Looking Back

The topic for this round of the assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “regrets.” I chose this topic because in exactly one month it will be 17 years since I was partnered with Phoenix. For new blog readers, Phoenix was officially my second dog guide from Dog Guides Canada, but to me he was my first, and the dog who started it all.

On July 23rd, 1998, I was matched with Phoenix, a 21 month old male yellow lab. He wanted nothing to do with me at first, he just wanted to be with his trainer. Around the two week mark of class, a switch turned and he was mine forever. From that moment in time, Phoenix and I ruled the world together. Even when he retired 7 years later, he was still my constant shadow. No matter how much Huib tried to win his affection, Phoenix would have none of it. When I was home, Phoenix was stuck to me like glue.

We finished my final year of high school together. We completed five years at the University of Guelph and walked across the graduation stage side by side. Along the way Phoenix taught me about unconditional love and the value of true friendship.

It’s true, I’ve had several dogs since getting Phoenix (not all guides of course), but no matter who has passed through my life since July 23rd, Phoenix had and will always have a big piece of my heart.

You’re probably wondering how this all relates to the topic of “regrets.” Well, looking back I have many regrets.

Looking back, I wish I had known about clicker training and that I had not used the choke chain and the harsh corrections that went along with it. It’s true that I stopped using all of this a year or so after getting Cessna, but I still have regrets.

Looking back, I wish I had known about feeding a raw diet sooner. Yes, Phoenix ate raw his final eight months with me, but it took me over 12 years to finally figure out how to end his constant fight with ear infections. It’s true that I figured out his allergies by the time he was seven, but he still got painful ear infections off and on, so I have regrets.

Looking back, I wish I had known the end was near. It’s true he was just two months shy of his 15th birthday when he passed. It’s true that I was not in school or working, so I spent every hour of the day at home with the dogs. It’s true that I fed him all of his favourite human foods, such as pizza, french fries, Kraft Dinner and beef jerky, when he’d eat for me. It’s true that he progressively ate less and less, while sleeping more and more the last month of his life, so I should have known the end was near. But, I have regrets.

I wonder if he would have stayed longer if I had not gotten Rogue. I wonder if he wouldn’t have started to give up if I hadn’t left him with friends for a few days while I took Canyon, Cessna and Rogue to Rogue’s breeder’s reunion. I will probably never know the answer for certain, and he probably would have still passed away, but I have regrets.

According to dictionary.com, regret means to: “feel sorrow or remorse for an act, fault, or disappointment.”

This definition seems fitting. I feel sorrow for the training methods I chose, which caused me to act poorly towards Phoenix. I feel remorse for not acting sooner to stop his ear infections. And, I feel sorrow for possibly causing him to pass away sooner than he might have if I had not chosen to get a puppy.

It’s true that I shouldn’t feel bad for these things, but I still have regrets.

Trinity

While in Lindsay to visit Phoenix’s foster mom, Alice, we took an hour to go visit our friend Amy and meet her new addition.

Trinity, an 11 week old female dalmatian, stands on the deck.

Trinity sniffing the grass.

Trinity standing in the grass at an odd angle.

Just Trinity's hind end as she runs through some geraniums. The colours in this picture are very vivid.

Trinity is the niece of her 3 year old female Dalmatian, Waverley.

Arizona had fun playing with Trinity, but I’m not so sure Trinity was as enthusiastic about playing with the Wild Child.

Chloe, a 13 year old husky mix, laying in the corner of the yard.

While the puppies played, Rogue toured the yard and got some loving from Amy. Chloe, Amy’s older dog just laid in the corner of the yard observing. Rogue tried to get her to play a few times, but that didn’t work out so well.

Partnership Differences

I know the chances are extremely slim that it would have happened, but if Phoenix was still with us, he would have turned 17 this week.

Knowing this has gotten me thinking about the differences in the partnerships I have with Cessna and Rogue, and had with Phoenix.

Each dog has their own unique personality and working style.

Cessna is an amazing worker, but if there’s a squirrel nearby, she’s also a serious critter chaser. but, no matter how distracted she gets, her work is always spot on.

Phoenix was too serious about his work. If he thought something wasn’t safe, then he’d flat out refuse to move. One day it took me 15 minutes to convince him to climb over a snow bank that was blocking our path. Phoenix knew his job was to keep me safe, so he felt it was necessary to keep following the sidewalk until he found an opening he could get me through to cross the road. the only problem was, there were no openings, it had just snow ed and the snow removal people hadn’t gotten around to clearing pedestrian walkways.

Rogue is still in the training process, but already I am seeing similarities between the way she works and Phoenix’s work ethic. If Rogue isn’t sure something is safe, or certain that she is doing what I want, she’ll stop walking and sit down until I explain the request again.

Cessna is a solid worker, but Phoenix and Rogue seem much more serious about their job.

At home, Cessna rarely cuddles with me or follows me around the house. She’d much rather spread out on the couch for a nap or chase squirrels in the backyard.

Phoenix was my yellow shadow. Wherever I was, he was not far behind. If I was sitting on the couch, Phoenix was lying beside me with his head in my lap. if I was doing dishes, he was lying by my feet or a few feet behind.

Rogue is almost an extension of me. the second I move, she’s up and ready to follow. if I’m working on my laptop, Rogue is lying right against me. if it were possible, I think Rogue would climb inside my body.

Other then her bad habit of counter surfing while we’re gone, Cessna could care less about being left behind.

Phoenix went nuts when I left him. it didn’t matter who was with him, he did not like being away from me.

Rogue is not even close to as bad as Phoenix, but she still does not like being left behind. She’ll frequently look out the window to see if I’m coming back, and she’ll whine if she sees me and cannot get there.

Thinking about the differences between my partnerships with Cessna, Phoenix and rogue, I really wonder if maybe a good working dog needs a certain level of separation anxiety…

It’s Canada Day!

Cessna, Canyon, Rogue and I wanted to take a moment to wish all of our fellow Canadians a very Happy Canada Day!

There are some special events going on at some of the parks around Guelph, so I think we’ll take Rogue and Cessna to check things out.

Later in the evening, there will be fireworks, so the dogs will stay home while Huib, dad and I go watch them. I used to take Phoenix to fireworks displays, but I have heard of other people needing to retire their guides after such events, so I won’t ever take another one of my dogs. so far, none of my dogs seem phased by the sounds of fireworks, so I’d rather keep it that way.

Happy Canada Day Everyone!!

Annual Check-Ups

Last Friday, Canyon, Cessna and Rogue went to see Dr B for their annual checkups.

Just before going into the clinic, we let them all go to the washroom, hoping for a feacal sample. We didn’t end up with a sample, but Cessna found her own feacal sample to try out. She rolled in goose poop, and smelled horrible! Huib tried really hard to get the smell out of her coat, but wasn’t overly successful so, stinky Cessna came with the other two into the clinic.

Rogue was the first to be checked out. Dr B listened to her heart, lungs and abdomen. while listening to her heart, she commented on how relaxed rogue was – she said her heart was beating nice and slow. After the physical examination, rogue had blood taken for her Heartworm and Lyme tests, and for her distemper and Parvo titters. We have the dogs on a limited vaccine protocol, so they have titters done every other year to make sure they still have the right level of immunity. the only vaccine we don’t run titters for, is the rabies one, because it is really expensive. After the blood was drawn, Dr b asked if there was anything that concerned us, we mentioned rogue’s possible soft trachea issues, and her need for some sort of carbohydrate (oats, rice, quinoa, sweet potato) in order to be less gassy. She said it’s possible she has an extra flap of skin in her trachea, that is swelling in the summer, but she said to continue what we’re doing, if it’s working. As for the need for carbohydrates, she said that works and that we can also add them into the diets of the others.

Next to be examined was Canyon. He had all of the same blood tests done, but was also due for his rabies vaccine. After checking him over, Dr b looked at the spots where he had scratched and licked his fur away, sometimes causing wounds. She called them hot spots, which I don’t agree, but told us to clean them thoroughly and then put this stuff on them called Allederm. She also asked if we had any concerns, and we told her about the couple of times he’s woken up with left hind leg pain. We said it looked as though he most likely had a leg cramp, since it went away within a few minutes, and had only happened a few times, a few months apart. She couldn’t find any signs of a problem, but told us that she recommends people start their large breed dogs on Glucosamine at 5 years of age, but that we could always start him now if we wanted. She also examined the tiny cyst on the lower lid of his left eye and we discussed neutering. Other than a higher chance for prostate and testicular cancer, there isn’t really a big push for neutering, so we agreed that we’d rather leave things as they are, but said we’d watch the cyst to make sure it doesn’t grow.

Finally, it was stinky Cessna’s turn. She had been hiding under my chair while the others were checked over. Dr B did a physical examination and took blood for her heartworm and Lyme tests, as well as, for titters and for a geriatrics work up. Cessna will be 10 in October, so we wanted to check all of her blood values, to make sure she’s as healthy as possible. After that was done, we had Dr b re-check her fatty lumps and asked her about the choking and coughing Cessna has started to do more often. i told her Phoenix used to also do it, and that I felt it might be related to the fact that both were trained (by their school) using choke chains. She said that older dogs tend to need to clear their throats more, but she checked her throat, mouth and lungs and heard nothing worrisome. the only issue Dr b found with Cessna, was a slightly broken back molar. It happens to be the same back molar Phoenix broke at the age of 10, so I’m guessing git has to do with age. I told her I’d make an appointment sometime this summer with the doggie dentist who did Phoenix’s tooth extraction, and since Cessna isn’t bothered by the tooth, she said that was fine.

When she was done checking over the dogs, Dr b asked us what they were eating and what supplements we are giving them. She was happy with everything, and said that our plan to return to giving them Kelp is a good idea. Retrievers have a high rate of cancer, so anything we can do to help prevent this is a good plan.

We haven’t received any calls regarding their blood work, so I assume everything is perfect, or at least in the normal range.

Now that our wallet is a lot lighter, it’s time to save for their next vet visit, lol!

Phoenix Loved Avril Lavigne

Last night after Huib left for work, I started listening to Hits 1, on Sirius/XM Radio.

Avril Lavigne has a new song out, called Here’s To Never Growing Up. It began playing as soon as the station tuned in, and I started thinking about Phoenix.

Don’t get me wrong, I think about Phoenix a lot, but hearing Avril made the memories come back stronger.

Phoenix loved Avril. He’d be sleeping on the couch (before he went deaf of course) and as soon as an Avril Lavigne song came on the radio, Huib said Phoenix’s tail would start wagging to the music. It was so strange!

It’s hard to believe he’s already been gone for a year and nine months.

Both Phoenix and Aspen were such a large part of our family. It’s hard to put into words how much their deaths have effected us.

Aspen has only been gone two months, so the pain and tears are still quite fresh, but we still miss Phoenix.

i hope they are running through fields, chasing leaves and enjoying crab apples together.

this is a picture of Phoenix and Aspen from 2007. Phoenix is standing with a very muddy Aspen in the wooded area behind our former condo building.

I hope they both know how much we love and miss them each day.

I also hope they know that they don’t have to worry about us, they did enough of that while they were still with us.

And to think this post all started from a song that came on the radio…

Impossible Perfection

This post is for the 10th round of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival.

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival button

About two years ago, I began researching Labrador Retriever breeders in Ontario. I had learned that Cessna, my current program trained guide dog, had developed tiny cataracts, so had made the decision to “take the plunge” and owner-train her successor. The vet wasn’t sure if Cessna’s cataracts would grow and how long she would be able to work, so I decided then and there that we would need to begin our search for the right “Future Guide Dog Hopeful”.

It took about two months for us to settle upon a breeder, Red Labrador Retrievers, and about a month more before the litter that contained my little caramel firecracker was born.

On June 10th, 2011, RLR’s Babe In Total Control or Rogue for short, entered our family. From the start I just knew I had made the correct selection. Rogue was confident. Rogue was busy. And most important to me, Rogue was independent-minded.

Over the past year and a half rogue and I have had our challenges. I have tried to make sure she obtains all of the exposures, socialization opportunities and challenges needed to give her a proper start on her journey to becoming a guide dog, but the road has not always been smooth. Many people would probably look back at our challenges and suggest that I wash her from training and return to Dog Guides, but we’re not yet ready to quit.

Our first real obstacle came when rogue turned 7 months. It was like someone had turned a switch. rogue was no longer feeling confident in public. She was backing away from people who wanted to greet her. She was hiding behind our legs and peaking out to see if the person had left. She wouldn’t come out when the person squatted and started calling her in an excited voice. She wouldn’t even come out when we had them hold out some treats. Sometimes she’d also begin barking at them when she was backing away, or bark at random people passing our table in coffee shops or walking past us in the grocery store. We were not ready for this sort of reaction, but knew it must be some part of her normal puppy development. I also knew that one of her half siblings had been washed from autism service dog training for shyness, so I knew it was possible she could face the same fate if we weren’t able to work with her through this issue.

We decided the best thing to do initially was to take a few weeks break from training all together. rogue was spayed, so needed a week to heal and I also felt as though she needed some time to just be a dog. After the three weeks were over, we started taking Rogue on short trips into town for lunch or coffee. If she barked at anyone, we said “quiet” and then asked the person, if they hadn’t run off, if they wouldn’t mind offering her a piece of hot dog. Rogue was better with some people than others. We couldn’t figure out a pattern, so just worked with what we had. If she didn’t immediately shy away from the person offering her the treat, we’d push her a little further and see if she would allow them to give her attention. We did this for about three or four months before we noticed she was no longer barking at random people and shying away from their greetings. We didn’t always stick to our short outings of course, taking her to run errands and for totally new exposures, but I think being patient and rewarding her for being quiet and greeting politely was what helped Rogue regain her confidence.

Our next real challenge didn’t show itself until November. Don’t get me wrong, Rogue’s training hasn’t gone completely flawless, but it wasn’t until November that we were confronted with a problem I didn’t see a way around. Since last Christmas, Rogue has been wearing the Active Dogs padded harness vest along with the Premier Easy Walk Harness. I thought she was comfortable with the equipment, but then a friend pointed out issues with her body posture and the way she was holding her head. Huib started to pay more attention to this and said that he felt Rogue may be uncomfortable with either being in public or the equipment she was wearing. I decided it was time to work more seriously on loose leash walking in public (I’d been working on it with rogue in the house for months). Rogue had always been ducking the opening to her vest when I would go to put it on so I didn’t think that was an issue, but felt that maybe she was reacting to the feel of the Easy walk. We stopped using it and were introduced to the fact that Rogue has a soft trachea. Back in May Rogue had made us suspicious of this possibility when she had 48 hours of reverse sneezing episodes, but with the use of the Easy walk, we didn’t really understand how bad the problem was. After speaking to a friend who knows a great deal about the condition, we switched Rogue from a regular nylon flat collar to a martingale. Similar to her ducking of the vest opening, she was ducking my efforts to put her nose through the opening of the martingale. It was the introduction of the martingale that brought us to the realization that Rogue was not only reacting to the feel of the Easy Walk, but that she was also upset about the gear in general.

I was at a loss.

I was convinced that I would now have to wash my girl.

I didn’t see how I could possibly get her comfortable with wearing a martingale and guide harness.

After days of e-mailing back and forth with friends and talking to Huib, it was decided that we should try finding gear that didn’t require Rogue to put her head in to put on. I also decided to take another break from training and just focus on what Rogue already knew. First, we found martingales that opened up like a nylon flat collar on the Silverfoot website. Then I came across a doggie back pack we had purchased in the summer for Canyon. I asked Huib if it would be possible to modify it, so that Rogue could wear it for guiding, he didn’t see why not. I ordered the new martingales and Huib got to work on converting Canyon’s Outward Hound back pack into a guide harness.

It has been about a month since we started using the new martingales and Outward Hound back pack. Rogue’s attitude and body posture in public has changed drastically! She’s happy to be out and even tries to seek out the attention of random strangers – something I’ll need to now work on, but it’s a place to start. the martingales also seem to eliminate the coughing and gagging when we’re not paying close enough attention and rogue happens to get to the end of her leash.

Some people may look at the challenges I’ve faced and suggest it is time to cut my losses and accept the fact that Rogue may never become a guide dog, but we’ve overcome things so far and I’m not ready to throw in the towel.

Some people may look at our challenges and say that Rogue isn’t an acceptable guide dog candidate, but I’m not ready to give up on her. If I had given up on Cessna so easily, I would have missed out on eight amazing years of partnership with an amazing teacher.

Some people may look at my lack of training knowledge and suggest training rogue is too big a job for me to do on my own, but I’m not ready to agree. Rogue and I have gotten this far with my trial and error style of training, so I don’t think it’s time to stop moving forward.

Rogue may never be a “perfect” guide dog, but am I a “perfect” trainer? Were Phoenix and Cessna “perfect” guide dogs? Is anyone “perfect”?

The only answer I can give is that Rogue has been a patient learner and I think she’ll make the “perfect” guide dog for me.

Rogue stands in the snow wearing Muttlucks. She's wearing two different colour boots, royal blue ones on the front and hunter green ones on the back. The cuffs of the boots are full of snow after running through drifts, so it looks as though she has swollen ankles. She has a big smile on her face because she's in the middle of a game of fetch.

He Said It Was Time

As mentioned in an earlier post, the topic for the 9th round of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “Moments”. From the first moment I read the topic, I knew what I had to write about. Even though it isn’t a happy moment, it’s a moment that I feel needs to be written about.

The moment I am going to write about, is the moment I knew it was time to say goodbye to Phoenix, my second dog guide.

Since the first day we became a team, Phoenix has always lived his life the way he wanted. If Phoenix didn’t want to do something, then he made sure I knew exactly how he felt about me asking him to do it. if Phoenix wanted to do something, then he made it completely clear to me that it was going to happen or he’d try his darnedest to make sure it did.

Phoenix and I worked well together because we both had a stubborn streak and we both knew how to keep the other one guessing.

Seven years after we were matched, Phoenix began to make it clear to me that he wanted to retire. I tried to convince myself that he was just being a big baby about the winter and that he’d be back to normal in the spring/summer months, but when things didn’t improve by May, I knew he had made his decision.

Phoenix retired on May 13th, 2005, seven years after he had begun working.

Phoenix settled well into retirement from the start. If he saw me take Cessna’s harness from the leash rack, he immediately ran over to the couch for a nap. When we arrived home, he was always waiting with a toy or his metal bowl at the door, wagging his tail. He took well to having Cessna take over his role as my guide and he seemed to enjoy his new job of being the protector of the house and Aspen’s babysitter. When we fostered Aiden and Reece, Phoenix taught them about respecting their elders and as they grew, he began to play with them and to keep them in line when needed. When we moved to Northeastern Ontario and brought Canyon into our home, Phoenix seemed disinterested in interacting with him, but he also didn’t seem upset about his arrival.

I sometimes wonder if maybe Phoenix felt as though Canyon would be able to take over as my protector since he was a boy, or if maybe he was just too old to care.

About two months after Phoenix’s 14th birthday, I came home to find him in horrible shape. My step dad had been watching him for me, and said that he thought he had had a stroke. We rushed Phoenix down to the vet thinking the worst, but hoping for the best. During the entire seven hour drive, I held Phoenix’s paw and told him how much I loved him and that it was okay to go if he needed to. When Dr B finished examining him, she said he had an acute onset of Idiopathic Vestibular Disease, and that if I had the time and patience, that I could get him back to normal within a couple of weeks. This was the best news I’d ever heard and devoted the next month to helping Phoenix with his rehabilitation. He ended up keeping a bit of the head tilt associated with IVD, but he regained all other function.

From that experience, I began learning about the raw diet and how it could possibly give me more time with my old boy. Phoenix had dealt with ear infections our entire twelve years together, so Dr B felt that a more natural diet might be the answer we’d been looking for. I started Phoenix on his raw diet around the middle of January and within weeks noticed a drastic difference in his level of shedding and saw that he even had a bit more spunk and energy at times. We spent the next few months together without any health issues. He seemed to be aging well and I was starting to tell myself that I may have a year or more with my faithful companion.

In June we picked up a spunky little caramel lab, we named Rogue, and Phoenix did his usual shunning of the youngster. I knew it would take time for him to get used to her, and that she would need to learn to respect his space, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly she began to understand his boundaries.

About a month after picking up Rogue, Phoenix began to refuse his meals. He had never refused to eat, so this change really began to worry me after the second day of him doing this. We were unable to get him to Dr B for a couple of weeks, so I stayed in constant contact with her by phone and e-mail. She suggested different ways of getting him to eat, and sometimes it worked, but most times it didn’t. Finally, after three weeks of Phoenix barely eating, she told me to give him anything he’d take and not to worry about his allergies or about if it was any good for him. Again, sometimes it worked, but most times it didn’t.

On August 10th, 2011, we headed down to Guelph. We stayed with friends for the night and then took Phenix and Rogue to see Dr B.

As soon as Dr B saw Phoenix she knew it wasn’t good. She said that she’d run tests and give him pain medication if we wanted, but that she felt he had already made his decision. Dr B felt that Phoenix was tired and just wanted to go, but needed me to help him. Huib and I had both decided on our way to her clinic that we would do whatever she suggested, but from Dr B’s words, we knew it wasn’t what she suggested, but what Phoenix wanted.

On August 11th, 2011, at 1:20pm, Dr B gave Phoenix the medication that would help him leave us peacefully. Rogue, our 4 month old caramel puppy, laid against him while Dr B administered the injection and I held his paw and Huib stroked his head. Rogue stayed curled up against Phoenix for close to 5 minutes after Dr B had checked to make sure he no longer had a heart beat, and then got up, walked around him sniffing every part of him and then walked to the door and turned to look at us, as if to say “it’s okay, he’s gone now”.

It is this moment in time, that will remain with me forever.

The moment I said goodbye to my old friend.

The moment I realized that his spirit would live on, within my new friend.

The moment I knew he’d be with me forever in my heart and in my memories.

Hard To Believe…

1 year ago, I said goodbye to my faithful companion.

12 months ago, I said farewell to my number one sidekick.

52 weeks ago, I said so long to my best friend.

365 days ago, my confidant took flight.

8760 hours ago, my teacher left my side.

525,600 minutes ago, my pal went to join our friends and family who left before him.

31,536,000 seconds ago, my life changed forever.

No matter how many dogs enter my life, Phoenix, you will always be missed and never forgotten.

The lessons you taught me, and the unconditional love you provided, will always leave a smile on my face.

Rest in peace my yellow friend.

Not Like Most

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

This well-known saying, is one I’ve heard regularly over my thirty-two years of life.

Time and time again, people are telling me not to change things if they work.

Most people would listen to the advice, but I’m not like most..

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival buttonI received three wonderful guides from The Lions Foundation of canada Dog Guides. Gryphon only worked nine months because of an unfortunate incident with a car, but Phoenix worked seven years and Cessna will retire after eight.

Given this record, most people would be planning to return for a fourth, but I’m not like most.

As many friends and readers of this blog already know, instead of returning to Dog Guides for my fourth guide, I have decided to give owner-training a try.

Most people would look for a puppy who is calm, confident and shows an eagerness to please, but I am not like most.

Rogue is confident, but instead of being calm and eager to please, she is busy and independent-minded.

Most people would rather not spend the time and money raising a puppy, and would rather have a guide who is fully trained and ready to take on the challenges of guiding a blind person.

Not me, I’m not like most.

I look forward to the challenge of raising and training Cessna’s successor. I enjoy the obstacles Rogue places before me, and believe that her spirited nature makes me a better person and subsequently a better trainer. Together, Rogue and I approach problems with enthusiasm, because I know she’ll forgive me for my faults, and she knows I’ll forgive her for her mistakes.

Most people want a service dog who will perform their tasks when they are asked to do so.

Not me, I’m not like most.

I like dogs who have a mind of their own. I don’t want a dog who will go into robot mode and work the second I pick up the harness handle. I want a dog who will question me, and who will make me work for their respect.

We all have our hopes and dreams regarding what a service dog will bring to our lives. some hope for miracles, but others just hope they can make the partnership work.

When I applied for my first guide, I looked forward to getting rid of my white cane, and to the opportunity to share my experiences with another. I was young and full of dreams, but I knew from the start that I needed a dog who would challenge me, and who would force me to go outside of my comfort zone to make our partnership work.

Phoenix worked well and challenged me almost daily. If he wanted to do something and i didn’t allow it, he’d plan his revenge and I never knew when it would come. In order to keep his work at its best, I not only had to practice his basic obedience a few times a week, but also had to make trips into bigger cities for him to feel challenged as well.

“Marchin’ To Your Own Drum” is something most service dog handlers do, but for some, it is something we take to heart because we’re not like most.