What I Know for Sure After 39 Years of Being a Guide Dog Handler

August 5, 2012 · Posted in Aging Dogs, Guide Dogs · 1 Comment 

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.

Kathie and Fran

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.

HBO Documentary on Dog Bereavement

May 2, 2011 · Posted in Aging Dogs · Comment 

As many of you know, I lost my retired service dog, Morgan, on March 12, 2011. It continues to be a painful process for me as I am striving to come to terms with his absence.

I thought it was ironic that I received a call today from documentary filmmaker Amanda Micheli’s representative. Amanda is an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker who is currently working on an HBO documentary regarding dog bereavement.

Amanda recently lost her dog of many years and as a result of her loss, she has embarked on a new documentary film exploring the bonds we share with our dogs. The documentary focuses on pet loss and bereavement from the perspective of the special role and meaning dogs have for their human counterparts.

Amanda filmed with Betty Carmack’s pet loss group at the SPCA in San Francisco, and she is now looking to speak to people in other parts of the country who are facing end-of-life decisions for their long-time friends. She is particularly interested in talking with someone who is in the process of losing their working dog in order to explore this unique human-animal relationship.

I know firsthand what a sensitive issue this is but I thought I would share it with you and see if anyone might be interested. If you are, please contact me and I will put you in touch with Amanda’s representative.

Happy Birthday Morgan

May 1, 2011 · Posted in Service Dogs · 6 Comments 

As many of you may know, Franz and I had to say good-bye to our beloved Morgan on March 12, 2011. Morgan was a golden retriever who proudly served as my second assistance dog. He came to us 11 years ago and brought with him a silent, soulful, intense presence that changed our lives forever.

Today would have been Morgan’s 13th birthday. And although he is gone, the light he brought into our lives will continue to shine as long as Franz and I hold his memory in our hearts.

I have always heard of selfless love and devotion and putting someone or something’s needs above your own. But I can now say that I experienced that firsthand through my relationship with Morgan. He truly loved his job as an assistance dog and relished spending every moment at home with his family. Morgan taught us the meaning of the words loyalty, tolerance and patience.

Not many people knew Morgan. He never won any international prizes or reached the summit of Mount Everest. He never expected or demanded any accolades for his selfless acts. He just wanted to be by my side making sure I was safe and content.

Morgan ended his life doing just that. Although his body was failing him and his eyesight and hearing were almost completely gone and his immunity system had completely shut down, he still took pride in dressing in his backpack every day and taking his post beside my desk in my home office. Even as we prepared him for his final journey to the vet’s office that fateful Saturday morning, he donned his backpack and proudly assumed the heel position on the left side of my wheelchair.

Being a service dog was Morgan’s first priority. It was his career. It was all he knew and all he wanted to know. Even as he drew his final breath, in his mind, he was still working. As we gathered around him to express our love and heartfelt good-byes, Morgan lay by my wheelchair with dignity and pride.

Dignity was important to Morgan. And, I take comfort in the belief that Morgan knew he had completed his job to the best of his ability. He had given unconditional love and devotion and his job was finally done.

Now, Franz and I are left with the memories and photographs of this special being. There is a tremendous void in our hearts and home. We miss him terribly but we are so thankful that this golden boy graced our lives. We can only hope that we will be worthy of his service and devotion as we carry his memory with us forever.

Happy Birthday my precious golden boy and thank you for all that you did and continue to do for me. You were an angel who blessed us with your presence for a short time. Unfortunately, you could not stay with us forever. It was an unspoken agreement we made with nature from the moment you arrived. And unfortunately, nature came to reclaim her prize.

Good-bye my dear, sweet boy and thank you from the bottom of my heavy, but joy-filled heart.

As the Mexian poet Octavio Paz stated, “Love is an attempt at penetrating another being, but it can only succeed if the surrender is mutual.” For me and Morgan, there was never a question that it was mutual love from the moment our eyes met.

Finding the Right Dogsitter is Critical for Retired Service Dog

January 18, 2011 · Posted in Aging Dogs, Doggie Healthcare · Comment 

One of the beauties of having a service dog is that your dog gets to go everywhere with you. That all changed when my service dog, Morgan, had to be retired. All of a sudden, I had to travel for work with my new service dog, Whistle, and Morgan was stuck at home with the cats.

Morgan has several health issues and he needs someone who is available to let him out regularly for toileting. He also has medical issues crop up unexpectedly, so he needs someone to keep an eye on him and to monitor his wellness.

As a result, I knew I had to find the right dogsitter to stay with him whenever we are traveling. As you probably know, this is no easy task. For years, we have had the same dogsitter, someone who is practically a member of our family. However, this year her other job caring for a woman who is elderly has become more intensive and she is no longer able to provide the level of dogsitting services that Morgan requires due to her commitment to this woman and her family.

So, I embarked on a quest to find another dog and housesitter that could provide Morgan with the care and companionship that he needed and deserved. I began by talking with friends who used dogsitters to seek referrals. I also checked the bulletin board at my vet’s office for business cards and people looking for dogsitting gigs.

I received several names and began contacting these individuals. First, I interviewed them on the telephone and discussed their experience and credentials. Next, I conducted a second interview with the top three candidates. I invited them into our home for a personal interview and to meet Morgan.

Each time we go on a trip, I leave explicit written instructions regarding Morgan’s daily routine, feeding, and medications. I reviewed this list with each candidate and discussed Morgan’s particular needs.

I also asked a variety of questions including:

  • Do they have a reliable vehicle that they could use to take Morgan to the vet if necessary?
  • Would they be spending each night in our home to care for Morgan?
  • Would they be able to take him for a short walk each day?
  • Could they understand his feeding and medication instructions? And, were they able to prepare his meals and maintain his daily routine?
  • How had they handled emergency situations in the past? What types of situations had they responded to with other clients?
  • Were they aware of our local Emergency Vet?
  • Would they be dogsitting for any other clients while we were away?
  • Did they have any animals of their own? And, if so, who was caring for them while they were dogsitting for Morgan?

These were just some of the questions that I discussed with each candidate.

The candidate that I eventually selected was very engaged. She actually had me complete an application and she interviewed me as intensely as I was interviewing her. I really appreciated her organization and seriousness regarding her dogsitting duties. Based on her questions, it was clear that she was experienced and passionate about the animals that were left in her care. She came to the interview on time and she was dressed professionally. She also questioned me about my vet, about taking Morgan out of our home for walks and emergency vet appointments, her expectations for payment, etc.

I was pleasantly surprised by her level of competence. When it came time for us to leave Morgan, I felt confident that she was up to the task and that he would be in good hands while we were away. I am happy to report that we are having a wonderful relationship with our new dogsitter and Morgan adores her.

On our last trip, she arrived as we were loading my van to leave for the airport. We said our good-byes and were off. I forgot something and we came back home for a brief moment. As I entered our family room, there she was, sitting on the couch with her laptop computer with Morgan nestled by her side. He appeared to be in utter bliss.

I was so overjoyed to see how much he truly enjoyed being with her and how comfortable the two appeared together. For me, having the right dogsitter has been critical to curb the guilt I feel each time I leave Morgan at home while Whistle and I go on another trip.

Happy Birthday Whistle!

April 1, 2010 · Posted in Service Dogs, Training · 1 Comment 
Marcie and Whistle

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!

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