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.
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!
I am always amazed at how respectful my husband, Franz, is regarding my relationship with my service dogs. He always has been. From the moment I received my first service dog and for the last seventeen years as I am now working with my third dog.
When I got my first dog, Ramona, he was instructed not to interact with her. For the first month, he was not even supposed to have any eye contact with her. I will never forget when I brought Ramona home. What a proud moment. And Franz was so supportive. He followed all the rules until one morning when I got out of the shower and found Franz and Ramona rolling around the living room floor playing together. They both looked at me as if to say, “We just couldn’t take it any longer.”
From the moment I received my first dog, Franz has never overridden or even tried to override a command that I have given. Quite the opposite, he remains silent whenever I need to communicate with my canine partner. And somehow he manages to do this in spite of the fact that each dog I’ve had completely adores him. They love nothing better than to play rough house with Franz when he comes home at the end of the day.
I have often wondered what my service dogs think about Franz? Is he another dog? Is he a member of their pack? Is he one of the pack leaders?
He is definitely the second most important person in their life. Whenever I am sick or unable to meet their immediate needs, Franz steps in for me. He knows all of their commands and fluently speaks their language and yet, he acquiesces to me each and every time when needed.
I view Franz as a secondary member of our service dog team. He is the unsung hero who gets up in the middle of the night to take my dog out. He cleans up our yard. He goes to the emergency vet with us in the middle of the night when my service dog is sick.
There are so many people out their like Franz who provide unwavering support to working dog teams. Through their dedication and support, we are enabled to function and to flourish as a successful working team. We often talk about puppyraisers and their contributions to creating these amazing service animals. Rarely, however, do we talk about these unsung heroes who help to maintain healthy and highly functional teams.
These individuals are our family members, spouses, attendants, friends, etc. who quietly stay in the shadows offering their support in times of need and with the mundane daily tasks that might not be too fun or glamorous. I want to take a moment to say thank you to these integral secondary team members for all that they do to support the success of working dogs and their human partners. Whistle and I salute you!
Currently, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world because I have two service dogs. One is my 11-year-old retired dog, Morgan and the other is my current 4-year-old service dog, Whistle.
Whistle is my third service dog and I have to say it was quite a different process transitioning from Morgan to Whistle than it was from my first service dog, Ramona to Morgan. Ramona had to be retired abruptly because she was ill. Morgan, on the other hand, declined much more gradually. I think I can confidently say that Morgan was not interested in retirement. He was perfectly content staying at home as a working dog and felt sure that I should be content staying at home also. It was difficult to help him to understand that I could not stay home all the time. I had to go to work everyday, but it was okay for him to stay home.
When Whistle came into our home, I think Morgan believed he was a foster dog who was only crashing with us for a while. He didn’t understand nor appreciate me working with Whistle and developing a rapport with him. Transitioning to Whistle was definitely one of the hardest things I have done since becoming a member of a service dog team. The hardest, of course, was saying good-bye to Ramona when she suddenly passed away.
The second hardest thing was looking at Morgan’s face when he would rush to complete the tasks that Whistle was now doing for me. Morgan and I were one. We knew each other so well and transferring that trust from him to Whistle was difficult. It still is. Morgan was so loyal to me and Whistle sometimes has a wandering eye. He’s definitely my service dog, but I don’t always see the adoration in Whistle’s eyes that consistently sparkled from Morgan’s eyes. Morgan has aged rapidly in the last year and I know I made the right decision to retire him and transition to Whistle. Whistle has become such a strong, mature service dog but when I look at Morgan, I can still see that twinkle of pride in his eyes that says "I am and will always be your devoted service dog."