She is orange.
She is hyper as hell.
She is the smartest dog I've ever met.
She is stubborn.
She is devoted to me.
She is Mill'E-Max.
In 2003, I was up against a brick wall with Gracy, and her training. I decided to get another dog and perhaps let Gracy mature for a bit. I'd been tossing around the concept of having two dogs-- one who works inside, and the other who works outside. I decided that if Gracy and I got over our issues, then I would explore this thought, but if not, I'd keep her as a pet.
I met Mill'E at a Golden Retriever rescue. They didn't know what to do with her. She was, as stated above, hyper, yet brilliant. These can be troublesome traits to manage, when coupled together. Aside from my first dog, Rhoda, I had never met another dog and had an immediate attachment to her. It was that way with Mill'E, though. Her actual name-- given by the older couple who had surrendered her to rescue was "Miele" which is Italian for honey and is pronounced me-ay-lay. It had been shortened to "Millie" but I didn't like the way "Millie" looked because the "IE" letter combination at the ends of words is very displeasing.
See, this is what happens when you are a synesthete; normal things, like fingernails on chalk boards don't annoy you but certain combinations of graphemes will.
Therefore Millie became Mill'E because my name also has an apostrophe in it, and we matched. I soon learned that Mill'E did not do anything half-assed. She did it to the maximum. She then became "Mill'E-Max." I usually only call her "Mill'E" when she's guiding me.
Mill'E-Max was a lot of dog. I mean, she was hyper, flighty, had bad canine social skills, was bossy, demanding, clever, inquisitive, and even more characteristics which I could not list if I tried. She kept me on my toes, that dog.
She was attacked three times by loose dogs or dogs on flexy leads. She became very fearful and dog reactive. This was a problem. I loved this dog, and she loved me. She loved being a guide dog and I loved having her by my side. I began trying everything to "fix" the reactivity issues. From straight Koehler training, to Bridge and Target training, I tried anything I could. I read about reactivity, from both a training, and a veterinary behavioral viewpoint.
I noticed that clicker training, and the use of operant conditioning received the best results. Becoming a clicker trainer changed my life. It got passed all of the blame, and broke behavior down to its component parts for me. Many dog trainers, view a dog/person relationship in very adversarial terms. I frequently heard things like "Don't let your dog test you; they'll do what they can get away with." or "You've got to show her who is the dominant one, and be the leader or she will take advantage of you in an attempt to gain leadership." I learned that behavior is behavior. We, the humans are the ones who assign value to it. E.g. taking things from the trash, that is "bad behavior," where as walking nicely on a loose leash is "good behavior."
When I chose to become a clicker trainer, I had to take all of the adversarial, emotion-laden training that I had been indoctrinated to believe, and throw it out. Only then was I able to begin anew; establishing a training method built on impartial science and mutual respect.
I used clicker training to re-teach guide work. She learned retrieve, and tug based tasks to help with my other disabilities. Her favorite chore was the laundry, and she would empty the dryer all day long, if she could.
Mill'E-Max made great improvement. We worked fluidly as a team and things were going along in their normal routine way, when we needed to evacuate for hurricane Katrina. We ended up in Memphis, TN. and when the levees failed, that is where we stayed.
I didn't evacuate to Memphis because I had a support system in place; I evacuated to Memphis because it was the city closest to New Orleans which was not forecasted to sustain damage from the storm. I got on the last train leaving the city and my choices were limited.
So there we were, me, Mr. Pawpower, Bristol, Gracy, Mill'E-Max and Rudy in a strange city full of unknowns. There was not a day that passed that I did not thank the powers that be for Mill'E-Max. She was the rock to which I unashamedly clung. She remembered where places were even after going there just once. She navigated me through this strange city and was always there for me, no matter what. When you are in the middle of a protracted crisis situation, your brain doesn't work like normal; or at least mine does not. If you ask me now, to recall those first few weeks of exile, I won't be able to tell you much of anything. I was not myself, I was not able to be strong for my dog, so she was strong for me. She remembered where my hotel room was, where the grocery store was, later, where my new apartment was. She remembered all kinds of routs to all kinds of places. She sat through countless meetings for food stamps, unemployment, and FEMA benefits. We would frequently be in waiting rooms for hours, and the displaced children would flock to us. The stories of pets lost, or left behind fell from their lips, along with their tears. I was there to listen, and Mill'E-Max was there to lay a paw, or her head on a small knee and to look up with her brown eyes. She quietly lay close as their tears wet her fur. I will never be able to repay her for the gift of her steady patience during this time.
We eventually moved back to New Orleans and in March of 2008 she was diagnosed with advanced degenerative joint disease in her right knee and upper patella. It was devastating. We were both completely broken. She loved working and I loved walking along beside her at full speed. It was necessary for her to stop doing work outside the home on a daily basis. One of the hardest parts of choosing to work with an assistance dog, is putting their needs first. Even when it hurts them, and they would rather work, you put the needs of their physical body first. It was hard because as with Bristol, I couldn't explain to her why she was no longer taking long walks with me.
Thankfully, she was still able to do her indoor work-- retrieving, locating, and tugging. She loves to do these tasks and we've nicknamed her the "house elf."
One of Mill'E's jobs is to wake me up in the morning. One day, I decided to try and fake her out; what would she do if I wouldn't wake up? She tried everything she knew. She rolled around atop me, licking every exposed inch of skin. This didn't get a response. She then removed my pillow, and blanket. I continued to pretend to be sleeping, in the hopes she would leave me alone. Once she had removed all of the covers, she left, and I sighed, very satisfied at out smarting her. Or at least I did until she brought her water dish into the bedroom and dumped its remaining contents on my head. I do not try to fake her out any more!
Mill'E-Max loves emptying the dryer. I think she must have been a jock in her past life because nothing gives her quite as much pleasure as tugging a towel from the dryer, and then spinning to snap me with the end.
I miss walking with her. People would call out warnings when they would see us charging down the sidewalk. She would wait until the last minute to dart me around an obstacle in our path, but she never ran me into anything. She was very aware of traffic and I knew that I could trust her to stand between me and whatever was coming my way.
She will be 9 years old this October and she is still as full of zest and love for life as she always was.
When I first read the following poem, I thought of her. The author is unknown, but I think they must have had a dog like Mill'E-Max in mind when they wrote it.
I asked for strength that I might rear her perfectly;
I was given weakness that I might feed her more treats.
I asked for good health that I might rest easy;
I was given a "special needs" dog that I might know nurturing.
I asked for an obedient dog that I might feel proud;
I was given stubbornness that I might feel humble.
I asked for compliance that I might feel masterful;
I was given a clown that I might laugh.
I asked for a companion that I might not feel lonely;
I was given a best friend that I would feel loved.
I got nothing I asked for,
But everything that I needed.