Archive for the 'New Puppy' Category

Guest Post: Dealing with Second Dog Syndrome

I’m delighted to be able to offer this guest post today by psychologist and long-time guide dog partner, Kathie Schneider. You’ll learn more about Kathie and her new blog in her bio at the bottom of this post.

Reading Kathie’s article made me aware that one can go through “Second Dog Syndrome” with any successor dog — not necessarily only the second. I experienced virtually every emotional twist and turn she describes below when I got Barnum, even though he was my third dog, not my second.

I hope you will find this post as supportive and informative as I have. If so, give Kathie some love in the comments. And I hope Kathie will return with future guest posts about assistance dog grief, loss, or transition.

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

Three Steps to Dealing with Second Dog Syndrome

By Katherine Schneider, Ph.D and guide dog user for 39 years

If you’ve had more than one service/assistance dog and someone brings up the subject of second dog syndrome (SDS), I’ll bet you know exactly what they’re talking about. Maybe you didn’t have it a lot or maybe it didn’t hit you until your third dog; but comparing, and finding you don’t love or like second dog as much as first dog, is as natural as dogs greeting by smelling each others’ back ends, but not nearly as much fun.

The first step in dealing with second dog syndrome is accepting it as real and forgivable. Of course you compare; young children learn to pick out what’s different in a picture and we praise them for noticing differences. New Dog may look different, act different, work different, and even smell different. You had history with Old Dog. All you have with New Dog is hopes and dreams. As Old Dog gets further in the past, memories of the bad things they did fade first; in other words, they become a saint. New Dog is young and foolish and the bad things they do are right here and now.

Most of all, you have changed. You’re older and perhaps less flexible, both physically and mentally. If Old Dog worked well for you, it was a life changer for you, kind of like first love. Now you’ve come to expect that level of dignity and independence in a functioning service/assistance dog. New Dog has big shoes to fill. If Old Dog didn’t work out well, you’ve got a million ideas of what you and New Dog need to do differently this time.

So when you think those thoughts of “Old Dog would never have done that,” “I don’t love/like New Dog,” and “I wish I still had Old Dog,” chalk it up to second dog syndrome and say to yourself, to New Dog, or to a friend who might understand, “I’m having a SDS moment, forgive me.”

If you acknowledge those second dog syndrome thoughts instead of trying to fight them, they lose some of their power. You’re not wasting your time and energy feeling guilty. Instead you can begin step two: When you find yourself comparing, try to add an “and” occasionally. Old Dog was better at this and New Dog is good at this. On a really bad day it may be, “And New Dog looks cute when he/she is asleep.” When others point out, “Old dog would never have done that” about your New Dog, all you can say is, “Yes and I really miss Old Dog too.” Unless of course you have time to educate the thoughtless passer-by about second dog syndrome. Included in that education could be the fact that New Dog is not a replacement, but a successor. Old Dog will never be replaced.

The third step is give it time and work. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are relationships. Gradually you may notice more things about New Dog that you like and they will grow up and settle into their job. If you take care of them like a valued employee, they’ll work to earn your trust and love. In my experience, they’re quicker to love than I am anyway, so as I find myself with each successor dog in the middle of my heart I learn that I have a big heart. Then when people ask, “Which was your favorite, really?” I can truthfully say: “It’s just like your kids; they are each my favorite in different ways.”

* * *

Katherine Schneider, Ph.D. is a retired clinical psychologist, blind from birth and living with fibromyalgia. She’s written a memoir, To the Left of Inspiration: Adventures in Living with Disabilities, and a children’s book, Your Treasure Hunt: Disabilities and Finding Your Gold. She’s had Seeing Eye dogs for 39 years. Her latest writing venture is a blog, Kathie Comments, about subjects ranging from aging with disabilities to assistance/service dogs to disability activism.

Barnum’s Accomplishments at Two Year’s Old

Not only is this the beginning of another calendar year, but because Barnum was born on December 30, this is also the beginning of a new year of his life!

7 newborn Bouvier puppies in pile on floor

One of these tiny, damp wiggling one-pound puppies will be my Barnum!

Then, he became my fuzzy little bundle of joy. (And a pee and poo output machine.)

Barnum in Sharon's lap

Looking lovingly into each other's eyes on his first day home.

And a bit of a mouthy monster. . . .

Nine-week old fuzzy black puppy with white chin and chest has his mouth swung open and wide toward a hand that is tickling his belly. His pointy puppy teeth are quite visible.

Aw, isn't he, um, adorably vicious?

Well, I’m sure he’ll outgrow it. . . .

Barnum prepares to launch Shark Attack.

Sure, it's all fun until someone gets bitten in the arm. Then it's only fun for Barnum, not so fun for the person who belongs to the arm.

But no, he doesn’t do that anymore. Now he is much more relaxed. In fact, he has become a Zen master. . . .

Barnum lies on the floor, his head cocked, with a square brown biscuit resting on each paw. He is looking at the camera, not at the biscuits.

He knows they're there. But he has to strike a cute pose for the camera, too.

Not just liver treats, but pies, too. . . .

Barnum lying very relaxed, legs spread out, with the pumpkin pie between his front legs, and surrounded by the other three pies.

This is a piece of cake. I mean, pie.

And his “take” and “hold” skills are part of his zen mastery. . . .

A low black table (the same coffee table as in previous pictures). The right side of the table is set with a tangerine-colored placemat and an asian-style wide bowl, with a pair of chop sticks sticking out of the bowl. A takeout menu for a restaurant called "ZEN" stands behind the place setting. Barnum sits on the left side of the table, holding a metal dumbbell in his mouth, from which hangs a printed sign. It says, "ZEN is not just a Levels behavior. They also make great sushi. (Hint, hint.)"

That's a "hup," "take," "sit," and "stay," ladies and gentleman!

Furthermore, in the last couple of months, Barnum’s drive to train/work and be active has increased. This maturity has meant that his skills as a service dog are coming together! It has also meant that some of the natural bouvier des Flandres temperament is coming out in him, which I am less happy about. He is developing a habit of barking at strangers when he goes for walks, and barked his head off at a visitor for my birthday, which is extremely unlike him. He’s usually very quiet. So, socialization efforts need to be stepped up.

It’s a day for celebration, and having been extremely ill for much of the last two weeks, when he does help me, I really notice the difference! Sure, I could post about all the things we still need lots of work on, but not today. Today, we focus on feeling good!

Here are some of our accomplishments of the past year:

  • Reliably shuts kitchen and bathroom cupboards, drawers, and refrigerator door
  • Reliably braces for transferring (used mostly to/from chair/toilet)
  • Most of a retrieve (it still needs work, but the basic foundation is there)
  • Shuts my bedroom door on cue reliably and my bathroom door extremely reliably
  • Turns on bathroom light on cue reliably
  • Alerts to infusion pump alarm reliably and to some kitchen timers reliably (others are more spotty)
  • Has learned how to open my bedroom door; now we’re establishing the cue
  • Has learned the motion of turning lights off, but hasn’t yet figured out how to apply it when he has to jump up
  • Has learned to open fridge door (but not the cue, and not far enough open yet)
  • Knows the names of all my PCAs and Betsy
  • Has basics down of carrying an object from a PCA or Betsy to me or vice-versa
  • Is partway to knowing the word, “Slipper”
  • Urinates on cue; pooping not yet entirely on cue
  • Very solid sit and leave it and crate
  • Good progress on mat, down, come, stay, stand, back-up, side, behind
  • Excellent loose-leash walk with people who pay attention to the leash (for people who tighten the leash, he responds in kind)
  • Very good car (van) manners
  • Excellent progress on bathing manners (will get in tub on cue and even sometimes sit or down in water on cue; will not exit tub until cued)

Well, I’m sure I’ve forgotten stuff, but I have a migraine, and I’m exhausted, so I just wanted to pound out this celebratory post.

He is the love of my (and Betsy’s) life. Family, friends, and PCAs love him. He is a dear, sweet, affectionate boy, very sensitive to my moods, but with a rock-solid temperament — almost nothing phases him.

We are well on our way to finishing his skills with doors, light switches, and basic retrieve, and then moving on to more complex retrieves (items by name) and to solidifying his public access skills and other basic obedience, manners, and positioning. From there, we will move to new skills, such as helping pull off socks and other clothing, bed covers, and more!

I think 2012 will be a great year for Team Barnum! Here’s hoping it’s a great one for you, too!

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

Good, Clean Fun: Compulsion-Free Bath

I’ve written before about how I train my dogs to enjoy baths. I used treats, including “bobbing for biscuits” to make baths more enjoyable. With training, both Jersey and Gadget were accustomed to get in the shower with me and even to help with the rinsing aspect of the job by lying down in the water.

They both had frequent baths because any time we went somewhere that involved a chemical exposure — to a store, a doctor’s appointment, or anywhere we were around people — it was necessary for me to shower and change my clothes when I got home, and to bathe my dog, as well. The chemical residues in their hair was no more tolerable for me than those on my own skin, hair, or clothing.

However, I must admit that Jersey and Gadget didn’t so much enjoy baths as put up with them. They enjoyed the treats that I used to make bath time more pleasant, but they still didn’t relish the overall experience. And while there was no struggle and physical force involved, there was an element of psychological compulsion. They were not offering behaviors; they were complying with cues because they knew there really was no other option.

Until today, I thought that bathing Barnum was always going to be more difficult and unpleasant than training Jersey or Gadget. Barnum is not one to submit just because I am the human and I say so. He had several baths when he was a little puppy, and they were far from fun and relaxing for anyone involved. The problem was that we did not have the opportunity to build up slowly and positively to happy bath experiences.

Barnum had been shampooed repeatedly, and recently, with scented dog shampoo before we brought him home. The fragrance chemicals made me very sick, so we had to wash him often. Further, because I was doing my best to “super-socialize” him in his first 16 weeks of life, he went to a lot of smelly places (including puppy kindergarten) that required post-adventure scrub-downs.

Barnum After His First Bath, First Night Home

Barnum recovers from his first bath after his looong trip.

[Photo description: Barnum as a tiny puppy, at eight-and-a-half weeks old, still damp from his first bath. He sits at the entrance to his crate, looking a little dazed. He is black with ringlets of fur, with the characteristic big paws and slightly cloudy eyes of a young puppy. Sharon’s hand is in front of his mouth, feeding him a morsel. Her hand is almost as big as his head!]

It took months of bathing to get the scented shampoo out of his coat. In fact, it was not until we gave him his first severe haircut and cut off all the hair that had absorbed the scented stuff that I could put my face to his without sore throats, headaches, coughing, and my face turning beet-red.

Inevitably, these baths were stressful affairs. I was being made sick by the increased offgassing of the fumes when his hair got wet. I had to wear gloves and a carbon filter mask during the process, and we tried to make it as quick as possible. I tried to bribe and/or sooth him with treats, but he was having none of it. He didn’t want cheese or hot dogs or broccoli, he wanted out. Barnum was completely pissed off about being bathed against his will, and he kicked, flailed, scratched, and shrieked the whole time.

So, that was the background I had to work with to train Barnum that baths were actually terrific fun. I doubted I’d ever succeed. Between the numerous negative experiences I had to counteract and the fact that we didn’t get a lot of bathing practice, I thought we were at a severe disadvantage.

I was wrong. The fact that Barnum had few baths while I’ve been training him to enjoy being in the tub has meant that I wasn’t working against myself.

I mentioned in one of my “toilet training” posts that I started with tossing treats into the tub whenever Barnum followed me into the bathroom. The first unexpected hurdle was, well, literally a hurdle: Barnum couldn’t figure out how to jump in the tub.

He used to know how to jump in the tub, so I think it was more of a “mental block” than anything — an approach/avoidance conflict. He wanted the treats in the tub, but he was anxious about being in the tub. I spent a couple of weeks — many, many sessions — simply shaping him to jump in the tub: one paw on, two paws on, hind foot raised, etc. Finally, he learned to jump in the tub, and I clicked/treated for jumping in and out, attaching the cues to the behaviors as we went.

I faded the c/t from jumping out pretty quickly and focused on c/t for being in the tub. I treated it mostly like the shaping exercise for “Go to Mat” in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. I lured the beginning of a sit, and from there, shaped for sitting and then lying down. Over time I shaped for longer periods of lying down and for relaxed body posture while lying down.

Sometimes, instead of clicking (operant conditioning), I used classical conditioning — just tossing treats between his paws while he was lying down so he could stay relaxed and simply associate being in the tub with happy things. Eventually, whenever I went into that bathroom, he’d jump in the tub and wait to be clicked. Soon, he began offering behaviors: Being in the tub not good enough? What if I sit? What if I down?

Once he was truly relaxed lying in the tub for extended periods, I started adding elements that he’d associate with baths, such as the ventilation fan being on, grabbing the hose (hand-held shower), opening and shutting the drain, rubbing him all over with my hand (but no soap or water) to mimic being shampooed, and moving the shower head over his body (without the water turned on).

These environmental cues were mostly visual, auditory, or tactile — my body position as I leaned over him to rub him; the sound of the metal shower hose clanging against the fiberglass tub, etc. I clicked for staying in position and staying relaxed, and also continued to toss treats without clicking just to add classical conditioning to the mix. Also, sometimes it was too hard to perform this physically exhausting maneuvers and also time my clicks properly, so it was easier just to toss treats or use a verbal marker.

Finally, I started adding water. The way I’d want to add water — and the way I’d suggest to anyone else — is to let a tiny dribble into the tub of lukewarm water. Unfortunately, my faucet is very strange. It’s a knob, and you adjust the temperature by how far you turn it (turn it a little, and the water is cold; turn it all the way, and it’s scorching). But, unless you want very cold water, there is no way to start with a trickle, then work up to a stream, then full-blast. Since ice-cold water can be quite aversive, this was a challenge to train.

So, I would turn the knob just enough for the sound of water to start, and turn it off again before any water actually hit the tub. Or sometimes, after it was off, a dribble would come in. It took several sessions for Barnum to stay truly relaxed at the sound of the water starting.

Eventually, I was able to get water going in the hose and spray it at the drain, so it wasn’t hitting him, and he was okay with that. But we had not yet gotten to the point where he would stay, relaxed in the tub, lying down, beyond his front paws getting wet. I thought we still had a long way to go.

This is a dog who refuses to walk through puddles. He likes to drink water from the garden hose, and he will run into the pond and moving streams, but he really does not like to get his feet wet unless it’s part of some fun activity. Even on scorching-hot days, he refuses to wade in the kiddie pool in the yard.

Then, a few days ago, Betsy and I were tick-checking Barnum, and we saw something we thought might be a flea running through his hair. We didn’t find any evidence of flea bites or flea dirt, but we decided we better bathe him, just to be on the safe side. Also, he really needed a bath.

I got together the treats and went and sat in the bathroom. Even though I’d tried so hard to simulate all the “forerunners to bath” cues in our training — getting the dog shampoo, turning on the fan, taking off my pants, etc., Barnum knew it was bath time! I was surprised. He is so sensitive to environmental cues; he’s really quite a genius at it.

But I just stayed calm and ignored him, and eventually he decided, “Hey, maybe this is a training session!” So he hopped into the tub! I said the cue while he was in the air, clicked and treated when he was in the tub, and we did a few more cued “in-and-outs.”

He sat, he downed, I kept c/t (I actually was using a verbal marker — not enough hands to hold a clicker) for the things we usually did. I stoppered the tub, I turned on the water, pointing the spray away from him. He stayed in the tub!

“Well,” I thought, “I’ll just see how far I can take this until Betsy gets here to help.”

I started spraying his lower legs, figuring that would be less likely to trigger a jump out of the tub than if I went for his back or butt or head. He stayed in the tub, eagerly participating in this “training session.” Soon, I had all of his legs, including feet, sprayed down and was moving up to his belly.

I yelled for Betsy and she came in. “He doesn’t know it’s a bath!” I told her. “He thinks this is a training session! Don’t let on that it’s a bath!”

We did the entire bath without any holding, demanding, gripping, or body blocking! He was smiling and enjoying himself. It was completely unlike any other dog bathing experience I’ve had. There were two times he decided the training session was going in a way he didn’t like, and he jumped out (soaking the floor). We just waited.

He paced and dithered. He wanted to keep getting the treats! He wanted the training to continue, but now the tub was half-full of water. Yet, training won out, and he — on his own — jumped back into the water. This happened twice! I did not touch him or cue him until he had already decided he wanted back in.

It was the fastest bath we’ve ever done! The most remarkable part of it, for me, was observing his body language. His tail was up and sometimes gently wagging. His head was up. His mouth was relaxed and smiley. His eyes were sparkling. He did not have that slumped, defeated look I have come to associate with any dog in a tub. He actually started playing in the water near the end — scratching at the tub drain (which I discouraged) and bobbing for treats, sticking his nose under the stream of water.

One of the youtube channels I subscribe to is MultiAnimalCrackers. She clicker trains her own dogs, horses, donkeys, and other animals. She says all the animals are trained “at liberty,” which means that they offer behaviors willingly; they are never forced to do a behavior they don’t want to. Bathing Barnum “at liberty,” though it did mean a soaking-wet floor from the two times he jumped out and we had to wait for him to decide to jump back in, was a remarkable experience.

I’ll post a photo essay separately of Barnum in the bathtub, just for kicks.

It’s only been a decade. I think I’m starting to get this clicker training thing now.

Give me liberty, or and give me bath!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (mooo!), and Barnum, sparkling clean SDiT

P.S. I am a finalist in today’s 5 Minute Fiction challenge again. I told you I was addicted! It’s a great group of finalist stories this time. I like them all. Please read, enjoy, and vote! (Preferably for me, but whichever one you like best, really.)

After and Pryor: How Barnum Got His Name

Today is Barnum’s first birthday. He was born in the early morning hours of December 30, 2009. It seems an appropriate time to tell you how he got his name (and didn’t get the name I’d had in mind). I hope to put up a photo essay soon, too, with never-before-seen Baby Barnum pics. Here’s a preview.

Barnum on snow: "What's it all mean?"

What a character! Barnum during his first week home.

Before Barnum arrived, I thought I might know his name, but I didn’t. In fact, almost everything I expected (even though I convinced myself I had no expectations) was wrong. A lot of that came as a shock and a terrible struggle, but any dog will teach you a great deal if you let him.

A dog who defies all expectation and forces you to stretch and grow will teach you even more. Barnum has been, and continues to be, an amazing teacher!

While I loved Barnum from the first moment, was beguiled and infatuated, I wasn’t ready to blog about him until I’d fallen in love with him. By which I mean that I’d come to accept him, had begun to forgive myself for my mistakes in raising him, and had grown to find even his aggravating traits endearing. That took about two months, when he was about four months’ old. From then on (from his first moment here, really), I’ve grown to love him more every day. And suddenly, in the last week or two, lots of stuff is starting to “gel.” We are really communicating and enjoying each other, and we are burning through the Training Levels. (Really, I’ll post the updates and videos. I will.)

However, blogging is supposed to be a catalog of the day-to-day, the minutia of everyday life. From a blogging perspective, I’ve put myself in a pickle because I was both too exhausted and too busy to blog in Barnum’s first weeks here, and I was also not emotionally ready. However, the longer you know and love someone, the harder it is to remember the details of early infatuation! I have a lot of drafts that I’ll hopefully use to reconstruct our first few months together. But first . . .

What’s in a name?

I had no idea what I would name my puppy before he arrived. I was excited at the prospect because I’d never had the opportunity to name a dog before. My cats, Ferdinand and Velour, yes. My rabbits, mice, even fish, yes. But my three previous dogs were adults (two rescues and one rehome) who’d arrived with names they already knew, and I hadn’t the heart to add to their upheaval.

This time I had a clean slate. As soon as I’d decided on the litter and sex of the pup, friends, family, and readers wanted to know, “What will you name him?”

Many offered suggestions. I said I wanted to wait and see what suited him.

I didn’t tell most of them that I have rigid rules about naming my animals. But now the deed is done, so here’s my personal list of dos and don’ts.  (I don’t say this is the right path for everyone; just for me.)

  • Names must not be common human names. Particularly not names of people I know. For example, I know dogs and cats named Maggie, Ruth, Mary, and Laura, and I also know multiple people with these names. Who needs that kind of confusion? I forget the names of people in my life (including Betsy!) on a frequent basis. (I have “tip-of-the-tongue syndrome” as part of my cognitive impairment, and it occurs even with family members.) I also just don’t like human-sounding names for dogs or cats. Even if I don’t know someone named Alice, if I’m talking to someone and they say, “Alice just walked into the room,” I’m going to think they mean a human, and I’ll rack my brain to think of who that is, feeling increasingly embarrassed that I’m about to admit I forgot their best friend’s or child’s or partner’s name, before they continue, “Can you hear her tags jingling?” (Ohhh, that Alice. . . .)
  • I strive for a name that is as unique as my pup. Even a name that might otherwise be apt is O-U-T if I think I will run into another at the park or online. An excellent example is “Bear,” which is probably the most common Bouvier name there is, since they have such an ursine look about them. (And on more than one occasion, some of them quite hilarious, people thought my first bouv, Jersey, was a bear!) Indeed, Barnum did look remarkably like a Teddy bear when he arrived, but I already know dogs named Teddy and Bear.
  • Therefore, sadly, all Harry Potter names were lost to me. Yes, I am an HP fanatic; I got hooked when I listened to the first three books, and it’s been a passionate (though one-sided) love affair ever since. “Sirius Black” would have been an obvious choice for a big, shaggy, black dog. In fact, thirty years ago I read a science fiction book about an alien dog from Sirius (the Dog Star) and always thought I’d like to name a future dog “Sirius.” No longer. I have seen so many “Sirius Black”s on PetFinder, for instance. Bill Cosby owns a famous PBGV named Harry Potter that was shortlisted for Best in Show at Westminster a couple of years back. The service dog list I’m on already has a Hermione, an Ollivander, and probably several other HP dog names I’m forgetting. Alas!
  • It must fit something about the dog’s nature — personality, appearance, soul. Which is why I don’t like to choose a name until we’ve become acquainted.

All these deeply held beliefs were in place when, two weeks before the pup’s arrival date, I almost tossed them out the window. This was precipitated by my engaging in an immensely powerful, moving, and absorbing activity, something I almost never do:

I read a book.

(Note: I would like to paste in here a photo of me lying in bed, blissfully absorbed in a book, but we have no photos of me reading a book, which I’ll explain, below.)

Due both to my multiple chemical sensitivity and my cognitive disabilities, I usually listen to audio books only. When I do read a paper book, it needs to fit within these parameters:

  1. It’s a really old book that I own which therefore has no chemical smells (such as fragrance) or mustiness (mold) in the pages, OR it’s a new book which has not picked up smoke, fragrance, etc., from previous owners, but it has offgased long enough to not reek of ink, glue, paper, and other book materials.
  2. It’s “easy reading” — almost always fiction — such as a mystery. Thus, it doesn’t matter if I forget the characters, the plot, or other key components. I can just skate along (or rewind), and usually the relevant points become clear with repetition. In fact, sometimes I read — and enjoy! — a novel and then part-way through, I think, “Huh, this seems familiar. Have I read this before?” Sometimes the surprise ending gives it away. This is one of the gifts of brain injury.
  3. If the book does not fit into category 2, it must be a book I have read over and over in the past, so that my spotty memory is not an issue, because I am so familiar with its contents that it doesn’t matter if I forget a lot of it, again.

However, the book I read in February was a nonfiction, brand-new library book. I literally cannot remember the last time I read a library book. I don’t normally even handle a library book without using gloves or a tissue and covering my nose and mouth. (My partner reads library books, and sometimes I need to get to something underneath them, like the toilet paper. Ahem.)

I had been hankering after This Particular Book since before it came out. How come “before”? Because I’m on the author’s mailing list and was offered a reduced rate, advance, autographed copy, which I wanted so bad.

But, I did not buckle. I have been trying to be responsible. Gadget’s chemotherapy and my own medical bills the previous year were astronomical. The impending puppy came with a big price tag — not just the pup himself, but the new equipment, the air fare, and the powerchair I got to be able to walk him distances or in winter. (My other powerchair — the one that’s covered by Medicare — is only of use for getting around inside my home.)

Therefore, I told myself, “No books! No DVDs!” The author is a best seller. I was sure it would come out in audio eventually. (I’m still hoping it will.)

Then, while I was searching my online library catalog for a couple of books I thought might interest Betsy, I stumbled across The Book, right there, naked and inviting.

“Well,” I thought. “It just came out, so it must be brand new. If it’s new, maybe it hasn’t absorbed any patron’s cigarette smoke or perfume or fabric softener. Maybe it hasn’t crossed the desk of that certain despicable library that ‘sanitizes’ all books with fragranced, anti-bacterial baby wipes. And maybe, sitting on the shelves for a couple of weeks, it’s also had a chance to offgas just a little of that ‘new book smell.’ It’s worth a shot.”

The day came when my personal care assistant (PCA) picked up the one video and three books I’d requested. The video and the two books for Betsy, on top, all smelled like fragrance. Ack! Then, I picked up The Coveted Book. It had not been previously checked out! No smell! Well, okay, there was some smell — the smell of chemicals in new ink, glue, paper, binding, etc., but it was not prohibitively smelly. I had to use oxygen while reading, and the concentration gave me a migraine, but it was so, so worth it.

I should probably tell you the title, huh?

It is Reaching the Animal Mind, by Karen Pryor. The subtitle is, “Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about All Animals.”

Book Cover for Reaching the Animal Mind

It's a pretty cover, but what's inside is so much more exciting

Unless you share a similar fanaticism with this topic, or you know me very intimately, you’re likely completely underwhelmed. I already have encouraged everyone I know to read Karen Pryor’s book that started the clicker revolution, Don’t Shoot the Dog! (Which is not, for the record, about dog training; it’s about applied behavioral psychology, and what works or doesn’t work with humans, dogs, dolphins, Republicans, etc.) Actually, if you know me well, you are probably backing away from your computer, fearing that this post will devolve into a boring theoretical discussion or dog-training lecture. ‘Tisn’t so. Reading this book, and writing this post, are actually deeply personal. I put down the book to start writing because I was so choked up, I had to take a break.

Well, it’s several months since I took that “break,” during the first week of which I rapidly finished reading the book (a feat, in itself) and dealt with all of life’s other tasks, mental and physical, nerve-wracking and mundane. All of which pushed out of my mind what, exactly, in the book moved me so much, and why, and how it led to A Big Decision: What to Name the Puppy.

I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking and exactly what sections of text prompted particular thoughts and feelings, but here is what I do remember:

  • I was smiling, hugely, most of the time I was reading;
  • I was on the verge of tears some of the time I was reading;
  • I had to stop periodically because the sensations ballooning in my chest were so overwhelming that I felt like I might burst.

It’s hard to recapture a moment of true inspiration, and that’s what I was experiencing. If you don’t record it — in words or music or brush strokes — when it hits you, you likely need to move on to new sources. However, I know that part of what was so powerful for me was the awareness, all the time I was reading, that a new little life would be coming into my care, and he would be an endless source of challenge and inspiration.

So, it seemed only fitting that, as I was lying there, overwhelmed with joy and the explosions of little pieces of new information colliding with existing knowledge, that I was inspired with a name. For weeks — well, really, for years — I’d thought about what I’d name my next puppy. This would be my first service dog that I would raise from puppyhood. It was a big deal.

I was lying in bed, feeling like I wanted to laugh and cry all at once, just terribly excited; it was hard to sort out both why I was having these emotions and also what the emotions actually were. The feeling was, “Oh my God, this is wonderful. This is both what I have been doing and what I love and am so very hungry to do with my new puppy,” and “Oh my God, this is wonderful. Here is the crystallization of solutions to problems I didn’t even know I was creating, which will make me a much better mother, teacher, and partner to this baby dog who is entering my life.”

Feeling such a jumble of emotions, so elated and learning so much — how this book was making me feel — was exactly how I felt about getting the puppy. I looked down at the cover, and there was the answer — the author’s name, one of my personal heroes, Karen Pryor.

The puppy’s name would be “Pryor.”

As soon as I thought it, I knew it was right. Nonetheless, I steadfastly refused to commit to that name until the puppy arrived. I still told people, “I am not sure of a name yet, but I think, if it fits him, I will call him Pryor.” Then, when I was looking at pictures of his litter online a couple of weeks later, I thought, “But which one is Pryor?”

Boom! I caught myself. I was already thinking of him as Pryor. How did that happen?

I doubt most people react like this to Karen Pryor’s latest book. Betsy read it shortly after I did, and she really enjoyed it — it’s a good read, very accessible, with lots of useful and interesting information — but I don’t think it was a religious experience for her. For me, every chapter was a reminder of things I already knew (with a few exceptions relating to revelations about the neuroscience of why a clicker works so much better than a verbal marker), but which are so easy to forget “in the heat of training.” With every dog, I make mistakes, and I tell myself, “Okay, I’ve learned that lesson. Next time I’ll do it differently.”

On the upside, I do do it differently. On the downside, there are always new mistakes to make, not least because each dog is new and different, and each requires a different strategy. A puppy would present several new layers of newness I tried to prepare for; but on the whole, I completely failed to understand what the lived experience of puppy raising would be until I was in it up to my eyeballs. I have made so many more mistakes with Barnum than I would have thought possible!

What Karen Pryor’s — and other clicker trainers’ — books have done in the past was open my eyes to the range of possible ways to confront a problem, and see all the different ramifications for each way of responding. There are probably chefs who feel this way about certain master chefs’ cookbooks or schools, parents or teachers who feel this way about learning how to nurture children. My passion is dog training, and the relationship that comes from training and partnering with a service dog. I was loaded with expectations and sorrows and hopes and plans — for myself and for this unknown puppy — and Karen Pryor was offering me solutions. I just didn’t realize I didn’t know the problems yet.

Which is one of the reasons Barnum is named Barnum, and not Pryor. He didn’t turn out to be the lump of clay I thought I was going to mold. He turned out to be Barnum.

This is how he got his name.

Betsy drove from Massachusetts to Connecticut, then flew to Iowa. There, she picked him up at the airport from the breeder, and flew home with him. He was in a soft-sided carrier, a Sherpa bag. It was a long, long day. She was on crutches due to a knee injury, and she has multiple plane changes. (There are no non-stop flights from Des Moines to Hartford!) There was also a storm that caused a major delay. So, Betsy and the puppy really got a chance to bond. After leaving his litter and the only people he knew, of course, he came to love and trust Betsy. When they arrived home, I came out on the ramp to meet them. I couldn’t believe how tiny he was. Nobody could. We all exclaimed, “He’s so little!” None of us was used to thinking of a bouvier who was smaller than a little cat!

He did not look like a “Pryor” to me. That name seemed too serious for this funny-looking guy with the white tuft under his chin and stripe on his chest and his black hair sticking straight up from his head.

Baby Barnum first week home

Baby Barnum tries to look serious.

I thought we should start right away by giving him a chance to potty before he came in. We scooped him out of the bag and put him on the frozen, metal mesh ramp.

“AIEEEE!” Everything in the puppy seemed to say. “What is this cold stuff under my feet?! Ack!”

He jumped up and climbed Betsy. He climbed right to her shoulders.

Barnum on Betsy's Shoulder

His first night home, Barnum peeks over Mount Betsy

As he climbed, she tried to bend, because she was afraid he would fall off. He was so small, the ground was so far away. Every time she moved, though, he climbed to keep himself as far as possible from the ground.

Meanwhile, I was afraid he would fall off and get hurt.

“Grab him! Grab him!” I yelled from the ramp. (Wasn’t that helpful of me?)

“I can’t!” Betsy responded.

Wherever she reached, he climbed somewhere else. Clearly, he’d decided Betsy was his safety, and he was clinging to her. Finally, he climbed down her back, around over her hip and under her arm, where she was able to get a hold on him.

We tried putting him on the ground this time, thinking that it was the metal ramp that had shocked him, but he was no happier on the frozen mud than he had been on the ramp, and again leaped to the safety of Betsy’s back and did his climbing routine again.

“He’s quite the little acrobat!” she laughed.

I thought, “Hmm, acrobat. . . . Circus. . . . Barnum!”

Puppy Barnum with Head in Snow Foot Prints

Barnum shows his clownish side. (And his quick reversal of opinion about snow.)

That’s how he got his name, which he really lived up to. He showed himself right away to be an avid leaper, climber, and digger. He has great balance. I took him to an elementary school playground and he fearlessly clambered over metal grates and rolly-things and steps and all manner of shapes, angles, and textures.

At home, he showed his acrobat and clown side, too. I have a “backyard agility set” that comes with a collapsible tube of blue nylon. I set up the tunnel in the living room as part of his puppy socialization/enrichment experiences. Not only did he quickly and easily learn to enjoy running back and forth through the tube, with no fear at all, he also liked to go in the tunnel and, once in the middle, ,start running, like a gerbil on a wheel, causing the tube to roll across the floor. It was very funny.

Another favorite activity has always been to stand in front of one of the full-length glass doors and watch himself leap up and down. Bouviers are excellent jumpers, and Bouv enthusiasts refer to “the Bouvie Bounce.” Both Jersey and Gadget had good bounces, but Barnum leaves them in the dust. He likes to jump both from all fours and as if he were a circus bear, jumping on his hind feet.

Like most performers, he also enjoys watching himself. He knows that’s him in the glass. That became clear when he started responding to my image in the glass when I was behind him, instead of turning to look at me. I’d ask for eye contact, and he’d make eye contact with my reflection. Only when I ignored that behavior would he turn to look at me.

Sometimes, if there is something new going on, he will go to the glass to get another perspective. For example, when I started practicing getting him accustomed to gear, he did something funny. I put on an empty — and too large — service-dog backpack so he could get used to the feel of putting it on and wearing it, and doing simple things like sitting, walking, or lying down in it.

“Oh, you’re so handsome!” I said. “Look how adorable you are!”

During a break, he went to the glass and looked at himself, turning this way and that. “Yes,” he seemed to decide, “I do look very handsome.”

He continues some of his acrobatish and clownish ways. He still likes to jump, and to run, very fast, pushing a ball across the grass or snow with his nose. He likes music, and will cock his head — sometimes to extremes of cuteness impossible to describe — at certain notes or instruments. (He seems to prefer brass to strings, for example.) He has lost some of his fearlessness — he had a lot of trouble figuring out how to navigate our very steep, slippery stairway — but he’s made great progress. (A post for another time.) Tonight, in fact, was his first time on the second floor of our house! So many smells to sniff upstairs!

Onward and upward (literally!) Mr. Barnum. We have mountains to climb, and I’m not sure if or how we’ll get to the summit. For now, though, we celebrate.

Barnum and Betsy on floor: Wheee!

Being grown up doesn't mean acting mature!

Taming the Shark, Part 1: Bite Exhibition

I have finally learned how to download photos from Betsy’s camera onto my computer, so now I have a slew of Barnum pics to share with you. I’m hoping to do a few “photo essay” blogs in the coming weeks.

If you read my last two posts, you know I’m using Sue Ailsby’s Level Training Book to train with Barnum. It’s really going well! The book doesn’t address things like toilet training, mouthing, and such. However, the Training Levels listserv refers all newcomers to Positive Petzine, which gave me more useful, concrete, step-by-step directions for using positive training to correct “puppy issues” than my extensive book, video, and bookmark collection had provided me with before. I recommend it!

See if you can guess, from the photo essay below, what major problem was the last puppy frontier we had not yet conquered?

Barnum chews bucket lid

"Mm, the lid to the bucket tastes as good as the bucket, itself."

Barnum chews hose.

"Now it's a hose -- AND a sprinkler -- all-in-one! See? I'm already so helpful...."

Barnum prepares to launch Shark Attack.

"I'm gonna get the arm! I'm gonna get it!"

Barnum bites Betsy.

"Got it!"

If you’re still not sure, here is a multiple-choice quiz.

The puppy behavior we had not successfully tackled by six months was:

A. Mouthing

B. Chewing inappropriate objects

C. Attacking people’s shoes (whether there was a foot in them or not)

D. Jumping up and biting people’s pants (whether there was a butt in them or not)

E. All of the above

Let’s just say that Barnum acquired the nickname, “The Shark” early in life, and it has stuck to him like a remora on a great white’s dorsal fin. (I’ll address the “chewing inappropriate objects” in another post, because it is sort of a separate issue. But it all leads to the Jaws-like atmosphere around here and the “taming the shark” efforts that are finally paying off.)

I won’t go into all the details of why we still had this mouthing problem except to say that someone did try to tell someone else in their household that that someone else was reinforcing the problem, and that that someone else said that she could not do what the first someone had read in her many puppy books was the way to correct the problem. [Ahem.]

[Note: In proofing this essay for me, someone inserted the following comment: Hey! I have legitimate physical reasons why stomping out of the room is a challenge! It’s especially hard when a puppy is hanging off your ear.]

Confused? In all fairness to both someones, so were we. One area of confusion was when we should switch from bite inhibition to bite prohibition.

For those not familiar with these terms: When you have a little puppy, you don’t just teach it never to bite or mouth. Instead, you start by teaching “bite inhibition.” Teaching bite inhibition means that you let the puppy mouth you, as long as it doesn’t hurt, because this teaches the puppy to have a soft mouth. If the pup does bite down too hard, you yelp and pull away and look wounded. If that doesn’t work (and after a while, believe me, with a rowdy Bouvier des Flandres, it doesn’t), then you’re supposed to get up and walk away. Then you come back and play again. The lesson is, “If you hurt me, you don’t get to play with me, but as long as you’re gentle, we’re cool.”

A dog with good bite inhibition who lands in a situation where he’s scared, hurt, over-excited, resource guarding, or otherwise has potential to bite, instead of using a full-force bite and inflicting serious damage, will just snap, snarl, nip, growl, etc. This can feel scary and upsetting to humans, but it will not send them to the emergency room (or the dog to be euthanized).

My first dog, Lady, who was probably some sort of Border Collie mix, showed terrific bite inhibition. She and I used to play a game where I would chase her, or she would chase me, and if she was chasing me, when she caught me, she would very, very gently hold my hand in her mouth for a moment. It was her way of saying, “Tag! I got you!”

It was quite beautiful and tender, actually.

But the proof of the pudding was when Lady had a bad eye infection, and I had to put ointment in her eye twice a day, every day, for a week. Holding her down and squeezing in the ointment was scary and very painful for her. She always whimpered when it went in. The second day, when her eye was at its worst, she growled and snapped at me when the ointment touched her eye, which shocked and upset me. She had never done anything like that before. However, she did not bite me, which she certainly could have, and inflicted serious damage because my face was right over her head. Instead, she just said, in dog language, “Ow! Stop! You’re hurting me!”

Jersey and Gadget, my previous service dogs, also had reliable bite inhibition. Obviously, I knew Barnum needed to learn that, too. This was my first time having the responsibility of teaching bite inhibition, because it’s something that has to be learned in puppyhood. All previous models came with it installed.

However, my interpretation of the timeline and bite force involved in teaching bite inhibition was not the same as Betsy’s. For one thing, what I consider “painful” and “too hard” are not the same as she. (She’s willing to put up with more than I am; I am more aware of all the people Barnum will have to come into contact with and behave perfectly around in his future role as service dog; and she also does not have a full-body chronic pain condition.)

I felt that by four months Barnum’s mouth should be very soft, and Betsy thought he should still be given some leeway. Also, she played with him on the floor, and she maintained that she couldn’t leap up and stride away the very instant an infraction occurred, the way the books all say is required to make the point. And I certainly was in no shape for leaping the first few months Barnum was here.

Plus, he viewed my chair (depending on which direction it was going), as either a potential menace to be avoided, or a quickly retreating prey-like object to be chased. In fact, when Betsy, my PCAs, or my guests did try to turn their backs and stride away, Barnum delighted in jumping up to bite their butts, leaping onto their feet to attack their shoelaces, and otherwise continuing this glorious game.

I blame Ian Dunbar (Why not? He’s not here to defend himself; I don’t have to live with him; and his book was woefully inadequate for my puppy-raising needs). I forced Betsy to read his book, practically to memorize it. Dunbar really hammers on and on and on (in a repetitive, redundant, and repetitious way) about the importance of bite inhibition. I think this contributed a lot to Betsy’s concern that bite inhibition was fully installed before we taught him to stop biting at all, AKA bite prohibition.

This is when you teach your dog that humans are (as Dunbar says — probably the best quote in the book), “soft and ouchy.” You convince them that even barely grazing your hand with their tooth hurts you so so so much, omigod! How could big, bad, savage puppy have done this to his loving momma? Ow ow ow!

Family photo: Betsy, Sharon, Jaws

Family photo: Betsy, Sharon, and Jaws... I mean, Barnum.

Yes, we love him. We love his natural exuberance, but there are limits. I finally decided that enough was enough. One of my PCAs had had her former dog phobia rekindled in a big way by Barnum mouthing her hands and biting her butt and hanging onto her pants as she tried to work. Another, who adores Barnum but who has skin like tissue paper, was sporting horrific-looking gashes just because Barnum’s teeth had grazed her arm or hand. (So, really, she is a litmus test for our success at bite inhibition: if she’s not bleeding, we’re succeeding.)

This is quite serious. I have received a local cultural council grant to take Barnum to the elementary school, where I will show my video of Gadget performing service-dog skills, talk to the kids about life with a SD and SD training, have Barnum show off whatever he’s learned up to that point, and get in some good socialization and training for Barnum. (Nothing like a mob of children to work on distraction and self-control issues!) As things stood, I imagined a classroom full of sweet little children running up to pat the nice doggy — and having Barnum playfully bite ears and lips, grab and chew ponytails and braids, and rip adorable little outfits. The children would scream and run, sobbing hysterically, which Barnum would interpret as a wonderful addition to the chase/catch/tug game he was starting, and I’d hand the teachers the business card of the lawyer I’d hired for this inevitable lawsuit.

No way!

I turned into Sharon the Enforcer. (A not-infrequent role for me.) Henceforth, I decreed, any time Barnum put his mouth on any skin, clothing, or shoes (that a person was wearing), that person must immediately turn away and walk out the nearest door, where they would count to twenty. If we couldn’t leap away in a split-second, so be it; he would get the picture in time. Any other person in the vicinity must also march away, so that Barnum would be left alone with nobody to mouth.

I didn’t limit the prohibition to full-on mouthing. Also off-limits was any tooth-to-skin or tooth-to-clothing contact, no matter how insubstantial, as well as Barnum making moves toward mouthing, even if he didn’t actually make contact.

For those situations when he was likely to attempt to chase and/or hang on to shoes or pants, I set up training sessions: I leashed him to the ramp railing. We would pet him, and I would click/treat for not mouthing during particularly tempting moments, such as when someone was petting his head or face or sitting on the ground or riling him up with play. For just calmly accepting more sedate petting, I offered heartfelt praise. If Barnum went for a hand or sneaker, we would turn our backs and walk out of leash range, giving him ten to twenty seconds to chill out. Then we would return with lavish praise and petting again.

The first day that I put the kibosh on mouthing, I had to turn around and zoom to my room several times in a half hour. Barnum would follow me happily, but when I shut my door with him outside and me inside, he was truly puzzled and distressed. He sat outside my door, barking and crying. I have another rule (See? I am the Enforcer; bratty behavior does not get rewarded — in dogs or children). Thus, I’d wait till he was quiet; then I’d come out, a friendly smile on my face, ready to offer more praise and love. I’d usually find Barnum sitting quietly — confused, concerned, and eager to please.

Honestly, I think Barnum learned more about not mouthing in that first half-hour of boundary setting than he had before or since. After that foundation was laid, the rest has just been teaching him that the same rules apply to other people (Betsy, PCAs, and guests) and to other situations: indoors and outdoors; with people sitting, standing, or lying down; moving fast or slow; and to anything a person might be wearing or carrying. I’ve also been playing tug with him every day, usually a few times a day, to give him practice with “give” (dopping the toy), and to interrupt the game any time he even accidentally lets a tooth touch my skin.

One particularly memorable moment, the first day he was confronted with this puzzling new behavior, Betsy was sitting on the floor with him, my PCA was petting him from a standing position, and I was sitting in my chair, praising all involved. Barnum swung his head to mouth my PCA’s sleeve, and we all instantly scattered in every direction. It was like someone had dropped a pebble into a bowl of guppies. Barnum was the pebble, sitting in the middle of the bowl, looking around, thinking, “Where did everyone go?”

I’m very proud of us. Obviously, this training is not as fun as the positive clicker training, where I’m shaping and rewarding desirable behaviors, instead of extinguishing an undesirable one through a process that is both quite tiring for me and sometimes somewhat stressful for him. However, Barnum is showing his usual great bounce back and has learned that just because the fun stops or I withdraw my attention for a few seconds, it doesn’t mean that the game won’t restart or I won’t be lavishing him with affection as soon as the time-out’s over.

I give Barnum a lot of credit. He learned very quickly that mouthing would get him nowhere. Often, I have seen him wanting quite desperately to do the forbidden, but holding himself back: He watches a PCA’s shoelaces very intently as she walks by, but he doesn’t pounce. He wants to grab my arm when I am tick-checking his ear, but instead he licks me gently. (You can practically see him thinking, “Okay, sublimate, sublimate, sublimate. . . .”) Slowly, my PCA of the paper-thin skin feels safe in lowering her hands to swing at her sides. Slowly, the PCA who used to fear dogs (whom Gadget seemed to have cured with his sweet and gentle nature), is again smiling when she willingly pets Barnum.

Today, I took Barnum to play with Bug, a neighbor dog he hadn’t seen in a few months. My neighbor had never met him before. Like the other owners of Gadget’s dog friends, my neighbor used to say, morosely, “I don’t think Gadget likes me.”

This was because Gadget basically ignored her when he went to visit Bug.

“No,” I would say, “It’s a Bouv thing.”

Then I’d explain about how Bouviers typically don’t have much interest in people unless they are their people. Especially if there are other dogs around — who has time for people? Feh. Even I was not interesting to Gadget (and now to Barnum — although Jersey was another story) when there were other dogs to be met.

However, because Barnum is still a pup, and because we super-socialized him to people by having him meet, and get treats from, 100 people in his first two months home, he is far more actively interested in people than Gadget or Jersey ever were. Thus, when Barnum and Bug were finished playing, Barnum went waggling right over to my neighbor.

She knelt down and petted his head and hugged him. I was holding my breath — just a bit — because if she’d done this two weeks ago, Barnum would have mouthed her in a serious way! Instead, he just wagged and smiled, and then gave her face a good washing.

“Oh,” she laughed, “I haven’t had kisses in a long time!” Apparently Bug was not an extremely demonstrative dog, either.

She was very pleased. I was very pleased. Thank Dog! I can stop looking for a lawyer. . . .

Gooooo, Team Barnum!

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon, Barnum (still a tiny bit sharky), and the Muse of Gadget (who was not standoffish, just dignified)

Level One: Two Paws Forward, One Paw Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of L1 is that I have a homework assignment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Results Are In. . . .

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

Tired Puppy Asleep across Betsy's legs

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

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

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

1. “Touch” (or Targeting)

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

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

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

One down!

2. Sit

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

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

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

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

3. Down

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

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

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

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

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

Three for three!

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

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

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

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

Baby Barnum first week home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passed that with flying colors! Whoo!

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

5. The Come Game.

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

Puppy Barnum in Mid-Air at Pond

My favorite picture of us. Barnum flying high!

Definite pass, according to Betsy.

We passed Level One! Woohoo!

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

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

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

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

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

Four Legs to Stand On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puppy Air Barnum at the Pond

Barnum literally leaps to get to me!

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

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

The Puppy Ate My Keyboard

[Barnum arrived February 27. I started this post on March 2. I added to it and revised it many times throughout the month of March but never published it because, well, you’ll find out when you read it that I was a mess and couldn’t keep track of anything, which also included that I forgot I wrote it and just came across it. Thus, please keep in mind that these were my thoughts when Barnum was between nine and twelve weeks’ old. He’s now four-and-a-half months’ old and a much different dog!]

I wasn’t going to write a blog today because I can hardly form a thought, let alone a sentence. Typing these fragments had barely occurred to me. In fact, I am moving my lips as I type this (I just realized) because apparently some part of my brain has regressed to a first-grade level.

I’d tell you how long it’s been since I’ve had anything remotely resembling a normal night’s sleep (which, given my multiple forms of insomnia and sleep disturbance, is not so normal to begin with), but I have no idea what day it is or when Barnum arrived and the toileting accidents and his heart-rending yelping of being crated without litter mates and dog mama has occurred and at what frequency and which days, except I have lost all sense of time. And I’m not even going to attempt to edit or proof this, and I know I’m creating appalling run-on sentences, but you’ll just have to put up with that for a while.  Maybe a year or two.

As an example, while I was typing the above sentence, I reached for my “lunch-time pills,” and it is now 6:54PM, although I did — thank you so much, my PCA Gloria! — actually eat lunch around half an hour ago. But of course I forgot to take the pills with the food, as I’m supposed to. So, I had the cup with the dog kibble, and my fingers digging into it, halfway up to my mouth before I thought, “Wait a minute. Why . . . am . . . I . . . eating . . . kibble?” I waited for that thought to gently float to the part of my brain that could handle it, and realized that I was trying to swallow a handful of other small, round objects. “Pills! Yes! . . . Wait a minute, these are not my pills.”

I have a nice, swollen purple bruise on my right hand where some puppy chewing got a little out of hand, next to a scratch that I’m assuming must also be puppy-play related, but I have no idea when I acquired it.

I am fighting off an incipient migraine and have over-exerted at every level far beyond anything I’ve done in at least a year. The floors are covered in mud (because, of course, I would get a new puppy whom I have to take out practically every ten minutes during mud season), because that my p-chair tires are completely caked with mud, which eventually dries and falls off all over the house.

I’m exhausted and grouchy and babbling. I’m ridiculously happy. I sing goofy made up songs — using real songs but with made-up lyrics. Example (to the tune of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?“):

“Don’t you want it Barnum?
Don’t you want the squirrel?
Don’t you want the hedgehog?
Let’s give them a whirl.

I was looking for a puppy out in Iowa
when I found you.
We picked you up and flew you here and gave you a bath,
cuz of your smelly shampoo.

Don’t, don’t you want it?
You know I can’t believe it when you don’t want your chew toys!
Don’t? Don’t you want it?
You know I can’t believe it when you push aside your Kong toys!”

Our main focus has been on house breaking. That is such an understatement. We keep a log of dates, times and locations of output (and which type), indicators that he needs to go, and results once he’s gone. Someone in the house is always announcing, when they bring him in from outside, “He peed! But he didn’t poop,” or “He pooped! He pooped!” We are obsessed with it.

It’s been a very humbling experience! Foolish, foolish, egotistical me — I thought because I’d trained long behavior chains like, “Take note; run 1/4 mile to landlord; bark; down when landlord opens door; stay till landlord takes note; run straight home,” that I would be able to teach a puppy to poop and pee outside and not just randomly on the floor the split second I look away for one moment when he is out of the crate even though he just pooped and peed five minutes before.

I actually wrote the first part of this blog a few days ago. And now several more days have passed since I wrote a few more sentences, then a few more days, a few more sentences. Don’t ask me which days — that’s just cruel. I had Barnum up on my bed for a brief spell because he was an empty puppy — oh yes, the holy grail of house breaking — a puppy who has just peed and pooped and is therefore (theoretically) safe to be out of his crate and playing, snuggling, training, etc. He immediately started chewing my keyboard buttons. When I moved that out of reach, he attacked the telephone headset, then chewed on the mouse wire. Then it was time for puppy to go back in his crate for a nice stuffed chew toy he might or might not figure out how to chew.

Random thoughts that flit in and out of my mind:

– How can this tiny puppy ever be a service dog? I’m still teaching him that if he nudges a Kong or Biscuit Ball, kibble falls out. I didn’t think this would require actual clicker training to teach, but it has: look at ball, click/treat; move toward ball, c/t; nose ball, c/t; eat kibble that pours out of ball, c/t…. I had thought that the mere fact that kibble falls right out of the ball if you even breathe on it would be a good hint, but no.

– What was Gadget like as a puppy? Was he like this? He couldn’t possibly have been. I bet he figured out toilet training in one day. (I’m sure he didn’t, but still, I miss him. I want Gadget back. I want him here to show Barnum how it’s done.)

– Does anyone want a really cute, snuggly, adorable, pee- and poop-filled puppy?

– It’s weird to go to a door and have a dog next to me who has no earthly idea that he could learn to open it or even gets confused about how to get out of the way when it opens. In fact, one of the hardest parts of the toilet training has been getting Barnum and myself in or out the door — involving opening and shutting it, each time — before Barnum has an accident. If we pause for any reason that’s when disaster (in the form of a small, easy-to-clean-up, but oh-so-frustrating puddle) strikes.

– If I drop something, not only does Barnum not retrieve it for me, he will — if I’m lucky — not be able to find it (because, apparently, even if you drop something directly in front of their noses, puppies often can’t see it it). If he does find it, he will chew it, especially if it’s something fragile or expensive or dangerous to him, or all of the above. [Note: Eventually, I learned from reading a website what none of the many puppy-rearing books I’d read had bothered to mention — new puppies can’t see! At eight or nine weeks, their eyes are still maturing. In fact, Barnum’s were still blueish at the beginning. His eyes are now brown, and he is perfectly capable of seeing or sniffing out treats on the floor. The amount that I didn’t know about puppies was astounding. I know so much more now, and I still feel completely ignorant!]

– God, he’s so adorable, it’s practically indecent.

Baby Barnum first week home

See what I mean? Beyond, beyond cute.

– It was weird to go for my annual physical and leave a dog behind and be there without a dog and then come home to a dog who is not Gadget (and who then pooped on the floor).

– It also felt like a blissful relief to get away from him for a couple of hours and leave someone else in charge of him. Gloria, who was driving me to the doctor, said that’s how she felt when her son was really little — that going to work felt like a vacation. That’s how I felt: getting a pap smear was a vacation!

– All the women in my life who have kids keep saying everything I’m going through is typical of being a new mom: the anxiety that I’m ruining him for life with every mistake, the guilt that I sometimes just want someone to take him away for 12 hours (or perhaps forever) so I can sleep, the complete inability to think, the zombie-like facial expression, the relentless pursuit of following all the instructions in all the puppy raising books that tell you your puppy will become a horrible, out-of-control, dangerous, miserable wreck if you don’t accomplish all eight million absolutely necessary training, bonding, and socialization efforts in the first four weeks you have him; examining every single behavior or nuance as a predictor of the glorious/tragic path that lies ahead; my overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. Gloria keeps telling me I have “milk brain” because I can’t think worth a damn. Maybe this is the oxytocin connection??

– I think I’ve smiled and laughed more in the last two weeks than I have in the previous five years, combined. I also think I have cried — or been too exhausted to cry, and just laid there, crying in my mind — than I have in the past year, too.

– Will all this overexerting build up my strength or tear it down in a huge crash?

– I am so not up to this task. I was a fool. I had taken leave of my senses (which I no longer possess, at all) when I decided to get a puppy.

– I love when he sticks his whole head into the snow, so all you can see is fuzzy puppy butt, back and legs.

Barnum with head in snow.

Barnum loses his head.

– I love when he pounces and leaps.

Baby Barnum leaps in snow

A bouncing baby Bouvier.

– I love when he kisses me and curls up in my lap.

Baby Barnum Kisses Sharon in the Garden

Kisses!

I love when he is sleeping, lying on his back with his paws in the air and his little white chin poking up.

Barnum at 14 weeks, sleeping on back

One very relaxed puppy!

– I love when he is tired and lies down with his back legs sprawled out behind him. We call this “Superman,” because he looks like he is flying — front and rear legs extended, very streamlined. (Don’t yet have a picture of it, or I’d show you.) He also does “frog leg,” where one leg is extended behind and the other is pulled up.

– I love that I am having to force myself to invite over every single person and dog who might remotely be willing (and even those who are not) to meet, treat, or play with him. I have socialized more in the past two weeks than in the previous few years combined.

– I hate having to deal with all these people — the exhaustion, the noise, the sensory overload, the exposures, exposures, exposures.

– I will never again take for granted a dog who is able to pee and poo outside and not inside, and to indicate when they have to go before relieving themselves on the floor, or who can “hold it” for more than two hours — or five to ten minutes or 30 seconds, depending on the circumstance.

* * * *

Guess what? I now have such a dog! (His name is Barnum.) We still have the occasional accident, but it is the exception, not the rule. He will even eliminate on cue — in our yard, that is. Elsewhere in the world he gets too distracted to pee or poo, so he holds it till we get home. Seriously

Barnum is also able to sleep through the night and is adjusting to my Vampire Girl schedule. (It’s a CFIDS/MCS/Lyme thing.)

I have only almost eaten kibble — thinking it was my pills — once or twice in the last couple of weeks.

He still attacks the headset, mouse, and keyboard when he gets on the bed. In fact, here is Barnum’s first After Gadget contribution:0000-                                                           32.

Now I just have to put his typing on cue.

As always, we welcome your comments.

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

P.S. Commenters of the previous post, I have not forgotten you! Responses forthcoming.

Back Back Back: A Year Ago Today

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

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

-Ani DiFranco

Backdrop

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

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

Background

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

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

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

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

Backslide

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

Backtalk

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

Me 1: “Gadget wasn’t like this.”

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

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

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

Me 1: “Ugh.”

Backcountry

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

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

Backtrack

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

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

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

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

That stopped my heart. It was.

Back, Back, Back

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

Jersey in profile

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

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

If only it had been glaucoma.

Backhand

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

Within a few minutes, I despised her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backtrack

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

Clear skies, clear water, Gadget returns to me.

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

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

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

As always, we welcome your comments.

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

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

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

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

BADD: Q&A on Being an Assistance Dog Partner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Questions and Comments

Q: Who trained your service dog (SD)?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Do you have a replacement lined up?

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

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

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

Q:

1. Who will raise your puppy for you?

A: 1. I will be raising the puppy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.

1. [Silence.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlude: My One Hour a Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much for your comments. Keep them coming.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

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


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