28 January 2011

Happy Woofday My Lil' Man

Today my wonderful sidekick, Thane is 4 Woofdays Old. It just does not seem like this could be possible- like has time really flown that fast? I have to admit though that despite some of our ups and downs, lately I feel like I am working more with a seasoned guide than the *green* dog of earlier times. 

It's comfortable- the way we walk together as one unit flowing almost seamlessly.  The way we often read each others' minds reminds me of the latter years working with his predecessor. Tthe faith I now have and feel in Thane- well it is a special kind of feeling to realize that no matter what is going on, how he or you are feeling, that he knows your life is in his hands and there is nothing to fear. I can say that because I have total confidence in the training I have put into him.
So one might ask what you give a four year old Border Collie who loves to play, play, play- well more toys of course! We slept in this morning, played hookie from life to play with new toys, and welcomed eight new puppies into the world- OK we did that welcoming last night when we learned his co-breeders, now breeding independently again, had a litter of healthy frisky Border Collie puppies yesterday- 6 Boys and 2 Girls. 

And NO, Thane IS NOT getting a puppy for his woofday! LOL

All this fun and kidding aside, leaves me reflecting on the training and aging process. I know there will be a day in not too many more years, when it will be time to start thinking about youth again. For now though I want to just basque in the enjoyment of working with a more seasoned guide that I totally trust.

26 January 2011

Winter in the Pacific NW as a Wheelchair Guide Team

Dealing with Oregon winter as a wheelchair guide team has its exasperation points. I hate that my dog gets so muddy every time we head out. If you could only experience what poor Thane has to go through when we get home each time we go out. I can't imagine what it would be like without his rain coat. His legs and groin area are soaked in mud mostly from the throw off of the drive wheels of my chair.

With the progression of my eye disease, I truly needed to switch to the American style harness but to board the bus I had to be able to hook it up British style as the passageway is too narrow and the ramp too long for both the handle length and the firmer connection points with American style.

Thane's harnesses all have four handle connection D rings on them- two American position, two British position. Its just how I designed them to incorporate various styles of attachments and packs for ice during summer.

Thane's raincoats unfortunately only had access to the British D rings. Though I could make shift the coat for walks in town, to board the bus I had to practically remove his coat to change the handle connection. After doing this for just one trip, I knew we could not do this until the weather dries up in late spring. Putting his harness on the outside, just wasn't feasible
with how muddy he gets.

My MCS is a big hassle at times. I know that there was a formulation change on the coating of cordura which led to my inability to get it to effectively detox for years. I make Thane's coats from packcloth and worried that it too could have changed formulation. I chose to order with a company I have had really good service from in the past as well as really low toxicity for supplies. I was overjoyed when the materials arrived! Either it was old stock, or packcloth has not had a formulation change. The materials only laid out for a couple days which is unheard of. Normal minimums are about a week, but typical is more like a month or two. I set to work re-designing the *wheel* so to speak. After about four re-designs I came up with a two flap system that would allow me to release his handle easily from American D rings and connect it to the British ones. Its basically designed like an ID band (small rectangular cape) over the American style D rings and loops and has the main flap like before as well.

I worked as much as I could on it in between playing and training with Thane- mostly on rainy days earlier this month.

Yesterday, Thane and I headed out to Winco for our first trip on the bus using the new coat. Wow! What a difference having appropriate gear makes. Because it'd been dry a few days, he also did not match his dark brown martingale strap when we got back home- that was a treat.

When it is wet again, his mud bath legs and groin and his martingale will match! LOL

In case your wondering, yes I chose the color to hide the mud and not show staining as bad. It also, however, matches his new harness. Thus far no stores have complained about his condition on rainy days, but for me, its just hard because I pride myself in keeping my dog clean as a good ambassador for owner trained teams. Of course it gets quite old to Thane as well to have to constantly be cleaned up from the mud.

Some power chairs are beginning to put fenders and/ or mud flaps on their mid-wheel drive designs and you better bet if I get another mid-wheel drive chair, its going to be something I consider in making my choice.
Is it summer yet?

24 January 2011

May I Have This Dance?

I thought I'd post this after ending my last entry along the tunes of feeling like we dance together. I wrote this as Thane's guide training and my dependence upon him while moving beyond loss was coming together into the phase of a *green* team.

~ ~ ~
May I have this dance?
I can work this job
Youth on my side--
spunky yet agile
I halt in perfection
steel on wheels

Differences of style
not mistakes
attributes of me

I zag
where he zigged
sway as a boat
on calm seas
try to pace traffic
just my immaturity

head turns left
watch that cup tossed aside
cart blocks the way
hedge protruding
a twig or a branch
oh my--
construction ahead

Hard Halt!
that speedsters way fast!

Sirens approach
Hard Halt, quick sit
as 9-1-1 I instruct

Each outing new
as a competitive course
head turns slightly
be it right
be it left
directional cues
the path I must choose

Each crossing
High alert
be they patient
or rude
no need to hurry
your safety
my concern

Entrances a puzzle
single door
double door
buzz us in
new challenges await

Each turn of my head
a distant world I relate
Through eyes, ears, paws,tail
every movement a cue
in my role for you

Girthed in harness
or just fur
my role as your guide
as a nose nuzzling friend
unconditional love
a bond tightly formed
time, training, and trust
comes with each step

Accept me, for me
it's time for my chance
give me this job
I really can dance!

by Karyn E LaGrange
copyright July 2008 

Seeing Life Through Thane's Eyes

My life outside my home is experienced through the eyes and ears of my guide Thane, just as it was through Chimette, his predecessor. Sometimes our outings are simple errands, grocery shopping or the like- the mundane responsibilities anyone is accustomed to performing. For us, even these excursions are far from mundane. Nothing is ever the same twice especially for a team consisting of a wheelchair user and a Border Collie guide.  

As a wheelchair guide team, we not only require more space to work, but more often than not people treat me as sighted despite being told I am blind or seeing the harness sign on Thane's guide handle stating he is a working guide dog. Thane has quite the job to keep me safe as a result of this. People have come to recognize individuals in wheelchairs are partnered with service dogs, so when one is partnered with a guide dog, they just can't wrap their heads around it all. This stereotypical view can often lead to more intense obstacle clearance work in Thane's job due to another misconception people have- that wheelchairs can stop instantaneously. There's nothing instantaneous about a wheelchairs stopping ability.

Most of the routes we take I could do in my sleep, but I'd certainly not try that in real life! With Thane at the helm, my lack of peripheral vision is no problem at all. He knows when a driver is too impatient to wait for us- blocking my path so I don't become a casualty of them getting up too late. The world to most is in a 3-D view, for me its as flat as a picture in a coloring book- devoid of depth. With the spotty vision I have, I can't tell you if what I am seeing is one inch in front of me or three feet ahead, let alone what the item I am seeing actually is. With a visual disease on a progressive path that has the appearance of a puzzle with mostly missing pieces, I'm very grateful to have a dog with Thane's skills as I head out the door each day.

It was not always easy with him. Issues of transplanting from the country to a small town but with obligations in larger cities played its toll. Several times we had to take a step back. In weaker moments, I wondered if either of us were meant to create this partnership. When the fog lifted though, I saw a sidekick at the helm that was every bit as capable as Met had been and then some. His ability to safely guide me through life left Met's pawprints in the dust long ago. Its really great to experience life through my Border Collies eyes.

You might be asking yourself what it's like to see through a guide's eyes. Imagine being on an agility course all day long consisting mostly of weave poles that angle this way and that combined with abrupt pauses with no previous knowledge of the course layout as it is forever changing. That's what Thane's job entails. For Thane, he sees the changes taking place, for me it can be disorienting in the best of times. 

Every person who stops abruptly or cuts us off so closely that its a wonder they don't get run over, every garbage can dumped across the sidewalk by the collectors, every yard maintenance crew that opts to place their yard debris on the sidewalk of all places, every child's toy not properly put away, every congregating group of people awaiting a bus or ride that seem to think we can squeeze through in half the space we actually need, every cart abandoned across the sidewalk or left in the middle of a store aisle, every person that stops right past the doorway leaving Thane to block me so we do not get caught by the electric doors- all of these and more create obstacles in our life. You may say, well all of those are obstacles for me as well. Can you imagine then the task for Thane and myself working as a team to navigate life where so many are lets put it frankly, thoughtless in how their actions can affect others. Without Thane its a constant game of bumper cars for sure! 

Sometimes, Thane is able to move so gracefully this way and that around the obstacles that lay before us that it truly feels like we are dancing through life. These are the memorial moments of life and our partnership- the breeze brushing through our hair on a beautiful spring day- feeling stress free and a sense of perfection in the cadence we move with each other. This for sure, takes time, bonding, and working past the *green* phase of a new partnership- but just as it happened in my partnership with Met, so has it with Thane. There were times when I doubted I would ever get this with Thane. There were times when I forgot just how tumultuous the early partnership with Met had been. It actually took friends to remind me that there were rough patches before the seasoned days of working as though our minds were interconnected. But now I am able to see life once more through the eyes of my guide and I don't want this dance to ever end.

22 January 2011

When the Gear You Need Doesn't Exist

I thought I would continue along the thought pattern of *Decisions* and talk about my decision to make my own gear.

Most manufacturers (and that includes those who make equipment for service dogs) focus on the typical breed builds of more robust chests, typical height dogs which I had, but shorter length dogs, and the list could go on. The first time working with a Border Collie, I tried from time to time to buy gear that was available, but the end result was always the same- it would fit in one area, but not another; it would rotate as we worked causing inconsistencies in the guidance from Met, but also led to red skin or sores and frankly I found it so infuriating to spend good money on gear that they assured would fit him only to have to pad it, add straps to it, put the coat on under the harness because it was so full chested it would fall off, or to be fed up and toss it aside for another solution.

I love to sew. I figured if I could not find what I needed on the market, why not just make it myself. At first I tried my hand at more precise modifications of existing gear but realized that still held me within certain constraints, though this brought about a nice training harness. I began to purchase the supplies I needed to experiment with. One of the first harness and pack setups I made for Met, worked absolutely like a dream! It never rotated and gave us the ability to work well as a team in the earlier stages of my eye disease. As my eye disease progressed however, changes were needed in his gear. I never really settled on a good solution again- not like what we had for those few years anyway. Though, one of the last harnesses we worked with was purchased for our use, it too required padding and other modifications. I dreamed of using my creativity to design once more the equipment we needed for both my needs and his structure. Unfortunately time ran out for Met, but not my desire to make custom equipment for my agile built Border Collies.

Fast forward to the entrance of Thane. He was a 9 month old full of energy and strong will when he came into my life. Needing to focus more on him and his training than sewing, I opted against sewing for him initially. I bought several harnesses trying to find one that would fit. The no-pull harnesses had a big issue, if it fit his girth, it did not fit his chest depth (not by a longshot) Though I found a harness we could live with for the short term while he was still filling out, it still had drawbacks that made it really clear to me that designing my own gear was not only going to be an enjoyable part of this partnership, but also very much a necessity. Through trial and error over a couple of years, I finally had a good British style guide harness for Thane and I to work with. What I really needed however, with the continued deterioration of my vision, was a good American style harness where the handle could pass through loops that limit its movement some to allow clearer guiding from Thane. Its taken a lot of experimentation, but I finally managed to design the perfect harness we need in order to continue working effectively. Of course, a re-design of his raincoat was also required after pulling this off.

When I look back at all the gear, training equipment, disability equipment and the like that I have made over the past decade in training and working with my Border Collie boys, all I can say is boy I am glad I have the desire, the ability and the creativity to pull this off. It's sad to me that manufacturers are so narrow-minded in their development of gear for working dogs that dogs like Met and Thane would be left to work in ineffectual gear had it not been for my ability to intervene.

21 January 2011

Why I Chose a Border Collie for My Guide Dog

Recently there was an Assistance Dog blog Carnival. I thought I would write on the Decisions topic to start off my blog.
~ ~ ~

As a deafblind incomplete quad my view of the world is obscured by reduced sensory input. I'm one of the lucky ones though. The things many might just dream of, I get to experience through the eyes of Thane. Thane, a red and white Border Collie, is my guide dog. 

If you know anything about Border Collies, you're probably thinking the same thing the rest of the world does- a hearing dog perhaps- but a guide dog, isn't that going against their very instincts?

Besides the fact that Thane is in-training to also become my hearing dog, breed instincts can be very beneficial to me in a guide. As a herder, Thane is much more apt to glance one way or the other when people are around, or there are events out of the ordinary. It's not to a level of distraction that would wash a dog out for my needs, but it gives me insights into the world around me that a cane and tactile mini guide could never provide. It makes the world crisp instead of like that of a flat object. This glancing to and fro, is part of a herding dogs make up and most especially noticeable in a dog like Thane who comes from strong herding lineage. 

An additional great asset I have come accustomed to in my Border Collie guides is the ability to backtrack so easily. I have never had to train this, but the advantage with my disabilities is just awesome!  I frequently get disoriented. It can come on due to MCS, vertigo or simply a loss of proprioception. With Thane at my side, I never have to worry about the outcome. He will never fail to stand by me in this manner, by simply finding our way back. Sometimes this means finding the way home by travelling safely along a known route without the direction cues most guides are accustomed to receiving. Sometimes it occurs in a store or mall requiring Thane to find the exit and not just any exit either. Sometimes just getting me to the max or bus stop is all thats needed. 

Though other breeds can learn to do what Thane does for me, I have the most confidence in his breed to give me the hearing and guide dog skills I require to flourish as an independent spirited person.

Of course, it helps that I love the breed! I have ever since we had a BC mix when I was a child. To me, there was never any question what breed of dog I would train when I took on the task of owner training. They take a lot more accuracy in training (or living with the consequences), they learn at lightening speed (so be careful when you click), they can have a stubborn streak (now how can that be an asset? really it can!), they bond intently with their person, but need an experienced trainer who understands the mind of a Border Collie. I'm getting to be the latter thanks to my two Border Collie boys: Met, Thane's predecessor and Thane have taught me all about the Do's and Don'ts in training and working this breed. 

And every time I begin to contemplate another breed for a successor, I find myself coming back to my love for working this breed- no matter how difficult the process has been to get where I have. There is just nothing like a Border Collie!