Patrick, GUGP's 2015 Guide Dog Puppy

Patrick, GUGP's 2015 Guide Dog Puppy
GUGP Website

30 December 2015

Holidays with a service dog

Kaline worked his first Christmas this year. It may seem a little odd, given that he's over three years old. But the holiday season can be a special kind of challenge for service dogs and their handlers.

Juno, my now-retired service dog, has been working Christmas since she became my partner in 2011. It's very different than working in public. You don't always take your dog "dressed," because you're with family and may want to allow more socializing than is normal for your dog when on duty. It's easier to tell strangers to leave your dog alone than well-meaning family members. You can also end up in close quarters for much longer than normal, with more tempting food in easily accessible places. For some dogs, the whole thing can be a little confusing.

Juno doing Serious Work Face even without her vest on.
All of the above assumes that your family and friends accept you and your partner at the holidays. Juno, Kaline, and I are very fortunate in that our family and extended family understand my need for a service dog and don't bar my dog from the festivities. For family events, you have no ADA protection. Family members who don't comprehend the importance and necessity of a service dog can put handlers in an uncomfortable position: Do you leave your crucial medical equipment at home and get to be with family/friends for the holidays? Or do you stand your ground and refuse to attend without your partner, missing out on the traditional family gathering? It's an awful decision to force someone to make at any time, but especially around the holidays.

Kaline's first Christmas was a lot of fun and probably the most hectic one I've experienced with a service dog. Four more people than usual came, and four young children were running around. Gift-opening was kind of chaotic and ended up being overwhelming for me. So in the midst of all the noise and excitement, Kaline calmly did deep pressure therapy on me, ignoring everything going on around him. He also did a great job resisting the tempting morsels all around during dinner.

I kept Kaline in his harness for most of the time we were there, since he has a harder time than Juno transitioning to working behavior while he's out of his gear. Especially at an event like a holiday celebration, it's important to know your dog's individual quirks and set him or her up to succeed as much as possible.

Juno is the kind of dog who doesn't much care about socializing and will dependably pad just behind you no matter what is going on or what she's wearing (or not wearing). The only thing you have to worry about is her wagging her long tail near low tables or children.
Kaline loves to socialize when he's not vested or harnessed. He also adores children, but doesn't quite realize how intimidating his size can be. Two of the kids at Christmas this year haven't had much exposure to dogs, especially big ones, so it was important for Kaline to make a good impression. Happily, his cute little Doberman nub isn't capable of knocking anyone over.
Another reason to keep Kaline geared up was that I just needed more help this year than last year. I have fibromyalgia—it's a problem all the time, but this year about a week before Christmas I began what most people with fibro call a "flareup." You get used to your usual level of pain, and can pretty much fake feeling fine most of the time (provided you still do good self-care). But when you get a flareup, the usual level of pain ratchets up dramatically.

Last year, even though Juno was retired from public work, I let her work Christmas because I knew I wouldn't need assistance that she was incapable of providing (like counterbalance). This year, there was just no way I could have had anything resembling a good time without Kaline's help. He did a lot of counterbalance, which would have hurt Juno.
In addition to his work, Kaline posed for silly photos with good grace.

Anytime I had to get up from a couch, he helped me. Walking around mingling, he provided stability. And with the added crowding, his deep pressure work was crucial. Don't get me wrong—these are people I love. I was so happy to see and catch up with everyone who was there. That many people in such a small space, however, especially when it gets loud, can just be too much for me to handle without either my dog's help, or flat out leaving the situation until I can get it back together again.

Kaline did an excellent job. I was really proud of him. Because of him—and my wonderful family—we had a fantastic Christmas. It wouldn't have been possible without his help.
Kaline got some cozy and well-deserved rest after the festivities.


23 December 2015

So you want a service dog ...

The first and most important thing to ask yourself before pursuing a service dog is: Do you have a disability?

It sounds a bit silly, but some people don't quite understand that to have a service dog, you need to have a professionally diagnosed disability/ illness. I continue to make a point of the professional diagnosis, because self-diagnosis does not, by law, mean much. For you to have a service dog with you in public, you need to have a doctor's acknowledgement of your disability. If they also support you having a service dog, then fantastic! However, a lot of doctors have not heard of service dogs assisting anyone other than the blind, so they may not want to sign their name to something they don't understand. Try to educate them if you can, but don't loose sleep over it. Their job is to simply say: "Yes, this person has [insert disability here]."

Next you'll need to think about what you want the dog to do for you.

There are many things a dog can do, but there are also many things they cannot. Some tasks may be easy to teach, while others may take many months of practice. 

Are you prepared for this specialized training? What effect will a Service Dog have on your day to day life? Does your family/partner/flatmate approve of this decision?

The people with that you live with will understandably have opinions about adding a dog to the household. A flatmate, for example, may not want a dog around, so it may mean getting a new flatmate or changing accommodation. However, if your partner has an issue with a new dog in the house, you've got a whole new problem. Not to sound negative, but do not underestimate any possible resistance to you having a new dog in the home. To do so may leave you and your dog open to very difficult situations.

Is the dog for a child, and are there other children who may want to be involved with the dog? How will the dog fit into the daily schedule? Who will supervise training? Who will be ultimately responsible for the dog? Allergies may also be an issue, but this might be overcome by getting a hypo-allergenic breed of dog.

Please do proper research on this. No dog can actually be classified as a "allergy free dog." People with allergies to dogs are usually allergic to the dander of the dog's skin, not the actual fur. If you have a dog that sheds less, like a Poodle, Schnauzer, or Italian Greyhound, they are usually easier for allergy sufferers to deal with. Again though, you need to think of how this breed will fit in as a working dog, how much exercise they need, are they people oriented, how much grooming will they need, and so on.

Have you considered your friends?

You may lose friends over a decision to get a service dog. It's sad to say, but I have lost a few friends who did not understand or like my decision to get a service dog. As training intensifies after a year or so, you may find more friends drop off. Not everyone feels comfortable around dogs. Friends may not understand why you are choosing to use a service dog instead of other options. Your friends may not want you to have the dog in their homes or even around them. Talk to your friends before you decide to get a service dog and see the effect it may have on your social life. You may decide that the benefits of using a service dog are greater than keeping the friends who don’t agree with your decision, but it is good to be aware.

Are you ready for the greatly increased public attention?
You will draw attention to yourself (and your disability) with a service dog. A service dog attracts attention, both to the dog and to the handler. This can really change how people perceive you, especially if your disability is invisible. A service dog openly labels the handler as a person with a disability. People who had not known you as disabled will suddenly have it drawn to their attention, and you may find that their perception of you changes when you get a service dog. Members of the general public will want to stop and talk to you about your dog and often also about your disability. Small children may chase your dog and try to pat it or even hug it. If your dog is large, small children may try to climb on it and ride it. A service dog is not a good option for someone that cannot tolerate a lot of public attention.

Can you handle confrontation?
Even if you get to the level where your dog is a fully trained service dog, some people will deny you access to places you have every right to enter. You will also have people tell you that dogs should not be in public places, or you may even be accosted by an animal loving activist for enslaving an animal (of course we know this is false, however some people don't understand).

These confrontations can be emotionally exhausting and hurtful. They can also be time consuming. Are you able to stand up for your rights to business owners and insist on access? This is a very real and unfortunate part of having a service dog. If you are not able to deal with this, you probably should not get a service dog.

What about the responsibilities of service dog/pet dog ownership?
Financial responsibility comes with dog ownership. Medical emergencies may pop up, with the average emergency vet bill coming in at $1000-$3000.

Further costs include leads, bedding, service coat/jacket, toys, grooming equipment, shampoo, flea and worming treatments, council fees. If you are not financially stable, a service dog (or a dog at all) might not be the best move. Check your local council regulations regarding the housing and keeping of dogs. This does need to be explored, particularly if you already own other dogs. Some councils' restrictions are severe, while others are more accommodating. All will require some form of licence. And they usually have a limit of 2-3 dogs per house.

Are you ready for the long term commitment that comes with dog ownership?

Dog ownership is a commitment! If you're lucky, the dog will be a good worker for roughly 8 years. On retirement, you must decide if you will keep the dog or find a new and suitable retirement home for them. What will you do if the dog develops behaviour problems or health issues and must be retired early? Will you be able to keep them? Will it be safe to keep them if you need to get a new service dog to replace them?

What are the responsibilities of Service Dog ownership?

Do you have the time and patience to work with a service dog both initially in the partnership and commit to ongoing training during the dog's life? Getting a service dog, regardless of whether it comes fully trained from an organisation, or for you to train under supervision/on your own, is a huge transition. Initially you need to spend a lot of time going over the basics, earning their trust and learning to work comfortably with a constant canine companion. 

Have you ever trained a dog entirely on your own? 

Learning to understand and “read” your dog and learning to work with your dog in public is not a walk in the park, so to speak.

As you progress together, the amount of time spent on dedicated training may decrease, but a certain amount of ongoing training is necessary during the working life of the dog. If the training is not maintained, your dog's skills will deteriorate.
Training your dog to be a service dog is not something that can be done in a weekend or even in a month. It will be an ongoing process continuing for the whole life of the dog. However, the most intense training will be in the early months/years, especially if you opt for getting a puppy instead of a young dog. There will be days when you will feel you are not progressing and in fact you may think the whole process is going backwards. These days are normal. Training requires consistent, daily effort even when starting with a dog that has already had significant obedience and socialisation. If you do not have the time to do this, or you are not willing to spend time working and practising with your dog daily, a service dog will not be a good option. You may decide a companion dog that you can just enjoy at home is a more appropriate choice.

You need to understand the basics of dog training before starting to train your Service Dog.

It is important to use humane, balanced, science-based training techniques when training any dog. Improper training techniques will at best decrease the dog's performance reliability and at the very worst can turn your dog into a dangerous, unpredictable animal. A service dog must be able to demonstrate very high standards in both public behaviour and task performance. If you do not already know the current basics of training methods, you should first seek professional assistance and instruction before starting. A service dog is still a dog. Even the best trained dog in the world will not be a perfect dog. If you cannot handle imperfection from your dog, you definitely should not train a dog, and probably should not consider working with a service dog.

While service dogs are highly trained, they are nonetheless animals, and will make mistakes. They will have good days and bad days. Someone who struggles with the ups and downs of dog training will not be an effective trainer and may compound the situation. You should be willing and able to seek outside help if you need it. If at any point you realize that you are not succeeding with your dog, you must be willing to discuss this openly with a specialist trainer.

This help could come in a variety of forms and it could be as simple as a telephone call to talk over the problem. If you are not the sort of person who is able to ask for help, please reconsider attempting to train your own service dog.

What breed of dog should you get?

There is no one breed of dog that is a better service dog than other breeds. However, there are breeds which are known for this work because of their trainability and easy recognition by the public. Common service dog breeds can include Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Standard Poodles.

While many people have had success working with breeds such as American Pit Bull Terriers, Dobermans, and Rottweilers, you need to be aware that certain breeds invoke strong negative public feelings (especially the stronger breeds/bully type breeds).

Back to the question, from where should you get your dog and what sort of dog?

Look for dogs that are healthy, with the right temperament, and suitable for the tasks you want the dog to do. Shelters at times have great dogs that are available for adoption for unfortunate non- behaviour related reasons (e.g. owners moved, passed away, had a new child etc.) This may mean that a temperamentally great dog may become available. However, there are also many dogs in the pound because they are no longer wanted, or have issues, either in health and/or behaviour. Sometimes too what you see of the dog’s behaviour while it is in the lost dog’s home is not the behaviour it will exhibit two months later in your home.

A good service dog is near bomb proof, and restores to its "natural behavioural settings" in a very short time. This is very important as the dog needs to be able to cope (or learn to cope) with any type of situation, noise or visual stimuli, crowds, or confined spaces etc.
A rescue dog can bring greater risks as usually there is a very limited history of family backgrounds and of care and treatment that has been given. Within breed groups there are also specialist re-homing services, normally operated by and for a breeders' group to protect the breed and ensure that re-homing is done to the best possible homes. There can be terrific candidates available, and being a breed related group, health and temperament information is more readily accessible. 

Once again, be careful to do your homework, because anybody can call themselves a breeder. Ask if the dog is registered through a state body; ask for references from the breeder’s vet and other people who have bought dogs or puppies from them. They're usually delighted to give you these details if they have the breed’s interests at heart. You may also be asked or references about your ability to care for a dog.

Similar risks apply to puppies—their parents may be great, but puppies are still developing their personalities. Puppies need to progress through the juvenile periods, they will be silly at times, push boundaries and may not make the mark.

The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) believe that around 30% of puppies out of well-bred adults will make the mark to become a Service Dog.

Another source to consider is recruiting from "Show Ring" dogs that did not make it in that world, but are genetically and behaviourally very balanced—that is, unless they are being discarded from the show ring and breeding plans because of behavioural issues. The dogs that are being discarded because they do not meet the breed standard (e.g. too tall, too short, etc.) are better bets and often have reasonable social skills and are normally sound of health. Like anything, the cost associated with getting a dog this way may be higher than through a rescue.

Do you need a dog to perform retrieval based tasks?

Most dogs, with enough training, can be taught to retrieve - not just breeds with "retriever" in their name. However, some dogs love to retrieve and do it naturally or can be easily trained to do it. If you need a dog that can do a lot of retrieving, it would be in your best interest to make sure you point that out to your chosen source of a dog.

How active do you expect to be with your Service Dog?

Your activity level and expected daily routine is an important consideration. Be sure to be 100% honest with yourself about this, a bored or under exercised dog can be destructive and difficult to train.

Do you work at an office job where your dog will be sleeping under your desk for hours at a time? Do you have an active job where you are up and about for most of the day? Dogs are as individual in their activity levels as people. If you have a dog that needs frequent stimulation and activity and you sit behind a desk all day, the dog will not be happy. However, if you have a dog that enjoys his naps but is still ready to go when the day is over, then you have the perfect office companion. In the same way, if you are very active and your dog is not, you will find yourself dragging your dog along everywhere you go, and no one will be happy with that! Keep in mind that all dogs need some level of physical activity to stay healthy and happy, and if that cannot be provided by either yourself or by arranging for your dog to get exercise you may want to reconsider getting a service dog.

What kind of personality do you like in a dog?
Dogs are individuals; your partnership success depends on the compatibility of you and your dog. Some dogs are sensitive and responsive. These are usually easily corrected and want your approval and praise. They work because they want to make you happy, and they are satisfied when you are satisfied. This is often (but certainly not always) a good type of dog for a first-time dog owner, or a sensitive, quiet person who does not want to try and "talk" an independent dog into working.

At the other end of the scale is a hard dog. They are stubborn, independent and self motivated. They can be frustrating to train. They work because they want to, and because they like their jobs. They like praise, but don't necessarily need it. They are happy when they feel they have done a good job. Hard dogs are often the best dog for an experienced owner/trainer, or a handler that is more outgoing, loud and assertive or someone that wants a self-motivated independent thinker in a dog.

Realistically, most dogs fall somewhere between these two extremes. Look critically at your preferences, personality, and training experience as you do the selection process. Like the difference between hard and soft, some dogs have independent characters while others are more social creatures. Most dogs have times when they need both their own space and close companionship. 

When evaluating preference for independent or social dog, take into account the preferences of other family members or house mates. If you like an extremely social dog, but others do not, it might be best to compromise.
When considering a dog, think about the size, where it will live—in an apartment with a small yard, will it be required for mobility assistance (support when getting up or walking). Think about the longevity of the breed as some giant breeds have a very short lifespan (5-6 years). Consider the coat care, the amount of grooming needed, how much clipping is required (will it need to be professionally done to maintain an acceptable standard for public access? Professional groomers can cost a lot), will the dog to cope well with the your climate? Some people are very concerned about doggy odour, and some breeds have more than others. This may cause irritation in a relationship or even with a very sensitive person.

There are other issues to be considered, but this might help focus your ideas and expectations. And of course after reading all of that, if you have any further questions or worried feel free to contact me. Again, I'm no expert by any means, but sometimes it's nice to know you're not alone. 

Robbi Flynn
Robbi is a service dog handler in Australia who owner-trained her dog, Musa. She can be reached through her website.

17 December 2015

Time flies!

Where does the time go? It seems like just last month Patrick was a little puppy—now my little brother is bigger than I am! He hasn’t just grown in size but in knowledge as well. He has been a pretty good boy and I have been trying to teach him as much as I can. He knows all his basic commands pretty well now, and is getting really good at posing for photographs. I often look unhappy in my photos because doing obedience skills makes me nervous. I don’t like messing up and being wrong. Mom and Dad are really nice to me if I make a mistake, but I hate disappointing them. 
Patrick doesn’t pester me nearly as much as he used to. We can now go outside and play as a family in the yard. Mom and Dad used to have to take Patrick out by himself instead of with Ozzy and me. Patrick was really bad about chasing me and trying to herd me. I didn’t like it very much and got a little nervous about running after my ball when he was out with us. Now that he knows to play with his own toys instead of nipping at me while I run, it’s so much better. I run after my ball and he runs after his own toys. We still play tug a lot, and now that he is bigger and stronger Ozzy comes and helps me—we double team him. 
Ozzy seems to have finally accepted him as part of the family and is playing with Patrick a lot more these days. Ozzy playing with him has helped take some of the responsibility of teaching Patrick manners and have more time to myself to enjoy chewing on my bones. Mom has been trying to do special outings with me as well so I don’t feel left out. She spends a lot of time with Patrick, since he is even more needy than I am! 

But I have to say Patrick is doing pretty well. Now if I can just get through to him that we aren’t supposed to bark at other dogs, and to stop trying to pull when walking he would be pawesome. I try to show him by example, but he is having a hard time paying attention when other dogs are around or if he is really excited to be going out. Oh well, I guess I will keep trying. 
This boy has even more energy than I do! But he is also doing much better about being calm and quiet in the house. He finds toys by himself now rather than trying to steal mine. Patrick has also being going out more by himself in his blue jacket. This makes me happy that he is out working and learning about his future job, but I don’t like being left home. At least I have Ozzy with me. I’m so happy that we kept him. He is my best friend. Well, it looks like it’s about bed time here, so I better go claim my spot next to Mommy before Ozzy or one my kitty siblings takes it. She’s my mommy! Just kidding—I will share her.

Wags and kisses,

08 December 2015

Holiday Safety Tips

The holiday season is a time to spend with family and friends. That often includes the four-legged ones. Unfortunately there are many harmful things associated with the holidays as well. The tips we are listing are for all dogs and puppies, not just service dogs or puppies in training.

Lots of people like to decorate for the holidays but here are a few things to keep in mind if you are a pet owner. Before setting up a Christmas tree, think about where in your house to put it where you can both enjoy it and keep your dog/puppy safe. Ornaments can be very attractive to puppies or dogs, and not just cloth ones. Cloth and plastic ornaments can cause intestinal obstructions if ingested. Glass ornaments can cause lacerations in the GI tract if pieces are ingested, and yes dogs are crazy enough to chew glass ornaments. Tinsel can also be very attractive and is dangerous if ingested. Christmas light cords can also cause life threatening injuries if chewed. Dogs also like to drink out of the tree stand, so be very careful about putting additives to your tree's water, as some can be toxic to dogs. If you have a young puppy or even an older dog that likes to grab things other than their toys, consider putting your tree in a room you can prevent your dog from entering. You can also set up a pen around the tree. Also as beautiful as Poinsettia plants are, they are also toxic if ingested. Keep them out of reach or consider fake ones.

Holiday food and treats
Many people love to bake yummy treats for the holidays, and they smell great to dogs as well as people. Make sure to keep your goodies out of reach of your puppy or dog, and remember, some things can be very hard to resist even to dogs who normally don't take things from the counter. Baking items that are toxic to dogs are chocolate (the higher percent of cocoa the more dangerous it is, with baker's chocolate being the most dangerous), raisins, and macadamia nuts. If you plan on gifting baked goods or boxed chocolate to friends and family as a wrapped gift, it would be a good idea to let them know not to place it under their tree and keep out of reach of their dogs if they have them.

Now, house guests may not seem like a possible safety hazard, but they can be. If you are having a party, or guests staying with you, they may not check with you first before giving your pet a treat. If your dog has a sensitive stomach or isn’t used to certain foods, this can be an issue. Guests coming and going can also lead to pets slipping out an open door or gate without being noticed right away. Make sure your guests know to be careful about not letting your dog out the door. If you are having a party and want to allow your guests to share treats with your dog, have a clearly labeled dog treat dish out with treats you know your dog’s stomach can handle and limit the amount your guests can feed so your dog doesn’t get too many. Eating too much food in a short period of time can cause a very uncomfortable tummy. Remember that having guests can also be very stressful for your puppy or dog, if they are not used to having visitors or large groups at their home. Have a quiet area where you dog can feel safe away from the group.

Travel can be very stressful for your pet whether they go with your or stay behind. If your puppy or dog is traveling with you make sure you bring along some comforts of home and their own food. A different food along with stress can lead to GI upset. Make sure you have current ID tags on your pet, and if your pet is microchipped, make sure it has been registered and the information is current. Most importantly, if your dog isn’t an accustomed traveler to remember they may behave differently in a place they are not familiar with so use good judgment about what activities you do with your dog. If you are leaving your dog behind, again make sure tags and microchip information is current and your pet sitter has a way to get in touch with you in case of an emergency.

Other helpful tips
Home or away, know where your closest emergency veterinary clinic is located and have the number handy. Most veterinary practices are closed on major holidays. If you think you pet has ingested something toxic the best thing to do is call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control center at 1-888-426-4435. They are open 24 hours a day and can answer the questions of if something is toxic or not and what treatment is required. It does cost $65, but very much worth it. You will be able to talk directly to a veterinarian and they have a database with almost every product at their fingertips.

Have a very happy and safe Holiday Season!


02 December 2015

Service dog retirement

When a service dog retires, it's different from washing out or being career changed. A dog who retires had, at one point, everything required to be a service dog. A dog who washes out is in one way or another unable to be a service dog.
Some service dogs retire themselves. One day, you realize your dog isn’t quite as excited as she used to be about getting “dressed.” Or that he isn’t as enthusiastic about doing his tasks. Maybe he’s even reluctant to do certain things. It’s very important to remember that no one forces a service dog to work, and sometimes they just decide that they’re done.

Some dogs have to be retired—they still want to work, but they are no longer able to do their job safely and comfortably. This happened to my first service dog, Juno. At age five, she was diagnosed with sudden acquired retinal degenerative syndrome (SARDS). This genetic defect causes blindness. Her vision was restored by an experimental treatment for about two years, but then I noticed her vision deteriorating again. She couldn't navigate as well in the dark and got startled if touched suddenly on the left. Around that time she was also diagnosed with spinal arthritis.

She still wanted to work. In fact she still wants to work—despite the fact that she's almost nine now, and completely blind in her left eye. Anytime she knows I'm getting Kaline ready to go, she bounces around us and sometimes hands me her leash. 
Juno knows how to pull on the old heartstrings.
But it's no longer safe or appropriate for her to work in public. Her spinal arthritis means that mobility tasks like counterbalance or momentum pull are painful, even if she doesn't show it. Due to her visual impairment, she can't help me navigate a crowd or find an exit. She also can't see surprises coming and would constantly be getting startled. It's just not right to put her in that position. Dogs are very stoic and dedicated creatures, Juno especially so. Just because she still wants to work doesn't mean it's okay to let her. As the person in the partnership, it's my responsibility to make decisions that are in her long-term best interest, even if those decisions make both me and Juno unhappy in the short-term.

Just because Juno can’t work in public doesn’t mean she can’t help at home. Helping at home—her favorite tasks have always been retrieving and opening the fridge, both of which she is still very capable of doing—is a big deal for her. She loves it and it makes her feel useful. Also, it gives Kaline a bit of a break, since he isn’t as excited about doing those tasks.

For an owner-trainer like me, it’s much easier when you can retire your service dog gradually. It gives both of you time to get used to the idea, for one. It also gives you time to get used to your up-and-coming partner. Thanks to the experimental treatment, I was able to do this with Juno. I freely admit that there were days when I was just not up to taking the puppy in public and having to deal with being in trainer-mode every minute. On those days, it was wonderful to just put Kaline in his crate and head out with my fully trained girl, who knew exactly what she was supposed to be doing without being told (most of the time). And by the time Juno had to stop working completely, it wasn’t as much of a sudden change for her—or me.

When a service dog retires, there’s always the question of where they will go. Many handlers keep their retired dogs as pets. When this isn’t possible, the dog is rehomed. Some handlers don’t have the funds or the space to care for a pet dog; some are in situations where they aren’t permitted a pet, even a retired service dog. If the dog came from a program, often she will be offered back to her original puppy raisers. There are also long waiting lists of people waiting to adopt these retired service dogs.

In Juno’s case, she’s in what I like to call joint custody. Kaline and I have our own apartment, which does not allow pets, so Juno officially lives with my parents. This is a win for everyone (with the possible exception of Kaline, who is filled with unrequited love for his big “sister”). 
Kaline and I still spend a lot of time hanging out with Juno.

Juno is still with me nearly all day during the week, since she is my trusty sidekick for walking my packs of dogs. 
Juno, Kaline, and our Boxer packmates.
She also comes to my training job with me, unless it’s cold and/or wet. But she also gets a nice break every night from her loving but sometimes very annoying little “brother.”

Juno loves retirement. When Kaline and I head off for a trip, she gets to go have “spa time” with her Auntie Sonja and her devoted suitor, Sonja’s service dog Chief. Instead of working, she gets to hike off leash and go running on the beach. 
She also clearly enjoys not having to be quite so professional. Juno is still the queen and not interested in paying any attention to strangers who lack food offerings. 
The patented feed-me face.
But she loves making sad puppy eyes at all meals (it usually works), and being able to greet her human friends with wounded-bear sounds, kisses, and tail thwacks any time she sees them. After all Juno's hard work, it's great to see her getting to enjoy her retirement to the fullest.


24 November 2015

A Greyt difference

Since becoming active in the service dog world through my daughter's needs, I've realized that I would benefit from a service dog.

Before we go too far, I'm an actively practicing registered nurse. I also have disabling conditions. I work 40-60 hours a week in a fast-paced field in nursing. I'm advancing my degree. I drive. I have a disabled child that I have raised alone since she was born. I cook, do laundry, clean, work, and go shopping. I am also a person with physical and psychological conditions that are disabling.

I decided that, after much weighing and measuring, once my daughter's service dog in training was nearly finished I would pursue the service dog route with my healthcare providers. I couldn't simply decide that I had disabling conditions on my own. Diagnosis does not necessarily indicate that you are disabled. 

Last year in March my bipolar disorder, severe depression, and PTSD were put into hyperdrive by several things that occurred within a very short period of time—the last one being an attempted armed robbery while working as a hospice nurse. I ended up in a day program for people who experience mental health issues to get things under control as quickly as possible. While I was there, I spoke to the certified mental health NP about the possibility of the benefits of obtaining a service dog candidate to train for myself. She agreed wholeheartedly that not only would I benefit, but it might be a necessity. 

I came loaded for bear when I presented the idea to her. A lot of practitioners have no clue that there is a difference between an emotional support animal and a task-trained service dog. I came to her office with printouts, a list of tasks I needed, etc. I was lucky that she was educated in this arena, and she had documented the areas of my life that were impaired by my diagnoses.

Next, I went about thinking about what type of dog would meet my needs, what were my current and probable future needs, did I really want to do the puppy thing yet again, etc. A wonderful friend of mine, Patti, trains retired greyhound racers to help people with disabilities. I was leery of a greyhound. They're so slight. I'm not. They seemed unintelligent, from the few I'd met. Could they actually be taught everything I'd need? Would one meet the ethical guidelines to assist me with mobility? Would it run away? Would it be timid? They look timid compared to the pit bull mixes I'm used to training. 

So, I took a leap of faith. I trusted Patti, literally, with my life. We chatted over this hound, the other hound,for months. This one's too small. This one looks too "pet-able". That one just seems too ... everything.

Then Robin Hood, a Saluki-Borzoi mix puppy, came along to the Greyt Hearts Service Dog program. He was bigger than most greyhounds as a puppy. He would grow to be a gentle giant. He was a gangly, elegant, poofy goof. I was hopeful, but didn't want to put all my eggs in one basket. I had had two prospects fall through in the last few months, and I couldn't take another heartbreak. Patti asked me, between the two she had picked for me, which did I want. Robin Hood, now named Ivan, was my tenative pick. Patti was going to get him started for me. I was worn out after training two service dogs for my daughter. I couldn't start from scratch again. 

I will never forget when Patti came to drop him off. It was like someone handed me a leash, and at the end of it was my life. My life that I had wanted back for so long. My life where I traveled to big cities, went to movies, shopped for groceries, went for walks, hung out at coffee shops, ate at restaraunts, felt safe at home, all without being in such a panic I became physically ill or feeling absolutely unsafe. It wasn't instantaneous, but it came after a couple months of learning each other. 

Ivan came home in July. In September, with great trepidation, I decided we were going to Boston. I was going to travel. It was a trial by fire. A trial he aced. He had never been to a larger city. He was still in training, but he met every new challenge like a champ. We went on the train all over Boston. He had never been on any mode of mass transit, but he was so steady and did his job so well you would have never known. We went to the museums, restaurants, the aquarium—everywhere I had always wanted to go. I hadn't traveled to a big city in at least five years. I couldn't. Even with a "service human," it was difficult and beyond uncomfortable. This trip was how I remembered my "real" life being. When I loved NYC. When I ate wherever I wanted to without requesting a corner booth, to protect my back. 

Not every day is a trip to Boston. Some days are mundane things. It's the grocery store trips where I don't feel like people are crowding me, because Ivan is providing a passive buffer between me and other shoppers. The trips through the checkout that used to be so anxiety inducing I'd have panic attacks, but aren't anymore because he's doing his job "watching my six." He will let me know if anyone comes close and block them from coming too close, triggering a panic.

It's him alerting to a rise in anxiety while I'm shopping so I can take a minute and do some breathing exercises to head it off from panic level.

It's coming home, and asking him to make sure there are no intruders in my house, so that I can enter and know that it is safe. It's the little things every day that he is trained to do that make my disabling conditions easier to deal with.
He is my rock. He is the reason I can leave the house and do things most people do without a second thought, but are impossible for me without him. He is the reason I can live some semblance of a normal, happy life again. Is it easy taking a service dog in public? No. The pointing, the invasive questions, the squealing because "he's so cute" are tough to deal with. Without his help, I can't do them. For me, it's worth the extra hassle.

R. Jones

17 November 2015

The Gift

I sometimes find it ironic that one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received was given to me by complete strangers. I usually reserve the most valuable, time-consuming presents for my close family members, so the idea that someone would put such great effort into a gift for a stranger is, at times, baffling to me.   

The idea that someone would prepare such a gift 38 times is downright mind-boggling.

But that’s exactly what my dog, Roja’s, puppy raisers did. They raised 38 puppies prior to Roja. Of course, not all of those became guide dogs and not all of them were long-term raising situations, but from what they shared, they have seen a significant number of their pups graduate as guide dogs. In Roja’s case, they actually co-raised her with another family, due to work scheduling issues. The cooperation of two remarkable families resulted in the creation of a very adaptable, calm guide dog, which is exactly what I needed.

My raisers’ hours of work and play with Roja resulted in a  4-legged angel with a set of eyes that help me move smoothly through life. As if that gift weren’t enough, my raisers gave me other gifts on graduation day. They brought a toy they made for Roja, but more meaningful to me, they gave me the words I needed to hear that day. They told me that they could tell Roja was meant to be a guide dog from the time she was a puppy.

Before meeting them, I had been nervous that the interaction would be difficult, that maybe they’d be sobbing over the sadness of saying goodbye to her, as I had heard some classmates describe about their graduation day meeting with their previous dogs’ raisers. Such a reaction would have been understandable to me. I know that puppy raisers wake up in the middle of the night with their puppies in the early days, that they spend countless hours working with and training these pups that are constantly by their side and become part of their families. It wouldn’t have surprised me nor annoyed me in the least if there had been tears.

One of my classmates had told me that her first raisers had told her they had hoped the pup would never make it as a guide dog so that they could have adopted it instead. She felt bad taking their pup as her guide dog. Even this remark, as awkward as it sounds, is understandable to me. I could see how the sheer amount of time and effort spent raising a puppy could evoke such feelings. But I had also heard about raisers who gave incredible reassurance and encouragement to new guide dog users on graduation day.        

One classmate told me that his first puppy raiser’s parting words were: “She may be our puppy, but she’s your dog.” I appreciated hearing the distinction put in those words.

And I appreciated the words of encouragement from Roja’s raisers. I think after raising so many dogs, they had learned to detach themselves emotionally, and maybe since she was co-raised, they weren’t as attached. But they put a tremendous amount of time and effort and love into a puppy that they eventually gave up for a complete stranger. And then, as if that weren’t enough, they drove several hours to send Roja off with a proper farewell, and they offered that same stranger the gift of letting yet another puppy go graciously and with meaningful words.

They later sent me an email, telling me that they both felt that Roja seemed happy with me. They had no idea how much I doubted Roja’s and my bond at the beginning, so the idea that they would encourage me in that exact area  meant so much to me, especially since they had spent enough time with her as a puppy to assess whether she looked happy.

The interesting thing about receiving such a sizable gift from strangers is that there’s no suitable gift I can give in return that would be able to convey my gratitude. I gave Roja’s raisers framed pictures of Roja and myself, which seemed almost comical in its simplicity on graduation day, compared with the gift that would be leading me home. I can only hope that Roja’s raisers received an intrinsic gift as they watched Roja and me graduate. That watching a stranger gain newfound mobility, confidence and freedom as a result of their sacrifice made it somehow worth it for them. I have the sense that this must be true, or they wouldn’t have continued raising pups all these years. Even if it’s not an equal exchange, however, that’s the best part about gifts. When given genuinely, they are given without expectation, even to strangers.

Joy Thomas

10 November 2015

Travel with a service dog

The last time I wrote, I talked about flying with a service dog. Now it's time to talk about the actual trip!

A few weeks ago, my service dog Kaline and I headed to Michigan with my mom (retired girl Juno went for a "spa week" of frolicking on beaches with her Auntie Sonja). It's a tradition for us to go to Ann Arbor every fall, where we visit the Henry Ford and Greenfield Village to celebrate Hallowe'en, and attend the University of Michigan's fall musical.

When we landed in Michigan that Tuesday, our first objective was the terminal's service dog relief area. Kaline loves to do momentum pull, which involves some elements of guiding when there are crowds. The Detroit airport is one of his favorite venues. It's always a straight shot from our gate to the relief area, but with many delightful challenges in our way. It's always great fun to see him assess crowd shapes, the placement of clusters of people, and decide which path offers the least resistance to us. According to my mom, the people in our wake were pretty impressed.
Our hotel in the fall is actually pet friendly, and has a long strip of lawn behind it for running a dog or playing fetch (plus unlimited free poop bags!). After unpacking, the first thing I did was have a game of Chuckit with Kaline out back. Trips are tiring for both of us—at home, he never spends as much time officially on duty as he does when we're traveling. The best way to keep him spunky and fresh, oddly, is by having at least one vigorous game of Chuckit every day. Service dogs really need their time to be ordinary, rambunctious, ridiculous dogs. Kaline runs like a maniac for his Chuckit balls!
One of the best but most challenging parts of our fall trip is the time spent at Greenfield Village in Dearborn. The village is one of the foremost history attractions in the U.S., containing numerous historical buildings as well as replicas that Henry Ford collected from all over the country.
In the village are multiple horse-drawn omnibuses, Model T Fords, antique Ford buses, and steam locomotives. The locomotives are extremely loud, as they have to obey the state laws governing trains, even though they just go in a small loop. Therefore, their whistles have to be audible three miles away. Kaline has had to get acclimated to all of them, and since we are only there twice a year, it usually takes him a little while at the beginning to relax fully in the presence of all these things.
Showing our Hallowe'en spirit! Well, Kaline, anyway.
This was the first time he had no acclimation period! He's been going to the village since he was 16 months old, so maybe it's become old hat to him. It's lovely when we see some of the village presenters who remember him from his first trip—they can see how far he's come since then! Half the Model T drivers know him now; when we wait in line to ride them, the driver we're paired with inevitably lets out a joyful cry of "Kaline!" as we're about to get in.
Kaline on the Model T.
When we were the only ones on a particular horse-drawn omnibus, the driver let Kaline rest his chin on the window between the carriage and her driver's seat as she told us about her team, Wilbur and Orville. On the locomotive, he just objected to holding a down on the icy cold metal floor (can't really blame him). Kaline also enjoys riding the carousel.
Kaline on the horse-drawn omnibus.
Another challenge of the village in the fall is our favorite special event, Hallowe'en Nights. We go to dinner in the packed Eagle Tavern with about 150 other guests—this year two of our tablemates were dressed as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett! It's dark, warm, and noisy—no electric lights—and a fiddler goes from table to table taking requests. Kaline was practically invisible, sleeping under the table until it was time to go out into the village.
After dinner, we followed a jack-o-lantern-lit path all through the village. There are performances of Hallowe'en stories and songs. Most of the visitors come in costume, and at various points on the path, village presenters greet everyone dressed in elaborate vintage costumes.
It's a lot of moving through crowds in the dark—at one point we walked over a fog-filled, laser-lit covered bridge. There are buildings lit up to look like someone is raising a Frankenstein monster inside; the carousel runs backward to creepy music; and a pair of horses run up and down in a field to reenact the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It's a lot to ask of a dog, asking them to focus with all that going on. Kaline just did his first one last year.
Kaline with some of the hundreds of hand-carved pumpkins.
This year, he was totally unfazed by anything, except for one part in the excellent new Top Hat Sideshow where a performer was cracking a flaming whip. Suitable application of treats fixed that promptly. Kaline is quite willing to tolerate bizarre sights and strange loud noises if they mean he's going to get food. And while he doesn't need treats to perform his duties in normal locations, for events like Hallowe'en Nights I always make sure to take some high-value morsels with me. I like to think of it as hazard pay!
Kaline ably led me through all the crowds, ignoring all the costumed distractions. He was fantastic. We ended at the big restaurant, with Kaline passing out under a table while Mom and I shared some delicious mini-donuts and hot chocolate.
The next night was the fall musical, American Idiot, presented by the University of Michigan's amazing musical theatre department. If you've never seen it, it features songs from Green Day's album of the same name, at rock-concert volume. Earplugs for the human theatregoers were handed out at the door; for Kaline, I had purchased Mutt Muffs.
The ear protection for him was a rousing success—while the musical was blaring, I could feel Kaline twitching against my feet, so deeply asleep that he was having a fantastic dream.
It may be called a vacation, but it can actually be more exhausting than regular life, both for me and for Kaline. We are both under more stress than normal, and he is on duty far more than usual. He can go for twenty miles of pack walks and still want to do zoomies when he gets home. But after a full day of work—not just helping me, but maintaining his professionalism at all times—Kaline completely crashes.
Staying super focused in public is one of the hardest parts of being a service dog, sometimes even harder than learning the actual tasks. A good night of sleep restores him, though; it took me about a week after we got home to recover from our awesome and fun-filled vacation! Still, I can't wait to do it again.