Archive for the 'Puppy Raising' Category

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #6 Seeking Entries!

It’s ADBC time again, folks! (If you’re not familiar with the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, you can read all about it here.)

The host for this edition is Cait at Dogstar Academy. The theme she’s chosen is “Obstacles,” and she has some nifty thoughts to ponder on the topic.

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

There should be no obstacles to a great carnival!

I didn’t see a deadline in her call for entries, but she indicates she plans to publish the carnival on January 29, so assume you have to get your posts to her before that date, at the very least. (If she posts an update, I’ll modify this post to give the deadline.)

Check out her call for submissions!

And please share, tweet, and generally spread the word about this carnival so that anyone who might like to participate has time. For those who are planning on posting, may you find no obstacles in your path.

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

Signal Boost: Auction to Sponsor Guide Dog Puppy

The generous and talented L-Squared of the blog, Dog’s Eye View, has been trying to raise money to sponsor a puppy for Guide Dogs of America, the 501(c)3 non-profit organization through which she received her current guide dog, Jack.

She recently put together a fantabulous online auction, all the proceeds of which will go toward the $5000 cost of raising a puppy to be a future Guide Dog of America. When you see all the work that has gone into this site — how beautiful it all is and how many things are offered — you will be blown away.

There is a lot of dog stuff, not surprisingly! Toys, treats, collars, and leashes, etc. There are also baked goods, jewelry, hand-knitted and crocheted hats, mittens, purses, and more, including a gorgeous afghan! Art, photography, cards, T-shirts, etc.

There are various one-of-a-kind items and things you can personalize, such as a photo of your choice on stretched canvas, or individually made postcards. How about getting a T-shirt with a message of your choice in Braille? (Real Braille, raised dots, so to read it, you will have to be felt up!) You can have a short story written about a topic of your choice!

If you like dogs or cats, there is definitely something there for you! And even if you don’t, there’s probably something. So, please stop by. Some bids start as low as $3, and there are many items that have not yet received bids. L-Squared gives so much of herself to the blogging, blind, and assistance dog community. This is a great way to give back!

Here is the link once more: Guide Dog Puppy Sponsorship Fundraiser Auction.

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I would have eaten those banana cookies), and Barnum, SDiT (I want the Kong!)

QuickPress: Little Miracles

(Shallow) Background

Friday, I took Barnum to the vet for some blood work. When we arrived, he ran around inside the van, whining with excitement. (Anytime we go anywhere, he’s thrilled.) I probably should have taken steps to attempt to calm him, but I was negotiating for the reasonable accommodation of having Barnum’s blood draw in the van, since I can’t go inside the clinic. (I have a cargo van, not a minivan, so there is a big, empty space inside. It’s not like I was asking them to do the blood draw in the parking lot or inside a regular little car.) I doubt I could have gotten him relaxed and focused enough to accept food treats, anyway.

Barnum was fine when the first vet tech came to the van. When the second one  joined us, he freaked out. Don’t know why. He allowed us to hold him only because I’ve taught him, “Hugs!” for restraint, and I was doing most of the holding. But he was really anxious (and thus, uncooperative)!

I thought, “Am I living in a dream world to think this dog will ever be a service dog? I can’t even get him to focus on me at all or take his favorite treats (chicken feet!) if we are outside our yard!”

I still haven’t managed to do much about getting my (outdoor) powerchair mobile again, but I thought since I was already bundled up for cold weather, Barnum already had his “Easy Walk” harness on, and I didn’t have a personal care assistant (PCA) physically capable of walking him, I would try to take him for a short walk in my “indoor” power wheelchair. It actually went pretty well, and I was thinking, “This wasn’t as hard on me as I expected. Why aren’t I doing this every day?”

Little Miracles

1. By late that night, I had barely eaten that day, was exhausted, shaky, weak, and had a headache rolling in. I was two hours late in starting my infusion. I’d forgotten to ask my PCA to set up my electric menorah (which I love), on my window sill. Barnum, fortunately, seemed to be conked out.

I wobbled over to my menorah, plugged it in, and sat on the edge of my bed, singing the first blessing, which is the blessing over the candles. I turned on the candles for the third night. Despite feeling physically crappy, the warm glow of the lights and the familiar blessings washed over me, relaxing me, imparting a sense of well-being.

As I was singing the second blessing, thanking G-d for miracles, Barnum suddenly bounced up from his crate. He wiggled over to me, his stump of a tail wagging as fast as possible, and turned circles around me, bopping into my legs.

This is how I interpreted his body language: “I’m so happy! I love you! I like it when you sing! Pet me, and pay attention to me, and love me up! Aren’t I fabulous?”

Yes, fabulous — I had to agree with him. I still felt like crap, but I didn’t mind. I had that “everything will be okay” feeling. It takes a lot of work to be utterly miserable when there’s someone wagging his whole body at you, radiating joy and sheer pleasure in being in your presence. I slogged my way through infusing, heating up the food my PCA had prepped, and treated Barnum and myself to a round of nose-touching a variety of objects. This is a building block to the trained retrieve in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, and it’s a skill that Barnum enjoys and is good at.

Overall feeling for the night: Good dog! Good medicine.

2. Of course, healing for the soul only does so much towards healing for the body. In this case, not a hell of a lot, as it turned out.

I went to sleep at 5 AM, even though I’d been wishing since 8 PM that I was asleep. Three hours later, at 8:00 AM, I woke up because I had to pee. (I have to pee very frequently. This is true for everyone I know with CFIDS/ME.) I was in severe pain and very weak. Partway through peeing, I had to stop to vomit. Not a great start to the day.

The rest of the day wasn’t any better. Although it was not as bad as a stuck day, it was pretty close. I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t move much beyond minor hand/arm movements, such as typing while laying down in bed. I was in a lot of pain. The best part was that I slept most of the day.

My evening PCA came to feed me and help me attend to basic personal care needs. I have a “doorbell button” that I use to call my PCAs from another room. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the worst functional losses for me due to Gadget’s death has been that I can’t send him to get someone for me, and this button is my main “replacement” for this help.

For example, last night, my PCA helped me transfer out of bed to my chair, and then from my chair to the toilet. I brought the doorbell button with me to call her when I was ready to do the process in reverse, which we did. When I was back in bed, she went to the kitchen to continue working. At some point thereafter, I realized I needed her. I looked for the button. I’d left it on the footrest of my powerchair, out of reach.

I tried using my reacher/grabber against my chair’s joystick to move it around enough that I could grab the button. No good. Too far, and the wrong angle. I tried beeping my chair’s horn, but it’s pathetically quiet, and not surprisingly, my PCA never heard it.

“Well,” I thought. “Barnum and I have been working on cues for barking and shushing, so maybe I can get her attention with some barks.”

I had my doubts because (a) Barnum barks for fun, still — at his toys, at his reflection in the glass doors, etc., so I figured she’d probably ignore him, and (b) Barnum and I had never practiced “Bark!” with only the hand signal (ASL for “speak”), nor with me in bed.

I got his attention and gave the cue for “bark,” and out came a very nice, distinct, sharp bark! I clicked and treated, and we did it several more times. Sometimes they were more like whines, as barking on cue is a different ball of wax than doing it as the urge strikes, but occasionally I’d hold off clicking, and he’d work his way into a loud, strong bark.

Did this bring my PCA running to check on me? No. I did eventually manage to get her attention another way (see below). The barking had not raised suspicion because she assumed he was just barking at his knuckle-bone or something. However, I was then able to tell her, “In the future, if you hear him barking repeatedly when I am alone with him, please come check on me.” I plan to tell all my PCAs this, and . . . voila! A service skill is born! (Or, is gestating. I still need to extinguish his other barking behavior, and we need more practice to get many strong, clear barks in a row as an “attention bark,” but it’s a very strong beginning! And he loves it!)

Good dog!

3. When the barking failed to work, I once again tried to reach the doorbell button with the reacher. Barnum now was “in the game” for clicker training. When he saw me fiddling with the stick, trying to manipulate the button to lift it (and utterly failing), he naturally became interested in this thing. After all, it could be a toy that needed demolishing!

He reached for it, and I made encouraging, happy noises. I thought I might be able to get him to drop it closer to me (he does not yet know a formal retrieve, but he will play fetch sometimes), or he might chew on it and accidentally press the button.

What happened was, as I held my breath and watched, he reached down and touched the button with his nose! I heard the “ding-dong” of the bell in the kitchen. Good dog! I clicked and treated and made lots of happy sounds and invited him onto the bed for petting.

Do I think Barnum knew what I was trying to do, and jumped in, Lassie-like, to save me?

No, I don’t. We have been doing lots of nose-touch training lately as a step in teaching a trained retrieve, and that has meant me holding up every conceivable object for him to nose target. Therefore, it’s possible he was nose-touching the button to see if it would earn him a c/t.

However, I think that’s unlikely, too, as he has not yet learned to touch things on the ground. In fact, the cue for nose targeting at this stage is just my holding an object in front of him.

The most likely explanation is that he was curious. He is still on the mouthy side — liking to explore things with his snout and mouth — and he saw me messing with a strange new object and decided to see what he could learn about it. In doing so, he probably accidentally pressed the button.

But I don’t care! The result is that I needed to call my PCA, and Barnum did it! Curiosity is good, because it’s part of the desire to learn and test out new behaviors that is such a part of clicker training a service dog. In fact, his outgoing, curious nature was a major reason Barnum’s breeder chose him as the best SD candidate.

Another important aspect of the behavior is that once I c/t him for touching the button, he stopped nosing it, and I was able to get him to focus elsewhere so that he didn’t decide to chew, stomp, or otherwise maul it. We are learning to communicate, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Will he ever be an “all-around service dog” who has the manners, focus, and obedience required for public access? I have no idea. Nevertheless, I am gaining confidence in us as a working team. I feel more and more that he will be able to help me out at home, to be an assistance dog to me in the house. Since I spend over 98 percent of my time at home, that is a really big deal.

 

Barnum age 11 months

I'm the shit!

Good dog!

Happy Hanukkah!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (“The Nose”)

Eye Lock Log Day 5 – QuickPress

The value of the treats makes a difference! Ran out of cubes of beef heart before our eye contact training session today, and Barnum was NOT In the Game. Chicken cubes and lamb/beef miniballs didn’t cut it.
I switched to tastes of “goop” (pureed beef heart, liver, and kidney) I fortunately had defrosted, and that worked to get us up to 2 or 3 reps of 10 seconds, then quit. I do have beef heart ready for tomorrow!

A Red Letter Day in Other Areas….

We passed Level 2 sit-stay (handler walks 20′ away and back while dog remains in sit).

Since instituting “Sharon leaves room when Barnum nibbles powerchair armrest ONE time last night, the number of incidents of armrest mauling in the following 24 hours? ZERO!

For the first time ever, tonight, I ate dinner with Barnum in his crate the entire time, and there were NO whimpers, no whines, no pacing, no shredding his bedding; he just went in, laid down, and relaxed. (And I take a while to get through a meal.)

Oh, bliss!

Next post up: Assistance Dog Blog Carnival announcement!

Level 2 homework

If you’ve been reading my blog, by now you know that Barnum and I are hard at work on Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. In addition to mastering a set of behaviors, the trainer/handler has a written homework assignment for each level. Here is Level Two’s question and my answer, which I have livened up with some Barnum photos. Shortly I hope to put up a page with short videos of Barnum and me getting tested on eight of the L2 behaviors. (There are 16 behaviors to master in L2.)

Handler describes, in writing, the four “legs” of operant conditioning, and the definition of “reinforcement” and “punishment.”

The first leg is positive reinforcement.

On the training and behaviorist lists, abbreviated “R+.” Positive reinforcement is giving something to the learner (adding something to the learner’s environment) that the learner needs or wants. A positive reinforcer makes the behavior more likely to happen again because the learner wants to get that reward again.

Note: ALL forms of reinforcements and punishments are intended to alter future behavior, however, their success varies depending on which “leg” is used and also on other factors, especially whether the reward or aversive is effective/relevant/appropriate to that particular dog/learner, and also whether the timing makes it clear what is being punished/rewarded.

For Barnum, R+ are food, play with other dogs, playing tug, being let outside, chasing a ball, praise, belly rubs when he is lying on his back, walks, being let off leash to run, or being allowed to dig in soft dirt or climb into the tub when it’s only partly full.

The nice thing about R+ is that there is no “fallout.” If you screw up and accidentally reward when you didn’t mean to, or miss an opportunity to reward, it might create or strengthen an undesirable behavior that will have to be extinguished, but it doesn’t tend to cause distress for the learner, inhibit further learning, damage trust, etc.

I will use the same three real-life examples of applying these forms of reinforcement or punishment (sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional) with Barnum for each of the three legs.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Behavior: Jumping on my bed. (Undesirable)

R+ responses:

  • Click/treat (c/t) for getting off the bed (four on the floor) with hand and/or voice cue or lure of food treat.
  • C/t for standing, sitting, lying next to bed. C/t for going into kennel. C/t with stuffed Kong or meal for lying quietly in crate or next to bed for extended period instead of jumping on bed.
  • Barnum jumps onto bed and won’t get off, so I get up and leave as an attempt at positive punishment, forgetting that I left chicken salad on bed; Barnum eats chicken and is positively reinforced for being on bed. (Oops!)
  • Being on the bed seems to be both self-reinforcing as well as a means to an end: Getting on the bed brings attention (I stop eating or working at computer to get him off), food (see above), closeness to me, and also seems to be enjoyable in itself as a soft, high location. (Nevermind that he has four dog beds of his own, Barnum still wants to get on my bed or the couch, even when I’m not on them.)
  • Since it’s impossible to launch a clicker session every time Barnum’s around my bed (that would be all the time except if we are out playing, training, or going for a walk), I try to notice when he seems like he is about to jump or wants to jump, and then I praise, play, or c/t him for having “four on the floor” and try to initiate a game or give him something (appropriate!) to chew.

Behavior: Walking on a loose leash. (Desirable.)

Why is pulling on leash undesirable? Exhibit A:

Broken leash clasp

"There's Lucy! I want to play with her! I'm coming, Lucy!" CRACK! Ka-PING!

R+ techniques for getting a loose leash:

  • C/t any time leash is loose.
  • Praise when leash is loose.
  • Walk toward desirable food or other source of pleasure (another dog) when leash is loose.
  • Offer a walk or game as reward for loose leash.

Behavior: Letting himself out by jumping against the screen door. Desirability: It’s complicated.

While it was never my goal for Barnum to learn this neat trick (ahem), it was more desirable to have Barnum let himself out than for him to have accidents inside — when we were still doing toilet training — since I have not always been good at reading his (to me) often subtle indicators that he needs to go out.

However, now he has bladder/bowel control, and we have better communication, so it’s not necessary. It’s bad for the door and screen, especially now that he’s so big and strong and doing damage; it’s bad for our communication and working relationship (too much freedom without earning it); and when winter comes and he can’t let himself out that way, I don’t want him to have accidents inside again (although I don’t think he will because toileting outside has become so ingrained, and we have worked out other options).

This behavior was born when Barnum one day scratched on the door to indicate, “I want out,” and the door swung open. That was very reinforcing: the power! The control! He learned that if he exerts enough force (jumping up with both legs and really putting his weight into it works almost every time!), he didn’t need to wait for me. Having the ability to let himself out at will is a very powerful reinforcer, not just for offering bladder/bowel relief but for playing in the yard, greeting people coming in the gate, freedom, change of scene, etc. This behavior is self-reinforcing.

R+ I’m using to change the situation:

  • Don’t allow him access to the screen door, thus cutting off the self-reinforcement of him being able to let himself out.
  • C/t him for any behavior other than jumping/swiping at the screen door (when the screen door is available to him).
  • Trained him to ring a bell (by targeting the bell with his nose and earning c/t for successively harder nudges till he is ringing it loudly enough to be heard) which I then hung by the door. Whenever he rings the bell, I ask him if he wants to go out (R+); I toss the treats outside for him to eat (R+); and I let him out (R+), even if I know he doesn’t need to eliminate. (At this point, I’m just working on communicating, “If you want to go out, slamming into the door won’t work, but ringing the bell will.”) It’s a long process because any time anyone (my four PCAs, my partner, or I), forget and allow him access to the screen door, there is the possibility of him letting himself out, thus putting that behavior on a variable schedule of reinforcement, making it über hard to extinguish.

The second leg is positive punishment.

I assume this is abbreviated P+, though I have not seen it on the lists. Positive punishment is adding something to the learner’s environment that s/he dislikes in order to stop an undesirable behavior. P+ might make behavior less likely to occur again because the learner wants to avoid the punisher.

Positive punishment has the most likelihood of causing fallout. Not only is it always unpleasant for the learner, it is often also unpleasant for the trainer (although, if people were honest about it, a lot of the time it is really just venting anger or frustration on the dog in the name of changing behavior, when it is actually more like revenge). The learner often associates the aversive experience with the trainer, which might teach the learner to avoid the trainer or to only do the behavior in the trainer’s absence, as opposed to extinguishing the behavior altogether. It’s also hard to time correctly, and an ill-timed punishment often creates more problems than it solves, as it can punish a desirable behavior that happens after the undesirable one has ceased.

Examples of Positive Punishment

Behavior: Jumping on my bed. (Undesirable.)

Muddy Bouv Face

"I see no reason at all why I shouldn't be allowed on your bed whenever I want. What's the prob, dude?"

  • Yell at him for jumping on bed. (Doesn’t work, he doesn’t care and is often glad of the attention. Potential fallout: Barnum learns to dislike being around me or learns to tune me out.)
  • Try to push him off the bed. (Doesn’t work, he thinks it’s a game, like tug, and can therefore be R+ instead!)
  • Get up and leaving the room. (Works if his goal in jumping up was being closer to me or getting attention; doesn’t work if he just wants to be on the bed to get a better view out the window or a change of pace or to get at my dinner.) He also doesn’t seem to learn from this.

Behavior: Walking on a loose leash. (Desirable.)

Positive punisher: Accidentally run over his toes when he is walking very close to the chair, giving me good eye contact, and we are both so focused on clicks and treats that we lose track of his paws and my wheels. (Aagh!) The result is that, until I counteract this mistake, he walks farther from my chair, hangs back instead of walking next to me, and enjoys himself less. Not intentional!

The traditional punisher for pulling on leash is using choke chains, prong collars, etc., when the dog pulls, but I don’t do that.

Behavior: Letting himself out by jumping against the screen door. (Undesirable.)

Positive punisher: Mildly scold (Eh!) him when he jumps on door. (Sometimes works if I catch his attention and he stops before he goes out, but usually I am too late — there’s that timing thing again!)

The third leg is negative reinforcement.

Abbreviated R-. Negative reinforcement is removing something from the environment that the learner dislikes (finds aversive) in order to make the event that comes with the removal more likely to occur again. Although negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment, using R- necessarily requires an aversive. In other words, until the aversive is removed to reward the change in behavior, whatever came before was being punished.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

Behavior: Jumping on my bed. (Undesirable.)

  • While Barnum is on my bed, I silently turn my back to him, giving no eye contact. When he gets off the bed, I shower him with praise, petting, c/t. (The aversive is me ignoring him, the removal of it = negative reinforcement/R-.)
  • I make grumbling/growling noises when he’s on the bed. When he jumps off, I smile and stop grumbling. (Grumbling = aversive; stopping grumbling = R-.) This worked the first two times I tried, and then he realized I was silly and no actual threat, thought it was a great game; in other words, not effective because it did not alter the behavior and very briefly, was actually probably R+!)
  • I get up and leave the room, shutting the door behind me. Barnum is alone in my bedroom. (He doesn’t like to be apart from me — or alone in general. Social isolation is usually a big punisher for dogs.) When he jumps off the bed, I come back into the room, smiling warmly, and give him eye contact. (Social isolation = aversive; ending social isolation = R-.)

Behavior: Walking on a loose leash. (Desirable.)

Why is pulling on lead undesirable? Exhibit B:

Torn Leash

"I want to get to the pond NOW!" Pffft-BOING! "Ah, that's better!"

Any time Barnum pulls on lead, I walk backwards from whatever is desirable that he’s pulling toward (food, another dog, an interesting smell). When he comes back to my side, and the leash goes slack, I stop pulling him away from the desirable smell/object/dog and begin walking toward it again. (The aversive is having to retreat from desirable smell/dog/food; discontinuing the march backwards = R-.)

Behavior: Letting himself out by jumping against the screen door. (Undesirable.)

Don’t let him out when he flings himself against the door:

  • Hold the door closed.
  • Block the screen door with the winter door.
  • Put him on a leash that’s too short for him to get outside even if he manages to open the door.)

All of these efforts are aversive because they are frustrating his desire to 1. have control over going out, 2. go out and play, and/or 3. relieve himself. When he stops trying to slam the screen door and/or rings the bell instead, I give him access to the outdoors. (The aversive is inability go out; the removal of that restriction is R-.)

The fourth leg is negative punishment.

Again, I presume this is abbreviated P-, although I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it discussed outside of theoretical discussions. (Since I’m on R+ lists and read R+ blogs, that’s mostly what I hear about.) Negative punishment is taking away something the learner wants/needs in order to reinforce the opposite of that behavior.

Behavior: Jumping on my bed. (Undesirable.)

P- responses:

  • Turning my back/looking away/ignoring him when he is on the bed. (This actually does work, though slowly, in combination with R+ when his feet hit the floor.)
  • Can’t think of anything else except maybe moving any food away from him so he doesn’t get to sniff and/or eat it, but I try not to let that happen in the first place.

Behavior: Walking on a loose leash. (Desirable.)

Any time Barnum pulls on the leash, I back away from our focal point, which is something he wants: A bowl of pungent food, another dog, something he wants to sniff. This is slow going, but combined with R+ of c/t when leash is slack and of eventually getting to the object of his desire, it’s effective.

Behavior: Letting himself out by jumping against the screen door. (Undesirable.)

Eliminating access to the yard has been an effective P-, in combination with R+ for ringing the bell to indicate he wants to go out instead of slamming into the door.

Barnum flopped on the lawn on his side

"Lying in the grass feels soooo good! Why wouldn't I want to get out here and enjoy it whenever the whim strikes me?"

* * *

Oy! That felt like I was back in psychology class, taking an exam! My brain hurts! Also, a lot of these overlap so much that some of it seems to be engaging in a bit of (as my college academic advisor once shocked me by saying), “mental masturbation.”

This cognitively impaired, hard-trainin’ chick needs a rest!

However, we have tested and passed and videotaped(!) several of the L2 behaviors. I just need to do the closed captioning and transcripts, and I will post those, too. Then you can see the practice, and not read so much theory.

Retreat! Click, treat, repeat.

Due to my disabilities I’ve only gone away three times in the last fifteen years, and never in the last seven. I was doing “staycations” long before the media coined the term. I love going on vacations and retreats, even when I never leave home.

Others — friends or writers (often one-and-the-same) — join me to talk, eat, write, watch movies, and read our work aloud at my home. Inevitably, connecting to others I care about leads me to connecting more deeply to myself, which in turn strengthens my connection to my writing. Since writing, for me, grows out of self-connection, when I am adrift from who I am, I cannot write well. In fact, I usually cannot write at all.

In the past three years, I haven’t had a writing retreat. I’ve been too sick, among other reasons. However, Betsy and I have had wonderful vacations; she takes time off from work, and we do what mood, weather, and disability allow. Even though I’m always at home, and Betsy often is, and our vacation activities might seem mundane to others — playing cards, watching movies, talking — there’s something different about setting aside a chunk of time and marking it as special. Time together is intended, however ordinary the activity, to be a source of connection with each other.

We also devote some individual time to personal projects. Last year, Betsy focused on gardening. I dedicated myself to taking Gadget for daily walks at the pond.

In 2008 and 2009, picking blackberries was one of our most enjoyable activities.

Sharon picks berries.

A berry nice summer staycation.

Gadget loved berries and picked them, too. One of his all-time favorite treats was blueberries, which he picked off the bush with gusto. However, he was fond of raspberries and blackberries, too, and would brave the thorny brambles to get at the fruit. Last year at this time, Gadget was in remission from lymphoma; he looked and acted particularly robust and happy. He joined us in the berry picking (though nothing he picked ever made it into a pie).

Gadget searches for raspberries

Gadget searches for end-of-the-season raspberries.

When Betsy or I found a particularly bountiful spot, Gadget would wade in, knocking off the ripest berries with his big frame, and indiscriminately devouring large clusters, both black and green. I couldn’t begrudge him the berries — neither those ready to eat nor those that would have been good to pick in a few days’ time. Who couldn’t laugh and rejoice in his being with us, so very Gadget — out for all he could grab from life? I also deeply enjoyed the three of us being able to take part in this activity together as a family.

Gadget eats ground blackberries

These ground-vine blackberries are so much easier to get one's muzzle around!

This week I’m enjoying a retreat of a different kind. Betsy is away, visiting family. Before she left, she planted two organic blueberry bushes, in honor of Gadget (and because we like blueberries). It felt like just the right time to plant something beautiful and practical that will be with us forever, we hope — just like Gadget and our memories of him. Also, appropriately, Barnum helped to dig the holes for the bushes, and then partly dug one of the bushes back up.

Along with Betsy’s absence, I’ve had less time with my PCAs around due to illness and car trouble. As a result, a lot of the time, it’s just Barnum and me. I’m really enjoying it.

I’ve written about how hard his first couple of months were for me. I floundered with the newness of puppy raising. My grief over missing Gadget was so overwhelming, I didn’t even see it; it simply engulfed me. I felt guilty, ashamed, confused, and scared because of my puppy-raising ineptitude — what I perceived as failing Barnum and setting us up to wash out as a service-dog team. I also allowed myself to get jangled by the discouraging and patronizing voices of other dog trainers I met online.

A lot has changed, thank dog!

First of all, after Barnum turned four month’s old, when much of the stress of babyhood wore off, I fell in love with him. This isn’t to say I didn’t love him before; I did. But I wasn’t in love with him. There’s a big difference.

Secondly, as we started to have little training victories, and Barnum developed an attention span and the ability to go longer periods without peeing (in the house), we were able to communicate better. This, too, helped me relax and appreciate him more.

Most recently, I have seriously dedicated myself to working Sue Ailsby’s training levels, which have given me step-by-step directions for ways to explain things to Barnum. I’ve discovered a lot of the bumps in the road we had hit in previous months were due me not knowing how to translate what I wanted to teach to a puppy. I was more used to explaining how to build a behavior in an adult dog. As a result, I was asking for mental leaps I wasn’t even aware were there. This created anxiety for Barnum and frustration (and feelings of inadequacy) for me.

It just keeps getting better: This week, not only do Barnum and I have a quiet, peaceful house to work in for extended periods, I am also functioning better physically than I have in three years!  Suddenly, Barnum and I are particiating in our own unplanned bonding, training, and play retreat!

Gadget rolls in clover

First, a festive roll in the clover. . . .

High-Speed Chase

Then, a rowdy game of "tag."

Barnum in pool, 6 mos old

Finally, a refreshing dip to cool off. (Every time I was about to take a picture, Barnum would turn tail!)

With this breathing space for both of us, and the Training Levels’ step-by-step directions, I find that my enjoyment and skill as a dog trainer is coming back to me! When Barnum is confused, or a skill isn’t being shaped just how I’d like, I’m able to think it through and say to myself — sometimes in the split-second necessary to change tacks in mid-training stream — “Ohhh, I need to back up and do it this way!” And lo and behold, it works! It’s just about the best feeling in the world.

I don’t know which is better: Barnum’s total happiness and obvious gratitude for me finally being able to communicate to him what I want, or my tremendously improved self-confidence and attitude about training.

Like most dogs, Barnum is not big on hiding his emotions. This is part of dogs’ wonderfulness. Thus, Barnum is quite willing to let me know whether he is pleased with what’s happening in his world at any given time. When he is not pleased, he will tell me — emphatically. However, when he is happy, he wags his whole body. For example, ever since I switched him to raw food, after finishing a meal, he comes over to me, grinning and wagging like mad.

“Thank you, thank you!” His body language gushes. “That was awesome!”

Now the same thing happens at the end of a training session. We are both concentrating very hard, but there’s also the rush of learning, teaching, communicating. Often, at the end of a particularly sharp session, Barnum runs to me and nearly knocks me over to enthusiastically lick my face. He never used to do this after training; it’s new, since our little “training retreat” week.

Some might call it anthropomorphizing, but I know what I’m seeing: not just happiness, but gratitude. After several confusing months, where sometimes we were communicating well, and sometimes we were both frustrated, we have achieved a solid communication and trust in ourselves and each other.

“Thank you, thank you!” He kisses me, wags, and grins, after a clicker session. “Now I get it! I get it! I wish you had just said so before!”

Kisses!

I love you, Mom!

There are all sorts of paradoxes here: That we made big leaps in progress when the pressure was off. That working with very definitive goals within a rigid structure — and even knowing that I will be testing myself on them — forces me to focus, which helps me relax. As with writing, the more connected I am to my task (teaching a skill), the more I connect to others involved (Barnum), and the more I’m connected to myself.

That just going hog-wild with clicking/treating (being super generous in clicking even the smallest hint of the behavior I want or doing rapid-fire or jackpots of treats) almost always gets us to a more advanced form of the behavior than being stingy with the rewards is a typical paradox of clicker, too. (And sometimes, lately, has gotten us farther and faster than I expected.)

I’ve also been trying to incorporate additional types of games into our play, especially “mind games” that help Barnum problem solve. I use them as breaks in between training sessions, or as rewards for progress, or I combine them with a training exercise. For example, to teach loose-leash walking, you put a “distraction” — something the dog really wants — at the end of your destination, and then you proceed toward it. If the leash gets tight, you go backwards. I used the muffin tin game, shown in the captioned video below by Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs, as Barnum’s distraction/destination. He really wanted to get to that muffin tin!

Click here for a transcript of the video.

With “time off” and the Training Levels as my guide, all I’ve had to do is put my head down and work on what’s right in front of me. With much of the guesswork removed, I am actually more able to “think on my feet” and be completely in the moment. All this means is that I’m attuned to Barnum’s needs, which is the name of the game, not just in training sessions, but in the rest of our lives. It’s about connection.

Level One: Two Paws Forward, One Paw Back

Hi. I know it’s been a long time. I also know I said in my previous post about canine Lyme, that my next two posts would be about Lyme disease. I do still plan to do those, but I have been writing various other posts (all half-finished, of course, with many waiting for pics), so I decided to go ahead with some new stuff in the meanwhile. I will definitely do the promised Lyme Awareness Parts II and III eventually.

Instead, how about a “Sharon-and-Barnum Update”?

I know those have been severely lacking at After Gadget. And, of course, I’ve written several half-posts about why they’re lacking. Sigh.

[Also note: All photos in this post are outdated. Barnum is now HUGE in comparison to these itty-bitty-puppy pics. Probably close to 60 pounds, and growing. He is six months old, and the most recent pics that have made it onto my computer are from early May. So, just imagine him now as tall as me (5'6") if he stands on his hind legs, and his head is now about the size of his whole body when he arrived. Okay?]

Anynoodle, soon after I got Barnum and joined a training listserv, several people pointed me toward Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.

The Level Book is a system of clicker training every foundational skill a sports/performance dog (and therefore, a service dog), can use. Sue, herself, has trained herding, agility, obedience, and all sorts of other dog sports, as well as training her own service dogs after she acquired a disability. She also trains other species, especially her own llamas, to do some remarkable stuff. The Levels provides a systematic, detailed, and kind structure.

I thought I’d been “working the levels” pretty much since I discovered them, soon after I got Barnum, but I realized recently that I had mixed up the Introduction and Level One (L1), with L1 and Level Two (L2). So, I thought I’d looked ahead and seen the next steps on the next level, but I was wrong! (Or maybe I did, but I forgot it all, which is also possible.)

As it turns out, many of the next steps are not what I thought, so we have missed some things and gone farther ahead on others. The Levels don’t forbid doing some things out of order, but it was a surprise.

We also had not tested any of the levels. I did ask another trainer in town if she would judge me on the levels — there are few of us in my very small town who do advanced dog training, so I was thrilled to find a neighbor who used to work an SAR dog — but she never got back to me.

Finally, Sunday night, I decided to start using the training log I’d set up before Barnum arrived, but which I hadn’t written in since, except to put in his name. I thought it was high time we tested ourselves, one way or another, on L1, and officially moved on to the behaviors of L2.

Here’s my first log. I hope to post periodic logs (the interesting ones) on After Gadget.

6/20/10 – Barnum’s six month’s old, and I’m getting ready to test him on the L1 skills. In the course of our walk today, we did some recall and loose-leash walking practice, but that’s pretty much it, and neither of those are really tested in L1. I’m going to ask Betsy to judge us.

I’m nervous! Even though I think we should do fine, and have in general surpassed the requirements by quite a bit, you never know where your weak spots are. Rather, I do know where our weak spots are. Down (“Platz!”) is a big one. He is really dependent on a lot of body language for that one. There is also his low frustration threshold and nervousness — when he will get anxious and whiny about doing a behavior.

Part of L1 is that I have a homework assignment.

Handler lists, in writing, five things s/he hopes to accomplish by working the Levels.

1. Making sure each skill, especially foundational skills, are truly solid, without any gaps that could require remediation, retraining, or god-forbid-wash-out, later.

2. Having concrete goals. I’m a very concrete, goal-oriented person. I do very well with detailed instructions. The more detailed the lesson plan, the better.

3. On the flip side, it’s always necessary, and it’s my joy, to be creative — to adjust to the situation and the dog. There are a lot of interesting suggestions for “Advanced Education” at the end of each behavior for each level.

The specifics of the levels do concern me, though, and I have to make sure I don’t ignore the cardinal rule, “Know thy Dog,” at the expense of the instructions. Already it’s been clear to me that The Levels assume a level of sustained attention that is often not possible — or enjoyable — for Barnum.

3. Dividing behaviors up into their component parts so that I don’t either (a) overwhelm Barnum by raising criteria too quickly or in “lumps” (more than one criterion at a time) or (b) miss opportunities to raise criteria in ways I hadn’t thought of. (Novel splits.) [Note: For an explanation of what I mean by "splitting" and "lumping" in this post, please go to The Level Book Intro and scroll down to "The Levels."]

4. Having a sense of accomplishment and community. I have been depressed, grieving, overwhelmed much of the past seven months (Gadget’s death, my own health problems, the loss of multiple friends to death or abandonment, etc.). I have been responding by either retreating/isolating or by being overly judgemental and harsh with myself whenever I make a mistake with Barnum, which can’t be good for his self-esteem, either. For the first couple of months, I was overly frustrated by, and critical of, Barnum, as a result of feeling so inadequate in puppy raising (and without an adequate guide for what it would really be like to have a baby dog). I’ve just joined The Levels listserv, hoping it will provide positive suggestions and information, without the patronizing or harsh attitude that can sometimes be present on training lists (even positive reinforcement lists!).

5. Becoming a better trainer! There are always new ways to train any given behavior, and I’m hoping this will add to my flexibility. More tools in the toolbox.

6. OK, one extra: A sense of accountability. Because, due to my disabilities, I can’t go to classes or be in training groups like others, having someone judge Barnum and me at each level will provide some form of outside validation that we are achieving what I think we are.

The Results Are In. . . .

I followed Sue’s advice and tested Barnum/myself on a day when we had not trained any of these behaviors. Also, it was late at night, and Barnum was hot and tired. He was lying on the floor, panting. He really is a snow dog, not a summer dog.

Tired Puppy Asleep across Betsy's legs

Oy! The heat! I'm shvitzing! I could platz!

So, we were definitely not operating with any unfair advantage. In fact, it was a challenge to get him interested in anything other than lying on the floor, feeling sorry for himself in the heat!

Betsy agreed to act as our judge. I read her the criteria for judging overall, as well as for each behavior as we got to it. Here’s how it went.

1. “Touch” (or Targeting)

We started with this one because Barnum normally loves it and knows it extremely well. He generally shows a lot of enjoyment and confidence in doing “touch.”

The other reason is that I couldn’t get him up off the floor any other way without practicing a behavior to be tested, and I’d need him to stand to ask for a “sit” and for a stand or sit to ask for a “down.” Can’t ask for a down when he’s already lying on the floor!

I put my hand out — far enough away so he’d have to stand — and said “Touch!” He looked at it and tried to reach it without getting up. Realizing that wouldn’t work, he grudgingly streeeeetched out and touched. It was lackluster, but it met the criteria. Then, since he was “in the game,” I asked him for two more touches, just so he’d feel some sense of accomplishment. And so he’d focus a bit. Those were more peppy.

One down!

2. Sit

The criterion here is that you can only give one cue — either an oral or a manual cue. I usually use both, and I think he’s stronger with the hand signal because it grew out of the lure. I decided to challenge us and go with just the spoken word.

“Barnum,” I said, with my hands behind my back, “Sit.”

He looked at me hesitantly — I think he realized something “big” was going on – and sat. Yay!

Later, I asked him for a sit with just the hand signal, and he sat for that, too. Good dog/trainer!

3. Down

Down is allowed to be cued from a stand or a sit, and any two cues are allowed, including one oral and one manual.

I actually don’t use the word, “Down,” as my cue, because a few weeks after I taught him “down,” he started displaying anxiety with the command. (I’d say “Down,” which he previously did quickly and eagerly, but — in certain locations — instead of lying down he’d wander away, start sniffing, sometimes scratch himself.) I’m still not 100 percent sure why this seemed to have turned into a poisoned cue, though I have a couple of strong suspicions, mostly relating to the area in the yard where I think the “poisoning” occurred. [Note: "Poisoned Cues: The Case of the Stubborn Dog" is my favorite article on poisoned cues, but you have to be signed up for the Karen Pryor Clicker Training newsletter to read it. However, if you have any interest in dog behavior or training, you really should be, in my not-so-humble-opinion, subscribed anyway.]

Regardless, I decided to start over from the beginning with a different oral and manual cue, and instead of luring with food, I used the hand targeting he’d already learned, shaping the down from a “touch.” The oral cue I chose was “Platz,” which is the standard command for “down” among Schutzhund trainers. I picked it because it didn’t sound like any of our other commands, and I knew it would come easily to me. Betsy found it hilarious every time I said, “Platz!” for the first month or so, because of its Yiddish associations, but she’s over that now.

Back to the judging: Barnum was already sitting — sit and stare is his default behavior during training — though he will down from a stand, as well. In fact, he downs from a stand with more zest than from a sit. Go figure.

I said, “Barnum, platz!” and lowered my arm (palm up), and he slid into a relaxed down.

Three for three!

4. Puppy Zen (AKA Zen, AKA “Leave It”)

The criterion is that Barnum must stay away from a treat in my closed hand for five seconds. This one I knew we would pass with our paws tied behind our backs. (I wouldn’t actually do that to him, of course. However, if there were a way I could remove his fangs, er, teeth, just for short periods, that would be tempting.)

Puppy Zen is the best thing since the invention of the clicker. If you have a dog, you must, must, must play Doggy Zen with him. You can read about it on The Levels site. (Hint, hint.) The idea is that the dog learns she will get what she wants by not trying to get it. Then you can apply this self-control awareness all over the place in other areas of training/life.

Barnum and I could have passed a L1 Zen test two days after I taught it to him, probably. We progressed pretty rapidly from him leaving the treat in my hand alone to him leaving alone pieces of meat on the coffee table a good distance from me (with the table closer to him than to me). [Yet, I have had much less success teaching him not to eat the coffee table, itself.] My preferred default for Zen is sustained eye contact. If that goes on too long he’ll add a sit, then backward scooches, for good measure.

Baby Barnum first week home

See? I even knew how to sit and make eye contact when I was a little, little, little guy.

I put a few treats in my hand, said “Leave it,” and shut my hand. I held it down to nose level.

He looked at me like, “Huh? Seriously?”

I think he was confused that I was using something so easy and non-tempting as homemade beef jerky in a closed fist, whereas lately I have been working very hard with him to “Leave It” shoelaces on moving people’s sneakers.  (Soooo much more enticing to get the shoelaces! They move! The more you bite, the more they jiggle and squeak and yell! Especially when you move up to the ankles!)

Anyway, he sat, looked at me, continued looking, scooched back against the wall, still looking, now getting concerned something was wrong. I looked at Betsy, and she said, “That was way more than five seconds.”

I had forgotten to look at my watch, so I hadn’t been sure. I’d wanted to be sure.

Passed that with flying colors! Whoo!

Last, we had to move out into the living room to get enough yardage for . . .

5. The Come Game.

Two people stand twenty feet apart, calling the pup back and forth. They start by using something that will not be the pup’s future/official recall command. (We use, “Puppypuppypuppypuppy.”) Then, when he is on his way, we switch to the future official recall, “Barnum, come!” We did this a few times just for fun. We have been playing variants on the Come Game for months. The photo below shows Barnum doing the Come Game between me and Betsy at The Pond.]

Puppy Barnum in Mid-Air at Pond

My favorite picture of us. Barnum flying high!

Definite pass, according to Betsy.

We passed Level One! Woohoo!

Goooooo Team Barnum! I gave him a hug, and an extra squirt of homemade “dog pâté,” and we did high-fives all around. (True confession: Barnum can’t do a real high-five yet. He is too exuberant. It starts out as a paw, then turns into him raking your arm with his claws, till he’s standing against you on his back legs. But it’s the thought that counts.)

We were very happy. We let him out to pee, then Betsy and I tick-checked each other. While we were tick-checking, Barnum started chewing a chair leg, after I thought he’d stopped chewing furniture a couple of weeks ago! Now he is doing it again — aarrgh!

I tried several toys to distract him until we settled on one that was the right hardness for his chewing needs. It was a chew stick he’d never shown interest in before, and I was so pleased to see him carrying it around in his mouth, wagging his behind as we got all our dog-grooming gear together to tick-check him.

“Look,” I said, pointing to the area where we were about to tick-check him. “He’s going to lie down and chew it over there!”

He did lie down. Then he stood up. And peed. I’d thought the accidents were over! AAARRRRGGGH!

Four Legs to Stand On

So, on one paw, Team Barnum did pass our first level, and we are proud of that. (Dammit!)

On the second paw, Team Barnum is still very much in puppyhood and has not 100 percent “got” the “only pee and poop outside” concept and is nowhere near getting the “don’t chew on people/furniture/shoes/books/everythingelseontheplanet concept.”

On the third paw, we have now officially started working on Level Two skills, and that has turned out to be fun (for both of us — yay!), enlightening (I was lumping some things I was unaware of before — oops!), and remedial (this deserves its own pawagraph — see below).

On the fourth and final paw — for tonight — I see that there were, indeed, “lumps” in the way I was teaching, which I now am sure is the reason for skills where Barnum is nervous or frustrated (whines, acts slowly, etc.). The chance to go back and fill in these gaps, by “re-splitting,” feels like such a gift to Barnum and to me. It will make the behaviors, themselves, much stronger, but that’s really the small picture. That’s just the trees.

The forest is that now that we are truly on this path in a focused way, the training will be so much more fun for both of us, and therefore rewarding (for both of us), which will make him faster, more enthusiastic, and more “operant” (not so hesitant and waiting for me to cue him, but willing to experiment and risk and think on his own). All of which will be vital to both his learning and his desire to train/work. It was desire/confidence that was becoming a concern for me as the only possible reason I can foresee, aside from unexpected health issues, that he could wash out.

If I had to write the homework now, after having worked on L2 for a few short days, I would change what I wrote for number 3. [Note: I mean the first number 3. After proofing this blog, I noticed I wrote two of them. But sometimes I think it's good for you to see my cognitive impairment at work.] I’d say that by doing the levels and filling in the gaps where I should have started with lower criteria, I will make Barnum feel more in control and successful, and help him back to full confidence. This will probably, eventually (along with increasing maturity), allow us to do more reinforcements of each behavior.

I’d also say that what I hope to get out of the levels is renewed confidence and faith in myself as a trainer, which naturally leads to increased confidence and pride in Barnum. All of which leads to us enjoying each other a lot more.

A couple of nights later — Tuesday — we’d done a bit of bell ringing, some introduction to nail filing, L2 sits and downs, uncued leave-its, and default eye contact. I finished our training session by singing “We Are the Champions” to him and then playing a long, rousing game of “hedgehog tug.” I’d say that counts as enjoyment, wouldn’t you?

Puppy Air Barnum at the Pond

Barnum literally leaps to get to me!

We are the champions, my friends.
And we’ll keep on fighting — till the end.
We are the champions.
We are the champions.
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions — of the world.

As always, we welcome your comments.
Peace,
Sharon, Barnum, and the muse of Gadget

BADD: Q&A on Being an Assistance Dog Partner

Blogging Against Disablism Day“>The graphic for BADD, a multicolored square comprised of twenty other squares of stick figures, mostly standing, some wheelchair symbols or with canes

Today, May 1, is international Blogging Against Disableism Day. So, this blog will be a bit of a departure from the usual. Actually, since I’ve barely been blogging since Barnum arrived, any blog is a departure these days! But I’m very motivated to get this one out because I’ve been looking forward to participating in BADD.

(By the way, Barnum is doing really well! I love him to bits. I keep wanting to blog about this or that exciting or adorable or heartbreaking thing, so I have many partial posts. They won’t be in chronological order, but I’ll get them up eventually!)

In case you are wondering, “disableism” is the term used in most countries outside the US for what we, in the US, call “ableism.” [The preceding link has a nice, succinct definition of ableism, but you can find many others that go into more depth.] If you don’t know what either of these words mean, here is your chance to learn!

When I was writing up my FAQ, there were a lot of comments and questions I wasn’t sure if I should include or not, but they are perfect for BADD, so here they are. (Additional comments and questions, not as closely related to ableism can be found on the FAQCC page.) Some of the questions below are direct quotes, but most are either paraphrases or compilations of the same type of question or comment I’ve heard many times. Because Internet communication and face-to-face communication tend to be different, some are comments I read online (community forums, Facebook, here at After Gadget), others are questions I’m asked “in real life,” and many are a combination.

Warning: It’s pretty hard to address some of these issues without sounding a bit snarky. (Or way snarky.) But I’ve noticed that most blogs err on the side of snark, so hopefully you’re used to it. Nevertheless, this post is aimed at informing those who need informing, amusing and affirming my comrades, and yes, allowing me to blow off some steam on a few pet (pun! — see below) peeves. If  you’ve said some version of the things I don’t like, it doesn’t mean I don’t love and appreciate you. After all, Gadget wouldn’t have cared, and he was an excellent judge of character. It just means, we’re all learning.

Frequent Questions and Comments on Being an Assistance Dog (AD) Partner

General Questions and Comments

Q: Who trained your service dog (SD)?

A: I did. Yes, me, a disabled person! I train my own dogs!

Q: That was sarcastic and overly emphatic. How come?

A: I get asked this question a lot, and it gets tiresome, especially because usually the question is put to me this way: “Who gave you your service dog?” or “Where did you get her/him from?” or “Who trained him for you?” or “Isn’t it wonderful that they [assistance-dog programs] do this?”

These questions assume that because I’m disabled, I must be the recipient of charity. (And by the way, most AD programs charge for their dogs — many thousand dollars). I particularly find it irksome when someone asks who trained my dog after I have already said that I train my own service dogs. (Yes, it happens often.)

To sum up: The frequency of this question, the patronizing tone which sometimes accompanies it, the astonishment with which my answer is usually greeted, and the fact that people ask it after I have already told them I am my own dog trainer is insulting. It suggests that many nondisabled people have trouble wrapping their minds around the idea that a person with a disability (PWD), or maybe especially a person with multiple disabilities, is capable of training her own assistance dog.

The corollary is that sometimes, when I am interacting with someone online who therefore cannot see my disabilities, I will say I am a PWD raising a puppy to be my service dog, and they gush in response how noble and big-hearted I am to do this work. In this case, the nondisabled person has had to ignore the fact that I said I was disabled and that this will be my service dog in order to fit the idea of me being a nondisabled “puppy raiser” into their world view. When I correct their assumption, suddenly my dog-training efforts are no longer so laudatory.

Both these types of comments and questions are forms of dis/ableism. Again, I encourage you to please learn the definition of ableism. Reading blogs about disability rights issues can also help; there are some great ones on my blogroll.

Q: Isn’t there a non-offensive version of that question?

A: Yes, there is. Sometimes people ask in a neutral way, “May I ask who trained your dog?” or “Did you train him or get him from a program?” or something along those lines. If their response, on hearing that I trained him is not incredulous gushing, but treated as just another interesting piece of information, that is very nice. Sometimes people say something like, “You must be a good trainer, he’s great!” Of course, flattery will get you everywhere.

Actually, some people ask this because they have a disability (often a hidden one) or because someone in their lives has a disability, and they are wondering if an assistance dog might help them. I am very eager to give them information, including a leaflet with the contact information for an assistance-dog advocacy organization of which I’m a member. I often give them my own name and email address and encourage them to contact me.

Likewise, if the person is another dog-training fanatic, it can be fun to “talk shop.” I do like to meet up with other assistance dog partners when out and about because I’m pretty starved for “real-life” assistance-dog friends, but I understand that not everyone wants to get into an AD conversation every time they leave their house. (See below.)

Q: What kind of dog is that? Can I pet him? [Pet, pet, whistle, clap, shout, wave, offer treat.] Can I give him this biscuit? What’s his name? Where’d you get him? What does he do for you? Can I monopolize all your time and energy and breathing space to talk to you about your dog?

A:

Long answer: Do you see that I am using oxygen and a mask covering my nose and mouth? And that I am falling out of my chair with exhaustion? Did you know that once I get home, my PCA will have to help me bathe, change my clothes, wash my AD, and my powerchair because of all the chemical fumes that sink into hair and skin and fabric? Did you know that if you pet my AD, not only are you distracting him from his job, but you are also getting even more chemicals on him that we will have to shampoo off?

Short answer: I’m trying to buy something. Here’s a leaflet.

Non-Snarky addendum: I know that many AD partners like to interact with the public about their ADs. Sometimes I do, too. It depends on the situation (how sick I am, what the environment is, the tone of the interaction, etc.). It’s true that for many PWDs, partnering with an AD helps break down isolation, and that has been true for me, too.

I also think it makes a difference what questions you get asked and how often. For example, many AD partners find it particularly intrusive and offensive to be asked what their AD does, since this is often akin to asking details about their disability or daily living needs. If I’m already in a conversation with someone about my AD, and I think their question has a valid basis, and isn’t just nosiness, I might be okay with it. I also usually give examples of the most obvious and least personal tasks. However, bear in mind that asking, “What does your dog do for you?” could be like asking a stranger, “Do you have trouble getting up when you fall? Do you take medication that you need help to remember? Do you have a panic disorder that your dog assists you with?”

Another issue is since my SDs have been Bouviers des Flandres (usually with short haircuts I do myself), I am constantly asked, “What kind of dog is that?” When I answer, most people say they’ve never heard of them. I actually made a brochure called, “What Kind of Dog Is That?” after I partnered with my first Bouv, Jersey, just so I didn’t have to get stuck in long explanations about what a Bouvier is.

The moral of the story is that everyone is unique, and some people love to discuss their ADs, some people don’t, and everybody has good days and bad days, hurried days and mellow days. Also, bear in mind that almost all of us get asked questions or hear comments whenever we’re in public. So, if you want to approach a stranger about their working dog, try to limit your questions, and be prepared to gracefully take “no” for an answer. I recommend approaching with something like, “Do you have a moment to answer a question about your assistance dog?” That way, you acknowledge that the PWD has a life that is not devoted to being a spokesperson, and you’re giving them an “out” if they don’t want to talk. If you have a specific reason behind your question, I would open with that, which indicates that you don’t intend to take up all their time.

Questions and Comments Arising from Gadget’s Death and/or this Blog

Q: I am so sorry about the loss of your pet. I know just what you’re going through because I lost my pet dog, too, and I loved him so much.

A: Thank you for your sympathies. I’m sorry about the loss of your dog, as well. I have lost much-beloved pets, too, and it is very painful. The grief can last a long time and is sometimes devastating. In fact, it is often a worse loss than that of a human loved one because our relationship with our animals is usually entirely positive, without any of the anger, guilt, resentment, or other complications of human relationships.

However, Gadget was not a pet. He was my service dog.

I strongly disliked having Gadget referred to as my pet when he was alive, and because my loss has been so public, I find that since his death, I’ve heard him referred to as my pet (or my “companion” or “friend,” which are often other terms people use for pets) much more than I did when he was alive. It can be a little hard to take, hearing it so often.

While the “heart loss” of an assistance dog may share similarities with the loss of a super-bonded pet relationship, the working-assistant partnership and functionality loss are very different. The grief of pet loss is very real, but  it’s a different kind of loss in several respects. I can’t speak for all assistance-dog partners, but those I have talked to about this issue feel as I do: We hate having our partners called pets, and we hate it when non-AD partners say they know just how we feel.

Q: Why? How is the loss of an assistance dog different?

A: I haven’t come up with a short, simple answer to that yet, but I’m hoping that the accumulated posts here, over time, will be an answer to that question. Gadget’s death is the worst loss I’ve lived through, and that includes the death of one my best friends a year ago and multiple other forms of major loss.

To put this into perspective: The first three years I was disabled by chronic illness, I almost never left the house, and I often went many weeks at a time without seeing another human being. I lost my job and career, friends, much of my financial security, freedom, independence, social life, and on and on. And I also just felt physically very lousy all the time. I had two cats at that time, and they were my one source of physical contact, daily interaction, and love. When each of them died, it was very, very hard. I used to say, and I still believe, they kept me sane those first few years.

Yet, Gadget’s death feels 50 times worse. Sometimes people react to my disabilities as tragedies. I don’t feel they are tragedies; I feel Gadget’s death was a tragedy. I have never dreaded anything so much as I dreaded him dying. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever completely get over it.

Q: I was trying to be supportive. What should I say instead?

A: I know you were, and I appreciate your kind intention. While I know you are trying to empathize by saying you have gone through the same thing, many of us feel more alone when we hear such comments, because we feel the person trying to comfort us not only doesn’t understand what we’re going through, but by saying that they do, we are cut off from saying how we really feel. I know I usually say, “Thank you,” to conform to social niceties and to spare a well-intentioned person’s feelings; then I try to avoid the topic with them after that. That feels lonely, too.

I hope you will make use of this information the next time you come into contact with someone who has lost an assistance dog. As to what words to use instead, more appropriate terms would be “partner,” “assistance dog,” or “service dog,” “guide dog,” or “hearing dog.” If you don’t want to use these terms, you can just say the animal’s name: “I’m so sorry you lost [dog's name]. You must miss him/her terribly. Let me know what you need. I’m here for you.” That’s usually what I want to hear, and I find it hard to imagine another grieving AD partner would be put off by any of the above. In fact, I think those are good things to say regarding any kind of bereavement.

I also am fine with people — in comments here at After Gadget or in “real life” — telling me about their own feelings of sadness and loss when their dogs died, whether or not they were pets or ADs. It’s always okay to talk about your own feelings, your own experiences, and I can often tell from people’s tone how heartfelt their sympathies are. I have been moved by many of the comments here from those who have lost companion animals saying that my blog has touched them and reminded them of their own dogs. It is only when people start making comparisons, insisting that they know how I feel, or using “the p-word,” that I feel alienated.

(Other assistance dog partners: If you agree, disagree, have other ideas, etc., please comment!)

Q: Is it okay to post this link on my blog/website/Facebook/email to friends? I would have to list it under “pet loss resources” and you just said not to refer to him as a “pet”!

A: That’s okay. Really and truly. Please do spread the word. The more people who learn about and love Gadget, the better. I feel that Gadget’s death left a hole in the world, and I want more people to know how wonderful he was, and how much he is missed.

While AD partners often try to seek each other out for comfort and support when dealing with a loss, sometimes we don’t know others, or we are not that connected to the AD community, or we face communication or other access barriers. In fact, I turned to a variety of “pet loss” groups and hotlines. Some worked out better for me than others, but these things are very individual. A listserv of people who lost their dogs to cancer has been very important to me, and I’m the only AD partner in the group; however, I relate very strongly to most of what happens on the list and care deeply about the other people and dogs. Having a relationship with these people before our dogs died makes a big difference.

In fact, my impression is that most readers of After Gadget were not AD partners, but many have lost pet dogs; there is a lot about grief and loss that is universal, no matter the species or relationship. I am hoping that After Gadget will, in time, be just one of many easily accessed resources for grieving assistance dog partners — blogs, chats, lists, hotlines, etc. Meanwhile, we have to find each other somewhere, and pet loss resources are often where we try. I would appreciate it, though, if you indicated that Gadget was a service dog along with your link.

Comments and Questions Arising from Seeking and Raising My New Puppy, Barnum

Q: Do you have a replacement lined up?

A: In the AD community, we do not use the term “replacement.” Gadget could never be replaced. He was one-of-a-kind. It would be like saying, after your spouse died, “Are you going to marry a replacement?” We prefer the term “successor.”

Most also prefer the term “partner,” not “owner,” because an assistance-dog partnership is a team effort. Both members of the team take care of and support each other and work together toward their goals.

Likewise, a previous AD is “retired” or the “predecessor,” and contrary to popular belief, not all retired ADs are rehomed (or euthanized!). Some ADs stay with their former partner as back-up SDs, pets, therapy dogs, etc.

Q:

1. Who will raise your puppy for you?

A: 1. I will be raising the puppy.

2. Would you like me, a complete stranger, to do it?

2. No, I wouldn’t. Assuming I need someone else — someone nondisabled or less disabled than me — to raise my future SD is ableist, especially if you have learned anything about me and know that I have trained two previous SDs and also have helped other people (mostly nondisabled people!) train their dogs. Please read more on learning about ableism.

3. Would you like me to give you a random puppy, probably of a breed you are allergic to, from my neighbor who has done no health testing on the parents and has no experience in selecting dogs with the right temperament to do the type of assistance work you’re seeking?

3. No, I really, really wouldn’t. I spent years, literally, researching which breeder I wanted to get my puppy from this time around. There are not many Bouvier breeders in the US, yet I still had to do my homework. The breeder I chose knows the complete lineage of Barnum’s parents (which includes their personalities, health histories, and temperaments) and provides information on every health test she has run on them and their forebears. She is also one of a minuscule number of Bouvier breeders that have bred and selected service dogs.

Q: If you start with a puppy, won’t it take an awfully long time before the dog can assist you?

A: Yes, it will, and that will be the hardest part: expending so much energy while getting no help in return for a long while at the beginning. My original plan had been to do something similar to what I did when training Gadget: I adopted Gadget when Jersey was still working, and she helped me train him, and then she retired as my pet when Gadget was ready to take over working. For Gadget’s successor, I’d decided to get a puppy when Gadget was about seven or eight year’s old; that way I would have had Gadget’s assistance with training the puppy, as well as not having a gap with no canine assistant. However, two major things went wrong. One was that I became severely ill with Lyme and two other tick-borne diseases and had to focus on survival; therefore, I was in no shape to raise and train a puppy. Second, right around the time my health was improving, Gadget got cancer, so my focus had to be on his needs, above all else.

However, the waiting and trade-off was hard when I was training adult dogs, too. It seems to be par-for-the-course whenever one adjusts to a new assistance dog or when one is working toward finishing training. (I have heard from those with program dogs that even in that case, when starting a new partnership, it takes both team members time to acclimate to new routines, environments, and styles.)

However, this time, for the first time, I have several people, including my partner, who are helping me raise Barnum. Without them, I definitely could not handle a baby. In the past, I did all of the care and training myself (except for Gadget’s wonderful dog walkers, Deb and Cameron, whom he loved with all his heart, as do I).

And yes, I know I said above that the assumption that I couldn’t raise a puppy on my own was ableist, and now I’ve gone and verified that I couldn’t raise a puppy on my own, so let me elucidate: It is the assumption that is the problem. Types and severities of disability range greatly. I’m much more severely disabled now than I was a few years ago. Also, there is often an assumption (that word keeps cropping up!) that disabled people lead solitary lives, without friends, lovers, spouses, etc. Barnum is being actively raised by my partner, me, and my four PCAs — under my instruction — with additional support that I have rallied from my small, rural community.

I know several people with disabilities who raised their ADs from puppyhood who considered it a delight and wouldn’t have had it any other way. I know others who absolutely feel their lifestyle could not accommodate a puppy and have adopted adolescent or adult dogs or who have obtained program dogs. There are also people who did raise a puppy into an AD but who have decided that next time around they will take a different route. You might notice that the same can be said for nondisabled people: some prefer pups, some older dogs, etc. In fact, if you learn nothing else from this post, I hope this one fact will come shining through: all people with disabilities are unique, just like all nondisabled people are unique! In this way, we are all exactly the same! (Ooh, a paradox.)

Q: Oh my goodness! How will you manage without a service dog until the puppy is full-grown and trained? Can’t I help you get a trained service dog right now? I barely know you, but I am so worried about you!

A: I very much appreciate that you understand that service dogs are not pets, and that my independence, safety, freedom, and quality of life are inextricably connected to my partnerships with my service dog. When people “get” that this loss is not the loss of a pet, that can feel very supportive.

However, treating my disability as a catastrophe and my life as a tragedy does not feel supportive. It suggests that you think I have had service dogs from the moment I became disabled, for example, which isn’t true for me or any assistance dog partner I know. It also indicates an assumption that I lack the resources to survive without a service dog, which is also not true of me or any other AD partner I know. (Hopefully you’ve already figured out that this type of response is yet another form of ableism.)

Those who choose to partner with ADs may experience better, richer, more independent, or safer lives with our canine assistants, but that doesn’t mean we will keel over and die without them. Often, to explain the role of our dogs, AD partners liken an AD to a piece of assistive equipment, such as a wheelchair, a cane, or an environmental control unit: we can survive without them, but life is much better with them. In fact, when an AD dies or retires, many of us turn to the assistive technologies we used to use before we were working with an AD. (I’ve discussed this in some of my previous posts, especially this one about the doorbell.) We might experience these technologies as inferior to a partnership with a versatile, thinking teammate, but they are extremely valuable.

Two other ways of coping with functional issues after the loss of an AD are increased human assistance, and — for lack of a better term — “making do.” I do need human assistants to get along, but my life is best with both a canine assistant and human assistants. For others I know, having an assistance dog allows them to live without PCAs or other human assistants (such as sighted guides). If they lose their AD, they may turn to human assistants until they have a reliable AD again. In my case, having more personal assistance for myself than I had when training my previous dogs will make me better able to raise Barnum. I’ve also enlisted the help of members of my household to pitch in with things like taking Barnum out to pee or playing with him, when I’m too tired or in too much pain. Betsy took him to puppy kindergarten because the class was not MCS-accessible. Having more people involved helps take the pressure off the pup and me, allowing us all to enjoy his puppyhood and training more fully.

Q: But why buy from a breeder? Why not adopt a rescue? Don’t you feel guilty that you’re contributing to dog overpopulation? Don’t assistance-dog programs contribute to the overpopulation and death of dogs?

A: This is a complicated situation, and I have wrestled with guilt over the decision to buy from a breeder. My previous dogs have all been older — two rescues and one “rehome.” However, my reasons for wanting a puppy this time around are solid, relating to my own health needs, my service dog goals, and what I think will be best for the dog. It’s just not the right time for me to have a rescue. I considered it, and I decided it wouldn’t be fair to the dog nor to me and my household. I’m hoping that eventually I’ll be doing well enough to foster and help train rescue dogs for others.

Another major issue in terms of adopting rescues is that I am allergic to most dogs, so I can’t adopt or foster a mixed breed (which eliminates 75 percent of shelter dogs) or any breed that is not hypoallergenic. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible for me to adopt a rescue — I’ve done it before, through Bouvier rescue — but it makes it more complicated.

If I didn’t have allergies, I would likely have adopted a mixed breed from the shelter for my first service dog, as they tend to be genetically hardier and healthier (because there is less inbreeding than with purebred dogs), and are usually very smart, to boot. But it’s very rare to find a hypoallergenic mixed breed. Plus, now I’m an incurable Bouvier fancier.

As to the issue of breeding programs at assistance-dog schools, this is complex. For one thing, many programs do adopt and train dogs from shelters, rescue, or donated from breeders. For another, the life of an assistance dog is not for everyone. If a program has a high success rate of graduating dogs with the physical, mental, and emotional traits that make assistance work rewarding, safe, and successful for them, and if they are humane and responsible in their breeding, training, and placement, that is probably the best way to go for them.

In my opinion, the crime of dog overpopulation (and thus, death) is caused primarily by puppy mills, which are too horrible for me to discuss here, and secondarily by people who breed their pet dogs without awareness of the larger consequences.

Q: Why don’t you get a service dog who is already trained? Wouldn’t it be easier?

A: Yes and no. It’s complicated. I’ve posted the long version of the story in my “About Sharon’s Dogs” page. For this BADD post, however, I do want to briefly make three points that do relate to ableism (and which I discuss more fully and less pedantically on the other page):

1. I tried to get a service dog through a program, and I couldn’t. This was for two reasons. The first is that no program could or would train a dog to fit my disability needs, because my disabilities were not “mainstream” enough. Fortunately, the AD world has changed a lot since 1998, and many more types of disabilities are now seen as appropriate for service dog work. The second is that no program would accommodate my disability needs, which is extremely problematic for organizations that are designed to meet the needs of PWDs! This is changing, too, though not as much as I’d like.

2. I discovered, in the process of searching for and applying for programs, that there was an air of paternalism among many programs that really turned me off. A big component of the disability rights movement is self-empowerment — that we (PWDs) know our lives, bodies, and needs best. Sometimes this means that the people who are in the “helping professions” (doctors, social workers, those who work for public or private charities or benefits programs, etc.), treat us with less respect, understanding, or autonomy than we think is appropriate or healthy. While many assistance-dog programs work terrifically well for many people, a lot depends on the organization, the PWD, and the fit between them. I did not find a good fit in this regard; however, as I mentioned above, a lot has changed. Many new AD programs have sprung up that have a more “client-driven” focus, including programs run by PWDs or that teach PWDs to train their own ADs. I also think some of the “old guard” has changed somewhat to keep up with the times.

3. Once I discovered that I was good at and enjoyed assistance-dog training, I got hooked. There are challenges, but for me, the benefits of partner-training outweigh the costs. If someone tried to train my dog for me, I would feel robbed of an essential part of our partnership and of my life experience, as well as of the flexibility I enjoy to train or retrain to fit exactly according to my (often changing) disability needs and my lifestyle.

Q: You mentioned a struggle you’re having with raising your puppy. The problem is that you’re doing [fill in the blank], while you really should [fill in the blank thing that is either inappropriate or impossible for you to do].

A.

1. [Silence.]

2. Everyone loves to give advice about raising puppies, training dogs, raising children, etc., to people who are newly in the thick of it, disability or not. I have been guilty of this, myself. Unfortunately, usually unsolicited advice is obnoxious (again, disability or no).

However, there are some broader issues to keep in mind. One is that PWDs have historically received — and continue to, as much or more than ever — unsolicited advice from nondisabled people about our disabilities. The underlying assumption is that since we’re disabled, and they’re not, we must be doing something wrong, so nondisabled folks, who must be doing something right, can fill us in.

This urge is so widespread and obnoxious that when I was cartooning about life with disability, my most popular cartoon, bar none, was one that was a “fill-in-the-blank” card to people offering “helpful suggestions” about how we could cure ourselves. PWDs from all over the world and with every type of disability related to that cartoon. Before you give any advice to a PWD on any topic, think long and hard about whether this is something we might already have more information and perspective on than you do because we live with the disability, ourselves. Also, think about whether they have indicated in any way that they want your advice.

I’ve received many suggestions and pieces of advice since I got Barnum, and a few of them were useful (such as book recommendations), and many were not. The ones that stuck in my craw tended to be from people without disabilities or with different disabilities than me who were judgmental or ignorant around my disabilities.

For example, I was very stressed about how to get Barnum from his crate and out the door in the first few weeks of toilet training without either (a) allowing him time to have an accident or (b) running him over in my powerchair. I had tremendous anxiety about hurting a puppy with my powerchair. I literally had nightmares about it before he arrived. I was so afraid I would accidentally murder him in a horrific way by running him over in my chair that it was a factor in my decision as to whether to get a puppy or not.

My friends reassured me that I would not accidentally kill the puppy. Then Barnum arrived, and it turned out to be quite tricky. The easiest way, for others in the household, was to pick him up and jog to the door and deposit him outside. This did not work easily for me.

For one thing, for the first two weeks, he reeked so bad of the fragranced shampoo the breeder had washed him with (despite our washing him, ourselves, several times), that I couldn’t touch him or pick him up without having a reaction. If I held him, any clothes that touched him had to go into the wash. This added an additional layer of work and exhaustion — not to mention misery at not being able to touch and bond with my puppy without becoming ill — to an already difficult situation. Since I had to take him out every hour, I couldn’t pick him up and then change my clothes every hour!

There were also the issues of fatigue, balance, dizziness, weakness, etc., that affected being able to pick him up and whisk him to the door in my lap. Hefting ten pounds (and growing every day!) of wriggling puppy was not nothing for me. There’s also the fact that opening and shutting of doors can be tricky from a chair, and with a squirming puppy whose bladder can only last 30 seconds or less, the situation isn’t any easier.

It seemed to me that the best solution was to get a leash on him and then have him run behind me out the door. That way, I would know where he was (because of where the leash was), and I wouldn’t have to deal with the lap-related issues. Despite my extreme watchfulness, however, I did twice run over his paw, which was a terrifying experience for both of us, but which caused neither of us any lasting harm.

However, when I sought advice on handling the leash situation with a puppy who was still not used to wearing a collar, several people told me that I should just carry him! What the heck was wrong with me that I was trying to get a puppy to heel on command at nine weeks? (Of course, I didn’t care about heeling; I cared about not squishing him.) Someone even told me that I should not move my chair, ever, at any time, without first always making sure that he was nowhere near me. Well then, how should I get him to the door? Telekinesis?

Several people were quite blaming that I had run over his paw at all. Honestly, I don’t know any wheelchair user who has never run over their dog’s paw! I have run over several people’s feet, including my own! Certainly there must exist many wheelchair users who are much more graceful than I, who have better coordination, better memory and spatial abilities, more accessible homes, and no balance issues. Not all of us are born athletes! In fact, Betsy accidentally stepped on Barnum’s paw on a walk and felt just as horrible as I had when I’d run over his paw. Then I found in one of my puppy books, under life stages, “Learns to avoid being stepped on”! That made us both feel better.

So, this is my final point: All the people who gave me a hard time and/or told me how I should have handled getting Barnum from the crate to the door knew that I have a disability and that I’m a wheelchair user. Some did not know about the MCS, and at any rate, in my experience, only people in the severe MCS community actually understand severe MCS, no matter how much others may think they do. Still, is it really such a stretch to imagine that someone who uses a powerchair to get around in her house might have disabilities that would make it challenging or impossible to lean over, pickup a wriggling, increasingly heavy puppy, carry it through at least two doorways and to the outdoors, in winter, all in under thirty seconds? Might it have occurred to the people to whom I said, “I need to have him on a leash so I know where he is so I don’t run over him,” that I had good reasons for choosing that method? Did they think that having a disability made me unaware that I also am the proud owner of a lap?

Of course not. I’m sure they didn’t think of these issues at all. That’s the point: assumptions, again. Assumptions about what a PWD can or can’t do, and assumptions that the way a PWD chooses are not based in rational awareness of her own body and/or abilities and/or limitations. I have to say that, unlike most assistance-dog partners I know, I have very rarely been denied access to public facilities. Having an assistance dog has not kept me from passing through most doors. Yet, I still find that I frequently must ask people, when it comes to me and my service dogs, to check your assumptions at the door.

P.S. It’s a year later, and I read this terrific post, Service Dog Etiquette for Dog Lovers, at The Manor of Mixed Blessings, and I thought it was terrific. Please read it; if you are not an assistance-dog partner, I guarantee you will learn something. She also wrote this follow-up piece for people who were bothered by her shoe analogy, which I actually loved and commented upon.

Interlude: My One Hour a Week

Once a week, for an hour, I can breathe. I am by myself, and I can do whatever I want. Wednesdays from 6:00 to 7:00, Betsy takes Barnum to puppy kindergarten.

I have started several blogs in the last three weeks during this one-hour window, but I’m never able to finish them. I’ve been falling back on my usual mode for coping (and thus, writing) in recent blogs — humor. Mostly sarcasm, irony, self-deprecation.

Now, my attempt at my fastest blog ever! How is it actually going? My scattered thoughts. . . .

I do love Barnum. I love him very much. I can’t imagine a world without him. Especially when he’s sleepy and cuddly, and I look into his eyes, I love him in a way I’ve never loved anyone, because he’s a baby, my baby.

Or sometimes, especially lately, when we’re training, and he — out of the blue — “gets it” about what we’re doing and gets excited and does The Thing I Want Him to Do. That’s the high of training your own SD — that’s the drug of clicker training. Right now, it’s only just beginning, and only occasional. But there are moments: I hung bells on the door so he can learn to jingle them to tell me he needs to go out. He’s now quite good at hand targeting, so we’ve done two or three sessions of him targeting my hand as I moved it closer and closer to he bells, and twice he suddenly grabbed the bells! Jackpot! Even better than that was after we finished a session, and I took him out, he came back in and grabbed the bells all of his own accord! We were delighted with ourselves. I took him back out, even though I knew he didn’t have to pee.

He stresses the heck out of me. I often ask my PCAs when they arrive, “Would you like a puppy? He’s really cute. And free.”

I barely get any sleep. My sleep schedule is all messed up because when he has to go out, he has to go out. I try to sleep when he does, nap when he does, but there’s the rest of my life I usually need to squeeze into those little windows.

Barnum is teething. This means he is chewing on everything all the time even more than he used to, which I didn’t think was possible. On the other hand, he is finally getting more gentle with mouthing, which is trainer language for “biting everyone whose flesh, clothing, and hair he can reach.” Sometimes it really hurts. Sometimes it upsets people, and I feel bad for inviting them (or requiring them) to visit or work in an environment where little needle-like teeth might come at them before I can intervene.

He started out a bit fearful, then became very confident, and now seems to be going through a timid phase again. I am trying not to stress about it. However, the uber-socialization we did with people has paid off: even when he’s afraid of everything else new around him, he wants to follow any people he sees, because he is convinced they will love him up and shower him with treats.

Most of the time I’m too busy and exhausted to consciously miss Gadget, but during the rare moments I let myself open — when all the Managing, Coping, Handling, etc., is not needed, and when I am not working to prove how Together and Witty I am — I just cry. I cry and cry and say, “I miss Gadget. I want him back. I want him back.”

Gadget’s grave is kind of a mess. We put stones on it to mark it, but they got moved, and the dirt got rearranged by a snow plow in winter. I know some of the people who loved Gadget are distressed that I haven’t done anything to fix it. To repack the dirt, move the stones, plant flowers. My very kind neighbor, who is a hospice worker, actually brought daffodil bulbs when Gadget died, and we planned to plant them on his grave, but I can’t deal with it. I can’t look at it when I go out. It’s still just easier to think that he’s “gone,” than that his body is decomposing in my yard.

I finally responded to an email from a reader of this blog who lost her service-dog-in-training. Just reading about her feelings and telling her how normal it all is made me cry. It’s impossible not to identify and put myself in her place and feel her pain.

I’m a coward. Someone I met online whose dog also had cancer lost the battle recently. Over many months, I felt like I really got to know her and her dog, and I haven’t been emailing her because I feel so awful about it, I don’t know what to say. He just seemed like a truly wonderful dog. I hated it when people went on and on to me about how horrible Gadget’s death was and catastrophized it, as if I truly could not live without him, and I don’t want to do that to anyone else. In her case, this was not her service dog, so she won’t get that kind of treatment from others. But still. How can I be writing a blog about service dog grief and not know what to say?

I also haven’t gone back to my angels list because not only am I too exhausted and busy to deal with email, I’m afraid my stress and grouchiness and all-consuming attention on Barnum is not appropriate to the group, but neither would be my gushing and happiness over him. And it’s so painful, as more people join, to know more people have lost their heart dogs, that it throws me back into my feelings about Gadget, and I can’t afford to use that energy.

Twice a week, Betsy takes Barnum for the night so I can catch up on sleep. I generally sleep twelve hours on those nights. I think it’s hard for people to understand just how much Barnum consumes my life, not just because he is a puppy, and all puppies are a lot of work. It’s because . . .

- He is an extra high-energy, drivey puppy. He was the most active in his litter — of a working breed.

- He is only moderately food motivated. He is much more interested in being with me without food than being in his crate with a marrow bone or a Kong. Honestly, I didn’t know such dogs existed before!

- I am laying the groundwork for him to be my service dog. That means major socialization to everything and everyone in the world, tons of training, and carefully avoiding not discouraging him from doing things that might later be useful, but that are usually trained out of puppies. (Grabbing clothes is an example. One day I will want him to pull on my sleeves, so I don’t want to scold him for that now. Likewise with sniffing things, as he will be doing scent work.)

- I live with multiple illnesses and disabilities, which means that things like getting my teeth brushed, going to the bathroom, eating and getting meals, all take planning and assistance from other people. It also means that a good portion of my days are spent with “maintenance” that healthy people don’t have to deal with. This includes doing infusions of IV medication twice a day, taking huge quantities of oral supplements and drugs many times a day, getting intramuscular shots, etc., etc.

When you combine these things, it’s complicated. For example, puppies love to play with strings, cords, ropes, dangling things. Guess what that describes? The tubing on my oxygen tank. The cord on my infusion pump. The line from my PICC line in my arm to my pump. Who wants to explain to the ER doc that a puppy chewed into the tubing that leads into the line into my heart? Not me!

This means that when I do my infusions either someone else needs to be with him, OR he needs to be asleep, OR he needs to be in his crate. It’s not always so easy to synch up his sleeping schedules with my medication schedules and my PCAs’ working schedules!

Okay, I had to interrupt this a couple paragraphs above because Betsy got home, and I had to get Barnum into the crate in the living room with enough Really Really Tasty chew toys to keep him occupied until Betsy gets back from her errand so I can don mask, gloves, air filter, and oxygen, and change clothes, so we can bathe Barnum, because he smells from chemical fumes he picked up at class. Then I’ll have to wipe myself down. All of which will be exhausting and cause me to have more pain and exhaustion tomorrow. See how my mood has already gotten worse?

On the other hand, he is absolutely adorable, AND he rang the bell after just two practice clicks with me. I just need a break. I just need time to mourn, which maybe I will get the next time Barnum is asleep, if I’m not also trying to sleep at that time.

Thanks so much for your comments. Keep them coming.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

P.S. I wanted to post some adorable photos of Barnum, but I don’t have the time to upload and caption them, so that will have to wait.

The Experts Are Full of It (and the Puppy Is, too)

You might have noticed there have been no After Gadget blogs in a month, which — not coincidentally — is when I got my new puppy. That’s because things like, um, sleeping, thinking, not weeping with frustration, were hard to come by for a while.

I was sobbing on the phone to my therapist (with whom I’ve been speaking much more often lately) and to my grief support list, “I hate the puppy! I hate the puppy!” Some people were just an eensy bit judgmental about this.

Even more obnoxious are all the people who have been saying to Betsy and me, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful to have a puppy? Isn’t it so much fun?” We just look at them with very, very tired eyes and mumble, “Yes, he’s adorable and sweet, but, um, it’s a lot of work.” The people who have survived raised puppies themselves tend to switch into sympathy mode.

Betsy and I each asked friends whose dogs are less than two years’ old, “How long did it take you to toilet train?” We hoped, on one hand, that they would say something like, “Six weeks,” because we’re entering week five now, so that would mean there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, we hoped they’d say, “Six months,” because this definitely would mean we are not failures because we are already at about 75 percent toilet trained.

However, what both people said was, “I don’t remember. I must have blocked that time out.” Practically verbatim.

Worse than this was when Betsy asked her employer (when our puppy had already had about 17 accidents in his first four days), how many their goldendoodle had during housebreaking.

“One,” she said. We both cried. I think they should have lied.

I tried to convince Betsy we were Not Failures. “We’ve gone 24 hours without an accident! We didn’t know what we were doing at first! We’re doing so much better now!”

I believed myself, too, until the next (inevitable) accident. About an hour later.

But despite sobbing, “I hate the puppy! I hate the puppy!” the first two weeks, to anyone who had ever showed me any kindness, I really do love him, as you can see in these two pictures of us bonding on his first day home:

Little bear - Barnum's first day.

Isn't he a snuggly little bear?

Barnum in Sharon's lap
Looking lovingly into each other’s eyes on his first day home.

Honestly, I promise, I don’t hate him. I just hate the pee and poo that appear on floors throughout the house, even when he has not been in that vicinity that we know of and he has either been in his crate or under supervision 99.96 percent of the time. (It’s that 0.04 percent that gets you.) It’s not even that I hate the pee or poo, because I’ve become rather resigned to that by now (even as the puddles/piles get bigger). It’s more the constant vigilance we’ve had to maintain for over five weeks.

This is primarily because I read — and forced Betsy to read — a book by a world-renowned dog behaviorist, veterinarian, and expert in puppy training who writes over and over how you can achieve “errorless housetraining and chew-toy training.” Errorless. His exact words. He also calls any accident “a potential disaster” and says that “you can start ruining a perfectly good puppy in one day.” So, no pressure.

The errorless chew-toy- and crate-training are to be achieved with Kongs and hollow bones stuffed with kibble and the occasional treat, such as freeze-dried liver, “the Ferrari of dog treats,” he says. No need to use anything other than kibble because puppies are “food-seeking missiles.”

Well, great idea, except if your new baby is so stressed by his life’s biggest upheaval that he refuses to eat in the beginning, and then has barely any interest in kibble, and doesn’t even LIKE freeze-dried liver, and has no idea how to get kibble out of a bone or Kong, even when there is nothing blocking the Kong, so that kibble just falls out if you breathe on it. It’s taken a month of clicker training to teach him how to get the biscuit balls and Kongs to give up their goodies by nudging them around. This has not made him, as the author promised, a “chewtoyaholic.” He would so much rather chew everything else — our flesh, our clothes, our furniture, his leash, ANY electrical cords — than his chew toys.

His favorite toy — thank God for it — is a bucket. Not a full-sized bucket. Ironically, it’s a big plastic tub, about half the size of a real bucket, that freeze-dried liver came in — for Gadget. Gadget, a dog who LOVED liver. A dog who, if you accidentally spilled a big pile of liver dust and bits on the floor next to his crate, would not have left it there for two days until you resigned yourself to vacuuming it up! Anyway, we punched holes in the bottom of this plastic bucket last year and used it as a planter. Barnum found it under the snow and fell in loooove. (Yes, his name is Barnum. I’ll have to write a second blog on how he got his name. Right now, there are more important things to focus on, obviously.) Because it was distracting him from his excretory duties, I brought it inside, and now we use it a lot as a toy.

Before Barnum arrived, I bought a bunch of organic, nontoxic, fair-trade dog toys for him — and he prefers to chew a plastic (and therefore, toxic) bucket. All I can say to that is, “Get your bucket!!! Where’s your bucket??? Git it gitit gitit!!!”

I have so much more sympathy now for parents who take their kids to McDonalds or plunk them in front of the TV.

The puppy-raising book also says that the first twelve weeks are the puppy’s socialization window, and after that, everything you do will be playing catch-up (and with rather poor results) so that you have to make sure your puppy meets 100 people in his first four weeks at home! And that the puppy should not leave your home, and all guests must remove their shoes, because they could track in a dog disease. (For the record, Barnum has met about 75 people so far, though they were not all people in our homes with their shoes off, and it was not all done by the moment of 12 weeks. Horrors!)

I was fool enough to believe all this bilge! So, you can imagine, what with the massive sleep debt, and the impossible expectations, there has been a lot of stress! Stress! Stress! AUGH!!!!

I’m able to type what you’ve read so far because I pleaded with Betsy Betsy offered to watch the puppy for the night, so I got 11 hours of sleep. The last time she puppy sat, I got 13 hours of sleep. This is because a new puppy is not only a great cure for sleep, but also for insomnia. I’m hoping this lasts. I’m hoping now for the rest of my life, whenever I want to go to sleep, all I have to do is become slightly horizontal, and I will instantaneously drop like a rock into slumberland. Yes, all the sleep disturbances caused by my many chronic illnesses that include insomnia, hallucinations, nightmares, early wakening, etc., as symptoms, might be cured just by puppy motherhood! Wouldn’t that be awesome?

I have taken up the saying my friend Julie introduced me to in high school: When all else fails, lower your expectations. We have done a lot of lowering. Now, if the accident is near the door, we rejoice, because it seems to indicate he knows he should try to head in that direction when the urge hits. Or, if we catch him in the act and interrupt him, so that he does half the poo inside the house and half outside the house, we are thrilled that we were able to indicate that pooping in the house is not what we want (poor guy looks so confused as everyone in the vicinity converges on him and says, “OUTSIDE, OUTSIDE, OUTSIDE!”) and even better, that we are able to reward him for doing the second half of the poo outside. Isn’t that terrific?!?!

Another thing to feel good about is if I’m thinking, “I should take him out right now,” or asking someone to take him out (if I can’t), or if I am actually bringing him to the door, and we’re delayed because I have get to the door, grab the pull cord, then back up to open the door but very carefully so as not to roll over him (more about that another time), and when I turn to check that it’s safe for me to back up, he is peeing! So, I was correct that I did need to take him out right then; that counts for something, doesn’t it?

So, in the spirit of lowering my expectations, I have also decided to try to get blogs out when I can. If they are not beautifully written and poignant and error-free, well, neither is life, right? It is messy and dirty and full of mistakes, but we still have to find meaning in it and love it despite its faults. Hopefully you feel some of this love and forgiveness toward this blog, even with the long gaps and the mistakes and the lack of beautiful, deep, thoughtful writing, but most especially, because of the pee and the poo.

More about Barnum, his name, pictures, etc., the next time I have a full night of sleep (or two or three or eight).

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

P.S. Please, please, please do not post any housebreaking advice! We really do know all the theory and the things we should be doing. It’s just that sometimes life happens, and then you step in it.


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