I have been waiting all week to watch Through A Dog’s Eyes on PBS. It finally aired this evening and it was a beautiful documentary of a group of individuals with disabilities who were receiving their first assistance dog through the Canine Assistants program in Georgia. The program highlighted several individuals’ experiences at the training camp and for the first few months after they returned home with their new service dog.
The program reminded me so much of my own training experience almost 17 years ago when I was placed with my first service dog, Ramona, in a similar program. Similar to these individuals, I was so inexperienced and naïve to the nuances of living 24/7 with an intelligent dog.
The documentary took me back to my own first day at Team Training and the anxiousness I was feeling as I met the other participants with disabilities and the dozens of trained dogs that were available to be placed with us as our new service dog. I will never forget how the trainer opened a door and beautifully groomed young vivacious dogs began pouring into the room. They were the most gorgeous dogs I’d ever seen and they were full of boundless energy and excitement.
They ran free through the large open room, sniffing our wheelchairs and jumping on some of our laps as they explored every inch of the room. We all sat their dumbfounded, secretly wondering which dog might be going home with us. That first day was so exhilarating and daunting.
As the trainer prepared us for the next two weeks of training, she made a comment that has always resonated in my mind. She said, “Your new service dog is not a robot. YOU have to motivate this dog to work for you. It is up to you to build the bond and the trust that will enable you to be an effective working team.” Boy, was she right. I have often thought of that comment over the years as I have transitioned from one service dog to another. Each time, I’ve had to start all over again and build the respect and trust with each canine partner.
Each dog has been different and exhibited sensitivities to different environmental and emotional triggers. They have different ways of playing and relieving stress. It takes a significant amount of time for me to learn my dog’s individual preferences and needs.
Building a relationship with a working dog is a commitment. Rarely is it automatic. Like any solid relationship, it takes time, work, perseverance and commitment. But when you think about it, these attributes really apply to all of the healthy relationships that we as humans hope to have, and I think that rings even more true for our relationship with our service dogs.
Whistle and I turned a corner in our relationship when I truly became sensitive to his needs and desires. When I learned to listen and to trust Whistle, he learned that he could trust and depend on me. I was the one who fed him, toileted him and played with him. He sleeps in my bed and he looks to me when he gets nervous. He is a part of me just like my wheelchair is a part of me. We have a reciprocal relationship. I help him and he helps me.
As I watched these new handlers on the documentary work with their dogs for the first time, I was reminded of all the work, sweat, and yes, even some tears, which go into building this unique bond between the canine and human service dog team members. It is one of the most beautiful relationships I have ever had the opportunity to experience and to observe. I am so hopeful for these new service dog teams. If they can learn to trust each other and if they will work hard together, then they both are in for a life altering experience that knows (nose) no limits.
I am happy to report that Whistle completed his recertification requirements with flying colors! His Paws With A Cause field trainer, Dani, showed up at our house around 10:00 a.m. She had an array of paperwork that had to be completed. She asked all the usual questions about Whistle’s performance and overall wellness. After all the paperwork was completed, she enlisted my husband, Franz, to assist her by filming Whistle and me as we performed each command.
It was show time and Whistle and I began going through his repertoire of commands. We started with some of the simpler commands. Whistle was asked to perform a sit, down, and stay under Dani’s watchful eye while Franz captured the performance on video camera. We continued through the list of commands and finished with his most difficult command “Get Help”. In this task, Whistle is trained to locate Franz in our home and alert him that I need assistance. Once he alerts Franz, he is trained to return to me.
I don’t know why I was so nervous about Whistle’s performance? I guess I was nervous for Whistle. Or perhaps I was just worried that Whistle would pick up on my nervousness. I didn’t want him to think that I doubted his ability.
People always talk about the bond between a person with a disability and their service dog. It’s true, it is a unique bond that is difficult if not impossible to describe. I love Whistle so unconditionally that I wanted him to be successful. And yet, as I can only imagine how many parents feel, I couldn’t complete the test for him. He had to perform the commands. He was on his own, under the microscope and I was so afraid he might falter.
I have to say, I don’t’ know what I was worried about. I was blown away by Whistle’s professionalism and motivation. He genuinely loved working and it showed. He attacked every command with such precision. How could I ever have doubted his abilities? Whistle and I are together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Did I take his abilities for granted? Am I so used to his performance that I didn’t recognize it?
After Whistle completed all of his tasks in our home, we loaded up into my van and went to the local shopping mall. Once again, Whistle had to demonstrate his ability to perform each of his trained tasks but this time, he had to do it in public.
We arrived at the mall during the busy lunch hour. People were strolling around the mall looking for lunch and weekend bargains. Many people were beginning to stare as Whistle and I, along with Dani and Franz, huddled to discuss each task that Whistle would perform.
Once again, Whistle remained focused and deliberate as I asked him to perform each task. He ignored the onlookers and the food that was strategically placed in his path. Once again he performed flawlessly.
I have been partnered with a canine companion now for over 17 years and I am in awe of their unwavering dedication to us, their determination to help us, and the genuine pleasure they take in being by our side. I have said this before but I really mean it, I am the luckiest girl in the world to have the opportunity to live and work with a canine partner. They are truly amazing and they change the lives of their human partners in ways that can not be expressed or defined.
Whistle is officially recertified as a service dog for two more years. In two years, he and I will go through this exercise once again to demonstrate our ability to work together in public as an official Paws With A Cause service dog team.
After we said our good-byes to Dani, we returned home. Franz and I were so proud of Whistle. He had worked so hard and he had earned his recertification. We resumed our usual routine. I went back to work in my office and Whistle snuggled into his bed under my desk. After a few short minutes, I heard him snoring. He was curled up in a deep sleep, the poor guy was exhausted and I was elated.
Whistle and I are counting down the days until it’s time for our first recertification as a working service dog team. Our recertification will take place this Friday. I know every service dog organization is unique with its own requirements and specifications for its working dog teams. Our agency, Paws With A Cause (PWAC), requires Whistle and I to be recertified as a working dog team every two years.
Our working dog team identification card states that Whistle and I are a certified service dog team for a certain amount of time, usually 1-1/2 to two years. Once that time lapses, we have to get recertified in order to obtain a new identification card. That identification card has proven priceless in alleviating access issues, especially access issues that have arisen in airports. I can’t believe it’s already been two years since our last certification.
What is PWAC’s recertification? Recertification is a process where Whistle and I have to perform our repertoire of commands both at our home and out in public in front of Dani, our PWAC Field Trainer. We usually go to a local shopping mall. He and I will have to go through every command and demonstrate our proficiency performing that command.
Although, Whistle and I work as a unified team every day, it is a little intimidating to be required to perform these tasks under the watchful eyes of his Field Trainer, Dani and her faithful video recorder. Not only does Dani oversee our performance, she also videotapes it and submits the tape to the head trainer back at PWAC Headquarters in Michigan.
If they like what they see, Whistle and I will be recertified for another two years and issued a new identification card. If they don’t like what they see, then they will recommend further training or other activities that we might have to complete. It also gives the trainers an opportunity to see Whistle to make sure he is physically fit and that he is being cared for properly.
I’m feeling pretty confident that Whistle and I will get recertified. However, you never know what might happen, and what if Whistle or I get nervous and make some mistakes? As I said, it is a little daunting and stressful for both of us.
I have been trying to practice some of Whistle’s most difficult tasks just to make sure we are ready for our recertification test. Whistle is a very sensitive dog and he will definitely sense any nervousness that I might be experiencing. As his handler, I have to be confident and trust his ability to perform each required task. We have to trust each other. Wish us luck!
Hats off to the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) and Merial® for conducting the 3rd annual National Service Dog Eye Exam Event throughout the month of May 2010. Through this event, more than 170 board certified veterinary ophthalmologists in the U.S. and Canada will provide free sight-saving eye exams to thousands of service dogs including guide dogs, assistance dogs, detection dogs and search and rescue dogs who selflessly serve the public.
The ACVO website indicates that to qualify, dogs must be active “working dogs” that were certified by a formal training program or organization or currently enrolled in a formal training program. The certifying organization could be national, regional or local in nature. Specific service groups are listed on the website at www.ACVOeyeexam.org.
Owners/agents for the dog(s) must FIRST register the animal via an online registration form beginning April 1, at www.ACVOeyeexam.org. Registration ends May 16th. Once registered online, the owner/agent can locate a participating ophthalmologist in their area and contact that doctor to schedule an appointment, during the month of May. Appointment dates and times may vary depending on the facility and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. To learn more about and to register for the ACVO®/Merial® National Service Dog Eye Exam Event, visit www.ACVOeyeexam.org.
This event has a special place in my heart because it directly impacted my, now retired service dog, Morgan. About three years ago, Morgan developed severe problems with his eyes. I took him to see Dr. Kennard with Eye Care for Animals in Albuquerque, NM. Dr. Kennard quickly diagnosed Morgan’s degenerative condition and literally saved his eye sight.
Without Dr. Kennard’s rapid response, Morgan would have completely lost his eye sight. If that wasn’t enough, when I checked out of the clinic, I was presented with information about Morgan’s condition and medication to treat his eyes. What I did not receive was a bill for their services.
When I asked about the bill, the staff proudly told me about the National Service Dog Eye Exam Event. I can never thank Dr. Kennard enough for what he did and continues to do for Morgan and for the work he and so many other ophthalmologists are doing every day to protect and save the eyes of our devoted canine partners. I am forever grateful and I am now acutely aware of the importance of regular eye exams.
It seems like yesterday when Whistle made the journey from Paws With A Cause in Michigan to Albuquerque, New Mexico to become my third service dog. I can just see him making his way beside PAWS Field Trainer Karole Schaufele through the Albuquerque airport. He looked so tall and lean to me. It was the first time I had been placed with a yellow Labrador/golden retriever mix. I will never forget how I eyes met from a distance. As he and Karole approached me, Whistle quietly stepped up onto my footplate and licked my left ear.
What a relief, I thought to myself as I threw my arms around him and gave him the first of many hugs and kisses to come throughout our last three years together. It’s hard to believe that day was three years ago and tomorrow is Whistle’s fifth birthday.
On the eve of Whistle’s fifth birthday, I am reflecting back on our time together. He has been such an athlete. He is lean and strong. He is very physically fit and after three years of working together, he is seasoned as my dedicated service dog.
When Whistle first arrived, he seemed nervous and unsure of his place in our home. This uncertainty was magnified by the fact that Morgan, my retired service dog, remained in our home. Whistle and Morgan each had to define their roles within our home. Morgan was definitely the alpha dog and Whistle respectfully honored Morgan from day one. He continues to acquiesce to Morgan whenever the occasion arises.
Whistle is seasoned. He knows the ropes, he has built up his confidence and from my perspective, he’s at the peak of his professional career.
From my experience as a service dog handler, five years of age seemed to be the magical age for each of my previous dogs, Morgan and Ramona. As I reflect on the past three years and look forward to the next three years with Whistle, I feel so fortunate to have him as my service dog and so sad that our time together is limited. These past three years have flown by and I can only imagine how quickly the next three years will pass.
Together, Whistle and I are planning a trip to London later this year and other travel adventures that would not be possible for me without him. Happy Birthday Whistle and thank you for the joy and freedom you have given me during our past three years together and best wishes for the bright future that we still have to look forward to spending together! Good boy Whistle!