Decisions, decisions

This year I’ve decided to take part in the Assistance Dog blog Carnival and the topic is decisions. Over the past 15 years I’ve had to make many decisions in regards to applying for, working with, retiring, and then raising an assistance dog. Not many people can actually say they’ve been involved in all areas of the service dog experience, but here’s my story.

In the summer of 1993 my shunt (a tube which runs from my brain into my abdomen) blocked. This caused the cerebral fluid around my brain to build up and create pressure which damaged my optic nerves. In a matter of a couple weeks, I went from seeing 20/20 to seeing nothing out of my left eye and only through 3 pin holes in the very centre of my right. It was tough at first, but I had the support of an amazing vision teacher who re-taught me everything from completing daily tasks to getting around the world with a white cane, in addition to a mother who refused to see me any different from the daughter she had given birth to 13 years prior. Now that I’ve laid out some background information to my story, let’s move on to the day I decided to apply for my first guide.

From the first day I was introduced to the white cane I knew I had to get rid of it. I hated the way it felt in my hand, the way people looked at me, the ways it limited me, and well….it was just plain ugly! I made a point of telling my vision teacher this almost every time we had a lesson until the day she told me about guide dogs. I had always wanted a pet dog and to know there was a way of both getting rid of my cane and having a dog of my own, I told her I’d do anything she wanted. She told me that if I worked hard over the next couple of years she’d help me convince my parents to let me get a dog and that she’d help me with the application. It was a long 3 years, but finally in January of 1997 my vision teacher and I began researching programs and decided on the Lions foundation of Canada Dog Guides because it was close to my hometown (Aurora, Ontario) and because the classes were small. I received my first guide, Gryphon, in August of that year and put my white cane on the shelf forever.

Gryphon was a 21 month old tall, slim, male black labrador retriever who weighed about 81lbs. We were matched around August 1st of 1997 and worked together for only a year. Gryphon was not the right dog for me, but he worked well and the trainers felt he was a good fit for a young first time handler, who just happened to be the youngest they’d ever accepted into the program. Gryphon was a great dog and he taught me tons, but we never bonded the way a working team should so, when he was career changed after only a year I wasn’t too upset. Gryphon had become traffic shy after an altercation with a car in Toronto and both the trainers at LFC and myself were unable to get him past his fears. He was later retrained as a special Skills Dog and worked for a while before being retired for health reasons.

Phoenix and I were matched in July of 1998 and worked together for almost 7 years. I remember our time in class together, he was only 20 months and full of personality. From day one he has always had his opinions on how things should be done and has never been afraid to let me know what he’s thinking. We attended my final year of high school together and then completed an entire honors degree at the University of Guelph. Phoenix had severe separation anxiety until he retired so accompanied me on excursions I’d never dream of taking Cessna to – a packed Montreal night club, the outdoor Walkerton Country Music Festival or full day visits to Canada’s Wonderland, just to name a few. Phoenix was always faithful and willing to work at any hour and in any environment, but at the age of 8 and a half he began slowing down and wanting to just chill at home rather than work, so I knew it was time for retirement. It was a hard decision because we had developed such a bond and I worried about hurting his feelings by getting a new guide to replace him. But, most of all I worried about the training process and the hardships involved in bonding with a new working companion.

Cessna and I were matched on May 27th, 2005. She was not truly ready to be responsible for a blind person but the trainers had confidence in my abilities and saw the chemistry between us. Cessna was only 18 months so had tons of maturing left to do. She barked at other dogs out of excitement, jumped around like a kangaroo when she saw squirrels or birds and couldn’t settle in my social work classes without a long run beforehand. This crazy, immature puppy is long gone and has been replaced by a mature, sensitive companion who desires to learn more everyday. Over the past 5 years Cessna and I have worked hard to understand what each other needs and have become a dream team.

With all the skills and experience I obtained “training” Cessna, I began looking for other learning opportunities and learned about Autism Dog Services. Huib and I had talked about what it would be like to raise an assistance puppy and had even gone as far as asking the LFC for a puppy to foster. We were told that instead of having to explain to some clients why they couldn’t raise a puppy when others could, that they had made it their policy to refuse everyone, but they said nothing was stopping us from fostering for another organization. Autism Dog Services was started by a former LFC trainer whom I knew from training with Gryphon and Phoenix. A couple LFC foster families we knew began raising puppies for ADS and suggested we contact them to see if we could also be of help. After a few e-mails back and forth we made the decision to welcome a 10 week old caramel coloured Labrador retriever into our home on March 1st, 2008.

We fostered Aiden until he was 13 months of age and began raising Reece in February of 2009. Our experience with autism Dog Services was both gratifying and heart aching. We loved having Aiden and Reece in our home and are thankful to have been given the opportunity to help ADS in providing independence and safety to children with autism, but this experience has also left us with some lessons. We don’t regret our decision to help raise Aiden and Reece for Autism Dog Services, but wish this experience didn’t have to be another hat placed on the shelf of tough lessons learned.

Since cutting our ties with autism Dog Services we made the decision to purchase a male golden retriever in December of 2009 and raise him as our future stud dog and obedience champion. Canyon is not a service dog, but he has taught me further lessons about loyalty and thinking outside the box. He will go for his health clearances in June and hopefully begin producing offspring who will carry on his temperament and lust for life and who knows, maybe one of them will become an assistance dog in the future.

Canine Memories

It’s been a couple of months since I last posted a memory, so I thought I’d do one now.

Phoenix – The Class Clown

I got Phoenix about a month before starting my final year of high school. I had worked with a dog guide named Gryphon for a year before him, but due to some unfortunate circumstances, he was retired and became a Special Skills Dog Guide.

Phoenix has always been a friendly dog and attracted people from all around us as we traveled the world together. In my high school he was the only dog and therefore everyone wanted to be our friend. The secretaries had Milkbones at their desks and even some of my teachers had their own stashes. I met a lot of people with him that I wouldn’t have on my own and Phoenix made sure to soak up the attention.

No matter how much attention he got though, Phoenix was always a loyal companion and wonderful guide – but, his stomach ruled his mind. Whenever we passed the administration office I had to go in for him to get his cookie or he’d lie down and refuse to move. Other times I’d be able to convince him to move on, but any time we even went close, he’d start pulling towards the office doors. One day my friend and I went in to sign out for the afternoon and Phoenix was so excited to get his daily cookie that he jumped onto the attendance secretary’s desk. He had all four paws on the desk before anyone knew what was happening!

In addition to his love of food, he had a love of people – not just any people, but the people he knew, my friends. We had free periods of time during our schedule where we had a chance to catch-up on homework, but often we just used them as a time for playing cards or grabbing a snack. Phoenix and I had tons of friends we hung out with on weekends or after school, but during our spares we’d sometimes get together with them and chat or maybe go for a short run in the field. One day when I was walking down to the “meeting” place near the cafeteria Phoenix saw a couple of my friend’s at one of the picnic tables and wanted to say hi. I told him no and asked him to continue on into the lunch room so we could grab some hot chocolate before meeting with another for a run in the yard. Phoenix wasn’t happy with this, so walked me straight into a garbage can to show me how he felt – my friends almost died laughing. Another time we were meeting with a bunch of them to play cards and as we approached the table Phoenix got so excited he leaped right onto it to see one of them who was sitting in the very back corner – she almost fell backwards in surprise!

As you can see, Phoenix made my high school days quite entertaining because you never knew what he had in store.

Now What?

When I was in high school and had just recently lost most of my sight I was still naive and thought no matter what, nothing would hold me back from achieving my dreams. When I was picking a university to attend and chose Guelph for their new Criminal Justice and Public Policy program I thought “here’s the program that will start me on my way to becoming a lawyer”. As I was nearing the end of my time at the University of Guelph I still thought I was invincible and that I could do anything I put my mind to. It was that summer (2003( when I realized I was terribly misled 

Just before I finished my degree at Guelph I began studying for the LSAT and applied to potential law schools. I went into the test not knowing how I would do, but left knowing for sure I had failed – my proctor was diabetic and had a low blood episode so incorrectly filled in my score sheet. I decided to take a year off and figure out where to go next and decided on social work.

I got my acceptance letter to McMaster University just before I went to Dog Guides for Cessna – I was so excited!! I got amazing marks throughout my time at Mac and just before the whole placement experience happened I thought, “for sure, social work must be the field for me.” – was I ever wrong!! It took the field placement person over two months to find me my first placement, she talked to over 20 different agencies and each were eager to have me until they learned about my disability… When she finally found an agency willing to take me on the other students had already been working for 2 weeks. My first placement wasn’t the greatest, but I met some interesting people and improve my advocating skills. My second placement was much better, but still I ran into issues – my supervisor was constantly asking me “so, once you’re in the field, how will you do this?” rather than helping me to look for solutions. Don’t get me wrong, she taught me tons and I really enjoyed my time with her, but she also showed me how narrow-minded social workers can be. In addition to all the placement issues I experienced, I was continually running into problems with my fellow students. Not one of my classmates had a visible disability and not one of the instructors looked at issues faced by people with disabilities – they all focused on women, children, poverty and racism. I would constantly raise my hand in class and ask why we were only being taught about these groups and no matter what, I was always brushed aside or made to feel like an outcast for my questions.

In my opinion, social work is based on the belief that people are broken and need to be fixed. I don’t know why we weren’t being taught more about how to work within the systems that hold back society and to help clients achieve their life dreams. If social workers did more of this, rather than just providing bandaid solutions, I think the field would be obsolete and there would be less psychiatric conditions.

Since graduating from Mac in June of 2007 I have applied for several jobs and attempted to attain a masters degree without success. Most social work jobs require a person to either have a driver’s license or masters degree, neither of which I have. All of the job interviews I’ve attended ended in me being told the agency would have loved to hire me, but I just don’t have the experience required – I have tons of volunteer work though… I get the same response from masters programs, you just don’t have the work experience we require for admission – so what now? It’s an endless cycle and no matter what, I can’t seem to get past it!

I got a letter in January telling me I needed to pay my licensing fee before the end of January or I’d have to pay a penalty. I called the College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers to explain my situation. Instead of giving me options for remedying the issue, I was told that’s too bad, I guess you’ll just have to pay the penalty – that’s great guys, but I still can’t find work!!!! A month or so ago I got another letter from the College to tell me that I had to pay my fees immediately or I’d be suspended. I called the College again and explained my situation. The woman on the other end told me she wasn’t a social worker, but an administrator and that the College isn’t here to help social workers, but to help the public – if that’s the case, then why does the public need to write a letter explaining their concerns in order to get information on a social worker? You can go to the Ontario College of Nurses website and type in any nurse’s name to find out where they work and if they are actually registered or have any limitations on their job. After hanging up from the useless organization to which I pay too much money to do nothing, I began wondering “do I really want to be a social worker?”

Today I called the Association of Social Workers to ask for their assistance. Guess what? I was told, you aren’t a member, you need to pay $106 and you’ll have access to our social work job bank. Okay, now let me get this straight…. I pay $270 to one organization and get nothing in return, then I have to pay $106 to another organization in order to get access to a job bank and nothing else???? I’m at a loss for words, I don’t know where to go from here. I’ve done everything I was told, I was a good girl and successfully completed 2 degrees at 2 different universities and for what? To live on a government pension? To rely on my husband for everything from toothpaste to a place to live? How does this even close to make sense?

Huib called me this evening from work on his break to see how I was doing and I quickly explained what the Association had told me. He said he was sorry to hear this, but sadly he didn’t have much more time to talk. So I’m at a point where I’m seriously wondering, do I really want to go on with this fight and be a social worker? Do I want to find something else to pursue? Is it too late to start over? I’m a 30 year old woman, with a visual impairment, 2 university degrees and nothing to do each day, but take care of the house and train our dogs – is this right