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.

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