Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Coming Home - Period of Adjustment Part 2

When Woody and I came home to my apartment in York, there was the usual period of adjustment, with the dog getting to know our environment, and the lay of the land, so to speak. But there were a great many other adjustments that had to take place on the part of the townfolk, too --- getting accustomed to the dog's presence, and learning about how he was trained to help me.
I had been in touch with Housing Authority Executive Director Robert J. Sylvester, and our Board ever since I started researching getting a Service Dog. I wanted everything to be on the up-and-up from the beginning. Since there were no other assistance dogs in town, I was destined to be a pioneer. I showed Sylvester and the Board the 15-minute film from KSDS about its training facility, and what the dogs were like. I'm sure that when I first approached the Board about getting a canine assistant, some of the members envisioned me with a huge unruly dog that would cause a lot of problems. They were impressed and reassured with the quality of training and level of professionalism shown on the KSDS film. So the Board felt a lot better about welcoming a Service dog to live here. In trying to make a smooth transition from wheelchair-me-by-myself to wheelchair-me-plus-dog, I wanted to get the word out to my neighbors. They were going to be around us on a daily basis, and I felt they needed to know what was going on with the dog. I asked Sylvester if he would consider writing a memo from his office to the tenants, and let them be aware of the working dog that was going to be with me, and to touch on a few basics of Service Dog protocol. He was happy to do so, and sent out this memo to my neighbors:

October 4, 1995
RE: Assistance Dog
We would like to notify you that Sue Curran has qualified to receive an assistance dog from the Kansas Specialty Dog Services. Some of the items this assistance dog will be able to do for her are as follows:

Pull a wheel chair
Open doors
Retrieve dropped items
Turn on light switches

As you will be in the same area of the assistance dog at times, you must remember this dog is a working animal. When you see the dog with its harness on, please do not do anything that would distract the dog from its job.

Sue has been in Kansas for training and will be arriving with her dog on October 7, 1995.

Sincerely, Robert J. Sylvester
Executive Director

©1995 RJS

That proved to be an invaluable tool to get off on the right foot, to let people know that my canine assistant was not a glorified pet, but a bonafide, certified Service Dog.

An equally important tool in those efforts was a letter sent out to my town's merchants. Since I'm a member of a local disability rights group, the League of Human Dignity, I enlisted the help of our president, and the local Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber agreed to send out a letter to the local merchants regarding my Service Dog, briefly outlining the dog's duties, as well as talking about legal rights of a disabled person accompanied by an assistance dog. That letter read:


This is to inform you that one of our members, Sue Curran, has applied for a Service Dog. Sue is currently taking the specialized training at Kansas Specialty Dog Service to learn to work with the animal. She will be coming back to York with the dog on Oct. 7th. It will assist Sue by pulling her wheelchair, retrieving dropped or hard-to-reach items, doing stand-and-brace when Sue transfers to/from her wheelchair, and helping open heavy doors.

According to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a blind, deaf, or physically disabled person has the legal right to be accompanied by a service animal in all areas open to the general public. Service animal means any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including but not limited to guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items. A public accommodation shall modify policies, practices or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability in any area open to the general public.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact Stan Dinkelman, President of the York Chapter of The league of Human Dignity at 362-6371, or the Lincoln office of the League at (402)471-7871.

[Remember, this was 1995. There were laws in Nebraska governing the rights of Guide Dogs and Hearing Dogs, but the laws had not yet been amended to include Service Dogs. However, I was still covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Nebraska legislature had voted to enact the ADA, so the dog and I were protected by Federal law.]

Anyway, like I said, each of those letters were key pieces of info that helped my neighbors and local merchants get used to having a Service Dog around. Woody and I were like Captain Kirk, in a way... boldly going where no Service team had gone before!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Coming Home - Period of Adjustment, Part. 1

I completed the 2-week course with Woody and we became a certified service team, passing both KSDS's skills test and the Assistance Dogs International (ADI) team test. Then Woody and I went home and put that training to work in my daily living.

A common question I'd be asked was "Did you train Woody yourself, or did he already come trained? The answer is "Both!" Most people have no idea of all the hard work that is involved with these dogs from when they're 8 weeks old, the socialization, all the levels of obedience, and even toileting commands. Folks are not always aware that the training does not stop when you graduate from a program. We're given the basics, and from that point we customize the dog to our specific needs.

Living with a Service Dog like Woody is quite an adventure! Before I got this 83 lb. yellow Lab, I never could have dreamed he'd have such a powerful and positive effect on my life. The added independence itself has been incredible. If I wanted to go to Wal-Mart, instead of having to wait for a friend to drive me there, I'd just harness Woody up, and we'd go. If my muscles stiffened up due to a fall or injury, Woody helped me with basic tasks like tugging off my clothes. If I dropped my keys, I don't have to ask a neighbor for help, or worse, worry about falling out of my wheelchair if I tried to reach them. Woody was right there to bring them to me.
If I was upset, or lonesome, Woody was right in my face, with his intelligent golden eyes like, "Whatever's wrong, I love you and I'm right here to help you." A lot of people get the mistaken idea that a Service Dog is a glorified companion. Not true. Any dog can be a companion. But not just any dog can be a service dog. The training they've gone through just to be certified to work with a partner is incredible --- and, according to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) it's the training to assist a person with a disability that makes the animal a service dog, and able to have public access rights.

Woody was so many things to me... partner, helper, confidante. He was a constant source of assistance, amazement, and, I must confess, amusement!

When I first brought Woody home, there was a whole new period of adjustment for us---for me to be used to him in my home environment, and for him to come to know my home as our space. One thing he had to learn was to respect the snooze alarm. It was a little disconcerting the first few days, when the instant the alarm would go off, Woody would bounce out of his kennel, and drop one of my shoes on my face like, "It's time to get up-Get Up-GET UP!" It took him a little time to realize that I was not only his Alpha, but queen of the alarm clock, as well. And never mind that awful noise: we got up when I was ready to!

Bless his fuzzy heart, it didn't take Woody long to catch on to my habits, up to and including the tv shows I watched! He learned that I'd watch Dick Van Dyke on Nickelodeon at 3:30am if I missed the episode earlier in the evening. One night, I was typing at the computer, totally lost in my work. Woody was snoozing in his crate. I heard him when he got up and jingled his collar in his usual booga-booga wake-up shake. But I went on with my work. Suddenly, I felt something on my knee. To my amazement, Woody was looking up at me, and holding the tv remote control in his mouth, as if to say, "Hey, lady, isn't it time for your show?" I glanced at the clock. It said 3:30am.

As far as routines were concerned, I kept to a schedule for feeding Woody similar to the one when we trained together at KSDS. He got fed his ration of Hill's Science Diet Adult Canine Maintenance™ dry dog food twice a day, morning and late afternoon. When each 40 lb. shipment of food arrived, I'd measure out his feedings into ziplock baggies, and kept each day's 2 baggies on top of his crate. He'd never been fussy about his food. It's what he was used to. And it was a breeze teaching him to "get me a baggie of kibbies," as well as to bring me his blue plastic Dogloo™ dish to put them in.

Another kind of baggie to carry met with no great enthusiasm from my fuzzy helper. His feeding regimen led to a schedule for toileting him. I didn't have a problem getting used to bagging up dog poop for deposit in the nearest dumpster. But I did insist that the venture be a cooperative deal. I'd bag it up, but since Woody did the pooping, I decided that he could carry it to the dumpster. He tried to drop it a few times, as a not-so-subtle hint that he found the whole idea rather distasteful. I held firm, and Woody decided that the quicker he got me and the baggie to the trash site, the quicker we could be rid of it!

Another change, which I enjoyed getting used to, was having Woody take me virtually everywhere. It maked him a rather interesting "date," since he was always so agreeable about any restaurant I cared to go to, or any movie I'd like to see. But apart from that, it's the way the dog is designed. Even though Woody's a living breathing dog, he is every bit as much an assistive device as my wheelchair or my crutches. I didn't leave home without him. Besides helping pull the chair and bracing doors, I often needed him to carry something for me, to help complete a business transaction, or to pick up something I'd dropped.

In our Nebraska winters, the less I'm outside, the better, but the chilly air made Woody frisky. So some of his favorite "just be a dog" times were when he got to run free to roll in the snow.
And in summer, I'd keep a spray bottle of ice water in the fridge. When Woody and I had to go out in the day for an errand further than just across the street to the grocery store, I take the bottle along and spritz him to help keep his face and feet cool, as directed by the vet. We were in the post office one day, and their air-conditioning wasn't working. A really tall heavy-set black lady in line saw me spritz Woody with the ice water and said, "Oh, honey, if that's cold water, give me a shot, too!" So I did. Talk about a wet way to "go Postal!"

In the event of an injury to the dog, or severe weather, we stay at home. During the first year I had him, I think I spent about three and a half hours, maximum, separated from him. Woody made it very clear that separation was not part of his functional design by angrily shredding his kennel blankets in a defiant, "See? That's what you get for leaving me!"

Another neat change was that this fantastic canine assistant did not beg at the table. As part of his training regimen and diet, Woody got no people food. Truthfully, that was one of the hardest things for me to deal with in having a Service Dog. My childhood pets had always gotten table scraps, so it was a new habit for me to learn not to give Woody any. There have been many temptations, particularly if I was eating steak or hamburger. There was always something in the back of my mind saying, ""Hey, c'mon. He's such a good dog, and he does such a good job of working for you. He deserves a little bite of that." But I was able to avoid giving in, because I know that if I get that habit started, it will be a very difficult one to break! For that reason, I'm not very tolerant when folks who've been told about the "no people food" rule tease me when I'm eating with a "Well, doesn't Woody get any?" But he did just fine with his own dog food. He was never picky, and always cleaned his dish up. For treats, he got Science Diet ™ Dog Treats, an occasional Milk Bone ™, or sometimes a rawhide chew chip.

The benefits of Woody not being distracted by people food were wonderful. At the grocery store, he didn't yank me galley-west in an attempt to get to the guy with the free pizza samples, or go 90 kinds of bonkers when we were at the deli or the meat department. In a restaurant, Woody took the opportunity to have a nap under the table, instead of mooching for scraps.

At a fund-raiser dinner, an elderly lady next to me remarked, "He's just so quiet and well-behaved. I'll bet he'd like a bite of this chicken." I told her Woody only got dog food, and that he'd been fed before we came. When we left though, I noticed a piece of chicken meat on the floor next to where Woody had been. It was untouched.

His not being distracted by food also extended to movie theaters. When I had spilled some of my popcorn once, Woody looked at it, then at me. I told him, "Leave it. It's people food. If you eat it, you will be very very sick!" He never tried to eat any, but just lay close enough to the pile of popcorn to use it for a pillow!

Along with the "no people food" dictum, I didn't allow people to feed Woody anything but ice cubes. One day at a mall, a teenage girl in a power wheelchair approached me and said, "Your dog is so cute! He works really well with you. Would you mind if I gave him this?" And she held up a huge chocolate-chip cookie she'd purchased from a nearby vendor. I didn't want to hurt the girl's feelings, but I explained the "no people food" rule. Then I told her, "That cookie does look good. Woody and I would really rather you enjoy it."
©2009 SKC