Wednesday, April 13, 2011

All About Gracy

Some of you may be asking yourselves "Gracy who?" Whereas many of you already know who Gracy is. However since I'm doing this "all about" feature, I have to include her even though she mostly lives at my friends house these days.

In 2002, I began doing volunteer work at a kill shelter in the city where I lived. I had just moved into a huge house and the landlords didn't care that I was "the crazy dog lady." I was then able to begin fostering dogs in my home who weren't doing well in the shelter environment. However I wanted to adopt a dog-- not just foster one. Bristol had some weird dog social issues which needed to be addressed sooner rather than later if she were to live with me and my new guide when she retired. Not to put too fine a point on it or anything, but out of harness, Bristol was a bossy bitch who had no idea how to have appropriate social interactions with other dogs. I decided that we needed a pet dog in our family who would help her learn these things.

I started my search and on the first day at the shelter, I fell in love with a beautiful yellow lab. She was awesome and so pretty and even though I couldn't take her out of her cage because she was still in quarantine because she had been found abandoned, I knew I wanted this dog. Yes, I was a shallow idiot back then. I waited the mandatory two week period for someone to claim her, and nobody did. Meanwhile, I visited her daily when making my rounds at the shelter. She shared her kennel with the saddest looking black dog I'd ever seen. She was filthy, covered with huge open sores and was not doing well in the shelter. I snuggled her too because she was just so pathetic. However she wasn't my dog, and I waited for my yellow lab to get the green light for release.

The day finally arrived. I went to the shelter, sprung the yellow dog from her kennel and instantly knew that this would never work. She was extremely dog reactive, and I couldn't have a dog like that around my guide dog. Back in the cage she went and because I felt bad for her, I took the dirty black dog out for a little love. She was sweet and instantly warmed up to Bristol. My fellow volunteers encouraged me to adopt her. However, see above, re: shallow! She was dirty and sad looking and not the image I had when I saw myself bringing home my new dog. I really felt bad for this dog though, so I decided to clean her up a bit in hopes she'd get adopted if she were a bit more presentable.
While readying her bath, I looked at her file. Her name was Jewel, she was a border collie mix who had been turned in by her owners for chasing the chickens and eating their eggs. I put Jewel in the tub and tried to clip all of the hair away from her open hot spots. I shampooed her, and when I was done, both my friend and I were covered with black fur. Once she was clean, I put her on the grooming table to brush out some of the undercoat. During this entire process, Jewel submitted quietly to the hands and warm water.

When I began brushing her, I started to sing. This was a ritual which had started with my first dog, that of music and grooming. I went through all of my old favorites and when I was done, I ended with the song "Amazing Grace."

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
which saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind, but now I see."

As I finished the first verse I had what would probably be called "A lightbulb moment from Mother Universe." I knew this was my dog and that I would be leaving with her that day and that her name was Gracy because it was grace which brought us together.

Gracy couldn't come home with me that day because she needed to be neutered. Two days later I picked up an even more pathetic-looking black dog(although still clean) from the vet office at the shelter. She had been spayed, vaccinated for every canine disease known to man, and treated with antibiotics for kennel cough. I took her home in the Elizabethan collar (aka the cone of shame) and put her in my bed where she stayed for the next four days only leaving to take trips outside to relieve. I fed her ground turkey and probiotics and vitamin C. I took her off the meds they gave me and treated her with homeopathy. A week later I had an entirely different dog.

We began taking walks together, Bristol guiding and Gracy on the right. It wasn't long before Gracy started modeling her behavior after Bristol's. There are scientists and dog people who will tell you that dogs don't learn behavior by watching other dogs and I say that they have never worked with border collies. This is the way they seem to learn best.
I knew Bristol was retiring probably within the next year so began tossing around the idea of training Gracy as her successor. Even if she didn't work out as a full-time guide, it would still be a great experience for me to have as a trainer.

Back then, I still subscribed to the "yank and crank" school of training which involved chain collars and harsh leash corrections. It is how I was taught to train, and was the only way I thought guide dogs could be trained. These methods did not go over well with Gracy. The more she screwed up, the more I corrected and the more she shut down. Sometimes we'd do great together but sometimes our relationship turned into a modern day "War of the Roses."
I had moved to New Orleans by this point and made the choice to wash her out as a guide because I just didn't know what to do. She was a great pet but I couldn't handle the not knowing if she'd work for me or not, the inability to take correction and my own irritation with the entire process.

I began training Mill'E and some events in Mill'E's situation lead me to have a sort of Training renaissance. I realized that there was more than one way to skin a cat and began using exclusively clicker training.

One day, I decided to see how Gracy would react to this new method and it was like her inner light came on.

As my disabilities progressed, I decided that it would be beneficial for everyone if I had two working dogs at the same time. I don't mean that I take two dogs everywhere I go-- I mean that I have two dogs so that one dog can guide, and one dog can help out at home. Because I'm Deafblind I need a dog to do sound alerts, and because of my vertigo I needed a dog to do retrieve and carry-based tasks. It is really not fair to ask one dog to work both jobs for a person who is as active and busy a I am.

Gracy blossomed under the new method of training and I began using her as a guide more and more. We traveled for work and pleasure together, via train and plane and bus.
One of my favorite stories of Gracy happened while in an airport. Now Gracy was a farm dog who liked to chase small animals. We had some wild chickens in our neighborhood (don't ask me how we had wild chickens in the heart of the inner city because I had no idea). She had been known to escape from the yard and to chase said chickens which was no surprise seeing as that's what got her sent to the pound last time.
So we're in this airport and I'm relaxing between flights and talking to the lady next to me when suddenly she began describing the following events.
Apparently birds had gotten into the airport and would fly around. Well, one of these birds saw Gracy just laying there and decided to investigate. It landed about 18 inches away from her and walked a complete circle around her, with its little bird head cocked at an angle, just staring at her. I was very worried about what she'd do but I stayed calm and gave her the cue to stay. The bird inched closer and closer, and Gracy didn't so much as twitch a whisker. Eventually it flew away with all of its feathers intact.

Another time I had met my good friend Lisa in the Philadelphia airport. She and I, with our two guide dogs had planned to fly on to a conference together. We made it to our gate, got our dogs settled at our feet, when a lady with one of those little dogs in a carrier sat down across the row from us. The little dog saw our dogs and commenced to barking its little dog bark. "Yip! yip! yip!" Several minutes later, a person with a German Shepherd guide dog entered our gate area. The dog got settled on the floor. Then the GSD began barking back at the little dog in the carrier who was still yipping. So it sounded like this: "Yip! Woooof! yip yip! woooooooooof!! Woof! yip yap!" Gracy had, in the past, been a very vocal dog. She was whiney and tended to bark when startled. At home, she loved nothing more than a good bark fest. However she, and my friends dog lay quietly at our feet while the other dogs yipped and barked until they called our flight.

In 2008, Gracy began showing more and more signs that she wanted to retire. I wanted to let her do that if it was what she wanted, however I knew that she wouldn't be happy to live in the city in my house with its tiny yard. I had moved to New Orleans with my friend Barb and she had had known Gracy since day one. Barb lived in a less densely populated part of the city and owned a huge piece of land with ponds and gardens and trees with squirrels. Barb wanted to take her and I made the very hard choice to let her go.

Now Gracy has a happy retirement getting back to her farm dog roots. She guards the property, keeps tabs on the squirrel and rodent population-- reducing it when she gets the chance and shares her yard with a Bouvier and an Am Staff. Every couple of weeks she comes to stay with us for a few days and we get a chance to love up on her and for our other dogs to see her also.
Gracy has always had a special relationship with Bristol. For many years it was just Gracy, Bristol and me. They were the best of friends and as Bristol ages, I want her to be able to spend lots of time with her border collie buddy.

Gracy was one of the hardest dogs I've ever worked with, however she was one of the dogs who made me grow the most as a trainer. She will be ten in May, and she's starting to get gray around the muzzle now. Ever since I got her from the shelter, she has had the oddest nose; it is dry and pebbly like lizard skin. It's how I can tell her apart from Laveau, by the nose, since they're both black. One of Gracy's nicknames is "The Cheez." I don't even remember how she became known by this moniker, but she will answer to "cheez" or "cheez wizard."

This entry has made me miss her; I may have to call Barb and ask for a visit this weekend!


  1. Sounds like you and Gracy taught each other a lot.

  2. It sounds ike she taught the things I am now learning with Glacier. What a great dog. :)