Archive for the 'Jersey' Category

They’re “Assistance Dogs,” Not “Public Access Dogs”

Brooke at ruled by paws is hosting Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #8 on the theme of “Marchin’ to Your Own Drum.”

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

Marching to Our Own Drum!

Lately I’ve begun to realize just how much my current approach to training my service dog (SD) diverges from ideas, approaches, and perceptions of SDs in the larger US culture. Specifically, my main focus is on training my assistance dog to perform behaviors that assist me, due to my disabilities. This would seem to be not only sensible, but the very definition of an assistance dog, wouldn’t it? Indeed, it is. If you read the service animal section of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you will find this:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

Yet, more and more I am coming across individuals, organizations, and websites focused primarily, or in some cases, exclusively, on training dogs in obedience and manners so that the dog can accompany its person in public. (Here is an organizational example of a focus that is primarily on public access. Here is an organizational example of a non-task training approach to SD work.)

It’s understandable that public access training (which includes a dog being obedient, well-mannered, and unobtrusive in public as well as being able to perform necessary assistance tasks in public) is receiving so much attention. Public access is a legal issue, so it’s natural that organizations and individuals are concerned about complying with the law. Further, there are more assistance dogs working and being trained than ever before, which means more SDs are showing up in public. Into the mix add that more people are partner-training than ever before (with a great range of experience and skill) and that many partners have hidden disabilities that make them more vulnerable to access challenges. Finally, and sadly, there are an increasing number of people who wish to commit fraud by trying to pass off their pet dogs as SDs — both people with disabilities who have not done the necessary training and people without disabilities who simply want the companionship of their dog away from home. The pressure on the SD handler to make sure their dog behaves with perfect comportment at all times is thus a very big deal in the assistance dog world.

Meanwhile, here I am, training my dog to help me around the house — open and shut doors, turn on and off lights, pick up things I drop, carry messages to my human assistants, etc. We are barely doing any public access training simply because I spend almost all my time in bed and very rarely leave the house, so training in public is very difficult, and having a working dog in public is much less important than one who helps me at home. Barnum has to be “on call” at home at any time I might need him. Fortunately, his personality and the way we have trained mean that he is eager to jump into action.

Barnum stands back a few inches from the fridge door which is now open a few inches.

Barnum opens the fridge for me.

I realize our situation is not that of most teams. In some cases public access is always crucial to the dog’s work. Guide dogs often work exclusively outside the home and are off duty at home. Their work involves assisting their human partners to get to and from work, school, restaurants, hotels, conferences, and subways. Thus, public work is essential for a guide dog.

For people with other types of assistance dogs, too, there is usually an expectation of public work — alerting or guiding or providing mobility assistance in stores, on the street, at work, etc. Most people with assistance dogs bring their SD with them everywhere for two reasons:

  1. The dog’s work is necessary or important for the disabled person in public, and
  2. The working bond between the partners is strengthened by ongoing work and training in a variety of settings and/or on a daily basis

Still, the proliferation of both SD fraud and poorly trained SDs have led some assistance dog organizations to require passing a public access test as proof that a dog is a service dog. For example, to be a partner member of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), I have to sign a form saying that my SD has or would be able to pass their public access test/definition. So, even though I have had two previous SDs and have been an IAADP member for a dozen years, now I’m no longer a partner member because Barnum and I don’t go out. I feel very sad about this.

Yet, Barnum is a working service dog around the house. You can see how much we’ve accomplished in this regard in just a month by comparing this recent post from July to this one from June.

I feel frustrated by this, and the irony does not escape me: the more disabled I am, and the more I need my service dog, the less I fit neatly into the category of a SD team. In fact, I can trace the changes in my disabilities in part by what my service dogs have done for me at a given time.

My first service dog, Jersey, did help me around the house, but the biggest difference she made for me was that she enabled me to occasionally go out by myself. I trained her to cart my oxygen tanks to and from the car, and to carry groceries from the van to the front door and then to the fridge. At doctor’s appointments or other occasional outings, her carrying my water and other things in a pack left my hands free to push my oxygen cart if I was walking. I went grocery shopping once every month or two with her and my mobility scooter, which was something I had previously not been able to do since I got sick. Before Jersey, I always needed someone to take me shopping.

[Note: I have some great photographs of Jersey working, but they haven’t been scanned into a computer yet. I hope to get the pics inserted by the time the Carnival goes up. Please come back in a week or two, and hopefully they’ll be here!]

Even the things she helped me out with around the house are different from the tasks I need canine assistance with now. For example, Jersey helped me fold and put away the laundry. But now I have human assistants do that. She also carted gardening supplies, which enabled me to garden. Now I’m much too sick to garden. Once, when I walked into my backyard to pick apples, I was too sick to walk back unaided, and she helped me get back home. Now there’s no question of me wandering out on foot into a field.

Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen canula, 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.

Gadget in a calm down-stay and paying attention to me while surrounded by little kids.

Gadget, my second SD, learned the same things Jersey did — bracing, carrying a pack, retrieving, loading and unloading groceries — but I also added some additional skills so that he could help out with more stuff at home.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house.

He learned how to alert me to the kitchen timer, to let the cat and himself in and out, to open and shut doors, to bring me the phone. When I got Lyme disease and became much more disabled than before, those skills became much more crucial than the ones for going shopping or putting away laundry. And then I taught him new things that were much more important — getting Betsy or my PCA when I couldn’t speak, turning lights on and off and bringing me water from the refrigerator to take my pills when I couldn’t get out of bed, etc.

Meanwhile, Barnum has learned to do things that Gadget didn’t. Barnum has a much more refined “go get person/deliver message” than Gadget did. He is helping me with undressing, which Gadget never learned. He alerts to my various alarms and pumps. And I still have plans for him to learn additional skills that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Barnum with a red plaid flannel pouch about 3 inches by 3 inches velcroed to the back of his collar.

This is the pouch Barnum wears for transporting messages or small items to or from others in my home.

Some of you may remember that when Barnum was younger, I was concerned that he’d never make it as my service dog because he was such a distracted, hyper flake in public. The irony is that since he’s matured, on the occasions I have taken him into public to train, he’s done really well — especially considering his age and his bouncy nature. I could have passed Jersey off as a fully trained SD before she had finished her training because her manners were so perfect and calm in public. She could have been doing nothing to help me, and we wouldn’t have been challenged because we “looked like” a SD team.

I once read about a SD program which had a separate category for dogs who could assist their people in the home but not work in public (due to anxiety or distractibility); they called these dogs “companion dogs” and they were not considered service animals. That has always bothered me. A “companion animal” is a pet. Dogs, cats, birds are all referred to as “companion animals.” However, a dog that opens and shuts the fridge, turns lights on and off, helps with the laundry, and retrieves dropped items for her disabled handler is a service dog, not a pet. If that dog doesn’t do well in public, obviously the dog should be left home when the person goes out. But that doesn’t make the dog any less a service dog. Why not just call that type of dog an “in-home service dog”? It would be more accurate, and in my opinion, more respectful to both members of the team.

Barnum standing on hind legs, front paws planted on the wall, nudging switch down with his nose. He's over 5 feet tall this way.

Barnum turns off the lights.

Barnum is already, by legal definition, a service dog: he increases my independence and safety by performing assistance tasks, which is what assistance dogs are supposed to do. The fact that my level of function and my level of dependence on humans is more than most assistance dog partners (and more than my previous level) doesn’t change that. However, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say he’s a SD in the eyes of assistance dog organizations, because I don’t know if we’ll do enough training — if I, myself, will leave the house enough, let alone with him — for him to pass a public access test. I try not to let it get to me. In the scheme of things, what’s most important is that Barnum and I are happy and productive together. I do hope, though, to feel a greater sense of acceptance and respect from the assistance dog community one day.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum SD/SDiT

What Kind of Dog Is That? Reactions to a Bouvier Service Dog

This post is for the third Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC), which is now up!

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

The Third Carnival Is Up!

There were so many tempting topics to write about for the third ADBC, the theme for which is “Reactions.” Some options were my MCS reactions and how they affect SD training and partnership, my current SDiT’s or past SDs’ reactions to various events in life, other people’s reactions to encountering a disabled trainer, etc.

However, I decided to write something fun: Public reactions to a little-known breed of service dog.

Warning: My SDs are not golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, standard poodles, mixes of any of the above, or German shepherd dogs! Yes, it’s shocking but true!

This topic is a goldmine of hilarity. Oh, the stories! The outrageous guesses! It does a former humor columnist’s heart good to remember and compile them.

Let’s start with the standard question:

“What kind of dog is that?”

If I had a dollar for each time I’d been asked that, I could probably buy a new dog!

In fact, after a few months of public access work with Jersey, my first bouvier des Flandres service dog, I created a little pamphlet that I kept in her pack, which I handed out to the curious general public.

The title of the pamphlet was, “What Kind of Dog Is That?”

It gave a brief overview: That bouviers were developed as a herding and general farm-work dog in the region that is now The Netherlands and Belgium. They herded cattle (their name is French for “cattle herder of Flanders”), herded sheep, pulled carts, drove livestock into town, and protected the humans and animals on the farm from intruders.

It mentions that they are hypoallergenic, with hair instead of fur — hair that grows until you cut it, and mats easily, and requires a lot of upkeep. It also says that they are not the right dog for most people, and as a result, they are not a popular breed in the U.S. (which is good, in my opinion).

I include some basic service dog information, such as that I trained the dog myself, and that I prefer that people not pet or otherwise distract my dog. I also say that I need to get my errands done as quickly as possible to preserve my health and functioning, so I prefer not to have to field a lot of questions.

I encourage them to learn more about assistance dogs by visiting the IAADP website.

When Jersey retired, and Gadget started working, I revised the pamphlet, changing the references from “Jersey” to “Gadget” and the “she”s to “he”s. When Barnum is trained, I’ll update the pamphlet again, although I’ve now developed  a policy of not telling people Barnum’s name (a story for another time).

Usually, when people ask, “What kind of dog is that?” the conversation proceeds as follows:

Me: A bouvier.

Person: A what?

Me: (Enunciating very clearly)  A boo-vee-ay. The full name is bouvier des Flandres. It means “cow-herding dog of Belgium.”

Person: Huh, I’ve never heard of that. A what-was-it, did you say?

Me: Bouvier.

Person: I’ve never heard of them.

Me: They’re not very popular in the U.S. They can be difficult. Some of them can be aggressive if not trained properly.

Person: (Looking disappointed and wary) Oh. Well, he’s beautiful!

Me: Thank you!

Then there are the “Guessers.” These are the people who want to play twenty questions about what type of dog Barnum is.

This starts with the stranger approaching and saying, “Excuse me, is that a [breed]?”

The most common guess is a Labradoodle. Now that I have met doodles, I see why this is such a popular guess. We met a black Labradoodle last summer who could have been Barnum’s twin.

In all fairness to the people who are way off, I give my dogs terrible haircuts. They don’t look at all like the bouviers people see on TV in the big conformation competitions, like Westminster. If I’m really trying hard to give a haircut that looks in any way fashionable, it usually comes out like a giant schnauzer cut or some sort of mutant terrier. Which is why. . . .

Other frequent guesses are giant schnauzers (which is pretty close, appearance-wise), briards (again, a good guess, a lot of similar characteristics), standard poodles (it’s the coat),  various terriers, including a wire-fox terrier (I think it’s the coat) and wheaten terriers (which are about a third the size of a bouv, so again, it’s the coat), Kerry blue terriers (again, yes, if the Kerry blue was on steroids and black or gray), a pointer or Weimaraner (when Gadget’s coat was shaved for the summer), Newfoundlands (size problem in reverse), and in more recent years, thanks to President Obama, Portuguese water dogs (which is close in many ways, except the size) and sometimes, remarkably . . .

Someone will say, “Hey, is that a bouvier?”

I say, “Yes!” And give them a big smile. I might even chat with them a couple of minutes and congratulate them on their discerning eye. Usually they have had a bouvier of their own or have a family member with one, which is why they recognized the breed. (Bouviers are much less common in the Northeast than in the Midwest and California.)

Among the Guessers, there are also the people who question my knowledge of the breed of my dog. Particularly when the doodles trend  had just begun, and people were asking me, “Is that one of those mixes between a poodle and a Lab?” and I’d say, “No,” they wouldn’t leave it at that.

“Are you sure?” They’d say. “Because it really looks like a Lab-poodle or [fill-in-the-blank other doodle breed].”

“Mm,” I’d say, and move on.

Most often, “Challengers,” want to suggest that really my bouvier is a mixed breed, and I just don’t know it:

Person: What kind of dog is that?

Me: He’s a bouvier des Flandres.

Person: Hm, well to me he looks like a mix of a [breed] and [another breed].

Me: Well, he’s a bouvier.

Person: Did you get him from a breeder?

Me: (In the case of Jersey and Gadget) I got her/him from bouvier rescue.

Person: I’ve never heard of a bouvier.

Me: Uh-huh.

Barnum, in particular, stumps people because his coat is so very curly that, even though he resembles them in no other way, poodles are the most common guess.

A recent interchange:

Man: Is that a poodle?

Me: He’s a bouvier des Flandres.

Man: Is that some sort of poodle?

Me: No.

At least all of the breed Guessers are guessing the right species. They earn cookies for that.

There is a whole subsection of people who have not realized that my dogs are, in fact, dogs.

Jersey, bless her heart, was pegged as a non-dog more often than Gadget or Barnum have been. I attribute this to four factors:

  1. Her cropped ears and docked tail. While I am not in favor of cropping and docking, when I first was trying to adopt a bouvier, it was very hard to find a bouvier raised in the US who had natural ears. That is becoming more the norm, but it’s still really rare to find a breeder who doesn’t dock the tails. The lack of doggy ears and tails contribute to the already bear-like appearance of many bouvs.
  2. Her movement. Jersey tended to shamble along, with lowered head, which, again, leant a certain ursine quality to her appearance. This gait is a bouv trait, but Jersey was particularly prone to it.
  3. Her lack of movement. Jersey was an accomplished power-napper. (Another bouv trait.) When she was in a down-stay, she went into all-out “holding-down-the-floor” mode.
  4. As with all my bouvs, I let her hair grow in the winter. This makes them look very shaggy and about twice their actual size. This means that . . .

Bouviers get mistaken for bears a lot.

I know it’s not just me, because I have met a number of people online whose bouvs are named Bear or Teddy or something along those lines.

Also, when I joined the bouvier group on Dogster, the first discussion topic bore the title, “Is that a bear?! Non, c’est un bouvier des Flandres!”

Since I live in an area where black bear sightings are not uncommon, it is both more and less understandable that people would think bouvs are bears. More understandable, because people know there are bears around, so there is more “bear awareness.” Less understandable because, when you actually are used to seeing bears (I had a recurring problem with bears invading my porch and compost bin at my previous home), you see that there are many important distinguishing features between the species, particularly size. A black bear weighs hundreds of pounds, whereas a bouv usually tops out at 100 pounds or so. All of mine have been 75 pounds or less.

The first time I experienced “the bear phenomenon” was when my roommate and I were walking down the main street of Northampton to go to Gay Pride. I was wearing skimpy, slutty black clothes because it was Pride, and that was my tradition (striking a blow against disability stereotypes and feeding my exhibitionist streak at the same time. [I was younger and cuter then; I could carry it off.])

Anyway, a carload of guys, probably college students, went by, and we heard yelling and calling, and Laurel  and I rolled our eyes  at each other, thinking it was just the usual harassment. But then, we heard what one of them actually yelled, which was, “Oh my god! Those people have a BEAR on a LEASH!”

Gotta love living in the five-colleges area. Higher education at work (probably combined with several beers.)

Another time, I was at the grocery store, at one end of the frozen food section. A small child was with her mom near the other end, moving toward us. The little girl kept saying, “Mom, is that a bear or a dog? Is that a bear or a dog?”

The mom was not answering. I’m not sure if she was busy or distracted or embarrassed that her child was pointing out the existence of the disabled woman, probably a combination.

Finally, the mother, exasperated, said, “What do you think it is?”

The little girl contemplated Jersey and me for a bit and then said, “I think it’s a bear.”

Then, there are the times it happens in reverse — to those of us with bouv-on-the-brain. One night, driving home late, Betsy was very tired. In the street ahead she saw a shape, and her first thought was,”Why is there a bouvier in the road?”

Of course, when she got closer, she realized it was a bear.

But it’s not just bears. . . .

Another fun story of a young child still “learning their animals” occurred at the same grocery store as the little girl who thought Jersey was a bear. In this case, I had Gadget with me.

I was in the produce area, which is big and hectic and teeming. I usually try to get out of there as fast as possible, because the store tends to put displays of fruit on little rickety tables at the ends of aisles, which are easy to knock into.

So, Gadget and I were making our way along when I saw a very familiar scene begin to unfold. A little boy, maybe about five years old, was shopping with his two moms. He saw me and started bouncing excitedly, pointing and jabbering to his moms.

One of them said, “Okay, but you have to ask first.”

I was all prepared with my little speech I give to children about how this is a working dog who needs to be able to focus on helping me, and that, therefore, while I appreciate very much that he was asking first — and that it’s always important to ask before you pet any dog — I was sorry but he couldn’t pet my dog.

That’s not what happened.

The boy rushed over to me, and said very sweetly and earnestly, “Can I pet your cat?”

I was so surprised that I just said, “Sure.”

Given that he lives in Northampton and has lesbian parents, I cut him some slack that he thought my animal companion must be a cat. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, think of all the lesbians you know, and tally the number that have cats.  If some don’t, there is likely a cat allergy involved.)

I’ll end with one last Jersey story.

A friend and I were at my town’s Fall Festival, where people from the town, as well as people from the surrounding area and a lot of tourists, come to eat maple sugar products, buy or sell crafts, and watch or participate in Pumpkin Games, such as relay races where little kids try to carry as many pumpkins as possible over a finish line.

My friend and I had just bought lunch and were sitting on the porch of the country store. Jersey, wearing her green pack, lay on the deck beside me.

A man walked by, nodded and smiled at us, glanced at Jersey, then, after taking another couple of steps, did a double-take and screeched to a stop.

“Oh my god!” He said. “I thought that was a stuffed animal, and then I saw it move!”

We all had a chuckle, and I told him that Jersey was, indeed, doing her rock impression. To his credit, the man had thought Jersey was a toy dog, as opposed to a massive teddy bear.

Of course he followed up with,”What kind of dog is that?”

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I was gray, so nobody thought I was a bear), the spirit of Jersey (Call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner), and Barnum, SDiT and non-poodle

P.S. Remember to go to The Trouble Is… to read the other great ADBC posts!

For information on future carnivals, visit the ADBC page here.

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

My Sweet Jersey Girl

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

* * *

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

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

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

Jersey in profile

My Sweet Jersey Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jersey inside a futon

Jersey gives The Stare even from inside a folded futon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon, Jersey, and Gadget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, we welcome your comments!

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

Getting Concrete

The new puppy is eight weeks old today and has been temperament tested, confirming all the great observations his breeder has made in the past few weeks. If the weather and airlines cooperate, he will be arriving this Saturday!

Here he is. Isn’t he the cutest thing since . . . um . . . since puppies?

Boy 1 at 6 1/2 weeks old

Face turned away from the camera! We'll take lots of pictures when he gets home.

(A short, low-quality video of him play with his siblings, and additional pictures, is available at the breeder’s website when you click on “New Arrivals.”)

Knowing he’ll be my puppy in just a few days, I’ve been preparing. I’ve been drawing up schedules and lesson plans. I’ve been getting concrete.

I mean that literally: I’ve spent a month searching for slabs of pavement and concrete to put in my yard. I’ve posted on four local Freecycle lists, “WANTED: Assorted Yard and Street Debris,” and then asked for bricks, pavers, blacktop, cement, or the like. If you are like everyone else I’ve talked with about this, you think this is entertainingly weird and unfathomable. I can explain, but first you must understand that there are two key points that underlie this whole adventure.

Point One: Assistance dogs need to be able to eliminate on command.

This is so that your dog can eliminate at a time that is convenient and comfortable for both of you. In other words, if your dog is working (e.g., guiding you or helping you balance or closely monitoring your health condition in case she needs to alert), it’s bad for both team members if she has to do this while really needing to relieve herself. It is also so that, if you are at work or in the mall or at the hospital for several hours, your dog isn’t “holding it” the whole time.

This can be such a crucial skill that inability to eliminate on cue is one of the top reasons otherwise-promising candidates wash out of guide dog school. (I’ll write a post on The Great Fear of Washing Out in the future.)

In my experience, teaching a dog to eliminate on cue, in itself, is not the hard part. The hard part is getting them to do it under any condition.

For example, I trained Jersey, my first service dog, to pee on command very well. She would go immediately, and it didn’t matter where I was in relation to her, as long as it was grass (or in winter, snow). The grass issue is key; I’ll get to that further down.

Pooping was another story. Jersey was a shy pooper. She was, in every respect, a lady — sweet, gentle, excellent manners, not an aggressive bone in her body. Unfortunately, Jersey’s Southern Belle tendencies extended to toileting. Once her recall was solid, I made the mistake of allowing her to eliminate off-leash. I lived on 50 acres of fields and forest at the time. Of course, this lady wanted her privacy! Jersey would go waaaay out into the field to poop. If she was on leash, or I was nearby, she would hold it forever. Really. It required an enormously long walk before she would relent and release, if then.

She wouldn’t even poop if anyone was watching her. This made getting a stool sample for her check-ups quite an adventure! I would let her out, then, as she headed for the field, a PCA and I would sneak out and hide, flattened against the wall, as if we were playing Charlie’s Angels. (Except, instead of guns, we held plastic bags.) We would peek out periodically to see if she had attained squat mode. Likewise, Jersey, who knew something was up, would look back now and again to check that nobody was watching.

Once she took up the telltale hunch, she was committed. My PCA would run to where Jersey was trying to finish up her business as fast as she could, and I would try to find some sort landmark to keep in sight in relation to the pooped area.

“There,” I’d yell to my PCA. “Somewhere near that brown leaf, behind that patch of tall grass.” In a big, open field, there’s not a lot to go by. The PCA would move forward slowly, trying not to step in the “sample.” We all hated stool-collection day.

I made better choices with Gadget. For one thing, I learned that the cue, “Piddle!” is very embarrassing to issue in a public place. Gadget’s cue was “Hurry up!” I also got him used to peeing and pooping on command while leashed, though given his druthers, he, too, preferred to poop off-leash in the distance. (Tangent: Are all dogs, given the opportunity, privacy poopers? Or is this a Bouvier thing? I don’t remember my first dog, a Border Collie mix, acting this way, but we lived in the suburbs, so she was on leash for all her walks. If you have an opinion, please share.)

Point Two: Dogs will only “go” (unless it’s really urgent) on the type of surface to which they’re accustomed, or after a lot of training with no other options.

Since I live in the country, the surface both Jersey and Gadget were accustomed to was grass or some other natural surface (leaves, snow, etc.). I believe all dogs prefer this, but they certainly can be taught to eliminate on pavement. (Most guide dog schools assume their dogs will be working in an urban environment and train for that.) However, if a dog has been toileting on natural surfaces all his life, you’re really asking the impossible to suddenly tell him to relieve himself on tarmac with no practice.

Now, I need to explain what I mean when I say I “live in the country” or that “I’m rural,” because one thing I have discovered is that non-rural people often think they know what rural means, when they actually don’t. I ran into this when discussing The Great Toilet Surface Search to a fellow assistance-dog partner, for example. Being rural, in my present location, not only means no cell phone reception, cable, or DSL; and unpaved, rocky, hilly roads that require four-wheel drive; it also means the nearest blacktop is at least half a mile away, and the nearest cement sidewalk (all ten feet of it), is three miles away. So, I cannot possibly expect to toilet train a pup by asking him to “hold it” until we can make it to a surface other than grass or gravel.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Since you live in the country, why not just let him relieve himself there? Why does he have to learn to go on other surfaces?”

The answer is that while I currently spend 99 percent of my time at home, I am hoping to be able to get out more eventually, and on those rare occasions when I do go somewhere now, I’m generally in a biiiig parking lot, full of pavement, with nary a blade of grass in sight. Part of being rural means long car trips to get almost anywhere. For example, even if I had Gadget pee before we got in the van if it was a long ride, or if we were going to be indoors for an extended or indefinite period, such as the ER, I wanted him to “go” right before we headed in, as well. This meant that I had to hunt down some tiny patch of scrubby grass or a pathetic shrub before Gadget and I could go in to see the dentist or buy some groceries.

I want my new little guy to go wherever, whenever I ask him, whether that be on grass, asphalt, brick, concrete, dirt, or wood chips. In order for him to be used to doing this, he has to have a lot of practice on a variety of surfaces. The advantage this time around is that I’m working with a puppy, who is not yet able to “hold it” very long and who will be willing to let go wherever we happen to be when the urge hits.

To this end, we have been constructing The Wondrous Doggy Toileting Area next to the ramp.  That way, when I take the little guy out of his crate to run him outdoors to relieve himself before a session of play or training, our “toilet” will have options of snow,  gravel, brick, “grass” (which is really frozen grassicles and dirt at this time of year), cement pavers, or blacktop. With him on a short leash, I can take him to whichever surface I want him to use, so that we rotate among different types on an ongoing basis.

There’s other stuff happening, too.

Lest you think I’m a case for a Freudian analyst, let me assure you, I do have other preparations underway that are not about excretory functions. I’ve got my stock of puppy toys and puppy food, I bought a bunch of new clickers and wrist holders for them, which I will place, with treats, all around the house. I’m rereading my puppy-raising and dog-training books and watching my dog training DVDs.

We have rearranged furniture, done a bit of puppy proofing, and set up the crates again (with divider panels), which, of course, has brought up fresh waves of grief and tears, as I’m reminded of the way things looked, smelled, felt with Gadget, and are now no longer. I’m happy and excited, then I feel sad and cry, then I focus on puppy preparations again. If I thought sitting on an actual nest would help, I’d be doing that, too.

For those who have been asking or suggesting names, no we have not yet named him. One of the most exciting anticipatory activities has been noodling with potential names. I have never named my own dog before! I’ve named cats, rabbits, fish, mice, etc., but all my previous dogs were rescues, and I didn’t have the heart to add one more change to their lives. Betsy and I have discussed scores — several dozen — names, and I’ve narrowed it down to two that seem promising. However, I won’t know his name for sure until I meet him. As my wise PCA, Nancy (who has more animal experience than I ever will), said to me, “He’ll tell you his name when you meet him.”

I am sure she is right. And once we’ve met, I’ll take him outside to his new multi-surfaced toileting area and say, “Okay, Mr.____, hurry up!”

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

P.S. Please, please, please send positive vibes for good weather and clear skies from 4AM through 8PM this Saturday in Hartford, Raleigh, Chicago, Detroit, and Des Moines! Because Betsy has several connections to make between Hartford and Des Moines and back again!

Sick Humor Retro: The Hindrance Dog

Grief takes many forms. There is sorrow, longing, anger, and numbness. Yet, there is also reminiscing. Reflecting on the good, bad, and funny times.

With Gadget, most of my favorite memories are the times that are hilarious now, but were far from funny at the time.

When Gadget was most challenging, I often thought, “Yes, someday, I’ll look back on this and laugh. But for now, I’ll just whimper. Or cry.”

I admit, though, even in the midst of pain or exhaustion, frustration or exasperation, my inner voice whispered, “Heidi is going to love to hear this one!” Or, “I bet I can use this for a humor column.” Or, “Boy, did I make a fool of myself today!”

It was really impossible to stay angry at my boy when he ran as if he might take off and fly from joy, his wildly flopping ears adding to that impression. He loved me with the same abandon as he ran: he once rolled onto his back in my lap, threw back his head to lick my face, and broke my nose with the top of his hard skull. He might paw me in deference and enthusiasm and leave deep, bloody scratches on my legs.

Gadget kisses Sharon

Some kisses were safer than others

Of course, this was when he was young and untutored, before he became the magnificent helper who I came to rely on so much. Before I took much of his help for granted.

Sick Humor Rides — and Crashes — Again

Since I have referred to Gadget as my muse at the end of each After Gadget post, I feel it’s time to give him his due as the muse he used to be when I wrote a monthly column called “Sick Humor.” Gadget starred in a few of my stories about the funny side of life with chronic illness.

Gadget is gone. I haven’t written a column in years. But my new puppy will be here in three weeks — wildness and unpredictability arriving with him. I think it’s a good time to remember that from distractable, unmannerly buffoons grow calm professionals.

In other words, Gadget, my perfect dog was not necessarily the “best” dog. In fact, in 1991, I called him . . .

“The Hindrance Dog”

This morning I got up at 6:30, which is generally as much adventure as I can handle in one day. I had to get the dogs to the vet. Jersey, my aging service dog, needed a growth on her lip removed. Gadget, the 70-pound puppy I recently adopted, was scheduled for neutering.

Jersey provides me greater mobility and independence. Three years ago, when I adopted and trained her, she was the perfect assistance dog. A mellow, acquiescent “floor potato” who was easy to train, she retrieves what I drop, steadies me when I walk, brings me my slippers, and is a quiet companion when I’m too sick to stir. However, as one friend put it, “Jersey acts like it’s her job but not her career.” Like most people, Jersey works but she’d rather be sleeping. Or eating. Especially eating.

When Jersey developed arthritis I knew it was time to find a trainee to succeed her. I wanted my new dog to master complicated skills that were beyond the phlegmatic Jersey. I sought a younger, more energetic pupil — the canine equivalent of a workaholic. A dog who would bound off to find help in a crisis, pull my wheelchair with gusto, and carry groceries like they were Faberge eggs. Enter Gadget — a urine-spritzing, slobber-spraying, fur-covered ball of muscle — who was about to kiss (or rather, lick) his manhood goodbye.

The dogs needed a brief walk because we didn’t have much time to get to the vet. I climbed aboard my mobility scooter and clipped Gadget’s lead to my handle bar. As usual, Gadget ran joyously ahead, Jersey and I following sedately behind. I planned to head back before we got too near my neighbors’ house, to prevent rousing their dogs and disturbing them with sunrise racket.

As we reached my neighbors’ barn, I opened my mouth to call my duo home, but before I could speak, my neighbors’ dogs started barking. Gadget spotted his best friend, a Lab mix named Shadow, and lunged to the end of his leash.

“Come on!” I hissed, still trying for stealth. “We’re not playing. We’re leaving.” I could hear Lilin calling from her house. I wasn’t sure if she was calling me, Sharon, or her dog, Shadow.

“Its Sharon,” I yelled, so she wouldn’t think I was an intruder, sneaking in at dawn’s early light. “Sorry!” I bellowed, as an afterthought, preparing to head home.

The Anti-Lassie

“In dog training,” the books say, “timing is everything.” This is true. Today Gadget gave me a lesson in timing as swift and sure as if I’d been wearing a choke chain.

As my scooter reached the halfway point in its arc toward home — perpendicular to my gasping service-dog-in-training — Gadget bolted, pulling my scooter over on top of me. Relying on the quick thinking and steady nerves that have made me the skilled dog-handler I am today, I immediately took charge of the situation.

“Aieeeee!” I screamed, as I slammed into the hard-packed earth.

“Ow!” I clarified, as 200 pounds of metal and plastic landed on me.

Then I tried to get up. Unfortunately, my right foot was pinned under the scooter, which was now an immobility vehicle. I looked at the dogs to see how they were coping with this sudden, troubling turn of events.

 

Sharon, Jersey, and Gadget

An outing after Gadget had learned his stuff, Jersey was retired, and the chair and I were upright

 

Jersey lay contentedly in the grass about 30 feet away. Gadget continued to hurl himself to the end of his lead, oblivious that parts of the leash — as well as of me — were trapped under the scooter.

I assessed the situation and decided on a plan.

“Help!” I yelled, flailing in the dust. “Lilin?” I hoped my neighbor was making her way behind the barn to find the source of the ruckus. “Help! It’s Sharon!”

Then, both dogs, hearing my distress, continued as they were.

“Oh my God! Sharon!” Lilin rounded the corner, gasping, her hand covering her mouth.

“I’m taking the dogs to the vet,” I said inanely as I lay in the dirt. “That’s why I’m up so early.”

Seeing another human with me, Gadget trotted over, waggled at the two of us, then went back to desperately trying to get to Shadow.

Lilin is not a big woman, but bless her, she is strong. She lifted the scooter off my foot and helped me tip it back onto its wheels. Scratched and grimy, the right side of my overalls hanging broken, I had to keep reassuring her I was okay.

I really was, too. No injuries, just scrapes and bruises — especially to my ego. After all, the reasons I’d acquired a scooter and a service dog were to become less needy of other people’s help. This was not how I’d envisioned it coming together.

Nonetheless, Lilin and I untangled the dogs and made our ways home, Gadget straining the whole time.

I have faith that Gadget will make an excellent assistance dog, once he is trained to get help in a crisis as opposed to causing the crisis in the first place. For the time being, however, I have changed his rank from “assistance-dog-in-training” to “hindrance dog.”

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget (who truly earned the title of Service Dog with every passing year)

We welcome your comments as always.

 

Eyeteeth

Eye – tooth

1. Dentistry: A canine tooth of the upper jaw

Idioms: 2. a. cut one’s eyeteeth, to gain experience; become worldly-wise.
b. cut one’s eyeteeth on, to be initiated or gain one’s first experience in.

3. give one’s eyeteeth, to give up something one considers very precious

Close-up of Gadget's head, looking tired, on couch

Gadget tired, but precious, near the end

Leaving the Den

I have an eye doctor appointment tomorrow, and I don’t know how I will get through it. I guess if you cry at the ophthalmologist’s, you can blame it on the eye drops, right?

This will be my first time going anywhere since Gadget’s death.

Dental Crowns and Dental Clowns

The last time I went more than a few feet from my home was two months ago — for a dental cleaning. It felt really weird going anywhere without Gadget, and especially that dentist’s office because it was the dog-friendliest place I ever went.

Actually, that’s an understatement. The office staff had perfect assistance-dog etiquette. They admired Gadget and talked to me about him, but never petted him or talked to him. They had a Yorkie who was usually in the waiting room, but when they saw me enter with a service dog, they would whisk away their fiercely yapping guardian so that she would not interfere with my dog’s concentration.

They helped me train two service dogs in how to behave in confined, medical situations. First was Jersey, who mastered the down-stay as only a true Bouvier “floor potato” could, and spoiled me for life in my expectations in that regard. She was the queen of the flawless down-stay (AKA “nap”).

Jersey folded inside a futon with just her head peeking over the top

Jersey could even nap inside a folded-up bed

Then came Gadget, who, our first couple visits, got up every five minutes to snuffle my hand or treat pouch, wander into the hallway, complain of boredom, walk to the other side of the chair (and get his leash tangled around the equipment), stare at me accusatorily for putting him through this idle purgatory, or just to lie down in a more comfortable spot, which was always either the hallway or where Beverly, the dental hygienist, needed to stand to clean my teeth.

Beverly loved my dogs. Even when Gadget was popping up every few minutes to interrupt her job, Beverly would smile, laugh, say how cute he was. I would get him back in position, tell him to stay, wait a nanosecond, toss him a treat, wait thirty seconds, toss him another treat, wait a minute, two minutes, five minutes, treat, treat, treat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

At the end of every appointment, Beverly would say — whether it was perfect Jersey or antsy Gadget — “She/he was so good.

And I’d roll my eyes and thank her, thinking that considering that Gadget had turned a 20-minute teeth cleaning into a forty-five minute training session, “We have a very different idea of what ‘good’ is!”

Looking back, I wish I’d cut him as much slack as Beverly did.

Later, when Gadget was fully trained and exhibiting excellent decorum, Beverly would say how far we’d come, what a great job I did training him, what a smart, wonderful, cute service dog he was. Of course, I agreed!

It was such a gift to have a “real world” training ground where dogs who are still learning — in other words, real dogs — were welcome. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive each direction, and they don’t take my Medicare or Medicaid, but I’ll never go anywhere else.

Long in the Tooth

This last time at the dentist — two months ago — was a world away from cleanings with Beverely. For one, I didn’t see Beverly except to pass her in the hall and say hi.

When I’d called to make my appointment, I’d explained that, for three years, not only had I been too ill to come in, but I had also not had stellar oral hygiene at home. I wanted to prepare them for the full scenario, which was that most days, a PCA (personal care assistant) would brush my teeth once, but twice in a day was exceedingly rare, and sometimes I went days without getting my teeth brushed. I was certain (as was one of my PCAs, who kept pointing out “a dark area” on one of my teeth until I told her, nicely, to shut up about it), that I had at least one, or probably several, cavities. Further, my teeth were covered in dark yellow and brown stains from the antibiotics I was on. Lastly, I said I couldn’t enter the small hygienist cubicle because I was now a full-time powerchair user.

The receptionist said she’d make me an appointment with the dentist himself (in his spacious office), and if I had cavities, he would try to fill at least one that visit. During my lengthy explanation of my dental negligence, I slipped in that I’d also been too busy to come in for a cleaning because I’d been taking care of Gadget, who had terminal cancer.

Although I didn’t ask her to, I hoped the receptionist would pick up on this clue and spread the word, because, whether he was still alive or not by the date of my appointment, I knew he wouldn’t be coming with me. For the past decade, everyone who worked there was used to seeing me walk in with a big, bear-like dog carrying a colorful pack. Now, for the first time, I would be accompanied by my mother, not Gadget. I would wheel through that doorway, dogless.

When I arrived, I knew immediately that the receptionist had understood and passed on the information. Nobody asked where Gadget was or mentioned him at all. There was no Yorkie in sight, either. I was so grateful not to have to answer any questions.

I felt naked without Gadget, but I was too consumed with the struggles of the moment to dwell on it. I entered at 1:00, able to speak and to easily stand to transfer. By 1:15, the ordeal of getting x-rays had so exhausted me that I couldn’t speak a word and could scarcely move my hand to write on a notepad to communicate. Then there were several small chemical exposures that sent me into coughing and gagging fits, which exhausted me still further. I had to keep downing medication and supplements to keep from falling out of that chair.

One of the benefits of extreme pain or illness is when it’s bad enough, you don’t care about anything else. So, except for the occasional unthinking search for a fuzzy gray figure on the floor, I was too busy trying not to cry from pain and exhaustion to spare a thought for my beloved, dying dog, at home without me.

I also experienced an unanticipated sense of relief from being away for a few hours. I enjoyed a tiny timeout from Gadget’s illness. I knew Gadget was dying, but he was still feeling and acting pretty good, pretty normal. Nevertheless, I could see what was bearing down on us. The knowledge of this impending loss, too devastating to contemplate, hung over the house and all who entered it. I’d lived with that, to varying degrees, for six months. During Gadget’s last month, I made a frenzied, perpetual effort to keep him feeling as comfortable and happy as possible until his very last breath. My days and nights consisted of constant assessments, pillings, injections, gourmet feedings, special walks, and late-night calls to the vet. It was deeply meaningful and completely enervating.

It was a release to get away, for just a couple hours, from that marathon I knew would end in defeat. At the dentist, for the first time in six months, I only had to worry about and take care of myself.

Tooth and Nail

Unfortunately, it turned out that I should have worried about myself more, cared for myself at least as well as Gadget. I had worried about certain aspects of my health, but they turned out to be the wrong ones!

My fears had centered around a mouth full of cavities, brown teeth that could not be made white again, and gums that had gone to hell. However, my dentist discovered no cavities, and stains were vanquished with simple, old-fashioned scraping. Even my gums were fine. Not so the rest of me.

That day threw the rest of my body into severe relapse. Since then, I’ve barely been out of bed except for a daily trip to the bathroom and a weekly bath. My voice, which had been strong — here to stay, I thought — ran away and hid again. Pain and immobility pitched their tents in my muscles and bones.

It is only in the past week or so that I have started, haltingly, to recover. And now I have this damn eye doctor appointment.

In the Public Eye

The dentist’s office, at least, was moderately MCS-accessible, and the staff made every effort to get me in and out fast to reduce exposures and other wear-and-tear. There, I have a long-standing doctor-patient relationship. Even though, or perhaps, especially because, Gadget wasn’t with me, I felt everyone’s support and concern for him.

The ophthalmologist’s is a whole ‘nother bowl of kibble.

My first and only visit so far took place six months ago. Even though eye doctors’ offices are notoriously chemical- and fragrance-sodden, I couldn’t blow off this appointment. My Lyme disease specialist wanted me to start taking Plaquinil, an antiparasitic drug that is effective at fighting Lyme and one of my other coinfections. However, in rare cases, it causes blindness. The damage starts at the peripheries of sight and is irreversible. Before I started the medication, we needed to get a baseline reading of my field of vision, so that if changes occurred, they would be discovered, and I would stop the medication.

That trip to the eye doctor was the first time in two years that Gadget and I had been out in public, working together. I was nervous about how he would do, especially because I could barely voice, and what I could squeak out was muffled by my mask. Although Gadget was proficient with signed commands at home, we had hardly practiced them at all in public.

When I entered the building, I was hit with a suffocating wall of perfume. It was ghastly. The ophthalmologist’s office was worse. It was so bad that my PCA, who smokes, said the smell was making her sick. Nonetheless, I did my best to put up with it. Gadget and I went to the eyeglass counter so I could buy a pair of big, dark glasses that go over my regular glasses, because I have so much light sensitivity that, like Corey Hart, I wear my sunglasses at night. My friends say I look like the Unibomber when I wear them, but I love them. The optician beamed at Gadget the whole time.

Then we went back to the waiting room. Despite the fumes, my heart was soaring. Gadget was in remission from lymphoma. I was (I thought), finally recovering from the multiple tick-borne diseases that had first felled me in June 2007. I was so proud of Gadget and of myself for making it there, for looking so put together in public despite all my syndromes and infections and his cancer. We were in tune with each other, working together as a strong, beautiful team.

Red Eye

Then an older man sitting nearby started talking loudly about Gadget. “There’s a dog in here!” He pointed.

He stood up to come over and pet Gadget, but his wife pulled him back into his seat. Look, she said, didn’t he see? The badges said, “Please don’t pet me, I’m working.”

“What?” He boomed. “What? The poor dog’s not even allowed to be petted?”

I tried to tell him that Gadget got lots of affection at home, but between my speech problems and my mask, the man didn’t hear me. Or maybe he was ignoring me.

Regardless, he kept going about the poor dog: What kind of life is that? You don’t even pet your own dog? Etcetera.

“What a mean boss you are!” He finished.

I just sat there, in shock, thinking how everything I did, from sun up till sun down, was for Gadget: preparing home-cooked meals, providing him with a thoroughly researched pharmacopeia of supplements, taking him for chemo every week, getting him to the pond every day to run and swim, even when I had to max out my pain medication just to get out of bed.

“But,” I thought, “I can’t defend myself by telling him any of this. If he knew Gadget had cancer, he wouldn’t be impressed, he’d be even more appalled. He wouldn’t see how much Gadget was enjoying being out with me. He’d think, ‘This horrible crippled lady’s forcing her poor dog to work when he’s dying of cancer!'” None of which was true, especially the last part, because Gadget was in remission and very much living with cancer.

I felt too defeated to attempt another response, especially since a lump had formed in my throat as I tried not to start crying. Carol, my PCA, who loved Gadget like he was her own, intervened, even though she’s not a confrontational kind of person. I think she saw my eyes glistening.

“She takes excellent care of him,” she said firmly. “He gets a lot of love. He has a terrific life.”

In the silence, Carol put her hand on my arm. “I think he was trying to be funny,” she whispered in my ear.

Making Sheep’s Eyes

After the obnoxious guy left for his appointment, two youngish women who worked in the office stood across the room, admiring Gadget. They said how beautiful he was, and I nodded my agreement. They said how well he was behaving, and I smiled to myself.

The tension that “mean boss” man had created was dissipating.

Yes, the two women agreed to each other and the room at large, service dogs are amazing — it’s remarkable what they do, and they have the best temperaments. In fact, one said, she couldn’t let her dog go near any other dogs because he was dog-aggressive. The one exception was her neighbor’s service dog (“she has MS,” she whispered). Her dog was just so well-behaved that she didn’t react at all to what her dog did.

“They train them so well,” she bubbled. “They’re such a blessing.

“Yes, it’s wonderful what they teach them to do,” the other agreed.

Then one finally addressed me directly. “How long have you had, uh, him? Her? Him?”

I nodded when they landed on the right pronoun and said, “Eight years,” which Carol interpreted for them.

Of course, they were impressed and enthusiastic. I think if I’d said one year or five years or five weeks, they’d have marveled at that, too.

Then they followed up with that tiresomely presumptuous question I’ve heard for a decade: “Where was he trained? Who gave him to you?”

I answered, and Carol repeated it for them: I’d trained him myself.

“Really? You trained him? All on your own? Well, that’s wonderful!”

“Isn’t that amazing?”

Etcetera.

Shut Eye

The actual doctor’s appointment was much less eventful than the waiting room had been. When I finally got seated at the “field of vision machine,” I settled Gadget underneath me. It turned out to be a sort of combination video-game/mantra machine. I was given a sort of button-on-a-joystick to hold, as if I were a contestant on Jeopardy! and pressed my face into the front of a big box, the field of vision machine. A mechanical contraption behind the screen at the back of the box, moved around, blinking different colored lights on different areas of the screen, playing irritating music that’s presumably soothing to people who don’t have sensory-overload issues. The object is to press the button every time you see a colored blip.

The whole time, a synthesized female voice repeated affirmations:

“You’re doing well.

“You’re doing fine.

“You’re almost through.”

“You’re doing well.

“You’re doing fine. . . .

More than testing my vision, the machine seemed to test my focus and reflexes when challenged by distracting and irritating stimuli. I did it three times: Once to get used to it, then once for each eye. It took 45 minutes, at least.

I was concerned, when we started, that after so long at home with me, Gadget would find all these strange sights, sounds, movements, and smells unnerving. How would he react to the music and beeping and stoned-but-encouraging woman emanating from the moving and blinking and plinking over his head? I shouldn’t have worried. He was mildly interested, then bored, then sleeping. Score! He had achieved a Jersey-like level of mellowness.

I was glad he was so relaxed, because the test stressed the heck out of me. My reflexes have never been good, and time and disability have not improved them. I gripped the button handle so hard that after each round, I had to wipe the sweat off of it and flex my sore fingers. Also, by halfway through the first “real” test, I’d started to figure out the light pattern the machine made. I started to anticipate where the light would be. Then I’d try to make sure I really saw it and was not just pressing the button because I knew where to look.

Finally, over two hours after my scheduled appointment time, I saw the doctor. He spent less than five minutes with me, and we were free to leave. All the way home I thought of snappy retorts for the guy who’d pushed me to the verge of tears. I knew it was foolish to dwell on it. He would never have understood my witty remarks anyway! I told myself to forget about it.

Here I am, six months later, remembering it in vivid detail and dreading going back there again, without Gadget. People say obnoxious things all the time that don’t get to me like this did. What got under my skin so bad was that everything I was doing in my life — all my time, money, energy, love, hope, fear, focus — every fiber, was trying to save Gadget, love him, help him, preserve him. There was nothing I wouldn’t have done for him, and some stranger was telling me I was mean to him.

Now Gadget is dead, and I think some totally nonsensical part of me feels like somehow that guy was right. Somehow, if I’d done something differently, I’d still have Gadget. That maybe I pushed us too much to fly too high — I was too proud of us for overcoming all that we overcame — so we had nowhere to go but plummeting to earth. I know know none of this is logical. But I know something in me believes it, because whenever my fingers tap out a sentence about that man in the waiting room, my chest and throat get tight, and I start to cry.

It’s T minus 12 hours, and I’ll be back there again, trying not to cry. Same powerchair, different PCA, no Gadget. However, I won’t sit in that stinky waiting area. I’m bringing a cell phone, so the receptionist can call me when it’s time for me to come in. It’s going to be cold in the van, but I’d rather be cold than sick. Even if it were 70 degrees outside instead of ten, my heart would feel cold in the van, without Gadget resting his chin on my thigh like he used to whenever we drove anywhere. The weight of his head was so warm and comforting, his wet beard staining every pair of pants that weren’t already stained.

Gadget with his head on Sharon's thigh in the van

I'll miss that warm, moist weight on my leg

It’s going to feel just as cold inside, too, without a warm, furry body curled around my feet while I press my face into the hard plastic machine and strain my eyes to see the blinking lights. The machine will reassure me, though: “You’re doing well. You’re doing fine. You’re almost through.”

I wish I could believe her.

-Sharon and the Muse of Gadget

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