Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Would you like me to open that, Sir?

Mill'E-Max is the brains of the household; paws down. She taught herself to unscrew the caps off of bottles about six years ago. Mister Pawpower really likes wine, but I prefer beer. So he found these small bottles of wine which were only one serving. We were in a post-Katrina house at the time, which didn't have much furniture. Mr. Pawpower sat on the floor-- bottle in hand-- and became distracted by the phone. Mill'E-Max picked up the bottle and started manipulating it. She figured out that she could unscrew the bottle with her back teeth. Mister Pawpower ended his phone conversation just in time to see Mill'E-Max tilting her head to the side, while the now cap-less bottle was tipped with her forepaws aimed right for her mouth. I am not kidding.

Ever since then, Mill'E-Max will take any chance she gets to screw the lids off of bottles. She won't pick them up at random, but if I direct her to pick it up, she then thinks of it as "her bottle." And if i set her bottle down on the floor or a chair or the bed, She will then begin the task of unscrewing the lid.
Today I asked for a water in the fridge. She brought it, and gave it to me. I set it down on the bed to go play tug with Bristol, and three minutes later, I find her on the bed, front paws wrapped around the bottle, back teeth clenched on the lid, and a shit-eating grin on her face, as well as a wagging tail and that set to her ears which meant she was thinking. She had been sitting there, waiting for me to notice that she had the bottle. I did get it away from her before the first turn of the lid.

If anyone ever tells you that dogs don't have senses of humor, don't listen. Or I'll set Mill'E-Max on you!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Even Dozen

Today is Bristol's and my twelfth anniversary as a guide dog team. Ok, she's retired, but she is still my partner. I've been thinking quite a bit about everything we've done together, and it is really amazing that one little dog can have such a big impact on a person's life. I got Bristol six days after losing my first dog, Rhoda, to lymphoma at age 3 and a half. To be honest, when I first met her, I couldn't imagine myself ever meshing well with this goofy and very demonstrative little red dog. I was used to Rhoda's aloof mannerisms and high-drive nature.

Our first year together was mostly about me getting over the loss of Rhoda, and trying to figure out what, exactly was wrong with Bristol. If she wasn't having ear infections, her skin was infected. If she wasn't vomiting-- usually in public-- she was having diarrhea, thankfully always in the grass! It was scary and frustrating. Some how, in the midst of all of the sadness and fear for her health, I handed my total trust and my heart over to her, and we've never looked back since.
I couldn't even begin to describe all of the places we've gone together, the changes she has brought to my life, and the deep bond we share. So to take a leaf from two of my favorite bloggers, Brook and Jess, I give you....
Twelve Facts About Bristol:

1. She only weighed 37 lbs and was 16.5 inches tall when I got her from the guide dog program.
2. Bristol was supposed to be a breeder dog for said guide dog program, but thankfully didn't pass the tests for breeders!
3. Bristol's favorite treat is jelly beans. Because of her tendency toward yeast, she can't have many, but she had some today!
4. Bristol has ridden in a boat, a horse-drawn carriage, airplanes, trains, buses, and streetcars. But her favorite form of transportation remains the gulf carts at the airport.
5. Bristol loves to swim. She will swim for an hour or more if you let her.
6. Bristol has helped with the training of at least 5 other guide dogs.
7. Bristol used to go deer hunting with me, and when we shot one, she would try and drag the entire carcass back to the truck by the leg. Needless to say, that wasn't happening.

8. When I first introduced Bristol to raw meaty bones and organ meats, she hated them and went on a hunger strike. Now she eats them with gusto-- even the liver!
9. Bristol is largely deaf now and apparently her bark has changed since she can no longer hear herself barking. She now has a Deaf Accent!
10. Bristol's favorite game is tug of war, and she will win almost every time because she never gives up!.
11. Bristol gave me away at my wedding but my honeymoon cruise was the first time I ever left her behind; I took Mill'E-Max instead. I had to call my friend who was watching her when I made port in Jamaica just to make sure she was alright.
12. Whenever we get new dog gear, Bristol has to be the one to try it on first. She stacks herself and grunts at the person holding the new harness, leash, or vest until they put it on her and let her parade around wearing it. And of course all of the people have to mention, frequently and loudly, how beautiful they think she is wearing the new gear.

I honestly don't know if we'll make it to thirteen years. So today we will celebrate enough for a long time, and then live each day as if it were the only one we had.
Thank you Bristol, for everything. You are the very best!

He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds;
my other ears that hear above the winds.
He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea.

He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason
for being

by the way he rests against my leg;
by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile;
by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him.
(I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not
along to care for me.)

When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive.
When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile.
When I am happy, he is joy unbounded.

When I am a fool, he ignores it.
When I succeed, he brags.

Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful.

He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion.

With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace.
He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant.

His head on my knee can heal my human hurts.
His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and
unknown things.

He has promised to wait for me...whenever...wherever--
in case I need him.
And I expect I will--as I always have.

He is just my dog.
-- Gene Hill

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Access rights; they're not just for people anymore!

Hello people! This is Bristol and I've decided that it is well time I put my paw to paper and write on this blog.
I know that the "Big Bitch" comes in here to write about access and stuff, so in order not to disrupt her flow; I'll stick to this topic.

Did you know that dogs have access challenges too? Not just the kind where you are in the harness and working and some no brained idiot doesn't want to let me into their store, either! You see, dear reader, I am getting older. Like fine wine, I improve with age, but some parts of me just don't work as well as they could. This means that sometimes I have trouble going down steps or on to high places.

So my Uncle Kelly, who is very smart and handy, built me a set of steps to help me get up on the human bed. I like the human bed for snuggle time but the new bed is just too tall for me to jump onto, so Uncle Kelly made me steps. I love them very much, but there is just one problem.

Certain Dobermans and dogs of an orange hue keep laying on the part of the bed next to the steps! Because these dogs refuse to move, I cannot use the steps to get on to the bed! Sometimes The Big Bitch and Bigpops will lift me on to the bed, using the "elevator," but this is not what I want. I need to wait for the people to leave what they are doing to "elevate" me. Whereas, if I use the steps, I can get on and off the bed when ever I want. Laveau and Mill'E-Max are therefore, blocking my access to a place of public accommodation! Well not really public, but it's as close as I can come!

I think us old dogs need to form a PAC; draft a law laying out our access rights! Like, other dogs cannot block the steps on to the bed! We may be able to tack some "Pork Barrel" into this legislation which dictates an increase in our food amounts. I don't know about y'all, but I could use a barrel of pork!

Any other Senior Citizens want to join me?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Uhh, that's not in the brochure!

I'm talking about the brochures put out by the service dog programs. They don't talk about the "real live" stuff of having a service dog. I mean; it's all about "freedom" and "independence", but they don't tell you about the moments (hopefully few and far between) which make you want to crawl under a rug and hide. Moments like I had today... When Laveau, with neither rhyme nor reason vomited in spectacular fashion during my beginning braille class.

Whoops, I should have put a food warning on this. Oh well; I've never been one for rules and lord knows us dog people talk about it without a second thought... So anyway; where was I? Oh yes-- vomit.

See the thing is, all of my dogs have done the deed in public, and I'm kind of an old hand at this. Mill'E and Bristol both are Theatrical Pukers. They had to go through all the motions, gag, heave, etc. It was a huge production. Which, although embarrassing, gave me ample warning of the impending gastric onslaught. I got really good at rushing my dog/s outside, or to a garbage can.
The difference is that Laveau is not a Theatrical Puker; she's one of those rare breeds-- the Stealth Puker®. I swear, one moment she'll be fine, and the next she's just horked her breakfast onto her toes. It's like that song, "Whoop, there it is!" So I was mid-way through my class when I smelled it, and selfishly wanted to hide under the rug.

I am an expert cleaner of these kinds of messes, so I quickly got back to teaching. Laveau is fine; she does this once a year or so-- will just sort of throw up (usually in public) and just be fine.

And can I just say that it will continue to amaze me when people are shocked to see my dog throwing up. One lady once said "I thought they were trained not to do that."

So yes, surprisingly enough, Service Dogs; being that they are *dogs* do all that unpleasant stuff just as we do. And you can train a dog to do many wonderful and helpful things, but they are still dogs and puke happens.

Maybe I'll print up hats for service dog handlers that say "Puke Happens." And when you are cleaning up the mess in the middle of a Wal*Mart, you can put the hat on your head and give people something else to stare at.

Bristol has been quite playful today. She really loves this squeaker chicken I bought for her in Virginia. Isn't that the way it is though-- you spend all this money on expensive toys, and it's the cheap ones you pick up without a thought that they really love.

And just not to leave her out, Mill'E-Max decided that when I asked her to hold Laveau's leash for a second, I really meant that I wanted her to take Laveau for a walk. So Mill'E-Max trotted away-- leash in mouth-- and behind her, there is Laveau, being haplessly led along by a very exuberant Mill'E-Max who thought this was brilliant.

I love dogs!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Observing the Observers

I find it interesting to watch people who are watching Laveau working. People seem to love to interpret her various movements and facial expressions. Most of the time they are wrong about what she is doing, but it's interesting none the less.

One of the main emotions people say Laveau displays frequently is fearfulness. If she backs me away from a car, people are more apt to assume she is afraid, not that she's protecting me from a large vehicle I can neither see nor hear. The same reaction is seen when Laveau approaches steps or uneven surfaces. She will stop, put her body in front of me, and then advance with caution if I cue her. Once again this is seen as fearful. People tend not to realize that she is being very careful with me because I have terrible balance, and have been known-- on more than one occasion-- to just randomly fall over and then not be able to get up without a huge production.

I frequently wonder why so many people have this assumption of "fear" on the dog's part? Is it because that is what they are used to from their pet dogs? Does Laveau really look fearful. Or are people just not used to seeing a dog take control of a situation and make a deliberate decision?
Laveau is very sensitive, and does not like it when I fall, so has learned to be very cautious and careful, and to not listen too me without a keen observation of the environment, because for me, the world is not holding still and I am clueless as to which end is up. But she is not "afraid" of cars, nor steps in and of themselves.

I think it would be very interesting to let a sighted/hearing person with normal balance take her for a walk on leash, and see what she does. Mister Pawpower has worked her several times and once she figured out Mister Pawpower wasn't such a stumbling klutz with crappy balance, she was not nearly so protective and watchful with him. Not that she is unsafe, but I would say that the level of watchfulness Laveau displays with me is abnormally high for most guide dogs. However when she is with him, she's pretty average in watchfulness.

I'm very thankful that Laveau is so watchful. she is never allowed to retire!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tech? No!

I wanted to blog a bit about technology, and describe what kinds of technology are out there for Deafblind People.

The word Deafblindness is a broad term. It can mean someone who is hard of hearing, with low vision to a person who is profoundly deaf and totally blind. most deafblind people have a bit of sight, or a bit of hearing, or a bit of both. I, for example have a small bit of sight, but not enough to use for reading print, or signed conversations. I use braille and ASL tactually. I can also hear a bit but can only hear speech in quiet settings. If I am going to listen to audio long term, I plug a device called a streamer into my computer or iPod, and it links it directly with my hearing aid-- eliminating background noise and cranking up the volume. Since there are so many different combinations of "deafblindness" what works for one won't work for all.

I use a Macbook with a braille display. The display runs off of USB, and is "twenty cells" long which means that it displays twenty characters or spaces at a time. There is a program called Voice over which will either speak what is on the screen, or will translate it into braille to be read on my display.

I also use an iPhone with a braille display. I learned to operate the iPhone using the touch screen and various gestures. The iPhone has opened up new worlds for me. Until I got an iPhone, I couldn't make phone-calls independently when away from my computer. I use relay to make calls. I use AOL Instant messenger to connect with relay operators who call the number I want. They type in what the other party is saying. I read the conversation on my screen, and type back my answer. The relay operator then reads my answer back to the hearing person. It is a newer version of the TTY. But I could only use this on my computer. Until I got an iPhone and downloaded an application for AOL Instant Messenger and could now make phone calls to anyone, from anywhere.

This meant that I could call a cab for myself, when out doing the shopping. It meant that I could call the pharmacy to get refills for my meds while I was on the buss. It meant real independence. The iPhone has many other apps. I can identify money, the color of a shirt, the label on a can, and get hurricane warnings all on my iPhone. I can also do texting, which opens up a huge new world of communication possibilities for friends and family. I can also use GPS.

On Friday I took a buss from my office to the grocery store, I got on, paid my money, and opened up my iPhone and braille display. I started my GPS app, and it began naming the streets we were crossing, as well as the street addresses. I had told the driver where I was going when I got on, and also that I was deafblind and could she tap my leg when we got to my stop? But by watching the addresses move by on my braille display, I could know if we were coming close to my stop, could remind the driver about my stop, and could know when we arrived. This is more information about the environment than most deafblind people have ever had.

I also use a Braille Note. It is a small device-- about the size of a net book-- and is akin to a PDA. I can do things like compose documents, keep an address book, and read trashy romance novels, all on my Braille Note. This unit can also act as a braille display for my iPhone-- using bluetooth, it will reflect what is on my iPhone's screen or the screen of my Mac, when requested to do so. I also use my Braille Note to facilitate face-to-face communication. When going to a store, or an office, I can ask the person with whom I wish to communicate to type their message on my Braille Note's QWERTY keyboard. The message then appears in braille. The unit also has a USB port for a keyboard for use to caption meetings when I can't get an interpreter. The Braille Note can also go on the internet but I don't use this feature much because I find the speeds faster using my iPhone. I can read books from
on there. Bookshare's collection is growing every day, and I can read books on almost any topic using my Braille Note.

There are also programs designed for computers and cell phones, for people who have low vision which make the font larger and the colors contrasting for easier reading. All of the programs I described have speech, so if a person has remaining hearing, they can use that. Whether you prefer Mac, Windows, or Linux, you use a braille display or large print, there is a computer out there which can meet the needs of almost everyone.

Since the iPhone is gaining in use amongst the deafblind population, I would like to start a series of blog entries about apps which are usable by, and helpful for, deafblind people. I will start out with my personal favorites, but would love to hear from any DBP out there who have a particular favorite app!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Difference Is Her

This post is for the fourth
<"Assistance Dog Blog Carnival">

I really gave quite a bit of thought to the topic. I had several ideas, but then all unbidden-like, this post just sort of came out.
This entry is for Bristol, who is my retired guide dog. We will celebrate twelve years together on July 26th. Although she is retired, she is still my partner.

When I first met her, she was this tiny red ball of fluff with a black shoe-button nose, and brown eyes that shown with mischief and fun. She was so different from my first guide dog who had died suddenly of cancer earlier that month. Bristol was a young female golden retriever, curious about the world, in love with anyone who would pet her, and so demonstrative in her affection. Rhoda, my first dog, had been a food-loving Labrador who was independent and aloof. I soon grew to appreciate the differences about Bristol. She was a calm and focused worker, who wasn't distracted by anything but the occasional squirrel. A huge change from my flighty Rhoda, who lost focus so easily sometimes.
Bristol wasn't a healthy dog; she had several ear and skin infections before I threw my hands in the air; finally trying a raw diet and a natural rearing approach with her. People said I was "just doing it to be different," but it was honestly her last hope. I am so glad I made that leap with her. The changes it brought about in her health and happiness were incredible.

Bristol and I worked together for five years, until degenerative joint disease forced an early retirement. I can't even begin to describe the difference she has made in my life. She has seen me through college, a cross-country move, getting married, getting a new job, losing everything I owned in a hurricane, and then going deaf. She was there through everything.

Adjusting to the different lifestyle of retirement was very hard for both of us. She didn't understand why she couldn't work any more, and I wanted her at my side. The tide had turned, the seasons changed. After years of her taking care of me, I was now taking care of her. It was a different way of relating, but we figured it out together, just like we had done everything else.

She is thirteen and a half years young now. Her hair is white-- her eyes cloudy with cataracts. But if you look closely you can still see the gleam of mischief and curiosity in their depths. That and love-- always love. She has Hypothyroidism, Toxoplasmosis, uveitis, High Blood Pressure, and a back end which is frequently failing her more and more. She has also lost most of her hearing but still manages to know when it's time to eat.

I know she will not be here much longer. I know that soon I will have to let her journey on without me. I think about how different it will be without her-- how lonely and sad. I hold her close to my heart and wonder how I can miss her so much even before she is gone.

Because of the lessons she taught me, I am a totally different person then I was when we first met. I would hope that I'm kinder, and wiser. Heaven knows I'm the richer for having had the privilege of sharing my life, and myself with such a wonderful partner. She has been the difference in my life-- the whirlwind which caught me up in its young exuberance and now, slowing with age, is about to set me down in unfamiliar territory, and it's territory I'll be traveling with out her.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bristol... again

Yesterday Bristol lost the use of her only good remaining leg. It was very sudden and we aren't sure what is going on but it looks like a pulled muscle or a strain. It could also be a worsening of her degenerative joint issues. Yesterday I talked to my vet who advised giving Bristol extra Previcox. We did that, and it at least allowed her to climb steps by herself, so we did it again today. I spoke to my vet this morning and he prescribed Tramadol to be used as needed.
I came home to a totally different dog. I mean, yesterday she was honestly not able to walk. She was having horrible muscle spasms and it hurt to watch her walk on only two legs. I honestly thought I was going to have to let her go.

When I got home she was up and walking, and coming to say hello. Later I took the new squeaky chicken and was throwing it for Laveau. This is Bristol's new favorite toy, I think because she can hear it. She got up and came over to take it away from Laveau. Then she taunted me with it for a while and we played a very light (because I made it that way) game of tug of war. And yes, she won (wink!) Then Laveau came over and they lay on the floor together wrestling. Then Laveau accidentally knocked her over and I put an end to the playing.

Barb came over with the Tramadol and I let Bristol out to see her because I knew it would cheer her up. And it totally did. Barb said that she's favoring the left leg a little but she is walking on it. We're not sure if she's actually healing or if the meds are just masking her symptoms. We'll pull her off the extra Previcox and add Tramadol to the cocktail and see what it will do for her.

I really struggled with the decision of what to do for Bristol all day yesterday and into today. I don't want her to suffer, but at the same time I don't want to force her to eave before her time. I don't know when that time will be, but she still has such a huge love for life, and if she's willing to fight yet longer, then so am I. We'll do what it takes and then we'll do what is necessary.

This experience is really bringing home that every day is a gift. It's such a Cliche, but really it is. I have always tried to give thanks every day for all of my blessings, but this brings it into a whole new perspective.

I would like to thank everyone for their good thoughts, healing energy, prayers and for all of the support. Yesterday was one of the scariest days of my life and it helped to know that there were people sending us good juju.
I don't know what tomorrow will bring, but for today she is doing better. So I will just be thankful for that and let the future take care of itself.

Taken from "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran

Then said Almitra, "Speak to us of Love."

And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and there fell a stillness upon them.

And with a great voice he said:

When love beckons to you follow him,

Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,

So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.

He threshes you to make you naked.

He sifts you to free you from your husks.

He grinds you to whiteness.

He kneads you until you are pliant;

And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life's heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,

Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,

Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;

For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather, I am in the heart of God."

And think not you can direct the course of love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.

But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.

To know the pain of too much tenderness.

To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;

To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;

To return home at eventide with gratitude;

And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Team of Three

This is a subject I've been interested in exploring on the blog for a while now. Heaven knows, many people are curious about it. Having multiple working assistance dogs at once-- why would anyone want to do such a thing? How does that work, and does it effect the "bond" with your dog if you have more than one? These are some of the questions I get asked pretty regularly.

I started off as a guide dog user with blindness being my only disability. For the first 4-5 years of my guide dog-using career, I only worked one dog at a time. I had a mild-moderate hearing loss and my guide dogs performed some very light sound alert work, but that was it. Around 2003, my hearing started to worsen, and after 2006 all bets were off. Not only am I Deafblind, but the inner ear disease which causes the deafness also causes some very severe balance and mobility issues. I also deal with chronic vertigo. This means that sometimes I literally cannot tell where the floor or the ceiling are. The vertigo effects my proprioception which is the body's ability to know where its parts are in relation to each other. Lets take feeding yourself as an example. People don't need to look in a mirror when they feed themselves because their body "knows" where their mouth is. Your hand has the fork, it lifts the food from the plate, and into the mouth. You don't need to look to know where your mouth is. My proprioceptive abilities vary from day to day. I've been in and out of intense physical therapy to try and improve these issues, but even at their best, they still have impact on my life.

All of that long and probably boring explanation serves as background to my need for two dogs. My dogs are now not only responsible for guiding me from point A to point B, but they need to serve as an aid to balance and mobility as well. Sometimes I cannot articulate direction at all. I try and avoid working my dog when I'm like this but the nature of my disease is that it fluctuates. I can be feeling just great, and the next moment be unable to stand independently. I usually have very little warning. When this happens, I need my dog to make decisions about where to go, to find me a place to sit so I can take meds, and to ignore me because when I try to give cues usually I'm pointing in the completely wrong direction from where I want to go. This doesn't even begin to cover the work my dogs do in the home. This includes alerting to sounds, retrieving dropped objects, bring objects from me to someone/somewhere else, loading and unloading bags/baskets/the dryer, and providing balance assistance or rescue work. There have been times when I've gone out into my own back yard to hang laundry and have then experienced a vertigo attack which leaves me unable to find my way back in the house. It is then necessary for one of my dogs to come find me, and lead me back inside. That is a lot of work for just one dog.

I live a very active life. I have work, community activities, my own home business to help run, and the regular life errands we all must do. This does not even take into account a social life. I like to stay as active as I can. Dogs who work for a person with multiple disabilities tend to burn out more quickly than a dog who has a less stressful job. If I had just one dog, she would be "on call" from the moment I got up in the morning, all day long, until I went to bed. Any time there was a sound, or if I dropped something, or needed assistance, she would have to come running. It wouldn't matter if she had just spent twelve hours out of the home with me, guiding and helping me stand upright. I don't think that's altogether fair to the dog. If I were more sedentary, it might be different, but I'm not.

I have an "inside dog" and an "outside dog." They each know the other's skill set to some degree. Although Laveau has a great deal of catching up to get to Mill'E-Max's level of "inside work." But in all fairness, Mill'E-Max has had more years to perfect it. Laveau does the guiding, balance/mobility and hearing work when outside. She accompanies me to work, and to other places in the community. She loves her job and is very good at it. But when we are done for the day, and the harness comes off, She is off for the night. She can play with the tennis ball, or with the other dogs, and just be "a regular dog." Mill'E-Max takes over inside. She goes into the kitchen with me when I cook, helps retrieve things or bring things to the table. She goes into the herb room with me when I'm making products and does the same. She does play with the other dogs and has fun, but the difference is that if I need her, she stops and comes to help me with whatever I need and then goes back to doing whatever she was doing. She loves her job. When I come in the door with Laveau, she is there to greet us, ready for her turn to work.

Occasionally I will take Mill'E-Max out and let her guide. This is because Laveau has some separation anxiety issues, and we are slowly teaching her that it is ok to be left home alone. I want to continue to work on her "being left alone" skills, so once a week or so, I take a trip with Mill'E-Max and leave Laveau at home. It is important to do because eventually (like in eighty years) Laveau will have to retire, and will need to be comfortable with being left alone at home.

As for "the bond" I don't feel any less bonded to Mill'E-Max who has always worked in tandem with another dog, than I did to Rhoda, my first dog who was my only dog for the entire time I had her. The bonds are different because I am a different person now, as compared to when I had Rhoda. Also, Rhoda was my first dog, and the relationship with your first dog is usually different because they were "the first" and you did a bunch of "firsts" together. I don't think the human heart has a finite capacity for bonding. Just because you work two dogs at once doesn't mean that your love for them is less because you are "splitting" the bond. We can love, and be bonded to, many different beings, for many different reasons, and in many different ways. Bristol and Gracy worked together in the way Mill'E-Max and Laveau work together now, and I never felt it harmed them in any way. In fact, I felt like it benefited them because it allowed them to share the responsibilities of helping me, and it gave them another dog friend.

Laveau, Mill'E-Max and I have a three-way bond. I love each of them and have a relationship with each of them, but they also love each other and have their own very special relationship.

It may not be "the norm" but it works for us, and as long as everyone is happy at the end of the day, that's what counts!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why do you do it?

Mister Pawpower's search for an assistance dog candidate has caused some interesting reactions and these reactions have made me think-- about myself, my reasons for owner training and how it is viewed by the larger assistance dog community. Until around five or ten years ago, it was not common at all for blind people to train their own guide dogs. It was done, just not by very many at all. Owner training was an option used more by persons with other disabilities. People who are deaf or hard of hearing, or people with mobility or medical issues were more likely to train their own assistance dogs. This is because programs which serve these populations tended to have a longer wait list, to have more stringent requirements for acceptance, and to require the payment of large sums of money for their services. A blind person could get a guide dog from a program in under a year after the first application, and more times than not, the dog was given with no fee owed. Guide dog programs didn't have rules about having other pet animals in the home, or other rules about keeping one's retired assistance animal.

However, due to several factors, more and more blind people have made the decision to owner train. I don't think most people understand that this decision isn't made lightly. Owner training is costly, both in financial and time resources. It takes a very specific skill set. The dog has to go through the process of training and the handler has to put in a great deal of focused, intensive labor. The dog could then wash out and the handler is back at the beginning.

Most people put serious thought and consideration into their decision, but many people seem to be asking my husband why? Why would he want to owner train? Why doesn't he go to a program?

I can't speak about Mister Pawpower's feeling and own personal choices. I am not him, and his tale is not mine to tell-- his reasons not mine to explore. However, I can give some general reasons why someone would want to owner train.

Many people owner train because they cannot attend a program. Perhaps their disabilities make attending a program, or working with a trainer from the program in their own home unmanageable. The person may have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), they may have such a unique combination of disabilities and considerations that no program feels equipped to train an assistance animal to meet their needs. They may have work, family, or medical commitments which prevent their going away to a program for the specified period of time (usually a month).

Many programs have very specific rules. These programs put these rules in place because they feel it is in the best interest of the populations they serve, and the dogs they train. However, many people don't want to follow these rules. It is highly preferable to find another alternative than to submit yourself to a program whose rules you cannot or will not follow. Many programs reserve the right to repossess the dog if these rules are violated, and the horror and grief over losing your partner due to such a dispute would be much more painful than the impatience of a longer wait for an assistance dog either owner trained or from another program. An example of one of these rules is that some programs state that you may not have other pet, or retired assistance dogs in the home with your working dog. They have their reasons for feeling like this is an important rule, but many people have beloved pets and have managed to go on to have a happy working assistance dog partner and a pet or retired dog living together.
Many programs will not transfer ownership of the dog upon completion of the program. For me, personally, this is a huge sticking point. My choice of programs to attend-- already limited by being Deafblind and using American Sign Language as a primary means of communication, is even more limited because I will not submit myself to a program which will not grant me full and total ownership of my dog upon completion of the training period. People can argue with me until they are blue in the face about this issue, but my mind is very thoroughly made up. We all have "that one thing" which we will never compromise on, and for me it is ownership.

Some people do not want to attend a program because they have firm beliefs in certain training, and rearing methods. Out of necessity, programs have a pretty cookie-cutter approach to dog training and care. They do try to meet every dog's needs, but most dogs will have their needs met-- both behaviorally and physically-- by the training/rearing method of choice. Again I can speak from personal experience. As a clicker trainer and a big proponent of Natural Rearing; it is extremely important to me that my dogs be fed a raw diet as soon as possible, and that they be minimally vaccinated, and treated using a blend of standard medicine and herbs. It is also extremely important that my dog be operant. This means that the dog has realized that she can operate on her environment and that the clicker or other marker has been established as a tool for communication. Many programs use it as a behavior marker, but clicker training is so much more than the clicker. It is a way of thinking-- for the person, and their dog.

Finally there are people who honestly enjoy the process of owner training. I'll grant you, we are few and far between. There are many good reasons for this-- see the part about intensive work above. But we do exist, and for us, it is a true passion and enjoyable experience to train dogs to this level.

The words "harder" and "easier" are very subjective. When people ask Mister Pawpower, "wouldn't it just be easier to go to a program?" They are speaking from their subjective view of what is "easy." For many, it is "easier" to train a dog themselves then to risk exacerbating medical issues, leaving home for a month, obeying rules which chafe, or which go against your grain. For the majority of the folks out there, this is not true. But there are always exceptions.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Nellie Zimmerman

This last week was National Deafblind Awareness week. I wanted to post about one of my Deafblind heros. I'm a day late, but we'll just say I'm running on Deaf Time!

Earlier this year, I picked up a book entitled "Walking Free; The Nellie Zimmerman Story." It was written by Rosezelle Boggs-Qualls and Darryl C. Greene. It tells the story of Nellie Zimmerman who was born in the early 20th century.

Nellie was born sighted and hearing, but lost her hearing as a child. Her father advocated for her write to be educated, and even though Nellie was denied entrance to a public school, he hired a governess to educate Nellie at home. This governess taught Nellie the manual alphabet; what most people call "finger spelling."

Nellie began losing her sight as a teen, and was able to learn braille before becoming totally blind. She lived a very happy and peaceful life until the death of her father.
Upon her father's death, Nellie was shuttled from one family member to another. However none of these people could finger spell. They treated her like baggage; moving her from here to there without explanations, or a word of kindness.

Eventually Nellie ended up in a state hospital where she lived for eighteen years.

Imagine it, for just a moment. Not being able to see, nor hear, not being able to communicate, not having any control. She was effectively imprisoned for eighteen years for the crime of being deaf and blind. Eighteen years is a very long time, countless minutes, hours and days surrounded by strangers-- many with dementia or other illnesses which frequently made Nellie a target for abuse.

Eventually Nellie was able to establish communication with a woman who knew the manual alphabet. At age seventy-one she was freed from the hospital and began to live her life in the free world.
Nellie went on to attend college, with the assistance of her SSP and friend Emily Street. She eventually got a job teaching activities of daily living to Deafblind boys.

When I think of someone whom I should strive to emulate-- one of the people I'll always think of first is Nellie Zimmerman. She could have just let herself go, once confined to the hospital. However she continued to stay active, even if those activities were limited to reading her braille Bible and doing complex math problems in her head. She kept herself sharp and continued to hope. At age 71-- when most of us willingly slide into our retirements-- she began attending college for the sheer love of learning. She made friends, attended parties, and went dancing.

Nellie Zimmerman is a great example of a Deafblind person who made a difference. Her life serves as an example that it is not Deafblindness itself which is the problem-- it's lack of understanding and unwillingness to communicate which are the barriers for Deafblind people world wide. If her family had only taken the time to communicate with her-- to learn the manual alphabet-- her life would have been so different. But it wasn't to be, and rather than wallowing in misery and "might have beens" Nellie lived her life in the moment-- looking toward her future.