Thursday, January 20, 2011

Having a young, alerting dog isn't always pretty ... or I screwed up again!

When I think about my dogs' alerting, I am still amazed at and very grateful for their abilities and willingness to share with me. Admittedly, much of it is still a mystery to me - I don't know how they know before I'm going to have a medical problem and I have no idea why Laurel decided to share that information with me or how she taught Hardy. 
However, after tracking Laurel's alerting in her training journal for the past four years, I am absolutely certain that it is predictive and accurate. We have her response on video and now people who know us recognize her alerts when they occur. And although Hardy hasn't had that many opportunities to alert on his own (when Laurel wasn't with us); he has stepped up 9 times and has also proven to be correct and predictive. 
In fact, since Laurel started alerting, there have only been 2 times when Laurel or Hardy has been with me and failed to alert 45 minutes to an hour prior to me going into spasm. Both of them occurred when I fell and immediately starting spasming as a result. Likewise, I've only had one rheumatoid attack in my chest wall that one of my Labs didn't do an early alert for - I ran into the corner of our entertainment center and immediately felt the pain. 
The diabetes alert is very different. Although I taught Laurel to alert using a specific toy that she only brings to me when alerting, if she can't find the toy easily, she reverts to licking me around my mouth. This is the only alert I feel confident I can teach Hardy and because my blood sugar has been well regulated recently, Laurel has only alerted at night (by waking me up) while Hardy is in his crate. 
I have never had the opportunity to talk to anyone else who has a dog that alerts to any of the three things my dogs do. And although I have read articles about diabetes alert dogs, I haven't ever seen anything about dogs alerting to muscle spasms or rheumatoid in the chest wall. I've heard that there are other dogs alerting to spasms but because rheumatoid in the chest wall is pretty rare, I'm guessing there aren't many (if any) other dogs alerting to that. As a result, I sometimes run into things that I don't know how to handle and/or I haven't anticipated. I am very grateful that I have our service dog trainer, Sue Alexander, and her extensive knowledge of all things dog as well as her creativity to call on but it sure would be nice to have some books and/or articles out there! 
Last night, I ran into a problem with Hardy alerting that I hadn't anticipated and as a result, didn't know how to handle. I took him with me to my Levels class as a demo dog. When I was done with him, I put him in one of the crates inside the hall. About five minutes later, Hardy started crying and after several minutes, I realized he might be alerting. I went over to confirm it and sure enough, he was letting me know I was going to start having muscle spasms (something that has been happening quite a bit lately, probably due to stress and the extremely cold weather). I let him watch me take my meds and he settled back down. About 30 minutes later, (45 minutes after he alerted), he started crying again. I asked someone to treat him for being quiet, which only worked for a minute or two. At the same time, I realized that I was going into spasm; probably the reason he was upset and yelling at me. Normally, my dogs are able to be with me after they alert and I start having the medical problem. This summer, Laurel struggled with not always being with me under those circumstances too. Last night, because I knew we didn't want Hardy to think that he had to be with me and that we wanted him to think his responsibility was done once he alerted, I left him in the crate and covered it. I'm sure I've mentioned once or twice that one of the things we selected him for was his persistence and last night, we had the opportunity to see (and hear) that in action! By the time I took him out to go home, he was pretty distraught and since then, I have been feeling awful!
I talked to Sue and she suggested that I use this time filled with muscle spasms as a training opportunity. We do want the Labs to think that their responsibility ends once they alert me, no matter what happens afterward and  for them to be okay with not always being able to be with me once they have alerted. So the plan is to use Manners Minders (the food dispensing machines) in their crates. After they alert and they see me take my medications, instead of letting them be with me (even if we're at home), I'll put them in their crates with Manners Minders and treat them on a heavy reinforcement schedule. This just means that I'll have to have the machines with me when I take the Labs to the training hall. 
You would hope that I could learn to not go against my instincts when I don't know what to do because I end up regretting it! That's what happened last night. I didn't think letting Hardy get more and more upset was the way to go but I didn't know what to do so I handled it badly. Besides not wanting him to be so upset, I also don't want him to think I'm ignoring his alerts. On the other hand, I also want him and Laurel to be okay when they can't be with me after they alert.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pet Blogger Challenge today

1. When did you begin your blog? I began my blog on April 1, 2010 - the date I seriously began my search for the puppy who will hopefully become my next service dog.
2. What was your original purpose for starting a blog? to journal my experiences with getting, raising and training my next puppy (service dog candidate) to the point of public access
3. Is your current purpose the same? no, not completely
If not, what’s different? I am still using this as a journal of our experiences but understand that it can also help others who are considering getting a puppy in hopes of training him/her as a service dog. I've also considered that there might be some articles here or possibly the beginnings of a book and/or training DVD.
4. Do you blog on a schedule or as the spirit moves you? I blog when I have something to talk about - so as the spirit moves me
If the former, how often — and what techniques do you use to stick to it?
If the latter, do you worry about… well, whatever you might worry about (e.g. losing traffic, losing momentum)?no,  I'm not worried about losing traffic or momentum or anything else.
5. Are you generating income from your blog? no
If so, how (e.g. sponsor ads, affiliate relationships, spokesperson opportunities)?
If not currently, do you hope to in the future — and how? no, I haven't considered that possibility.
6. What do you like most about blogging in general and your blog in particular (bragging is good!)? I like taking the time to review what is going on with Laurel, my service dog and Hardy, my now 9 month old service dog in training and then taking the time to reflect on things, describe where we are and where I'm hoping we're headed. I love having my blog, complete with photos, to look back at the past 7 months with my brown boy - our summer in Canada, our trips, his relationship with Laurel etc.
7. What do you like least? I don't like the gaps that have occurred during the holidays or when things were busy or not going well and I didn't have or take the time to write.
8. How do you see your blog changing/growing in 2011? I anticipate that Hardy will achieve public access status during 2011 and plan to change the blog or create a new one to cover From Public Access to Full Service (Dog)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Decisions - submission for 2nd Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

In October, I wrote a submission about The Two Most Important Firsts in my Service Dog Journey So Far for the 1st Assistance Dog Blog Carnival and now I am faced with writing another one about Decisions for the 2nd such event, hosted by Dog's Eye View. I find that I am overwhelmed with possible topics related to the many important decisions I have had to make since first considering whether a service dog would be beneficial in my life.
However, in order to submit an entry in keeping with my blog, I've decided to write again about my decision to get a puppy this summer when my current service dog, Laurel, was still young (4 years old) and working. This was a truly momentous decision largely because I was so opposed when I first starting considering it. As difficult as I had found the process regarding whether to get a service dog to begin with, I found the one about if and when to get a successor even more emotionally charged and heart-wrenching. And at first, I found it impossible to even consider getting another dog because all I could think about was that doing so would mean Laurel's retirement and eventual death. My service dog trainer, Sue Alexander suggested I consider it; other service dog handlers who had suddenly lost a young, working dog recommended I think about it and many of my dog-training friends who had seen how hard Laurel worked for me thought that I needed to look into it. Additionally, since Laurel does 3 medical alerts, each of which began as natural alerts and no one knows what allows or encourages dogs to do alerting, our hope would be that Laurel would teach the next dog.  But for the longest time, although I knew that it might be the smartest thing to do, I couldn't get past my denial over Laurel's aging - I think there was some illogical thinking going on that if I didn't prepare, Laurel would never grow old, need to retire or die. 
One of the important decisions we had made when we originally decided to try to raise and train my own service dog was to switch from our breed of choice, Standard Poodles, to Labrador Retrievers. Although I had grown up in a SP kennel and my husband is allergic to dogs, we had many reasons for making the switch -  Labs are easily recognized by the general public and are accepted as service dogs; although the breeds are generally the same size, Labs are much sturdier and stronger and Labs are "wash and wear" while Poodles are grooming-intensive. Since they are both water retrievers, I hadn't anticipated how different the breeds are and Laurel spent her first two years hearing me complain that she was not a Standard Poodle. Since then, however, Laurel and Labs in general have grown on us and I realized that I wouldn't want any other breed.
At the same time, because I knew I couldn't get another puppy from Laurel's breeder (she has retired), I had contacted Labrador Retriever kennels in about 5 states around us and in Canada. I had heard that some breeders wouldn't let their puppies go to become service dogs so I thought I might need to develop a relationship with a couple breeders in order to have them see what kind of a life my next service dog would have. Although I didn't have any breeder refuse to sell me a puppy outright, I'm pretty sure the one who priced hers at $3800 or more wasn't real interested in me having one.
When Laurel was young, we became friends with Amy who had a lovely yellow puppy, Georgia, from a breeder, Donna Reece, about an hour away from us.  Amy introduced us to Donna at the big Crown Classic dog show several years ago and although she was busy showing, we had a lovely talk and I was very impressed with her dogs. Since then, I have had the opportunity to see a number of her puppies and young dogs and have been very impressed. I have continued to talk to Donna and a comment she made was responsible for letting me get beyond my denial to make the decision to get a puppy. We were discussing everyone's suggestions to me about getting a puppy sooner rather than later and she said that it sounded like Laurel's job had expanded to more than what one dog should be expected to do (with the 3 medical alerts plus mobility tasks) and that I should look at getting another dog to become her partner first and not worry about it being her successor. I am sure that is what everyone else was trying to tell me but Donna was able to do it in such a way that it became a positive instead of a negative. 
With that new mindset, I decided to go ahead and start looking for a puppy. 
In the months prior to actually looking at litters, I went through many of the same processes I had prior to getting Laurel. I reviewed my needs, our living conditions, my breed choice and our finances etc. Then I decided which breeders I wanted to deal with - Donna Reece of Ridge View Labradors and one other that another friend had referred me to. Because I determined that I wanted help getting a puppy whose temperament would make it easier for him or her to be a service dog than it is for Laurel, I arranged with Sue Alexander to come temperament test some puppies at the beginning of June. She found my boy, Hardy as the 11th puppy tested and although he is the wrong color (chocolate instead of yellow) and the wrong sex; he appeared to be the perfect puppy for me; something which still seems to be true even though he is currently a persistent adolescent! 
I've already had reason to be grateful I made the decision to get a puppy. Hardy alerts on his own now and like Laurel's, it is predictive and accurate. I fell on the ice recently when I got out of my chair to pick up after Hardy at the class I teach. Since Laurel was at home, he alerted on his own and was very persistent in making sure I understood and took my meds. Over the past several days I have continued to have pain and muscle spasms and have been thrilled to watch my two Labs work together to have at least one of them with me, laying across my legs. They actually do seem to split the work on watching me; with the one who is "off-duty" able to rest or play. This is everything I had hoped for but certainly more than I had ever expected!

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Labs: Second Day on Medical Watch

I'm down for another day today due to muscle spasms and in case I thought Laurel and Hardy's behavior of taking turns laying on my legs yesterday was a fluke, they are proving today that it wasn't. Because of the spasms, I let Hardy sleep with us in bed last night instead of in his crate (which is usual). Even then, at least one of them had part of his/her body draped over my legs. And today, if they're not outside or eating, they are continuing to take turns laying partially across me. Right now, Laurel is with me and Hardy is taking a break on his bed. It's amazing to watch them work together! I've said this before but what Laurel and Hardy do for me really does defy belief and if I didn't see them do it; hadn't been tracking the alerting since Laurel began 4 years ago in her training journals; and didn't know that other people had seen the proof of what they do, I'm not sure that I would believe! As a result, although I do think that my Labs are amazing, intelligent, and talented, I have to believe that many other dogs have the ability to alert and probably do so ... we just don't recognize it and untrain the behaviors. And that is a real shame, because the alerting has changed my life in such dramatic ways and I know it would do the same for others as well!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Wow! The Puddly Came Through Again!

It snowed a bit yesterday but unfortunately because the snow melted last week, it rained and then it froze, the snow is covering a sheet of ice. I took Hardy with me to my Levels class last night to use him as a demo for the new people. Just before class, I took him out to potty and when I took a couple steps on the grass to clean up after him, I slipped and fell. We went inside and a few minutes later, he started alerting by nose touching my hand repeatedly and/or nose touching my legs (depending on what he could reach). He was so persistent that it was impossible to ignore and when I put him in a crate so that I could go out and get my meds out of my purse, he screamed, which is unheard of behavior. I took the meds in front of him and then used him for the demo and put him in the crate where he rested comfortably (and quietly) for the rest of the class. 
I have been doing well recently and Hardy hasn't had the opportunity to alert on his own for several months so I was concerned about whether he would remember. Obviously he does and handled it beautifully! A few minutes before class ended, I started having muscle spasms in both legs and my low back - so his alert was accurate and predictive. 
I'm also proud of both my Labs today. I'm still having spasms since I obviously annoyed my back when I slipped. I've been hanging out in bed and Laurel was laying across my legs all morning. This afternoon, she put herself in her crate and Hardy came up to lay with me - snuggling and laying across my legs. They have gone back and forth multiple times and are obviously taking turns (although right now since Brent is here with me, they are next to me chewing on each other). I'm really marveling at my two Labs - this is what I was hoping for but is certainly much more than I realistically expected!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Things are looking up for the big brown boy in 2011!

Hardy's decided that things are looking up! This week classes started back up at our training hall so we have something going on most days (which is way better than just doing stuff at home). We missed obedience class this morning because Hardy and I were up 4 times during the night. We are still struggling with finding the right food that will agree with his digestive system well enough that we can also give him high value treats. I think the diarrhea last night was because he got various treats all weekend long and it was just too much for him. Although we have always tried to use premium food, I think we'll try the food he came to us on (Purina ProPlan). Since we were going up to Canada for the summer and I knew I could get it there, I left him on it. Unfortunately, we didn't start having bad breath, pudding poop, and gas until we switched off it. We'll try it again and see how it goes. 
Anyway, Hardy's digestive tract was recovered enough for him to attend the first class of the next session of agility foundations at 4:30. There were several new dogs there so Hardy was one of the "experienced dogs" and got to work at me sending him to the tunnel, going over a very low A-Frame and walking up and down a board to the table. He is in a fear period right now which we saw during the exercise with the board. While he was confident and happy doing the tunnel and the A-Frame, he was clearly concerned on the 12" wide board. We are using a clicker for his agility training which is working great! He clearly gained confidence on the board and we quit while it was good!
Laurel also had a private with Rob today. We're using a clicker to repair some problems that we've been having. When we started agility class, I had no intention of ever competing so we didn't work on some basics which have come back to bite us. But because Laurel is so clicker savvy, using it now is helping tremendously and she is gaining skills very quickly. Today we worked on the contact at the bottom of the A-Frame and the teeter, we worked on straight up weave poles, especially the entry and we also threw in some start line stays. For the first time, Laurel is stepping onto the pivot spot and confidently riding the teeter down which is a huge improvement. I think we got close to having the teeter at full height today! Both Rob (Laurel's instructor) and Ana (Rob's wife and Hardy's instructor) are great with the clicker and I think it is making all the difference with Laurel right now. I tend to run out of hands and fingers so having instructors willing to click for me is awesome. I'm hoping that Hardy will be much better at the foundations because I'm going into it knowing that I'd like to compete with him and because we will be using the clicker right from the start. I got the book, Agility Right From the Start, for Christmas and although it is a big book filled with information that can be pretty overwhelming, I'm trying to take out the stuff that will help us and use it.
It was pretty funny today when Hardy went into the tunnel from my send and both Ana and Rob clicked while I said "yes" almost simultaneously. Obviously I have done a good job training them both to click for my dogs! Thanks, guys!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Poor Hardy, it's been a boring time for a young man!

Hardy's having mixed feelings about the holidays! Poor guy, since we came back from New York City, it's been really boring around here. Most classes were canceled for the Holidays, Hardy's dew claw was oozing blood again and I was trying to rest up from our trip and in preparation for our CPE Agility trial over New Year's weekend. I used to feel really bad for Laurel when things got boring for her but I came to realize that since downtime is a part of my life, it needs to be part of my service dog's life as well and that if Laurel couldn't handle it, she wasn't the right dog for me. And, sure enough, even with her energy level, she learned quickly to adapt and has become quite the bedbug when she has to be.  I have created and learned games that we can play when I'm not able to do much physically and when I'm stuck in bed but there are times when even that is too much.
So I don't feel sorry for Hardy - he has to be able to just chill out at times and he has Laurel to bother besides. Our first two days home were pretty boring, I'll admit. Wednesday, the 29th, Laurel and I had an agility lesson and worked on our contacts, start line stays and weaves. I taught my class so Hardy and Brent attended and worked on the long down, attention, Zen and loose leash walking. 
Thursday, we had a Christmas celebration with my parents and then we left for the Red Roof Inn in Poland (Youngstown), OH. Friday, Saturday, and yesterday, we were at Four Seasons K9 Athlete Center in Washingtonville for a CPE agility trial. It was Laurel's return to agility since her 6 month layoff due to our Canadian summer adventure and her injury. We struggled some on Friday, with 3 NQs and a surprise Q in our fourth class. Saturday was much better with 4/4 Qs and Sunday was a blast even though we only Q'd in 2/4. Hardy spent a lot of time in his crate with some visits and a bit of work. He handled it very well although we are paying for it today when he is into absolutely everything! Tomorrow classes start back with obedience and agility for both Labs!

Our photo from the Crown Classic

Here is the photo of Laurel and me taken by the show photographer when we won our Advanced A class which also finished our Rally Advanced (RA) title at the Richland County Kennel Club dog show (part of the Crown Classic) on December 18, 2010.
 For those of you who know my silly, goofy Laurel and worry that she looks too serious here, the photographer was squeaking and throwing stuffed toys. Through my big grin, I was hissing "stay, stay, stay" at her. She was very good and listened to my instructions but I believe she was "seriously" considering jumping off the stand and over the decorations to get at those toys!