Ten Lessons in Love from Lucy, My Assistance Dog

Written by Dr Dawn-joy Leong

Ten years ago, Autistic Autism researcher and multi-artist Dr Dawn-joy Leong rescued Lucy Like-a-Charm from the Greyhound racing industry. What started as a simple pet-owner relationship blossomed into a cherished symbiotic support partnership. At a masterclass in assistance animals she held for Reframing Autism, Dawn-joy shared the many gifts Lucy has brought to her life. Here are some of her insights.

Lucy is my closest and most trusted companion, muse and research assistant. She contributes to my wellbeing in ways that no human person – not even myself – is able to do. 

Like many Autistic people, I have interoception issues. When I’m at the computer, I can be so absorbed in my work that I forget to eat and drink. Lucy reminds me to meet these vital needs. I’ve also been known to fall off my chair in a shutdown state. Before I reach that point, Lucy senses that I’m escalating – maybe it’s my heart rate or maybe my pheromones smell different. She will get up and give me a very meaningful look. If I ignore her, she will back towards the exit. That’s our personal signal and, by then, I can’t ignore her because she’ll be pulling at the leash. If I’m feeling OK, then I reassure her and she gets back down onto the mat but, if not, then I will heed whatever she is wanting me to do and we leave the room and find a quiet place.

Lucy grounds me.

When she senses that I’m about to dissociate, Lucy will press herself against me or she’ll do something like put a paw on me to wake me up. When I sense that pressure, then I leave that floaty state. Interestingly, she definitely empathises with me but she doesn’t go into shutdown herself. I’m very curious about this mechanism that animals seem to have that us Autistic empaths don’t have. Lucy is able to empathise, to feel and to sense, and yet not be overwhelmed.

Lucy validates my Autistic identity.

I grew up having my experiences dismissed by people around me. “You’re just being a princess. You smell too much,” they’d say. (Ironically, the same people would use my super sense of smell to detect whether their food was going off or not!) Lucy has taught me that when the smells are too great and I feel sick, it’s a valid feeling. She has taught me to respect myself and to develop what is organic in me, because I have been given these skills to help me survive.

Lucy is my life saver.

I tend to weaken my senses when I’m outside so that I don’t get too overwhelmed. Once when I was walking with Lucy on campus she suddenly stopped. Greyhounds can be really stubborn, so I thought, ‘Are you just being stubborn? Why are you not moving?’ A split second later I woke up and I heard a lot of noise. Why didn’t I notice it before? There was an armed robbery going on just a few metres away and Lucy was trying to tell me not to proceed. I was shutting down and would have walked straight into it if she didn’t stop me.

Lucy has taught me to trust my Autistic instinct.

Lucy has helped me to discern who is safe to interact with. She will pull me away from the people she doesn’t like. From many years of trying to learn the neurotypical way, I had buried my own Autistic instinct. Lucy made me realise I have an instinct for interaction like this too, although not as strong and confident as hers. It’s a feeling. It’s like walking in a room and feeling the room. It’s a synaesthetic reaction – this person feels like lemons, or this person is onions and makes you cry or cringe. Lucy helped me to find my own Autistic empathic resonance again. I realised that I do have the ability to discern the people that I like and people who are potentially harmful to me.

Lucy is my muse.

Lucy has been the inspiration for a lot of the terminology and ideas that I developed in my dissertation. ‘Parallel embodiment’ is one. Lucy has taught me more about my own Autism than any words gathered in careful order on pages ever could. She reveals the Self-Other conundrum in ways so tenderly beautiful, no ponderous philosophical text would measure up to. 

Lucy is my raison d’être.

Four weeks from submitting my PhD, my friend (now former friend) decided to evict me from her apartment. I fell into a state of despair. I had nowhere to go. I can remember looking out and I felt something compelling me to jump into the darkness. I was homeless with a big black dog in a foreign land. I was spiralling down and, amazingly, Lucy knew. She put herself against me to give me deep pressure and what went through my mind was a very simple thought. If I die, Lucy will be all alone in this apartment and die of starvation. She needs me. And this thought still keeps me going no matter how oppressive the dark thoughts may be – Lucy is enough reason for me to climb out and push on.

Lucy has given me a partner and a purpose.

It is my duty and honour to make sure that Lucy is well. We do things for each other. Where she can’t and I can, I do it and where I can’t and she can, she does it. It’s a symbiotic relationship. With Lucy, I am no longer alone because we are a functioning team. And, with Lucy as my responsibility, I realise that I do have this strength in me after all.

Lucy has taught me that I am brave.

Dogs don’t live very long. Lucy is 13+ and, for a greyhound, that’s old. I have to constantly prepare myself to lose her. I know that nothing I do in preparation will really help, but just the awareness has brought me to this space where I am convinced that even in her passing, Lucy will still be expanding me in ways that no one else will – and that gives me courage.

Lucy has taught me that I am loveable, as I am.

I spent almost a lifetime trying to find love the way the neurotypical world painted love. I thought that’s what I needed. I thought after many horrible, chaotic disasters – that it was my fault. That I’m unlovable. Until I met Lucy and she made me realise I was chasing after something that I didn’t need and didn’t really want but had been convinced by others that I needed and wanted. She is what I wanted all along. When Lucy came into my life, I thought I was saving her, rescuing her, and I promised her a better life. But it was she who saved me and opened up the universe to me.

Dr Dawn-joy Leong will be talking more about her special bond with Lucy Like-a-Charm and answering questions at our upcoming Symposium on Autistic Relationships which will be held online on Autistic Pride Day, Saturday 18 June 2022. Click here to find out more and purchase tickets.

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