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!


  1. This was really interesting to read.
    Its amazing how you can all work so well together and one dog just takes over from the other.

    The bonding and loving other dogs bit is interesting. Right now, I couldn't imagine feeling the same bond that I have with my guide dog with another dog, but I know when he retires, I will definitely get another one and have to bond with it just as much and just as well.
    Reading that also reminded me of something my sister once said.
    We were in her room talking one night soon before she got married. She had a six year old child at the time, and said although she wanted to have more, she couldn't possibly imagine loving another one as much as Jack. Now she has three boys and loves them all equally of course.

    Sorry for the rambling comment, but your post just made me think :)

  2. I loved this post. These were things I sort of assumed, but it so cool to see it actually happening in real life. It makes sense to have an "inside" and "outside" dog; especially since you have more than one need. I'm not sure this was as eloquently put as your post was, but basically, thanks for sharing. LOL