Guest blogger Katherine Schneider, Ph.D, Senior Psychologist Emerita, Counseling Service, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and Author of “To the Left of Inspiration: Adventures in Living with Disabilities” has written this blog post for Working Like Dogs. You can find more of her musings at her blog: http://kathiecomments.wordpress.com.
I’m heading off to train with my ninth Seeing Eye dog and that’s put me in a reflective mood. In a couple years I will have had a Seeing Eye dog for half the time the Seeing Eye has been in existence. That entitles me to be philosophical, right?
The first thing I know for certain is each working dog is a unique gift; no two alike! The first dog often changes one’s life so much that second dog suffers by comparison. After you realize that of course they’re different and have different strengths, you can still honor that first dog and go on to fully embrace number two, three, etc. Each dog does their job, but the fun and sometimes frustrating part is to figure out how to work with that individual dog so he/she shines.
Each of my working dogs has built my character in different ways. My first dog taught me to be positive instead of crabby when my expectations were not met. My soon to be retired dog showed such courage in telling me that she needed to retire by refusing to work when she thought she could not safely do so because of a vision problem, that I am in awe of her. Then there are the funny little things they do that show you they definitely do think. For example, I’ve taught each of my dogs the words “up” and “down” so when we go into a building they’ll find the stairs for me. As they reached middle age (about seven), each one started showing me the elevator instead of the stairs.
I’ve learned from retiring dogs that it’s never easy no matter how many times you do it, but you will get through it and you will love again. I grieve the decision to retire a dog, the actual retirement, and eventually the grief of the dog’s death. Like with any grief, rituals like a retirement party and writing a bio for the family who adopts the dog help. Coaching friends to treat it as seriously as they would a death or divorce may be necessary. A few empathic souls “get it” that working dogs are very different from pets and do the right things like listening and showing up to help with the transition or just bringing a dish, but I’m convinced more would if they realized this dog is my best friend, my eyes and my key to safe transportation.
I’m still learning from my dogs that you can be joyful in greeting each new day, quick to love and forgive, enjoy the little things like fresh water and a bowl of food and that a wagging tail wins a lot of friends. I wonder what I’ll learn from Young and Foolish.
I love learning about new technology that can help make my life easier, especially when it pertains to living with a disability. The December 2010 issue of New Mobility magazine published an article by Justin Moninger entitled, “5 Things to Make Life Easier.”
He based the list on the five essentials that helped him to get back to living an active life after his spinal cord injury. Would you believe that a service dog was the number one essential on his list? I sure would!
He attributes his service dog, Rocky, with getting him back into mainstream society and helping him with a host of tasks both inside and outside his home. Moninger talks about how he underestimated what a great emotional support Rocky would be to him.
It takes me back to my own experience when I received my first service dog, Ramona. I had been living with a disability since I was six years old. I thought I was independent. I had a wonderful husband and a job I loved. Life was great. But, I didn’t really understand all the things I had been missing until Ramona came into my life. Ramona gave me a higher level of independence that I didn’t even know existed.
As the year comes to an end and I think of all the things I am thankful for, my retired service dog, Morgan, and my current service dog, Whistle, are at the top of my list. Living side by side with a service dog is life changing. It is a partnership that enables people with disabilities to fulfill dreams and lifelong goals that were once thought to be unobtainable.
Service dogs are not perfect and they are not robots. It takes a great deal of work and commitment to fully engage in a working relationship with a service animal. I truly appreciate Anatole France’s statement that “until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” I would even take it one step further and say that until someone with a disability has been partnered with a service dog, a part of their life remains suppressed.
Thank you to everyone who contributes to the birth, growth, development, and success of assistance dogs throughout the world! Whistle and I wish everyone a Happy and Healthy New Year!
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.
As a person with a disability, getting a service dog and becoming a member of a service dog team changed my life in ways I never imagined. But as I look back at my experiences, I have to stop and reflect on what it must have been like for my husband to live in a home with a service dog team. How did it change his life?
When I was considering getting a service dog, I immediately discussed it with my husband, Franz. I wanted to make sure he supported my decision. It was strange at first because Franz and I are very close and I was bringing another being into our home. And this was a being that would be by my side 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When I brought my first service dog, Ramona, home, I was amazed at how respectful Franz was from the very beginning. He never tried to distract her from her job and yet, he was always there to assist me with her care and well-being whenever necessary.
During our first year together, I sometimes questioned my decision to get a service dog. Franz constantly reassured me that I had to have to a service dog. It was not a question of “should I have a service dog” but “how could I not have a service dog and live the kind of independent life that I wanted.” He was the silent partner of our working dog team, the unsung hero.
I admire partners and family members who support their loved ones who receive a service dog both emotionally and sometimes physically with assistance in daily care and maintenance. Franz says that my service dogs not only provided me with independence and devotion but they also gave him more freedom and security that I could be more independent and self-reliant. He says his job is to offer unconditional support to our working dog team. I guess you could say that my service dogs changed both of our lives in ways that we never could have imagined.