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!

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