Posts Tagged 'puppy'

When Life Gives You . . . Melon Heads?

I know I’m not supposed to think this, let alone write it on a public blog, but, as Michael Kors likes to say, “Let’s be honest.” Barnum is not as smart as Gadget.

(Don’t hang me out to dry! Read to the end, please!)

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe when Barnum gets older, he’ll surprise me. Maybe it’s because of all the training mistakes I’ve made. Regardless, Gadget was 12 months’ old when I adopted him, and Barnum is now eight months, and the distinctions become more and more stark with each passing week. These two dogs really couldn’t be more different.

There are many kinds of intelligence, so I’ll get specific.  I’m talking about doggy “school smarts”: trying to figure out what the trainer/handler wants from you, having the confidence to try out behaviors (and make mistakes), a gusto for training (assisted by a gusto for food), and a general ability to problem solve in everyday life. In all but the first category, Gadget leaves Barnum in the dust. (Barnum, however, is so anxious to give me what I’m looking for in training situations that he actually can easily become anxious and frustrated; he wants desperately to succeed, and is vociferous if he feels confused. He also is incredibly sensitive to unintentional cues, which means he’s super tuned in to me and body language. This makes some aspects of training much easier, and a lot of it much harder. All of which is making me into a better trainer — goddamnit!)

Barnum doesn’t intuitively grasp how to do what I used to think were basic doggy skills — until my first Bouvier des Flandres, Jersey, showed an astonishing lack of them. I attributed that to her not having had a very enriching first half of her life, but now I wonder if it had more to do with nature than nurture. For example, I’ve had to teach Barnum how to nudge open a door with his nose if he wants to get to the other side and how to use his paws to get at a treat inside his crate or behind an easily movable object. He hasn’t yet figured out that just by his sheer mass, he can move the (very lightweight, and thanks to his frequent full-body blows, very flimsy) screen door as he brushes against it. Instead, he waits for me to hold it open for him. If it’s partially closed, or swinging shut, he’s afraid of it hitting him. On the other paw, now that he’s learned he can nudge open other doors that are partially closed, he tries to open totally shut, latched doors (by pawing at them). And he doesn’t give up when the door doesn’t budge. Let’s be honest: he hasn’t yet connected all the dots.

Contrast this with Gadget, who, on our “gotcha day” drive home, pulled my sleeping bag out of the cardboard box in the back of my van, pawed and nosed it into the perfect nest, then curled up in it for a nap. That one act (rather, that series of complex behaviors to reach a goal he’d conceptualized from the outset), convinced me that Gadget was gifted, a natural-born problem-solver. (It’s also another example discrediting the assertion that dogs don’t think abstractly.)

I expected Barnum to become that kind of thinker. I figured if I started off with a promising puppy and did lots of clicker training from the beginning, lots of mental enrichment, I’d have a prodigy — an even more inventive dog than Gadget. But, as so many other parents have learned, babies — regardless of species — come with their own personalities.

Gadget learned cues and behaviors four or five times faster than Barnum does. In one of our first training sessions, he learned how to shut a door — in three-minutes. I had to stop teaching Barnum to shut a door because the sound and movement of the door closing frightened him (even though in general he is actually much less fearful than Gadget was). I train from one to four hours per day with Barnum, in several sessions, with breaks. We probably average about two hours a day total. I’m putting in far more work and getting much slower results than I expected, and certainly less than I got with Gadget. On the other paw, I’m also trying to build a much stronger foundation and not cut corners, like I did too often with Gadget. I’m holding on to hope that all this training now will pay off in more solid, reliable, and eager work in the future. (Please, please, please, Training Levels, let me live up to my expectations!)

Maybe it’s not so much a matter of intelligence. Maybe it’s youth and other interests. Specifically, Barnum has the distraction threshold of a paper bag because everything (except me and food) is so unbelievably compelling. He is so distractible that I can’t get him to move out of my way on the ramp once he’s crossed the threshold of the door, because he is arrested by looking at the gravel — every single time. We go out the door multiple times a day, every day, but the gravel never loses its fascinating appeal.

Gadget had his passions, and beyond them, he didn’t bother himself. Gadget loved to run and run and run, to train and learn, to eat, to chase (squirrels, cats, big game like bears and deer, and at the end of his life, pick-up trucks), to play with other dogs (if it involved running and chasing) and that was mostly it. The fact that one of his biggest passions was training (in part because he was so food driven) tends to overshadow the others. He loved me and the few other people in his family pack, in that quiet, aloof, dignified way Bouviers have, and he was protective of our home. He had no use for other people, which is also very Bouvy. He didn’t have much interest in play. He’d retrieve a ball a few times to humor me, and in return, I’d dole out some treats. (Yes, I was bribing him to play with me. It was totally not clicker training. I had to show the treats before he’d go for the ball.) He made it clear that he’d much rather be problem-solving — how to open a different kind of door or retrieve a new object or sniff out a stuffed Kong I’d hidden in a diabolically difficult place. He loved shaping, the ultimate form of puzzle-solving for a dog communicating with their handler via clicker. He loved to think, and he loved to earn his food.

And now here’s Barnum: The only dog I’ve ever had who leaves food in his dish. He doesn’t like peanut butter. (What dog doesn’t like peanut butter??) He’s not so into Kongs unless they’re packed solid with raw meat or cottage cheese, and even then, he often leaves them after a few licks. His attitude toward food can be summed up in one word: “Meh.” Of course, a dog’s gotta eat, and yes, if he’s starving or there’s nothing to distract him (and I mean nothing — no sounds, movements, smells at all), then it’s worth working for food.

Nonetheless, thanks to the magic of clicker training, he is much more interested in treats than he used to be. The power of earning the food, of training me to feed him, lends a higher value to all earned food. But he still only works for good treats. He spits out kibble if he knows I have something better. He even lets his favorite food (cheese) fall out of his mouth if his focus is elsewhere. I could hold a steak in front of him, and he’d duck around it to continue stalking a grasshopper (which, if he caught it, he would eat). I’m absolutely not exaggerating. He really would ignore the steak. He also often prefers to eat sticks and rocks to meat or other delectables.

More differences: He’s the first dog I’ve had who is happy to entertain himself, who actually likes being in the yard finding his own amusements, and doesn’t need to follow me around wherever I go (though he does keep an eye on me). It goes without saying that he loves to dig, and to destroy plants and shrubs by digging them up. So now we have a massive, ugly fence around our garden. Digging is new to me, too.

We named Barnum after the circus because he early showed his acrobatic tendencies. (I still need to post the story of how he got his name. Sorry, readers!) But it’s become more apt due to his clownishness, as well. For instance, he is entranced by watching his reflection in the glass doors. He doesn’t just stand there looking. He jumps up and down on his hind legs, catching serious air, watching himself bounce. He barks at himself. He gets a ball and holds it in his mouth as he jumps up and down. He runs back and forth between the doors, watching himself speed by. Barnum knows he is looking at himself, not at another dog. For one thing, he often watches me or makes eye contact with me in the reflection, using it as a mirror.

“What’s up Mom? Watch me!” (Grabs ball, bounces up and down, drops ball, barks, grabs ball and runs, skids, returns to original glass door, bounces more — all the while making eye contact with me through the glass.)

Here’s a short video of Barnum jumping and barking in front of the doors. Please note that usually he does less barking and much more — and higher! — bouncing. But it was late, and he was tired. I’d also recently started teaching him to bark on cue, so he was feeling quite barky. (We hadn’t established the cue yet, just the behavior.) I didn’t caption the video, because there’s no talking. Read the text description here. Access note: I sometimes tilted the camera sideways, so part of the video’s sideways, which might be symptom-inducing for some. (This includes me. I’ll know not to do that in the future.)

In fact, the first time I put a pack on Barnum to get him used to gear, he showed a Tim Gunn-esque sensibility. Once he felt comfortable in the pack (mostly, he still hates gear), he trotted over to the glass and checked himself out! He actually turned his head this way and that to get more angles. “Oh yeah, I’m a dude.”

Unless it’s hot (another difference — Barnum detests the heat, loves the snow and cold), he wants to be playing all the time. His signature move is to roll onto his back, all feet in the air, and swing his head to look at the nearest person, practically shouting, “Rub my belly! Lavish me with affection!”

Barnum Rolling in the Grass (7 months)

Barnum, at seven months, very much the playful puppy.

He even sleeps in “dead bug position” — a very relaxed, happy guy.

In fact, I think he’s actually a more well-rounded dog than Gadget was. He knows more different styles of play than Gadget did and plays better with a wider range of dogs. He has broader interests: he doesn’t limit himself to only squirrels or prey that’s turkey size or bigger, like Gadget did. Barnum will stalk and chase anything that moves, literally: bugs, song birds, laser dots, balls, toys, leaves blowing in the wind. (Oh, how he loves the wind.)

Jersey hated the van, and Gadget barely tolerated it. Barnum loves to go for rides, sniffing the air out the window and looking over the dashboard to take in the world going by. When we arrive anywhere, he is excited! Who knows what smells and sights and sounds await? Thrilling! Gadget and Jersey had to counterconditioned to numerous phobias. I’ve yet to expose Barnum to a strange noise he’s afraid of; chainsaws, airplanes, amplified live music are all just fine. The usual bugaboos for many dogs — skateboards, bicycles, grocery carts — don’t freak him out, either.

The biggest difference is that Gadget was cerebral, while Barnum is a love. A sweet, gooey, tender boy.

The telltale (pun!) sign is — no surprise — Barnum’s tail. Unless he’s concentrating hard on something (such as a moth), that tail can start wagging at any moment. I’ve never seen a Bouvier tail that wagged so much, even in videos of Bouvs excitedly working Schutzhund or herding. It wags fast. If I praise him, he curls his body with pleasure, dropping his ears and head, and wagging very fast. He will come over to me, and his little stubby tail is wagging so hard that his whole rear half is swaying to keep up. He’ll throw his head against me and press into me, and while I pet him, he wags ferociously. He shows such pure joy at receiving any kindness — praise, petting, chattering. Sometimes, he prefers praise to food, which is hard for training, but very endearing.

He is a believer in kisses. Lots and lots of kisses. On my lips, on my ears, on my nose. Anyone who gets on the floor in this house is in danger of getting French kissed or their ears cleaned or both.

Barnum at 5 months kissing Sharon on bed

He doesn’t reserve his love for family, either. It’s true that as he ages, he is getting more of the Bouvier aloofness with non-family, but he still rushes to greet anyone he sees (just lately, with a nose in their crotch) — whether they want to have anything to do with him or not. When big, strange men come into our house, he doesn’t even bark! He waggles over for some petting.

In other words, when he’s not aggravating the crap out of me by chewing everything he can find or staring at (seemingly) nothing when I want his attention, he’s enormous fun. In general what he lacks in focus, he makes up for in enthusiasm. However, when he’s playing, he is all focus and all enthusiasm. He thinks tug is the most marvelous game in the world, and fetch and balls and stuffed squeaky toys are great, too. Oh my goodness, yes — especially plush squeaky toys. He loves to tear them to pieces to extract and chew on the squeaker. While Jersey’s and Gadget’s toys lasted their whole lives, Barnum has already destroyed almost all of their toys as well as his own. I recently bought a bunch of stuffed animals at a garage sale for 25 cents each, just so I could let him dismember something for cheap.

Most of all, he’s a wonderful playmate, which I desperately need. I have few human friends these days. Indeed, because he requires a lot of heavy-duty play, Barnum is my best form of physical and occupational therapy: throwing and tugging, throwing and tugging, throwing and tugging. His favorite game is for me to hold up a toy and tell him “Get it!” so he can leap into the air and grab it, then we tussle over it. I ask him to release it, he does, I throw it, he brings it back, and we tug some more. It’s a serious workout. (Thank god for pain killers.) It’s also hilarious, joyful, and life-affirming. He makes me laugh more than any other dog I’ve ever had.

I don’t know if Barnum is the perfect service-dog candidate. Only time will tell. Lots and lots of time and effort; lots and lots of working and training. We are so far behind where I thought we’d be at this stage, I just try to focus on the little victories; otherwise despair can creep in. When I see the big picture of how far we still have to go, it’s a bit nauseating.

Yet, when Barnum wiggles up to me, cuddly and tail-wagging, a toy in his mouth he wants me to tug, and then just hearing my voice, he wags his tail faster, I rub his ears and my frustration disappears. He is clearly the perfect candidate for one job: mending a broken heart. Thank god he’s already on the job.

I miss you, Gadget.

Thank you, Barnum.

Love,

Sharon

We always welcome your comments!

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.

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.

The Experts Are Full of It (and the Puppy Is, too)

You might have noticed there have been no After Gadget blogs in a month, which — not coincidentally — is when I got my new puppy. That’s because things like, um, sleeping, thinking, not weeping with frustration, were hard to come by for a while.

I was sobbing on the phone to my therapist (with whom I’ve been speaking much more often lately) and to my grief support list, “I hate the puppy! I hate the puppy!” Some people were just an eensy bit judgmental about this.

Even more obnoxious are all the people who have been saying to Betsy and me, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful to have a puppy? Isn’t it so much fun?” We just look at them with very, very tired eyes and mumble, “Yes, he’s adorable and sweet, but, um, it’s a lot of work.” The people who have survived raised puppies themselves tend to switch into sympathy mode.

Betsy and I each asked friends whose dogs are less than two years’ old, “How long did it take you to toilet train?” We hoped, on one hand, that they would say something like, “Six weeks,” because we’re entering week five now, so that would mean there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, we hoped they’d say, “Six months,” because this definitely would mean we are not failures because we are already at about 75 percent toilet trained.

However, what both people said was, “I don’t remember. I must have blocked that time out.” Practically verbatim.

Worse than this was when Betsy asked her employer (when our puppy had already had about 17 accidents in his first four days), how many their goldendoodle had during housebreaking.

“One,” she said. We both cried. I think they should have lied.

I tried to convince Betsy we were Not Failures. “We’ve gone 24 hours without an accident! We didn’t know what we were doing at first! We’re doing so much better now!”

I believed myself, too, until the next (inevitable) accident. About an hour later.

But despite sobbing, “I hate the puppy! I hate the puppy!” the first two weeks, to anyone who had ever showed me any kindness, I really do love him, as you can see in these two pictures of us bonding on his first day home:

Little bear - Barnum's first day.

Isn't he a snuggly little bear?

Barnum in Sharon's lap
Looking lovingly into each other’s eyes on his first day home.

Honestly, I promise, I don’t hate him. I just hate the pee and poo that appear on floors throughout the house, even when he has not been in that vicinity that we know of and he has either been in his crate or under supervision 99.96 percent of the time. (It’s that 0.04 percent that gets you.) It’s not even that I hate the pee or poo, because I’ve become rather resigned to that by now (even as the puddles/piles get bigger). It’s more the constant vigilance we’ve had to maintain for over five weeks.

This is primarily because I read — and forced Betsy to read — a book by a world-renowned dog behaviorist, veterinarian, and expert in puppy training who writes over and over how you can achieve “errorless housetraining and chew-toy training.” Errorless. His exact words. He also calls any accident “a potential disaster” and says that “you can start ruining a perfectly good puppy in one day.” So, no pressure.

The errorless chew-toy- and crate-training are to be achieved with Kongs and hollow bones stuffed with kibble and the occasional treat, such as freeze-dried liver, “the Ferrari of dog treats,” he says. No need to use anything other than kibble because puppies are “food-seeking missiles.”

Well, great idea, except if your new baby is so stressed by his life’s biggest upheaval that he refuses to eat in the beginning, and then has barely any interest in kibble, and doesn’t even LIKE freeze-dried liver, and has no idea how to get kibble out of a bone or Kong, even when there is nothing blocking the Kong, so that kibble just falls out if you breathe on it. It’s taken a month of clicker training to teach him how to get the biscuit balls and Kongs to give up their goodies by nudging them around. This has not made him, as the author promised, a “chewtoyaholic.” He would so much rather chew everything else — our flesh, our clothes, our furniture, his leash, ANY electrical cords — than his chew toys.

His favorite toy — thank God for it — is a bucket. Not a full-sized bucket. Ironically, it’s a big plastic tub, about half the size of a real bucket, that freeze-dried liver came in — for Gadget. Gadget, a dog who LOVED liver. A dog who, if you accidentally spilled a big pile of liver dust and bits on the floor next to his crate, would not have left it there for two days until you resigned yourself to vacuuming it up! Anyway, we punched holes in the bottom of this plastic bucket last year and used it as a planter. Barnum found it under the snow and fell in loooove. (Yes, his name is Barnum. I’ll have to write a second blog on how he got his name. Right now, there are more important things to focus on, obviously.) Because it was distracting him from his excretory duties, I brought it inside, and now we use it a lot as a toy.

Before Barnum arrived, I bought a bunch of organic, nontoxic, fair-trade dog toys for him — and he prefers to chew a plastic (and therefore, toxic) bucket. All I can say to that is, “Get your bucket!!! Where’s your bucket??? Git it gitit gitit!!!”

I have so much more sympathy now for parents who take their kids to McDonalds or plunk them in front of the TV.

The puppy-raising book also says that the first twelve weeks are the puppy’s socialization window, and after that, everything you do will be playing catch-up (and with rather poor results) so that you have to make sure your puppy meets 100 people in his first four weeks at home! And that the puppy should not leave your home, and all guests must remove their shoes, because they could track in a dog disease. (For the record, Barnum has met about 75 people so far, though they were not all people in our homes with their shoes off, and it was not all done by the moment of 12 weeks. Horrors!)

I was fool enough to believe all this bilge! So, you can imagine, what with the massive sleep debt, and the impossible expectations, there has been a lot of stress! Stress! Stress! AUGH!!!!

I’m able to type what you’ve read so far because I pleaded with Betsy Betsy offered to watch the puppy for the night, so I got 11 hours of sleep. The last time she puppy sat, I got 13 hours of sleep. This is because a new puppy is not only a great cure for sleep, but also for insomnia. I’m hoping this lasts. I’m hoping now for the rest of my life, whenever I want to go to sleep, all I have to do is become slightly horizontal, and I will instantaneously drop like a rock into slumberland. Yes, all the sleep disturbances caused by my many chronic illnesses that include insomnia, hallucinations, nightmares, early wakening, etc., as symptoms, might be cured just by puppy motherhood! Wouldn’t that be awesome?

I have taken up the saying my friend Julie introduced me to in high school: When all else fails, lower your expectations. We have done a lot of lowering. Now, if the accident is near the door, we rejoice, because it seems to indicate he knows he should try to head in that direction when the urge hits. Or, if we catch him in the act and interrupt him, so that he does half the poo inside the house and half outside the house, we are thrilled that we were able to indicate that pooping in the house is not what we want (poor guy looks so confused as everyone in the vicinity converges on him and says, “OUTSIDE, OUTSIDE, OUTSIDE!”) and even better, that we are able to reward him for doing the second half of the poo outside. Isn’t that terrific?!?!

Another thing to feel good about is if I’m thinking, “I should take him out right now,” or asking someone to take him out (if I can’t), or if I am actually bringing him to the door, and we’re delayed because I have get to the door, grab the pull cord, then back up to open the door but very carefully so as not to roll over him (more about that another time), and when I turn to check that it’s safe for me to back up, he is peeing! So, I was correct that I did need to take him out right then; that counts for something, doesn’t it?

So, in the spirit of lowering my expectations, I have also decided to try to get blogs out when I can. If they are not beautifully written and poignant and error-free, well, neither is life, right? It is messy and dirty and full of mistakes, but we still have to find meaning in it and love it despite its faults. Hopefully you feel some of this love and forgiveness toward this blog, even with the long gaps and the mistakes and the lack of beautiful, deep, thoughtful writing, but most especially, because of the pee and the poo.

More about Barnum, his name, pictures, etc., the next time I have a full night of sleep (or two or three or eight).

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

P.S. Please, please, please do not post any housebreaking advice! We really do know all the theory and the things we should be doing. It’s just that sometimes life happens, and then you step in it.

Getting Concrete

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

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

Boy 1 at 6 1/2 weeks old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s other stuff happening, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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