Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dog Days at the Botanical Gardens

Today was LEAD's Dog Days at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. They invite different dog organizations to come down and spend one Sunday during the summer with them. They provide umbrellas, a table, chairs, and water. We were invited to participate last summer and then we asked Canine Affair Center to join us. Our agility instructors (who happen to be married), Rob and Ana put together an agility course and had dogs demo and then did a "try it" session. It was a huge success so we decided to do the same thing this summer.
This was Hardy's first Dog Days - he stayed up in Canada last summer when I came down with Laurel to do it. Besides being there in their capacities as service dogs, they also got to participate in the agility demo! While vested, Hardy is really very good at ignoring other people (that's much easier for him than it is for Laurel!) but people can be so funny! One gentleman came up to Hardy, who was laying down, and kept calling him to come visit (over and over and over). Hardy didn't move but looked at me. I explained that he was working so he was doing what he was supposed to do by not moving. Then I released Hardy by telling him to "go visit" so he got up and went to the man who told him to "go back and lay down - you're working so you shouldn't get up." I don't know if Hardy was confused but I certainly was! 
For the first part of the afternoon, we had 3 service dogs hanging out under the umbrella together. Everyone got along beautifully and generally spent time under the table laying on the cool pad or in the water. One of the dogs in Hardy's agility class, Boo, came for a visit and although he doesn't always like other dogs, he and Hardy laid back to back in peaceful companionship. 
Neither Laurel nor Hardy do any agility outdoors. Laurel has allergies and although my power chair could get around, I tend to get big bruises on all my joints if I bounce around too much. Since that doesn't really work for me, I haven't done any dog sports outside. Also, Laurel has allergies to grasses, weeds and trees so doing stuff outdoors aggravates those as well. A couple weeks ago, we went to Rob and Ana's house because they have all the agility equipment set up in their backyard and Laurel and Ana did a couple practice runs. I worked with Hardy on the channel weaves and the tire jump but we didn't do any courses or any of the contact equipment. 
Rob and Ana decided to invite some beginner dogs to demo an easier course so we decided that Rob would run Laurel on the "big dog" course and Ana would run Hardy on the "baby dog" course. They each did a couple practice runs and Hardy demonstrated that he is, in fact, a 15 month old adolescent boy dog. 
Laurel did very well with her demo run - she had a little problem with the weave poles the first time through but all in all, she did great! She was focused on Rob and was just having a blast! Hardy jumped 16 inches (because of his age, we are still practicing at 12 inches) and he was totally awesome! He was fast and focused and didn't look his age at all! I was so proud of both my Labs (and to be honest, my big brown boy really surprised me)!

After the demo, we went back to the table. Unfortunately, we were joined by a dog (not a service dog) that kept lunging while barking and growling at other dogs walking past our table. This is certainly not the impression we want people to have when they think of Lake Erie Assistance Dogs! Then, just when we were getting ready to leave, that same dog lunged at Hardy who was about 3-4 feet away from him and bit him on the nose. It didn't break the skin and Hardy is fine (although Laurel got very upset), but it felt like a bad end to a really lovely afternoon. I will make sure that he has plenty of opportunities to be in the company of friendly dogs and watch for any signs of stress and/or reactivity. Certainly, even though this was not a big traumatic situation, it's not what I want my young SDiT (or my SD, for that matter) to be involved in. However, when all things are said and done, I was very proud of both my Labs and thought it was a lovely summer afternoon!

Friday, July 29, 2011

What a Difference a Dog Makes!

The 4th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is going up tomorrow and although I already submitted a piece for it, I've recently had some opportunities to contemplate the topic from this perspective so I've decided to write another post. The topic for the Carnival is "Difference" and I've already written about the differences between my 5 year old yellow Lab, Laurel and my 15 month old chocolate Lab SDiT, Hardy.
This time, I want to discuss what a difference having a service dog has made in my life. My husband, Brent and I recently traveled to Saratoga Springs to see our son, Devin, perform there. My mom & step-dad also came for the long weekend and my aunt and uncle came down for one of the performances. Unfortunately, I have heard from some family members that my step-dad really doesn't understand why Laurel and Hardy are so important to me and has complained about having them go places with us. We also have a history of "step family issues" so I will admit to being very defensive when he criticizes one of my Labs (admittedly, I'm the same way when he says something unfair or unkind about one of my children). And, then, sometimes, although I do think my mom has a better idea of what Laurel and Hardy have done for me, sometimes she, too, will say something that demonstrates otherwise.
So, in contemplating why those comments are so hurtful, I've been reminded of all the positive differences having a service dog has brought into my life.
I got Laurel as a puppy without having had much experience with service dogs. I did a ton of research and planned to train her in what seemed to be typical mobility-related tasks - picking up and carrying things, opening & closing things, helping with dressing & undressing etc. Those tasks save me energy, prevent accidents and allow me to do more each day. But additionally, when Laurel was about 6 months old, we realized that she was alerting to two different medical problems I didn't even know dogs could (very severe muscle spasms & rheumatoid in the chest wall - which feels like a heart attack). As many people know, taking medication after the muscle spasms begin often has no affect on them. Prior to having the alert which allows me to take them 45 minutes to an hour before they begin, I would end up in the hospital in full, rigid whole-body spasms about every 4-6 weeks. That hasn't happened since. And two years ago, when I developed steroid-induced diabetes, Laurel knew it was happening before the doctors did. Last summer, she taught Hardy the alerts so now I am covered whenever I have one of them with me.
Additionally, when I am not feeling well or am stuck in bed, it's really wonderful to have a dog (or two) willing to stay with me, snuggle and dote on me. We play some great games that don't require me to get out of bed but get them involved, enthused and thinking! They get things for me, keep me company and generally, brighten my day (I really hate being stuck in bed)!
I'm defintely more active now that I have a service dog. When Laurel was young and we were taking training classes, I was reminded how much I love working with dogs and doing dog sports. So, now, although Laurel and Hardy will always be, first and foremost, my service dogs, we also train and compete in a variety of sports - obedience, rally, and agility. We're working on freestyle and I plan to do some carting. My husband comes with us to whatever classes he can and we go to all the trials together, which is wonderful since he is my best friend and biggest supporter.
When I first started training Laurel, I realized how lonely it is to be an owner-trainer and founded a service dog club, Lake Erie Assistance Club (LEAD), modeled after Jeanne Hampl's in Washington state. We're small but growing and it's given me many great opportunities to meet other people involved with service dogs in northeastern OH and to "pay it forward". In February 2008, Laurel, Brent and I attended Sue Alexander's first service dog seminar up in Guelph, Ontario. She agreed to be our service dog trainer, which has led to a wonderful professional and personal relationship. We've gone back every year and for the last three, have spoken there. And I was just invited to do a seminar/workshop on service dogs at a new training facility in Michigan.
Last summer, I was invited to teach a regular obedience class at our local training hall. I now have two classes that are based on Sue Ailsby's training levels and which have proven quite popular. I love my students and although I didn't expect to teach dog training, I am thrilled to have the opportunity! An added bonus is that the money I make covers most of the costs of our classes as well as entry fees for trials.
So, although I know that as service dog handlers, we are often reluctant to discuss the more subjective benefits of having our partners, I also appreciate that those are as real and valuable as the ones I get from my Labs doing their tasks.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Differences Between Laurel and Hardy

Although I am not an expert in the comedic team. Laurel and Hardy, I believe that most of us who know anything about them think first of their differences. Laurel was tall and thin while Hardy was quite large and they used those differences in their comedy.
I have my own comedy team in my two Labrador Retrievers appropriately named Laurel & Hardy. Admittedly, when we got our 8 week old female yellow Lab 5 years ago, we named her "Shawnee's Mountain Laurel" to honor the Poconos area where she was bred and Laurel was her obvious call name. She has made me laugh everyday since I got her and when we were looking for another puppy last summer and he turned out to be a chocolate maie instead of the yellow female I'd been imagining, "Hardy" seemed like the perfect name! And since he'd be a service dog too, "Ridge View's Hard Day's Night" (with the lyrics, "I've been working like a dog") seemed an appropriate registered name. Also, having "Laurel & Hardy" helps me with my difficulty coming up with the correct name at any given time. Assuming that I don't call one of them by one of my children's names, or that of one of our former dogs or our cat, I can usually come up with "Laurel" or "Hardy".
Even though I have difficulty always coming up with the correct name, my Labs couldn't be more different! I selected Laurel on my own using some basic temperament testing tools and she is absolutely the type of dog I am attracted to - good and bad! She is high energy, very friendly, very enthusiastic with a real sense of humor and fun about her! She enjoys trying new things and loves to learn! She is very bomb proof in almost any situation and has a great recovery! Her energy and enthusiasm sometimes go over the top and she has little to no natural self-control. She is very sensitive to me which allowed her to be a natural alerter to three different medical problems but also causes her to worry about me.
We worked very hard from the moment we got her to increase her self control; did lots of socialization and tons of training. When she was about six months old, she gave me the gift of alerting to a medical problem (very severe muscle spasms) I didn't know dogs could and went on to alert to two other problems as well. Her ability to alert has changed my life in really amazing ways and she also does typical mobility tasks that allow me to do things without asking for help, risking injury or using energy and strength I don't have. We have always separated those times when she is working in public with "dog time" and as a result, when she is dressed and working, she is much more controlled and serious. When it's "dog time", although she will still alert and do tasks, she is allowed to be her real self: high energy, hugely enthusiastic and friendly without the best self-control. Although we do lots of dog sports (agility, obedience, rally, freestyle) to give her an outlet for her energy and enthusiasm, I am also aware that her temperament is not ideal for a service dog which makes working in public more difficult for her!
Enter Lab #2, a little brown boy our service dog trainer, Sue Alexander, temperament tested and helped select for me. Left to my own devices, he would not have been the puppy I selected and that was the point to having a professional who knew me and what I wanted and needed help with the process. He is a fun, happy, enthusiastic young man who shares some wonderful qualities with Laurel - he is quite bombproof with great recovery; he makes me laugh and can be a lot of fun! Laurel has been essential to his learning process and as a result, when he was about 3 1/2 months old, he alerted to one of my medical problems on his own and since then, has proven to be very accurate and predictive, just like Laurel is. However, in a few but really critical areas, he is as different from Laurel as he could be! He has tons of self control and is by nature, much more serious minded (or as our son would say, "boring"). In fact, he is currently a 15 month old unneutered adolescent male and he still has tons more self control than Laurel does. Also, he can alert and then, usually can let it go. He doesn't tend to worry ... once he has told me about what is going to happen, he lets go of the responsibility much more easily than Laurel does.
I have never seen Hardy "over the top" and he settles and relaxes easily and beautifully. I have to work harder to keep him motivated when we're doing dog sports (right now, for instance, he does't understand why he should worry about sitting up and straight when we are doing obedience or rally) so I'm working to get better at that. I would tell you that Laurel is persistent but we selected Hardy, in part, for his persistence and he wins the award for that at our house (and for right now, at least, that's not something we are always enjoying)!
When I take my young brown boy out for public access practice I am awed once again at how much easier the differences in Hardy's temperament make doing his job compared to Laurel. I will be forever grateful to Laurel for her gifts of alerting and for her efforts to be the best service dog she can be but in the future, I will look for dogs who have temperaments that will make the job easier for them!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Big Weekend for Hardy!

After spending the last couple weeks dealing with Brent's parents' affairs in St. Louis and getting ready for a van full of stuff to arrive from there, we took Laurel and Hardy on an enforced relaxation trip to Saratoga Springs, NY, to see our son, Devin and his boyfriend, Anthony, dance with the New York City Ballet at the outdoor performing arts center there (SPAC). Saratoga Springs is in upstate NY (the finger lakes region) and is just beautiful! SPAC is in a national park -  an amphitheater with a balcony in a gorgeous setting! We love going there each summer and really missed being there last summer when I was up in Canada. Laurel has already gotten to attend many performances there so this trip was Hardy's opportunity to practice his public access skills while watching (and/or sleeping through) some of the best ballet performances anywhere! 
We left early Friday morning since it's about a 9 hour drive. Unfortunately, the fan for our A/C failed when we passing through Erie, PA, so we had our windows open for most of the trip! Fortunately, both Labs love to travel so they were settled in their crates but we had to watch Hardy because his crate is on the floor of the van next to my chair. Since he's brown, he tends to get warmer than Laurel and we were worried that there wasn't a lot of circulation down there. Laurel's crate's on top of his and she had a great view (and smell) with the wind blowing through her crate. Normally, she just sleeps but she was up and sniffing the air instead. We arrived at the Adirondack Inn about 3:30. We decided to stay there because they are reasonably priced, located very close to SPAC (as a matter of fact, many dancers stay there) and is very dog friendly. Behind each unit is a back yard and it was just perfect for us. We had a unit at the end of one section and my mom & stepdad were right next door to us. 
Hardy sleeping through the NYC Ballet performance

Still sleeping
A big storm came through Friday evening when we were heading for SPAC so Hardy got to experience a sea of umbrellas. He took it all in stride and since we had arrived after the performance began, we had to wait at the top of the hill until the first piece was done. There is a lawn section with big projection screens so Hardy lay down and watched the screens. When we were able to head down to our seats, we found that they were at the back of the area under the roof in the center (thanks for the comp tickets, Devin & Anthony & NYC Ballet). When we first got to our seats, Hardy was pretty sure he should pick up our umbrellas, the usher's umbrellas and her pen that was on the ground. It was a good chance to remind him that just because something is on the ground doesn't mean I want him to pick it up - I remember Laurel going through this same phase. Now she asks me if I want her to pick up something that is randomly on the floor. Hardy immediately settled in and since it was dark, he slept through the dancing, applause, thunder and people moving around during the intermissions! At the end, we woke him up and headed to the side of the stage to pick up Devin and Anthony. On the way, we told Hardy we were going to get them and when he heard their names, he perked up and while we were waiting, he was obviously looking for them. When they came out the stage door, it was clear he recognized them! 
My Aunt and Uncle from upstate New York drove down Saturday morning to see the matinee performance. We mostly relaxed and chatted in our rooms until we headed to SPAC again. Laurel was very happy to spend time in her crate in our room and Hardy was thrilled to be dressed and heading out again. When we arrived at SPAC, he clearly knew what his job was and headed right down to the pavilion to find our seats. This time, we were seated close to the stage on the far right side (by the stage door). The bad thing was that we had an obstructed view but what we could see was very close. Hardy settled right down again and stayed awake for a bit watching the other people. When Devin & Anthony came onstage for the first time though, he was sound asleep again. However, the last piece was The Magic Flute and Hardy was awake for that. He sat and watched the stage and when Devin came on, he got very interested. I actually think he would have gone on stage if I had allowed it (and yes, we were that close to the stage). At the end of the performance, when I told him we were going to get Devin and Anthony, he headed right to the stage door. (We have been working on having him find the van for me when I forget where it is). 
Patiently waiting for Devin and Anthony to come on stage!

Still waiting! Do you know where they are?

Oh bummer, sound asleep again!
Devin gets a bit overwhelmed by Laurel and Anthony, who was afraid of dogs, just adores her. However, Devin determined that Hardy was "boring" since he was dressed and "doing his job" so he was ignoring Devin. Apparently, a Lab just can't win with him! 
We left both Labs home for dinner since we were going to a Japanese Hibachi restaurant (one place I won't take a service dog since there are no places under a table for them and there is open fire when the chefs are doing their tricks). 
Sunday, we met for breakfast and left the Labs in the room (Hardy still isn't a fan of being left in his crate instead of being able to come with us so he needs more practice) and then we just hung out and relaxed for the rest of the day. 
Monday morning, we headed home - thankfully, an uneventful trip. Tuesday, the moving truck arrived so we are back in the land of unpacking and rearranging ... not the Labs' favorite place to be. If the weather would cooperate, we could go for walks but it's either been raining and/or oppressively hot. Since I don't do well with heat, we avoid it whenever possible!
Overall, I'm very proud of my chocolate boy! At this point, I am sure that he would pass a public access test and am about ready to take his "in training" status away. I'll talk to our service dog trainer before we do that but I think he would easily qualify as a full public access service dog at this point. Having two working dogs is really a privilege and blessing for me!