A new Semester

On Monday, I started another online course through the University of Guelph. There weren’t too many options for winter semester, so I chose Business & Consumer Law, through the Department of Marketing and Commerce Studies.

From reading the course outline, it looks as though this course will be a little tougher than I had hoped. In addition to my online participation, there will be an assignment, a midterm and final examination. I’m not too worried about the online participation or assignment portions of the course, but am not too excited about the midterm or final because both will be multiple choice.

I’m hoping that as long as I study hard, that maybe I can defy the odds and for once, actually do well on a multiple choice exam.

Please wish me luck!

Independent Woman

I’ve never taken part in the Disability Blog Carnival, but after reading this round’s topic, I was inspired.

I lost my sight in the summer of 1993. I had just finished grade 8 and was excited to begin grade 9 at a new school. It was a total shock. My parents weren’t sure where to turn. I spent my summer indoors, trying to adapt to a life without 20/20 vision.

September arrived and students returned to school. My mom didn’t know what to do with me. She kept me home the first day, and called our region’s Board of Education. She talked to a woman in charge of organizing special services and was relieved to learn that there was a department of sorts designed to help visually impaired and blind students.

That afternoon, I met a woman who would forever change my life.

Stephanie Sommer arrived around noon. She sat with my mom and I, at the kitchen table and asked questions. She had come to assess whether I truly required her assistance. The phone rang at some point during our meeting and after watching me reach past the phone, she took my hand and placed it onto the receiver with a smile.

After mom was finished with the call, Stephanie told us she would start working with me the following day.

Over the next five years, Stephanie would teach me not only the usual lessons of Braille and getting around safely with a cane, but she would inspire me to be an independent woman.

Stephanie never once treated me like I had a disability.

She expected me to act appropriately and study just as hard as every other student in my high school.

She always expected me to give eye contact.

She wouldn’t help me unless I said please or thank you.

And if I got frustrated and attempted to give up, she’d walk away and wait for me to get over it.

Stephanie and I developed more than just a student-teacher bond, we became friends. She told me about her own vision problems and told me how she embarked on an educational journey that led her to working with students like me.

I remember the feeling of comfort that would come over me each time I smelled her perfume, and the smile that would sprout on my face, no matter how bad the day, when I heard her voice. Stephanie was my navigator, guiding me through a world I now found scary and full of unknowns.

She taught me how to read Braille and how to fully utilize the vision I still had.

She showed me how to travel safely throughout my community with a cane, and then when I told her I wanted to apply for a guide dog, she challenged me to first move outside of my comfort zone. I learned how to take the bus to a neighbouring town to attend movies and shop alone in their mall. Then, she gave me the biggest test of all, she asked me to learn how to take the bus to Toronto and then learn to take the subway to the largest mall of all (at the time) – the Eatons Centre.

Once I entered my final year of high school, Stephanie was there to help me reach my goal of attending university. She read through university brochures and program descriptions. Then she helped me fill out application, after application because I couldn’t decide on which one to attend. She was there when I received each of my letters of acceptance and then took it upon herself to arrange campus tours so that I could better decide upon the school for me.

After I began university, Stephanie and I talked a couple times a year, but after she attended my wedding in 2006, we sadly lost touch.

I still think about the lessons she taught me. She inspired me how to be the woman I am today, because when no one else did, she believed I could be better.

Training With The Rogue Puppy

As I mentioned in this post, I ran into some training issues with the Boarder Collie Lady, and with the help of Sharon, from After Gadget, I have created a new training plan.

After reading my post, Sharon, Karyn and others, suggested I forget about the Border Collie Lady, and start looking for new training resources.

Well, my first step in this process was to join the Training Levels Group with Sharon’s assistance. This was probably the most important decision I have made in the four months, since picking up my little girl.

As soon as I posted my introduction to the group, a wonderful woman from Wyoming, e-mailed me to introduce herself and immediately took me under her wing. She first gave me blind-friendly suggestions on teaching “touch”, and then called me a few days later, to discuss where I was so far, and where I wanted to go from here. She listened intently, then told me a bit about the process she went through in training her 20 month old male, standard poodle, who has now passed his public access test. She commended me on our progress so far, and told me to continue doing what I am, but to also start working more closely on Sue Ailsby’s Levels. She said that for the first year, she mainly socialized, exposed and trained her dog using the levels. The following day, she sent me her training plan for me to follow when Rogue is ready to begin her task training (or guide work).

Since our phone call, we’ve traded e-mails every couple of days. It is so great to know there is someone willing to invest their time and energy in helping us succeed. She has also suggested I start working on some of the Level 2 behaviours, since Rogue is pretty close to passing Level 1, we’re just working on targeting and come.

Here is where Rogue is with Level 1:

Come (from 20 feet) – In Progress
Down (with 2 cues) – Passed
Sit (with 1 cue) – Passed
Target/Touch (nose to palm) – In Progress
Zen/Leave It (5 seconds in hand) – Passed

Here are the behaviours Rogue will/has learn in Level 2:

Come (from 40 feet, 2 cues)
Crate (enter, open/close door with 2 cues) – Passed
Distance (goes around a pole 2 feet away with 2 cues)
Down (from sit with 1 cue)
Down Stay (while I walk 20 feet away/back with extra cues)
Go To Mat (from 5 feet away with 2 cues)
Handling (tail, ears, feet) – Passed
Leash (loose for 1 minute with 1 distraction)
Sit (from stand with 1 cue) Passed
Sit Stay (while I walk 20 feet away/back with extra cues)
Stand (from sit or down with 2 cues)
Stand Stay (without moving feet for 10 seconds)
Target/Touch (nose to marked end of stick with 1 cue)
Trick (can be a very simple one)
Watch (eye contact for 10 seconds with 2 voice cues)
Zen/Leave It (5 seconds in hand & 10 seconds on chair with 2 cues) Passed

I have started to do regular little training sessions with Rogue when I’m in the washroom, and she really seems to be catching on to the “touch” behaviour. I am not naming it yet, but think she is pretty close to being able to “touch” on cue. I think the random, short sessions are working out a lot better for us both, because she isn’t expected to pay attention for more than 3 minutes at a time, and I am not having to worry about the others getting upset about being left out.

“Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.” – Robert H. Schuller

Achieving The Confidence

As mentioned in this post, the topic for this round of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is “achievement”. I have been racking my brain for weeks, trying to figure out what to write about.

I finally came up with the perfect idea.

I’ll write about how I achieved the confidence to begin raising and training my future guide dog.

Are you ready?

Here we go…

On Friday, May 27th, 2005, I was matched with a spunky female black lab named Cessna. From the start, we struggled. She had so much spirit and an endless amount of energy. When she wanted to go, there was really no stopping her. When I wanted to just chill out, she couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to be doing. Cessna’s work was always 100%, but she pulled like a steam roller, and jumped around like a kangaroo when she saw other dogs and small critters. I tried using all of the training methods I had been taught while in class, but our progress was slow and at times seemed to move backwards. To add to our troubles, Cessna had some unknown fears and emotional trauma, which would leave me scratching my head, wondering what I could have possibly done to cause such a reaction.

Fast-forward almost three years.

On Saturday, March 1st, 2008, the Director of Autism Dog Services, brought a 10 week old caramel colour lab to our home. With all of the struggles and challenges I had overcome with Cessna, I felt we could use our knowledge to raise a puppy for a young child with autism. Aiden was a big goof. He had an amazing personality and loved to please everyone. We taught him so much within such a short amount of time. People used to stop and watch us in malls, smiling at the four month old puppy, performing his favourite tricks (roll over, give five and show your belly). By the time Aiden was approaching 7 months of age, we started to search for more direction and training ideas for new skills. This is when I began my training sessions with Dogs In The Park.
Aiden and I participated in the weekly “stay classes”, while Cessna joined me for “Levels”. Aiden had the most reliable “stays” of all his fellow ADS trainees, and I learned how to teach him complex skills and tricks, such as some of Cessna’s more basic guiding commands. By the time aiden was recalled for formal training, on Friday, February 6th, 2009, he was able to confidently leash guide me, throughout our neighbourhood and within quiet stores to find Huib. It was at this point, when the Director of Autism Dog Services, suggested that I think about raising and training Cessna’s successor.

This thought sat in the back of my mind for over a year and a half.

On Saturday, February 14th, 2009, Huib and I went to a small kennel in St. Agatha, Ontario, to pick up our second ADS foster puppy, Reece. Cessna and I had been participating in the weekly Levels classes for almost 7 months at this point. Our relationship was flourishing, and I had learned new ways of working with her, that did not include leash corrections or any other forceful methods. We began our raising adventures with Reece, trying to closely follow the new training methods I’d learned through my time with Sue Alexander. We used his lunchtime meals for training and taught him everything using the clicker and praise. Reece wasn’t as quick as Aiden in the learning department, but his trainer was delighted with his weekly progress. With aiden we found it next to impossible to teach him loose leash walking, so with Reece, we worked on leash walking from day one. By the time Reece was six months old, he was able to walk on a loose leash with anyone. Unfortunately, around this time he began to develop a limp which seemed to be coming from his left front elbow. It took the program staff five months to make the decision to wash him out.

On Friday, December 18th, 2009, Huib and I picked up a 6 month old male golden retriever from a Mennonite farm in Chesley, Ontario. Canyon (formerly Sparky) had absolutely no name recognition or manners. He mouthed, jumped up on everything, relieved indoors and would pace when he was nervous. We spent the first week teaching him his name and what the clicker meant. We then moved on to teaching him to sit through “capturing”. We knew he loved going outside, so would wait for him to sit before clicking and opening the door as his reward. Once he was sitting reliably, we named the behaviour and started to use it at other times, like before meals and when he’d go to jump up onto something or someone. Through using solely the clicker and treats/praise, we found our relationship with Canyon grew quickly, and his fears subsided easily. Over the next year and a bit, I taught Canyon all of his basic obedience commands without the use of anything other than the clicker and treats. I also continued to work on training with Cessna, teaching her to do various tasks at a distance and expanding her use of the “touch” cue.

During the winter of 2010 and 2011, I began working with a trainer to learn more skills and to try and expand my training knowledge. Through these lessons, I learned how to teach Canyon to turn right and left with a simple gesture, and how to better teach him to walk on a loose leash. Training an older dog, compared to a young puppy, can be a bit more of a challenge. The Border Collie Lady taught me how to do things differently in order to move past some of the obstacles we’d encountered.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to see what Canyon had truly learned through our lessons with the Border Collie Lady. He walked calmly and confidently at my side through the St. Jacob’s Market while Cessna guided us around people and vendor tables. It was such an awesome feeling to be able to smoothly walk through the market with two dogs at my side. He even surprised me at one point when he showed a desire to try some fire escape-like stairs that Huib was showing Rogue and my friend Karen was coaxing her 13 month old foster puppy up. I handed the leash over to Huib and Canyon walked up and down the stairs as if he’d done them a million times.

In February of this year, I learned that Cessna had begun to develop cataracts in both eyes. It was at this point, when I decided to seriously look into raising and training her successor. I researched breeds, looking at the golden retriever, flat-coated retriever and Labrador retriever. After deciding on the lab, I started researching breeders in Ontario. I e-mailed close to 10 different ones, before settling on Red Labrador Retrievers, a small kennel in Maidstone, Ontario.

We picked up our 11.8lbs, female butterscotch colour lab on Friday, June 10th, 2011.

I’m honestly not sure I would have made such a decision if I had not been matched with my little black firecracker. Through my struggles with her, and experiences with Aiden, Reece and Canyon, I’ve learned tons and developed self-confidence.

I’m hoping Cessna will never stop challenging me to become a better person, and that she will help me teach Rogue how to walk in her shoes.

Is It Me?

I’m frustrated.

I’m discouraged.

And, I’m not sure how to make things better.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been trying to set up a training session with the Border Collie Lady. We haven’t had a chance to continue our agility lessons since the end of May because of various scheduling issues. She competes in agility and conformation with her dogs, so a lot of her weekends were full. Then when Phoenix got sick, I really didn’t want to be away from him more than necessary. Over the past month though, I’ve been trying to set up a couple of sessions with her, but keep getting this excuse and that for why she cannot get together.

I understand that she is probably busy, but I also feel as though she is not truly interested in helping me. During our training sessions, I got the impression that she didn’t feel as though I could truly succeed in agility with limited sight, but I thought I could prove her wrong with time. I really enjoyed our sessions and felt as though she had tons to teach me, if I could only get past her preconceived notions regarding my abilities.

As far as I know, she has a sister who is blind, so I thought it would only take a bit of effort to win her over.

Well….

I’m now feeling as though I was sadly mistaken.

I don’t think she truly wants to help me. And I’m feeling discouraged.

I really, really want to compete in rally obedience and agility with Canyon, Cessna and Rogue, but I feel as though my skills are somewhat limited. I feel as though I need someone to watch me in action with each of them, and offer suggestions and advice regarding the areas we are struggling. I know I can succeed in these dog sports, but am really not sure I can do it without guidance. I find it helpful to have someone providing training structure and suggesting areas for improvement and new ways of overcoming challenges, but there really is no one else in our area except for the Border Collie Lady and a training program which seems to constantly cancel group classes they advertise on the radio.

After my experiences with the Border Collie Lady and previously Sue Alexander, I’m really beginning to wonder if I’m just too much work. I know Sue didn’t ask me to leave her program because of disability related concerns, but having negative experiences with two dog training programs, has really done a number on my self-confidence.

Is it me?

Are there things I need to change about myself?

Is it them?

Am I expecting too much of other people?

Should I just avoid dog training programs all together, and just educate myself?

These are things I need to consider, because the status quo is not working. If I want to achieve my dreams of competing, then I’m going to have to figure out where the problems lie. And, if it is me, then I need to figure out how to stop and change whatever I’m doing to scare off the people who can help.

Or, figure out a way to teach myself the things I need to know.

Any thoughts? Or words of wisdom?

Coincidental Timing

On Sunday, it will be 13 years since my mother passed away. This anniversary has gotten me thinking about how each time I’ve gotten a new dog guide, someone special has left my life.

Mom passed away two months and two days after I was matched with Phoenix. She had a chance to get to know Phoenix, and thought he was the perfect dog for me. She enjoyed sharing her banana Popsicles with him, and would even offer to babysit if I had to go somewhere alone. She did not share this sort of relationship with Gryphon.

Granny passed away a month and fifteen days after I was matched with Cessna. She also got a chance to meet and sort of get to know her. She thought Cessna was a little rambunctious, but saw potential for a great worker.

Then recently, Phoenix passed away two months and a day after I picked up Rogue. He showed her a patience I had not seen him ever offer another puppy. He let her lick his face. He let her nap on top of him. He let her clean up crumbs he had dropped. And, I’m convinced he left her with a level of wisdom and maturity, I’ve never seen another five month old puppy possess.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but it’s really got me wondering if I should stop getting new dog guides.

Please let’s hope I’m wrong.

Cessna’s Raisers

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been debating whether it’s worth continuing to keep in touch with Cessna’s raisers.

During the first four to five years of being a team, her raisers e-mailed regularly and when I wrote, would ask numerous questions about how she was doing.

Over the past year or so though, this has stopped.

About six months ago, I wrote them to give an update since we had not heard anything in a while. And to let them know Cessna had been diagnosed with tiny cataracts in both eyes. I thought they would have written back worried, wondering whether she would be able to continue working. Instead, I got a message which asked questions about other things I’d told them, and that said “Oh, that would not be good to have a blind guide dog”. They did not refer to Cessna by name. They did not ask what the veterinarian had said about the cataracts. They did not even ask about how she was enjoying winter or how she was doing otherwise.

This message had me concerned and sort of put off in regards to wanting any further communication.

I waited four to five months, to see if they wood write…they didn’t.

So, a day or so ago, I wrote with another update and to let them know Phoenix had passed away. I thought I would try giving them another chance to show me they still cared and even tried to put things into the message that would have them ask further questions.

Well, I got a message back and again there was nothing said or asked about Cessna – I was crushed.

I’m not sure if I’m just being silly, but I really am not sure I want to write them anymore.

Maybe it’s just an accidental oversight on their part.

Maybe they’re so busy with her foster mom’s adult daughter that they’ve had to put other interests on the back burner.

Or maybe Cessna just isn’t as important to them anymore.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that this lack of caring is bothering me.

I’m honestly stuck. I don’t know if I should continue writing and just give them the benefit of the doubt. Or if I should just leave things alone and see how long it takes for them to take the initiative to write.

Back To School

In June, I talked about wanting to return to school. I had decided to register as a non-degree student, and am hoping to take a course or two each semester between now and the fall of 2013. I’m tired of doing nothing, other than training with my dogs, reading books and cleaning the house. I know Huib does not hold my inability to get a job against me, but I still feel as though I’m wasting my life, sitting around.

Yesterday was the start of course selection, so Huib logged into my student profile, and registered me for this course.

When I was a student at the University of Guelph from 1999 to 2004, I majored in Criminal Justice & Public Policy, which primarily meant I took courses from the sociology and political sciences departments. I really enjoyed the political sciences, so focused mainly in this area when I had a choice, so there are actually very few courses left for me to take now that I am re-entering student life.

I was attracted by this new course, Governing Criminal Justice, because not only will it focus on areas that interest me, but it is also primarily writing based, and there is no final examination. I haven’t done a final exam in over four years, so I thought it would be best to start off taking a course that was writing based, since this is something I’m quite good at. I am not a creative writer, but give me a topic to research and I have no issues producing a paper that might just knock your socks off.

I’m not sure what the future holds in terms of my ability to find employment, but in the meantime I think I’ll try and better my educational background, so that I might be able to complete a masters when we move back to Southwestern Ontario.

Good Luck Dawsen

As of Friday, it’s been two weeks since my sister handed Dawsen’s leash over to a man who fosters for Golden Rescue. Dawsen was with my sister for seven months, but she just found it too tough.

Dawsen is a two year old, rusty colour, golden retriever with moderate epilepsy. He came to Golden Rescue at the age of 22 months, because his family just found his behavior to be too much to handle. According to the family, Dawsen had pretty much spent his life living in a crate, coming out for walks and short wrestling matches with their teenage sons. They said he had only had two seizures with them, but that he’d just gotten to be too much work. His first foster home taught him to sit, lie down and wait before getting his meals, but by the time my sister adopted him, Dawsen was still in the learning phase.

Over the seven months Dawsen lived with my sister, he learned to sit, lie down, wait, give a paw and how to play appropriately with other dogs. It was a bit of a struggle at first, but my sister stuck with it and Dawsen slowly settled into his new life as a beloved pet. As time went on though, there was one thing my sister was not able to break him of – his food obsession. As a result of the medication Dawsen receives for his epilepsy, he cannot control himself around food or anything that appears edible. Therefore, it was really hard for my sister to keep him safe and out of trouble, but for the most part she was successful. When he came to visit us though, he had to stay on leash or where a muzzle because it was impossible for me to feel comfortable enough with his behavior and safety.

Around the beginning of May, my sister learned that her landlord would be selling the home she was living in, so she began the search for a new job and home, in Huntsville, since she was really not happy in Kirkland Lake. She found a job almost immediately and then found a townhouse for our step-dad and her to share.

During the moving process, Brandi took Dawsen on trips to visit family and friends and found it almost impossible to keep Dawsen from stealing food and/or trying to eat anything that looked enticing. She moved in June, and Dawsen’s behavior got even more difficult to tolerate. She was really hoping that she’d be able to accommodate his needs enough to keep him safe, but This was not the case, so after a couple of weeks, she asked me to take Dawsen until Golden Rescue could find him an appropriate foster home. Dawsen stayed with us for over a week, but returned to my sister for a few days when we had to go “down south” for Rogue’s vet visit and the Red Labrador Retrievers’ annual reunion. It was really hard for my sister to be responsible for handing over Dawsen, but I also think it was important for her to meet the man who would be fostering him and see how easily Dawsen took to his pack – 2 golden retrievers, a boxer and toy poodle.

Since leaving my sister, Dawsen has begun to learn off leash recall and has made really good friend’s with the man’s 2 year old male golden retriever, Octane. He has already sent us a couple of updates and has complimented her on the level of care and training she provided. I’m really hoping Dawsen will find his forever home soon, but in the meantime, I know he is having a blast with his new pals.

My sister still cries about the decision she had to make, but I personally think it was the best one for both her and Dawsen because, in order for her to keep him safe, she would have had to either crate or muzzle him when she wasn’t able to be right by his side. I tell her that she isn’t a bad person, that maybe Dawsen needed her to teach him the valuable life skills he’d need to find the family of his dreams, but she still finds it hard to think about.

If we get any further updates on Dawsen, I’ll post them here.

My Scorpios

We’re still not back online at home so I’ve come to one of the local Mcdonalds to use their Wi-Fi, but here is my submission for the 4th round of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival.

I’ve been tossing around the topic of “the difference” for over a month, trying to figure out what I should write. Do I write about how different my life would be, if I’d actually enjoyed exploring the world with a lifeless, hollow, metal stick, painted a reflective white? Do I explore the differences between the various service dogs that exist? Do I talk about the differences I’ve observed, regarding the ways people view service dogs? Or do I play it safe, and talk about the differences between Phoenix and Cessna.

Decisions…decisions…

Since I’ve had the pleasure of first working seven years with Phoenix, and now six with Cessna. I think I’ll go the safe route, and write about something close to my heart.

I know people always tell you not to compare service dogs, but do you really think they even take their own advice? I don’t…

It’s part of human nature.

We are just programmed to compare.

How often do you look at something or meet someone, and think, now that person reminds me of “so and so”. Or, I had a really cool hat once, I sure wish that one on the shelf was a little more similar.

I’ll start off by saying that Cessna is not Phoenix. And, Phoenix is not Cessna. See? I’m totally aware of the diversities between them. And, to be honest, I actually celebrate their uniqueness.

Now to start the real “meat” of my submission…(Just a side note, I’m going to write this comparison, as though Phoenix is still the younger, working boy, I got over a decade ago.)

Phoenix and Cessna are very different dogs. If you just look at their physical features, you’ll already notice dissimilarities. Phoenix is yellow, whereas Cessna is black. Phoenix is male…Cessna is female. Cessna is about two inches shorter than Phoenix. Phoenix is about 5lbs heavier than Cessna.

If I move away from the physical traits and look at their personalities, you’ll find even more variations. Cessna is highly emotional, whereas Phoenix is very much “go with the flow”. Phoenix is laid back and just wants to be with me at all times, but Cessna is spunky and finds dogs and other animals intriguing. Cessna will sit back and think through a problem, whereas Phoenix will just try and figure out how to get what he wants out of the situation. Finally, Phoenix could care less about how I’m feeling (he’ll actually hide when I’m crying), but Cessna will stick to me like glue, trying to get between me and the pillow to lick away my tears.

My final comparison between Phoenix and Cessna will come from examining their working relationship with me. Phoenix and I bonded within two weeks of being matched, but Cessna and I took close to 18 months to truly mesh. Cessna forced me to learn alternative training methods because of her sensitivity to corrections, whereas Phoenix would literally turn and laugh at me when I corrected him. Phoenix never became distracted by anything other than cats, but to this day, Cessna cannot control herself around other dogs or small animals. Phoenix worked because he didn’t want to stay home alone and because he knew there were treats involved…we still don’t know what motivates Cessna to do what she does. Finally, Cessna needs to be challenged regularly, whereas Phoenix was fine with the status quo.

As you can see, Phoenix and Cessna are very different dogs. From the way they look, to the ways we worked together. There is no one perfect formula to make up a service dog, it’s all in the chemistry and work ethic of both handler and canine.

Phoenix and I would never have worked out, if I was not willing to accept his frequent accidents in malls, or had the ability to laugh at his devious nature – he was always trying to stay one step ahead. I honestly never got the mutual respect from Phoenix, Cessna and I base our relationship upon.

Then, it took a lot of hard work and patience to create a rock solid partnership with Cessna. We both had to earn each other’s respect, and I needed to think outside the box when teaching her new things, or trying to work through problem areas. I’ve had to accept her never ending love for small animals, and she has had to learn to accept my faults as well. Cessna and I, have a relationship that truly overshadows the one I had with Phoenix. I’ve been able to teach her so many new skills, and she’s shown me that it’s possible to have a service dog work because they just love the job and not because it’s what they were bred to do.

I will always love both Phoenix and Cessna for being who they are. Each one came into my life at a time when I needed them most. Phoenix entered just before Mom passed away and just before I started my journey towards adulthood. Cessna came to me just before Granny passed away, and at a time when I needed to be tested and shown that the status quo, just isn’t enough.

I hope you enjoyed reading my submission for the 4th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, as much as I enjoyed writing it.