and fears I have had to account for was so refreshing.
As Cocoa was wearing a harness with an ‘Autism Dog’ sign, anyone alerted by my sons out of the blue high pitched scream, would look and look away, instead of the previous staring and educating me on my parenting skills. You have to understand, Autism doesn’t look in a way that people could see it. I always understood that the public didn’t understand, but I was also fed up of taking the punches and having to explain all the time. One thing you need to know: my son couldn’t tolerate me talking to total stranger. Perhaps because his experience was that strangers always shouted at Mum and they looked angry.
So, walking with Cocoa to places where we couldn’t go before became possible and coming home successful without an episode to forget, was making life a lot more normal. The beautiful little stories of Cocoa and Ethan could fill up a book and move you to tears.
Some things were expected of labradoodle’s as part of her natural instinct like retrieving, but what we didn’t expect was, to help my son to talk or learn at school.
My son found a little brown fox in his toybox and took with him to school to keep him calm remembering Cocoa whom he started to associate with positive experience. So much so that when I suggested to Ethan’s teacher to use a brown pen to encourage Ethan to participate in fine motor skills occupational therapy, helping to make his hands more able to hold a pen and draw, it was a yet one more success.
From Cocoa, to chocolate and Mum’s hair and clothes, Ethan created a positive and trusted association between colour and experience. This was so significant to us at that time that no one would ever comprehend. Autism doesn’t like changes, nor new things, like clothes. The nightmare of finding something my son would even try on not to mention keep on for more than one minute, was a daily battle and stressful for us all. ‘Till one day when coincidently brown shoes arrived in the post. Perfectly soft (again sensory disorder was affecting many areas of his life), Velcro as he couldn’t navigate anything more complicated. The preparation, transition, communication that I have had to endure to change old shoes for new. Visual support, leaving new shoes in the eye view to make it more familiar and less new, the practicing of wearing it when we don’t have to rush to the school bus… To my shock, as I opened the post and Ethan noticed the shoes were brown, the rest was as simple as a ‘walk in the park’ (never in our case)!
You can imagine what is coming next: brown everything. I wanted him to try new food. As long as was brown and red, we were lucky. New clothes? No problem … Except brown wasn’t in fashion. I wouldn’t care but, if not in season, it’s not available. All our friends had eyes on brown jackets, jumpers, socks…. you name it.
The day that he talked.
It was February half term and we had just come back from a fantastic walk in the snow. Watching your autistic child who doesn’t feel any cold and your 4 month old puppy having a first snow experience was a much needed injection of pure joy.
Cocoa snoring on her blanket, in a deep sleep, and for a change my son also burned out enough so I could cook next door when he was watching a DVD.
Silence wasn’t something we experienced much of back in the day. Echolaila is common in the early years of autism and presents itself in ways that a child would talk to himself using phrases he has learned or heard and repeats, without the purpose of communication but more what would appear as pretend play or mimicking adults, advertising campaigns or random noises.
My son did a lot of that. It wasn’t directed at me or to tell me anything, to ask for anything or request something. In fact when he wanted me to change his DVD, he would drop an object to alert me and upon arrival to check what has happened, he would ‘sort of’ point at the TV.
That day, he was quiet and we parents know so well what that usually means, but I was enjoying this thinking that me and Cocoa, we may have finally run him down. Then a sweet little voice emerges in familiar melodica tune that I use to call Cocoa:
I was holding my breath thinking I am dreaming, but Cocoa was up on her feet running to Ethan as if it was the same sound of commend I used to call Cocoa and get her attention when she is distracted.
I ran after her with shock in my eyes and I looked at Ethan’s face equally surprised that I have attended his call. He pointed at the TV and I changed the DVD. We know that Ethan had a lightbulb moment then, as he discovered that all the noise that people make to talk actually has a purpose and he was willing to use that power to the extreme. The next few months after, was a pure comedy. Ethan found his voice and ability to control me, based on what he had learned from me training the dog.
Cocoa come, Cocoa stay, Cocoa sit…. Mummy come come come…. Sit, don’t move, stay stay stay ..- he would say as he walked off to the kitchen to help himself with a snack he know I wouldn’t allow before dinner.
You can imagine the faces of people overlooking the ‘mummy in training’ episodes that he confidently presented. It was a joy to watch and the start of language development.
Watching the consistent, repetitive, command and model action of training dog and Cocoa reaction and the consequences, became Ethan’s format that he could make sense of. The voice modification that’s used and exaggerated for dogs is also a very attractive attention catcher for children with autism, who’s sound processing can be challenging.
What we call ‘useful’ communication in the special needs world, are words or phrases essential for a low functioning person to communicate basic needs, like drink or toilet. For a child with Autism, who can become very overwhelmed with people, the word ‘go’ can save both parent and child’s horrible meltdown or unnecessary aggression.
By Ethan watching me sending Cocoa away to her blanket, he learned that if he has had enough and wanted to be left alone, he didn’t need it to pinch or hit anymore. He could simply say ‘mummy go’.
Can you believe all of these wonderful achievements that we can celebrate because of Cocoa? How can we ever accept that she is gone or that she was just a dog? How can we ever forget her?
We cannot. This is not the end of the story about Cocoa. She deserves a legacy and to be remembered as a extraordinary friend, family, companion, saviour, angel and joy.
One way to remember her is we have named our product brand Nono Cocoa. The other is the lessons that the Veterinary industry has learned from the way she died and that artificial sweetener Xylitol is poison for dogs. That way other lives have been saved and vets educated of the early symptoms.
And now, TrustedHousesitters is launching a nationwide campaign to celebrate the nation’s most loved animals – of which Cocoa is one! The scheme aims to honour and commemorate the achievements of amazing animals across the country by adorning homes with green plaques. Akin to the English Heritage blue plaque scheme, Pet Plaques aim to give deserving animals their own place in history
Cocoa’s Pet Plaque is now ready to be fitted on our door on Cocoas birthday this Sunday 14th October and it’s a wonderful time to celebrate the life she enjoyed and the love we shared.