Patrick, GUGP's 2015 Guide Dog Puppy

Patrick, GUGP's 2015 Guide Dog Puppy
GUGP Website

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.


03 November 2015

She is So Much More

We've been home a little more than a month, Megan and I. We've walked our neighborhood, gone to the doctor, been to the hospital, been grocery shopping, "stuff" shopping, and dress shopping for a fancy schmancy gala we will be helping with. We've been to the pumpkin patch and on walking trails and along the beautiful St. Croix River. We've been on an airplane, a hay rack ride, and trains, buses, and cars. We've packed a lot into a little bit of time so far.

When I tell people about her and our young partnership, I tell them that we don't walk together, we fly. Every time we go out, I am awestruck by our pace and by Megan's precision and near perfection. She is exceptional. We are a fast-flying pair and we're becoming stronger and more attuned to each other every day.

Thank you—every day, I think, "Thank you." When I safely cross at an intersection, or step up a curb without tripping, or find the stairs, or walk with grace, poise, and confidence with Megan by my side, I think, "Thank you."
She is so much more than a dog ...

She is so much more than a friend ...

She is so much more than a mobility tool ...

She is so much more than a gift ...

This dog—she is beautiful, impeccably trained, hard working, happy to snuggle, loving, protective, curious, and an incredible gift of the most precious sort imaginable. She gives me freedom, independence, confidence, assurance, and safety. She is so much more ... She is part of me, part of my family, and part of our community.

Thank you, Guide Dogs for the Blind, for both of these gifts: my retired guide, Picassa, and my new active guide, Megan. They are both so much more ... than I could have ever asked for.

Nicole Schultz-Kass