Lesson Six

Canyon and I had our sixth lesson with the Border Collie lady. It’s sad to think that next week will be our second last indoor obedience lesson before we start outdoor agility, but she has had to change her classes to Thursday nights and already has someone booked for 9:00pm privates, so I guess we’ll just have to go with the changes. Last night, Canyon wasn’t as into practicing some of the behaviours, but I think his lack of enthusiasm was because we had started the session off with a high energy “game” and then moved onto less exciting things. I think that next week we’ll just have to do the new “game” at the end of the session, so the more practical task work won’t be as boring to him.

This week she decided to teach me a new way of ramping up canyon’s excitement level in order to get him to do quicker retrieves and recalls. This new “game” is supposed to help him want to quickly run out for a toy and immediately rush back and give it to me, so I’ll toss it again. She feels this skill is necessary for him to be successful at both Flyball and Agility – she’s still showing a little bit of iffiness regarding me and agility, but I’m determined to win her over lol! So, for this “game”, she had me toss a ball and then when he reached it, I started waving around another ball and calling him back all excited and cheery. Canyon has a high ball drive so he thought this game was the best thing I’d ever asked him to play lol! He began to get faster and faster at returning to drop the toy and play a quick tug game, before I asked him to “give it” (release the ball we were playing tug with) and then tossed it for him to retrieve and start the cycle over. around the fifth toss though, Canyon decided he liked one toy over the other and would start ignoring my efforts to play tug and just paraded the other toy he’d just retrieved in front of me lol! We tried to convince him to give it up, but ended up having to just take his collar and throw the other toy, so he’d gladly bring it back for a quick tug game and then retrieve. She asked me to keep playing this game with him and to maybe look at getting two of the same toys so he won’t end up favouring one over the other.

We then tried to do some “heel” work, but Canyon was too riled up to concentrate. He kept running between me and the box where we had put the toys because I only had a treat and he wanted to play the other game again. After a couple unsuccessful attempts at getting his attention, I decided to do some more basic stuff like “sits”, “downs”, “stands” and some “stays” so he would relax a bit. He didn’t really completely settle, but I was able to keep his attention a little easier after a few minutes, so we decided to do some “fronts” instead of heeling. His fronts are coming along. He seems to come in really straight every time I throw a treat to the right or ahead of me now, but still doesn’t seem to come in as straight if I throw it to the left and ask him to come. The border Collie lady tried doing some fronts with him to see if she could figure out what I’m doing wrong when I throw a treat to the left, but he seemed to do it with her as well, so we’re a little perplexed. After he had been doing really straight ones for a while, we decided to test him and see if he was ready to practice while I leaned against a table in a sort of squat/stand position. He came into a pretty straight front about two times, but then started coming in crooked more often than not, so we moved back to sitting on the edge of a chair. I’m sort of feeling as though we’re moving too slowly on learning the fronts, but I’m sort of stuck on how to help Canyon move a little quicker in his learning. It’s sort of like he just doesn’t care or he doesn’t really understand why we’re doing this in the first place. I’ve found it easy to teach him some behaviours like “sit”, “down”, “stand”, “give five”, “leave it”, “give it” and “wait”, but I’ve pretty much failed in teaching him to “touch”, “stay for longer than a minute, to “heel”, to not turn his head when I’m reaching for a toy and now the “front” seems to be another place we’re stuck.

Since getting Canyon over a year ago, I’ve really had to learn to think outside the box because he’s highly sensitive (can’t even handle the sound of a martin gale collar) and isn’t overly food motivated. As mentioned in earlier posts, Canyon didn’t know much of anything when we first got him, so we had to first work on getting rid of some of his undesirable habits he had (mouthing, jumping up & pacing) and teaching him his name, before we could move on to the skills he would need for being a well-behaved family pet. He learned his basic obedience commands quickly, but once I started to try and teach him some more complicated behaviours such as heeling and stay, I noticed his eagerness to learn disappeared. I’m not sure if it is something I’m doing wrong. Or if he’s just going to take more time to learn these behaviours, but I sort of feel as though I might be asking too much of him. When Aspen was young, we tried to teach her as much as we could before she turned six months because her breeder warned us that she may choose not to be as compliant after that and to be honest, she was right. Aspen knows how to “sit”, go “down”, “to heel”, “give five”, “wait” and “come”, but those are all skills she learned before six months. Since then we’ve tried to teach her new skills like “speak”, but she just doesn’t seem to have the desire to learn. I guess we’ll wait and see how our lessons progress this summer because I really don’t want to give up and just accept that Canyon wants to be a regular pet, but I often wonder if this is what he’s trying to tell me.

His number one love in life are toys, so I think I need to figure out a way of always incorporating them into our training. The problem with toys though, is that he becomes so excited and obsessed with the toy that I’m finding it hard to get his attention and “working” for what he wants. But, when I just use treats he doesn’t seem to have the drive and enthusiasm for learning new things that a toy ignites.

Perfect For Me

When the topic “reactions” was announced for the upcoming round of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival I wasn’t sure I’d be able to participate. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I thought I had nothing to write about. My family have never reacted poorly to anything to do with my dog guides and I haven’t experienced any noteworthy reactions from the public. But, after a few days of thinking and some more heart-to-heart discussions with Huib about the possibility of raising and training my next guide, I thought of something to write about.

My problem was now finding a way to write without offending others

As mentioned in my previous ADBC entry, I looked at different guide dog programs, but decided on the Lions Foundation of Canada
in 1997 and have gotten my second and third guides from there as well. I like the LFC’s small class sizes. I enjoy their laid back atmosphere. I like that they have very few rules/policies and that they don’t come out unless you call for assistance. In addition to all of this, I love their harnesses and have enjoyed each dog I’ve been matched with. Everyone has their reasons for choosing to go to a particular school, but for some reason; I’ve encountered numerous people who find it necessary to make me aware of their feelings surrounding my decision.

The LFC, like other schools, have had their “growing pains”. They have put out “good” dogs and not so “good” dogs. I think because they are located in Canada, and happen to be in the same province as I currently reside, I get a continuous stream of negative comments regarding their track record. I have had three dogs from the school and would not think twice about returning for a fourth. I think that if I lived in another country, near a different school, that I would more than likely begin hearing the same negative stories. I think people need to stop and think before they begin insulting someone for their choices because maybe that person has not had the problems their friends experienced. Or, maybe it wasn’t the dog’s fault at all and therefore not a result of poor training.

When I first began working with Cessna, I heard some of the worst jokes and criticisms. She was only a year and a half, so was full of spirit and had a lot of maturing to do, but still people bombarded me with negativity about my choice to receive a dog guide from the LFC. I think it was hard for people to separate the images they had of terrible dogs they’d met over the years from the newly working Cessna, because to them she did not fit their image of a fully trained dog guide. She was high energy, easily distracted, slow to obey commands and found it hard to settle.

To most, Cessna looked like a joke, but to me, she was a welcome challenge.

Some, desire a dog who will obey and work well from day one. A dog who they can immediately put a harness on and trust. A dog that will not question their authority or that they will need to put a lot of effort into. This, is not me. I look forward to the challenge a new dog will bring and thrive on being asked to think outside the box. I want my dog to make me work for their trust and respect. Phoenix and I bonded quickly, but it took time for him to realize that I knew what I was doing and that he could trust in my judgments. Cessna and I did not begin bonding until our second week together and weren’t even close to being a true team until a year and a half after “gotcha day”. Both have taught me important lessons that I don’t think I would have learned without them in my life.

So, next time you feel the need to express your opinions surrounding someone’s decision, please remember these final words. Everyone makes decisions in their lives because it’s right for them, not because it’s right for everyone.

I Think We’ve got a Winner!

After e-mailing two more lab breeders and briefly looking at the flat-coated retriever as a possible guide dog option, I think we’ve settled on Red Labrador Retrievers. It seems as though most breeders are having litters arrive this spring or are taking a year off breeding completely, so we decided to go with RLR. They have two litters coming up between now and October and they are willing to work with us in finding the perfect guide dog candidate.

Both Huib and I really liked the flat-coated retriever and thought this breed would offer a new challenge, but after learning some more about them from Katrin over at By My Side we went back to the Labrador Retriever. Flat-coated retrievers are a wonderful breed, full of eternal youth and intelligence, but rarely will you ever find one who makes it past eight years of age because they all end up with cancer. The short lifespan of this breed is the same reason why I’m less than thrilled about Huib wanting to someday get a Bernese Mountain Dog. I just couldn’t imagine having to say good-bye at such a young age. Cessna turned 7 in October and I feel as though I have just started to scratch the surface of learning who she really is.

RLR will have a litter born in April and then another born in August, so we will soon meet our new family member and future guide dog hopeful. I didn’t really want to start the process of raising and training Cessna’s successor before the fall, but Huib and I think it’s best to have the option of a puppy from two rather than just one litter. I’ve asked for a small female who is energetic and willing to learn, but not necessarily one who’s eager to please. RLr has Anne MacDonald, an Animal Behaviour
Specialist come and assess their puppies before placing them with potential families. We’re supposed to get a copy of their aptitude test and the pedigrees of Cheyenne, Lizzy and Boomer in the mail, so I’ll do an update when they arrive.

I’m really not sure how to feel about these developments because things just seem to be moving so quickly. I feel guilty for looking forward to the new addition and the challenge of training Cessna’s successor. I worry that she’ll feel left out and kicked to the curb. I know I felt this way when Phoenix retired and I know he easily settled into his new position, but I still worry and feel terrible. I sometimes wonder if it would be better to wait until Cessna is ready to retire and then return to the LFC, but then I also think she could teach my new guide so many things and that I’d really like to see if I have the ability to train my own dog. I know these are probably emotions everyone goes through when deciding whether to retire their current guide and/or whether to start looking for a successor, but it still doesn’t make things any easier…

raw, Homemade Or Commercial…

Ever since Phoenix was diagnosed with Idiopathic Vestibular Disease on December 3rd, we’ve been trying to make a decision on what to feed him. Dr B does not want him eating kibble because he doesn’t chew his food and worries he will aspirate, but she also wonders if changing to more of a natural diet might also help clear up his ears and get rid of some of the other annoying issues he has from both old age and his pesky life-long allergies.

You’d think this would be an easy decision, but there are several factors which need to be considered – cost, preparation time, safety and our other dogs, just to name a few.

Cost is something I always think about when deciding to change something with my dogs, because I do not work and Huib has been wonderful about supporting me, but I don’t want to push his loyalty too far. We’ve been looking at the possibility of buying a bigger chest freezer and ordering large quantities of meat from local farmers, but so far have run into the problem of where to find reasonably priced beef, pork and lamb – we will continue to get our chicken from the Maple Lodge Factory and whole chickens from the farm down the road. When you live in northeastern Ontario like we do, there is a limited supply of farmers who raise and sell their own livestock. As for finding the veggies at a reasonable price we’ve decided that it will be easiest to get stuff when we’re in Waterloo at Costco and the St. Jacob’s Farmers Market or check out the discount section in the grocery store for a little more variety. Then in the summer we will be able to grow some of our own veggies and catch some pike and bass in the lake behind our house.

Right now we feed Phoenix a mixture of a cup and a half of moistened kibble (Fromm’s white fish & sweet potato) and a can of wet food (either Merrick’s Before Grain or Performatin Ultra) each day so it works out to be about 3-5 dollars a day. In order to feed Phoenix a homemade diet he will need to have a mixture of muscle meat, organ meat, veggies, and a small amount of dairy and grains, in addition to supplements which include a high level of calcium carbonate. This supplement can be highly expensive, even though farmers use it as a part of their fertilizers, so this is one factor that has made our decision to move from commercial food more difficult. In a raw diet, half of the diet should be raw meaty bones (ie. Chicken necks, pork feet or beef tails) which eliminates the need to supplement with calcium carbonate because the bones are ground up with the meat, as opposed to removing them, like in the homemade diet. Taking just cost into consideration we’re thinking that homemade diets are out, but still aren’t sure if a raw diet is right – even though it would also mean we would eat more healthy, since it would be silly only to feed the wonderful veggies and meat to Phoenix.

Next we’ve been looking at preparation time. When feeding Phoenix his current diet of commercial food it takes about 30-45 minutes to prepare because we have to turn on the kettle to boil the water needed to moisten the kibble, then we have to wait for the mush to cool before adding the wet food and necessary supplements (for old age & allergy prevention). If we were to change to a raw diet we would need to think much further ahead and it would take a bit more time to prepare, but if we made more than one meal at a time would it be easier in the end? I think the barrier to feeding raw here would be, what will we do in the case of our visits to Waterloo every six weeks…?

After looking at the above factors – cost & preparation time – we’ve begun looking at the safety of a raw diet. There are many people who would say there are absolutely no risks involved with feeding a raw diet, but with Huib being a nurse and me not having the greatest vision this is something we need to think long and hard about. The University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College hosts a blog where various pet related issues are discussed and they have posted a very informative pdf file on the raw meat controversy, which can be found on their resources page. The main concerns they outline are the possible transmission of infection and disease (for example salmonella), a potential dietary nutritional imbalance and the issue of swallowing foreign bodies (such as bones). Even though proponents of the raw diet would consider these as being a non-issue, Huib and I need to really look at safety as a possible deal breaker in making this change with Phoenix – he needs to worry about his patients and I need to think about my safety as well as the safety of the other animals.

One way in which we could avoid the risks of swallowing foreign objects would be to ground the bones along with the meat so there would be no possibility of choking or injury to Phoenix’s throat or intestines through splintering. Since eating slowly is not something Phoenix knows how to do, I think making his food into a smoother consistency would be a good idea. As for the risk involved in the transmission of disease, I think it’s reasonable to think that this would be something we’d need to look at in not just his food, but our own as well. I guess all we can do here is to make sure we only buy our meats from a respectable supplier and take care in the storage and preparation process. No matter how careful someone is though, there is always the possibility of something going wrong, so as long as we’re always conscious of safety, I don’t see feeding Phoenix a raw diet as being out of the question.

Finally, there is the consideration of our other dogs. Cessna and Canyon have always been picky eaters and as a result we’ve had to try and think of creative ways of keeping them interested in their kibble. We’ve tried adding canned food or juices and fats from cooking once in a while, in addition to changing their kibble all together on a semi-regular basis. This has worked well in the past, but we’re wondering if by feeding Phoenix differently, we might run into some problems with getting them to continue with their commercial diets. We have thought about changing everyone over to the same sort of raw diet, but Aspen is doing well with her current food and we worry that by changing her we might irritate her sensitive bowel. Then there’s Cessna, our always willing “hunger striker” – would she even consider eating something (raw meat) we ourselves wouldn’t even think of? I wonder this because my aunt’s friend is a hunter and one day while preparing a venison stew for us decided to give Cessna an uncooked piece, she immediately dropped it on the floor and looked up at him in disgust – she ate a piece later though that I offered her from my leftovers before throwing them out. I’m sure Canyon would be totally willing to change over to this way of life, but I’m not so sure about my little Cessnaroo.

I guess it would be easiest and make most sense to just focus on getting a diet ready for Phoenix before worrying about who else might benefit or be willing to change. But, if we’re wanting to use Canyon as a stud it might be something to consider in the future…

I know this post ended up being a long-winded ramble, but I hope it helps others out there who might be considering whether a change to a homemade or raw diet could be better than the commercial food their dogs are currently eating.

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.

Kyo

Today (November 2nd) marks the beginning of Kyo’s (pronounced Keo) new adventure in life. Kyo is an almost 2 year old great dane/black lab cross who was adopted by a friend from the Guelph Humane Society this past April. Kyo was over 25lbs heavier than he should have been and knew absolutely nothing in terms of obedience or proper house manners. Jes worked hard at teaching Kyo his name and all of the basic commands he would need in order to be a wonderful pet.

Kyo is a very large dog (the great dane in him) so needs a lot of exercise and needs a great deal of attention which is something Jess has had a lot of difficulty giving him. He wants to be with “his people” all of the time and finds it hard to share the attention with his guide dog buddies (Glacier & Roscoe). It became quite apparent that Kyo would need to find a new home about a month and a half ago when Kyo’s behavior changed for the worse and he began destroying things out of frustration. After a lot of research and calling several places, Jess learned about PALS, a service dog organization which accepts private donations of dogs to be trained for things such as mobility and autism assistance. After passing his temperament test, Kyo was sent for x-rays and after a few weeks it was learned that he had passed!

Today Kyo will leave Jess and begin a preliminary six weeks of training before a decision will be made as to whether he’ll continue on or be adopted out as a pet. Good luck Kyo, you are a good boy and deserve the opportunity to become someone’s life changing companion!

“Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back!” – Babe Ruth