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.
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.
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!
I don’t know about you, but I am starting to get Spring Fever. We just had over six inches of snow this past week in Santa Fe; however, I am already looking forward to the days of planting and the rewards of beautiful dessert flowers and fresh vegetables from the garden.
The other day, Franz, Whistle and I went to a local yard and garden store for their annual winter sale to buy some outdoor pots. We parked in the accessible parking space and as I was opening my van door, a man and his large St. Bernard dog strolled past our vehicle. Whistle was safely seatbelted on the back seat. He lept to his feet and barked like an untrained dog. I, of course, was shocked and appalled at his behavior and quickly commanded him to be “quiet.”
He immediately responded; however, the damage was done. My dressed service dog had barked at another dog in public! I was so embarrassed and asking myself, “How could such an intelligent, trained service dog like Whistle bark at a strange dog like that?”
Whistle and I are out in public almost every day and granted, this was a rare incident. However, it is still very concerning to me and I want to know if you’ve ever been in that situation before and what have you done to handle it.
Morgan, my retired service dog, never barked at other dogs. He simply ignored them whenever he was working. But Whistle, on the other hand, does pay attention to other dogs. I correct him but in the past, he has lunged toward another dog or forged incessantly in order to get closer to a strange dog.
He doesn’t do this every time he encounters another dog, but it happens enough to embarrass me and to make me a little uncomfortable about approaching other dogs. What is the protocol for meeting and greeting other dogs? How do you handle these canine situations? I can’t wait to hear your experiences and suggestions!