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.

Christmas 2010

This year my friend and her son came to visit for the holidays. Caleb came on the 17th and is staying until after new Years, but his mom arrived on the 23rd and left on Monday. It was an eventful few days, full of memories and first time experiences.

Here are some pictures of Caleb posing in different kid’s rides during our visit to the North Bay mall for some last minute gifts.

Taz isn’t much into the whole Christmas thing so instead of buying her a gift we took her and Caleb dog sledding near Timmins. Dog Sledding Adventures is run by a man named Shane who has about 21 greyhound like huskies. I cannot totally remember the breed or if they are actually husky greyhound crosses, but if anyone knows from the pictures please let me know. Shane started his dog sledding career in Whistler as a guide and instantly fell in love with the sport. When he decided to move from Whistler back to the Timmins area where he grew up, he made an agreement with the company owner and brought about 6-10 dogs back. The snow conditions on Friday were on the faster side so Shane only hooked up 7 dogs to our sled. We had – coconut (leader), Shooter, Mr. Penguin, Dora, Doughnut, Madison, and Mr. Deeds – most of our team were from his Adam Sandler crew. The dogs were extremely excited about the upcoming run so barked and whined constantly until they were hooked up and told to go. It was amazing to see how focused they get and then as the run goes on how tired they become from the concentration. Each of us got a chance to ride in the sled while Shane directed the dogs and taught us all the necessary commands and features of the sled itself. Then Shane stood off to the side and let us take one another for rides during the next 45 minutes. In total we spent 2 hours with the dogs and it was amazing! Shane told me that the next time I came to bring Cessna and Canyon and he would hook them up with his dogs to the sled and I’d see how well they took to the exercise. It wasn’t overly expensive and I had so much fun that I will for sure be returning later in the winter.

My sister and step-dad came over that evening and we had dinner and opened presents. Brandi had to work all weekend so we had our Christmas get together a little early. At first Brandi wasn’t in a great mood, but as the evening progressed her mood improved. Dinner was delicious and dessert was even better – Caleb and I made both a plain and a toffee chip cheesecake.

This year for Christmas from Brandi I got a Tassimo coffee maker, season four of Dexter, a Glee calendar, Starbucks coffee, and an I.O.U. for pajamas. I absolutely love my coffee maker and can’t wait until we get some cappuccino, hot chocolate, and latte pods for it. Dad gave both Huib and I a hundred dollars and Taz bought us the game Rock Star Life. Huib and I decided not to buy one another gifts since there tends to be more sales during the weeks after Christmas and it’s more fun to go on shopping sprees.

We didn’t do too much during the weekend, but enjoyed one another’s company and exercised the dogs. On Saturday we took everyone for an hour and fifteen minute walk and then yesterday went for a two mile walk in the opposite direction. Taz really enjoyed seeing our home and the areas around where we live. Right now it’s beautiful up here – tons of snow and animal tracks everywhere.

We really enjoyed having Taz and Caleb here for Christmas and hope they’ll join us again next year.

Winter Is Here!

It’s been snowing pretty much the entire week and the dogs are absolutely loving it. I have fun going out with them and watching their games of chase around the snow piles and well, which is also covered in snow too. I think they look forward to this time of year because they can run around like crazy nuts and if they fall in the process, it doesn’t hurt.

Aspen and Cessna like digging in the snow, seeing if they can find something – a toy or maybe a little critter. Canyon likes wrestling with them, but he’s usually the one who ends up on his back. Even though he’s not neutered and a bit of a pushy dog, he seems to accept Cessna’s authority and will submit to her without any real effort on her part. His favourite game though is to play fetch. No matter how cold it is or how much snow is falling, he just has to go outside for even a 10 minute game before he can truly relax. It’s nice not having to keep him on a lunge line or flexi leash because I can throw the toy as far as possible and usually tire him out within 15-20 throws. Aspen will try and get to the toy before him, but she really only has a chance when he’s nearing the end of his energy burst or when I decide to practice stays with him. Phoenix isn’t into playing anymore, but likes to walk around the yard and check out the various smells and poop piles (I know he’s disgusting!). Since his diagnosis of Idiopathic Vestibular Disease though, he hasn’t really been given much of a chance to walk around the yard on his own, but over the past few days we’ve let him roam since the snow will cushion any fall he might have. We just follow behind and make sure the others don’t knock him over – they don’t really seem to notice a difference in him, which seems strange to me.

Picture of canyon resting his head on the back seat of the truck.

I can’t believe Santa Paws will be here in just over 12 days!

Until the next time we write, be safe and have some fun in the snow!!

“Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together.” – Vesta M. Kelly

My 31st Birthday

On Monday, (the 29th) I turned 31. A lot of my friends and even my sister complain about getting older, but I don’t see a problem with it. I’ve had an interesting life so far and am excited to see what the future holds.

A week before my birthday Huib and I went shopping in timmins and he bought me a new white winter vest along with four long-sleeved shirts – poppy red, dark brown, plum & teal. My sister knew I needed a new watch so when we went to Toronto during our trip to take Phoenix to the vet she bought me one from the cnib – where we had stopped to look around and buy some Braille playing cards & a slate with stylus. This year for Christmas I want to Braille a message in our cards along with the print above it (which will of course be done by Huib).

On Friday, (the 26th) we piled Cessna, Canyon and our stuff into the truck for a trip “down south” as my sister likes to say. Phoenix and Aspen stayed home with my step-dad and the cats. We did tons of shopping and visiting with friends. On my birthday we attended a puppy potluck – a bunch of friends got together with each of our respective dogs for a play & social gathering. We were responsible for bringing dessert so Huib agreed on a chocolate chip cookie dough blizzard cake from Dairy Queen. I don’t think anyone actually knew until just before that it was my birthday so it kinda just worked out that we were able to bring a cake of my choice to celebrate. When we arrived everyone acted as though nothing was special, but when it was dessert time they gave me a cool homemade sailor’s hat to wear and sang Happy Birthday to me – it was so unexpected! I absolutely loved the blizzard cake and am delighted to share that this year I actually didn’t have to pretend to like a cake I didn’t!!

Overall my 31st birthday was a great one and now I can’t wait for Christmas to come!

Halloween 2010

This year Huib and I decided to carve pumpkins and take the girls in their costumes to help my sister give candy out to kids in town.

Our witch pumpkin

Front view of our paw print & bones pumpkin

Side view of the paw print & bones pumpkin.

Fairy Princess Aspen – thanks Jetta for giving us the dress 

Fairy Princess Cessna – Huib sure made a nice dress 

Three different pictures of our little Fairy Princesses posing together.

She’s A Scorpio

On October 30th, 2003 a litter of 9 black Labrador puppies were born to Belle and Pippin at the Lions Foundation of Canada. When these little bundles were passed onto their puppy raisers everyone had high hopes for each of them. Fast forward a year and it is recall time. The family of one little spunky female takes her for one final walk before passing her leash onto an excited kennel staff member who will take her into her next stage of life. Tears are shed, but they know that little Cessna is about to begin training so she can change someone’s life forever.

I know astrology is full of crazy claims and it’s probably just a silly game, but reading through the description of the scorpio I can see so many qualities and characteristics in my little bundle of black fur. According to many astrologers Scorpios are strong-minded, full of mystery, never age, but grow in maturity and their primary characteristic is endurance. to me this is a perfect description of Cessna.

From the first moment I met Cessna I knew there was more to her than I could possibly imagine. She wanted to become familiar with me, but she also gave me the feeling she needed her space. Unlike the other dogs in our class she refused to give me kisses or roll over for a belly rub until she knew she could trust me – this took over 2 weeks. When I would take her out for walks, she’d pull like crazy and persistently move towards things which interested her like small animals, birds and other dogs – she even figured out ways of making it seem as though she was being cautious when really she was working her way over to a distraction. No matter what I threw (not in the literal terms of course) at her she never let me down, always rising to the challenge with enthusiasm and far exceeding my expectations.

It has now been five years since we were matched and she still meets every challenge with enthusiasm, but makes sure to do it in her own way – taking her time when needed or getting the job done, but maybe not always doing it the way she was taught. Cessna doesn’t look even a week over 2, but has become so mature and wise in her five years of service.

Tomorrow Cessna will turn 7. This is a bittersweet birthday because it marks the beginning of her middle years where we will enjoy one another thoroughly (without the stress of puppy antics), but it also worries me because Phoenix did not work much past his 8th birthday and that’s not far away for my little girl. I know she isn’t like Phoenix, she’s more energetic, more aware of my feelings and needs, as well as not having to work in such a chaotic time of my life, but I still feel sad because I absolutely love working with her and can’t even imagine having to start all over.

Here’s to hoping for another good couple years of service and adventure with my little Scorpio!

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

A Month of Visitors

Over the past month we’ve had two young boys visiting us. Corbin is 18 months and Caleb is 12 years old. Corbin was here with his mom and her guide dog DeeDee, while Caleb stayed on his own with us.

During Corbin’s visit we learned that our dogs and cats have a huge amount of patience. Laya and Cessna tended to stay out of Corbin’s way, but the others were patient with his poking and pulling. I wasn’t sure what Logan would do around a young child, but there were times when we weren’t able to catch Corbin in time, so Logan would let out a low growl to let us know she needed our help. Corbin thought Logan was so cool, he liked pulling on her tail and grabbing her ears. Logan never once scratched him, she would just try and get away or call out for help. She isn’t one to hide either, unlike Laya, Logan was out in the open pretty much all the time – guess she thought he’d get the point after a while like the puppies usually do.

Phoenix and Aspen weren’t as into Corbin’s poking and pulling, but would patiently lie under him while he bounced until we caught him or he got bored. Corbin has a dog of his own, his mom’s guide dog, but he still doesn’t really know how to properly treat animals. He’s still young though, so hopefully he’ll learn soon. Canyon was the best with him. He never once shyed away and was always willing to let him pull on his tail, ears and jowls. At one point corbin even had a hold of Canyon’s lips while sticking his thumbs into his nose. Huib caught him in the act and that was discouraged. Even though Canyon didn’t always like what Corbin was doing, he still went up and wanted to play. It’s amazing to see how well cats and dogs can behave around young children – even when they aren’t used to having them around.

Caleb was much better with the animals. He offered to feed the cats each morning and let the dogs out for relief. The dogs loved having him around, but he wasn’t a huge fan of their desire to lick him or be in his face. His favourites were Cessna and Aspen, he’d ask to take them out with him all the time. Canyon was a little much at times for him, but I had to remind him that his energy level wasn’t always helping either. Caleb didn’t realize why Canyon wanted to always jump up on him when he was dancing around or laughing uncontrollably.

Caleb liked taking Cessna with us to the gold mine tour in Timmins and Science North in Sudbury. Caleb and his mom fostered a puppy named Jasper for Autism Dog Services so he was used to taking dogs places, but he still seemed to like seeing how Cessna reacted to the different environments. At the gold mine tour the tour guide showed us how the different machinery worked which freaked Cessna right out. The slusher and drill are extremely loud and with us being underground the rock vibrated and the noise was amplified. She was a trooper though and calmed right down once the machines were turned off.

At Science North I thought she’d be afraid of the noises coming from the dinosaurs and the ones that moved, but she surprised me and didn’t even react once. I think she really liked the insects and animals she got to see. Caleb was able to hold almost all of the insects in the exhibit and made sure to show Cessna, she thought that was pretty cool – I made sure she had her gentle leader on though so I could easily control her excitement. When we were on the animal floor, she was totally enthralled by the skunk who was anxious and walking back and forth in its enclosure. We didn’t take her with us on the second day, but I actually got to touch the skunk – she (Rosie) felt a lot like Cessna, but with fur about the length of Canyon or Laya.

Canyon came with us to Sudbury and Toronto, he was awesome! He settled immediately in his crate while we left him at the hotel – huib looked under the door to see what he what he was doing.

At Caleb’s house in Toronto he was interested in the bird and snake, but was easier to re-direct than Cessna who wouldn’t stop going up to the bird cage. On Saturday night I went onto Facebook to see what was new with my friends and family and saw that my friend’s daughter was back in the hospital. Knowing that we were only a few blocks away, I decided that we’d go visit with her before heading back north. Christina has a service dog from Autism Dog Services named Spencer so loves seeing us with the dogs when we visit. The second we entered her room she had a huge smile on her face and throughout our visit never fell asleep or stopped giggling. The funniest part of our visit with her, was to see how she pretended to sleep every time a doctor or nurse entered the room. When you first meet Christina you’d think she was unaware of her surroundings and it didn’t matter what you said around her – well you’d be completely wrong. She is unable to communicate, but from watching her facial expressions and observing her reactions to various incidents you actually understand that she’s quite an intelligent little girl who can’t express herself, but knows how to work the system  Christina’s seizures still seemed to be under control while we were visiting so the doctors were talking about sending her home the following day, so that was pretty exciting news.

Our trip home was pretty uneventful and boring for the dogs, but they were good little travelers as usual. It’s hard to believe, but as of Tuesday we’ve lived in Northeastern Ontario for a year. So far it hasn’t been all that great, but hopefully this year will bring a little more luck and less frustration. Huib has 3 more years left of his contract with the Kirkland & District Hospital, so hopefully the time will go quickly or things will improve dramatically.

4 Months Away


I have had a pretty busy few months so haven’t had the time to blog. Now that things have slowed some I’m going to try and post more often.

Canyon turned a year old on the 3rd of June and got some new toys to share with everyone. He is 23 inches tall, 22 inches long and just 70lbs. We had him to the vet for his heartworm test and the vet said we could continue feeding him puppy food and add in fats that might entice him to eat more. She says he should be closer to 80lbs by now and will get up to 90lbs by the time he has fully filled out. His coat has grown in nicely and he seems a bit darker than he was before his coat fell out. His obedience is well on it’s way and he has already started being able to play fetch with the girls in the yard. He still isn’t the greatest at heeling, but we got an easy walk harness in June and it seems to help redirect him easier than the newtrix, gentle leader or martin gale. We took him to Toronto for Woofstock with Cessna and he was fantastic! He was quite interested in all the different dogs and smells, but listened pretty well. We were with a bunch of puppies in training, so Canyon fit right in.

Aspen turned 7 on the 18th of June and was given the special task of cleaning out the lasagna pan. We also made some banana cinnamon cookies for her and Canyon to share with the others. She’s been swimming tons and playing fetch in the yard every chance she gets. Her and Canyon are obsessed with the game and will grab a toy as they walk out if you’re not watching.

Cessna and I celebrated our 5th year as a team on May 27th. She has really made a mark on my heart and I get sad thinking about the fact that she will be turning 7 in October. She has matured tons and become such an amazing companion. She spends almost all her day watching out for me and the other dogs. She will defend Aspen against Canyon when he’s being a bully and not allowing her to bring the toy to Huib or I, she will run to me and make sure I am okay when walking down the steps in front of our house and just always seems to be watching over everyone. I’m really not sure I’ll ever be able to find a dog good enough to fill her shoes. It’s been a long road, but we’ve gotten here and I hope she’ll work another couple years for me.

Phoenix is still the same old, happy go lucky, boy we’ve loved forever. He can’t hear or run, but he still makes sure to keep the younger ones in line. We started him on a new anti-inflammatory supplement a month ago and it really seems to be making a difference in his ability to get around. He doesn’t seem as stiff after lying in one spot for too long and he doesn’t seem to hesitate at the top of the stairs before going down to the grass. He’ll be 14 in October and I think he is doing amazing!

As you can see, lots has changed and been happening for us all. Canyon is becoming a man, Cessna is becoming a wise middle aged woman, Aspen is finally able to play, and Phoenix is moving smoothly through his golden years. I look forward to getting back into the whole blogging thing and sharing our lives with you all.

Progress

Canyon has now been with us for almost 3 months and he has come such a long way. He now comes when called and he recognizes the difference between his name and the others. He is still not eating as much as I’d like, but he’s maintaining his weight at 67lbs. It is amazing to see what a difference a month has made. Once his recall is perfect, we’ll begin focusing on his heeling and stays. I am taking my time with him because I want him to know everything well before moving onto something different.

On another note, Cessna has spring fever. I find each spring she goes through a period of ignoring commands and letting her nose get her into trouble. I am thinking that she needs to work more, but it’s hard when Huib works and we live away from town. I think I’ll just need to start doing a little obedience training each day to get her back into shape.

This past week a friend of mine adopted a 1 year old great Dane lab cross from the Guelph Humane Society. I am really excited for her, she has wanted a pet dog for a while and has taken her time in finding the right one. His original name was Tank, but her and her fiance have decided to name him Kyo which means “big” in Japanese. She picked Kyo up on Thursday and had her guide dog meet him outside their home. Kyo needs a lot of work on obedience and relaxing, but I am confident that he has found his forever home. I will post updates and pictures of Kyo as I get them.

Condo update….SOLD!!! We will be going to Waterloo from the 28th until the 1st of April to deal with everything. We are quite excited because now we can stop living in a deficit each month and pay off some debt. We are going to view a house in town on Monday afternoon. We are not sure we want to buy our current home and are looking at other options now that our condo is SOLD!!!

Update

We have now had Canyon for almost 4 weeks and he has learned so much. He can sit and lie down on command, unless of course he isn’t interested in listening – which seems to be a theme in this house!! His house training is coming along, he has begun to sit at the door when he needs out – we are going on day 3 of no accidents!!

Our other dogs are still getting used to him. Phoenix ignores him for the most part, but Cessna enjoys wrestling and running around with him outside. Aspen gets along with him most of the time, but there are those odd moments when Canyon decides to bark at her, which causes stress…hopefully this behaviour will stop soon.

On another note, we finally got a new vehicle! We got a 2000 Ford Expedition and the dogs are absolutely loving all the space. We got it on Saturday and have already set up the back for ultimate doggie comfort by removing the very back bench and putting down foam along with a blanket.

In order to keep them safe and keep the passengers from complaining about dog hair, we bought a barrier which goes along the back of the seats and blocks the dogs from jumping up front. We had them out for a test drive yesterday and from the picture we took, I think you’d agree that they are loving their new ride!

Before I sign off, here’s a quick update on Reece. He’s almost been adopted, the potential family is just doing some last minute research on his elbow issue in order to make sure that they will be able to meet his needs in the future. I am really excited about this possible home because we will get to see him often and maybe even dog sit sometimes  I know it has taken a long time for a home to be found, but if this one goes through then I think the wait was worth it. Good luck Reecey Piecey, Mommy misses you and hopes to see you really soon. I have avoided seeing him thus far, so that he does not get confused as to why we are not taking him home. I want him to be well bonded to his family before we begin visiting – thus lessening the stress on both him and I. It would be too heart breaking to see him and then leave him again knowing he still doesn’t have a forever home.