This post is for the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. If you'd like to read other posts, you can go
When I saw the information about the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival I was very eager to write a piece for it. There were so many topics to choose from, but finally I settled on writing about the choice to train my own guide dog. I am Deafblind, and many people have been very curious as to my reasons to choose to owner train.
When most people think of getting a guide dog, they imagine attending one of the several training programs scattered throughout the US. However, there is a small minority of people who go about it differently; we make the decision to train our own.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a dog must be "individually trained to do work, or perform tasks which mitigate a disability." The law does not specify who trains the dog and there is no "certification" for a dog to be a "real guide dog."
There are many good reasons why most deaf-blind people choose to attend a training program. Most, if not all, guide dog training programs give the dog to the recipient at little or no charge, pay for your transportation to and from the campus, pay for your food and lodging while attending the program, and pay for the equipment you use--such as the harness and leash which a guide dog needs to wear in order to work effectively. Also, training a dog is hard, back-breaking work.
For many reasons, I chose to train my own dog. I am a clicker trainer and there are very few guide dog programs which use exclusively clicker training to train their dogs. I want to raise my dogs using the concepts of Natural Rearing. This means a fresh food diet, minimal vaccinations, using herbal medicine or homeopathy to treat most medical issues. To my knowledge, there are no such programs which meet these criteria and which will accept a Deafblind student who's method of communication is American Sign Language (ASL). To be honest, though I just love training dogs. Being a part of that process, starting from the ground up and building a team together. Problem-solving and learning from one another. Don't get me wrong; it's not all sunshine and roses and there are times when I honestly wonder if I'm cut out for the emotional roller coaster that is owner training. I think that to really enjoy it, to keep doing it over and over again, you need to have a soul-deep love of the work, even during the hard times.
I was born blind. However, when I was in my early twenties, I was diagnosed with a progressive inner ear disease. When I trained my first guide dog, I only had a mild to moderate loss. I didn't need to make many modifications in my training to account for my hearing loss. I used my senses of touch, smell and hearing to assist me in teaching my dog what she needed to know in order to keep us safe.
In August of 2005, the city of New Orleans, where I live, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the federal levee system. I had evacuated from the city before tragedy struck, and I remained in Memphis, Tennessee until March of 2006. After seven months of evacuation I was able to return home. In addition to dangerous sidewalks, and the inability to find an open grocery store, I faced another challenge. I had an unknown allergy to mold, and there was quite a bit of mold in New Orleans at this time. Within six weeks after my return home, I became profoundly deaf due to an allergic reaction to the mold.
In May of 2008, Gracy, my then current guide, made it very clear to me that she was ready to retire. I was faced with a major decision--to attend a program for my next dog, or to attempt to train a dog myself, this time without the ability to rely on my sense of hearing. After careful planning and a great deal of soul-searching, I made the choice to once again train my own assistance dog. I eventually found a suitable candidate--a young female Doberman mix whom I named Laveau.
Some of the tools I used to assist me in training my dog were an FM system and a Tactile Mini-Guide. An FM system is a set of two small boxes. One box--the transmitter--has a microphone on it, and the other box--the receiver--has a headphone jack into which I plugged my neck loop which moved the sound directly into my hearing aid.
I also used the Tactile Mini-Guide, which is a small device--about the size of an iPod. The device uses ultrasound--and detects objects in my path and vibrates accordingly. The Tactile Mini-Guide vibrates harder, the closer one gets to an object such as a car or trash container. The Tactile Mini-Guide will not detect steps or other changes in elevation.
When I first started training Laveau, my husband--who is blind but hearing--held the transmitter part of my FM system. He walked ahead of Laveau and me-- giving me a running commentary of the obstacles ahead of us. He read traffic patterns and told me when it was safe to cross. He did this so I could focus on Laveau's training and so I could be aware of problems we might encounter. Eventually, I began traveling familiar routs with Laveau alone--giving her the opportunity to make mistakes and to learn from them.
Once Laveau generalized the concepts of stopping at curbs and avoiding obstacles, we were ready for more independent travel. I began socializing her in public--first in places where pets were allowed. Eventually she began to accompany me to destinations where pets were not allowed. I started small, going into well-known stores during quiet times where the distraction would be low. Laveau was a quick learner, and soon it became business as usual for her to enter a coffee shop, slide under a table and ignore the people attempting to pet her, food on the ground, and other distractions while I conducted my business.
The task I worried most about was teaching the concept of intelligent disobedience. Intelligent disobedience simply means that if the dog deems it unsafe to continue forward, she will stop and prevent the handler from moving. Even if the handler cues the dog to continue forward, the dog will “intelligently disobey” this cue. This skill is needed most in traffic situations, when the handler is crossing roads. It is especially important that a guide dog for a deaf-blind person be very fluent in this skill.
I set up traffic situations with an experienced driver. She held my FM system's transmitter during our training so I could hear and understand her instructions. She would inform me ahead of time what she intended to do and I would make sure that the dog kept me safe. We practiced situations where she pulled up her car onto the sidewalk in front of me, backed her car out of driveways while I crossed them, ran a red light while I crossed a road, and drove in an unsafe and erratic fashion while I was navigating my surroundings.
Telling me beforehand what situations to try out also had the added benefit of letting me expect sudden movements from my dog so I would not mistake my dog's movements and think she was distracted. It took a great deal of hard work and persistence on both our parts; however I can say that Laveau is one of the best guide dogs I've ever had.
Laveau and I have taken several trips together; visiting family and friends in different states all over the country. We move together smoothly and with confidence. I feel like she can read my mind sometimes. I know I can trust her to keep me safe.
We have begun sound alert training. Now Laveau will alert me to sounds in my environment such as smoke alarms, people calling my name, and traffic coming up behind me.
I had a great many questions and reservations when I first began training Laveau, but almost three years into our journey together, I can say that she is truly my partner. I was very unsure if the decision to train my own dog was the right one. I didn't know many other deafblind people who had done it. It may not be right for everyone, but it was certainly the right choice for me.