A Year With Willow (this post is full of Corgi feels).

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It’s been a year since we got Willow, a Welsh Corgi-Aussie hybrid. Yes, that’s a lot of words for a walking Twinkie. Willow was a rescue whose family fell on hard times. My husband Brian took one look at her photo and fell in love with her instantly. He felt she’d make a good companion for our youngest daughter, Layla, who has Asperger’s. I was on the fence and didn’t want the added responsibility of a pet, but corgis have special powers and after one glance at her photo I found that I too was unable to resist her charms, nevermind it was a bad picture and she looked like a half-blind three-legged dog. And whose idea was it to name her Willow? Was it a tree reference? A Wiccan tribute? Buffy homage? Or did someone name this oversized Twinkie after Willow Ufgood from Ron Howard’s 1988 film (which I freaking love could someone do a remake already)?

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When Willow first came to live with us she wasn’t very friendly. We suspected that Willow came from a puppy mill. She was a designer dog  likely bred for her merle trait. She growled at nearly everyone and hated other dogs but who could blame her? She didn’t play. She displayed an acute aversion to beards, baseball caps, burkas, babies, and old ladies, the latter being a huge disappointment to me as it prevented her list of hates from attaining  perfect alliterative awesomeness. I chalked her aggressive spirit up to depression brought on by losing her rescue family. After all, she’d lived with them for a year and who knows what she endured prior to her rescue.

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So much for a companion for Layla. Willow the anti-corgi would never make it as a service dog. Simultaneously, Layla’s teachers began to express concerns about Layla’s behavior. They said Layla didn’t play with the other students and hinted that she was anti-social. They complained that my daughter spent the entire class day constructing elaborate fantasy worlds and narratives, assigning roles to her classmates, and becoming angry when they broke character (something her pre-k teachers found charming even as Layla demanded that little Dhanush recite his ABCs as Dragon With Sore Throat Fleeing The Wrath Of Table Four, ahem, Castle Knights).

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The observations from teachers were correct in that Layla seldom interacted with strangers, but being introverts ourselves, my husband and I believed these concerns were rooted in the misconception that those on the Autism spectrum are anti-social. And I’ll be honest, as a writer from a family of writers, Layla’s focus on fiction made me swell with pride (except for that bit where she cut her own hair and told the teachers I did it or that time she told her teachers we had a son that visited on the weekends. We have no son). Brian and I believed that Layla and Willow would warm up to their new environments. Our aloof babies just needed time to adjust.

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As time progressed, we realized the teachers weren’t just projecting stereotypes. However, it wasn’t that Layla was anti-social, but rather she didn’t know how to communicate with others. After observing her interactions with children she hadn’t known from birth, we realized Layla needed help with her social skills so we did what all good parents do when they discover their child is on the Autism spectrum and funneled hundreds of dollars a month into OT and other therapy services.

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Layla declared her dislike of  our newest family member shortly after Willow’s arrival. Her feelings were hurt because Willow didn’t show her any attention. We explained to Layla that if she wanted Willow to be her friend she needed to approach the dog and communicate. Hundreds of dollars later, Layla had a breakthrough with her social skills, but it didn’t come from therapy or behavior modification or OT. It came from Willow. Layla learned how to approach others and communicate with them by how Brian and I modeled this behavior with Willow. When Layla took Willow for walks or to the park, Willow helped break the ice for Layla with other children using her corgi super powers. Layla’s face would light up when kids approached her. She would tell them about Willow and afterward she would ask them to play. Willow was changing too though babies and old ladies remained on the shady beings list.

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Once Layla learned that communication was a give and take process, she began speaking to everyone. She approached others. She made friends. Teachers complained that Layla talked too much. In addition, Layla was frequently in trouble for talking in line, a horrendous villainy that earns the offender a yellow sad face as opposed to a green smiley (cue Pink Floyd). I reminded the school of the previous year’s anti-social worries and said that for two years, Layla had exhibited extreme verbal behaviors and we were ever hopeful that next year she’d fly down the middle.

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So while Willow the walking Twinkie was teaching Layla how to communicate, something unexpected occurred. Layla was teaching Willow too. Soon our anti-corgi was doing tricks, playing, and giving us all the feels for which her breed is known. She even became more tolerant of other dogs though she still detests babies and grandmas and recently bit a cat on its butt. Not hard. though, it was all in good sport. A wee game of tag.

Willow and Layla have since become close friends, a bond likely strengthened by the fact that Layla is constantly slipping Willow contraband table foods.

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Admittedly, I saw Willow as a support animal for Layla when we first got her or as a pet for my daughter. I no longer look at Willow, or any animal the same way. Willow isn’t our pet. We don’t own her. She’s a friend. A companion. Family. She’s not much help with editing.

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But she’s loyal and protective.

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Tolerant and patient.

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Happy first anniversary Willow. We love you.

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