I love animals of all kinds. Over the years, I’ve had cats, mice, rabbits, a snake, and hundreds of fish. But my greatest love has always been dogs.
As a child, I took care of neighbor’s dogs at every opportunity — walking, feeding, grooming — whatever was required. My older brother was allergic to dogs, so it was not until he left for college, when I was 12, that I was able to adopt my first dog.
Lady was a border collie mix (we think), from the pound, who was estimated to be two years old at the time of adoption.
[Photo description: Sharon is squatting behind Lady, with her hands resting on Lady's back. Lady is lying down, looking alertly at the camera. Sharon has dark hair and pony tails on the sides of her head, large, round glasses, and wears a t-shirt with a rainbow on it. Lady is about 45 pounds, long, silky hair, with a build similar to a border collie's. She is all black except for a white chest and three of her paws, also white.]
My attempts at obedience training with Lady failed dismally. My only guide was an AKC book from the 1960s, which I found at a garage sale. The book said that force, choke chains, and other punitive measures were required. Treats were absolutely not allowed; they would make the dog lose respect for me. With nobody to show me how to use these tools, and with a very strong (and strong-willed) dog, it was rather miserable and hopeless for both of us.
Lady — a very smart dog — obeyed when she deemed it in her best interest, and otherwise, escaped when doors were open, had soiling accidents, attacked other dogs, and dragged me (sometimes literally!) on our “walks.” However, for fun, I taught Lady to roll over, stay, and jump through a high hoop; here, I instinctively used successive approximation and luring, offering play, praise, and an occasional Milkbone as reinforcers.
We had excellent communication and played many games, off-leash, in the house and out, where she always came running to me. It never occurred to me that I could use the things that worked so well in play to train her to come when called at other times, walk on a loose leash, or learn other manners that would have made life much better for the whole family. Lady lived to be 15 or 16 years old.
It had always been my plan that, after my life “settled down” after college, I would get one or more dogs. Instead, I became disabled and was too sick to care for a dog in the city and without mobility devices. I moved to the country partly for my health, and partly for an accessible home that would also allow dogs.
However, I no longer just wanted a pet. I believed a service dog (SD) would greatly improve my quality of life. Due to spreading (the MCS phenomenon that causes new sensitivities and allergies to develop), I’d become allergic to pet dander. My good friend who also had MCS, CFIDS/ME, and severe dog allergies gave me a list of hypoallergenic breeds to research. She had already adopted a rescued bouvier des Flandres, and I soon decided to follow her lead.
I started where most disabled start when seeking an assistance dog — with programs that train and place such dogs. However, this proved to be impossible. The most obvious stumbling block was that almost all SD programs required the partner to come to the facility to train for a period of days or weeks. Due to my MCS, this was impossible.
There were also very few SD programs at that time (the late 1990s) that provided dogs to people who had conditions other than spinal cord injury, amputation, or other recognized disabilities requiring full-time wheelchair use. Usually all dogs at a program were trained in the same basic skills, and clients were expected to fit into these pre-determined needs. Programs I contacted didn’t seem to know anything about CFIDS or MCS, and I received the impression that they did not think my disabilities were “real.”
There was one program that offered to train a dog specifically to fit one’s needs, and that had a field trainer who would come to my home. I asked about a hypoallergenic breed, such as a bouvier, and was told that bouviers were “snippy attack dogs.” I applied anyway (though it cost $20,000 and had a huge waiting list), but was rejected because, I was told, the trainer could not be expected to forego use of fragrance products that would make me sick.
I also contacted private trainers who were listed as training service dogs, but they were either too far away or said they didn’t know how to train the skills I wanted.
There’s Nothin’ Groovier than Lovin’ a Boovier
Disappointed but determined, I turned to the American Bouvier Rescue League to adopt a bouvier to train myself. Bouviers are not the right breed for everyone, but they are large, sturdy dogs that come from working stock, and their “couch potato” tendencies when they are not working or outdoors fit in well with my need for periods of intense rest. I went through a rigorous screening process, in part because good breed rescue organizations want to make sure an already rejected dog goes to a “forever home,” and in part because I had to convince the rescue league that, despite being disabled and new to the breed, I could handle a large, strong, often stubborn and/or protective dog.
While one bouv enthusiast tried to dissuade me, saying, “Service dogs live short, unhappy lives,” other bouv people were supportive of my goal. Facing this mixture of attitudes, and uncertain about my own abilities, I was persuaded to apply as seeking a pet, with the hope that if my dog and I did well with obedience, I might attempt some service skills. In March of 1999, I got Jersey, a five-and-a-half year-old black bouvier des Flandres, with cropped ears and a docked tail. Jersey was a former conformation show dog who was being rehomed because she could not be bred.
Jersey was beautiful, sweet, docile, and became totally devoted to me in no time. She was not used to living in a house, nor to mobility scooters (which moved!), oxygen tanks (which clanked!), and various other aspects of home life. Her socialization and manners were perfect from her show ring experience, yet basic obedience commands like sit, down, and heel were totally foreign to her.
I joined the “owner-trained assistance dogs” listserv, where I received great information, encouragement, and support. I bought the breakthrough handbooks, Teamwork I and Teamwork II, which teach physically disabled people how to train our own dogs in obedience and service skills using praise and food. Jersey was highly motivated by food — an understatement! — so lure/reward techniques worked well. We worked several short obedience sessions every day.
I was still trying to find a trainer to help me with the service skills part of the training, and to give me tips about putting what we’d learned together. There was only one trainer in my area who could give private lessons at my home. She was enthusiastic on the phone, and when I showed her what Jersey and I knew (come, loose-leash walk, and sit), she was impressed.
Then she took over the leash. She told Jersey to sit, in a different tone and pitch, and with a different hand gesture, than I always used. Jersey just stood there. The trainer yanked on the choke chain and told her to sit again. It was obvious to me that Jersey had no idea what the trainer was asking of her. After several “Sit!”s and corrections, I interrupted and told the trainer my theory, showing her the hand signal Jersey knew. She said, no, Jersey knew: “The ‘S’ sound should be enough to tell her.” But she attempted (and failed) to modify her hand signal, which I showed her again (and which Jersey, on seeing it, followed).
The trainer got very angry and said that I had undermined her authority, and now Jersey would refuse to work for her at all. She also said that Jersey was too old to train and looked like she had arthritis. She said I should adopt a young bouvier and start over.
I was crushed by the trainer’s pronouncements. Fortunately, several good friends convinced me that the trainer just had an ego problem, and that Jersey and I should continue on our own. We did.
Once we had solid obedience skills (sit, down, stand, walk, come, wait, stay, etc.), I moved on to service skills. Occasionally the books did not provide a workable solution; I got creative, rediscovering my instinct to make training a game.
Training was slow. There were certain skills I didn’t know how to train and others I thought were beyond Jersey’s ultra-mellow nature. Nonetheless, we did a lot with what we had. Jersey learned to pull a wagon with my oxygen tanks, to provide bracing assistance for standing or walking, to carry canvas grocery bags from the van to the house, to retrieve dropped objects, to lick envelopes or stamps, and to carry a pack containing my necessities. Life was easier and much more enjoyable with my partner by my side.
There were two incidents I remember most as my “Aha!” moments — the realization of how big a difference Jersey actually made in my life. The first was when Jersey and I went to the grocery store without any human assistance. This was the first time I’d been able to shop for myself in several years; I felt liberated! It was so different to be able to see what was at the store and pick things out for myself! (To see the groceries “in their natural habitat,” as I like to say.)
The other “lightening bolt moment” was when I foolishly walked into the field in my back yard to pick apples. My house was on a hill, so the field was down a slope, which seemed gentle on the way down. However, by the time I got to the trees and put a few apples in my bag, I was exhausted, weak, and dizzy, and knew I couldn’t make it back to the house on my own. Living in the country by myself, there was nobody around to ask for help. There was also no cell phone service. I was scared. I asked Jersey to “brace,” and we slowly and steadily made our way home, stopping periodically to rest. Eventually we made it back to level ground and inside. I was so grateful to her that day. I’ll never forget it. And I never walked back out into that field again!
An Unforeseen Development
Just as Jersey and I were hitting our stride as a working team, we encountered a major setback. I’d been concerned about Jersey’s right eye since the day she arrived, because it had a thick, white line running horizontally below her pupil. However, her former owners/breeders were unconcerned, and the vets I consulted, including an ophthalmologist, could not give a satisfactory explanation, either. I was told that since it was not interfering with her vision, I shouldn’t worry about it. However, after Jersey had been with me for over a year, that eye repeatedly became red and itchy. It was always diagnosed as conjunctivitis, which would resolve with ointment, then return a few months or weeks later.
The last time the “conjunctivitis” occurred, it got worse instead of better, even with medication. It was also clear to me that Jersey was in serious pain; though incredibly stoic, her behavior, including hiding out in the bathroom, was loud and clear to me. I took her to the emergency hospital, concerned that it might be glaucoma, a genetic problem among bouviers, and asked to have her eye pressure checked. I was told that it was normal and again given an antibiotic. By the next day, her eye was bulging and opaque. A visit to the vet confirmed it: glaucoma had advanced overnight, causing the loss of all vision and intense pain. Jersey needed her eye removed to relieve her pain.
This was a serious blow. I knew that Jersey could lead a normal, happy life with half her vision, and I didn’t believe the vets’ predictions that her other eye, which had never bothered her, would develop glaucoma. (I was right. Jersey kept her left eye the rest of her life.) But I didn’t know what it meant for us as a service dog team. I had never heard of an assistance dog who was partially blind, but I took a wait-and-see approach.
Soon after her surgery, Jersey returned to her normal behavior. She made some minor adjustments — turning her head more and developing better mental maps — and then seemed to forget she had ever seen differently. She still wanted to be with me all the time, still wanted to train and earn treats, so I tentatively picked up where we left off, and we continued as a team. In fact, only those in our life knew Jersey was missing an eye. While I kept her hair short most of the time because it was easier to maintain (and because I was lousy with the shears — I have improved over the years), I kept her “fall” (bangs) long, so that it covered where her eye had been removed. I knew from experience that having a disability is one thing, but being handicapped by others’ attitudes and perceptions was another.
When Jersey was eight, I finally followed the advise I’d been getting for several years and read Don’t Shoot the Dog! by Karen Pryor. Immediately, I switched to clicker training and was hooked. The first clicker “trick” I taught Jersey was to shut the front door. She learned it in five days, and we had a great time learning together. I knew I would never go back to any other form of training.
I also searched for and found another dog to train as her successor. Jersey was immensely helpful, not only as a service dog, but as a trainer for Gadget. She was definitely sad not to be queen of her domain anymore, the sole dog. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t spend more time one-on-one with her to make her feel loved and special.
However, as with all things, she took her deposition from service dog to retiree with grace and humility. She definitely enjoyed the quiet life, and continued as my beloved pet until she suddenly became ill in the summer of 2006, at the age of thirteen. Within a week, she had died, from either a pervasive, fast-moving infection or cancer. She was buried in the field behind my house, in the sun, one of her favorite spots to roam, sniff, and poop in private.
I found Gadget through my bouvier rescue affiliations. A woman in Pennsylvania had been contacted by a college student when “Mojo” (as he was called originally) was six month’s old. She claimed her reason for giving him up was “separation anxiety,” although you have to wonder about what her expectations of a six-month-old puppy living in a dorm were. I don’t know anything else of Gadget’s birth or early life. It was a condition of her relinquishing him that she didn’t want anyone to know anything about his origins. This fact, combined with his provenance (Pennsylvania) and the health problems he arrived with that never left, always made me suspicious that he was from a puppy mill.
Gadget’s new caretaker, having trained a previous rescued bouv as a hearing and service dog, decided to train him as a service dog, as well. She renamed him “Gadget” to fit this new role. However, like many people who open their homes to rescues, Gadget’s foster-mother already had a lot going on. As if taking on a rescued puppy wasn’t enough, she had teenage children, dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, horses, other livestock I’m forgetting (goats? llamas?), and fibromyalgia! Not surprisingly, she decided that she did not have the time to train Gadget herself. In fact, Gadget essentially lived his second six months in an outdoor kennel; his foster just didn’t have time to devote to him. She wanted someone who had the experience and interest to train a bouvier for their own service dog. Six months after she’d taken him on, we found each other online and agreed it seemed to be a perfect match!
We met halfway, at a Connecticut state park. Gadget jumped out of her car, straining on the leash, sniffing everything in sight. My roommate and I had already unloaded my mobility scooter. I clipped a flexi-leash on Gadget and ran him around the park. He loved it! Not only wasn’t he bothered by my scooter, he didn’t even seem to notice it! He was just happy to run. He also showed very little interest in the hot dogs I offered him when he did something I liked. That would change. . . .
We loaded up and went our separate ways. Gadget had the back of the minivan to himself, except for my scooter and a cardboard box in which I kept emergency supplies and medical oxygen. One of my emergency supplies was a sleeping bag. Gadget apparently decided that the carpet in the van was not comfy enough. He pulled the sleeping bag out of the box (no small feat, as it was wedged in pretty securely), then used his nose and paws to shape it into the perfect nest, where he curled up and snored the rest of the way home.
I was smitten.
Here, I thought, was a guy who knew how to think and problem solve. Here was a dog who would take to clicker training like a duck to water.
Not that it was all smooth sailing at first.
His introduction to Jersey out on our lawn went fine. She was demure and mannerly. He was boisterous and obnoxious; she didn’t care. We went inside. Right inside the front door was a basket of clean “guest clothes” that I kept there for “smelly people” to change into. Gadget’s first act on entering the house was to lift his leg and pee on all the clean clothes. I had to wash them and the basket. I couldn’t wait to get him neutered.
[Photo description: Sharon sits between Jersey and Gadget. Jersey sits on Sharon's right, her head turned toward Sharon. Gadget lies on Sharon's left, his front half across her lap. Sharon has her arms around both dogs and is smiling down at them. Sharon looks much younger than now, with long hair. This photo is from 2002 or 2003.]
In his first week with me, he also pulled my mobility scooter over on top of me, yanked me all over creation when I took him to the local state park for a swim, and generally convinced me that he was perfect for me, and made everyone else in my life wonder what on earth made me think he could possibly become a well-mannered pet, let alone a service dog.
Having Jersey still working while I trained Gadget was ideal. It meant I was not without an SD while working her successor. Further, Jersey was an immense help in training. I have read some trainers who say that dogs are not good at learning through mimicry, that they don’t learn well by watching. This was absolutely not true with Jersey and Gadget.
I remember teaching Gadget to carry grocery bags from the van to the house. I was at the top of the driveway with both dogs and my collection of canvas, Velcro-closured shopping bags. This was one of Jersey’s favorite skills. She fairly pranced as she ran the bags down to the front step. Gadget strained on the leash, wanting to follow. Jersey would deposit the bag and run back to me for her treat. Then, I let Gadget try, and he pretty much learned the whole maneuver just from having watched Jersey a couple of times. Problems arose if one was not on leash while the other was performing the skill. For example, if Jersey was carrying a bag, Gadget would rush down the hill after her, grab the bag out of her mouth, and take it to the door. Then Jersey would run over and pick the bag up to try to bring it back to me! Then Gadget would steal it from her, etcetera.
They also learned other things from each other. Some were helpful, like learning simple cues, such as “Excuse me,” for maneuvering inside the house. Others were just silly but benign, such as Jersey taste-testing the grass after seeing how much Gadget enjoyed grazing.
Other things were not so helpful. Jersey had a rock-solid recall. She came running, no matter how far she was, as fast as she could, regardless of what she was doing. I could call her off a chipmunk chase, even. Because I’d built such a solid recall with Jersey, and because Gadget seemed to learn everything Jersey had so much more quickly (he learned to shut the door in five minutes, as opposed to five days!), I started relying on his recall long before it was solid. As a result, Jersey learned from him that she didn’t always have to come running to me the split-second I called. Oy!
Of course, this blog is named for Gadget, so it’s not hard to find out what a profound influence he had on my life, and what a fantastic service dog he became for me. He was my true heart-dog. It was love at first sight with him, and that never flickered or faded.
I had intended to transition him from SD to pet, as I did with Jersey, but it was not to be. Around the time I had intended to start seeking out a breeder — having decided to get a puppy for the first time and hopefully avoid some of the issues, particularly phobias, I’d dealt with with “pre-owned” dogs in the past — I started getting sicker. I also needed to move, due to my home no longer being MCS-safe, a major task and upheaval.
I never bounced back from the move at the end of 2006. I kept waiting to feel better, but before that was even a possibility, in July 2007, I got Lyme disease. Again, I thought I’d get treated with antibiotics and be fine, but instead I got much sicker than I’d ever dreamed possible.
There was simply no way I could consider getting a puppy. I couldn’t even take care of Gadget without a great deal of help from my assistants, and my partner, Betsy. Gadget became more crucial to my safety, functioning, and self-preservation than ever before.
I finally started to experience slow, small glimmers of improvement in spring of 2009, right when Gadget was diagnosed with lymphoma. All of my energy went into taking care of him — a mammoth job, especially when taking care of myself required all I and my helpers could manage. At the time, I did consider taking on a rescue or getting a puppy, but I decided it would just not be fair to Gadget — he was too used to being the canine center of attention.
In fact, Gadget worked up until his last month of life — his decision. I had tried to retire Gadget after his diagnosis. The day after the vet appointment, I didn’t ask him to do any tasks. He became extremely bored and irritable. By the next day, he started performing skills I hadn’t asked him to do — opening the refrigerator for me, picking things up I dropped, shutting off lights. As my former roommate used to say, “He puts the ‘b’ in subtle.” (Pronounced, sub’-tull.)
Fine with me! I followed his lead and went in the other direction. I taught him some new skills, “just for fun,” I’d thought. For example, I taught him to open the screen door, which required a completely different technique than the other doors because the latch was sticky and hard to work, as well as higher up, and he could not use his paws against the screen; he had to nose-nudge a very narrow strip of aluminum on just the edge of the door, instead. Well, it actually became a very useful skill that summer, particularly because of how much going out and coming in we did, as I strove to take him for long walks as frequently as I could.
I was already in touch with a bouvier breeder before I knew Gadget was dying. During his hospice and the weeks after, although I was consumed with grief about Gadget, I also held onto the idea of this future, unknown puppy. I knew it was selfish, but I felt like a new life, a wiggly little ball of joy — no matter how challenging — would keep me focused on the positive, on life, when around me so much was loss and death and struggle.
Gadget died November 19, 2009. He was nine years old. I don’t think I’ll ever completely get over missing him and mourning him, but I find myself much, much farther along the path to healing than I could have imagined, even six months ago. That is largely thanks to my “puppy,” Barnum.
Barnum is my third bouvier, but my first puppy. Born on December 30, 2009, he arrived home at eight-and-a-half weeks at the end of February 2010.
I made a lot of first-timer puppy mistakes. The biggest one was just that I had no idea what to expect of a puppy, and while he was fun and delightful in many respects, he was also a lot of work. As the early posts in this blog chronicle, there were time I wondered if I had been all wrong to decide to get a puppy, especially when I was still grieving so hard for Gadget.
But, there’s a reason babies are so cute — it’s hard not to love them and want to take care of them! After all, who could resist this face?
Barnum is now approaching 14 months old — in two weeks, we will have our first “Gotcha Day” anniversary. We are really coming along as a team.
Our working partnership clicked as our bonding grew, or vice-versa. It took a few months for me to fall 100 percent in love with Barnum, due to my distress and confusion over how to handle puppyhood and my mixed feelings about another dog “taking Gadget’s place.” Now, however, I love Barnum so much, I just can’t imagine life without him. He is very loving and sweet, very empathetic, in a way I’ve never experienced with a dog before.
True, we are much further behind where I expected to be at this time, but I also believe I am building a very solid foundation, with fewer gaps in manners, obedience, socialization, and training, than I had with my previous dogs. Though it may take us longer to get there, I think eventually we will be a very functional, happy team, and that Barnum will know more skills and be more versatile than Gadget was.
It definitely helps that our training is going so well since Barnum became a young adult. In large part, the credit for this goes to Sue Ailsby, her Training Levels, and the Training Levels list, which is the closest I’ve ever come to having a “real life” trainer or class. I blog about our Levels work a lot!
While Barnum and I are primarily focused on foundation behaviors — obedience and self-control behaviors such as sit, down, stand, stay, go to mat, loose leash, eye contact, come, and leave it — we have a strong basis in behaviors that are the foundations for service skills such as nose and paw targeting, beginning a shaped retrieve, eliminating on leash on cue, and others.
Very recently, we have even gotten a start on the beginnings of three service skills: shutting cabinet doors, finding and running to a specified person, and alerting me to my infusion pump alarm. Stay tuned to After Gadget to continue reading our adventures in training!