13 January 2012

The Lessons Learned through the Many Obstacles with Thane

This post is for the Sixth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. The topic is Obstacles.

As assistance dog partners, many things can stand in the way preventing us from experiencing the partnership we may have dreamed of with our canine partner. From a dog and handler that are not a good match, to an inability to bond and thus trust in each other, to difficulties with pace and harness pull, to medical problems, to endless scenarios.

After my first partnership with Chimette, I had a hard time believing that I could move on and bond with another dog, but more significantly that I could actually have a healthy partnership.

When Thane came into my life, it was indeed love at first sight. We seemed to bond instantly, but then things began to fall apart. There was a huge obstacle in my path. I was dealing with what some call *second dog syndrome*. I just could not let go of the tenure partnership I had with Met to truly bond in harness with the trainee at my side. I spent so much time wallowing in the dreams of my seasoned predecessor, that the bonding process, training, trust, and emotional health were literally stuck in what seemed like a feedback loop, unable to move forward individually or together.

During this time when we were at home off training and just being together, all was fine, but back in training mode in-harness and I had a hard time exploring what was causing the lack of cohesion we experienced. I could always point to how different Thane was from Met, but could not let go of Met to allow Thane to be his own dog and excel where he would. Everything I saw pointed towards Thane as the obstacle, when in fact, the obstacle was me, the handler.

Once I was able to let go of Met, Thane blossomed into a very intelligent in tune guide and service dog. Most things did not come naturally in the training process though which made me have to work harder at looking outside of the box as I trained each task he now performs as though he were born doing it.

It was hard for me to get through the obstacles in training Thane, with the constant reminders of memory (incomplete or inaccurate as this might be) that reminded me of a time when there was such simplicity in training. Accurate or not, I soon realized that one of Thane's roles was to teach me to be a better trainer. He was not stupid- in fact, far from that! He was there to *grow me* as a trainer.

Once this process had begun, we really began to grow as a team flourishing into a partnership I never could have dreamed of in the past. I know this could not have happened, if I had not allowed Thane to blossom into his own individual. If I had continued to try and mold him into the dog that Met was, I would have lost out on some amazing experiences, hard knocks, and lessons learned.

As if I had not already learned a lot of truths about myself, about how far my successor dog would go to protect my life, and yes, even some medical roller coaster rides through things like giarda; Thane was about to teach me about a disease that is so often looked upon as a northeast problem. He would teach me just how far one can go and how close one can come to answers coming too late. Of course, without my very special friend Sharon at the AfterGadget blog, I know those answers would have come too late for Thane.

If you don't know already, the obstacle I am talking about is chronic late stage Lyme Disease. I'd been through what seemed like hell and back with Met through severe vaccinosis, but I was ill prepared for the journey Thane was in the process of taking me on.

We'd been chasing symptoms for about two years when I went into the vet office and requested TBD testing for Thane. Though his symptoms at this point seemed to match up with a tick borne disease, my vet tried to convince me that the ticks in the northwest were *healthy*. I was not buying that propaganda, but still wanted to remain hopeful that this was not the direction we were headed. In the end, Thane has surprised many about the presence of TBDs locally.

Our journey through Lyme has been one obstacle after another- from medication reactions that compromised his liver in under two weeks time, to symptoms that seemed unlikely to resolve that could shorten our partnership or at the very least limit when he could work. Thankfully through supplemental and alternative therapies that were added to his antibiotic regimen, I have reason to be hopeful now.

It has been seven months since Thane collapsed unable to leave our home. Though time will tell just how complete his symptom resolution is to be, I find myself amazed at just how tenacious these spirochetes can be and how hard a body can fight to win. With the resolution of neurological symptoms, orthopedic symptoms, GI symptoms, and some collagen based symptoms which included coat, skin, vision and hearing; I know nothing can stand in our way except the reality that such chronic Lyme often comes with relapses due to cyst forms that managed to evade long term antibiotic and nutritional support therapies.

Once Thane was well enough to work part time in daylight situations again, I found myself struggling with this major obstacle- that of a dog that had lost so much of his experience and function. He was at that stage for all intense of purposes, a green dog that could not learn from the experiences we were taking in. There was too much *fighting* of the disease taking place for me to even begin to consider the possibility that what I was seeing may always be what he would be now. I was grieving this huge loss while at the same time trying to remain hopeful that we would conquer this huge obstacle. I tried hard to put it to the back of my mind, but I found myself thinking about the reality that retirement may become necessary in the end. Thankfully, it looks as though those fears have been put to bed, at least for the near future any way.

Right now, we are literally experiencing something I never once took the time to think about during the hardest most heart breaking times in the previous months. Thane has literally come alive. The energizer bunny has returned and frankly it is taking a bit of getting used to after how settled Thane had seemed to be over the past two years. Energy aside, his incentive and instincts are surfacing as we work towards finding that perfect balance again.

I've struggled with his energy. Frankly it has been quite an obstacle since I also have developed chronic nerve pain this past year. I've found a number of obstacles though as we work back to the team we once were- many of them stem from his energy which makes it harder for him to focus. Some of it however stems from how *stuck* we were for so long in that *green team* mode where Thane could not learn from our new experiences. I guess the best way to describe it is that he was stuck in brain fog which has finally lifted.

For so long, I had to second guess his decisions with the tactile mini guide or be really in tune with our environment. It was truly exhausting, but as long as Thane was able and willing to work, I felt giving him the opportunities might one day just flip that switch again. Some days he seemed really on and other days, it was still a huge deal to work him, even if only for a walk. I kept looking for the reason for the changes from day to day. I kept looking for something in him that would point towards the issue.

Earlier this week, I was in significant pain, but knew Thane needed work and groceries needed to be picked up. Thane had been working the best he had in a while once some energy was worn off. Shortly after we left home, I laid my head back on the headrest and relaxed in harness for the first time since Lyme took so much from us. As I relaxed, letting Thane do what I had trained him to, instead of the frequent reminders for *easy*, *slow down*, etc, I discovered something quite amazing. There was no issue with Thane's work. He guided me with a smooth, easy rhythm of perfect pull in harness through some of the most horrific sidewalk terrain our town has to offer.

After this outing that took nearly three hours, I was not quite ready to believe that this was really all there was to the *growing pains* as we worked back towards becoming the team we once had been. I guess I needed to see this duplicated a couple more times- so duplicate it he did.

Perhaps there is yet another lesson Thane is meant to teach me before our partnership is through, that of not focusing all my energy into finding the obstacles in our work solely in his part of the team, but to look at the entire team when something is amiss.

I don't know what the future holds for our partnership, but I know this much, the obstacles we have encountered and risen above, are a big part of the strength we embody today.


  1. This was such an amazing post to read. it gave me a sense of both inspiration and optimism. I can't wait to hear more about your adventures together.

  2. Thanks so much. Its not always easy to keep myself in this frame of mind, so when I am- I like to try and write. Of course that bit of insomnia also helped in the process to get it down on the computer smile

  3. Speaking of insomnia (and Lyme!), here I am reading carnival posts because I only slept from 1am to 4am. Ugh.

    Anyway, this was a terrific post! I so much related to the stuff about second dog syndrome (except in my case it's third dog syndrome, lol). And I have learned a lot about canine Lyme from Thane's experience. I remember when Gadget was diagnosed with Lyme, and I asked a Lymie friend who had been a vet tech before she got sick about how dogs react to treatment. She said the same things you tend to read -- that they respond quickly, that they don't need to be on that long, etc. (Some of which we know is not true.) I asked her if dogs herx and she said she didn't think they did. There is certainly no literature I could find on it, at any rate.

    But from your journey with Thane, it does seem as if some of his symptoms, such as his eyes, got worse after treatment before getting better. I'm suspicious that this is yet another case where just because animals can't talk, we simplify their experience into something erroneous. It also shows that long-term treatment (more than a month of antibiotics) is really important. It makes me wonder about all the people with pet dogs, who don't spend all day, every day with their dogs, and who aren't as minutely tuned in to every aspect of their function, including their thinking. I bet there are a lot of dogs who continue to be symptomatic after a short course of treatment, but because the really obvious symptoms have resolved (at least temporarily), they are considered cured.

    Anyway, you know that I am thrilled that Thane is recovering, and his working skills along with it, allowing your partnership to be what we wanted all along. Smiling.

    1. @AfterGadget
      Thankyou so much for taking the time to share your thoughts- especially about canine lyme and herx reactions. I don't care what the literature says, what vets say, what vet techs say- I know that Thane experienced herxes and I had to be very careful about the treatment protocol after the initial drug reaction and subsequent liver complications.
      I'm grateful we seem to be gaining the upper hand, but I think it will take me a long time before I really relax about it all.
      Still, it is very nice to take a relaxing walk where I can just let him do his job and simply issue appropriate commands as necessary.
      I look forward to however many days, weeks, months, or years of partnership like that we are meant to have- hopefully the years of course.