Posts Tagged 'dogs'

#NVC Meets Clicker Training: Needs and Reinforcers – Part 1

Writing, clicker training, and nonviolent communication (NVC) are my passions. For several months I have wanted to write a series on how NVC and clicker training overlap (thus combining all three passions) but I keep being too busy — with, guess what? Yeah. All of the above. I’ve been co-organizing an NVC telesummit that started Monday, Nov. 5!* When I do these things, it tends to use all my spoons. I made an attempt at cohosting the first call, but it was too much for me, so I’ve gone behind the scenes again. I’m better at the writing and brainstorming and promo stuff, I think.

Anyway, the more I study nonviolent communication (NVC), the more I love it. This has also been true for me with clicker training. The more I learn of both, the more obvious it becomes how I can apply the underlying principles of both to virtually everything in my life, and I find it fascinating to see how they bleed into each other.**

It’s not surprising I would see these synergies, because this is where my energy is going, but since I haven’t yet met anyone else who is passionate about both applied behaviorism and NVC, I haven’t had anyone to share these exciting little bursts of insight with. That’s where you come in!

I have heard from a couple of NVC people, and a couple of clicker people, that they’re interested in this topic, so I will take a stab at it. The most encouraging response was when I explained the difference between “splitting and lumping” to an NVC practice group facilitator, encouraging her to “split” more in her teleclasses. She later told me that that had been a useful tip which supported her in her role as facilitator. Since clicker training is basically a form of pedagogy, this shouldn’t astonish me, but I’m still always surprised when I pass a tidbit along to someone who isn’t already a clicker enthusiast and they tell me, “It worked!”

DISCLAIMER! I am not a professional in either field. I have no certifications or degrees or licenses. In both areas, I am an enthusiast, a dedicated amateur (though I’ve been clicker training much longer than studying NVC). I strongly encourage you to ask questions, to challenge me, to tell me if you disagree with me — and of course, because I am a believer in positive reinforcement, I also encourage you to share what you like, what makes sense, and where you think you can expand on my ideas. I think these sorts of interchanges — no matter whether they take the form of agreement or disagreement — offer the most potential for juicy learning and cross-pollination of ideas. I hope this will be a wonderful learning opportunity for many people, especially me!

I’m actually going to leave my attempt at defining what NVC or clicker training are, including the purpose of each, till another time. I want to start off with what I see as the basic “unit” of each practice. In NVC language, this would be “needs.” In clicker language, it’s called “reinforcement.”
In this post, I’ll tackle needs. The next post on this topic will take on reinforcement.

Needs – Human Example

Let’s start with needs. NVC holds as a basic tenet that all people have the same basic needs. This list at the Center for Nonviolent Communication is a basic example, though I prefer this PDF by Miki and Arnina Kashtan of BayNVC.
Now I’m going to say something that a lot of NVC practitioners (and other people) might find challenging, but I hope you’ll stick with me anyway. My first NVC teacher and main mentor believes, as do I, that animals have the same basic needs as humans. In other words, those lists I linked to are not just lists of universal human needs; they are cross-species lists of needs. If you’re thinking, “What about bacteria? What about amoebas? I doubt they have most of these needs,” I agree with you. Though I can’t prove it, I think it unlikely that bacteria have a need for companionship or trust or fun. So when I refer to an animal/being in these discussions, I mean “anything with a brainstem that eats,” because that’s Karen Pryor’s definition of an animal that can be clicker trained, and because I think it’s a manageable and reasonable way to define parameters. And yes, that includes humans — people can definitely be clicker trained, though it’s called TAGteaching (mostly because a lot of parents got in a flap when they learned their kids were being taught using a tool “that was for animals!”).
Do ALL animals need everything on the lists I’ve linked to? Maybe not, but then not ALL humans need everything on these lists, either. For example, I know some people who would say “sexual expression” is not a need for them. However, overall these are universal human needs, and enough experiences and science support my belief that they are equally applicable universal needs among social species, such as dogs, horses, parrots, apes, and dolphins, to name just a few. (If you’d like more information on this topic, I recommend For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and in Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell, who studied both zoology and behavioral psychology. Although the book is geared to dog lovers, McConnell uses other species as examples as well.)

At any rate, a lot of learning to practice NVC is learning to connect with the basic needs at play in ourselves or in others with whom we’re interacting. This often takes the form of hearing the needs underneath the strategies we are using to try to get those needs met. For example, suppose I’m in an argument with my partner (this is hypothetical — I’m not saying this is an argument I have with my partner, nor that this is the language she’d choose), and she says, “You’ve spent the whole day blogging, and now it’s almost bedtime and you’re still at it! I’ve been waiting for you to watch a movie with me! I rented this DVD so we could have some time together, but you care about that stupid computer more than me!”

If I have my “NVC hat” on (as opposed to losing my head), I might make some guesses as to what my partner is saying her needs are. From an NVC perspective, her need is not to watch a movie because plenty of people and animals don’t care about movies; movie-watching is not an universal need among people. So, what are the possible needs she is asserting? My guesses might be that her needs are for fun, connection, companionship, and knowing she matters.
I might try to find out by asking, “Were you really wanting to have some connection with me tonight? To know that you’re important (matter more to me than my computer)?”
A cartoon of a hippopotamus and a giraffe. The hippo says, "I think that you..." and the giraffe shouts, TELL ME YOUR NEEDS!!! A banner says, Dear Beginners, This is how you can make your partner hate NVC. (Or hate you.)

Painfully true. (Just ask Betsy.)

Another cartoon by Sven Hartenstein

If she says, “Well, yes, I do want to spend time with you, but I also am just really sick of work, and I can’t understand why you aren’t! We spend all day on our computers, and now I’ve got this movie we’ve been waiting to see, and I want to watch it! Don’t you?”
From this, I think probably her primary need is fun (play, relaxation, enjoyment) and secondarily also some companionship in having fun. So, watching the movie with me (or by herself, or with someone else) might meet her needs, but so also might other forms of play, relaxation, or enjoyment, such as playing cards or backgammon or doing something fun with the dog or with someone else. So I might agree to watch the movie with her, or if I want to keep working, I might empathize with her need for fun and ask if she’d be willing to watch it without me — if that would still be fun and relaxing for her? And we’d go from there. Her needs have been identified, however. (My needs will be in another post in the future!)

Needs – Canine Example

Now I’m going to apply the same scenario to a dog! (Note: Because I have more experience with behavior in dogs than in any other nonhuman species, my examples will usually be dogs, but I encourage people with birds, horses, llamas, rats, etc., to comment with questions or examples.)
I’m blogging away at my computer, and Barnum starts barking. (This IS a real example which happened while I was writing this post, so I used our interaction as an experiment.) He’s looking out the window when he barks. Barking is no more a universal need among dogs than movie-watching is among people. Don’t believe me? My first service dog (same breed) never barked, even when a stranger approached the house. So, what is the need underneath the behavior here? First, I’ll tell you what I think he was “saying,” before I tell you what needs I guessed. I guessed he was saying, “I see someone in the yard, and I want you to know that they’re there!”
Back of Barnum's head and back as he looks out the window towards a green, leafy view outside.

What’s that?!

Note that there appears to be an extra step here: I am interpreting Barnum’s dog language into human words. This is a difference between communicating with most animals and most humans; humans are more likely to be able to use language we think we understand to interpret into needs. However, we often rely too much on language, thinking we know what another person is saying when we don’t, and we tend to ignore obvious (body) language from nonhuman animals about what they are saying. There are many times I know quite clearly what a dog is saying to me, while I can have a long, drawn-out discussion or argument with a person before I have a facepalm moment and say, “Ohhhh, so you mean X?!” Sometimes I’m not sure what Barnum (or another dog) is saying to me, and sometimes I am.
With either species, the process is basically the same: You make guesses and see how they land. With a dog, you often need to use a strategy to make a guess because just asking the dog, “Are you wanting X?” doesn’t always work. (Note: Except when it does. Many dogs know words for toy/ball, play, eat, dinner, car, walk, out, etc. Barnum knows the words “train” and “training,” and I try to use care about saying them in his hearing because he can get very disappointed if training is not forthcoming when he thinks it is.) Anyway, aside from these obvious examples, you usually “ask” a dog what they want by beginning a strategy that you think will meet their need and see how they react to it.
In this case, if I think Barnum is saying, “Pay attention! Intruder alert!” I’m likely to guess that Barnum’s need is communication, contribution, and safety. In other words, he wants to communicate to me that one or both of us might need to handle the danger of a stranger coming to our home; he wants to contribute to me by letting me know this. So I would probably thank Barnum for barking, ask him to be quiet, and treat him for remaining quiet while I look out the window or go to the door to see who’s outside. Looking out the window is partly for my own peace of mind and partly to convey to him that I have heard his alert and am taking it seriously — that he has communicated successfully to me his concern for our safety.
Suppose I do this and I see . . . nobody! Which is what happened! Either I guessed wrong or there was a dog, neighbor, or other “disturbance” he saw, heard, or smelled (perhaps in our neighbor’s yard) that I didn’t see. So, I went back to my work (this blog). As with my human partner, my initial guess was not entirely correct, but I’m still open to more information.
A few minutes later, Barnum — who was looking out the window again — barked again. Obviously what I did before did not meet his needs. I’m going to make a new set of guesses. I watch him for a few seconds and notice that his bark and body posture are a bit different from when he is truly alarm barking. I also catch him glancing at me a couple of times between barks.
I decided that actually Barnum is probably thinking, “I’m bored! She’s been staring at the computer all day, but last time I barked, she paid me some attention and moved away from the computer. If I keep barking, she will probably pay attention to me by telling me to be quiet, and I might even get a treat if I am quiet, and then I can do it again!”
Barnum lying on Sharon's bed with his chin on her computer keyboard in her lap.

Are you STILL on the computer?

I made a different set of guesses about his needs. I guessed Barnum might have needs for stimulation, play, challenge, purpose, connection, or companionship. Possible strategies to meet these needs include: physical affection (ear rubs, belly rubs, butt scritches), play (tug, fetch, chase), a puzzle toy (Buster Cube, treat ball, Kong), or training — which engages body and mind and usually is his favorite strategy for meeting needs of connection, creativity, purpose, challenge, stimulation, learning, and movement, among others.***
I decided to leave training as a last resort for three reasons: 1. It’s what I usually use, and I wanted to experiment. 2. I wanted to finish this post, and training can use up a lot of my physical and mental energy. 3. Training meets so many of Barnum’s needs that it would be harder to distinguish which specific needs were successfully being met by the strategy of training (normally not something I care about, but for the purposes of this experiment, I wanted to try to figure it out).
Then I actually tested this out while I was writing this post. I didn’t start with petting because Barnum rarely wants petting except first thing in the morning or last thing at night. (It’s a Bouvier thing.) I was also interpreting his body language as requesting more active engagement than passively receiving physical affection. So, I moved to the edge of my bed, got a plush squeaky toy and threw it for him. (The spider that quacks like a duck!)
Huggles Seat-Belt Spider

It actually looks creepier in real life. And it sheds!

He was not that interested at first, but then when I made it clear I would play with him (by voice and body language), he got it, and we played some version of tug/fetch/chase. Much to my surprise, when we started playing this way, he came over all wiggly and pressed himself against me. I took that as a request for petting, which is a delicious and rare treat for me (mutually reinforcing, AKA meeting needs for physical affection and connection for both of us). I vigorously rubbed his back and sides and scratched his butt, then he happily bounded over to pounce on his toy. We played some more, during which he requested scritches one more time, and then he got bored.

At this point, I could have decided his needs were probably met. Clearly he HAD had a need for connection with me, including physical affection, and I was touched by that. He’d had some fun, but my guess was that he had not had enough stimulation, play, and similar needs satisfied. If I went back to the computer, he might go back to looking out the window and maybe barking. Even if he didn’t, he might still have these unmet needs but just suffer in silence.
I thought it was likely that his needs for mental engagement (stimulation, challenge, play, whatever you want to call them), were still unmet. Again, I wanted to see if something other than training would work for him. I gave him a previously stuffed IQ Treat Ball set to a high difficulty level. He immediately began pushing it around my room, trying to get the kibble to fall out.
Two hard plastic balls, one blue, one orange. Each has a transparent hemisphere and then a divider inside with an opaque hemisphere below. There is a hole in the divider that can be adjusted in size, and the transparent hemishere has one hole in it as well.

Can be made difficult or  easy to get treats out by rolling

This might seem like a strategy for meeting a need for food, but I have often found that Barnum prefers a food-dispensing toy to easily-accessed food. For example, once when I was leaving the house, I left him a raw knuckle bone and the Buster Cube to occupy himself. Betsy came back into the house because she’d forgotten her hat and saw that he was ignoring the knuckle bone completely — normally a high-value food reward — in favor of the Buster Cuber, with its lower value kibble, because the reinforcement of working to get the food out was so much better. In other words, in that case, his need for challenge or work was greater than his need for eating or chewing.
Barnum pushed the ball around my room until either it was empty or it got stuck under my bed (or maybe both — he’s pretty good at getting toys and treats out from under furniture) and then went to his crate and took a nap. I decided his needs for connection and activity had been met, and now he had a desire for peace, rest, or space.
Barnum sleeping on the bed, Sharon's bare foot in the foreground.

Goodnight, everybody.

Future posts on NVC and clicker training may cover some of these similarities:
  • Opposition to punishment
  • Splitting
  • Assumption of innocence
  • Observation
  • Separating behaviors from intent
  • Focusing on the moment, not guessing stories
  • “Respect the organism”/Recognizing that the other has needs
  • Asking for what you want, not what you don’t want
Please let me know what you think of this topic!
– Sharon and Barnum, SD/SDiT
Notes:
*I’ve decided not to post my NVC events here from now on because I think you’re probably not that interested in that. But if you do want to be on my mailing list for NVC events I’m helping to organize, drop me a line and I’ll add you to my email list. If you want to read the blog posts I’ve been writing on this, they’re at Mair Alight’s blog, where I’ve been putting up information on the telesummit.
**I’m also clear on a couple of very fundamental principles in each practice that seem to clash as theory. From the clicker side, I anticipate the argument, “But we can get the behavior we want without needing to know WHY it’s occurring,” and yes, this is often true, and it is often true that it helps a lot to know the need behind the behavior in the first place to prevent it or to influence it. From the NVC side, I anticipate two major arguments: 1. That animals aren’t people, and 2. that clicker training (and behaviorism in general) is used to elicit behavior, which is “manipulation.” Indeed, the founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg, refers to “manipulation” as a form of violence specifically stating “that would include any use of punishment and reward.” I think actually both science and experience can show that, in practice, these are complementary, not antagonistic, approaches. I definitely plan to delve more deeply into these issues later. You might get some ideas of where I’m heading if you read Rosenberg’s article, “Praise versus Encouragement.”
***Note to trainers concerned that I’m reinforcing an undesirable behavior chain: I asked for a down-stay then worked at the computer for a short time before the next step to break the behavior chain of bark-cued quiet-reward for quiet.

Retreat! Click, treat, repeat.

Due to my disabilities I’ve only gone away three times in the last fifteen years, and never in the last seven. I was doing “staycations” long before the media coined the term. I love going on vacations and retreats, even when I never leave home.

Others — friends or writers (often one-and-the-same) — join me to talk, eat, write, watch movies, and read our work aloud at my home. Inevitably, connecting to others I care about leads me to connecting more deeply to myself, which in turn strengthens my connection to my writing. Since writing, for me, grows out of self-connection, when I am adrift from who I am, I cannot write well. In fact, I usually cannot write at all.

In the past three years, I haven’t had a writing retreat. I’ve been too sick, among other reasons. However, Betsy and I have had wonderful vacations; she takes time off from work, and we do what mood, weather, and disability allow. Even though I’m always at home, and Betsy often is, and our vacation activities might seem mundane to others — playing cards, watching movies, talking — there’s something different about setting aside a chunk of time and marking it as special. Time together is intended, however ordinary the activity, to be a source of connection with each other.

We also devote some individual time to personal projects. Last year, Betsy focused on gardening. I dedicated myself to taking Gadget for daily walks at the pond.

In 2008 and 2009, picking blackberries was one of our most enjoyable activities.

Sharon picks berries.

A berry nice summer staycation.

Gadget loved berries and picked them, too. One of his all-time favorite treats was blueberries, which he picked off the bush with gusto. However, he was fond of raspberries and blackberries, too, and would brave the thorny brambles to get at the fruit. Last year at this time, Gadget was in remission from lymphoma; he looked and acted particularly robust and happy. He joined us in the berry picking (though nothing he picked ever made it into a pie).

Gadget searches for raspberries

Gadget searches for end-of-the-season raspberries.

When Betsy or I found a particularly bountiful spot, Gadget would wade in, knocking off the ripest berries with his big frame, and indiscriminately devouring large clusters, both black and green. I couldn’t begrudge him the berries — neither those ready to eat nor those that would have been good to pick in a few days’ time. Who couldn’t laugh and rejoice in his being with us, so very Gadget — out for all he could grab from life? I also deeply enjoyed the three of us being able to take part in this activity together as a family.

Gadget eats ground blackberries

These ground-vine blackberries are so much easier to get one's muzzle around!

This week I’m enjoying a retreat of a different kind. Betsy is away, visiting family. Before she left, she planted two organic blueberry bushes, in honor of Gadget (and because we like blueberries). It felt like just the right time to plant something beautiful and practical that will be with us forever, we hope — just like Gadget and our memories of him. Also, appropriately, Barnum helped to dig the holes for the bushes, and then partly dug one of the bushes back up.

Along with Betsy’s absence, I’ve had less time with my PCAs around due to illness and car trouble. As a result, a lot of the time, it’s just Barnum and me. I’m really enjoying it.

I’ve written about how hard his first couple of months were for me. I floundered with the newness of puppy raising. My grief over missing Gadget was so overwhelming, I didn’t even see it; it simply engulfed me. I felt guilty, ashamed, confused, and scared because of my puppy-raising ineptitude — what I perceived as failing Barnum and setting us up to wash out as a service-dog team. I also allowed myself to get jangled by the discouraging and patronizing voices of other dog trainers I met online.

A lot has changed, thank dog!

First of all, after Barnum turned four month’s old, when much of the stress of babyhood wore off, I fell in love with him. This isn’t to say I didn’t love him before; I did. But I wasn’t in love with him. There’s a big difference.

Secondly, as we started to have little training victories, and Barnum developed an attention span and the ability to go longer periods without peeing (in the house), we were able to communicate better. This, too, helped me relax and appreciate him more.

Most recently, I have seriously dedicated myself to working Sue Ailsby’s training levels, which have given me step-by-step directions for ways to explain things to Barnum. I’ve discovered a lot of the bumps in the road we had hit in previous months were due me not knowing how to translate what I wanted to teach to a puppy. I was more used to explaining how to build a behavior in an adult dog. As a result, I was asking for mental leaps I wasn’t even aware were there. This created anxiety for Barnum and frustration (and feelings of inadequacy) for me.

It just keeps getting better: This week, not only do Barnum and I have a quiet, peaceful house to work in for extended periods, I am also functioning better physically than I have in three years!  Suddenly, Barnum and I are particiating in our own unplanned bonding, training, and play retreat!

Gadget rolls in clover

First, a festive roll in the clover. . . .

High-Speed Chase

Then, a rowdy game of "tag."

Barnum in pool, 6 mos old

Finally, a refreshing dip to cool off. (Every time I was about to take a picture, Barnum would turn tail!)

With this breathing space for both of us, and the Training Levels’ step-by-step directions, I find that my enjoyment and skill as a dog trainer is coming back to me! When Barnum is confused, or a skill isn’t being shaped just how I’d like, I’m able to think it through and say to myself — sometimes in the split-second necessary to change tacks in mid-training stream — “Ohhh, I need to back up and do it this way!” And lo and behold, it works! It’s just about the best feeling in the world.

I don’t know which is better: Barnum’s total happiness and obvious gratitude for me finally being able to communicate to him what I want, or my tremendously improved self-confidence and attitude about training.

Like most dogs, Barnum is not big on hiding his emotions. This is part of dogs’ wonderfulness. Thus, Barnum is quite willing to let me know whether he is pleased with what’s happening in his world at any given time. When he is not pleased, he will tell me — emphatically. However, when he is happy, he wags his whole body. For example, ever since I switched him to raw food, after finishing a meal, he comes over to me, grinning and wagging like mad.

“Thank you, thank you!” His body language gushes. “That was awesome!”

Now the same thing happens at the end of a training session. We are both concentrating very hard, but there’s also the rush of learning, teaching, communicating. Often, at the end of a particularly sharp session, Barnum runs to me and nearly knocks me over to enthusiastically lick my face. He never used to do this after training; it’s new, since our little “training retreat” week.

Some might call it anthropomorphizing, but I know what I’m seeing: not just happiness, but gratitude. After several confusing months, where sometimes we were communicating well, and sometimes we were both frustrated, we have achieved a solid communication and trust in ourselves and each other.

“Thank you, thank you!” He kisses me, wags, and grins, after a clicker session. “Now I get it! I get it! I wish you had just said so before!”

Kisses!

I love you, Mom!

There are all sorts of paradoxes here: That we made big leaps in progress when the pressure was off. That working with very definitive goals within a rigid structure — and even knowing that I will be testing myself on them — forces me to focus, which helps me relax. As with writing, the more connected I am to my task (teaching a skill), the more I connect to others involved (Barnum), and the more I’m connected to myself.

That just going hog-wild with clicking/treating (being super generous in clicking even the smallest hint of the behavior I want or doing rapid-fire or jackpots of treats) almost always gets us to a more advanced form of the behavior than being stingy with the rewards is a typical paradox of clicker, too. (And sometimes, lately, has gotten us farther and faster than I expected.)

I’ve also been trying to incorporate additional types of games into our play, especially “mind games” that help Barnum problem solve. I use them as breaks in between training sessions, or as rewards for progress, or I combine them with a training exercise. For example, to teach loose-leash walking, you put a “distraction” — something the dog really wants — at the end of your destination, and then you proceed toward it. If the leash gets tight, you go backwards. I used the muffin tin game, shown in the captioned video below by Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs, as Barnum’s distraction/destination. He really wanted to get to that muffin tin!

Click here for a transcript of the video.

With “time off” and the Training Levels as my guide, all I’ve had to do is put my head down and work on what’s right in front of me. With much of the guesswork removed, I am actually more able to “think on my feet” and be completely in the moment. All this means is that I’m attuned to Barnum’s needs, which is the name of the game, not just in training sessions, but in the rest of our lives. It’s about connection.

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.

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.

What’s Missing: A List of Ten

Suddenly, now that a date has been set and puppy products purchased, it’s real: the puppy is coming, and I’m hit hard with missing Gadget. My whole body aches with it. I fall asleep missing him and wake up missing him. My friends who have gone through this tell me it’s a normal part of the transition period, but it still hurts like hell.

Here are the top ten things I miss most about Gadget — in this moment.

1. His Breath

At night, my loneliest time, I miss the sound of his breathing, the lullaby of someone else in the room with me: the steady snore, the periodic “whuff” or snort, and most of all, the nightly, settling-in, extra-long, dog sigh. (If you’ve ever had a dog, you know the sigh I mean.)

Gaget panting

Gadget breathes

Many years ago, a friend who is a midwife and childbirth educator told me that the rate of sudden-infant death syndrome is lower among babies who sleep in the same room with their parents than among those who sleep alone. This made intuitive sense to me: a baby is still learning everything — why not how to breathe? I picture a baby’s inexperienced lungs receiving rhythmic respiratory reminders throughout the night.

These days, my insomnia is particularly bad. I have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. When I wake, I gasp, drawing a huge, shuddering breath, my muscles screaming with pain. Gadget, my partner, was an extension of my body/mind. Without him, I’ve forgotten how to breathe; I have grief-induced sleep apnea.

2. His Snout

I know it’s supposed to be called “a muzzle,” but that feels alien, distantly formal, like calling Betsy’s — my human partner’s — “face” her “visage.” I love dog snouts in general, but Gadget’s was, of course, perfect.

He loved to have it rubbed. Scratching the underside, his chin, made him purr. If I stopped, he’d shove his face into my hand for more.

Gadget snout joy

Snout bliss

Rows of little hairs grew along the top, and no matter how long the rest of his coat got, there were always new little tufts there to massage. If I got distracted, letting my fingertips wander to the bony bump on either end of his snout, just below his nostrils, trying to figure out what they were, he’d pull his head away in annoyance. I’d apologize and return to running my knuckles, up and down, up and down the bridge of his snout — from his eyes to his nose — and he’d go limp and sigh with pleasure.

3. His Nose

Of course, his nose was part of his snout, but it had a wonderfulness all its own — black and wet and spongy. I love all dog noses, but his was, of course, perfect.

Gadget Nose

The very best nose

When we did scent work, I thrilled at his nose rising in the air, nostrils quivering. I was fascinated by watching him scent out the remote control I had asked for or the Kong I’d hidden for him.

There was something marvelous in him being able to do so easily something that will forever be impossible for me. I was proud of him, which was silly, because that boils down to being proud of him for being a dog. On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly why I was right to be proud.

 

4. Talking to him

The other day, Betsy and I had a minor squabble, then she left the room. I turned to Gadget on his bed and said, “Yeah, well, that’s her issue, isn’t it?”

But Gadget had been dead for two months. There was no dog bed, no crate, no Gadget. I was talking to nobody. When this happens, I try to distract myself with something else, like writing this blog.

When I was crabby, it was good to turn to Gadget and complain. At the end of my gripe, I’d ask, “What do you think?”

If he didn’t respond, such as if he was sleep, I interpreted as agreement. If he looked over, I might elaborate until he flopped back down, or I felt better, whichever came first.

When something good or exciting happened, he was the first to know: “I got nominated for a Pushcart!” Or, “Betsy’s coming home early!”

Sometimes I just filled him in on the plans for the day: which personal care assistant (PCA) was coming when, what time I hoped to be able to take him for a walk, if there was anything special I might need from him, how I was feeling.

Now what I want to tell Gadget most is how terribly, terribly I miss him.

5. His nose, again

Each dog-nose print is unique, like a child’s hand print. A couple of weeks before Gadget died, one of my PCAs cleaned all the “dog nose” smears off the glass doors. I probably asked her to, unable to contemplate a future when I would miss those smears.

 

The glass door

Nothing to see

When the glass was really smeary, it got in the way of my seeing the flowers or birds in the back yard. Now, I’d rather not see so clearly.

6. Talking to him, again

When my psychological symptoms got bad — from parasites and bacteria damaging my central nervous system — I lost a lot of friends. As a result I learned how to isolate myself when the rages, depressions, and dark obsessions moved in, blotting out the rest of the landscape, so that I would not take my feelings out on people I cared about. I learned to keep quiet until I “normalized.”

But now I realize, I wasn’t isolated, and I did have someone to talk to: Gadget. Not only was he always with me, but I could say anything to him. He didn’t care if my feelings were “rational,” or “fair,” or “reasonable.”

If I was in a rage, I took him for a walk. Then Gadget was happy, I was happy, and whomever I was not raging at was happy.

Gadget listens to Sharon

He listened.

I actively trained him as my service dog, but when the need arose, without my realizing it, he became my therapy dog, too.

Now, when I’m alone, I really am alone, and it’s the loneliest I’ve ever been. This time, there’s nobody to blame: no microbes, no people, not even myself. There is just terrible, terrible longing.

7. His breath

People keep mentioning “puppy breath” to me. Some email excitedly, “You get to smell puppy breath!!!”

Others warn me against it. Two of my PCAs disagree.

“Skunk breath,” one says.

“It always smelled like turnips to me,” the other says.

“Raw turnips or cooked turnips?” I probe.

“Raw.”

I’d been looking forward to puppy breath. Now, not only am I unsure whether to anticipate or dread it, I also am realizing it won’t smell like Gadget’s breath.

“Dog breath” is not typically considered a compliment, but that is because most dogs don’t receive good dental care. That’s why older dogs usually have “dog breath,” because it’s actually “tooth and gum disease breath.” Since Gadget’s teeth were brushed daily, unless he’d just eaten something very pungent, his breath just smelled like breath.

Gadg & Sharon's nose and lips

We were this close

If you love and live with someone, as long as they don’t neglect oral hygiene or haven’t just eaten crushed garlic with sardines, you tend to associate their breath with the good things: kisses, laughter, snuggling. I want all those things back. And yes, I know, I’ll get them from the puppy, but I want them from Gadget.

8. Talking to him, still

A lot of people talk to their dogs without their dogs understanding the words. We expect dogs to understand our emotion and intent, but only other people to understand the words. However, for the last two years of his life, Gadget often understood me better than most people — literally.

In 2007, I developed sudden-onset intermittent vocal-cord apraxia. This means that a lot of the time I can’t speak English, though I can make involuntary noises like laughing, crying, or shouting in surprise. Sometimes I cannot say a word, sometimes my voice sounds the way it did before Lyme disease, and sometimes it is hoarse or stuttering, with varying degrees of intelligibility.

Fortunately, I knew basic American Sign Language (ASL). However, if nobody around me had known ASL, I’d have been a hammer looking for a nail. Again, I was lucky: a few friends, Deaf and hearing, signed, and so did Gadget.

Gadget could not, of course, produce sign, but what counted was that he understood my signed commands for almost all his obedience and service skills. I’d taught both oral and manual cues when we’d trained, never dreaming how necessary the signed commands would be.

Last year around Christmas, I couldn’t voice at all. Betsy went to her family’s house for the holiday, and my mother stayed with me. Mom had taken an ASL class but was unable to remember what she’d learned. On her first night, I tried in vain to sign, gesture, point, mouth, and vocalize a request for her to shut the door. (Due to pain and exhaustion, I was unable to write her a note.)

Finally, I hit upon the obvious solution. I called Gadget (by making a kissing noise), then signed, “Shut door.” He understood immediately and shut the door. Now my mom finally knew what I’d been trying to say!

“He knows more sign than I do!” My mom said. I gave Gadget a treat and a pat, and he went back to bed. For the rest of our visit, my mom and I relied heavily on Gadget to help with communication.

9 & 10. His nose and his breathing, finally

I am trying to get back to my practice of meditation. It has helped me cope with loss and isolation before.

When Gadget was sleeping, or just lying near me, I’d watch his nostrils dilate and contract. It was a form of meditation — I watched his breath instead of my own. We shared the same rhythm. It was beautiful.

When he lolled against me or put his head in my lap, I felt the light whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of warm air against my thigh, it was the most soothing caress. I didn’t care that his beard left dirt and dog food smears on my pants.

 

Gadget rests his head on my leg

Warm dog breath on my leg

In meditation practice, when you lose focus, you are told, “Come back to the breath.” In this blog, I keep circling back to the breath. I started with it, and I must end with it. When he stopped breathing, his life was over — his last expiration, my pain and inspiration for this blog.

I long for his alive, breathing nose.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

We welcome your comments, as always.

P.S. I’m working on getting some video up as interludes that show Gadget following signed commands.

Sick Humor Retro: The Hindrance Dog

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

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

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

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

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

Gadget kisses Sharon

Some kisses were safer than others

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

Sick Humor Rides — and Crashes — Again

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

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

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

“The Hindrance Dog”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Anti-Lassie

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sharon, Jersey, and Gadget

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

 

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

I assessed the situation and decided on a plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We welcome your comments as always.

 


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