Posts Tagged 'multiple chemical sensitivity'

Product Review: Fragrance-Free Dog Shampoo Bars

As a service dog partner with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error in finding a shampoo that I tolerate that also works well for my dogs. This is especially important because whenever I went anywhere, my service dog would go with me, and when we came home, we’d both need to bathe to get fragrance residues off our hair and skin.

The Bad Old Days

The only “all-natural” dog shampoo I found that was supposed to be safe for people with MCS (I bought it from a mail-order business that caters to people with MCS) turned out to be made up of numerous essential oils and reeked to high heaven. Even friends without MCS said it was like a perfume bomb. I can’t imagine someone with MCS using it safely.

I turned to the only other option I could think of — a gentle, fragrance-free human shampoo. This worked okay with Jersey. But when Gadget came along, I discovered that over time the shampoo dried out his coat, stimulating his body to secrete more oils to protect his skin. This led to a dog who had a dry AND oily coat, which caused him to smell very “doggy.” Eventually, I tried mixing fragrance-free human conditioner and shampoo, and that seemed to do the trick: his coat became softer and the oily secretions went away.

Even though these products were better than the toxic and/or fragranced dog shampoos on the market, I wondered how healthy it was for them to eat so much of it (because I gave out a lot of treats to make baths fun, so a lot of snorking treats out of the bath water took place). And sometimes my dogs have not liked the feel or smell of the products.

A Potential New Solution!

Then, a couple of months ago, I learned of fragrance-free dog shampoo bars made by a person with MCS! Barbara’s online store, Baltimore Soaps and More, sells four kinds of dog shampoo bars.

A line of 14 blocks of soap in a variety of colors.

Baltimore soaps and shampoo bars

Barbara was kind enough to send me samples of three of these (she’s out of stock of the fourth, see below), and I tried them out on Barnum.

They were

The first time I used one was to clean Barnum’s beard. Bouvier beards are nasty things. In fact, the Dutch nickname for Bouviers des Flandres is “Vuilbaard” which means “vile beard” or “dirty beard.” I used to use unscented baby wipes to try to clean his beard, but they didn’t work very well, and Barnum was uncooperative because he hated the smell.

The First Test: The Beard

So, to test out the new shampoo bars, I first let Barnum decide which soap he liked best. I held each one up to his nose, one at a time. The goat’s milk one was of no interest — he didn’t move away, but he didn’t move toward it. The oats and honey he moved toward a bit. But the shea butter one he sniffed it, then he moved in to sniff it again, and licked his lips. The clear winner! (Later, when I retested the soaps, he tried to gently take a bite of the shea butter soap.)

Two thick bars of a yellow soap with swirls on the top. The color of lemon meringue pie.

Sadie’s Choice Shampoo Bars

I discovered what worked best was to lather a rag or wash cloth with a bit of the soap and then massage it into his beard, and then once the nastiness had been removed, to rinse the rag free of soap to rinse his beard with. Barnum seemed comfortable and held still for all this, which he usually does not do when I go tugging at and mutchering his beard. The fact that he liked the smell seemed to make a big difference to him. Afterward, his kisses smelled much sweeter (without all that rotten food in his beard)!

The Real Test: The Bath!

I’ve cleaned his beard with Sadie’s Choice a couple of times since then, but the real test was for the total bath, which we did a few weeks ago.

Betsy helps me bathe Barnum. I wasn’t sure how the shampoo bar would go over with her since we’ve always used liquid shampoo before.

We wetted Barnum down with the shower sprayer as usual, and then she started rubbing the bar all over him. After a minute of lathering, Betsy said, “I like this soap much better than the shampoo.”

“Really?” I said. “Why?”

“With this you can hit the spots you need to hit with it,” she gestured to his hindquarters and tail, which she was soaping up. “I always felt like we were using more than we needed with the shampoo. We had to use so much. This is not as wasteful.”

I will add my own observations about the shampoo:

It had a pleasant smell, by which I means practically no smell, but what there was smelled clean and pleasant and not fragrance-y or chemical-y. Even fragrance-free shampoo has more of a smell than this did, to me.

Barnum seemed to like the smell and feel of it better, so he was very happy and cooperative (although the hot dog slices were a major factor, too).

It rinsed off much faster and easier than any other soap/shampoo/conditioner I’ve used on a dog before. It rinsed very clean and easy. I had not expected that.

In the time since that bath, Barnum’s coat has stayed in good condition. It didn’t get oily or smelly like used to happen when I used people shampoo, and it also is not dried out. It is crisp and soft, without a doggy smell, the way a bouv coat should be.

We give Baltimore Soaps and More doggy shampoo bars four paws up!

Barnum inside his crate, lying in "dead bug position," asleep with his head thrown back, all his legs in the air, just letting it all hang out! He is lying on a tan puffy dog bed inside the crate, and there is a red Kong against his butt.

Four Paws UP!

The Interview: Barbara, the Soap Maker

To round off this review, I thought it would be fun to interview Barbara about her soap-making business, her dog shampoo bars, what it’s like to run a small business when you live with MCS, and her life with dogs. Here it is!

Sharon: What gave you the idea to start a soap business? And how do you actually make these soaps and shampoo bars?

Barbara: I have always been a fan of wonderful bath soaps and looked forward to the thrill of opening a new bar. After being chemically injured in 2005 and developing multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), I quickly realized that my soap options were very limited and it made me a little depressed. I decided to start making my own soaps so that I wouldn’t be stuck with the same boring bars all of the time and figured that there must be other people out there who felt the same way I did!

Sharon: Why do you make soaps and shampoos without fragrances, essential oils, or chemicals?

Barbara: Fragrance oils are bad news for all involved since they are known endocrine disruptors, and the manufacturers aren’t required to disclose ingredients. Tell everyone you know to avoid them! Although some people with MCS tolerate essential oils, if I used them in some of my soap batches, other batches would be cross contaminated due to residue left behind in the molds plus contamination from my hands and contamination during curing and storage. I’ve had soap-making supplies shipped to me where the entire package was fragrance contaminated and unusable so I recommend that people who have sensitivities only purchase soap from a seller who doesn’t use fragrances of any kind in their business or in their home.

Soap is a chemical reaction between fats/oils and lye (sodium hydroxide) that has been dissolved in water. Once the reaction takes place you are left with true soap (as opposed synthetic detergent bars like Dove or Irish Spring) and the lye is used up. Other than lye, no other chemicals are needed for soap making. I tell people that if you are purchasing soap and notice ingredients that aren’t something you would find in your kitchen then don’t buy it because it isn’t a truly natural product. On the same note, avoid buying soap from anyone who doesn’t fully disclose the ingredients on the label.

Sharon: Who is Sadie (of Sadie’s Choice) and why did you name a shampoo after her?

Barbara: I know we aren’t supposed to pick favorites amongst our furry friends but Sadie was THE BEST DOG EVER! Our family rescued her from a shelter four hours away from our home when she was already probably 12 years old, never spayed, infested with fleas, arthritic and had a lump growing on her leg that the shelter staff feared was cancer. I talk about Sadie on my website.

Sharon: Why do you choose the ingredients you do (honey, shea butter, goat’s milk) for dog shampoo?

Barbara: It seems like so many dogs are plagued with skin irritations and so my first goal was to make dog shampoo that didn’t contribute to the problem due to added fragrances. I have made four varieties of dog shampoo bars so far and three of them each have an ingredient known for being soothing for the skin – honey/oats, shea butter, and goat’s milk. I also make a coffee shampoo for dogs because coffee in soap is a natural deodorizer and our current dog had such a funk from her time as a stray that the other bars weren’t enough to remove the odor. The Doggie Deodorizer bar has been very popular which is why I’m currently out of stock! I’m also considering making a dog shampoo with tomato juice for… you guessed it…skunk encounters!

Sharon: I had never heard of dog shampoo bars before I came across your site. Why bars instead of liquids?

Barbara: The eco reasons for shampoo bars include that you aren’t paying for a product that is mostly water and you don’t have any plastic bottle waste. Also, I have found that shampoo bars do a better job of breaking through the oils on the dog’s coat in order to get that first lather going. Simply wet your dog and rub the bar across his/her coat and you will quickly develop a rich, shampoo like lather.

Sharon: What’s it like to run a business when you have MCS?

Barbara: Being a business owner with MCS means that, like with the rest of my life, I spend a lot of time making special requests of people such as not to handle my soap-making supply orders with fragrance on their hands and not to place my vendor spot near anyone selling scented products or running generators or cooking food on grills or gas-powered appliances. I also make all of my business decisions based on my own needs and that of my MCS customers which includes using brown kraft paper with black ink for labels and using mostly brown craft paper and shreds for packaging when shipping orders.

Sharon: Since you make dog shampoo, I’m assuming you have dogs! Can you tell me about them?

Barbara: Our family likes to rescue senior dogs and so we have a fairly high turnover rate. Our current companion is a Jack Russell who lost her way three years ago during a blizzard and had four failed adoptions plus a night in doggie jail before we made her part of our family. We are used to lab mixes and so having a Jack Russell has been quite a change for us. Lucy is a better mouser than our cats!

Sharon: Do your dogs have a favorite shampoo bar? Or do you find that certain bars work better on certain types of coats or breeds?

Barbara: Lucy sleeps on our bed and so I like to bathe her once a month. I find that having a removable shower head on a long hose is a must. She doesn’t seem to have a preference – all of my soaps leave her coat clean, soft and smelling sweet and neutral.

Sharon: I read a mention of rescue dogs on your site. Are you involved in rescue?

Barbara: Since I’m raising two sons my rescue work has been limited to adopting carefully selected dogs who needed homes. Someday I picture myself fostering dogs that need rehabilitation before they can be placed for adoption.

Sharon: I read on your site that you lost two dogs to cancer. Has that experience affected your business or other parts of your life?

Barbara: Our family has lost three dogs to cancer in the past 12 years. When we adopted Sadie, some of our friends and even the workers at the shelter asked us why we would put our older son (our second son hadn’t been born yet) through possibly losing a dog soon after adoption? In our minds, we felt that showing him that a dog deserves a good home no matter how few days she may have left was an important lesson in compassion. Sadie ended up living for two years and four months after her placement with us. She was a joy for each day we had her as part of our family.

Sharon: Can people use your dog shampoo bars? I’m kind of tempted to try out that honey and oats one on myself, just for fun! Is there any reason I shouldn’t?

Barbara: Sure you can, and I won’t tell anyone! My dog shampoo bars are made of the same type of ingredients as my human bars. I would recommend trying it out BEFORE it gets covered in dog hair though.

Sharon: Do people ever ask you for dog shampoos that contain flea or tick chemicals? If so, what do you tell them?

Barbara: No one has so far. At vendor events I have a banner above my booth that reads, “Perfume Free Natural Soap” and I tell everyone who approaches that I don’t use any perfumes, dyes, or essential oils in my bars. I have, however, had numerous people ask, “But then what do you SCENT them with?”

Two bars of soap that look like slices of chocolate orange cake: a half-orange slice on top of a white frosting-looking layer on top of an orange layer between two dark chocolate-colored layers.

Chocolate Orange Soap

Sharon: Do you have some sort of culinary background? Many soaps look good enough to eat. (It makes me hungry to look at them. I have to keep reminding myself that these are not food, they are soap. Which makes me similar to my second service dog, Gadget, who was fond of eating bars of olive oil soap.)

Barbara: Thanks for the compliment. I am an experienced cook and find a lot of inspiration for my soaps from the food world.

Sharon: Anything else you’d like to add?

Barbara: Make sure you store your natural soaps in a well draining soap dish and not in the path of the shower spray in order to prolong their life. Also, one thing folks may not know is that due to curing time it takes at least a month to make each bar of soap.

Sharon: Thank you for your time!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who liked to eat soap, even if it didn’t look like food!), and Barnum, relatively clean SD/SDiT

Public Comments to the National Council on Disability

I was asked by Mary Lamielle of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies (NCEHS) to call in with testimony to the National Council on Disability (NCD) during their public comment period today, Thursday, July 26.

What is NCD?

NCD is a small, independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding policies, programs, practices, and procedures that affect people with disabilities. NCD is comprised of a team of fifteen Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees, an Executive Director appointed by the Chairman, and eleven, full-time professional staff.

In its invitation for public comment, NCD noted:

NCD will accept statements on any topic but is particularly interested in discovering what the public believes should be included in NCD’s 2013 statutorily mandated Progress Report to the President and Congress. Individuals interested in submitting public comments may do so in-person or by phone and should provide their names, organizational affiliations, if any, and limit comments to three minutes. Individuals may also submit public comments in writing to PublicComment@ncd.gov using the subject “Public Comment.”

Mary had previously emailed me to ask me to sign on to the recommendations she was circulating in the disability and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) community for the NCD’s meeting. These recommendations, which I support, are as follows:

1. The NCD should play an active role in organizing and participating in an Interagency Committee on Chemical Sensitivities;
2. The NCD should examine the significant levels of harassment and discrimination experienced by those with chemical and electrical sensitivities in housing, employment, education, healthcare, medical services, and daily life;
3. The NCD should support federal research on chemical and electrical sensitivities;
4. The NCD should adopt the CDC Fragrance-Free Policy;
5. The NCD should adopt a fragrance-free and healthy, accessible meeting policy similar to that of the Access Board; the NCD should also adopt a policy to limit exposure to electrical devices and frequencies at NCD meetings; and
6. The NCD should support the addition of a Board member with expertise on chemical and electrical sensitivities.

Here is what I will be saying in my public comment by telephone later this afternoon:

My name is Sharon Wachsler. I have multiple disabilities, and I’ve found that not all my disabilities are treated equally even within the disability community. I’m generally able to use my service dog, my powerchair, and a sign language interpreter or the relay without any problems. But when it comes to my access needs stemming from multiple chemical sensitivity, there are always problems. Every year I had to fight my CIL to get a fragrance-free nurse for my annual PCA evaluation. There are no hospitals or doctor’s, speech-language pathologist’s, psychotherapist’s, or CIL offices accessible to me.

I have a close friend who is Deafblind and a lifelong wheelchair user. She has told me on many occasions that having MCS is the worst of her disabilities. She has given up trying to work with case managers, assistive tech providers, and other disability organizations because they do not listen or abide by her needs for products and services that won’t make her severely ill and cause her other disabilities to worsen.

When we had an ice storm in Massachusetts in December 2008, and I had no heat, power, water, or phone for a week, I couldn’t be evacuated; there were no MCS-accessible shelters. Two friends who have MCS were also stranded. One of them suffered hypothermia. The other ended up in the hospital which caused such damage to her health that she was in chronic respiratory arrest for two years afterwards.

Just last week a woman with MCS called me about trouble getting workplace accommodations. I referred her to the DOJ ADA hotline. She said she’d already called and been told, “That’s not an ADA issue. It’s a building maintenance issue.” How many other people with MCS have called the hotline and been told that their access needs aren’t real?

I have stories like this for every day of the year. It is for these reasons that I urge you to implement the six recommendations proposed by Mary Lamielle of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies.

We are not separate from you. We are a part of the disability community. Our needs must be heard, respected, and accommodated.

If you would like to support the efforts of the MCS community to have our issues included by NCD, please email your comments to PublicComment@ncd.gov and put “Public Comment” in the subject line. Please also send a copy of your comments to marylamielle@ncehs.org. They’re accepting public comments by phone on Thursday and Friday, but if you can’t get your comment email sent by Friday, just send it when you’re able.

If you’re not sure what to say, you can talk about your experience with MCS or electrical sensitivity or that of friends, family members, colleagues — or me! No matter what you say — even if you say nothing else — you can copy in the six recommendations of NCEHS above and indicate your support of them.

Thank you very much for your support!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who had chemical sensitivities), and Barnum SD/SDiT (and blessedly healthy so far)

Signal Boost: Lyme Survey & New MCS/EI Community

Lymies! Please speak up about treatment options!

LymeDisease.org (formerly CALDA), has created a quick and easy survey tool for people who have Lyme disease. This organization has been a power in getting Lymies’ voices heard and affecting public policy and educating the medical profession, patients, and the mainstream about Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.

Their LymePolicyWonk site is the activism arm of the organization. Why is this survey important? Here’s their answer:

The treatment guidelines of Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) are more than 5 years old. That means they will be taken off the National Guidelines Clearinghouse in January. It also means that the IDSA is now revising those guidelines. According to the Institute of Medicine, guideline developers must consider patient values and preferences to be considered trustworthy. Our last survey found that 80% of patients would not choose to be treated under the IDSA guidelines. So patient trust in IDSA Lyme treatment guidelines a big issue. But when was the last time the IDSA asked you what you valued or what you preferred in the treatment of Lyme disease? The answer is: NEVER. It’s time we do something about that. We are conducting a survey to find out what you think is important about treatment options, choices, risks and benefits. Our last survey drew over 4,000 responses. Let’s do it again and remind the IDSA that patient values are central to treatment guidelines!

Here’s where you can find the survey. Please spread the word to others you know with Lyme disease!

One MCS/EI Community Closes, Another One Opens

People with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or environmental illness (EI), have been networking, chatting, sharing information and supporting, and blogging at The Canary Report for the last few years. However, Susie Collins, who owns and operates the ning-hosted TCR is taking a year off to attempt the controversial neural-retraining protocol. We wish her well on her journey!

Fortunately, someone else has stepped forward to start up a new MCS community, also hosted on ning. It is called DTOX Radio. Those who are familiar with ning social forums (ChronicBabe, Lyme Friends, TCR, Planet Thrive) will find the setup familiar. Unfortunately, like other ning forums, it is pretty inaccessible to those who are blind. If I find out about blind-accessible MCS networks, I will definitely blog it. Meanwhile, you can check out or join DTOX Radio here.

Okay canaries, please chirp this up! Tweet and otherwise spread the word!

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

Waspish Wednesday: Ask Alima to Ditch the Fragrance

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog in which I wore makeup and enthused about the company, Alima Pure, that made the makeup. I bought this makeup many years ago, and it’s still in great shape. I even linked to them. The big deal was that they made the only makeup I’d been able to tolerate since I developed multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) in 1995. I had tried other brands that were sold by MCS catalogs, even, and not been able to tolerate them.

All of this company’s products are basically loose mineral powder (blush, foundation, concealer, eyeliner, eyeshadow) that must be applied with a brush of the correct size. So, it’s a fair amount of work. However, since it’s just minerals, there’s no gunky stuff that makes me sick. And no smell.

The problem is that I’m not all that interested in most of those products. Back when I used makeup, I wore eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, and some powder to take the ever-present shine off my face. (Since I developed MCS and rosacea, I am even more naturally “rosy” — aka face-like-a-beet — than I was before.) Thus, I have never used blush in my life, and I doubt I ever will. I rarely bothered with eye shadow, either; it just wasn’t my “thing.”

What I really wanted was lipstick. Alima doesn’t sell lipstick, but they sold a wide variety of lip glosses that were tinted. I bought several samples of the darkest shades they had, and there were some I liked quite a bit. It was pretty miraculous that I was able to use the lip gloss, because I had not been able to use anything on my lips, even plain beeswax lip balm, since I got sick.

I decided that eventually I would buy a full-size tube of gloss, because the little pots that the samples came in had to be sort of scooped out with my finger, which was messy and wasteful. However, since I only use makeup about twice a year — and if I do, I have to make sure not to wear a mask, or it will smudge all over the place — this was not a huge priority.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I got a note that the company was having its seventh anniversary. I’m not sure how I got on their mailing list after having not been on it for many years. Anynoodle, they were giving away free eye shadow and offering a discount on any purchase. I thought, “What the heck?” And went to look at the lip gloss.

I was disappointed to see that only a few shades were offered now (used to be a couple dozen, currently there are nine), none with the same names as the ones I’d bought before. There was also very little information about what they looked like. I scoured the information on the pages for the glosses that looked promising, but the detailed descriptions of shades were not part of their new look, either. I took my best guess — buying the two darkest reds — and placed my order.

Normally I put a lot more care into buying things — reading all the details and double-checking everything. But I was sick and exhausted, and I found their website confusing and difficult to navigate. I thought about calling them before I placed my order, but it was the weekend, and if I waited for their customer service hours, I would miss the sale.

Some of my confusion was because there was one page that said, “Lips,” which was the introduction to the lip gloss, but which did not contain any detail on any of the glosses. You had to go to separate pages for that. Also, the writing was minuscule. I am used to enlarging the print on my screen, but I was tired, my eyes were tired, and I guess I didn’t enlarge it enough. I was assuming more detailed information about the lip glosses would be on the pages that included the actual information about each lip gloss.

I read the “description” of each gloss (which consisted, usually, of one or two words, such as “sheer red,” and that’s it) and the ingredients. The ingredients were another long list in tiny, tiny font. I skimmed them, and it seemed to be pretty much minerals, like what I’d bought before. I did not read every single of the couple dozen ingredients, as it was all sort of blurring together, and I had already purchased products from them, so what could have changed so much, right?

Obviously, from the title of this post, you know I was wrong.

A week later, my box of luxurious new products arrived. It was all very long and non-smelly and clean. There were the free eye shadows, a couple of free samples of eye shadows I hadn’t ordered, and the two tubes of lip gloss, each in their own long, thin cardboard box. I opened one, pulled on the wrong end for a while, then pulled on the right end to remove the cap, and prepared to . . . ack! What was that smell? Why did my lip gloss reek of mint? Was I imagining this? What was going on?

I hurriedly replaced the cap and looked at the ingredients list on the box. Buried in the middle of a an 88-word ingredients list was “Organic Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Essential Oil.”

They had added a freaking fragrance essential oil to their lip gloss! AUGH! I checked the box on the other one, and it had the same mint oil as its last ingredient. AUGH!!

I had been looking forward to this for so long — my full-size tube of lip color! I’d been so excited, and now I had spent twenty bucks (including shipping) on worthless stinky crap!

I called them up and spoke to a customer service representative. She was not apologetic. She was defensive, and she did not listen to me. She kept saying things like, “All our other products are unscented. The lip gloss is the only thing that is!” And, “We made it gluten-free!” And, “We announced this in our newsletter!” She didn’t seem to get why none of this was relevant or helpful.

One of my main points was that they should have made it very clear on their website that there was added fragrance to the products. That it should say in big, bold letters, on all the lip gloss pages, “These lip glosses contain fragrance from essential oils.”

She kept telling me how they’d sent out announcements to their email list that this change was coming. I told her repeatedly that didn’t do me any good because I had not been on their email list, but either she didn’t believe me or she just wasn’t listening. I don’t know. She just kept repeating that.

Then we got into an argument over whether there was, in fact, any information on their site warning customers that the lip glosses were scented. It turned out that buried in a small paragraph, in tiny print, on the “lips” page — not the page that actually gives you any information about any of the individual lip glosses, mind you, but what seems to be an introductory page that just says, “Hey, we have stuff to smear on your lips!” In their minuscule, five-sentence blurb on the “lips” page — which was basically the only thing on the page — they included these two sentences: “Lightly scented with a touch of organic peppermint oil. Yes, you deserve it.”

Oh, I deserve to have my face burn and turn red? I deserve to be gifted with a headache and a sore throat and brain fog? Swell.

Obviously if I had seen that, I would not have bought anything! But I didn’t see it, because it appeared to be a page that was basically devoid of information or actual products!

She also kept repeating that if I had read the ingredients lists, I would have seen the mint oil. Oh, well, obviously I deserve what I get because the fact that there was fragrance didn’t LEAP out at me from the ingredients list, which looks like this (except much, much tinier):

Organic Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Organic Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil, Organic Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter) Fruit, Organic Beeswax, Organic Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Organic Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Organic Camellia Sinensis (White Tea) Extract, Organic Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa Seed) Butter, Organic Punica Granatum Linn (Pomegranate) Seed Oil, Organic Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Organic Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Essential Oil, Organic Punica Granatum Linn (Pomegranate Extract, Tocopherol. May Contain [+/-]: Mica (CI 77019), Titanium Dioxide (CI 77891), Iron Oxides (CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499).

That fragrance mention — the single word, “essential” — really arrests the eye, doesn’t it?

Of course, they don’t allow returns because these are personal care items. The service person offered me store credit to buy any of their other items, but since it will take me the rest of my life to use them, that’s not very helpful.

Pretty much, I kept trying to get my points across, and she kept arguing with me, not apologizing, not agreeing that I had anything to be upset about, and not offering me any compensation. My points were, in order of importance to me:

1. You should put in BIG BOLD LETTERS EVERYWHERE that the lip gloss that is sold on your site is FRAGRANCED.

2. I want my money back on these lip glosses, since I will never be able to use them.

3. Why the fuck did you add fragrance to something that was perfectly good beforehand? Every other makeup company in the world puts fragrances and toxic crap into their products. Why on earth would you screw up the thing that made you a viable alternative?

I was much more polite than this in person, which got me nowhere. Finally, I was so upset, I started crying and said that I lived on a fixed income, that this was a really big deal for me, that I had been looking forward to it, and that I did not feel I was being heard.

That seemed to make a dent. She stopped defending and parrying and listened to what I was actually saying. That turned things around.

She said she would tell the owner — who made these decisions, not her — my very strong request to have very blatant warnings about fragrances in their products, and my plea to get rid of the fragrances as soon as possible. She also said she would refund the cost of the lip balms.

She did tell me again, however, that they had made the lip balms gluten-free for some of their customers, and then someone else had complained that they have soy in them! (As if, you know, I should join in on her righteous indignation that someone dared indicate to them that they have a soy allergy.) She sort of insinuated that removing the gluten had been a reason for adding the fragrance, which makes no sense, since so many of us who are allergic to gluten are also sensitive to fragrance! And also, I’ve never heard that gluten or essential oils are required for making lip gloss; clearly they aren’t, because they used to make unscented lip gloss, and now they make gluten-free lip gloss.

She also said that I was just one person, and that therefore my complaining about the fragrance wouldn’t make any difference. They would have to hear from a lot of people that they had an issue with the fragrance before they’d consider changing anything.

On one hand, her saying, “You’re just one person,” didn’t feel so good. It kind of underlined the sense I’d had throughout our encounter, which was, “Your needs aren’t important.” On the other hand, she was being honest with me, and I appreciated that. I know that usually a large number of people need to complain about a product before a company will change it. The logical course, it seemed to me, was to write a blog about it and ask YOU to contact this company and get them to switch back to fragrance-free products!

However, I did not write this blog soon after it happened. For the last six weeks, I’ve been too sick to deal with this. Now, I’m finally writing about it, and I just checked their website and — surprise! — they now have eliminated the useless, irritating introductory “Lips” page and combined it with the actual list of lip balm products. So now, at least, that one tiny sentence that indicates there’s fragrance is at least on the same page as the lip glosses themselves. However, it’s still just that one obnoxious little sentence in tiny font at the end of their twee little paragraph about the lusciousness of their products. They have NOT indicated on the pages for the individual glosses, “NOTE: This product contains fragrance.” It is not in large or bold font. It’s still very easy to miss.

So, my friends, I would greatly appreciate it if you would contact Alima Pure, using whatever method works best for you:

Telephone: 503-786-8224 or 1-888-380-5420

Snail-mail:
Alima Cosmetics, Inc.
18342 SE River Rd.
Portland, OR 97267

E-mail: Use the form on this page, http://www.alimapure.com/alima-pure/contact-us. (I don’t think there is any word verification/CAPTCHA, thankfully.)

Here are some talking points for your phone call or email or letter:

1. Alima Pure should reformulate their lip gloss to make it fragrance-free. Fragrance is unnecessary and only makes the product unavailable to those with chemical sensitivity.

2. Until Alima Pure changes their lip gloss formula, all pages relating to lip gloss should contain a notice in highly visible — large, dark print — indicating that the lip glosses are scented.

3. One-third of the population has a sensitivity to chemicals, with fragrance being among the most common source of symptoms. They are losing customers by following the herd and making all their lip products unusable for people with fragrance sensitivity.

4. Creating a gluten-free product is not incompatible with going back to fragrance-free. It is possible to do both, and in fact, there is a large overlap between those with gluten intolerance and those with chemical sensitivity.

5. If they do remove the fragrance from all their products, you will be happy to tell your friends with fragrance and/or gluten sensitivity about them.

Thank them for their time.

Please spread the word on this! Share on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Please ask friends to send an email, etc.

If you have a blog and you’d like to cross-post this piece, I’d appreciate it very much! I only ask that you cite me as the author and include a link back to After Gadget with your post.

Thank you!

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

Addendum: NYT Photo Essay on Living with MCS

I just posted about resources for learning more about multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), and now I find out that yesterday the New York Times ran an amazing, powerful, moving, important photo essay about people living with MCS by photographer Thilde Jensen.

Please check it out and spread the word. Link is above. The essay is called, “Everything Makes Them Sick.” The photo of the woman slumped in her bathtub — that is the one I saw and thought, “That’s me.”

Thank you!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who also had chemical sensitivities), and Barnum, SDiT

QuickPress: Funny Dog & Resources for Learning about MCS

A quick training anecdote from yesterday:

I was working on “plate zen” with Barnum, which means I’m trying to teach him that all plates, bowls, and mugs are out-of-bounds for dogs. I am trying to teach this as a default behavior, which means I don’t want to have to say, “Leave it,” 80 times per meal. I want him to just know to leave all plates alone.

I used different plates, sometimes with a piece of food on them, sometimes empty. Sometimes I’d put them up to his nose, and sometimes I’d hold them in my lap. Barnum needs to have all the fine points explained to him. He apparently realizes that he’s a dog, and that therefore he doesn’t generalize well. (Gadget hadn’t read the book on dogs not generalizing well, so I used to think it was a load of hooey.)

Anyway, I switched back from a blue plate (yes, it was the blue plate special — thanks for asking) and put a clear glass plate in my lap. I waited to see if Barnum would back up.

Barnum waited to see if I would give him some clue as to what to do. I didn’t, so Barnum offered, “Chin,” and rested his chin on the plate in my lap. Then, like the gifted and serious-minded dog trainer I am, I fell out laughing.

It was so adorable: “Here, would you like me to put my big slobbery beard on this plate? Look, I’m really resting my whole head on the plate. Will you click me now?”

Barnum backed up in confusion when I started to guffaw. Having learned my lesson, we tried again. Barnum rested his head on the plate again. I burst into laughter again. Poor dog. We did eventually actually get to some real training, and he earned some clicks and treats.

I am very behind on emails and comments. I’ve been super sick for the past two weeks. I sent out a mass email telling people to please be patient, but there is a problem with my email, and I’m not getting all of them! So, I know at least one person didn’t get that.

Anyway, I am not apologizing, but I am explaining.

Readers have requested I write on certain topics. In many cases, I have written partial blogs in reply, but I haven’t finished them. In other cases, I feel so overwhelmed, I don’t know how to begin.

For instance, many of you have asked what you would need to be able to do to visit me. I am deeply appreciative of the interest you’ve shown in learning about MCS and less-toxic products! I wish I were more able to answer your questions in a timely manner.

Until I can write more, here are some links of resources put together by friends of mine:

  • Another great resource is the video/DVD, Secondhand Scent: Accommodating People with MCS. I’m biased because I participated in the making of this video, but I honestly think it is one of the best tools available to explain to people how and why to become more MCS-accessible. To order the video, please call the Boston Self-Help Center’s message line, 617-277-0080 (voice/TTY), and someone will call you back with details and arrangements.
  • Finally, another video/DVD about living with CFIDS and MCS is Funny, You Don’t Look Sick. This doesn’t provide information about how to become MCS-safer, per se, but before I got Lyme disease and got sicker, it was a pretty good description of my life (except in terms of severity). Co-produced by singer/songwriter Susan Abod, the movie is “an autobiography of an illness.” It gives you an eloquent glimpse into the life of someone with MCS and CFIDS. If you scroll down, you can watch a trailer for the movie on this page.

Indeed, Susan is finishing a very important second documentary, which she has been working on for over ten years, right now! (The trailer for this movie, Homesick, is below the one for Funny.) I’m very excited about this. I hope to interview her about that project soon.

Enjoy! I am very grateful for the requests for information, even if I’m not always able to keep up with them. Keep it coming!

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, head-on-a-platter SDiT

Signal Boost: Guide Dog Partner with MCS

It’s the last day of May, which makes this the final day of MCS awareness month. Appropriately, my friend, Karyn, who usually blogs about her assistance dog, Thane, has written a terrific post about life with multiple disabilities, including MCS.

She writes about how every day begins with uncertainty as to which disability will do what, and how that has affected her decisions in training her guide/hearing/service dog. This is a topic I really relate to.

She also explains why she tries to keep a certain level of privacy about her disabilities, yet was compelled to speak out now.

The blog is Through a Guide’s Eyes, and the post is Different Ways for Different Times.

I don’t talk much about my disabilities in my blog because frankly I just want a place where I am seen for the inside pages as opposed to the book cover of the physical shell. That all said, I am beginning to feel the need to let down my guard as others have done. Perhaps its because by letting down my guard, I can share with you the kinds of training that can truly prepare one for the unknown- so here goes.

Please read it and share it. While her experience is unique, there are aspects of it that will resonate with people with many disabilities, and hopefully raise a little awareness for everyone about the disabilities they don’t share with Karyn.

Thank you, Karyn, for this excellent post.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who also had chemical sensitivities), and Barnum, SDiT

P.S. Don’t think that just because May’s over I’m going to stop blogging about Lyme and MCS awareness. As far as I’m concerned, having Lyme, CFIDS, and MCS means hardly ever meeting deadlines. So, June is just an extension of May in my world. (Also because I have no sense of time.)

P.P.S. I forgot to mention in my last post that it was Courtenay who gave me the idea for the week in review. Thank you, Courtenay!

One Lovely Blog Award

I was absolutely delighted to get a note the other day from Nessie, the blogger at Lipstick, Perfume, and Too Many Pills (a sick girl’s quest for normalcy) telling me she’d honored me with the One Lovely Blog Award!

Here it is:

One Lovely Blog Award

Award and Art by Sara Faghani

Thank you, Nessie! Please visit her site and check out what she says about After Gadget and the other blogs she named.

The award was created in December 2008 by Sara [access note: following link automatically plays music] of Works of Art by Sara.

Here are the rules of the award, according to Sara:

1. Add the logo to your blog.
2. Link to the person from whom you received this award.
3. Nominate 7 or more blogs.
4. Leave a message on their blog, letting them know they are “One Lovely Blog”!

This is a terrific opportunity to point you to some fabulous blogs. I was afraid all my faves would already have been honored, but lo! ‘Tis not so! I am thrilled to be able to give back a bit to these blogs that have given me so much. It’s also been a lot of fun to stray from my usual topic of life with (and without) dogs.

Before I give my list, some brief explanation of how I picked. Most awardees say to pick blogs that haven’t already received the award and that are “recent discoveries.” Since I only started reading blogs around the time Gadget died, all blogs are recent discoveries for me!

I’ve noticed that others who give their picks often tend to pass the award on to other blogs with similar themes, e.g., Sara named other art blogs, and the blogs who led to mine were mostly disability or chronic illness blogs.

While I am not intentionally going out of my way to choose blogs different from mine, I decided to resist the internal pressure I felt to pick, for example, other assistance dog blogs or “non-controversial” blogs. I want to honor the blogs that I think are truly unique and well written, regardless of topic. That’s what I mean by “One Lovely Blog.” Not necessarily “lovely,” as in “beautiful” or “sweet” (though a couple of those are represented), but as in “Damn, I LOVE this blog!” These blogs give something special to the blogosphere that I haven’t found anywhere else. As you can see, my tastes are eclectic!

Accessibility of these blogs varies. Some are what I would consider accessible (such as FWD), and some have obvious access flaws, such as not including a detailed description of graphics, and some I’m really not sure how accessible they are. I was going to try to choose only blogs that I’d consider “more accessible,” but I ran into three problems: 1. The meaning of “accessible” varies greatly depending on the reader’s disability. 2. My own grasp of what’s accessible to others is greatly hindered by my relative computer illiteracy, so I’m often not sure how accessible a given blog is to a given person with a disability. I just don’t grok how the software interfaces with the disability. 3. I haven’t come across that many blogs that I love which are also more-than-usually accessible. (A sad commentary.) However, I encourage you to comment if you go to one of these blogs and find it accessible to your particular disabilities, as this would be good info for all of us. Thank you!

Now, here they are, my picks for the One Lovely Blog Award! Please visit them and enrich your blog-reading experience!

1. FWD/Forward (Feminists with Disabilities for a Way Forward)

This is the only blog that I actually subscribe to, which is saying a lot. I always feel overwhelmed by too much email (who doesn’t?), and yet I read this blog — which sometimes contain multiple posts — every day. FWD is the smartest, most diverse, thoughtful, informative, honest, and ethical blog I’ve come across. There are several bloggers at FWD, and they really work their asses off to provide quality material. FWD has made me rethink what language I use and how I’ve set up my blog for accessibility, and taught me much about politics, the internet, and so many other things I can’t even list them. It often gives me a laugh and much-needed affirmation, too. If you have any interest in feminism or disability rights (and other social justice issues), this is the blog for you. And if you are not that interested in feminism or disability rights, then all the more reason to check it out and learn a little something!

2. VirtuaVet (Online Pet Health Consultations, Coaching and Philosophy)

VirtuaVet is Doc Truli, and she is Truli wonderful. She is a small animal vet, but has worked as an ER and livestock vet, and has had more species of pets than I could imagine! The blog is written beautifully, with great explanations — often with accompanying pictures — for the layperson. Yet, Doc Truli never talks down to her readers. There are quirky posts that cover veterinary issues I’ve not seen anywhere else, such as “Snakes Are People, Too!” and “Fat Dachshund” (the latter of which is one of Doc Truli’s occasional rants against the pet food industry, which is awesome). Not only is VirtuaVet fabulously informative, it also deals with ethical issues. One of my favorite posts starts this way: “I believe your decisions regarding your pets’ care are practical, ethical, moral, and spiritual decisions. Therefore, my advice and approach is unique in veterinary medicine. I love animals to an obsessed, crazy degree.  But I do not adore, love, or idolize medicine.” If only more vets (and MDs) felt this way!

3. GenderBitch (musings of a trans chick)

I discovered GenderBitch at questioningtransphobia, where she is a guest blogger. As GB’s name suggests, this is an angry, funny blog that deals with gender. To be more specific, it mostly deals with transgender issues and transgender oppression, with a lot of overlap with other issues, such as ableism, sexism, polyamory, etc. What I love about GB is how completely unapologetic it is. It is also raw, witty, raging, well written, sarcastic, intelligent, hilarious, geeky, and courageous. Two of my all-time favorite posts — ever — were written by Genderbitch, so I’m also including the links to these two posts: “But I Was Just Curious!” The Fail of Invasive Questions and Intent! It’s Fucking Magic! If you have an interest in queer and/or trans stuff, this is a great site to learn more, get worked up, feel shocked and saddened, or practically pee your pants laughing. If you are not familiar with trans issues, you can learn a lot from Genderbitch, including some terminology (e.g., the prefix “cis,” which essentially means “not trans”) which has not yet made it into “mainstream” vocabularies. But if I, with my cognitive impairment, can figure out, for example, what “cissexism” means, you can, too. Soooo worth it.

4. The Other End of the Leash

Author, behaviorist, trainer, and farmer Patricia McConnell writes a visually beautiful; emotionally open, honest, and lovely; and intellectually engaging blog about life on her farm, and particularly, her dogs. She describes her blog as “an ongoing inquiry about the behavior of people and dogs. I would like this to be a forum for people who are both intellectually and emotionally fascinated by the behavior of the animals at both ends of the leash. My hope is that it will become a place for an informed and thoughtful consideration of the amazing relationship between people and dogs.” She reaches her goal, and so much more. The pictures of the flora and fauna on her farm are delightful, and she always has something personal, yet universal (to dog owner/handlers), to discuss. I don’t read it that often, but every time I do, I think, “Wow, this is totally relevant to what Barnum and I are going through! I must come back here more often!”

5. The Canary Report: Sounding the Alarm about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Susie Collins’s The Canary Report is a very active blog of multiple contributors, forums, news articles, creative calls to action, and personal stories, all relating to the environment, health, or MCS. Susie always has a welcoming “Aloha!” for all commenters, and her humor, energy, and nonstop ideas keep the blog vibrant and fluid. Activism, advocacy, and education play a central role here, but there is also fellowship and personal connection. I recommend it to other canaries (people with MCS), as well as to people outside our world who want to learn how they can help protect themselves, their families, animals, and the planet from the harms of pollution, be it small-scale (chemicals in personal care products) or large-scale (the BP oil leak crisis in the Gulf).

6. Susie Bright’s Journal

I’ve had a soft spot for Susie since — as a co-founder of, and columnist for, On Our Backs, a groundbreaking women’s sex magazine — she helped me discover my sexuality in the late 1980s. A decade later, I was thrilled to have my fiction published in OOB (under different management) and then by Susie, herself, in two anthologies. But none of this is why I’m listing her blog here! Quite simply, Susie’s blog is terrific reading! The writing is crisp, clear, and well-researched. She is funny and thought-provoking. You can learn anything about sex and how it intersects with politics, culture, art, history, and more, fascinatingly and articulately spelled out by Susie Bright. She is most to blame for me spending way too many hours lost in obscure lesbian film history or her own tales of wild adventures with famous folks, simply because I clicked on one of her tweets.

7. Lymenaide (living in harmony with Lyme)

Ashley van Tol’s blog about living with Lyme and other tick-borne diseases is the most comprehensive personal Lyme site I’ve found. She has it all — musings on life with Lyme, recipes for those on restricted diets, a store to raise funds for Lyme awareness, calls to action, legislative news, and more. Where Ashley really shines and has made a name for herself in the Lyme community is her activism to raise awareness about Lyme prevention and treatment, and the need to treat Lymies with respect and understanding. She was the force behind four professional TV public service announcements (featuring well-known actors) for Lyme Awareness Month. Ashley manages to write a blog that is celebratory and joyful without distorting the realities of living with Lyme. It’s a site anyone can appreciate, whether they have Lyme or not.

8. Brilliant Mind Broken Body (living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome)

Last, but certainly not least, a blog from a fellow assistance-dog partner! Kali writes clear, fluid prose, designed to be understood by both those with disabilities and those who want to know a bit more about what it’s like to live with disability, and specifically, her disability of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. (On a personal note, I was surprised and pleased to find BMBB because I had a friend with EDS, and nobody had ever heard of it.) Kali’s posts range from “a typical day in the life of a service dog partner” (my favorite post of hers to date); to social justice issues — such as how -isms like fat oppression, ableism, and sexism interconnect; to silly stories about her quirky SD, Hudson. BMBB is also hosting the next Disability Blog Carnival — keep an eye out!

Please visit these worthy blogs, and give them some love.

As always, your comments are more than welcome.

Peace,

Sharon, Barnum (taking a break from being a blog topic this week), and the Muse of Gadget (missed more sharply in these summer months)

Back Back Back: A Year Ago Today

Back, back, back
In the back of your mind …

When you sit right down in the middle of yourself
You’re gonna wanna have a comfortable chair

-Ani DiFranco

Backdrop

I’ve been feeling depressed lately. I thought it was mostly health stuff. Ten days ago, my doctor told me that my complete blood counts (CBCs) were showing abnormalities, and that I had to stop all treatment for Lyme disease and coinfections — eight medications in all, including intravenous and intramuscular antibiotics — because medication toxicity was the likely culprit. If my blood work was normal for a month, we could discuss how and which treatments to resume. If it didn’t, I’d need to see a hematologist. She added that if my medications were not the problem, the cause might relate to “bone marrow,” such as “leukemia.” Terrific.

I had the leukemia flag waved at me a few years ago by a doctor trying to convince me to go to the ER, which I’d been refusing to do. His scare tactic worked. I went, and it turned out to be a lab error, as I’d expected. In this case, we have several weeks of abnormal tests to prove it’s not lab error, and I really like my current doctor, but I think casual cancer references should be illegal.

Background

A few days ago I received copies of the blood work my doctor’s concerned about. Some of the things that were wrong, such as abnormal lymphocyte counts, reminded me of reading Gadget’s CBCs. In fact, the reason I can decipher a CBC is that after Gadget started chemo, I studied his every week. I researched what each abbreviation stood for and what it could mean for his health. I bought veterinary manuals. I learned all I could about canine lymphoma and its treatments. He ate a homemade cancer diet and received Western and Chinese herbs, supplements, acupuncture, and chiropractic. The average life expectancy of a dog on Gadget’s chemotherapy protocol (Madison Wisconsin or CHOPP) is a little over a year. Gadget lived half that.

When Gadget was diagnosed, I also had a feeling of foreboding — about myself. Even as I was sure I could beat the odds for him, I had a bad feeling about what it would mean one day for me. Gadget and I were as close as I thought it was possible to be (until we got even closer, during the months he was sick), and we shared many of the same health problems: food sensitivities, bad reactions to drugs and chemicals, neurological issues, thyroid problems. I had raised him as healthfully as I thought possible. Like me, he was exposed to no pesticides, no cleaning chemicals, no preservatives or additives in his food. We lived in the country, and he drank clean water and breathed clean air. With his lifelong health problems, I’d always known that the longevity deck was stacked against him, due either to genetics or his early life. I suspect he came from a puppy mill. Still, I had never thought it would be cancer that would take him from me. My friends and family were similarly shocked: “Cancer? No, it can’t be cancer. Not Gadget. Not with the way you care for him….”

When I accepted that it was cancer, I thought, “I’m next.” A lot of people with MCS get cancer. I don’t know how often it’s directly related. In some cases, it’s clear that the chemical injury that caused the MCS also led to cancer. In others, it isn’t. Cancer is so common in the general population, it might just be coincidence for most. Regardless, with all my own illnesses and my history of chemical injury, and the fact that I got sicker instead of better despite all my efforts, when Gadget’s diagnosis was confirmed, it was hard for me to shake the feeling that it meant something for my health too. After all, we were two parts of the same body/soul, with so many of the same obstacles thrown in our paths. Some part of me settled into a silent conviction that it was my job to care for him until it happened to me, too.

Then, all the work of battling cancer distracted me from myself. Focusing all my energy on Gadget’s physical health and his happiness kept me too busy for the next six months to allow those thoughts again. When he died, they resurfaced, but I pushed them away. Until now.

Backslide

As I wait out this month for my test results, my symptoms charging back as treatment is withheld, I’ve become depressed. At first, I wasn’t sure why. There are a lot of potential reasons: Feeling sick feels bad, in itself. Not knowing why I’m doing worse — is it the tick-borne diseases letting loose, or is it something else? — is scary. If it is Lyme & co., will I be able to return to treatment, or will I spiral back down to where I was two years ago, back to a life of severe loss of function and intractable pain that felt marginally bearable largely because of Gadget? Could it be that mood/behavior changes, which can include feelings of hopelessness, had returned along with my other neurological symptoms? In this case, how could I know which of my feelings were “real” and which were the bugs eating my brain?

Backtalk

You might think that Barnum would cheer me up, but I’ve actually found raising him in the shadow of my grief to be confusing. Sometimes, I feel joyful, triumphant, and proud that despite my inexperience with puppies, his challenging mixture of personality traits (to be enumerated in future posts), and my significant — and currently, extraordinarily unpredictable — limitations, we are managing to make a go of it. Other times, I am so angry with myself and wracked with guilt by mistakes I’ve made or frustrated by his puppyhood — the concepts he doesn’t understand, the final steps of housebreaking, the exuberance that just isn’t fun when it involves bodily harm or the barking zoomies at 3:00 A.M. — that I question whether getting a puppy was the right decision. I argue with myself:

Me 1: “Gadget wasn’t like this.”

Me 2: “But Gadget wasn’t a puppy when you got him.”

Me 1: “But I never questioned that Gadget would be a great service dog. We struggled with a lot of things, but I had total faith that we’d be a team.”

Me 2: “But that was partly ignorance! You didn’t know all the things that could go wrong. Now you know so much more about the many reasons a dog can wash out, and how a dog has to want to work. Back then, you just took for granted that a dog that had more gusto than Jersey would love to work. Plus, you have more disabilities now, which makes it harder to raise and train Barnum and ups the ante of the number of tasks you’ll want him to learn.”

Me 1: “Ugh.”

Backcountry

I’ve just finished listening to a book called Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, which is a deeply moving book about an intensely close relationship between a rescued stray and the author, Ted Kerasote. Although Merle was not an assistance dog, he and Kerasote had a working partnership, as well as a deep and intimate love. Kerasote is a subsistence hunter in rural Wyoming, and Merle helped him locate elk and other game. All of Kerasote’s meat was what he procured from the wild, so they weren’t just sharing a game; they lived off this teamwork. The subject matter, alone, was bound to make me continuously reflect on my relationship with my dogs, especially Barnum and Gadget. Kerasote — who gave Merle freedoms impossible for most dog owners — challenges a lot of traditional, as well as current, thinking on dog care and training. Combined with my struggles and deep feelings of inadequacy as a puppy raiser, this focus kept me comparing myself and my canine relationships with that of Merle’s idyllic life with Kerasote.

Finally, of course, any book about the life of a dog must end with the death of that dog. Merle died of cancer, and the journey of illness and death that Kerasote traveled with Merle was very similar to what Gadget and I experienced. I finished the book yesterday. For the past two days, leading up to Merle’s death, I cried over and over. When I otherwise had no energy to move, I’d lay still except for the sobs jerking my body. I frequently envied Kerasote’s abilities and resources, physical and social, to care for Merle and provide a death and funeral for him that I was not able to provide for Gadget.

Backtrack

I thought these were all the reasons I’ve been thinking about Gadget more than usual while simultaneously feeling his presence in my memory murky and hard to grasp — as if Barnum and Merle somehow were obscuring who Gadget really was, what our relationship was, why I felt this pain under my breastbone that I could not name. Until today, I hadn’t known what to do with it but obsess darkly, eat chocolate, and cry.

Then, Carol, my PCA said, “Today is May 8, isn’t it?”

I rarely know the date; even the month can be a stretch. I checked my calendar and nodded, yes, the eighth.

Carol said, “It was exactly a year ago that I took Gadget to the hospital, wasn’t it? May eighth? “

That stopped my heart. It was.

Back, Back, Back

I was very sick that day, like today, like yesterday. I couldn’t speak or get out of bed, and I was in a lot of pain. Gadget’s eye had looked pink the night before, and I had flip-flopped over monitoring it at home, taking him to the ER, or taking him to a regular vet. On the morning of Friday, May 8, 2009, I sent Gadget to VESH (Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital) with Carol. Part of what decided me was that VESH had an ophthalmologist on staff. Even though she was not scheduled that day, I was assured she could be consulted if necessary. I had a history with SD eye crises: Jersey had glaucoma, a common problem among Bouviers, and even though I had taken her to several vets from the time I adopted her (long before it was an emergency), it had been misdiagnosed repeatedly. By the time it was diagnosed, the affected eye was permanently blind and terribly painful and had to be removed.

Jersey in profile

Jersey's blind side -- the missing eye hid by her fall (bangs)

Afraid Gadget might relive this trauma, and frustrated by my helplessness at not being able to accompany him, I spoke at length to the receptionist at VESH via HCO relay, stressing the importance of getting Gadget’s intraocular pressure checked on both eyes and compared to each other. I told her that glaucoma was a breed problem in Bouviers, that a reading within the “normal” range should be suspect if it is still much higher than the other eye, and I asked the examining vet to call me by relay during or immediately after the exam. She assured me that they were very familiar with assessing and diagnosing glaucoma. This eased my mind slightly.

If only it had been glaucoma.

Backhand

I waited. It felt like forever until the phone rang. It was Dr. C. She was the doctor who had treated Jersey when she was dying of multiple-organ failure from unknown causes in 2006. Jersey was thirteen then, retired, and whatever killed her, either an extremely fast-moving infection or cancer, at least she’d lived a long life and didn’t suffer a protracted illness. Nonetheless, I hated hearing Dr. C’s voice. I hated her, irrationally because I associated her with Jersey’s death.

Within a few minutes, I despised her.

“Sharon, it’s good you brought Gadget in,” she said. She sounded cheery, and I thought her next words would be, “It is glaucoma, but we caught it in time.” Or that it was another eye problem that could be treated since we’d moved fast.

Instead, she followed up with, “Gadget has lymphoma.”

I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. There must be a mistake.

I started crying, but she couldn’t hear me because we were on relay. Dozens of questions leapt to mind, but I couldn’t interrupt her, because we were on relay.

She continued, “If your dog has to have cancer, lymphoma is the best cancer to have.” She explained that, depending on treatment, he could have another two to thirteen months to live.

This was the “good” news? He had the “best” cancer? I wanted to reach through the phone and hit her.

Backtrack

Over time, however, I learned the truth of what she said. Most canine cancers strike quickly and leave no options for treatment or cure. Lymphoma is one of few that usually responds well to chemotherapy. Gadget had five good months on chemotherapy. We reveled in swims and hikes at the pond, romps with other dogs, walks down new paths, even some new skills — just to add interest and a sense of accomplishment to his life.

Clear skies, clear water, Gadget returns to me.

When another cancer struck — mast cell tumors — Gadget’s decline was swift and heartbreaking. He died November 19, 2009.

I feel robbed; a year ago, I expected to have Gadget here with me today. If Gadget had represented the mean, one year post-diagnosis we’d have one more month with him in remission. That was the average for the MW protocol at VESH: thirteen months. But, for there to be an average, half the dogs must live longer, and half the dogs must live shorter. Of course, Gadget could not sit in the middle of the bell curve, because Gadget was never average.

My sweet boy, I miss you. I want you back.

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget (with Barnum, puppy-in-training)

P.S. Right before I was about to publish this post I got a note from Rochelle Lesser of The Land of PureGold Foundation . This is a wonderful organization. They educate about so many crucial issues — working dogs, humane training, canine cancer, nontoxic pet care, and more. They also gave Gadget a grant to cover some of his cancer treatment, for which I was very grateful.

Currently, they are running a contest to raise awareness about the importance of nontoxic, real food for dogs in preventing cancer and other health problems, and I was astonished to learn that so few have entered! I am only one of two so far! Rochelle even did a touching quickpress about Gadget and the last birthday cake I made for him.

The first ten people who enter the Bone Appetit Recipe Contest receive a bag of free, nutritious dog treats! (And the grand prize is phenomenal.) They gave me strength in championing Gadget’s fight to survive. Please lend your support to this very important (and fun!) contest.

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.


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