Posts Tagged 'assistance dog'

3rd AD Blog Carnival Is Up!

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.

The Third Carnival Is Up!

The new Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is up at The Trouble Is…!

Peruse over a dozen great posts, and comment on your “Reactions” is to them!

Here is the link! Check it out and have fun!

Thanks so much to The Trouble Is… for hosting this carnival during a difficult time.

The next ADBC will take place in July and be hosted by Kali at Brilliant Mind Broken Body. Keep your eye on her blog (or mine) about a month ahead for the announcement of the theme and deadlines.

I’m really looking forward to reading all the posts in our current carnival! Thanks so much to all the bloggers who contributed to make another outstanding carnival!

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

Left, Left, Left! The Bittersweet Tweak of the SD Working Walk

I’ve been writing about Barnum and me practicing our service-dog walk, or as I call it, “working walk” (WW). (For example, here and here and here, among others.)

I have decided to try to focus on fixing our left turns. With Gadget and Jersey, they were most likely to maintain correct position in left turns, and going forward, and particularly right turns, needed the most work.

I’m not sure why the difference. I think in Jersey’s case, it was pretty straightforward: she did not grow up around chairs, and I had to introduce her to my four-wheeled mobility scooter very slowly. I only used it when I went out of the house. I didn’t need it indoors.

A scooter has a much longer base than a powerchair, so the dog has a natural barrier to line up with already. Then, with Gadget, he learned WW both with me walking and with me using the scooter, and then I switched to a powerchair, after he’d already learned the scooter. So, he had the advantage of that long base to learn on, too.

Barnum, however, has grown up around me using my pchair full-time, and he has had to learn how to stay out of its way to keep safe. Therefore, his natural tendency with a left-hand turn is that when I start turning into him (he’s on my left), he usually walks forward, out of my way, so that we are then facing each other, and then he “catches up” and gets back in line after I’ve turned.

If we are in a tight space, he will back up, instead.

So, he problem-solved this, himself, while he was growing up, and now I am trying to figure out how to tell him, “While what you’re doing was a good strategy for not getting your toes rolled over, if you want to get clicks and treats, you have to trust me that I am paying attention to your toes, and keep following next to me.”

I decided the reason I haven’t been getting this message across is that it’s very hard to do a high rate of reinforcement while also steering, moving, keeping track of his head and his feet, treating, and clicking!

Really, I need to be able to shape this by clicking every time a front or rear paw moves  with my chair when I am starting to turn, in the middle of the turn, and at the end of the turn. It’s impossible to click that often and turn, at the same time!

I’ve tried using my verbal marker (“Yes!”), but that’s not precise or fast enough, and it’s pretty exhausting, too.

I tried going super slow, but even super slow is too fast to be coordinated enough.

Tonight, I asked Betsy to click Barnum’s position, while I steered us verrrrrry slooooooowly around the living room, dispensing cheese, like a big, cheese-dispensing part-human, part-vehicle. My hands were very sticky, and I was dropping cheese on my footrest, my lap, the floor, and even into the dog’s mouth!

He started just trying to lick and chew all the cheese out of my hand as we moved, so I had to pull it back a bit.

Nonetheless, after fifteen minutes of this — which is quite long for such an intensive session — Betsy and I decided to see if I stayed put, if he would get himself back into position. A little free-shaping, in other words.

I sat there, and Barnum looked at me, waiting for me to move. I acted boring.

He sat. No click. He downed. No click. He stood up. At that point, I would have clicked, but Betsy was doing the clicking. I said I would have clicked that, and next time, she did.

Which was soon, because he did another sit, down, stand. Click!

I waited to see if he’d line up again. Eventually he did start to do that, but, Betsy pointed out, “He seems to think he should stare at you and sit, down, and stand when you stop.”

I agree. Here again, I have unwittingly taught an undesirable behavior chain! Barnum is such a master at learning the unintentional cue and the unintentional chain!

I take back what I ever said about him not being that smart. He’s smart, but in a different way than Gadget. Gadget and I had mind-meld. Barnum is a body-reader.  (Jersey, alas, was not all that smart, but she was very eager!)

Anyway, we made some progress, and now I’ll keep tweaking it. And, oh yeah, I’ll untrain that behavior chain. Argh.

The friend who made me the service-dog leash I wrote about yesterday has offered to make me new gear. I hadn’t thought of that, because that leash is actually in excellent shape. Part of the reason for that is that I have only now started using it with Barnum. It was kept safe from him during puppyhood and teenagerhood.

Here’s what happened to the leashes I used while Barnum was growing up. . . .

This is an organic hemp leash, dyed with nontoxic dyes, that I bought especially for widdle baby Barnum, to match his widdle organic hemp collar.  (Next time I’ll know better.)

Red hemp leash torn in two

Notice the teeth marks all along the leash (even where it's not completely severed).

[Image description: A dirt-stained, six-foot, brick-red soft leash, one inch wide, of a thin cotton-appearing material (which is actually hemp), with a heavy brass clasp at one end, arranged on a waffle-pattern beige blanket. One foot from the clasp, the leash is torn apart, frayed, with a couple of longer strands trailing from the torn part. There are small holes and rips in the rest of the leash as well, giving the impression other parts of the leash may not last long, either.]

Below is the service-dog leash I bought for Gadget, near the beginning of my partnership with him. I also had another, forest green, that I originally bought for Jersey, that I also used sometimes with Gadget, and then with Barnum. Both the green and the pink leashes survived all those years of use, and now they each look like this:

Broken clasp on pink service-dog leash

This is one of two service-dog leashes that used to have clasps at both ends, and now have functioning clasps at only one end.

[Image description: Two ends of a hot-pink nylon webbing leash each with a silver snap at the end, lying on a white background. The clasp on the right looks fine, the clasp on the left is broken, with only the stem and a half-crescent of the outside of what was formerly the clasp still attached.]

By the way, all three of these leashes met their doom in the same manner: Barnum was out for a walk. He lunged after something exciting (in all cases, I think, it was another dog he just had to play with, right that very instant!), and the leash went “Ping!” (in the cases where the clasps snapped in half) or “Pffft!” (in the case where the leash ripped in two), and away Barnum ran, to play.

So, yes, I could use some new leashes, especially for attaching to my outdoor powerchair. I got all excited at the possibilities, then confused by a mixture of feelings.

I feel quite bitter-sweet about Barnum starting to fill Gadget’s footsteps in a literal way. There he is, by my side, as we practice what it will be like when we are in crowded, close corners in grocery stores or doctor’s offices.

Sometimes, now, he’s even wearing Gadget’s old harness or pack or leash. It’s very exciting, and it also causes what was initially an unnameable twinge. When I paid attention to the twinge, it blossomed into recognizable heartache.

Maybe it’s good that it’s taking us so dang long to become a SD team. It gives me time to adjust to Barnum doing the job differently than Gadget.

I think I might want a different colored leash for Barnum, just to help me emotionally transition from Gadget. Whatever their color, they need to be very, very strong.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (and you thought I was strong!), and Barnum, SDiT and Reformed Leash Destroyer

A Year Ago: Re-Post, in Memorium

Gadget died shortly after noon on November 19, 2009. I am working on a post about his last night, which was actually quite beautiful, strange, and special. It was sad, but not depressing. Aspects of it were actually joyous, funny, and a little bizarre! I hope to post it by the 18th.

Today’s post is a reprint of the first After Gadget post, because it captures so much of what I was going through when I was mourning him afresh.

On the anniversary of his death, Betsy and I will plant daffodils on Gadget’s grave. The bulbs were given to us by a neighbor as a bereavement gift last year.

We will also partake in other rituals, including reading the notes and cards we received last year.

To add to those words, I request that those who knew Gadget, or were touched by him in some way in his life, via internet or youtube or in real life, please post your thoughts and memories about him in the comments section here during the coming week. Or how any particular blog postings about Gadget have affected you.

This community means a lot to me. Your words would mean a lot on our day of remembrance.

Thank you so much.

Peace,

Sharon and the muse of Gadget

BEGINNING AFTER THE END

(First published December 26, 2009)

Here are some numbers:

On November 19, 2009, Gadget, my Bouvier des Flandres service dog, died of cancer. That was five weeks and three days ago. He was nine-and-a-half. We waged war against the cancer for six months. Depending on who you quote, from one-in-four to one-in-eight dogs in the US will die of cancer this year. So, we are in good (or rather, bad) company.

But this blog is not about numbers. It’s about surviving a devastating loss that most people are very sympathetic to, yet few really understand – the loss of a service dog.

It’s about a dog who liked to chase squirrels, slam doors, and let himself out when he wasn’t supposed to. He loved stinky things like cheese and liver — and long-dead carrion! — and me. We shared a fierce, deep, quiet love.

It’s about celebrating him, mourning him, finding ways to live without his love and without his practical assistance. It’s about the emotional and physical journey of grieving a star of a service dog while beginning the raising of a new pup. It’s a place for others who have, or will, experience a similar loss to find comfort and joy.

We fell asleep together

We fell asleep together.

Why start this blog now?

Why not the day after Gadget died? From a practical standpoint, that probably would have made more sense, but nothing about death is practical or neat. Until now, I’ve been too much in shock to do much of anything. I still am in shock most of the time. In fact, right now, writing this blog is the only thing that does make sense.

Why This Blog?

First of all, it’s a way for me to grieve and make sense of this loss. I’m a writer, and so far I haven’t found a way to “cope” that feels like it works. Writing about Gadget, sharing his life and story with the world, seems like the natural path. I’ll share my feelings and my memories of Gadget as a joyful, loving spirit; as a working partner; as a teammate in training and creative problem solving; as a playmate and clown; as my means of survival. In words, in photos, in video. Fortunately for you, he was beautiful.

Gadget with long hair in the winter, lying in the sun

Gadget last winter.

I also hope that for you, if you’ve gone through a similar loss, this will help you grieve, too. Grief in all its forms is welcome here: numbness, anger, denial, sadness, loss, relief, questioning, or whatever you feel.

There are very few resources that I’ve found for grieving the death of an assistance dog.

There are groups who understand the loss of a beloved pet dog. I belong to one such listserv, and it has been a lifeline. The people on it are loyal and open and funny and kind. I love them.

Still, some parts of my loss are unlike theirs. Tonight, for example, I had a lot of trouble getting out of my bedroom because I couldn’t open my door. And I couldn’t call for help because I’m often nonverbal. If Gadget was still alive, not only would he have opened the door, he would have been happy to open it. It would have been fun for him, a game. He would have wondered, “Will I get some liver for this?”

When people help me, even when they are doing it because they love me or they’re being paid to help me, or both, they are never thrilled to do it. Sometimes they are resentful, frustrated, irritated. Sometimes they’re not bothered at all, but I worry that they are, anyway.

When I cry over the loss of Gadget, it’s not just his soft fur, his wet nose, his deep brown eyes, his beating heart against mine, it’s also how much physically harder and more limited my life has become. How much more dependent and scary. His death has created so many layers of aloneness in my life. Some of these layers of aloneness are common for pet bereavement, but some are unique to assistance animal loss.

Sometimes it is even hard to get support from others who have lost service dogs. There are groups for assistance-dog partners who are grieving, but they may be small or inactive. My guess is that unless one is in the midst of grieving, it is too painful to be exposed to the topic. That emotional wound could reopen at any time, because — if we’re fortunate — we will outlive our assistance dogs, again and again. The choice to be a life-long service-dog partner is as Kafkaesque as it is fulfilling. Few who have escaped the black hole of that loss want to be reminded of staring into the abyss again.

This will be a refuge to cry, to remember, to distract yourself, to laugh, and to find little ways — or big ways — to move on. All forms of sincere emotion are welcome here. There is no wrong or right way to grieve. There is just emotion that moves through you, that rises and falls like waves, and the process of surviving loss.

The loss of an AD is not just that of the heart, but of love, companionship, independence, safety, and partnership.

The Coming Attraction

I will be getting a puppy in several weeks whom I will train to be my next service dog. The puppy is due to be born in a week, January 1, 2010.

Looking back necessitates looking forward, and vice-versa. Even as I mourn Gadget, I prepare for his successor. Training the new dog in a Gadgetless home will be part of my mourning process.

Here, you can join me on my journey as a severely and multiply disabled first-time puppy raiser!

It seems a ludicrous, risky undertaking. Even healthy people find puppies exhausting! Yet, I’d always planned for a puppy this time around, instead of adopting an adult or adolescent, as I’ve done in the past. I thought Gadget would be here to help train the pup, as his predecessor helped train him. Now it is just us humans to raise the pup, and me much more disabled than when I trained my previous SDs. Still, I am full of hope.

I am excited and nervous. I already anticipate the joy and frustration, the weariness and triumphs, and how it will take everything Gadget taught me to be very, very, very patient to get through two years of raising and training to get a working service dog again. A dog whom I am sure I will love and come to rely on, but who will never be Gadget.

There can only ever be one Gadget. He wasn’t my first service dog, but he was and for forever will be my best. (I think!)

I wish you’d gotten to know him as I did. But here at After Gadget, you will know him a little. Thank you for joining us in this journey.

Peace,

Sharon and the spirit of Gadget, forever my Muse

P.S. I welcome your thoughts and feelings on my journey or on your own journey — whether you are facing a current loss or have lived through it in the past. Leave comments below.

Gadget stands at water's edge in silhouette with natural blue background.

His last great adventure.

QuickPress: Barnum’s First Service Skill! (Well, sorta.)

This was not at all planned. Today I am having another “stuck day” like I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Today was not as bad, in that I have more range of motion (ROM) in my arms, but still cannot pull myself up into a sitting position to transfer or to prop myself up to use the computer. Problems with legs and torso (especially abdominal muscles).

Unfortunately, the PCA working today has injured her back and is currently unable to help with transfers. What to do?

Before she arrived, Barnum was hanging out with his front half on my bed, looking out the window, enjoying the fact I was awake. I tried to lure him toward me, but we were not communicating. Note to self: Teach Barnum how to come closer to me on the bed, put behavior on verbal and nonverbal cue.

Anyway, when the PCA got here, by writing notes, I was eventually able to ask her to give me one of Barnum’s tug toys, which we seldom use (to keep it special). It’s not one of his favorites (which is surprising, because usually there are few toys Barnum doesn’t love), but having kept it from him most of the time still makes it interesting enough for the occasional tug game. It never occurred to me I could use it as an assistive device, but I needed someone to help pull me forward, and Barnum loves to tug and is very strong!

So Gloria handed me the toy. It’s a yellow slightly-stuffed “tuff” toy, about two feet long, called “Ultimate Tug-o-War” made by mydogtoy.com. I got it as part of my quest for toys that Barnum could not destroy in five minutes of aggressive chewing. (I’ve been working on a post about Barnum the Destroyer for quite a while, with ratings and pictures of which toys I suggest for other large, aggressive chewers, and which toys I don’t recommend, and why.) This one’s rated nine-out-of-ten on the toughness scale of “soft toys,” with many, many layers of fabric and stitching to make it hard to shred. It has a ring on each end and a bar in the middle. Below are some pics of Barnum with the toy.

Barnum chews on the center bar of his yellow-and-black tug toy, decorated with black and white bones. He is sitting on a tan dog bed, with his head down.

Mm, chewy.

Barnum lies on tan dog bed, looking into the camera. The yellow tug toy is laying between his front legs. His right paw sits over the ring on one end of the toy, while the other end lies across his upper left leg. He has a "caught in the act" startled expression on his face.

What? You said I could have it.

Anyway, Gloria gave it to me. I showed it to Gadget, who got very interested. I held it out. He gripped on. I pulled. He pulled. He thought we were playing tug first thing in the day. How lovely! His favorite game! I used his counter weight of pulling to pull my upper body into sitting position.  Yay!

I wanted to hug him and praise him and give him treats, but I wasn’t able to. I put down the toy, too, and didn’t continue to play, which I realize was a mistake, in hindsight. However, at the time, I was in pain, and I really had to pee. I just wanted to get into my powerchair and get to the bathroom.

So, that was very exciting. Obviously, this is not a finished service skill in any way, shape, or form, but it gives me some ideas of what may work as a service skill in the future. Later, I tried to interest him in the toy again when I had clicker and treats and was functioning a little better. But he didn’t want to take it.

I think there were a few factors causing this unusual desire not to grab a tug. One is that it’s not a favorite. If I had held out his spider, I’m sure he would have pounced. Another thing is that earlier he got no reinforcement for tugging with me. He tugged, and then afterward, we didn’t keep playing, he got not praise (because I couldn’t make a sound), no clicks, no treats, etc. Also, now I did have the clicker and treats, so he went into training mode, meaning he kept targeting (nose touching) the toy.

He was also not getting the usual cues for tug. We don’t normally play in my bed. I’m not normally lying down. I wasn’t making any of the noises he associates with play. For example, I couldn’t say my usual cue for tug: “Git it!” Another note to self: Teach tug in bed and nonverbal cue for “Git it!”

Finally, our default for me holding anything out to him is for him to gently touch it with his nose. So, that’s what he did. I tried to shape it into a grab, but I wasn’t up to it, physically.

Nonetheless, there we have it. Barnum has helped me in a useful way for the first time! I still don’t know if we will make it as a service dog team, but I hope so! It felt really, really good to have faced that problem, figured out a way he could help, and then put it into action.

Planned upcoming posts (not necessarily in this order, and not necessarily on time!): Barnum videos of food versus games; memorial to Gadget on the anniversary of his death; and intersection of Lyme and my other diseases — which cause what?

Your comments are always warmly received.

Peace,

Sharon, Barnum (SDiT), the muse of Gadget, and the spirit of Jersey (who never played tug a day in her life)

My Sweet Jersey Girl

This post is for Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #1. The theme for this issue of the carnival is “The First.”

* * *

If you sometimes follow After Gadget, you might think that Gadget was my first service dog (SD), and that Barnum is my first successor. In fact, Gadget was once a successor, and Barnum is my third SDiT. What a disservice to the original predecessor, the one who started it all — my first SD, my sweet Jersey girl.

Before Barnum, before Gadget, there was Jersey. She was the first dog I acquired as an adult. She was my first bouvier des Flandres. She was the first dog I trained to be my assistant. This blog is dedicated to her legacy, especially what she taught me — and is still teaching me, even now, by reminding me of our training process — about patience. That goals have to be reached slowly, with the dog’s needs and timelines as the roadmap, not some arbitrary idea of what I “should” be accomplishing because someone else’s dog figured it much faster.

This blog is nothing if not a reminder to me about how, by starting with low expectations and repeatedly setting us both up to succeed, I was able to give Jersey what she needed to be my teammate. She taught me that.

Jersey in profile

My Sweet Jersey Girl

From 1999 through 2000, I wrote a series of articles about Jersey for Rescue Roundup, the newsletter of the American Bouvier Rescue League (ABRL). I decided that the words I wrote about Jersey when she was still with me, and when so much was fresh and new about SD training, would carry a much greater impact than what I’d write now, dimmed by hindsight.

There’s too much to cover in one post — it was a four-part series! — so this post will just cover the beginning of our relationship. Many seminal firsts — the first time I went grocery shopping without human assistance, the first time I realized Jersey was important to my safety, the first time she learned to fetch (which also led to her first retrieving service skills and her first realization that toys could be fun), and the first time we tried clicker training (which took place a year after the first article was written) — occurred later on and were described in later issues of Rescue Roundup. This post focuses on the firsts of Jersey’s arrival and beginning training, and an event that most dog owners probably take for granted, but that I had fantasized about for years: going for a walk.

Here are excerpts of the piece I wrote for Rescue Roundup, Winter 1999:

. . . During these years of extreme isolation and illness, I formed a plan: I would move from the city to the country, buy a mobility scooter so that I would be able to get around more and to walk a dog, and then get the dog.

Eventually I found a little house in a rural town, moved, and acquired a scooter. I fantasized about walking my dog the three-quarters of a mile to my mailbox in my scooter, enjoying the scenery and the companionship. . . .

I began researching hypoallergenic breeds. I started also to learn about assistance dogs. . . . The more I thought about it, the more I felt that a service dog could help me to lead a fuller, safer, more independent life.

Bouviers seemed an ideal choice: they had been bred as working dogs, were strong and rugged, and tended to bond well with their human pack members.

I researched service dog programs and discovered that most were totally inaccessible to me. . . . One program that [otherwise] seemed a good match was very expensive ($20,000) and was reluctant to even consider a bouvier, telling me they were “snippy attack dogs,” but I applied anyway resigned to getting a different breed. The program rejected my application.

I had also been making connections in the bouvier world — applying to Bouvier Rescue, meeting bouvier owners, and searching the Internet for other people with disabilities who had bouviers as service dogs. I decided that I could train my own service bouv.

While almost everyone seemed to agree that a bouvier could make a fine service dog, very few of the people I spoke to seemed to think that I could train one. Bouvier trainers and breeders told me that bouviers were stubborn, strong, and hard to manage, and I would need professional assistance. Many questioned whether I ought to be considering getting a bouvier at all, even as a pet. Service dog handlers told me that training a service dog is difficult and requires expertise — I should apply to a program. I called trainers to see if they would help me private train; they said that they didn’t do service-dog training.

Sometimes it was hard to tell what these “dog people” were really thinking when they gave me confusing, conflicting, and often discouraging advice. I believe some simply saw a disabled young woman and dismissed me. I was not their image of a person who could train a strong-willed breed to perform complex tasks. And, I admit, I wondered frequently if they were right. . . . There were days when it was more than I could manage just to feed myself, many more when showering or dressing was beyond me. The prospect of being responsible for exercising, pottying, feeding, and grooming a dog was terrifying enough. Where would the energy and expertise to train come from?

I spoke frequently with Bouvier Rescue. I was encouraged to focus on finding the right bouvier as a companion to me. Later on, if it worked out, I could think about getting another bouv to train as a service dog. With a mixture of excitement and resignation, I gave up on my service dog dream and prepared to welcome my new companion.

In March of 1999, she arrived: Jersey, a five-and-a-half-year-old bouv girl who was being rehomed by her breeders. She was beautiful, 65 pounds, with cropped ears and a docked tail, and a black coat. Jersey had been shown in conformation and lived primarily in the kennel.

She was very mellow and sweet, a good “starter bouv” for a person like me who spent almost all her time at home and wanted an easygoing, good-natured companion to lie around by her side.

The first few days with Jersey were wonderful and horrible. She was sweet, friendly, adorable, and easy to handle, but she was also big, clumsy, and scared of everything. It hadn’t occurred to me that every chair, table, and oxygen tank would be targets for her to bump into and knock over, causing her to skitter, panic-stricken from the room. Any sudden movement or raised voice made her cringe or flee.

Meanwhile, I made a decision: I was going to start training Jersey right away in obedience. It would be a good way for us to bond and gain some much-needed confidence, aside from being useful, since the only command that she appeared to know when she arrived was “kennel.” If it went well, we would continue and try some service skills. If we failed, then we would not be any worse off.

I joined an email list for people with disabilities who had trained (or were training) their own assistance dogs (ADs). More than anything else, I feel that the support, encouragement, guidance, advice, and experience of other people training ADs has made it possible for Jersey and me to be where we are today. There was so much against us — Jersey’s age, my inexperience, my inability to hire a private trainer, Jersey’s low drive and skittish temperament — and yet these other disabled folks kept giving me reasons why we could succeed. And, they provided inspiration (examples of people who had done it themselves), which is more reassuring than any words.

The first command we approached was “attention.” I would make a clicking sound with my tongue, and when Jersey looked at me I would praise her and give her a treat. I also praised and rewarded her any time she looked at me on her own. Jersey is very motivated by food. It took only a few days before Jersey spent almost all her time staring at me.* I felt like a human gum-ball machine, dispensing kibble and praise all day long. It was exhausting! Sometimes I went in my room or put her in her crate, just so I could take a break without discouraging the behavior.

Jersey inside a futon

Jersey gives The Stare even from inside a folded futon.

*Something dawned on me in the writing of this post: Jersey was a silent dog. She never barked or growled, except in her sleep. Her main mode of communication was The Stare. If she wanted something — attention, to go outside, food (especially food!) — she would sit and stare at me. If something or someone got in the way of her “stare beam,” she would move around them so that she could level her gaze at me, unblocked. It was only when I was reading these old articles and remembering that the first thing I taught her was “attention” and how good she got at it, that it occurred to me that maybe she hadn’t always been a silent dog, but that The Stare was a result of our training. She learned early on how to train me to give her treats by staring at me, and if it worked then, why not continue it the rest of her life? After all, it was 100 percent reliable: Every night she stared at me to remind me to feed her dinner, and every night — no matter how long it took for me to get the hint — I fed her!

Positive-reinforcement training can have a wondrous impact on a dog, especially a “soft” dog or rescued dog. Jersey is a perfect example of a dog that would have been very slow and difficult to train with compulsion (command-correction-praise) training, not to mention the effect it would have had on her psychologically. In the beginning, even the gentlest chain correction or stern tone made her jump out of her skin. It was simply counterproductive to use them. Additionally, as astounding as this may seem, Jersey did not seem to understand praise. I had never been around a dog before that did not understand that a high-pitched, happy voice meant praise. Yet, for our first couple of months together, I could praise Jersey until I was blue in the face and get no  response — no wagging tail, no interested expression, nothing. It was only after weeks of her associating praise with receiving a treat that she began to understand the meaning of praise and respond with pleasure when I praised.

Further, using positive-reinforcement training made a remarkable change in her personality. She gained confidence. She began to take an interest in her surroundings. She learned that she could follow a command and be rewarded. I afforded her little opportunity for failure, so we both felt proud of ourselves and had fun. It was fascinating, and often comical, to come to understand her learning process, especially in the beginning, when she was still learning how to learn. After she was reliably looking at me on command, in any situation and with distractions, we started on “sit.” We’d been working on “sit” for a few days when I noticed that she would frequently run up to me — while I was going to the bathroom, making dinner, watching TV, or otherwise not training her — and proudly and excitedly sit down in front of me, awaiting her reward.

Our biggest priority, aside from getting to know each other and beginning the rudiments of training, was to get her to walk next to me in the scooter. Since Jersey arrived in March, when there was still snow on the ground, my roommate, Laurel (who would move out in the summer), had agreed to take Jersey for her walks until the snow melted and I could use the scooter. However, knowing how freaky Jersey got around things that moved or made noise, I was sure that the scooter, which moved and made noise, would take some hard work to get used to. Thus, we began to work on Jersey attaining three crucial goals: building a positive association with the scooter, learning “heel,” and leaning “back up.”

Teaching “heel” was relatively easy as Jersey was very nice on the leash, especially with me. According to Laurel, Jersey felt fine about yanking her around! At any rate, I was able to get Jersey heeling in the traditional way, with me walking, with daily short sessions.

At other times of the day, I took Jersey down to the basement and talked happily and excitedly to the scooter. I dropped treats on it. I sat in the scooter and praised Jersey and fed her treats. Once Jersey knew some commands (“attention” and “sit”), we would train there, with me sitting in the scooter to give Jersey the idea that she could feel confident and get rewards while I was in the scooter, plus that the scooter was a place where commands were given and obeyed. Finally, I felt confident enough to start the scooter’s control device — not moving the scooter, but just getting Jersey used to the sound of the machine. It all went off without a hitch.

Meanwhile, I had also been teaching “back up.” The reason this was important is that my scooter is very large and has a wide turning radius. There are times I need to back up, and I wanted jersey to know how to do that with me. Teaching back up was easy. I would stand with her in the narrow aisle between her crate and the wall and slowly move toward her, saying “back up” and moving my hands in a “shoo-shoo” way. As soon as she took a step backward, I praised and gave a treat. Over time she learned to back up farther and in other places.

Sharon, Jersey, and Gadget

My big-ass, four-wheel scooter, Jersey sitting next to me. (At the time of this photo, Gadget had entered the picture, too.)

By the time I was ready to move the scooter, Jersey was already learning heel and back up. I started first just by rocking back and forth in the scooter, with the engine off, praising and giving treats. I would jiggle the basket noisily so she could get used to the noises it made without the added element of movement. She was cool as a cucumber. Then, I had Laurel hold Jersey a distance away while I used the scooter so Jersey could see me using it, but not feel threatened. I was so excited and please the first time we did this and Jersey tried to run after me! A lump formed in my throat.

From there it was a matter of slowly and carefully building up Jersey’s positive association with the scooter and using the commands “heel” and “backup” in relation to the scooter. Everything went great, and I became overconfident. On the first warm day when the snow had melted enough to leave some bare patches of grass, I tried to take Jersey out with the scooter. The bumping and jangling of the scooter and its basket over the rough ground, so different from the gentle whirring as it glided over the smooth concrete in the basement, totally freaked her out. She would not heel! She wouldn’t even come near me! She pulled at the leash and panicked at the scooter’s movement and noise.

I felt devastated. I wondered if I had ruined my chances of ever taking Jersey for a walk. But, with some thought, and encouragement from my online friends, I realized that if I took a few steps back and built up very, very slowly, we might regain the lost ground and even move forward.

I had to go back to sitting on the inert scooter, giving out extra treats, conducting extra training. Additionally, I realized I had neglected to introduce Jersey to the makeshift ramp which I used to exit the basement, a sheet of plywood that banged when I went over it. We spent many sessions of her getting praise and treats for stepping on the ramp. I also gave her more opportunities to see me use the scooter away from her.

When we were ready to test out her scooter-worthiness again, I had learned my lesson. I had Laurel walk Jersey several paces behind me as I went across the lawn and rocky dirt driveway. When we got to the smooth pavement of my landlord’s driveway, Laurel went home and Jersey and I worked there for half an hour until Laurel came back to take Jersey home. I did this a few times, and each time as Laurel walked her ahead or behind me, Jersey would strain at the leash, trying to get to me. This was very encouraging. Following Jersey’s lead, I would let her walk with me part of the way, giving her lots of loose leash so she could keep her distance, but still be by my side.

I remember the first day I took Jersey for a real walk. I asked Laurel to come along because I wasn’t sure how it would go. Would Jersey suddenly freak out and not want to walk with me? Would the scooter make it all the way to the mailbox and back, or would it die halfway up my landlord’s devastatingly steep driveway?

None of the above! Jersey, Laurel, and I had a perfectly nice walk. (We even saw an otter!) True, Jersey was a bit skittish when I went over big bumps or when pebbles spat out of my back wheels. She kept a safe distance from the scooter and needed encouragement to keep a good pace. But I was elated! We did it! we walked all the way there and back. I held the leash. The scooter made it up the driveway with no problem. Jersey seemed happy, if a little cautious, but definitely glad to be out moving with me for the first time. And, I thought, this is it. This is the beginning. Now I can walk my dog!

I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me. And enjoy the other pieces in the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival!

As always, we welcome your comments!

-Sharon, Barnum, and the muses of Jersey AND Gadget

Announcing the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival!

**UPDATE**

The Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is now taking place! Read Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #1! Enjoy!

* * *

Woohoo! Thank you to everyone who commented on my idea to hold an AD Carnival! In response to your enthusiastic support, I’m announcing the first carnival topic and deadline, plus answering your questions about what a carnival is, how it works, and how you can participate!

What Is a Blog Carnival?

Wikipedia has a good general definition:

A blog carnival . . . is similar to a magazine, in that it is dedicated to a particular topic, and is published on a regular schedule. . . . Each edition of a blog carnival is in the form of a blog article that contains permalinks to other blog articles on the particular topic.

Carnival posts are generally collated by the author by soliciting relevant contributions. . . [S/he then] collects links to these submissions, edits and annotates them and publishes the resulting round-up. . . . Many carnivals have a . . . principal organizer, who lines up guest bloggers to host each edition. . . . The carnival travels, appearing on a different blog each time.

How Will the Assistance Dog Carnival Work?

Currently, the plan is to hold it quarterly, guest hosted by a different AD-related blog each time. (More details on this below.) I guess After Gadget will be the official home/principal organizer, until or unless someone else wants to take the job off my hands!

Who Can Submit Posts?

Anyone can submit a post. You need only have a blog, and your post must relate to the topic of guide, hearing, or service dogs (and fit that issue’s theme — see below about themes), even if your blog is not typically about assistance dogs.

Posts can be about puppy raising, SDiTs, programs/schools, retired SDs, perspectives on ADs from people with disabilities not partnered with ADs, or anything else relating to the topic of assistance dogs. You do not need to be an AD partner or trainer to submit. Posts from personal blogs as well as from AD organization blogs are welcome.

What Will the Assistance Dog Carnival Be About?

Topics will vary with each edition. The host for each edition will announce their theme at least a couple of weeks ahead of time (maybe more, if possible, to give us people with deadline issues a chance to get something in?), along with the deadline for submissions and expected publication date.

Examples of themes from the Disability Blog Carnival include identity, distance, and disability and work. In the Patients for a Moment (PFAM) blog carnival, there was “love or other four-letter-words” and “your most laugh-out-loud-illness-moment,” among others.

I tend to like themes that are broad and can be interpreted many different ways, because that gives bloggers creative freedom and makes for a diverse group of posts to read. On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice to know what you’ll be reading, thematically.

Who Is Hosting This Year’s Carnival?

The first host will be me, right here — theme and deadline announcement below! — and our delightful hosts for the next three carnivals are as follows:

Yay! Thank you for stepping up!

Future hosts and dates to be determined.

When Will the First Assistance Dog Blog Carnival Be Announced?

Right this very instant coffee.

The theme for the first carnival will be . . . “The First”!

The first . . . what? That’s up to the bloggers.

The first time you met your new guide, the first service dog you had, the first time your AD alerted to your medical condition, your first experience as a puppy raiser, how you dealt with your first access denial, the first thought that pops into your head when you see an AD team, the fear you had to get over first before you decided to partner with a canine assistant . . . the possibilities are endless!

The deadline for submission is Tuesday, October 19, by midnight of whatever time zone you’re in. The carnival will be published a few days later. (How fast I can put it together depends on  how many submissions I get and how functional and/or busy I am that week.)

Bloggers can submit posts any time between now and the 18th by commenting here, below, with the name of the blog, the name of the post, and the URL for that post. You can either write something new especially for the carnival (which is nice, but not required) or post a link to a blog you’ve already written that fulfills the theme. Just be sure the link is live and the post is already up when you submit it, so I can go read your submission when I’m putting together the carnival.

Making your blog as accessible as possible to people with as many different disabilities as possible is encouraged, although it is not required. Here is one resource for learning about some basic things you can do to make your blog more accessible.

I’ve tried to answer all possible questions, so that probably means I’ve forgotten something. Feel free to ask in the comments section.

I’m really excited that this is happening! Thanks to everyone who has commented, volunteered, and is otherwise contributing! And please, spread the word! Write about the carnival on your blog, post links, tweet, etc. Thank you!

Kisses from Barnum.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

 

Without Gadget, Who Am I? A SD-less Service Dog Partner’s Identity

Every month, there is a disability blog carnival. Every month I start a blog for it and don’t finish it by deadline. This month’s carnival topic, “Identity,” is particularly close to my heart, so I’m forcing myself to squeeze out this post on time.

My identity, for years, has been inextricably bound to being a service dog partner. In fact, my avatar is ServiceDogPartner for most sites that require them.

How does this identity play out in everyday life?

A telling, one-word answer is “We.” Any activity, especially if it involved leaving home, required, or was enriched by, the participation of my service dog; therefore, we were a we/us, not an I/me:

  • “We’re going to the doctor tomorrow.”
  • “We went for a walk.”
  • “We picked apples in the back yard.”
  • “The manager gave us a hard time about entering the shop.”

In fact, the first big “Aha moment” I had about what a difference a service dog could make in my life was when Jersey, my first SD, and I went to the grocery store without human help, for the first time in years.

Jersey in profile

Of course, I had trained Jersey, devoting all my energy to the endeavor for many months, in the hope that she would make me more independent, less restricted, but I don’t think I actually believed my own pep talks to myself until that day at the grocery store. What a revelation.

Jersey went everywhere with me. She reduced my isolation. She helped me participate in activities around my home that I otherwise couldn’t have done. For example, I was able to garden because she carted the tools and plants out to the yard and offered bracing and walking assistance when I became too exhausted. At the store, she carried my money, pills, water, and grocery list in her pack, as well as small groceries. When we got home from the store, she carried the bags from the van to the house, and from the door to the fridge. In little ways, every day, she helped me save energy that I could use on writing or talking to friends or just resting.

That was at a time when I was less disabled than I am now, and with a service dog who knew half the skills Gadget did. Jersey changed my life, but Gadget revolutionized it.

Sharon, Jersey, and Gadget

How can I even put into words what Gadget meant to me, how inextricably he was entwined in my life, how he was a part of my body, mind, and soul? It’s a struggle I have every day now, as the anniversary of his death descends on me, and my grief at his loss feels overwhelming. I grope for language that can convey who he was/we were. My unexpressed grief is like a magnet attracting hard, metallic shards of sorrow, anger, confusion, and fear; it grows larger and heavier, digging into my heart and weakening me.

Where do I begin?

This is the crux of the issue in so many ways: Where did I begin and Gadget leave off, or Gadget begin and I end? How do I continue without him, without this part of myself? Without him, who am I?

Maybe accepting my inadequacy to truly convey what Gadget was for me is the essential first step in beginning to define it, or at least hint at it:

  • Gadget was always with me, even in my dreams. This was true with Jersey, too, after we’d become a working team. Just as, after I became disabled, in my dreams I also had MCS and CFIDS, there came a point where Jersey was by my side in my dreams. When Jersey retired and Gadget took over, he entered my dream world even more quickly than Jersey had. Even in my subconscious, he was an extension of me. As I’ve written in previous posts, after he died, he haunted my sleep.
  • Gadget was my hands. He turned lights on and off. He opened and shut doors. He picked up things I dropped.

This video shows some of the skills above and belowRead the video transcript here.

  • Gadget was my legs. He brought me water. He brought me the phone. He helped me transfer.
  • Gadget was my voice. He carried messages to Betsy from me. He understood and followed signed requests. He let my PCAs know I was awake and needed their assistance.
  • Gadget was my memory. He alerted me (sometimes woke me) if the oven timer was going off or if someone was at the door and I’d otherwise sleep through the appointment.
  • Gadget was my safety. He knew how to run to my landlord’s house with a message if I was stranded. He helped keep me warm when I was without heat during the week-long ice storm power outage. He stood by me, barking and growling, if a strange person entered my home unannounced.
  • Gadget was my strength. He helped me stand up and walk when I was too weak or dizzy. He helped pull my manual wheelchair if I couldn’t use my powerchair. He carried or carted things that were too heavy for me.

That tells you what he was to me, but not who he was.

  • He reveled in his strength and speed. He liked to slam the doors shut. He loved to run, to wade in the water, to go on long walks off-leash, always checking in to make sure I was following, or doubling back to me before sprinting off again.
  • He kept me company. He was warm and soft and loving. He would plant the top of his head against my chest so I could scratch behind his ears. He put his head on my leg in the car.
  • He was calm, grounded, wise, and still. He let things roll off his back. He was patient and relaxed. Not much got to him. He was a dude.
  • He loved to train and to learn. He loved an intellectual challenge. He liked to figure things out. He made mental leaps that left me breathless and my lesson plans obsolete in moments.
  • He was trusting and knew how to relax. When invited onto the bed, he’d drape himself over me, or push me out of the way with extended legs. He let himself be poked, prodded, manipulated, squeezed by me, my PCAs, and countless veterinarians.

We fell asleep together After our nightly tick-check, we were both so relaxed we fell asleep just like this.

  • He was funny and sassy. He was his own dog. He wasn’t above sneaking around to get his way. He’d let himself outside when he wasn’t supposed to, or leave my room to visit with his favorite of my PCAs when he was supposed to be in my room with the door shut. This is what happens if you give a smart dog the tools to obtain his own freedom and independence.
  • He was my best friend and my comfort. I loved the way he felt, the way he smelled. My hands knew every inch of him, every bump on his skin. My eyes knew every spot or stripe of his coat.
  • He was my traveling companion. He was home.

I needed these parts of him just as much as the others, because his separateness, his unique personality and doghood, was part of our relationship and thus our partnership.

After Gadget died, I’d turn to look for him to help me in the ways I’d been accustomed — to open doors, to carry messages to Betsy, to bring me the phone. I felt as if a piece of my body had been severed, as if I was reaching out my hand to open the door and discovering I had no arm. I felt such deep pain, loss, and confusion when I realized again and again that he was not there that it felt like emotional phantom limb pain: the parts of my body and mind that lived in Gadget had died, and now I was no longer whole, but the pain of what had been there lived on.

Now, without a service dog — a non-partner — who am I? Where have those pieces of myself, and the pain of the shadow parts, gone?

In some ways, the pain has dulled. I don’t feel there has been much actual healing, more of a sense of physical and emotional numbness, the exposed nerves on ice. I have mostly adapted to not having the assistance I did before, mostly forgotten what it was like for life to be easier. I think this is a typical part of living with disability — we become habituated to our limitations and therefore don’t realize just how much pain, exhaustion, isolation, or limitation we are dealing with, until something (a medication, a piece of medical equipment, a personal assistant) eases the difficulty. Then we think, “My god, why didn’t I get this help years ago?”

Having Barnum in my life muddies the picture. He is my dog. He provides companionship. But he is not (yet?) a service dog.

He takes away energy, uses my strength, taxes my limbs. I am giving, giving, giving and getting nothing back, physically. Emotionally, it’s a cocktail: I am exhausted, frustrated, and mentally and emotionally overworked most of the time, yet he also makes me laugh, makes me feel loved, provides companionship, gives my life goals and direction.

Nonetheless, training a successor without a current SD in place keeps me in limbo. He is not yet a service dog. He cannot even be called a service-dog-in-training, because he does not yet have the obedience or public access skills or the beginnings of the service skills necessary to earn that title. Still, almost all my time and energy feed the hope and belief that some day he will be my service dog.

I hate existing in states of betweenness, living on hope or the promise of future gains. It was one of the promises I made to myself when I first became disabled by chronic illness: I would not devote my life to cure, not spend all my mental, physical, emotional, or financial resources on experimental treatments that might someday have the potential to reduce my illness somewhat — or not. I do get treatment. I do seek improved health and function. But, for fifteen years, I have refused to sacrifice my life now — which is real and true — for an ephemeral maybe of the future. I’ve seen too many people put their lives on hold until they get better, only to come to the crushing realization five, ten, fifteen years down the line that they are still sick or disabled, no better off for their grasping after a cure, just older, and without the skills or assistance they could have used their energy on to have a richer life with disability.

Yet, here I am, doing much the same. In my heart, I am and always will be a service dog partner. Even though I have no canine assistant now, my life revolves around cultivating one, even knowing that there is always the chance we might fail. Barnum could develop a physical injury or illness or a temperament issue, or suffer a training catastrophe, that would render him unfit to work as a service dog. We could become a great SD team and then have him get sick, traumatized, or die before his time. Even if he does turn into an excellent SD, living out a long, healthy, happy working life, the fact remains that I am sacrificing a great deal now, every day, for that future.

I have arrived at the answer to my question: Who am I without a service dog?

I am a person who is willing to lay almost everything on the line, including one of my fundamental beliefs about the best way for me to live with disability, in order to become an active service dog partner again.


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