Thursday, December 11, 2008

Service Dog Graduation

If you want to talk about a wildly emotional day, a KSDS graduation fits that bill to a tee!

After successfully completing the two-week course with our dogs --- me with Woody, Angie with Stealth, and Bridgid with Mercury --- graduation day was upon us.

I met Woody's puppy-raiser, Dianne. During our training I marveled at Woody's wonderful manners and gentle disposition. I credit much of that to Dianne. She did a fantastic job with the dog's early obedience training, and socialization getting him used to as many different sights and sounds and places as possible with an eye toward what he may encounter in his working life. She even entered him in an Agility class, just to sharpen his obendience and have some fun encountering different objects and obstacles. Without Dianne's love and guidance, I'm sure Woody wouldn't be quite the same wonderful canine partner I had gotten.

Just before graduation, Dianne presented me with a kennel blanket for Woody, as well as a beautiful scrapbook with pictures, and Canine Good Citizen certificate and other awards for different levels of obedience. She also saved and mounted Woody's puppy teeth, and told how he used to like to shred her socks---and, in case I'd have any doubts, she also put in a shredded sock! It was all so heart-warmingly wonderful, and I knew I'd have to stay in touch with her. After all, she had given this dog a very good solid beginning for his working life. Naturally, she'd be interested in how he was doing at his new "career."

During graduation, our class presented a poem I had written to the KSDS staff. If you want an overview of team training, bonding with a canine partner, and bonding with classmates all in a nutshell, this is it!

From York and Lawrence and Oakland we came,
to Washington, Kansas, to a school of good name
and great reputation in *A.D.I.
We were eager to work and ready to try.
Our expectations were anyone's guess,
but we started our training at KSDS.
We weren't too sure how much work it would take,
and one thought it would be "a real piece of cake!"
Monday, we all tried to bond as a class,
and psych ourselves up for each new thing to pass.
Tuesday was "D-Day." We got our dogs---Goody!
Their names were "Mercury," "Stealth," and "Woody."
"Three men for three ladies"-well, that's how Bill put it.
Let's see if it works. We asked ourselves, "Could it?"
Each dog had his habits, his traits and his quirks,
and a whole lotta fuzz-love (That's one of the perks!)
As we worked our obedience from "Stay" to "Recall,"
important lessons were in store for us all.
Angela's partner, a Goldy named "Stealth,"
had a few problems concerning his health.
Yet with ear infection and a sore on his chest,
he never ceased working and trying his best.
Sue's partner, "Woody," a big yellow Lab,
would pull her wheelchair when his harness she'd grab.
When he got ideas, he'd wrinkle his brow.
On tile he didn't like "Sit" but loved "Down."
And Mercury put Bridgid's patience asunder,
but they persisted - and mastered - "Down" and "Under."
Though picking up dog poop made Bridgid gag,
she put Mercury's "processed food" in a bag.
Woody learned a big lesson, thanks to Stealth:
2 dogs on a tug-toy is a hazard to health!
Though somewhat reluctant, if praise ran high,
there wasn't a task that "Merc-Man" wouldn't try.
Bridgid's confidence did a big climb
when Merc tugged a door open the very first time.
Stealth worked like a pro through every routine
but he disliked his first "Stay" on a small trampoline.
Woody liked "Let's Go" and "Forward" and "Leave It,"
but we needed more work to sharpen "Retrieve It."
Midwest Living reporters followed us 'round
and took pictures of us doing route work downtown.
Angela, Bridgid, and Susan were glad
for the chance to meet 2 KSDS grads.
Suzanne (with "Mozart") and Casey (with "Eleanor")
spoke of the real world, and what to watch out for.
(And Casey and Angela t.p.'d Mike's truck,
though the gravel was tricky, and Angie got stuck.
Outside and inside, they got the truck done.
Then Bill called his son -a cop!-just for fun!)
The KSDS staff treated us great!
Bill offered us back-up, to set people straight.
Bridgid and Karen developed rapport
as they worked to bring Mercury into top form.
Both "Orange" people, Angie and Mike
were looked on by Stealth as 2 strange little tykes.
Susan and Lori worked on the tools
to let Woody know what they want him to do.
Bridgid, Angela, and Susan agree
that with the help of Bill and Karen Acree,
Mike Renner and Lori Michaels, each of our teams
has made a great start towards achieving our dreams.
Our favorite thing about KSDS-
they help each team set itself up for success!
©1995 SKC

*ADI - Assistance Dogs International

©2008 SKC

Team Training

After having my in-person interview at KSDS, I was told they would be in touch as to when I would actually get into a class. The anticipation was delicious, but sure had me antsy! I remembered my tour of the Canine Housing Unit, and seeing all those lovable furry faces. Dog-lover that I am, I fell in love with several that day! I knew I couldn't pick out which one I wanted. KSDS is understandably very particular about matching the right dog to the right person for team training. So I had to wait and see what their decision would be.

The day I got the call telling me to come in for the class beginning in about a week, I was in a spinny-headed daze. I was really going to get a Service Dog! As I pushed my manual wheelchair painfully around town doing errands on my own, I tried to envision what it would be like to have a dog help me pull the chair, and carry purchases. I'd look around my apartment and think, what will the dog to to help me around in the house? I'd have to wait and see, but the wait would not be long!

The first day of the training, I met my classmates, Angela (from California) and Bridgid (from Kansas). We all wondered and speculated what kind of dog we would get --- German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, or Labrador. KSDS had a strict policy, we discovered, about not telling a student beforehand about which breed or gender of dog he or she would be partnered with. This was to completely dispel any preconceived ideas about our dogs, and give us a fresh clean-slate perspective as we learned about our new canine helpers.

That first evening, we had a presentation from a puppy-raiser, who told us about the process they go through in getting a pup ready for a working life. Our second day at KSDS, "Dog Day," we were each presented with our new canine partners. I was given a beautiful male yellow Labrador with incredible golden eyes, named Woody. Bridgid was given a beautiful male yellow Lab, as well -- a half-brother to Woody, in fact, named Mercury. Angela was partenered with a male Golden Retriever named Stealth. "Three men for three ladies," grinned KSDS founder Bill Acree.

And off we all went into the grand adventure of working with our dogs! The team training covered a wide variety of things. We had to learn about Dog Psychology, in order to better understand our canine partners. This paved the way for helping the dogs to accept us as the Alpha, thus building and strengthening our working bonds. We were taught which commands the dogs knew, and how to give and enforce those commands. We learned that praise and correction were essential to the working relationship; and correction ---like praise--- could be verbal, physical, or a combination of both.

In order for each student to personalize the training, we had to use the letters of our surnames, and formulate a sentence beginning with each of those letters, stating our keys to training. My paper looked like this:

Susan Keys To Training

C Correction & Praise!C Correction & Praise!
U Understanding Your Dog's Point Of View
R Return To What Works If You Hit A Spot That Doesn't
R Remain Focused On What You're Supposed To Be Doing
A Awareness Of Your Dog, Especially In Public --- He's #1 !
N Never Let Frustration Stay In Your Way. Try A New Approach If Something Doesn't Work.


The training wasn't always easy, but it was certainly interesting! Learning to work all of the commands was a real challenge. Yes, the dogs were trained, but they were also training us in how to work with them. Basic obedience is an absolute must as a foundation, and we learned the ins and outs of mastering basic commands like "Heel," "Come," "Sit," "Down" and "Stay." The extra commands like carrying objects to a designated person, and having the dog pull a wheelchair we also learned and worked into our obedience routines.

We each had our individual challenges. One of mine was getting Woody to catch on to retrieving things for me. Keys were a no-no, at first, as the trainer told me to start out with soft objects, and work up to hard or metal ones. I thought the ultimate thing would be socks, as they were nice and soft. There was a hitch, though. Woody wanted nothing to do with my fresh laundered socks! As I undressed for bed at the motel one night, I wondered what in the world I could find that was soft, that Woody would be interested in enough to try to retrieve. When I took off my bra and tossed it toward the bed, my throw missed and the bra hit the floor. Woody saw that and immediately pounced, bringing it right to me. I was thrilled, of course. But I kept thinking, "Heavens, I can't bring a bra to class for him to practice retrieving!" It was more than a little bit disconcerting.

As we were told in class, "It's not hard to get a Service Dog, but it's a lot of hard work once you do!" There is the feeding, and grooming, and bathing, and vet checks, and daily obedience works, honing old skill-tasks, and learning new ones. We were also made very aware that our dogs were living breathing assistive tools to help mitigate our disabilities. But these animals, though highly trained, were definitely not little doggy robots! They had their own personalities and quirks, and as I discovered with Woody, a warped sense of humor at times!

We all worked our collective buns off, doing obedience games and exercises. We attended lectures and demonstrations on eveything from feeding and proper nutrition, to bathing and how to properly care for the dog's ears and teeth. (I had an extra heart-tug on the day of the bathing demo -- the dog used for that was a black Lab named Frasier, who turned out to be not only Woody's littermate, but that same Lab I saw as a snoozing puppy in his training cape at a dog show in Lincoln, NE some 15 months earlier!) We learned about flea, tick and Heartworm control, Access Laws for Assistance Dogs, and what to expect when it was time for the dog to retire from working. We has to pass two tests ---KSDS's test for our three main advanced skill-tasks, and the Assistance Dogs International test to certify our dogs for being able to work in public with proper manners, and be under the handler's control. A LOT to learn, but Angie, Bridgid and I each passed and graduated with our new canine helpers!
©2008 SKC

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It's A Process, NOT An Event!

When I was going to go train with my first Service Dog, our class was reminded that getting our canine helpers was a many-faceted process, not just one fell-swoop event.

For me, the process involved many things. First and foremost was doing my homework about service dogs, would it be feasible to get one, how could I handle it, trying to get an idea of what to expect. I learned a lot of useful things, but NONE of it thoroughly prepared me for what I was going to deal with. In some ways it's like a woman with kids trying to explain pregnancy to a woman who's never had a baby. You can talk about symptoms, and such, but until a lady has actually had a baby herself, she'll never thoroughly understand all the info. And if she's not yet pregnant, it is not information she needs yet, regardless of how much she wants to know about it.

Once I selected KSDS and sent in my application, I waited for their approval. When my application was accepted, I was on their waiting list, until my name came forward in their files. Then I had to go to the next phase, the actual interview with KSDS---in person---where they could get a first-hand look at what my strengths were, level of mobility, etc. The interview at KSDS consisted of a review of my application, plus a tour of the facility, and a meeting with the entire staff. The Service Dog Coordinator tested my grip, to see if I was physically capable of holding onto a dog in harness while in my wheelchair. They watched me walk with my crutches. This gave them a better idea of my level of mobility, and to see if I could actually physically cope with a working dog. I was asked which of the breeds of dogs they used, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and---at that time---German Shepherds, would I prefer to work with. My first choice on the application was a Golden Retriever, because of the breed's reputation as an excellent assistance dog. My second choice was a German Shepherd. My last choice was a Lab. But I did note that I had grown up knowing wonderful dogs of each of these breeds. The main thing I wanted, I told them, was the dog that would work the best for me, and left it up to their good judgement to choose it.

A lot of my questions, pre-training with Woody, were not answered --- yet, as I went through the training course, I understood why. Part of the questions dealt with the training, itself, and those were adequately explained as I took the course. Before I began the training, the answers would not have made much sense, as I wasn't yet working with Woody and had no way to correlate those answers with what I was experiencing---plus, some of the access / protocol questions were not yet appropriate. I didn't have the dog yet. The KSDS staff never hit me with "We'll cross that bridge when we get to that," --- but that was definitely the case. Part of this process of getting a dog lies in having the right information at the right time, i.e. when you're ready to deal with it as a team. It can be a little frustrating, but if you trust the program, and the people, that famous old adage "You get what you need when you need it" certainly comes into play. All that you and your dog need to become a successful team will come to you at the right time.

For my dog, it was a process, too. My first dog, Woody, was born from KSDS breeding stock of Labradors. The theme name chosen for his litter was the TV show "Cheers." [Thus, the 11 puppies in the litter were named Boston, Chambers, Cheers, Clavin, Frazier, Lillith, Norm, Pantuso, Tortelli, Vera, and Woody.]

Woody was personality-tested at age 7 weeks. At 8 weeks old, he went to live with his puppy-raiser. And bless their hearts, the puppy-raisers have taken on quite a labor of love! They are the lucky souls who get to deal with the housebreaking, and the teething, and the socializing, and basic obedience training to turn these lovable little mischevious fur-balls into docile, obedient candidates for a canine career! The puppy-raiser also gets to deal with the heartbreak of giving up the puppy at a certain age, return him to KSDS for health clearances on eyes, hips, elbows and shoulders. If all the health-tests come out fine, then the dog goes through advanced training. He learns to heel with (or pull) a wheelchair, and sharpens his retrieval skills. Once he is paired with a disabled human partner for team training, the dog's individual skill-tasks are fine-tuned for the person he will be working with. Then comes the training, the testing, and (if all goes well), graduating as a certified working team from KSDS!

The process also continues after graduation, but more on that in due course, here.
©2008 SKC

In The Beginning...

What expectations do you have for a Service Dog? It's hard to say, because I'm not sure what all the dogs are trained to do--(see next question)

Are there special skills you want the dog to have? Help pick up dropped articles, maybe help pull the chair, help carry things if my hands are full of articles, help with doors---

How well I remember those words on my Service Dog application from Kansas Specialty Dog Service! Living with a neuromuscular disease, and the accompanying wheelchair, and other assistive tools, the thought of applying for canine assistance hadn't really crossed my mind until the summer of '94.

I was at a dog show in Lincoln, NE. Among the booths vending various dog products and breed information, there was one from Kansas Specialty Dog Service. Besides the brochures and newsletters, there was a darling little black Lab, about 5 months old, soundly sleeping in his little gray and blue Puppy-In-Training cape. I was told that since I'm in a wheelchair, I could possibly qualify for an assistance dog. My knowledge of what Service Dogs could do was sketchy, at best. But the idea seed for getting a dog to help me was planted.

Later that summer, I was injured in an auto accident, which made a difference in terms of pushing my wheelchair. So the idea of having a Service Dog to help me maintain an independent lifestyle flourished.

I requested information from several organizations. The California-based Canine Companions for Independence was the best-known, but by no means the only service dog provider organization. Each one had a waiting list, some as long as five or eight years! Some of the organizations requested applicants raise the money to pay for their dog, while others provided the dog free. There was also the matter of going for the training itself. Did I really want to train as far away as Ohio, or California, assuming I'd be accepted at CCI? Or in St. Louis, Missouri with Support Dogs?

I thought of that black Lab puppy, and pulled out my KSDS brochure. Washington, Kansas was a lot closer than St. Louis, or Ohio! And a 12-to-18-month wait for a dog from KSDS sounded better to me than five years. Their service dogs are provided free to the individual, with the person footing the cost for his/her transportation, evening meals, and lodging at a motel within one block of the facility. So, I sent in my application, and was put on the KSDS mailing list while waiting for my name to come up in their file.

Since my name was on their waiting list for a dog, I began receiving the KSDS newsletter, The Pathway. I eagerly read each newsletter with great interest. Any time I found a story about a person who had an assistance dog, I would try to get in touch, and ask about what having a canine assistant was like. Even with my rapidly-growing collection of information, none of it fully prepared me for what I was getting into.

KSDS founder Bill Acree was always fond of saying, "Getting a service dog is a process, not an event!" I discovered he was right as everything began to unfold.
©2008 SKC

Monday, December 8, 2008


My name is Sue, and I am partnered with a beautiful yellow Lab (Service Dog) from KSDS, Inc. He's my second assistance dog, and he's every bit as amazing as the first! KSDS deserves many props and kudos for their amazing ability to match disabled people with the right dogs to help assist them in their day-to-day living.

This blog will focus on life with a Service Dog, and what it means in terms of being able to maintain an independent lifestyle.