Life has continued to go on after the walk, despite the illusion that we are no longer moving forward in the physical, linear sense. Though we don’t always know where to put it, we have been maintaining the energy and momentum we carried home with us, and slowly building the dream that will be our future.
Before I adopted Grace in 2007, I had little to no experience training dogs. My horse background was certainly helpful in understanding training, but I did not grasp canine psychology. I started my crash course in dog with Grace. Two years later, I had my first certified therapy dog.
I have always wanted to help animals, but have a difficult time focusing so much of my resources to rescuing animals when there are so many people – so many children – in need of help. While being involved with pet therapy work, I finally saw my future taking shape. As a firm believer in animal therapy, I saw the incredible ability that rescued and rehabilitated animals have to help people. I don’t want to just re-home homeless animals – I want to give them a job where they can help a person in need. I want to help animals help people – then it all comes full circle.
When Jenny ran into our lives last July (can you believe it’s been nearly a year?) we kept her because we felt that she was talented. We could see that she had the mind, temperament, and will to do just about anything we asked of her. With her sweet and gentle demeanor, she took to therapy work immediately. And while she could behave in a hospital, she could also walk 30 or more miles in a day and still have energy to run circles around the campfire at night. I wanted to capitalize on her talent (and energy!) So I set my sights on search and rescue work, training to volunteer myself and a specially trained dog to search for missing people. I decided to teach the dog that was dumped like garbage on the side of the highway to find and comfort missing people.
I started going to service dog training classes through Pawsibilities Unleashed with Jenny about a month after returning home from the walk. I began my formal education in dog training with several goals: to move Jenny forward in her training (more on that later), to learn how to train service and therapy dogs, and to work towards my canine good citizenship evaluator certification. In short, to truly learn how to train dogs and use their natural abilities to do incredible things.
The early stages of training for most advanced work like search and rescue or service dog work are pretty consistent. Manners, obedience, scent work, and public access practice are the foundation for any working dog, so we started attending Liz’s training class for service dogs. With Liz’s support and direction, Jenny and I moved along quickly. But she wasn’t just learning the things I was teaching her – she was learning from the other dogs in class as well.
The training class I attend has several diabetic alert dogs in training who are taught to monitor and alert on their person’s blood sugar by scent. During a class while one of these dogs was alerting on her human, Jenny tuned in on the dog’s distress and investigated the scent with the other dog, joining her on the alert.
The following week, I skipped breakfast on my way to dog class. Several hours later, my body was out of fuel and I was running out of steam. Another diabetic alert dog in our class decided he didn’t like the way I smelled and alerted to myself and then his owner.
The owner looked at his dog, then looked at me and said, “well, ask her.”
I held my hands out in front of me – one in a “high five” and the other in a fist and asked his dog, “Am I low or am I high?”
She dutifully bumped my fist with her nose – the signal for “low”.
Her handler smiled, patted her on the head, and told her “good girl.”
Embarrassed, I reached down and patted her on the head and then pulled my snack out of my bag. I had just been tattled on.
Over the next several weeks, I noticed that Jenny was paying very close attention to my scent and had started getting agitated when my blood sugar dropped. Having recently given up gluten due to a newly discovered allergy, I am having a difficult time keeping my blood sugar high enough at times. My new dietary restrictions have required a wholesale change that has taken some getting used to. Fortunately, Jenny has assigned herself the job of looking after me and making sure I am looking after myself. Under the recommendation of our trainer, I began training Jenny to be my medical alert service dog.
As I started working with Jenny and keeping records of her alerts and my sugar levels, I learned something very interesting. Grace is actually more dependable as a blood sugar monitor that Jenny is. I always knew that Grace looked after me, but there is so much more to it than I ever knew. Grace has been my service dog all along. She just never wore the vest.
Over the past several months, Jenny has flown through her training, enjoying the attention and the challenge of learning new things every day. She has loved going on daily field trips to all sorts of interesting places and learns daily from her growing array of experience in the world. I, too, have loved the training and learned a great deal in the process. Not only am I learning to train under the guidance of a master trainer, but it is directly applicable to my everyday life and my goals for the future.
But this transition has not come without its growing pains. Being a person with a service dog in everyday life is an incredible social experiment. It is socially awkward, embarrassing, and a daily test of patience. A service dog is a magnet for attention. People grab at her in public, cooing “Awww, puppy!” They stare, looking you over trying to figure out what is wrong with you. They ask inappropriate questions such as “what do you need a service dog for?” at which point I often inquire if they ask every person in a wheel chair why they can’t walk.
However, these rather difficult and time-consuming interactions do have an upside. I have a unique opportunity to educate people who seem to have difficulty managing their interactions with working service dogs in public. At some point, I’ll have to come up with cards I can hand out with some basic information on service dog etiquette or something like that.
I feel the need to state that despite these social discomforts, the benefits far outweigh the downsides. She has let me know that I need to go home and manage my business before I have a problem in public. She is tuned in to me when I am too distracted to be. And I have come to accept that even the downsides have their benefits. The opportunity to educate people about service dogs, how to interact with their handlers (and not the dog), and the many ways that service dogs help people.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Jenny took her public access exam – a test that evaluates her manners, behavior, and service dog tasks while working in public. She did beautifully and is now a certified medical alert service dog. She goes to the grocery store, the post office, out to dinner – on all of my daily errands. She is always in training, but always learning. I can’t believe she has come so far in only 11 months. As so many of our readers and supporters told us, she is special and worked her way into our walk and our hearts for a reason.
Animal assisted crisis response and canine search and rescue work is still in our future. We have continued to attend training class and to learn how far specialized training can really go – and how to get there. It is no longer sorcery to me; it’s just a lot of structured work, time, repetition, and patience. Jenny and I are loving every minute of it – all this from someone else’s garbage that we decided to pick up off the side of the road.