31 March 2011

Christie Keith on Border Collies

I just had to share this awesome article that Christie Keith wrote as a columnist for the SF Gate. It says everything I have been trying to convey here about the versatility of the breed, but in a much better way!

For those who do not know Christie Keith, she writes for Pet Connection blog, Your Whole Pet for the SF Gate, at one point was the list owner of the Beyond Vaccination list on yahoogroups, and has a lot of awesome common sense when it comes to our dogs health needs as seen on her website.

Hope you all enjoy the article, The Smartest Dogs in the World as much as I did.

30 March 2011

Its All About Speed

I've always thought that Thane had just one speed- well two if you count when he is laying down or sleeping. As I trained him, his pull in harness could at times be downright painful to me. I never equated Thane's actions with that of myself, other than the later revelations of the emotions going down the leash (see What I Feel, He Reveals)

Thane's guiding in the community for long walks, often led to his panting or outright overheating depending on the time of year and temperature. I'd brought this up with the veterinarian before, but like myself, she felt it was about the breed that goes all out or nothing at all. Most dogs, as she explained it, will slow down when they are warm, but not my little redhead, or is that really the case? I mean afterall, isn't it true that he can only slow down if  I do?

During a bad pain spell recently, I just needed to move really slowly to avoid any hard thumps on my spine as I went over uneven sidewalk. I was both surprised and grateful with how slow, but still confident Thane was in guiding me. I did not think a whole lot of it, other than maybe my slower speech due to pain level was giving him the right feel through the leash to do just as he was- guide slowly and more cautiously (in a good way).

After this had passed, however, I reverted back to my speed demon way of life and as if I had put it on cue, Thane's pull in harness increased. It was not anything outlandish or painful, but it was notably different. We were essentially little maniacs. By the time our walk was only half complete, he was in *pant mode* on a day when I had my hoods all fastened up around me and fingers going numb from the cold.

As I was sitting inside thinking about our work after our walk and errand were complete, I began to wonder about speed- you know that concept that every action has an equal reaction or something along those lines. I got thinking of this sort of concept more in reaction to the speed at which he climbs the bus ramp- the fact that I always forget to dial down my speed after our good walk to the bus before flying aboard- just kidding, but we do board with more speed when I forget this little (or should I say big) detail.

Interestingly though, when I kept the speed at indoor level rather than our speedster pace on our complex grounds, Thane also slowed down and walked at that more appropriate gait and pull in harness. It felt like such a huge revelation- one I could not believe it took me over three years of training and working with this guy to come to.

It took some adjustment for both Thane and I today as we took off for our walk and errand at a slower speed. At one point I realized that there is slower and there is too slow. I sped it up a bit and things went smoothly. His pull in harness was absolutely perfect for about ninety-seven percent of our time out. I was really proud of him; of us. I will admit, I miss the speed and it may have its time or place still, but today I just feel happy that we worked so well together- and all it took was turning the speed dial down a bit. It will be an adjustment for sure on both of our parts as we learn to put speed behind us and work at a more casual pace.

It will be neat to see how a slower speed impacts his issues with overheating as the temps warm up (if they warm up). It will also be cool to see just how much more enjoyment and precision we might get out of our morning walks. Of course I am also working with a dog whose always in a hurry to get to wherever it is we are headed. This could turn into quite an interesting experiment- the two of us learning that we don't have to leave the world in the dust of my wheels.

29 March 2011

Chimette's Story: When Vaccines Go Haywire

Life could not have been more perfect. It was the spring of 1998 and just as plants were blossoming with the new season so was my teamwork with my first service dog, Chimette. Our partnership, further training, and work were all coming in sinc. The more exposure to the community, college life, shopping, time with friends that Met experienced, the better he was able to make quick decisions that made my life safer as I traveled independently in my community. I was coming alive; feeling that I could do anything I set my mind to all thanks to the love, skill, and devotion of my gentle boy.

After a veterinary checkup filled with more vaccinations than I was comfortable with having administered all at once, I was left watching my service dog slip away from me. He became afraid of everything- any sudden movement, anything that loomed over his height, he withdrew from touch, he no longer could handle all the unpredictability of service dog life. I imagine now the experience was not so different from what a parent sees as their child slips into autism. One difference being that I had come to rely upon Met for so much.

Though, I came to realize that Mets falling apart before my eyes seemed so much like the young dog he was after I adopted him, at this point I did not make the connection yet to the fact that the very vaccines I wanted to wait on were responsible for Met's collapse and our lost partnership, temporary as it was. Of course while presented with it, I had no idea whether or not the problems we were encountering would be temporary or permanent. The vets were no help in any of the process- not with a cause, and certainly not with elimination of the problem or rehabilitative techniques to work with. It was up to me to help Met if I could.

I took an incomplete in my coursework and began the long arduous process of working through the myriad of symptoms and difficulties that presented themselves for us. From shadows, to statues, to trees, to kids on bicycles, skates, and skateboards. At times he literally crab walked if he had to go near statues or trees. It was quite sad to see a dog who loved to raise his leg to a big tree, literally crumble at their presence. I knew I probably had seen the end of our partnership at least where public access was concerned. All that remained was seeing just how much I could rehabilitate him. I never considered, however, the possibility that this could just be the way he was going to be. He had some of these problems to a lesser degree when I adopted him (thought to be from lack of socialization), so I believed that we could conquer whatever *this* was. If he came out of it once, then just maybe twice could happen as well.

Over the next few months, life slowly returned to normal. With the help of a clicker (before I even was aware of clicker training), I re-conditioned Met to the various obstacles in our life- things that exposure could not be prevented unless he stayed in seclusion within our apartment  for the rest of his life. I gave him consistency and built his exposures to the intolerables- changing them into normal common occurrences he accepted once more. I will admit that there were times that I got exasperated, pushed too much too fast, and probably as a result slowed the rehabilitative path. No one would have known that we had encountered such a devastating blow to our partnership after these few months were behind us. Met was not only working much more effectively in our home environment, but his skill level in the community, shopping and walks on the college campus, had become more on target and focused.

After this experience, I opted to work with another veterinarian in the practice. He was more down to earth and listened to his clients. We had seen him enough to know that he was caring not just for the animals but that in our situation as a service dog team, he would understand about how changes in Met could very well have an impact on my functionality as well. Its just too bad that he was not the vet we saw that spring day when Met had his annual exam. Five months after Mets *meltdown* though having him in our corner was one of the best things going for us when the seizures began.

It happened out of the blue- there was no noticeable pre-ictal phase. One moment Met and I were sitting in our bedroom and the next moment he had been catapulted skyward, his body thrust up and down like a kangaroo- muscles so rigid and limbs contorted. It felt like I was in the midst of a nightmare. Nothing this horrible could really be taking place- and yet it was. The first time it happened I was quite literally in denial. I gathered him up on my lap nonetheless and had a good cry. This was the worst possible thing I could have done for him though. As I'd learn later, acting as normal as possible once the seizure passes is as important (if not more so) with canine seizures as it is with people. I was scared though. I was scared of what would become of Met. I was scared of dealing with my disabilities without his assistance as I lived my life in the community.

Many dogs have very mild problems once all the tests are in and meds and triggers handled properly. For a service dog though, this usually spells out retirement. A retirement neither I nor Met was ready for. But I had that great vet in my corner- a vet who believed in both of us and our partnership. Now it was just a matter of determining if we could be one of those teams that made it. Could we gain the control of Mets seizures that would be necessary for him to safely carry out his job? or would he be one of many service dogs whose job ends as a result of a myriad of diseases, including seizure disorders?

To most in the service dog community, the answer would be clear- the mere thought of working with a dog that had even the slightest thing out of balance would be unconceivable. This is far from a little thing if control is not easily achieved though. I could go through the entire process here of how we found a proper diagnosis for Met, but that is something best left for a book. Through his history, his triggers, even his issues with various fillers and drugs it became all to clear that Met had vaccinosis a topic covered with wonderful skill, personal experience, and support in the books What Vets Don't Tell you About Vaccines and Shock to the System. Vaccinosis is more understood and accepted today in 2011, but in 1998 the only hope for those afflicted was avoidance of triggers and homeopathy. Its sad to me that what was misconstrued at adoption to be a lack of socialization, the meltdown in the spring following his vaccinations, and now seizures- after months of virus replication in his system from the vaccines might all have been avoided had his system not been overloaded in the first place.

In hindsite the answer seems easy in regards to his service dog status- retirement. I did not have the luxury of looking at things from a hindsite perspective though. With a, then slower paced lifestyle, I chose to try and gain control not knowing at the time that the cause was vaccinosis. I worked closely with my vet during the early medication adjustment months. Though occasional break throughs happened, they tended to happen at home. Through the help of the K9epilepsy group and Beyond Vaccination on yahoogroups, as well as EPIL-K9 I was able to discover many helps, answers to my questions, and a release for the anxiety I had been keeping pent up inside of me. As a result of the control we were able to achieve, we continued our partnership. By then I had a sedentery lifestyle so retirement was not a necessity for us. Met and I worked together close to another 9 years after that. It wasn't always filled with perfect control, but it was a wonderful decade of love, lessons learned and taught, and eventually of letting go.

What I Feel, He Reveals

If there's anything I appreciate about my Border Collie boys, it is that they have made me a better trainer and handler because of who they are/ were by making me aware of my own state of mind, stress level, and tension.

Throughout the service dog community forums, one topic that comes up frequently is how our emotions travel down the leash to our dogs. In my opinion, this effect can't be seen better in any other breed than the Border Collie.

Many dogs let changes in their handlers dispositions or emotions just roll right off of them- be it tension, illness, emotional variations from sad to angry; elated to calm. This however isn't the case of every dog partnered with a disabled handler. Our service dogs vary from soft to hard in both methods of training and how they handle the events of life. These events include the emotions, we as trainers and handlers, send down the lead- often times things we are totally unaware of unless our dogs tension and relaxation status in harness fluctuates from one day to the next- or even from one moment to another in extreme situations.

Both of my boys have been soft dogs. Though in most situations I can without a doubt say that Met was the softer of the two, there are circumstances where this is so *not the case*. Those circumstances revolve around what I am sending down the lead to Thane.

In our first year together, life was anything but smooth or stress free. First, I was grieving the loss of a decade long partnership with the most awesome service dog. Second, I was learning to adapt to my progressive disabilities without Met's assistance. Finally, I was trying to get to know this new kid on the block who was definitely *NOT* Met. One can only imagine the emotions that I was giving off as I tried to figuratively put one foot in front of the other while trying to teach this bouncy, energetic, nine month old country transplant that a leash and walking on it loosely was a concept he *MUST* get *YESTERDAY*. I was anything but calm and collected and it showed in him.

Those early months are a blurr quite honestly. We somehow got through those nightmarish times of training Thane to go busy on lead, LLW, direction training for guide work, and were able to move onto harness work. I continued to set our partnership back, however, through my roller coaster grief, expectations, and tensed up leash communications at best. Though I would not have wanted to be going it alone dogless, I know (thanks to hindsite) that I shared way too much negative energy down the lead in our process to become a team.

I would work with Thane one day and have a positively awesome experience. He would be pulling into harness at a perfect tension for my needs; walking and guiding smoothly as we went along. It would seem we had finally arrived. We might have this kind of experience for a day or two or if we were really lucky, a week. Then with no reason at all, or so it seemed, we would be ten paces back. It would be a struggle to walk one block at a comfortable harness tension. I was quite honestly baffled at the changes in Thane. I just could not get my head around these bizarre differences. It was like there were two versions of him and I never knew each day as we rolled out the front door which version of him I would be working with.

I was scanning two books for Bookshare at the time. Canine Adventures, Fun Things to Do with Your Dog, and Shock to the System. Both of these books had areas devoted to stress. Shock to the System especially had me questioning my own status, not just Thanes. When we would have a rough patch of training or work, I began to check in with myself. What I mean by this is that I would do a check on just how I was feeling and especially reacting- physically, emotionally, stress-wise. What I discovered more times than not, when Thane was *off-kilter* as I began calling these high strung times, it was directly linked to some aspect of my own being.

Though it has not always been easy for me to let things roll off my back, for our partnership, I strove to learn how to do just that. In this process, I have become a better trainer and handler by quite literally seeing what I was feeling. Thane has essentually been a guide through more than just my blindness. He has taught me how to be healthier by letting the things go that just are not important enough to hold onto. He has, in his simple Border Collie way, set me free from myself, allowing us to have a partnership where I see a reflection of myself revealed in red and white.

27 March 2011

Going Against the Grain

I work with and love the Border Collie breed. When I trained my first service dog Chimette, a Border Collie Shepherd cross who looked and acted very much Border Collie, I focused initially on training him to be my ears in the world. As a result, no one thought twice or made any comment whatsoever along the lines of whether or not he was the right breed for the job. As my disabilities progressed, Chimette was trained as a guide dog, hearing dog, medical alert dog, and mobility service dog. No one over all the years we were training or partnered together made so much as a comment about his fitness for the job at hand based upon his breed- perhaps because he was first a hearing dog.

When Chimette passed away though, things were very different for me. I had a host of disabilities to adapt to and the need to prioritize where to focus my training first when Thane came into my life. Though we dabbled in hearing dog training during those first winter months together that kept us from doing a lot of training in the community, the first focus of training was to mold Thane into my guide dog.  Thane is a purebred Border Collie from strong herding lineage. In my pursuit of guide dog training and the partnership that has followed, I encountered so many mystified people. People were often surprised that I was going against his natural instincts to mold him into my future guide. It was more rare to encounter people who were not surprised by this decision of mine than to encounter those who were. Some of these folks, like his Ophthalmologist, were just downright curious while others just had to voice their opinions about how insensitive I was being to Thane by asking him to curtail his natural instincts. Not so fast! Thane's natural instincts are part of what makes him the perfect candidate for the job. 

As a deafblind individual my dogs training is dramatically different than that of a guide dog trained for a blind individual with normal hearing. I allow my guides a certain amount of leniency in focus. I do this by encouraging their awareness of important things with praise, while simply ignoring or using our leave it command for things that are unnecessary alerts. The crux is that they need to not only safely guide me around obstacles and through traffic, but they need to share with me the important things going on around us wherever we may be. I want to know, for instance, if someone is walking close behind us or if kids are playing on the sidewalk ahead so we can alter our pace, take another route, or change our direction entirely for safety reasons. I want to know when emergency vehicles are coming so that I don't get caught crossing a street when they are in route to an emergency. Though all of this training does not happen initially, praising for his alertness to important cues can be the difference between safe travels as a team and injury or  becoming the victim of a predator. Chimette saved me from a stalker who actually turned around and raped another person. Where would I have been then if all I had asked of my dog was to guide me around obstacles, but ignored my deafness in his training? I positively love my dogs alertness to his environment. Breed appropriateness for the task at hand is all in ones perspective.

19 March 2011

Third ADBC Coming Soon

The Third Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is coming. I started this blog in part so I could participate in these blog carnivals.

For those who are unaware of the ADBC, it was created by my very good friend Sharon at After Gadget. We've gone through a lot of ups and downs over the years from our disabilities and losses, but I am grateful to say we have each other. 

Anyway- If you are reading this, and curiosity has come over you check out About the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

This next carnival is on Reactions. For more information on this carnival take a look at the hosts blog here

There are so many things I could write about along this topic that I'm not really sure where to begin. A part of me wants to stick with my partnership with Thane in writing this- let bygones be bygones as they say. Another part however wants to be a little bit courageous; not be concerned what those in the Assistance Dog community might say when they hear how *defective* Met was as he continued to work a job that we all knew he would pretty much die the day it was over. Do I be the courageous one laying the groundwork for a book yet to come, or do I focus on another area that has turned me into not only a better trainer, but a better handler of this BC at my side. 

I dont have much time to start putting pen to paper so to speak, so I'm right back on the last topic of the ADBC, that of *Decisions* grin

13 March 2011

From Guide-Service Dog to Hearing Dog

Thane and I have entered one more phase of training together. For the past month, we have been working on *in the home* hearing alert training. Though its much easier to train a dog for sound work when they first enter a new home, as an individual with multiple disabilities, I had to prioritize his training as I worked through my grief and periods of comparing him to Met. Most of his society and public access alert training is complete or quite on its way so that I can function quite well with him at my side. Home life though is another story.

Here we are now as a team, training Thane to alert to sounds that he has ignored for over three years.  I had been warned that this would not be the easiest way to go about things and yup the warning was right on target. For cooking and laundry timing alerts, I have been able to introduce a new sound of a tactile timer. This is an item I have never used without Thane alerting and thus, its gone fairly smoothly. 

The door however is another story altogether. This will take a lot of time and patience in working with him. I have already caught myself moving too quickly so that I have to wait long durations for him to come away from the door to where I am sitting. The key of course is that I moved way too fast- saw progress at the earlier step and thus moved on too rapidly for his ability to grasp the concept- especially in real life non-training situations.

Though I knew in my head that this would take extra time to condition Thane to, I got discouraged by the lack of progress even to the point of wondering if he would make a good hearing dog or not. The key when this occurs for me is to take a break. Enjoy Thane for who he is and what he does to make my life better. Then after a few days off, step back into the training at the stage that Thane can do with accuracy. More often than not, this break and step back actually accelerates his comprehension and the pace of our training picks up again. This is where we are at presently, but my mindset is back at the place where I believe in us, in our bond, and in our ability to accomplish the task at hand. 

It takes much more patience and dedication for an owner trainer with multiple disabilities such as myself, to train their dog for all their needs. One of the best things I did however once Thane was working well as my guide dog was to accept that he may not ever perform every skill that Met did for me. I accepted that there may be gaps that I would need to find other methods for fulfilling. By doing this, I brought a sense of relaxation to our training as well as less expectation for the speed at which Thane learned anything new. There was a discussion recently on this topic on one of the lists I participate on which actually has inspired some of my thoughts here today. Had I expected Thane to be able to take on and learn everything with gusto the first year in my life, he would have turned into a nutcase. No dog is capable of taking so much on all at once. 

The key is to have the patience to train gradually as you bond and blossom as a team together over the years together. I will admit, it has not been easy relying on other modes of assistance over the years to get to the place where we are as a team today. That all said, I am glad to have gone through this in the manner I have with Thane. He has taught me great lessons of love, patience, and perseverance as I embarked on life with my first successor dog. He let me be my crazy self dealing with second dog syndrome which seemed to last an eternity. 

Today, I don't think of myself with my first service dog- my tricolor Border Collie Shepherd at my side. I think of myself with my beautiful successor dog- my red and white Border Collie boy whose focus is usually just perfect for a deafblind gal traversing her world independently. He probably would have been retired as a guide for someone who was just blind, but for me- he is perfection!