Thursday, April 22, 2010

1st litter of puppies has arrived

Just found out that the first litter of puppies at Ridgeview that we're looking at was born on the 20th. There are 5 puppies, three boys and two girls, all yellow. I have arranged with Sue Alexander to fly down here the first or second weekend of June to temperament test this litter. I want another yellow Lab so I'm planning to have her look only at yellow puppies.
Having spent the last four years talking to service dog trainers and handlers, going to the service dog seminar each year, watching the few related DVDs, reading whatever I can find in books, on websites and on Yahoo lists as well as training and handling my own service dog, I have come to realize that there was a large amount of dumb luck involved with Laurel becoming a successful service dog. Besides her allergies, she is a high drive dog from working lines who has little natural self-control. We began working on that as soon as we got her at 8 weeks - she worked for all her food, we worked very hard on "leave it", she had to wait before coming out of her crate or going through doorways etc. 
Since I knew that I would want her to pick up and bring all kinds of things to me, I never told her no when she did. I simply swapped it for a treat or for a little game using one of her toys. We did have an agreement that she wouldn't take anything off the top of a table although one of our cats, Maggie, would regularly knock things onto the floor so that Laurel could bring them to me. Generally, not discouraging Laurel from bringing anything she found on the floor to me has worked beautifully. Everyone in the family got better about not leaving things laying around and instead of finding something and running off to eat it, Laurel would proudly present it to me. She will pick up just about anything of any different type of material (in fact, she is a huge fan of carrying scissors for me and she does so by the metal blades). One day, she started bringing me index cards one at a time. After getting about 15 of them, I got up to find out where she was getting them and discovered a package of them that had been left on the floor when someone got something out of a file cabinet. Apparently Laurel realized she would get more bringing them to me one at a time than if she brought the entire pack. Some time later, she attempted the same thing with post-it notes which didn't work out nearly as well but was fun watching her try. 
The only part of our informal retrieving program I would consider changing with the next puppy would be to use management to stop him from taking things off table tops instead of making him think he isn't supposed to. Laurel is still reluctant to take things off tables even though there are times when I need her to. 
I will also teach the puppy an "automatic leave it" right away. Originally, I taught Laurel to leave things because I asked her to and had to go back to retrain her for an automatic one when she was about two. It should be much easier to do that right off. 
The biggest change, however, will be in the selection of the puppy. I don't think I should count on dumb luck this time around and I'd like it to be easier for both of us. I love Laurel's personality and mostly enjoy her enthusiasm and friendliness but I also realize that it makes it harder for her doing public access. I have every confidence that I could pick another "Laurel" by myself and although she definitely has a bunch of traits I would want in a puppy, there are also some major differences - like amount of natural self control and having less drive. Since I have complete confidence that Sue knows what temperament traits will work for me and my needs as well as being appropriate for public access, I have asked her to come and help me pick my puppy. I believe she will be using a test developed by Suzanne Clothier, which is, apparently, the first one that accurately predicts the puppy as an adult and is being used by one of the big guide dog programs already.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Considering what getting a successor dog means

Although my service dog, Laurel, is in her prime and working well for me, my service dog trainer, Sue Alexander, and I have been talking about the possibility of getting a puppy sooner rather than later. With the alerting, Laurel is working more each day than I would like her to. Also, she has some environmental and food allergies. Although none of them are severe, she has enough of them to make me concerned. Last May, we started her on allergy shots and because they hadn't kicked in yet, we weren't able to go out much last July and August. If the allergies continue to bother her or get worse, I would have to consider retiring her. 
Also, I'm trying to increase my odds that my next service dog will also do the alerts - I'm confident that I can teach the blood sugar one but not the others. So my best hope might be that Laurel could teach the next dog the two alerts she began naturally. 
Coincidentally, over the past several months I have heard about a number of service dogs who died or had to be retired suddenly while still quite young which has caused me to consider what my life would be like if I was suddenly without a service dog again. 
However, despite all these compelling reasons to consider getting a puppy, thinking about getting my next service dog has felt very negative. If I start thinking about that, then I end up thinking about Laurel's retirement and eventual death. 
Even though I haven't been enthusiastic about getting a potential successor any time soon, because I am a fairly deliberate, organized type person who recognizes the importance of doing research ahead of time, I have been researching and talking to a variety of breeders for a couple years again. Prior to getting Laurel, I developed a set of forms and questionnaires geared towards determining what kind of training would work best, what kind of dog, what age etc. Although I had used them five years ago in deciding to get a Lab puppy to train myself, I redid them and again, came to the same conclusion.    
I just spoke with a local Lab breeder, Donna Reece, who I've known for about three years now. I see her dogs and puppies around in classes and at trials and have always been very impressed with them. She has been breeding for about 30 years now and as a full-time breeder, has multiple litters a year. I mentioned to her that even though I know I should start looking for a puppy so that I can wait for the right one, Laurel will be able to help teach it and to take some of the burden off her, I was still struggling with having it feel negative because it meant Laurel's retirement and eventual death. She gave me the most wonderful response, which was that I shouldn't look at it that way, but rather look at this as a two-dog job now and the puppy becoming Laurel's partner first 
I'm sure other people have tried to help me feel getting a puppy was a positive thing but the way Donna said it just clicked and I am now looking forward to the puppy search. Donna is expecting two litters this month and one or two in May so I should have some puppies to look at by early June!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Welcome! My journey in service dogs so far

Hi and welcome to my blog, "From Puppy to Public Access"! I suppose you could say that my journey with service dogs began in 1994 when I first applied to a large national service dog organization. I was accepted into the program and told that I would get a dog more quickly if I raised some or all of the necessary funds (between $20,000 and $30,000, I believe) myself.I quickly realized that while I could have raised money for a friend in need, I didn't feel comfortable doing it for myself. After about five years of waiting, another representative of the organization contacted me to let me know that my application had been lost when the regional trainer left and arranged to come to the house to video tape another application. I was accepted again and because I was hoping to get a Standard Poodle service dog, I made arrangements with Ravendune Kennels to donate a litter of puppies to the organization. The new regional trainer told me that would be great but that it wouldn't reduce the amount of money I needed to raise. She also said that there wasn't anyone raising money in the Cleveland area so it could be 7 years before I would get a dog. 
In 2004, my health had continued to deteriorate and what were once simple tasks had  become more difficult. Since I wasn't hearing anything about getting a dog from the service dog training organization, I decided to research all my options and discovered the possibility of raising and training my own. I spent about 18 months reading about various dog breeds, the ADA portions regarding service dogs, service dog training etc. I joined several Yahoo service dog lists and contacted some local obedience dog trainers. While I wasn't successful in finding local service dog trainers to work with, I decided to pursue a puppy anyway. In the end, my husband, Brent, and I decided to attempt to raise and train my own. Although I had had Standard Poodles my entire life and successfully trained and competed in AKC Obedience with them when we were first married, based on the research I had done, to my surprise, I decided to switch breeds and get a Labrador Retriever puppy instead. I can no longer handle the grooming myself so paying to have a Standard Poodle groomed every 4-6 weeks would have been a significant expense. Labs and Standard Poodles are about the same size but Labs are sturdier dogs and because I use a very heavy power wheelchair, I thought a Lab would do better if I ran over a foot accidentally. Also, I think people recognize Labs as service dogs and generally feel safe and comfortable around them.
So, early in 2006, I started talking to Lab breeders and was hoping to find a puppy that summer. Coincidentally, our daughter,Kristen, was performing at a theater in Shawnee-on-the-Delaware, PA during that summer. A friend of hers' mother had a litter of English Lab puppies born at the beginning of June. Kristen was there for their birth and visited them every day. When we went to visit, she convinced us to come see them and although we made no commitments, we named the littlest puppy (and Kristen's favorite) on our way home. We returned to bring Shawnee's Mountain Laurel (Laurel) home at the end of July. 
Laurel didn't have the best natural self-control so we started working on that immediately as well as doing lots and lots of socialization with people, locations and other animals. I had developed a training plan and continue to keep training and socialization journals. We were very fortunate to find a positive reinforcement trainer, Ginger Alpine to work with. Her training facility, Fortunate Fido, was on Cleveland's west side, about 35 miles away from our home. Laurel became my "cross over" dog and we started puppy classes when she was about 4 months old. We took various obedience classes as well as pre-sports and participated in play groups. Per my plan, Laurel achieved her CGC (AKC's Canine Good Citizen) at about 14 months and by the time she was 18 months old, she had earned her first rally obedience title (APDT's Level 1). 
Through May 2009, Laurel and I took 3-4 classes a week at Fortunate Fido and competed in rally and obedience in a number of different venues (AKC, APDT & C-WAGS). We continue to compete because we enjoy it but also because there is no standardized certification testing of service dogs in the United States and getting titles shows that we have continued to train and be "tested". We took agility classes for fun and trained for public access and service dog tasks.
Last summer, Fortunate Fido moved to a location about 50 miles away from us and then my husband took a job with a 35 mile commute. I counted on my husband's help and it became impossible for him to come to class with us so we started training full time at another facility, Canine Affair Center, about 8 miles away from home. We had been taking agility there and now also take a variety of obedience classes too. I have also begun teaching a class there once a week. We began competing in CPE Agility in January.
I attended Clicker Expo when it was in Cleveland in the spring of 2007 and met a number of different trainers, one of whom was Sue Alexander, a behaviorist who specializes in aggressive dogs; is also a service dog handler and a psychiatric service dog trainer. Then in February 2008, we attended Sue's first service dog seminar in Guelph, Ontario. Because I still hadn't found a service dog trainer I wanted to work with and I was so impressed with Sue's knowledge and ability to communicate, I asked if she would be our trainer. She agreed and we figured out how to work together long distance. In August 2008, Laurel and I passed a public access test Sue administered and Laurel went from service dog in-training status to service dog.

Besides doing a number of typical mobility tasks, when Laurel was about 6 months old, I realized that she was alerting to something I didn't even know dogs could. One evening, she threw herself across my stomach and tried to pin me down. I thought she was just being more obnoxious than usual (she is, after all, a Lab) and I put her in her crate where she screamed! We had never heard anything like it before nor have we since. About 45 minutes later, I developed very severe abdominal muscle spasms. Thinking back, I realized that she had done the same thing at least two times before. I started tracking these occurrences in her training journal and realized that Laurel reliably and consistently alerted to my muscle spasms about 45-60 minutes before they began. Not only does she know when they will happen, she also knows what muscles are going to be involved. Because having her throw herself on me is not very subtle, I retrained the alert so that if she can reach the body part, she nudges it and if not, she nudges my hand. She will continue to do so until she sees me take my medications and then she relaxes. 
About three months after I realized Laurel was alerting to my muscle spasms, I had a flair of rheumatoid arthritis in my chest wall (which feels like a heart attack). I quickly recognized that Laurel had a different alert for that and again, after tracking it for awhile in her training journal, I confirmed that she consistently and accurately alerted for that, too. 
Last August, Laurel started licking me around my mouth. It was a new behavior and she was very persistent. My husband asked me if I didn't think she was alerting to something. I couldn't think what that might be and since I found the behavior to be pretty distasteful, I untrained it. A month later, my rheumatologist's office called to ask if I knew that another doctor had done blood tests  in August which showed that my blood sugar was 400. I had developed steroid induced diabetes. Laurel knew and was trying to tell me. I retrained the alert to cover high and low blood sugar levels with the use of a specific toy. She only brings that particular one to me when she is alerting.
Laurel's mobility tasks help me save energy, keep me from falling down or hurting myself and certainly help to mitigate the effects of my disability but the alerts have really changed my life in major ways. Being able to take the medications before the spasms start or the rheumatoid kicks in means that the episodes are much less severe and shorter. I used to end up in the hospital in full rigid body spasms and that hasn't happened since Laurel began alerting. 
Doing three alerts on top of her mobility tasks means that Laurel is working most of the time. She awakens me at night to alert, keeps track of me all day long and when I leave her at home, checks me over thoroughly when I get back. I began to worry that this was too much for one dog and about a year ago, began considering getting a puppy to become her successor sooner rather than later.