I could never have imagined the changes that were just around the corner when I adopted a beautiful 6 month old tricolor Border Collie/ GSD in 1997.
At first my life turned upside down- struggling to train and care for this little devil (just kidding) that I brought into my life while coping with significant disabilities. He was a bit of a disaster, but down the road living through those early months would all be worth it-- as this little disaster was about to change my life and show me the possibilities I still had when accommodated by a service dog.
I must have lost my marbles to think that I could train my own service dog back in the late 90's when everyone's mindset was that disabled people could never do what a program does, but it was the best undertaking I ever made- an investment into my own survival and functionality.
By the late 90's, everything I did first required a major uphill battle to accomplish with the ease that others do. With limited hearing, limited eyesight, limited hand function, limited balance- so much of my time was spent trying to just function; to get through the day that there was no time or energy to actually enjoy living any more.
I adopted Chimette to be a hearing dog, but he would soon prove to me what short expectations I had-- becoming a combo trained guide, hearing, medical alert, service dog. With Met, training was in phases as my disabilities progressed. His developing bond and intelligence often resulted in instinctive moves that simply required fine tuning into refined skills I could rely on.
As a dog owner, I wasn't entirely novice- having had dogs most of my childhood. I was a novice in realizing just what our folks did to provide us with such wonderful pets- and not just time, but money too (and lots of it!)
As a trainer I was a complete novice. Here I was as this novice trainer with a Border Collie! Go ahead and laugh- I know, I know, no one with sense gets a Border Collie as their test subject of their ability to train a dog as a pet, let alone as a service dog!
Here we were though- two individuals who needed each other, bonding together in what would inevitably become one of the best partnerships imaginable.
I won't say the training was straight forward or easy, because it wasn't. I had support from a couple of friends who had trained/ were training their own service dogs which definitely helped. When I was stuck, it was these service dogs who helped Met *get it* when we could not figure another approach for the task at hand. Now, I would backchain the entire process, but as a novice, I didn't have the skills necessary or access to such great trainers to provide me the support that we all can achieve now with the explosion that has occurred on the internet, not to mention the greater acceptance of owner training.
Don't get the wrong idea with all of this. Chimette was very smart. I was learning along with him-- not just in training techniques that worked with him, but in figuring how to work with my disabilities so that I could train him. I made many training mistakes along the way (not great when you are training a Border Collie who thinks if something is done one way, one time, it must ALWAYS be done that way), but in the end, the experiences and memories were worth every one of them.
Chimette taught me things I never conceived I would learn- he taught me the true meaning of independence-- on a realm I could never have even conceived beforehand. He helped me to become a stronger person, living with multiple disabilities instead of struggling through them.
To no longer fumble trying to keep grasp on a reacher or to have to ask a person for their assistance in retrieving items, closing the door, opening the fridge, being aware of household sounds, travelling safely around the community with limited vision- brought such a dramatic change in me. You could see the difference Met made for me in my eyes as they lit up with joy each time he performed the task or I safely travelled independently in my community. It was more than that though-- one could see what he did for me through the increased level of my independence, decreased frustration, and especially my improved attitude and outlook on life.
This was all really amazing but there was so much more to come as our bond and skill working together strengthened into a true service dog partnership where it often seemed Met knew what I needed without me uttering or signing a word.
After a decade spent with Met at my side (1997-2007), it is still difficult to put into words how things changed for me other than to say, this partnership with Chimette saved my life!