Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Big Day for a Little Dog

This post was written almost two years ago, February 7, 2009. I wanted to post it here. It details some of Laveau's training to become a guide dog and explains her final traffic testing.
Almost eight months ago to the day, I walked out of a very high-kill animal shelter on the Westbank of New Orleans. I was accompanied by a tall black dog who was so thin that you could literally see almost every bone in her body She was a dog with no past-- the shelter workers said that she had been turned in as a stray. If all things went well, and the luck of the gods was with us, she would have an amazing future ahead of her.

I fell almost instantly in love with her. Who wouldn't have? We got to know one another. We worked together, played together, and trained together. We learned about one another and during these last eight months together we have built an incredible bond of mutual respect and reciprocal love.

She had her bad habits, as did I-- She had horrible house manners and I had gotten sloppy in some of my handling techniques. We both needed training. Through hard work and devotion on both our parts we have made it to this day.

Today Laveau and I did our final traffic testing.

On the streets around my home we set her up for the multiple situations which we are likely to encounter during our working career together.

A friend was the brave one to drive the car. She wore my FM system which is a small box with a microphone. I wear another small box which is connected to wireless headphones. With the use of assistive technology we were able to communicate with one another and orchestrate the plan.

We started out crossing a road. I gave Laveau the "forward" command and she refused to go and put her body in front of mine as the test car drove by. We did this several more times. We did it from either side-- sometimes with the car driving toward Laveau's side and sometimes with the car driving toward mine.

the car backed out of a vacant lot and Laveau pulled me out of the way. My friend surprised me by driving up on to the sidewalk. Laveau stopped immediately-- it was me (with the uncooperative vestibular system who took a couple seconds longer to do so).

We set her up in all situations. When we determined that she was solid in these skills, I turned to go home. While I was crossing the final street, my friend drove her car straight at me without any warning. Laveau put herself in front of me and yanked me back up on to the sidewalk where she then stood in front of me, blocking me from the car.

When we pick a candidate to try and train as an assistance dog, it is a big gamble. The dog may not work out. There may be any number of physical or behavioral problems which would make a dog unsuited to the work. If the dog is solid of nerve, devoted, inquisitive, hard working, loyal, and is in possession of a large amount of singleness of purpose, the dog becomes an assistance dog candidate. From assistance dog candidate the dog becomes an assistance dog in training. After many months of hard work and learning the dog *MAY* then become an assistance dog.

Laveau has been through much in the eight short months we've been together. When I got her, she already had proficiency with foundation behaviors-- those things that even any pet dog should know. Sit, down, stay, loose leash walking etc. Laveau picked up on the guiding skills very quickly. She began public access training and took to it like she'd been born walking down crowded mall corridors and navigating large business buildings with ease and confidence.

She made very few mistakes in the guide part of her training and she seem to have an instinctive need to watch out for me.

Today she proved how much she really can do. She proved to me that she is watchful, mindful and brave. She showed me in the most profound way that she would give her life to protect mine if that was required of her. She proved to me, beyond all shadow of a doubt that my life is safe in her paws.

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