Waspish Wednesday: The Obstacle to Training My Service Dog

A poster showing a paved road with a huge, long boiling mass of molten lava pouring out across the road, black smoke billowing up from it. Under the picture in large orange letters, it says, "Obstacles." Beneath that in smaller type, it says, "Some things cannot be overcome with determination and a positive attitude."

A Despair, Inc., Demotivator

[To enlarge image, click here.]

The theme for this month’s Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “Obstacles.” Lately it’s become very clear what my biggest obstacle is in training Barnum: me. Or, to be kinder and more accurate, my panoply of disabilities and their attendant symptoms.

While searching for inspiration to create a catchy title for this post,I  googled famous quotes on obstacles. I ended up at the proverbia.net Obstacles page. Here are two representative quotations:

Obstacles are like wild animals. They are cowards but they will bluff you if they can. If they see you are afraid of them… they are liable to spring upon you; but if you look them squarely in the eye, they will slink out of sight. ~Orison Swett Marden, American author and founder of Success magazine

Stand up to your obstacles and do something about them. You will find that they haven’t half the strength you think they have. ~Norman Vincent Peale, American preacher and author of The Power of Positive Thinking

What I noticed as I read through the quotes (aside from the fact that, except for unknown authors, these were all said by successful white men) is that the underlying message to all of them is this: Obstacles aren’t real. What you think is an obstacle is actually your personality defect. Get some perspective, little missy! Ditch the bad attitude and start thinking B-I-G! If you fail, it’s because you didn’t follow the dream recklessly/doggedly enough, and it’s your own damn fault.

Uplifting, no?

Although most of these quotes are from a century ago or more, the ideas they espouse are the same victim-blaming, magical-thinking-induced ideologies that I and every other person in the US (and most other countries) are relentlessly subject to today. (If you need some convincing, please read Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. She lays it all out much better than I ever could.)

Many of us with disabilities or serious illnesses get told by family, friends, strangers, even doctors how positive thinking, and mind-over-matter, and mind/body connection, and blah blah blah is going to cure us. How if we think positive! And act cheerful! And smile! And be good little poster kids and supercrips and Brave, Inspirational, Role-Models (because therebutforthegraceofgodgoyou), we can overcome every obstacle! After all, isn’t that what the American dream is all about? Isn’t that what all the commercials tell us — about limitless growth, wealth, expansion, progress?…

In fact, this quote was my favorite of the bunch at the Proverbia.net site because it is just so brutally honest in its social Darwinism:

The block of granite which was an obstacle in the pathway of the weak becomes a stepping-stone in the pathway of the strong. ~Thomas Carlyle, British historian and essayist

That’s the truth of it: If you’re “weak,” too bad for you. If you’re “strong,” you get all the cookies. (And by cookies, I mean, money, security, respect, freedom, independence, choices, opportunities, etc. In a nutshell, privilege.) Basically, “weak” can just be a stand-in for whatever misfortune or trait a person might have which puts them on the margin. Of course, “weak” can also literally mean “weak,” and that’s a reality for some of us, too.

My biggest obstacles are not imaginary. They are not any sort of personal failing on my part or Barnum’s to be determined, smart, dedicated, hard-working, or creative enough. Because, in all honesty (but not modesty), I have all those traits. And they’re not enough. My severe pain and mondo-weirdo sleep disorders and exhaustion and inability to think clearly and inability to drive and inability to leave the house and inability to leave my bed and struggles to walk, talk, bathe, etc., all affect my training with Barnum in every possible way.

It is so damn frustrating! I want a trained SD desperately. It’s true that I am training him to a higher standard — in terms of both the solidity and number of skills he’s learning — than I used with Gadget or Jersey. Nonetheless, I’m also a better trainer, and we’ve been working longer than I’ve ever worked to get a SD completely trained. I don’t want to just keep training forever! I want to spend time with Barnum working, playing, getting out and about, having fun, being free and independent. I want this so bad! And lately it has become so starkly apparent that the reason we are so behind in so many areas is not him; it’s me.

When he started rounding the corner to two year’s old, a lot of dog maturity suddenly clicked into place. He has more energy. He catches on to ideas much faster. (I wrote recently about how we’re having more “light bulb moments.“) He’s more enthusiastic and confident. He wants to train. Indeed, he wants to interact with me all the freaking time! He’s insatiable! He’s turned into a training machine. This miracle I’d been hoping for of a dog who really wants to work, who chooses to be a service dog, is coming to pass. And much too much of the time, I’m so damn tired, I just want him to leave me be. I want peace and quiet and rest.

And I also want so much to work, work, work him. Lately, when we train, the clicker magic is there. He has recently — within the last three weeks — either learned the beginnings of or dramatically improved aspects of the following behaviors:

  • Opening the refrigerator
  • Opening my bedroom door (almost a completed behavior and on cue) and opening the bathroom doors (understands the cue but hasn’t figured out how to work the doors yet)
  • Pulling my bedroom door shut from the outside (which is a completely different set of behaviors than shutting it from the inside)
  • Carrying an item in his mouth from me in bed to a PCA in the hall
  • Standing or sitting on a table to be groomed
  • Going into crate as a default when I start eating a meal (not 100 percent yet, but more often than not)
  • Nose-targeting my feet (which will later be shaped into pulling off my socks and helping me move my legs when I can’t do it on my own)
  • Generalizing the light switch UP skill
  • Learning the light switch DOWN skill
  • Going to find a named person to let them know I need help
  • Retrieving novel objects from the floor
  • Holding his head and mouth still (no chewing or licking) for tooth brushing
  • plus doing ongoing work on go-to-mat, down-stay, sit-stay, zen/leave it/self-control, come, crate, quiet, separation anxiety, and other things I’m forgetting.

All of which is probably leading you to think, “Damn! They’re doing great! Why is she complaining? Clearly they are overcoming obstacles, otherwise they wouldn’t be showing all this progress, right?”

Yes and no. Yes, we’re making progress. Nobody is more aware of that or more excited about it than I am — believe me! I’ve waited a long time to see this. There was a time I thought we were hopeless! I’ve tweeted and posted on our Facebook page, and on the Training Levels list, about how Barnum has really started to help me with some important skills, especially when I’m very sick. This is terribly exciting, and there have been a time or two I almost wept with gratitude and joy that we have achieved this place. I also tend to shower him with praise, hugs, and kisses when these events take place.

What I’ve noticed the most, when I actually need help, and I ask him to do that thing, not just as a training exercise, but because it would really be damn useful, and he does it, it’s a totally different world we are entering. It’s the world of partnership, of a new level of communication, of moving from mommy/baby or teacher/student to something more like, well, partners. It’s really the word that sums it up best, because it’s appropriate in every nuance and meaning of the word — equals, mutual supports, working team members, family, beloved, etc.

But. . . .

We are not there yet. Most of the skills above are still in their youth, if not their infancy, in some cases. Most of the time I’m still putting the energy out, out, out, and only sometimes is it coming back. By his second birthday, I really had expected him to be working full-time, with just polishing of a few skills. Instead, only a few of his skills are in working order, most of them are under construction, and a few haven’t even been introduced.

So, yes, the reason we have achieved what we have, despite the immense obstacle of my illness, is due to our determination, smarts, dedication, hard work, and creativity. We certainly wouldn’t have gotten here without all that. But the fact remains that we still have so very far to go because the obstacle of my illness is real and cannot be “overcome” as in the endemic supercrip trope. We can only chip away at this block of granite a little bit at a time, sometimes with a pick-axe, and a chunk comes tumbling down, but mostly with a dull pocket knife, or a bent spoon, or sometimes just a toothpick or a thousand drops of water over the course of years that hollow out a smooth indentation where I rest.

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, eager SDiT

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1 Response to “Waspish Wednesday: The Obstacle to Training My Service Dog”



  1. 1 ADBC #6 – Obstacles! | Dogstar Academy Trackback on February 17, 2012 at 9:25 pm
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