Saturday, August 20, 2011

Service dog Prospect - Help from the Community

Poodle and a Pitbull (congrats to being Karen Pryor training partner!) mentioned the fact that she would love to get involved in Service Dog work.  I was going to answer her in a reply. . .but well, it just got too long.

Now I admit that I am limited in my hands on knowlage of SD work and training.  George was my first (all Owner Trained) and Spirit my second (I would say about 80% done by his trainer and then tweaking him to what I needed), so please take what I am saying with a grain of salt.

George was a "rescue" (mom was rescued but he was born in a home) and did great for about 9 months being my active SD.  He had an incident with a little girl that ruined him for indoor work - he still comes with me to the barn and horse shows 'cuse Spirit is a big woosie.

Through being on boards and listening to others chat getting a rescue dog for the SD life has its good and its bad points.  For a mobility dog I would probably pass since I would like to know the history of hips, elbows and breed health concerns.  I would save up my pennies, research breeds of dogs and breeders, talk to see if they would be willing to wave the cost of a puppy or donate a dog 8 - 15 months old, etc.  If the dog was not doing strenuous body work, but had to use its brain more I would keep my options open to a rescue.  

There are so many reasons why dogs are rescued.  It is a cold hard fact, but many of them are there due to some type of abuse or neglect.  And while the wonderful creature that is DOG is very forgiving for what man has done to it, we have to respect and acknowledge that some mental damage might have been done.   This is why you need to really use an objective eye when looking at the dog for Service work.  What might be acceptable or workable with a pet dog just cannot be risked with a Service Dog prospect.  Some dogs have triggers, like men in baseball caps, or anyone with a beard.  I've met one woman who wanted to make her dog into an allergy/asthma dog but it lunges and snaps at white women (it is about a 5 lb Chihuahua, but still not acceptable behavior), but a rescue pitty who is a terrific wheel dog for a woman in a wheelchair.  This is where those of you out there with hearts of gold could step in and use your skills.

There are some stats out there on SD schools that have breeding programs, the wash out rate is still 99 out of a 100 (or 49 out of 50 depending on who's stats you use), so you know they are still doing something wrong (or we have to accept that breeding programs just don't work).  On the other hand I know a private trainer who has the eye and skill to not only pick out and train a variety of SDs but match them to the most appropriate handler for success.  I think she has about a 80% success rate from dogs she picks - both from breeders and rescues.  She has the added luxury to know the specific person before she matches or looks for a dog for them.  

About 1 in a 1,000 dogs have that special "IT" that makes them an excellent Service Dog.  I think that some dogs do the work for the love of their partner and if not exposed to specific stimuli can have a good working life.  We have to acknowledge that being a Service Dog is stressful, just ask George, so even with good intentions they just stop working.

If anyone is interested in helping owner trainers I would get involved with local groups, either in real life or on the boards.  If you have actual training knowledge that is demonstrable, you can offer them your skills and help network with rescue groups to see if there are any available prospects.  One of the hard aspects of selecting or training a dog for a person with disabilities is our health and energy levels.  Some days we just can't make it out of the house let alone out of bed.  This puts a huge monkey wrench in scheduling visits or appointments  If they had someone they could count on (to even just drive them to an appointment) and that could use their critical eye for looking at the dog they are out to see - that would be a big help.

It is a long road out there to find and train a SD.  I know of a woman on one of my boards who is being careful doing her search.  I believe it has been almost a year now that she has been looking.  Part of her issues is that she does not drive.  If there had been someone knowledgeable in selecting a dog and had been willing to drive her to look at prospects, there might have been a match if she could have extended her search parameters.

On the other edge of the spectrum I have heard of/read the stories of others who were not as careful in their search.  Some have gone through more than 5 dogs while looking for the "one".  Others didn't take time (or money) to have proper testing done and after 12+ months of time, training and love they have had to "wash out" their dogs due to temperament issues, structural issues or general health concerns that would have been caught earlier with the proper tests (be it from a vet or a temperament test). 

As much as our dogs are "durable medical equipment" according to federal law (and the tax man), we can't just run into a medical supply store, state our needs and pluck what we want down from the shelf.  These amazing creatures take time, energy, money and tears to show up on our doorstep ready - and willing - to put their best paw forward.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Harness usage reviews

The harness I have used have been Bridgeport, Dean & Taylor and Bold Lead Design. 

There is a whole discussion going on about a "Y" front verse a straight front in the service dog world.  The question is which one is better for the dog, how the harness works, freedom of shoulder movement, etc.  So please remember every dog is different, this is what I found working with Spirit (Standard Poodle, narrow build, deep girth, boney chest).

He is narrow, though his girth is right at 29" around.  The Bridgeport harness is adjustable at the top of the "Y", the piece that runs between the legs and then the double strapping on the barrel of the dog.  What I found was that the spread of the handle was too wide for Spirit.  If you have a rounder dog (lab, pitty mix, etc) the spread works for those.  The downside of this harness is that the handle does not fold down.  Since there is no way to make it narrower, when I cinched everything down, there was still a twist when I used it, causing sore points in the sides of the dog.  Cost around $90.

After talking to both the manufactures of Circle-E design ("Y" front) and Bold Lead Design (straight front) I decided to go with the BLD.  The main reason was the rotator cuff injury that I have. When my arm is relaxed and at my side I have a twist to it.  Circle-E no longer offers an offset (or "Z") handle and BLD does.  I like the  fit of the harness since it is tailor made.  The handle is adjustable up or down of about 3", the handle also can be folded down.  The grip is just the right size for my small hands and is well padded.  I like how the rear cinch strap works and I do not get any torque or rotation when I use this harness.  In the up position I use it for balance on my bad days (always pulling up since a dog should not have downward pressure on it).  When it is laying down or if I use a rear strap, it becomes momentum pull for my good days.  Having got the "Z" handle option, that eased the pain for me, when using a rigid handle.  Cost around $500.

While waiting for the BLD I went to a Pet Expo and wandered into the Dean & Taylor shop.  I ended up picking up this lightweight harness.  I really like it. The rolled handle is comfortable in the hand.  The three D-rings are of a good size and are a place to attach a small pack.  It is quick on.  It is comfortable for him to lay down in. The front band was a little large, but I just took off some on the strapping and then resewed it back together. This is the harness we mainly use because I am short and I don't need the extra height of a handle.  This harness is used as momentum pull and upward pulling for balance.  This harness is worn when I know I am going somewhere that I will be pushing a cart, doing short distances or as an "around the house" harness on bad days (so he can help me upstairs, help me balance as I do things around the house, etc).  Cost around $45 at the expo with "Mobility Dog" patches on the Velcro sides.

One thing I learned, as a mobility dog, he will typically be in a position ahead of the classical "heel" position.  Most rigid handle harness sit just slightly behind the shoulders, so you would want your dog walking slightly past heel position.  That way the handle is remaining in the perpendicular position to the dog.  If the dog is doing momentum work, they are going to be even farther ahead of you.  The D & T harness handle sits about 3" behind the shoulders.  I hold the handle and Spirit goes to the end of my arm reach, allowing me to rock back slightly and use that pulling sensation to walk at a faster clip.  His body is always touching my left leg so he knows where I am in relation to him.  So if I start to sway or twist, he readjusts to either bring me back to center by leaning away, or leans into me to straighten me up another way. 

I have heard people talk about the difficulties of teaching their dog to move up past that classical heel position to work on momentum pulling.  Spirit's heel position is when his shoulder is ahead of my leg, which is where the trainer set it at in the beginning.

Again, whether you are an Owner Trainer or you have a program dog, you have to take your health into consideration so compromises have to happen.  One thing I had to train Spirit out of is when we stopped, he would sit.  On bad days when we stop, I need him standing and leaning into me, so that had to be retaught.

Another way that they can tell "where you are" is through the leash. I have a Bridgeport leash that I sling around my body.  Spirit also works in 2 different collars - a wide martingale collar and a pinch collar with the prongs softened by rubber tips.  On good days, the information he gets with the martingale is enough, but if I have a bad spell during the day, I switch to the prong collar.  In that he corrects to the minute changes he feels from me from both the collar input, how I'm holding the harness, to how my leg is touching him.  With this type of rigging, he does slight corrections, keeping me upright and walking in a straight line.  The leash is slack, but the movement in it appears to help him figure out what I need.

Again, every team is different.  Some prefer a no-pull harness, others prefer a head halter.  Some think that a prong collar is wrong (which if fitted or used the wrong way I can agree on), while others work their dog in a flat collar. 

We need our dogs to assist us and as long as we go about it in a manner that is healthy for our dogs, we have to respect the choices of others.  A true team knows that the Service Dog is vital to their way of life.  That the dogs give us more freedom.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Am I disabled "enough"

"Am I disabled enough" seems to be a running theme in many of our lives when we contemplate having a Service Dog.  Do I really need the extra help?  When we first think of Service Dogs, we typically think of dogs for the blind.  That seems to be the bar for disabled.  I can see, I can speak, I can walk; do I really need a Service Dog?

It is all about degrees. I can see - better at the beginning of the day, but when tired my eyes play tricks on me.  I can speak, though with the fibro fog there are times I don't know what I just said or can't keep a train of thought going.  I can walk, though it is limited and wobbly.  But am I disabled enough?

It is hard to come to this part of your life.  To accept new limitations.  To know that you probably will not be able to do the things that you used to enjoy.  That life has to become more structured for you to be "safe".

It's the loss of independence that is a scary thought.  What if I can't do for myself? What if I can't care for myself?  With that, there is grief, a sense of profound loss.  I am struggling with how to be independent.  I need to find out what I can be, on my own, before I can readjust on how I can be with others.

It is a powerful feeling, thinking that you might be dependent on others to live.  Heck I can't even go to the bathroom alone anymore (Spirit is quite insistent about that!).  It marginalizes who you are and what input you can have on your own life. 

I am lucky enough to have some wonderful people in my life, though I hurt them in my struggle to accept that I am disabled.  I hurt them because I have a desperately need to prove that I can take care of myself.  That, in my own way, I am still ME, not my condition.  If I don't find that out, if I can't sort that out, who am I? A burden to be taken care of for another 40 years? Or a person that can contribute?  Am I an overgrown child being told when to eat, when to sleep?

Being independent and disabled is a terrifying thought.  But if I don't push the boundaries, how do I know if I can be more - different what and who I was before this - but a new person accepting who and what I am.

My mother lived her life and went to her death with no regrets.  I hope to do the same, but in doing so I cause pain.  But if I don't, how can I know who I am?

This blog post started out to be why I got a SD, and seems to have blurred into something else.  I am tempted to erase it, but blogging is all about who you  are in the NOW and if I keep turning away from this inner voice, than I am ignoring myself (which I think I have done for too long).

Having my SD as a companion I find that I can stretch my boundaries.  It is a scary thing.  Begin able to do more forces me to think more and to try to become more than I am alone.  With a dog as a helper I don't feel as powerless as i do/would with a human companion.  

Spirit is dependent upon me as I am upon him.  It is almost a symbiotic relationship.  We are both alien enough from each other to take away the hidden resentment from the care we give each other.

So when thinking "Am I disabled enough" this is what I came up with:

Are there other "adaptive medical devices" that I could have used? Here were the options offered to me:

Cane - great if I am listing only to the side.  Crap if the world decides to spin and I go over in the direction the cane isn't in or backwards.  I also have coordination issues so me walking with a cane and then something else in one hand . . . I will drop on of the two and picking things up with my issues can be a challenging event.

Walker - kinda like a shopping cart for me, but I have tipped a half full cart once when I over compensated going around a corner.  I figure if a long cart with 20+ lbs of stuff could not keep me up, a walker wouldn't stand a chance :)

Wheel chair/power chair - no way! I want to still use my muscles and I would still have the issues with positional changes.

Why a dog works for me:

First off a mobility dog is NOT a walker, cane or any other device that you put downward pressure on!  There is an upward pull to re-balance with and a touch on the handle to let me know WHERE in 3D space I am at. 

Some days I can bend down and get up safely, other days I can't.  A cane and walker cannot do pick up work.  Those things cannot undress me when I'm having range of motion issues, nor can they tell me I am being stupid and need to rest (intelligent disobedience). 

It is work, I won't kid you on that.  I was a 5 min out the door kind of gal, now it takes me at least 10-20 minutes.  If he is having a down day and my back-up dog isn't up for what I need or a friend isn't available, I don't go out.  I've tried and I've learned my lesson, so I try to be smart about my health and safety.

People don't get it, they think "How nice you can take your dog everywhere with you.  I wish I could." I wish I was healthy enough to leave him at home and enjoy the things I used to.  But that is not where I am at in my life now.  He just makes it easier. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I come in peace - do not fear

I just don't get it, I really don't.  I understand that some people have a fear of dogs, come from a culture that does not see them as the fluffy bunnies we here in the US view them...but really!!!

So we are walking into a department store and there is a bank of four double doors with a double entry.  This small child, toddler stage, is running around crazy laughing with the mother trying to get him with the father looking on.  She sees Spirit (dressed, leashed in our Bold Lead harness - total business -) and starts panicing, running in circles, trying to find a door that will get her away from us while being able to scoop up her out of control child.

So we calmly enter the far right door as they finally go through the left.  The child is straining and saying "doggie, doggie!" and the mother is saying "Bad doggie, doggie bite, doggie bite".  I stop, turn and take a look at the family.  The father is looking on smiling at his wife's (?) distress, she is repeating her "bad dog" statement in a loud voice.  I could not keep my mouth shut.

I addressed the husband, since the woman's english was broken, and basically told them to cut it out.  That all they were doing was giving the child a fear of dogs, encouraging both of them to fear working dogs.  That NO dog that is out and working would ever bite a child, or an adult.  That the hysterics are distracting and disturbing to a working team.  If they are that afraid, be quiet, do not draw the dog's attention, and do not follow the team.

The husband had enough sense to look ashamed and blushed, took his wife aside and picked up the child.

To quote Charlie Brown. . . "ARGGG!!!!!!"

I get that some cultures have problems with dogs.  We have done our own conversion therapy of a few people in my school, but really!

I noticed when I was on the east coast more dog fear than here on the west.   This was my first experience in my home town.  Have any of you out there had this same experience?  How do you handle it?

On a good note, we walked up to a check out line and a little girl in front of us was ramping up for a good cry.  Her face was all screwed up, her fists were balled up, she was taking a deep breath then . . . Poodle Power.  She saw Spirit.  She tilted her head, looked confused and then burst out laughing.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Poodle & a Pit Bull

Sorry it has been so long! We've been busy getting my mom's house shut down, flying cross country, hosting family as we did the round of cancer doc's for my mom.  So, until I can get some time, here is a pic of my "Poodle & a Pit Bull"

Now Spirit isn't a small boy (30"+ at the shoulder and 80 lbs pretty big for a poodle) and George isn't a slouch either (23.5" at the shoulder and 85 lbs)...but I hadn't realized that George's head was twice the size of Spirit's!

Monday, April 25, 2011


Flying with a dog can be a hassle, flying with a Service Dog can be rewarding but is still a pain in the butt.  Here are a few hints for those of you flying the first time.

Food, if you are going on a long trip, or multiple planes it is suggested that the dog should have their last meal 12 prior to your flight.  Limit water during this time too.  Ice chips when you get close to landing, depending on how much of an iron bladder your dog has.

Be prepared for stupid "requests" from the TSA.  They don't see many of us and really have no idea what to do.  So off came my shoes, Spirit picked them up and put them in the basket and we walked forward.  As I came up to the scanner a TSA agent walked forward with his hand out and gave this lovely "request".  He asked me to remove my dog's harness, boots and ANYTHING else that had his collar...and leash.

Um....I'm disabled...he has gear on for a REASON!!  And loose dog?!?! Is that anyone's idea of "safe".  I looked at the agent, with sarcasm and disbelief dripping off the tone of my voice and asked him if he was willing to be responsible for my $30,000 dog in case something happened? Was he willing to walk me the rest of the way to the scanner?  Did he know what he was asking me was illegal and akin to asking me to disassemble a wheelchair?  Really?

So the dance began. He got puffed up and snippy.  I ask loudly who was his supervisor.  He was waved over and a hushed conversation was initiated.  His supervisor said, in a carrying voice, that I was correct and that the dog would be patted down on the other side.

So we came to the archway, Spirit went into a "sit-stay".  I walked through and then called Spirit over.  Another agent on the other side waved me to the "pat down" area.  She tried to catch the eye of the supervisor, who just waved at her and then turned his back.  The poor woman's hands were shaking.  

Because I could sit I asked her if she wanted me to remove his harness (remember Spirit wears cloths, so she wasn't able to see his fur) to make his pat down easier.  She asked to have his boots removed (I drew the line there) but lifted each leg so she could feel the bottoms of his feet.  She called to the supervisor to say she was done, he asked if she had looked under his chest (which she hadn't) so I had him stand up with his feet on my shoulders.  

When she saw how tall he was she paled even more, but gamely patted him down the rest of the way, very quickly.  As I snapped his harness back on she let me know that she was terrified of dogs.  I smiled and told her these were the least scary dogs out there.

As I left, I wondered what she would have done if George hadn't  washed out and she would have had to pat down a 85 lb "pit bull"?

So onto the lovely underground train where we went and got squished, though on the way off had a lovely chat with a couple that are puppy raisers for CCI and admired seeing a good team out and working (they had witnessed our little TSA pat-down) and had never seen a Standard Poodle as a working dog.

When I walked into the terminal toward my gate, I started looking for the pet relief area.  This is something you want to prepare for.  Some airports have them after TSA and some have them before.

Google the airports that you are flying to/from or click this: "Pet Relief Area" to find out where the pet relief zones are.  Please make sure you are looking at the right section of the airport.  When I printed it out for Dullas I was so happy that there were three spots, one looked to be right across to where our gate was. . .I had the international map. . . totally different layout.

And, no one knows where they are at.  Not the helpful "information" people, gate guards at 9 out of 10 gates you ask at.  The non-disabled have a completely different idea what "close" it compared to those of us with mobility challenges. 
So yes, we had to hike to the far end of the airport before our cross country flight. Which I guess is a truism everywhere.  When you need the bathroom it is always at the far end of wherever you are. 

But it was the coolest dog potty zone anywhere!  It was in it's own room.  You walk in, then open a "gate" and step up onto a astro turf area with a fire hydrant in the middle of the room.  Bags are provided along with a high power hose to rise off the area.  Then you get to push a big red button (once off that area), the grass floods and the entire area "flushes". Spirit was fascinated.

The flight back was easier (thank you mom for the front row first class seats!) and Spirit went into sleep mode.  My brother wanted to interact with him halfway through the six hour trip.  I was like "Dude! Let him sleep!" the last thing we need is an 80 lb poodle deciding it is "play time" at 32,000 feet.

When we got home it was total play time with the brothers furry and I finally got to kiss my George between the eyes and had my wiggly, pitty cuddle.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Naked Puppy!!!!

Yeah! Today was bath day.  We are all getting ready for another cross country flight so Spirit had to get all gussied up.  

First there was the bath: "I don't want you to wash my face!"
Then the dry: "Hey!!! Get that thing away from my ear!"
The the clip: "Are you done yet?

After that we hopped out of the tub and he thought he was finished. . .boy was he wrong!

We went to the other end and handed him off to the groomer where she did his - face: "not the lips!" 
his sanitary: "Do I have no privacy?" 
to the feet: "It tickles!!!"

Here he is all nice and clean:

"Really? please lets just leave o.k. mom?"

"Oh there is a yummy trachea involved? Why didn't you say so!"