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.

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