Love for My Service Dogs

The Patients for a Moment (PFAM) carnival is up right now at Chronic Babe. The theme, appropriate for Valentine’s Day, is Show Me the Love.

If you follow After Gadget, you know I deeply loved my last service dog, Gadget, and all the aspects of our relationship that made him so special and important to me. However, I have never written specifically about what was unique and lovable about each of my service dogs (SDs).

It may seem stunningly obvious that most service dog partners are passionate about their SDs. For not only do they provide us with the companionship, comfort, and fun that pet dog owners experience, they also contribute to our freedom, independence, and safety. Still, not all SDs are created equal, and not all partnerships click as well as others. Every dog, like every human, is an individual.

I think most SD partners probably try to keep it to ourselves, out of a sense of guilt, loyalty, or a fear of being judged and misunderstood, but in my experience, we don’t usually love all our SDs in quite the same way; each dog has their strengths and weaknesses, in harness and out. Many might say, “I love all my dogs equally, if differently,” which I’m sure is true. It feels true for some of my dogs, but not others. Quite simply, there are some I’ve loved more (or the most).

It’s not that they haven’t each been equally deserving, but that we all have our quirks, and what makes us happiest is so subjective. There is the heart, and there is the mind, and no matter how much the mind may argue, the heart knows what it knows.

If you’ve seen my new About Sharon’s Dogs page, you know my history with each dog. That page is filled with a lot of facts about my first pet dog, my two service dogs, and my current service-dog-in-training, Barnum.

For this post, I’ve decided just to focus on Jersey and Gadget — my service dogs whom I have loved and lost.

Barnum is not yet my service dog, although I feel confident that he will be, eventually. I love him so much, I can’t imagine life without him, but I also know we have so far to go. Knowing that, having been on similar journeys in the past, I cannot predict in what ways our love will grow and transform. I only know that it will.

Barnum and I are a work in progress. The curtain has already come down on Jersey’s and Gadget’s stories, yet there’s always more to tell.

Act I: Jersey

Scene I: Arrival

Jersey was my first service dog, my first dog that I owned and trained as an adult, and my first bouvier des Flandres. As such, she will always be special.

Part of our love was forged by how hard it was for me to acquire her — how I had to convince the people involved in bouvier rescue that, despite my disabilities, I could handle the responsibility of a bouvier (or any dog). To say that she was therefore a sort of trophy does neither of us justice; it dehumanizes her, and it diminishes the very real relationship we had.

Nonetheless, the fact that we did so well together, that I did train her as a service dog, despite all the dire warnings I encountered and discouragement I received before I got her, was a vindication. Because this was my first time training a dog in a serious way, each little achievement was a joy. Therefore, a lot of my love for Jersey stemmed from my pride in both of us.

Scene II: Sit

I remember when Jersey “got” sit. We had been practicing sit, for a couple of weeks, a few training sessions a day, when one day, out of the blue, Jersey ran up to me and . . . sat! If she had been a human child, as her butt hit the floor, she would have thrown back her head and flung wide her arms, shouting, “Tada!”

I thought it was funny that she was offering the behavior before the command. This was before I started clicker training, and although I used food rewards, I was used to pairing the cue with the behavior as I taught it. I didn’t know yet that dogs learn behaviors first, and that attaching the cue comes later. I thought Jersey was a little silly for offering a sit without being prompted.

Nevertheless, I was thrilled. Fortunately, I knew enough to reward her for the sit, and to keep rewarding her for “throwing sits at me,” until I started discriminating and only rewarding those that were paired with, or preceded by, the cue for sit.

Jersey sitting outside, after finishing a walk

Jersey sits in the snow after a walk.

[Photo description: Jersey sits outside, her paws wet from a walk in the snow.]

This was the beginning of our working relationship, and the joy we both had in training — and succeeding — was a very strong bond.

Scene III: Nibbles

Bouviers are typically extremely devoted to their own and rather standoffish with strangers. However, even with their people, they are not terribly demonstrative. Typical bouviers are Velcro dogs who want to be with their person, no matter where their person is, following them around the house, just keeping an eye on them or being near them, but not needing a lot of physical affection, and even less often, soliciting it.

This description fit Jersey to a T. She was certainly friendly to everyone, dog or human, in a gentle, quiet way, but she didn’t really care about anyone but me and a few select people, such as her dog walkers. She was truly a “one-woman dog.” She followed me everywhere in our small apartment, and although she rarely sought out affection — she preferred to have her subjects come to her — when I did scratch behind her ears or under her chin, she would close her eyes and “purr.” Sort of a quiet moan of happiness.

The only time she showed outright affection was in the morning. Upon waking, I’d often find Jersey sticking her nose in my face to sniff me while I lay in bed, then “nibbling” my arm. Her other favorite nibbling location was the bathroom, when I first got up to pee in the morning.

Fortunately, I had read about nibbling on a bouvier list before Jersey did this the first time, or I might have thought she was trying to hurt me. It’s a show of affection where the dog, with their mouth almost closed, chatters their teeth against your skin, as if flea-biting.

Nibbling is quite a lovely behavior if you’ve got clothing or a blanket between the dog’s teeth and your skin. However, if she nibbled my arm in the summer, when I was in short sleeves, my skin got pinched between her front teeth, and it hurt! I tried not to exclaim with pain or surprise, because I could tell it startled her and hurt her feelings.

However, on one memorable occasion, the morning before I was to have a first date with someone I met through a personal’s ad, I was giving Jersey a hug as I sat on the toilet. Wagging her little stump of a tail, Jersey reached up and nibbled my neck — leaving a mark! I had told my date that I wasn’t seeing anyone else. What would she think if I showed up with a hickey? Somehow, saying, “It’s not what you think. My dog gave me this,” sounded worse! I wore a turtleneck.

Scene IV: The Stare

Jersey was a prototypical bouv in some ways, but in other ways, she completely defied the breed standard. For example, bouviers are supposed to be “fearless,” and were bred partly as guard dogs. Jersey didn’t have a protective bone in her body. She didn’t bark. She didn’t growl. If anything startled her — such as my falling down — her motto was, “Run away first. Investigate later.”

She was truly “the silent partner” in our relationship. That didn’t mean she didn’t know how to communicate with me.

Jersey eyes Sharon

Jersey keeps close to Sharon and keeps her eye on her

[Photo description: Jersey sits in profile, her head turned toward Sharon. Jerseys fall covers where her right eye would be.]

Jersey used “The Stare.” If she needed to go out, she stood near the door and stared at me. If it was time to eat (which was any time between when I woke up and she ate breakfast, and then again, any time after 3:00 PM or dusk, whichever came first), she sat and stared at me.

If I had friends visiting, and one of them moved between Jersey and me, Jersey got up and repositioned herself to make sure her Stare Beam was unimpeded.

Her stare was very intense and completely focused. She knew that if she just stared long enough, eventually I would feed her. Of course, I always did.

Having one eye — even when vision in that one was clouded by cataracts — did not make one bit of difference. If anything, it seemed as if Jersey’s stare was all the more concentrated, coming from that single orb.

Jersey peers over the futon

Jersey directs her stare beam at me.

[Photo description: Jersey peers over a green futon, her chin resting on it, one eye peeking out, her two black pointed ears in stark relief before the maroon wall.]

When I think back on my relationship with Jersey, my love for her is mostly that of gratitude for her forgiveness in all I didn’t know, her absolute devotion to me, and the smile that still comes to my lips when I see that one brown eye, staring at me.

Scene V: In My Dreams

After Jersey and I had been partners for a while — I don’t remember how long it took — I realized that she accompanied me not only in all my waking activities, but in my dreams, too.

When I try to explain what it’s like to be a service dog team, this is sometimes how I explain it. That the dog is truly an extension of me. This goes so deep that my subconscious knows it, too.

This is a kind of love that’s hard to convey, that of being two parts of one whole, physically and mentally.

Act II: Gadget

Scene I: Love at First Sight

I recently wrote at About Sharon’s Dogs how I fell in love with Gadget pretty much instantly.

Black and white of Sharon and Gadget looking into each other's eyes

Love at first sight.

[Photo description: Black and white photograph of Sharon and Gadget, ten years ago. Sharon sits on a wooden bench of a back patio, smiling down at Gadget, who stands looking up into her face. The sun highlights Sharon's long, dark hair and Gadget's curly, gray brindle coat. There are trees and shrubs in the background, beyond the wood railings.]

While Jersey was beautiful — she had, after all, been a show dog — Gadget was just too cute.

Despite the uneven color of his coat, due to digestive and allergy issues that had caused rusty-brown patches where he’d been licking and biting himself most of his life, and his chopped-off beard (which had been a straggly mess, apparently), Gadget was absolutely adorable.

He had that bright, inquisitive spark that animated every aspect of his facial expression: his brown eyes, his twitching nose, his ever-adjusting eyebrows, his long, expressive ears. His ears were soft and silky, and when he ran — which he did at any and every opportunity — they flew up and down, making him seem just that much more alive.

Black and white photo of a young Gadget, staring into the distance

A young Gadget stares into the distance from my porch.

[Photo description: Black and white photo of Gadget from the neck up. His ears perked, he looks alertly into the distance, birch trees blurred in the background.]

Jersey’s ears had been cropped, which always seemed cruel to me, not only for the pain she endured as a puppy for this pointless fashion statement, but also because every summer, the deer flies headed right into her exposed inner ears. Mostly, though, I just loved the feel of Gadget’s ears, how much he could communicate with them, and how much he enjoyed having them rubbed.

Gadget was very photogenic, and it was my good fortune that soon after I adopted him, I dated a photographer. I sent some photos of Gadget to a friend who lived across the country.

My friend’s emailed comment, upon receiving the pictures? “How can you get anything done with that face around the house?” (She’s so much more tactful than I am. When she emailed me a photo of her newborn baby boy, I said, “He looks like a baby!”)

Scene II: Energy

Yes, he was very cute. But even more than his appearance, it was Gadget’s energy that thrilled me.

For one thing, he had so much of it! One of the traits that made Jersey “easy” in so many ways was how gentle and laid-back she was. Gadget, super enthusiastic and uncontrolled, was therefore much more difficult — and much more fun!

Gadget jumping over a pole across two kitchen chairs

All four off the floor! Indoor agility, anyone?

[Photo description: Gadget in mid-air jumping over a thin, yellow plastic stick about three feet above the ground, held up by a kitchen chair and a step-ladder. In the background are a kitchen counter and a refrigerator.]

I’d say I’m falling into sexist stereotyping in feeling that Jersey’s sweetness and manners were not as captivating as Gadget’s bad-boy charm, except that my first dog, Lady — as her total misnomer of a name makes clear — was female and also full of smarts and energy (and an aggressive attitude toward other dogs).

Gadget’s characteristics were due to his personality, not his body parts. Everything he did, he did with gusto: Training, thinking, eating, running. He was so hungry for life.

He wore me out, but I often laughed through my tears. I took him for walks that exhausted me, but they weren’t nearly enough for him. We went to my mailbox, three-quarters of a mile away, with me going at my scooter’s top speed (about seven or eight miles an hour) the whole time. Gadget ran back and forth all the way, so he really got more like three miles in than one-and-a-half. Yet, when we got home, and I was ready to hit the sofa and collapse, Gadget ran laps around the outside of the house!

Scene III: His Mind

Gadget was fleet of foot, yes, and he showed such joy in running I liked to say he must have been a greyhound or a thoroughbred horse in a former life.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house

[Photo description: Gadget runs down a black metal wheelchair ramp, his ears flying, with a white cloth grocery bag in his mouth. Sharon is behind him, at the end of the ramp, with her big green cargo van behind her. It's a bright, summer day, with lots of sun and a green lawn on either side of the ramp.]

His mind was just as quick. Training with him was thrilling. He took to it so easily, and our communication was so effortless, that it is only now — when I have worked my butt off for a year to completely relearn how to clicker train — that I realize how intuitive and brilliant Gadget really was.

There are two myths about service dogs that cause a lot of anxiety, misunderstanding, and broken hearts: 1. That any dog can be a service dog, and 2. That only one-in-a-million can be a service dog. I’ll leave discussion of these myths for a future post, but I can understand why a dog like Gadget could make people believe that any dog can be a service dog.

Clicker training is a step-by-step process. To have a fruitful session, I, as the trainer, have to know ahead of time what my goals are for the session — what criteria I am looking for and reinforcing, and if those criterion are met, what the next step — the next set of criteria — will be.

Gadget on ramp with bag in his mouth, lowering it onto ramp

Gadget prepares to drop the bag in the right spot.

[Photo description: Gadget holds a white cloth grocery bag in his mouth, which he is lowering, ready to drop it on the ramp on which he stands. The presence of the railings on the ramp show he is near the house now. Sharon is on the ramp about four yards back.]

Training Jersey had accustomed me to following this slow, orderly process. Gadget, however, quickly taught me that it wasn’t enough to know what my criteria were for the first step or two of the behavior before a session. I had better know how the entire skill would be built, from steps A through Z, because frequently, after one or two reinforcements for the first step, he would move right to the next step, and then often skip several steps altogether, seeming to intuit, on his own, what the entire purpose of the session was.

I frequently started sessions with the idea that I was introducing the foundation behaviors for what would eventually be a highly desirable service task, and within a few minutes, he would already be performing the finished skill, with nothing left to do but put a name on it (so I could cue the skill in future), and generalize it to other locations or objects.

Because we were training service skills, these sessions were immensely gratifying in several ways. One was that I knew he would be making my life easier with these tasks very soon; this offered tremendous relief and hope. Another was that it made us both feel so good about ourselves and each other; I thought I was a great trainer and he was a great learner, and he loved to problem-solve and earn treats and have my undivided attention.

It also forged a connection that would be critical to us for the rest of his life: communication.

Scene IV: Communication

The adage about communication is that it’s a two-way street, but this metaphor is too simple for the kind of communication that took place between Gadget and I. A lot of people think that communication between dog and handler is about commands, but that’s such a small part of it. And when the handler is also the trainer, the communication goes even deeper.

It started with training and living together, with all that we learned about each other and how to ask and answer each other:

  • “What next?”
  • “Is this what you wanted?”
  • “I’m waiting for you to do this thing before I do that thing.”

Then, in our working partnership, communication involved all of the above, plus how to move together in a huge variety of spaces (familiar and new) and with a great variety of assistive equipment. Not least of this was how much my functioning in a range of areas (voices, legs, arms, stability, coordination) changed drastically, and fluctuated even within new “levels.”

We were so able to predict each other’s intent that I really took it for granted. I remember, after Gadget died, emailing with someone whose heart dog had also died of cancer. They were not a service dog team, but they were a working dog team — her corgi herded sheep. She was the first to point out to me how obvious it was from the videos of Gadget and me working together that we had had a long, deeply connected partnership: how we moved together, how we communicated, “the dance.”

Gadget Watches Sharon Read Poetry to Elementary School Kids

Gadget even paid attention to me when surrounded by a group of rowdy small children. (He seems to be paying closer attention to my poetry than they were...).

[Photo description: Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen cannula, leaning forward with her mouth open, as if reading or talking. Gadget lies on the ground next to her in a green pack, looking up at her. In the foreground are several first-graders, looking in many different directions, some of them obviously moving around.]

Scene V: Part of My Body, Part of My Dreams

The caretaking Gadget did for me when I got Lyme disease rose to a new level. When Gadget got sick, our bond became that much stronger. The caretaking I did for him when he got lymphoma rose to a new level, too.

We spent every waking moment together, and a lot of the non-waking ones, too. After he died, I continued to dream about him.

We fell asleep together

We fell asleep together.

[Photo description: Sharon lies sprawled, asleep on her bed, turquoise T-shirt and pink pajama pants. Her head lolls to the side off her pillow. Between her legs, with his head resting on her abdomen, lies Gadget, also asleep. One foreleg stretches across Sharon's knee, the other is bent against her thigh. They lie on a bright red comforter, with a large beige cushion propping Sharon's upper body against the wall. An overbed table on the left side of the frame shows paper, pens, water bottles, and a jumble of other indistinct items, making it clear Sharon spends her days and nights in that spot. Sharon and Gadget both look completely relaxed and unaware that they are having their picture taken.]

I still can’t believe he’s gone.

Just like Jersey, when Gadget and I were working together full-time as a service dog team, he entered my dreams. Wherever I was, and whatever I was doing, in my dreams, Gadget was there, too. There was never an “I,” there was only a “we.”

After he died, I talked about feeling like I’d suffered an amputation, and having a sort of psychic phantom-limb pain. It’s not as metaphorical as it sounds. Just as one might reach out a hand to open a door and realize the hand is no longer there, I often turned to Gadget to open the door, to carry a message, to pick up something I dropped, and then realized he wasn’t there. The action was as instinctive as lifting my own hand would have been. It was a shock, over and over, that simple things were now so much more complicated.

At a pet loss bereavement chat online, a met a woman who lost her pet dog to cancer around the same time as I lost Gadget. She knew she would never get another dog. She told me her father, a widower, understood. It was how he felt about her mother. She’d been his one true love, and he didn’t feel the need to ever have another. That’s how she felt about her dog who had died.

I knew I would get another dog. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone having a service dog and then choosing not to have another, although I suppose it must happen. Still, that’s why we use the term “successor,” and not replacement.

Barnum will be Gadget’s successor, but no matter how great our love or our teamwork, no dog will ever be Gadget’s successor.

My love for him always feels too big to fit into this little blog space, no matter how many posts I write.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, the spirit of Jersey, and my current clown and acrobat, Barnum, service-dog-in-training

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