Cane-Free

Exactly 14 years ago, my Mom, Dad and sister dropped me off at the Lions Foundation of Canada training centre, in Oakville Ontario.

I remember being so excited about the upcoming adventure.

I had waited for this day.

When I lost most of my sight at the age of 13, I didn’t know what the future had in store for me.

I remember the day my vision services teacher gave me my first white cane. She gave me general instructions on how to use it, and then left me to get used to the feel of it for a couple of days – at this point, I was just instructed to hold it slightly out, across my body. She then explained on how to do the sweeping motion and then explained when it’s best to tap, versus slide it across the floor.

I remember hating the feel of this “thing”, that was supposed to keep me safe.

It was just so cold and unnatural.

I remember the day I learned about guide dogs.

I remember wanting to get one immediately.

I remember being told I would have to work on my orientation and mobility skills first.

I remember getting a chance to work with my vision services teacher’s German Shepperd in harness. She had briefly worked with Leader Dogs For The Blind while going to Michigan State University, and had taught her own pet dog how to guide so that her students would get a feel for what it would be like before applying.

I LOVED IT!!!

About an hour or so after I had arrived at the LFC, the other students began to arrive as well. There were six of us in total; two guys from Alberta (a 60 year old and a 25 year old), a 49 year old woman from Toronto, a 35 year old man from Kitchener, and a 35 year old man from Newmarket. At dinner, we were split into groups of three, I sat with the man from newmarket and woman from Toronto – we got along really well. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with what our trainers had to tell us. We were told what the schedule would be like for the first couple of days.

And, were told that as of tomorrow, we were no longer allowed to navigate the facility with our canes – they wanted us to get familiar with the place on our own, since we would not be allowed to use them once we got our dogs.

I remember the sense of relief I felt, the moment I put my cane on the shelf.

It felt like I was beginning a new chapter in my life.

This was the moment I had been working so hard for.

It’s hard to believe that this moment was fourteen years ago.

Ever since that day, my cane has remained on a shelf or in a box.

I have never once taken it out.

I have never once had the urge to use it.

It’s a chapter in my life I never want to revisit.

I know that working with a dog isn’t for everyone.

But, it’s definitely for me.

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.

We’ve Made It Six years!

As of 10:00am today, Cessna and I have been together for six years!!

I will always remember her class. I was one of eleven students, ranging in age from sixteen to sixty-eight. I was 25 at the time, but just happened to be the second youngest. I’m not sure why, but I really didn’t seem to socialize much with the other students. Maybe it was because I had to go away for longer than a day without Phoenix for the very first time. Or maybe it was because the other students just weren’t overly interesting to me.
Here’s our first team picture

It seemed as though the students had their groups and I just didn’t fit into their
neat little clicks.

I don’t ever remember my experiences with the students in Gryphon and Phoenix’s classes being this way. I actually still keep in touch with one of the women I met during Phoenix’s class. Darwin was her first dog and we were the same age, so got along amazingly well. Sadly, Darwin passed away around the age of 10, which just happened to be a couple of weeks before Phoenix retired. Janell ended up waiting a year and a bit before receiving her next dog, a medium sized female black lab named Cyder – who just happens to have been fostered by K9 Crazy small world eh?

I remember the first time I met Cessna. I had already tried out various dogs, all were too slow for me, so when they finally brought out Cessna, I just knew she was the one. She was eager to meet me. Wanted to check out the other dogs and peple. Wouldn’t settle right away or even acknowledge my requests for a sit and/or down.

Cessna just had this air of self-confidence and love for life that I couldn’t help wanting to know more about this little ball of energy.

Over the years, Cessna and I have had our ups and downs. She had some fears that we had to work through as a team. She had a lust for life that needed to be tamed. She had trouble controlling herself around other dogs and small animals.

Here’s a picture from Cessna’s days as a therapy dog for St. John’s Ambulance

And, I had to learn that Cessna is Cessna, not Phoenix.

Our six years together have gone by quickly. We work amazingly well together. I no longer have to give her every little cue and if I screw up she seems to know what I really want. Looking back, I never would have thought we’d get to this point. She’s so different from Phoenix and I think it took time for me to embrace the change.

Cessna, you’ve made such a deep impression on my life that I don’t think I can ever forget you.

this is our most recent picture together, sorry for the repost

I look forward to spending another year or two working with my stellar partner and fellow adventure seeker!

It’s Been Six Years

Today, Phoenix celebrates six wonderful years of retirement.

On Friday, May 13th, 2005, a trainer from Dog Guides came to assess Phoenix. He had begun to slow down and showed very little desire to work. It only took five minutes of walking with us for the trainer to tell me I was right and it was time. She told me that he didn’t seem ill or anything, but that she felt he would completely stop working by the fall. I knew this is what Phoenix wanted, so asked when the next class would take place. Phoenix started staying home more often than coming with us from that day and I left just over a week later to get Cessna.

I’m glad Phoenix was able to tell me he wanted to retire.

I’m glad we’ve had a chance to enjoy one another without the demands of a working relationship.

I’m glad he’s been able to get to know Cessna and teach her some of his unofficial skills.

But, most of all, I’m glad he’s given me six fabulous years as a stellar friend.

I’m not sure we’ll be able to celebrate another full year of retirement, but I hope Phoenix knows how much I appreciate the work he did for me and the unconditional love he continues to share.

“The gift of true friendship is that it takes us by the hand and reminds us we are not alone in the journey.”

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.

Posted For A Friend

A friend of mine is beginning to raise her 10th puppy for Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides (where I received all 3 of my guides) and to celebrate has taken on a special project. It costs approximately 20,000 to raise and train a dog guide, so Sam has decided to begin fund-raising for her puppy’s “scholarship”.

Romero is an 11 week old black lab golden cross and so far has proven to be a very smart and sweet boy. He’ll stay with Sam and her family for the next year and then move on to be trained for one of LFC’s five programs – Canine vision, Hearing Ear, Special Skills, Seizure Response or autism Assistance. If for any reason Romero doesn’t make it, the money she raises will be put towards another Dog Guide team.

Fund-raising ideas are still in the works, but since Romero was named for the Blue Jay’s pitcher, Ricky Romero, Sam has decided to begin with “Pitcher Pledges”. It’s up to you what is pledged, but here are some suggestions – 10 cents for every inning pitched, 1 dollar for every strike out or maybe 1000 dollars if he throws a no-hitter this season…use your imagination! You can send your contact information and pledge to dogguideromero@gmail.com and she’ll contact you when the baseball season is over to collect the donations (tax receipts can be given if desired) – which just happens to be right around Romero’s 1st birthday.

To follow Sam’s fund-raising progress and to see more cute pictures of Romero click here

Canine Memories

I haven’t posted one in a bit so here we go…!!

Cessna – the Crazy Nut!!

During the first few months of having Cessna I experienced several moments of wondering “what have I gotten myself into?” Cessna was only 18 months when we were matched so she had a lot of maturing to do…

During class atLions Foundation I was given permission to have Huib bring Phoenix on his Sunday visits. Cessna and I were matched on a Friday so had only been together for a couple days, but I wanted Phoenix to get a chance to meet her at least a couple of times in a semi-neutral environment. When Huib and Phoenix arrived, Cessna and I took them to our room so the other dogs in the class would not be distracted by a new dog in the building. When the door was closed and I had Cessna calm, I took the leash off and told her to “go visit” – she immediately mounted him!! Luckily Phoenix is not a dominant dog so didn’t mind this greeting.

At our graduation Huib brought my friend Kaitlyn because she wanted to meet my new dog and to experience a dog guide grad. Cessna was pretty excited about the whole event and had a lot of trouble settling – there were tons of people, the other dogs were excited and to top it all off her puppy raisers were there! Well Kaitlyn and Huib walked in and as they approached us Cessna began to go nuts because she knew Huib already. Kaitlynn was so caught off guard by her behavior that all she could say was “what did they give you?”

In September of 2005, just a couple months after we were matched, Cessna and I headed to McMaster University where I began my Bachelor of social Work. A big part of my mark in many of my classes was based on group participation so often we’d have to meet in the library or at someone’s place. On one such occasion my group decided we’d meet at my residence since Cessna and I had a fairly large suite – consisting of a kitchen, living area, bedroom and bathroom. My friend came over early to help me collect stray socks and underwear that Cessna enjoyed stealing from my laundry basket and spreading throughout the suite. While helping me find something I’d dropped behind my dresser we heard the girls begin laughing uncontrollably. My friend walked over to the bedroom doorway and asked what was happening. Well, she began to laugh as well because she saw Cessna with her paws on a girl’s chest while making a humping motion – I was so embarrassed!!!

As you can see Cessna always had a way of making things interesting. From day one, her work was always 100%, but she had a lust for life that needed to be tamed.

A Weekend of Change & Fun

Saturday was a pretty lazy day, but Sunday was a little more exciting. A friend’s sister had begun to e-mail me regarding the possibility of fostering Amber. She has never fostered before so mainly wanted to know her responsibilities and whether she was able to take Amber everywhere with her. After a few e-mails back and forth she talked with her parents and they were all for her fostering. Meghan attends the University of Guelph so Amber will get tons of time in classes, as well as, tons of time to be a dog since the student life is not always overly demanding. Sunday afternoon we packed up Amber along with all of her things and headed off to Meghan’s place.

When we first arrived Meghan and her roommate were not home, but a short time after we went back to the car they arrived with bags full of things for Amber. She got her new bowls, a leash, and some toys…what a spoiled little girl! Amber was quite excited to meet Meghan and they seemed to fall in love instantly. Amber almost immediately began to make herself at home, wandering the house and checking out Meghan’s roomate’s dog Jack. After going over some things, we turned to leave, Amber wasn’t so sure about this and ran out the door. We got her back in without too much difficulty and said our good-byes. Meghan’s sister called me that evening to let me know how happy Meghan seemed. She said that she thinks I might have made her year . As I hear more I will update everyone on Amber’s progress.

After leaving we headed out to the University to begin planning our walk route. This coming Sunday morning will be Guelph’s 2nd Annual Purina Walk for Dog Guides so I want to make it as perfect as possible. This year the walk could not take place at the park we had done it at last year because some booking issues had occurred and by the time we had put our request in the space was gone. The University’s V.P. Student Affairs came to our rescue though, offering to pay for the rental fees if we wanted to use their Arboretum Centre. The facility is beautiful, the only problem is no dogs are allowed inside except for working ones and I assume fosters as well. Having no real other option we decided on taking up her offer and began the process of planning the day. The day will begin with a catered sort of breakfast provided by the University’s food services department. Then the walk will commence and afterward there will be raffles and fun dog contests.

In planning the route we decided to first walk down the main driveway and head onto main campus. We walked through various areas of the campus stopping at one spot to take some pictures of Cessna and I. Cessna found the campus to be quite interesting with all the squirrels running about and the fields where she could run. I guess she hasn’t been there enough to get over the excitement yet. Phoenix lived and worked with me on this campus for five years so the novelty of it all sort of wore off after the first year there. After about an hour and a half we were done planning the route. This year the walk will be about an hour and fifteen minutes of walking, a little longer than it is supposed to be, but the walk is pretty scenic in spots so I am sure the community members coming out will enjoy it. I think as a preliminary precaution though we might figure out where the halfway point would be and have volunteers let the walkers know that if they turn around there then once they reach the centre again they will have done half the walk. I don’t want people getting too tired or warm not having the chance to take a shortcut. The route follows the main driveway from the Arboretum Centre and then goes through campus by their new Science Complex and then goes along Gordon Street to College where they will turn and walk by War Memorial Hall (a beautiful building) and by some of the residences such as McDonald Hall, Mills Hall, and Johnston Hall. Once they reach Wineguard Walk they will turn and go past the main cafeteria (Creelman Hall) and then pass by the library and some other older buildings. They will then turn down towards the Athletic Centre and head back towards the Arboretum Centre this time walking along some of the paths rather than the main driveway. I am looking forward to all of this being done, it has been a stressful process, but hopefully it will be all worth it in the end.

Today wasn’t too eventful, we only went out to the school yard near our place to play some fetch. The weather has become quite warm and humid and Aiden is having some trouble adjusting once again.

“Challenges are what makes life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.”
– Joshua J. Marine

Spring Is Here!

This week has been pretty uneventful. Cessna and Aiden (16 weeks) went to the vet to get their vaccinations. Cessna got a clean bill of health and happily only had to get one needle and then some blood drawn for her heartworm test…what a brave little girl! Aiden got his final set of puppy vaccinations and also got a clean bill of health, he now weighs 35lbs! After a week of not feeling so hot, his belly is now back to normal, it’s amazing what a few days of just rice and Pepto will do. After going to the vet we headed off to visit a friend who also has a dog guide. Boise is a 4 year old black lab from GDB, a VERY big boy! Cessna and Aiden wasn’t sure what to think of Boise, he had surgery on his eye about two weeks ago and is still needing to wear his cone to protect him from scratching at it. Just imagine what it would be like to see a great dane wearing a cone on it’s head…that’s how big he is and how strange it looked. After a nice visit with my friend and Boise we headed off to dinner with another friend at Frankie Tomatoes…yummy all you can eat Italian! Cessna and Aiden did very well, just lying under the table and watching the other patrons walk by with their plates full of food.

The rest of our week has been spent working on plans for our local Purina Walk for Dog Guides and spending lots of time outside. Aiden was born in December so has never experienced the heat of an Ontario summer, did he ever get a quick lesson. We took everyone to the local school yard to play fetch each day this week so they are really beginning to enjoy the nicer weather. Aspen and Aiden are finding it a bit hard to get used to right now, but I think soon enough Aiden will adjust like Phoenix has who is also a yellow lab. Aspen on the other hand hates the summer months, being a golden she likes it as cold as possible. When Cessna and Phoenix are lifting their paws in the winter, Aspen is laying in the snow eating ice and loving it. Cessna finds it tough when it is really sunny out because her black coat just seems to draw in the heat, but she still loves her free runs no matter what the temperature.

Having An Older Dog

With Phoenix being 11 ½ and not getting any younger I constantly find myself worrying about every little thing he does that is out of the usual. He is quite healthy for his age, only a bit of mild arthritis and pee pee accidents when he gets overly excited, but nothing more than that. But, I still find my mind wandering when I lay in bed trying to sleep wondering if I can handle the day he needs to cross over that Rainbow Bridge. I have had Phoenix for almost 10 years now and he is really my first pet which I raised on my own. I got him as a dog guide on July 23, 1998 at 10:00am and even though I had had a dog guide for a short time before him I fell in love with Phoenix right away.

My first dog guide and I really never truly bonded, but Phoenix and I were inseparable after the second week of class. He was quite attached to his trainer when I first received him, but after two weeks of being together he became my yellow shadow and has never let me down since. We had a great working life together, but after 7 years of a fast paced life he decided it was time for him to retire and become a pet. He decided you ask…yes, Phoenix decided to retire, he began to walk slow and do things out of the ordinary like become distracted or sniff uncontrollably. After 3 months of this I decided to ask the school to come out and tell me if I am doing something wrong or if he just isn’t interested in working anymore. After only 5 minutes of walking with us the trainer told me it was my choice, that there was nothing wrong with his guiding other than he was slow and that he seemed to have no health issues, but that they felt he would completely stop within 6 months. I asked when the next class was and was told to call and see what spots were available. I called when I got home and was informed that there was a class beginning in just over a week and that I was welcome to come in. Being a person who needs to make a decision and act before thinking too much, I agreed to come in and that is when I got Cessna.

We weren’t sure how well Phoenix would take to Cessna coming into our home and taking over some of my attention that would have usually been devoted to him, but he came to meet Cessna every Sunday I was in class and they have become the greatest buddies. Phoenix has now been retired for almost 3 years and is enjoying his time as a pet a lot. He will sometimes want to come along, but most times he will run back to the couch once I take down the harness, but the odd time he will shove Cessna and put it on himself…which makes me sad.

To get him back into semi-public life, but not as a dog guide, we have put him into the St. John’s Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. He along with Cessna goes to visit with residents of a long-term care home about once a week. Cessna is not as keen on the visits as Phoenix, but she does have her favourites. Phoenix will sit in front of the residents and let them pet him for as long as they want, sometimes even settling down on the floor in front for a rest.

When I sit alone with Phoenix by my side thinking about the past and thinking about what is to come, I still get tears. I know he has had a long and wonderful life, but I don’t know how life would be without my stubborn, deviant minded little buddy. He will do things to make you angry and when you get upset with him he will just wag his tail and laugh in his own way. He knows he is loved and knows who is boss, but still has to test the waters every once in a while. My husband, Huib, and Phoenix still fight over who’s boss, but in the end Phoenix tells him that it is me and then him followed by Huib.

When that dreadful day comes and Phoenix must say good-bye I will keep this poem in mind:

I’m still here

I stood beside your bed last night
I came to have a peek
I could see that you were crying
You found it hard to sleep
I whined to you softly
As you brushed away a tear
“It’s me, I haven’t left you,
I’m well, I’m fine, I’m here.”
I was close to you at breakfast
I watched you pour the tea
You were thinking of the many times
Your hands reached down to me
I was with you at the shops today
Your arms were getting sore
I longed to take your parcels
I wish I could do more
I was with you at my grave today
You tend it with such care
I want to reassure you
That I’m not lying there
I walked with you toward the house
As you fumbled for your key
I gently put my paw on you
I smiled and said “It’s me.”
You looked so very tired
And sank into a chair
I tried so hard to let you know
That I was standing there
It’s possible for me to be
So near you everyday
To say to you with certainty
“I never went away.”
You sat there very quietly
Then you smiled, I think you knew
In the stillness of that evening
I was very close to you.
The day is over…
I smile and watch you yawning
And say “Good night, God bless,
I’ll see you in the morning.”
And when the time is right
For you to cross the brief divide
I’ll rush across to greet you
And we’ll stand side by side
I have so many things to show you
There is so much for you to see
Be patient, live your journey out
And then come home to be with me

– Author Unknown –