19 October 2011

The Border Collie Boys

This entry is for the fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. The topic for this carnival is achievement.

There are many areas I can reflect upon as an owner trainer of not one but two successful Border Collie multiple disability trained service dogs, but for me the biggest achievement isn't in the overcoming of medical hurdles in each of my dogs, or training two dogs for multiple disabilities,  or any specific task they have been trained to perform for me, but it lies in the independence I have gained by the massive achievement of training my dogs with all the naysayers out there (especially when I took this on with Chimette having never had a program trained dog).

I had waited for over eight years on a waiting list for a program dog when they decided they wanted to start my application all over. Once my deteriorating vision became known, I became one of those *not really fit* candidates. I decided that I was just not going to take any more delays from the program and set off to find a dog to train myself- something the program insisted I could NEVER accomplish on my own.

Enter Chimette- a 6 month old Border Collie Shepherd cross from a rescue I was referred to. There were times I felt like I was insane to think I could train my own service dog, but through the help of a friend, I stuck with him. Chimette AKA Met was in many ways a natural service dog. He learned things really quickly that I trained him and more times than not, began doing things that merely needed me to fine tune the alert for. In instinct, curiosity, trying new things he was the absolute best candidate for a first time trainer. In terms of breed, fear and behavior which later was determined to be vaccinosis, he was the absolute worst candidate. In fact, at one point, I had resolved myself to training him for non-public access only. As his issues resolved and he came out of what we called *his shell* life in public access was pursued.

I had no concept of just how much my life would change with a trained service dog at my side. As my disabilities progressed over the years and new ones joined the ranks, I kept training. The choice to adopt him so as to train my own service dog allowed me to achieve an independence with progressive disabilities that I never would have imagined possible. Met showed me a truly remarkable thing- a life where relying on humans was replaced by relying on a four legged unconditional friend who carried me through some of the most unspeakable changes in my health and abilities,  while at the same time changing something inside of me- changing my mindset about my limitations and what life was like from so pessimistic to the picture of optimism.

As Met aged, I knew theoretically his retirement time was drawing closer. He had already outlived the veterinarians prognosis by five years by then. I had no idea even with that knowledge though, that he would be passing before full retirement would come to pass. I had often thought about the differences in me since Met came into my life. It was not about how he changed my outlook so much, but the fact that my disabilities without Met, would be quite severe. Could I really pull off training a successor? These were just thoughts in my mind though. I had no picture yet of how much Met did- how much of my independence was about him until the day he breathed his last.

When Thane arrived as a nine month old nearly clean slate just three months after Met's passing,  it was only then that I realized just how much I had done with Met. I had begun adapting to my disabilities by then through the use of various equipment purchases and technologies but the struggle to perform the tasks was still profound. I really wondered if life would ever again have the level of ease that Met's skill had provided me with. I was quite literally wracked with pain all the time from the methods of accommodation available to me. Due to my MCS, human assistance could only come from my folks and though they tried to help when they could, they just are not able to help in the areas that I could really benefit from.

Thane was an awesome dog, but the trauma from the flight and the fact that he had to be vaccinated just days before to comply with airline regulations made for a very different dog than he was beforehand not to mention the ramifications of  stress on the immune system. As a result of my grief and his needs to adapt to such a new life we spent a lot of the winter doing things the wrong way.

As owner trainers, learning from mistakes teaches us more than if everything goes smoothly though. smile The process of leash training while trying to control a power wheelchair, use a guide cane and a tactile mini guide left me feeling like maybe my doubts were warranted- maybe my disabilities were now too severe for me to successfully train a successor dog. Everyone who knows me, knows I don't give up on anything easily. I craved the level of independence I had achieved with Met and knowing what I had lost kept me pushing forward asking questions on multiple lists over and over and over again. It's a wonder people did not strangle me for how much I vented about leash work with Thane. Eventually I got an awesome tip from a gal on a clicker based guide list and the rest shall we say was history. I was finally able to communicate effectively with Thane. He was finally able to understand what I was asking of him. It was an achievement far above any task I had trained Met to do or fine tuned from his instincts. This successful training meant that we could move forward now- there was potential for not just me to train my successor but for this beautiful red and white boy to become my successor.

Training Thane was not as straight forward as it was with Met. Once the foundation training was behind us, I had to evaluate my disabilities and the tasks I needed from Thane. Thane was not a natural. He would test my skill, confidence, and patience as we pursued through each task.  I had to break down each task into their individual segments back chaining until we reached the end goal. I had to quite literally really train as opposed to fine tuning as I did with many of Met's tasks. So many people were there for me to make this a success. For fear of leaving someone out, they shall remain nameless in this blog, but you all know who you are and hopefully have a grasp of just how much your training pointers mean even today as I work independently with my successor dog.

In the beginning there were a number of things I wanted and needed NOW NOW NOW! It was one of the hardest things I had to do- to slow down and work on the things that Thane showed interest, curiosity and understanding in as opposed to what Karyn needed first. I was fortunate that one of the most pain wracking areas (use of a guide cane) was an area at which Thane was excelling in that first spring together. Over the summer he continued to excel in that area going from an in training guide to a green guide dog that needed new experiences to cement his skill, but was very much showing me that he had the ability to leave Met's pawprints in the dust in this area.

It was almost laughable because so many people think of Border Collies as these superb hearing dogs and yet, the one area Thane seems to be a natural at (if any could be called this), is as a guide dog. I have a level of trust and the return of independence with him at my side that is so much beyond Met.

Thane's training continues in many areas and will until the day he retires. He has become a well rounded guide, and service task dog and has a number of hearing alerts under his belt. He's beginning to recognize changes in me when my MCS is being affected so have every reason to believe that he will succeed at this as well.

Thane has never had that high level of curiosity and intrigue that one would look for when evaluating a dog for such a spectrum of disabilities. As a result, I have had to work extra hard and much longer than I sometimes felt we should be doing. Many people would have retired or career changed such a dog, but the fact remains that I know when the chips are down and my life is on the line, Thane will keep me safe. He has proven his training more times than I can count, but also showed me this spring that my safety is paramount when a car ran a yield light as we were crossing in a crosswalk.

Independence is a great achievement for someone with multiple progressive disabilities. It's something I wondered if I would ever really achieve again. Though I have the benefit of experience from the interval between Met and Thane coupled with my knowledge that my disabilities have progressed even further since Thane came into my life, I choose not to focus on that big question in the back of my mind- will I be able to train Thane's successor, but focus instead on the moments of independence that we achieve each and every day, all because I took the chance to try it again.

Met and Thane are my rocks!