A Guide Dog Candidate

It’s been nearly a year since Bradley, my previous guide dog retired. In that time, my life has changed profoundly in several ways. Most significantly, my husband and I welcomed our first child into our family. Our six month old daughter is the center of our world.

During my pregnancy and for several months after my daughter’s birth, I put my plans to train a successor guide dog on hold. I’m so glad that I did because it allowed me to dedicate 100% of my attention to my newborn daughter’s needs.

After many waking hours of reflection, I’ve concluded that I’m ready to begin the process of obtaining my next guide dog.

I’m starting out by launching fund raising campaigns to assist with the initial purchase of a dog who will be my service dog candidate.

The first campaign is a t-shirt fundraiser via Teespring. The theme is “Where there’s a dog, there’s a way.” This is not only a reference to the amazing impact service dogs have on the lives of the disabled, but also to the incredible versatility of the species. Dogs have been enhancing civilization for thousands of years. Whether you have a dog who contributes to your livelihood or have a pet who amazes you on a daily basis, we can all think of myriad examples of dogs making our lives better.

Please consider purchasing a shirt to support my journey with my next guide dog. You can purchase a shirt with this design through February 4th. If enough shirts aren’t ordered, Teespring won’t print them and you won’t be charged- So be sure to share this with your friends to make sure enough are ordered for you to get yours!

Click here to see the t-shirt

http://teespring.com/guidedog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the Idea of the “Fake Service Dog Epidemic” is Hurting Service Dog Handlers (Part I)

In September of 2013, I had my first (and only, to date) access challenge. Everything ended on a positive note, because I was prepared with printed information for the business and did not engage anyone in a confrontational manner. I recorded the exchange and it’s on my YouTube channel. 

Of course, my access challenge video gets far less attention than its more sensationalized counterparts, which usually consist of handlers losing their composure and the confrontation escalating…because, which is more emotionally charged?

Earlier today, I stumbled upon a comment on my video, made by a person who questions the legitimacy of my service dog and speculates that there must have been red flags that gave the business cause for concern. Further back and forth with this person goes on to reveal that the person is very anti-owner trainer and pro-nationally recognized certification system.

If it weren’t such a troubling state of affairs that we now live in a reality in which service dog handlers have to contend with a general public, who, in the interest of protecting “real service dog teams,” jumps at the opportunity to make presumptions and accusations first and ask questions later, I would find it funny that someone could happen upon a video devoid of drama, which clearly demonstrates a service dog handler who is dedicated to non-confrontational education and associate the handler with those who misuse the system.

You can view the aforementioned comments on my video on YouTube.

(After asserting my positions on various issues and identifying that this is an individual who is not interested disagreeing in a constructive or civil manner, I’ve decided not to engage the person any further.)

My First Serious Access Challenge

This past Tuesday was the first time I experienced an access challenge that went beyond something along the lines of, “We don’t allow dogs in here.” “He’s a service dog.” “Oh, ok.” Or, “Is that a service dog?” “Yes.” “Ok, just checking.”

I was pressed to present “paperwork,” for my dog. Here’s a video of how things transpired with the second employee who approached me.

(Video description on YouTube: Before recording this, I had an initial interaction with a different employee, who insisted I present papers/documentation for my service dog. After quickly asserting my rights with her, she opted to have me talk to someone else, who I was told would be a manager.

This video reflects the entirety of my interaction with the second and final employee who I dealt with.)

My biggest Achilles Heel in this situation was the degree to which I was caught off guard. I’m lucky in that I’ve become accustomed to a partnership devoid of experiences like this one. Business employees rarely give me a second glance- at least not a scrutinizing one- when I enter with Bradley. So, when I was immediately approached in a somewhat hostile manner, being commanded to present documentation that was not legally required of me to either possess or present, I was very taken aback. I’ve experienced a myriad of access challenges, vicariously, through my friends in the service dog community, but it’s entirely different to experience it first hand. This was an invaluable learning experience just as much for me as it was for the employees to whom I asserted my rights and offered an education of theirs.

I do worry how much differently this experience would have been, had I not been prepared with the relevant educational resources about the applicable laws. Of course, I would have continued my effort to remain calm, well spoken and assertive, without compromising any of my rights or responsibilities as a representative of the service dog community. But I’m not sure that, in the absence of printed out educational material, the employees would have been as receptive to what I would have had to say.

This experience validated my position on the use of ID cards for service dogs, whether they’re from scam registries, fake certification companies or even the presentation of a legitimate certification ID for the purpose of gaining access to a place of public accommodation, during a public access dispute. Whoever was there with a dog, legitimate service dog or not, had presented something of that nature, which further cemented the impression in the eyes of management at that business that such documentation is required of service dog handlers. In an effort to make things easier for herself, that person directly affected how much more difficult things were made for me. I have no one to thank but myself, for my preparedness to deal with the ramifications of her decision.

The Quest for My Next Service Dog

As anyone who has been following this blog for quite some time knows, Bradley and I haven’t been partnered with each other terribly long.  I brought him home when he was 11 weeks old and started his training shortly after.  He’s now five years old.

IMG_20120614_9999_55

Looking Ahead to the Future
For the past few years, my plan has been to acquire a puppy candidate to train as his successor.  There are a number of reasons I came to this conclusion.  Foremost is that I want Bradley to be able to retire at his own pace and to be able to ease into it.  That’s a luxury that many service dogs, unfortunately, are not afforded.

Nothing is guaranteed, and when a service dog is suddenly no longer able to work, it’s devastating to both the handler an the dog.  While I can’t predict the future, there is no way to deny that reality or, short of optimal medical care and maintenance, to guarantee against it happening.

My hope for Bradley is that he will live a long, healthy life and maintain his willingness and capability to perform his job for years go come.  That being said, I have established a timeline that I have committed to following, in regard to Bradley’s retirement.  Just thinking about Bradley retiring is enough to stir up painful emotions.  It’s a reality I have to face, though, and it’s better that I do that now than when my hand is forced.

I have chosen to begin the process of retiring Bradley at age eight.  In many cases, handlers choose to work their service dogs as late as ten or more years old.  In Bradley’s case, however, his job is not only mentally demanding but also physically demanding.  It is my belief that he should not be expected to perform his job as he does now, well into his senior years.  I want to provide Bradley with a long, happy retirement, as a very special pet.

The Plan
It takes about two years to train a service dog, from puppyhood.  My goal is to acquire a puppy service dog candidate by the time Bradley is six years old.  He just recently turned five.  This would allow me to take two years to train a puppy into young adulthood, with the hopes that he would be ready to take over for Bradley by the time Bradly turns eight.  Ideally, I would ease Bradley into retirement, working each dog alternately, until Bradley was ready to fully settle into life as a retired service dog and active pet, who would remain a major part of my life.

This means I need to acquire a young puppy within the year.  While that sounds like a liberal amount of time, once one takes into consideration the research that goes into finding a suitable breeder and then waiting until that breeder expects a new litter of puppies, which often only happens once a year, the clock ticks faster and faster.

There are a myriad of breeds that I have researched and have added to my list of breeds to consider for my future service dog candidate.  There are so many factors to take into consideration that there are few who fully meet my criteria for a partner.  Here is a list of some of my top choices of breeds:

Golden Retriever
A Golden Retriever is certainly a safe choice for a service dog candidate.  I have fallen head over heels for the breed.  Right now, however, is the time to explore my options and that is what I’m doing.  If the option presented itself so that I could acquire a suitable Golden Retriever from a compatible breeder, I would jump at the opportunity.

 

German Shepherd Dog (European Working Lines)
The GSD, while a common breed used for service work, is not quite as “safe” a choice as a Golden Retriever.  I’m perfectly comfortable with that.  I’m ready for a dog with more drive,  who is handler oriented, yet capable of thinking independently.

 

 

Belgian Malinois
These dogs are SMART.  Like the GSD, they are pumped full of drive and require a handler who can keep up with them.  I’ve reached the point in my dog handling experience that gives me the confidence that I am capable of a successful partnership with a dog who needs a job and the right handler to meet his needs.

 

Doberman Pinscher
I’ve been dreaming of the day I could call a Doberman my own for over half my life.  This is another highly intelligent breed who thrives with a job.  They can be independent thinkers but are closely bonded to their handlers and sometimes learn faster than their handlers can teach them!

 

Siberian Husky
Yes, I did say Siberian Husky.  This breed is quite unlike any of those listed above.  Aside from the Golden Retriever, they are also the only breed of those listed that I have actually owned.  My experience with my Siberian Husky, Sydney, was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a dog in my entire life.  They are notoriously hard-headed, independent thinkers and almost at the opposite end of the spectrum from Golden Retrievers, when it comes to ‘trainability.’  This is actually a ‘selling point’ for me.  I enjoy working with dogs that command creativity in training and I understand what makes these dogs tick.

Other breeds I’d gladly consider:
Rough Collie
Pit Bull- provided the dog were large enough.  Many are small.
Samoyed
Border Collie
Cane Corso
Malamute
Norwegian Elkhound
Rottweiler

Coming To Terms
This is a position I veery much wish I did not find myself in, but it is par for the course, as an owner trainer.  Not only does the search for compatible breeders present a unique challenge, but it also serves as a very real wake-up call that Bradley is not going to be my service dog forever.

I know that, unlike many working dogs, deep down, Bradley does not have the soul of a die-hard working dog.  He has been a phenomenal partner to me, an eager worker and a fast learner.  I can’t ask for much more than that.  Yet there remains the possibility, as there does with any service dog who is transitioning into retirement, that he will prefer his working life to that of life at home- especially when his position has been filled by another dog.  I plan to do my best to set him up for all the happiness in the world, in his life as a retired service dog.

Undoubtedly, I’ll experience my own type of grieving process, along the way.

Asking For Help
For both our sake, I’ll spare you the details of the circumstances which have contributed to me ending up in a position in which I’ve decided to ask for help from others to fulfill my goal of acquiring a service dog candidate during a very specific window of time.

If you’ve ever visited this blog before, you may have noticed that there is a link to the right that will bring you to a fund raising page.  That fund raising page is an effort to raise money to support the purchase of my next service dog candidate.  I ask that you consider supporting me in this endeavor by making a donation, no matter how small.

However, what I could most benefit from is finding a breeder who would be willing to consider donating a dog to me to train as my service dog.  I realize that this is asking a lot and I hope that you’ll continue to bear with me for just another minute.

I appreciate that giving dogs away may be a hardship on breeders.  However, there are a myriad of reasons why, in the long run, donating a dog for service work can work in a breeder’s favor.  Aside from putting titles on dogs, the pride that would undoubtedly result from producing a dog who successfully made it through training to become a service dog would speak volumes for one’s breeding program.  What better way to assure future puppy buyers that your dogs are of sound temperament than to have an active, working service dog who is enriching the life of a person with a disability?

So here is my plea to breeders, whether you produce a breed that I mentioned above or not: Please consider this tremendous act of kindness while fulfilling your dedication to better your breed to the best of your ability.

A Humbling Shaping Exercise

I’m so excited to announce that Bradley and I started our first canine sport class a little over a week ago.  It’s an agility foundations class.  Last night was our second class and we still have yet to lay eyes on actual agility equipment.  I had expected our instructor to take things slowly with all of us agility newbies.  However, I didn’t quite expect to take such small, calculated steps.  I’ve gotta say, I’m incredibly impressed with how the class is being operated so far.  I’m glad that we weren’t blindly thrown into the world of weave poles, A frames, jumps, dog walks, tires, etc.  This class is truly catered to the novice agility enthusiast with plans to compete in the future, which describes me to a ‘T’.

My experience with group classes is pretty limited.    Unfortunately, that limited experience has not, up until this point, exposed me to knowledge or skills that I didn’t already have a firm grasp on, so I felt like both Bradley and I were bored and wasting our time.  I’m very happy to say that is not the case with this class.  Heavy emphasis is being placed on teaching handlers the basics of clicker training and shaping.  Music to my ears!

Befitting to a foundations class, we are truly working from the ground up.  When I say the skills we’re learning and practicing are basic, I mean it.  But they are laying the foundation for effective handling once we’re ready to run an agility course.

Here’s a short video of a simple turn that took some time for us to get used to manipulating.  As easy as it looks, the footwork directly conflicts with the manner in which we normally take turns, so we got off to an awkward start.

We’ve been totally at home with the various exercises that have been presented to us, including shaping some new, simple behaviors, shaping interaction with various objects, demonstrating basic obedience skills and homework like working on loading the clicker and teaching some new behaviors, like bow, ‘sit pretty,’ turning in alternate directions and our own behavior shaping ideas.

Our homework this week is to teach our dogs a new behavior, using shaping.  I was having a hard time deciding on what to teach Bradley.  I wanted to come up with something interesting.  I was stuck though, so I decided to work on solidifying Bradley’s proficiency at the tricks we’ve started to work on.  With all the the training I’ve done with Bradley, there are very, very few parlor tricks that Bradley knows.  Almost everything I’ve taught him has a practical purpose.  I decided to let go of that, in this context, to simply allow us to get what we’re supposed to get out of the assignment- mastery building, not task training.

Humbled By Shaping
Bradley is a quick learner and a willing worker.  He excels at learning through clicker training and has learned the majority of service dog tasks that he knows through clicker training.  As I set out to work on our assignment to work on a new behavior, this evening, I took our overwhelming success rate for granted and was taken aback when we hit a speed bump.

The task: Roll over.
Probably second to giving paw, rolling over is one of the most common tricks that dog lovers tend to just assume a dog knows how to perform. It’s such a common behavior for a dog to learn, it’s almost as if people are under the impression that dogs are born knowing how to perform the trick on cue.  I can’t even count the number of dogs I’ve taught to roll over; while I have always used luring, I haven’t always utilized the method of shaping.  I set out to teach Bradley how to roll over, I fell back on the familiar tool of luring with a treat.  Already in high drive mode from earlier in the training session, Bradley had other things in mind, besides following the lure.

He was ecstatic.  True to his die-hard-clicker-training-loving soul, he was throwing off every single behavior he could think of that we had worked on recently.  Offered behaviors are my favorite part of clicker training.  They’re also Bradley’s favorite part.  At this point, however, he was way ahead of himself!  He was offering behaviors from lying on his side, bowing, twirling in circles- to everything in between.  Adorable as it was, I noticed a feeling creeping up that should never be a welcome guest in the context of clicker training: frustration.

Fortunately, I had mindfulness on my side and was able to gently let go of the approaching frustration, take a step back and evaluate how to proceed so as not to communicate any frustration to Bradley.  I knew that if frustration was present, the training session would have to end.

I was able to identify the first roadblock that we were experiencing; Bradley was not paying attention to the intended lure.  It wasn’t a matter of refusing food because of stress.  He was simply going a million miles per hour and leaving me, kibble in hand, in the dust.  After identifying that problem, I was able to set him up for success in following the lure and then had the opportunity to mark and reinforce that piece of the behavior.  He was able to reel himself in, slow down, and keep his eye on the prize.

Once he was consistently following the lure, I still had to take baby steps.  We had a major success, when he finally stopped doing entirely incompatible behaviors to rolling over, like offering a lie on his opposite side.  From that point on, I was able to mark every little step in the right direction, as he brought his head toward the lure, putting himself in a more compatible position for rolling over.  He got jackpots for rolling onto a hip or a shoulder and got the biggest, final jackpot reward for rolling all the way over.

Setting out to accomplish this task, I never would have thought that it would have taken so much effort and calculation to get Bradley to the point at which we concluded the session.  From a learning and bonding perspective, I can wholeheartedly affirm that I’d rather it have gone the way it did than have achieved immediate, almost thoughtless success.

Training sessions aren’t only for the dogs 🙂

Another Wonderful Day in the City

Another Successful Day Out in the World

Bradley hangs out where we set up camp in Starbucks.

Bradley and I ventured into the city for the second time this week.  We were out a couple more hours than we stayed out, the other day, and had a far more robust experience; almost all of it was extremely positive!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is the same city that Bradley was raised in.  While I know it’s not “home,” to him, there’s no doubt that he’s very much in his element, in this environment.  Not only is it a pleasure to know how at ease he is, among all the hustle and bustle, but it’s also extremely beneficial to me, to feed off of that soothing energy.  It makes an experience that has the potential to be so stressful that it wouldn’t be worthwhile, the exact opposite: Rewarding and psychologically liberating.  (Remember, this is coming from someone who doesn’t have access to the outside world at least 5 days out of each week!)

Coffee With Bradley
As it does, every time Bradley and I go to the city, on our own, the day began with coffee.  And, of course, free Wifi.  I always seek out a seat within reach of an outlet, so I can plug my Mac in.  That usually lands me in the same seat, each time we go there, unless it’s already occupied.  Today I noticed that a little nook, right by the entrance to the coffee shop was completely unoccupied and came fully equipped with an outlet with my name on it.

I always prefer, not necessarily to isolate myself, but to strategically seat myself where I’ll have my back ‘grounded’ to a wall or any placement that will grant me the greatest sensory awareness of the rest of the establishment; I want to be able to see, hear and otherwise take in everything that is going on in front of me, rather than worry about what’s going on around me.  So, today, instead of taking my usual seat near the outlet, in the middle of the seating area, I chose this relatively secluded little nook.  Unfortunately, it didn’t help much with anxiety, as there was a locked entrance to another part of the building about a foot away from where my table was.  Every time someone approached that door and went in, I jumped out of my skin.  I still think the change in perspective was worth it though.

Not only did I get to maintain the awareness of my environment that serves as a security blanket, but I also got to observe so much more than I usually do, at the other table.  I was able to infer which customers were regulars, listen to some interesting conversations between them and the baristas (Hey, I’m blind- if I can’t “people watch,” I’m left with “people listen!”)  Being as far at the end of end of the introversion spectrum as I am, this was about as exciting as it gets for me.  I’m not embarrassed to admit that!

I sat and observed for a couple hours, in between sipping my coffee and “Facebooking.”  I had planned to use that time for blogging, but I was too entranced.  I found myself wishing I had a reason to sit there every morning, so I could habitually drift away in my introverted euphoria.  I suddenly had a nagging urge to be a writer.  There are many things I am, but don’t let what you’re reading fool you; a writer is not one of them.  If I do ever take up “real” writing of any value, at any point, I’ve decided it will be entitled Coffee With Bradley.

Time For a Stroll
After we wrapped up all of that important business at Starbucks, we headed out, without a clue as to where we’d go.  I say “we,” Because sometimes Bradley actually does know.  Sometimes we both know, but usually, at least one of us knows.  This time neither of us did.

The decision was made for me.  Bradley was giving me that special look.  It was time for his mandatory *second* morning potty break.  Surrounded by sidewalk and storefronts, we had to wander a bit to find a place that would work.  I’m still not sure whether or not Bradley forgives me for my choice of locations, but he was a trooper and did make it work.  Good boy.

We took the long way around, to get back to where we started and proceeded to the large Town Green.  Once we got there, it was, of course, time for pictures.

From there, we moved on to our final destination, with an unplanned pit stop along the way- I had to satisfy my curiosity about a new-ish tattoo studio that I had yet to become acquainted with.  The artist I spoke with adored Bradley and didn’t breathe a hint of denying us access upon coming in for an appointment.  Bradley was mildly annoyed that it was hotter in there than it was outside, in the breeze.

Again, our journey to our final destination: the smaller park, in the historic Italian part of the city, where we used to live.  We encountered a myriad of navigational challenges (i.e. training opportunities) along the way.  Dealing with confusing traffic crossings, uneven sidewalks, bicycles passing within inches, obstacles in the sidewalk and road rage were among some of Bradley’s most impressive performances.  One of these days it’ll sink in that I actually did train Bradley well enough to know what he’s doing, but his proficiency will never cease to awe me.

After safely arriving at our destination, we sat at a bench and relaxed.  I took some more photos and we did some more sitting.  Bradley got off-duty time to walk around the area surrounding the bench and sniff…and potty again.  While I was cleaning up after him, we were graced with the presence of a Flexi-Dog (at the end of the line, as usual).  Fortunately, in this particular situation, Bradley was off duty, so he was allowed to greet another dog and the other dog was, short of the forwardness of the approach, very well mannered.

Chaos In the Park
Shortly after, I put the harness back on.  It was getting closer to the time I would be picked up and I thought we may go for a short stroll before meeting up with my mother-in-law.  Before leaving the serenity of our bench, chaos erupted and things went downhill rapidly.

There is an elementary school across the street from the park and they use part of the park for recess and other outdoor activities.  Today, unfortunately, I happened to be in that area, when the kids were released from school for the day.  I had no idea that the children would be coming into the park.  Before I knew it, the park was filling up with screaming elementary school-aged students.  A huge group of kids, screaming and acting as crazy as students just released from school could be expected to, they practically stampeded over to the bench where Bradley and I were seated.

In hindsight, I really wish I would have gotten up and walked away as soon as they started coming in our direction.  I’m really not sure why I didn’t.  Children, in general, have been a challenge, in the past, for Bradley and I.  When he was younger and still in training, even once he got past the tendency to solicit attention from strangers, he maintained a soft spot for children and would turn into mush, upon the approach of a child.  Tackling that challenge was an uphill battle, that I wasn’t sure we would ever win.  However, after many months of hard work, Bradley eventually reached the point in his training, proofing and maturity where he was able to ignore a screaming, wild toddler, just as effortlessly as any other environmental distraction.  Today, until the scales tipped against us, I was completely confident in his ability to dismiss the children, just as casually as he had glanced at the pigeons that had previously inhabited that space.

The large group of young children were quickly upon us.  I had no tangible escape route, so I had to manage this recipe for disaster.  I should point out that I was far more disturbed by the situation than Bradley was.  He wasn’t worried or fearful, but, being aware of my own rising anxiety, I was terrified that he would experience the same reaction.  That was my second mistake.  I awkwardly juggled the best handling techniques I could bring to the front of my mind with regulating my own acute anxiety, while managing the generally out of control group of children on my own.  It was certainly a scenario I would have sworn I never would have found myself in, before it happened.

I made every effort I could to remain calm and answer the kids’ demanding “questions,” while assertively instructing them to keep their distance and to stop yelling at Bradley.  I admit, I fell short.  I wish I handled the situation better.  I was able to capture some of the experience on video, once the children had begun to disperse.  The group began to form again and I stopped recording so I could handle it.

Here is the video I got.  I welcome and appreciate any feedback about what can be observed, in this video, from those who are in a position to make such an assessment.  Please remember, I was near the end of my threshold and was doing the best I could, in that moment.  (Note: The salivation is the result of getting treated- it’s entirely typical for him to salivate like that when receiving treats.  The head scratching, on the other hand, is likely a displacement behavior.)