The theme "decisions" that is for this Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, is a nice broad theme that gave writers the opportunity to address almost anything in relation to service dogs.
I had a hard time figuring out what I was going to write about. I am currently working with my second guide dog and between my first guide and my second, each relationship gave me plenty of decisions I could write about. After much deliberation, and a few scrapped entries, I finally settled on the decisions that lead me to rescuing a dog that I had to give up and the decision to donate him to a service dog organisation. Let me start at the beginning.
I didn't go to the Humane Society with the intentions of having to give my dog up seven months later. I went because I wanted to add another furry family member to my life. I wanted a companion dog-one that I didn't have to be as strict with; I wanted a friend for Glacier (working dog number two); and I wanted a big dog that would make me feel even safer when I was out for walks.
When I arrived at the Guelph Humane Society, I had a particular dog already picked out. I had seen him online and he seemed to fill all of my requirements. He was a ninety pound or so, husky cross that was being rehomed. All bets were off when I met him though. Although he was a beautiful dog, I could tell by just meeting him for a brief minute and then later watching him play with another dog out in a fenced in area, that he needed a lot of things I couldn't give him. He was way too mouthy and didn't show any signs of wanting to learn how to behave. So I scratched him off my list. Ironically, the dog he was playing with was a gigantic black lab cross of some sort and I fell in love with him. I took him for a walk, and although he had no leash manners, I could see that he really wanted to learn.
"That is him," I told my classmate who had served as my driver. "I love him."
"He's big." He kept telling me. "Can you handle him? Maybe you should look for someone smaller."
"Nope," I replied, "that is my new puppy."
After filling out an application and a phone interview, I was told that "Tank" was now my dog. The shelter told me he was a year or so old and was a Bernese Mountain dog/lab cross. The only thing I think they got right about him was that his name was "Tank," which was the first decision I made upon picking him up-He would be forever more called "Kyo."
Kyo, meaning "big" in Japanese, came home with me on March 12th 2010 and remained with me until mid October of 2010. He was definitely a handful when I got him. He had no house manners whatsoever. The only thing he was good at was not relieving in the house-that was a start right? He was terrified of traffic, tried to push me out of his way so he could get outside and did not know how to ride in a car. Instead of sitting in the back seat and just looking out the window, he would race back and forth across the seat to see out each window, running Glacier over in the process. There was even one time when he tried to jump out a car window to go visit someone standing on the corner waiting to cross. You couldn't open the car door without him escaping, or rather, pushing you out of his way so he could get out. I had my work cut out for me. I spent time with him grooming, training and exercising him. He was twenty pounds over weight and definitely wasn't even a year old yet. He was nearly all black with two white patches on his chest and his face was a dark brown. He also had dew claws on his back paws. And I loved him.
As a quick version of our story, since this is about assistance dogs, Kyo learned how to "sit," "stay," "down," and many other manners that pet dogs should learn. He shed the twenty pounds in three weeks with a strict diet and a lot of exercise. I felt safe walking the streets at five in the morning sandwiched between my big black Kyo on my right side and my gigantic yellow Glacier on the other. But when school ended, and I had to move, things started going very wrong.
Kyo has always been a dog who required a lot of attention and stimulation. He was crate trained, which helped me have some down time, but he would push Glacier out of the way for attention and Glacier stopped coming to me. This was problem number one. With the move, the twice a day walks, which were 45 minutes each at the minimum, stopped and I wasn't even able to take him out to watch the kids walking home from school anymore. This had been one of his favourite pass times and it was enough stimulation for him. I was in a new area and didn't know where I could take him. I was also having to give Glacier more attention to ensure our working relationship was strong so that he would be able to do his job. Kyo started acting out.
It began with small things that I noticed. He got pushier with Glacier and would never let Glacier come near me. This is very problematic when Glacier is my eyes. Then it turned into him taking things-socks, shoes, spoons. Pretty much anything he could get his teeth on; problem number two. I felt bad. I knew why he was doing "bad" things. He was frustrated and so was I.
I kept the obedience up with him, but it didn't seem to be enough. He would go through his routine and learn new things I taught him, but the excitement to learn was gone. He was just going through the motions because he thought that was what he was supposed to do.
Our new house had a fenced in backyard and I would take all of the dogs out for play sessions. I would run around with them and spent some time grooming them out in the sunshine in the hopes that it would help Kyo. But it didn't. He grew increasingly more frantic every time we left him at home. He went from a dog who liked his crate and would go in willingly to a dog who would not come when called when it was crate time. He would bark and howl with this loud haunting sound that cannot be described. We're pretty sure now that he is part Great Dane/lab and he came with the Dane bark. He never used to cry when we put him in his crate; he never used to tear things up in his crate when we left him. I knew something was wrong and that something needed to be done. His habit of counter surfing had returned and no kind of corrective methods phased him. I tried everything from "time out" to obedience sessions after the unwanted behavior, but there were no improvements.
Finally, my partner and I sat down and had a serious talk. Here was this beautiful, loving, enthusiastic dog that we loved and cared for acting completely out of control. I would go to bed at night with pains in my chest because I felt like I had failed him. We knew we had to find him a new home, but it was so hard to give him up; problem number three. I was supposed to be his forever home: I was the one who was supposed to take care of him and love him. I had done so much research before adopting him and every site I read talked about how adopted dogs usually ended up back in shelters because of handler faults. I had always thought I was a good handler. I had a lot of experience with dogs and I wasn't going to just throw in the towel for a few stolen socks. But things just got worse. He started stealing food off the counters and again, no form of corrective behavior on my part changed his mind.
We sat down again and it was decided that Kyo really did have to find a new home. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I felt like I was abandoning him-what if I gave him a bit longer? What if I entered him in obedience lessons or something for him to do? But his impact on Glacier was getting even more noticeable. Glacier hardly got excited anymore and would rarely sit with me. It really was time for a change, but where would he go?
I spent the next two months telling everyone I knew about Kyo. We would go to vets' offices and I would tell them about him. I looked into getting him back to the city where I went to college because there was someone there who would have been a great person for him. I emailed friends and family; put an advertisement in pet stores' newsletters; I even told cashiers at Pet Smart about him and how he was looking for a home. It was at Pet Smart where an idea began to form.
One of the many cashiers I bombarded with the news of Kyo's home transfer told me about a local service dog organisation. She couldn't remember the name, but knew that they trained dogs for children with Autism. I was pretty sure the area didn't have such an organisation, but when I got home, I hopped right on Google. It was here that I found Palmedo Animal Assisted Life Serves (PAALS). I emailed them and said a million prayers, but didn't hear anything. Being the annoying, persistent person that I am, I emailed again; this time with some progress. The woman who responded said that they were in "team training" that week and they would get back to me the following week. (Team training occurs when a person is being matched with their service dog).By this point I was starting to feel the pressure-Mr. K, my partner, was at his wit's end and really wanted Kyo to find a new home. Mr. K is a guide dog user as well and Kyo's poor behavior was starting to impact Mr. K's dog as well. The week passed slowly and another half a week and I heard nothing. Again, being the annoying persistent person that I am, I emailed PAALS again, only with a little more panic in my email. The woman forwarded me on to J (name changed for privacy), and J got back to me very quickly.
She explained the process and advised me to think on it. I was just so overwhelmed that we had finally had an answer that I didn't care what it cost or what we had to do, but my logical brain told me I should discuss it with Mr. K first. I sat him down nervously, worried that he may say no. The process was going to cost us money and being on a fixed income, it might not be the wisest decision. This is basically what had to be done.
First step was to bring Kyo down to meet them and have him pass a temperament test. The test was to determine whether or not he would be cut out for service work. They took into consideration that he had not been raised as a service dog in training and would grade him on that. If he passed the temperament test, then he would have to get his hips and elbows checked for any diseases that would prevent him from working. The temperament test wasn't a big deal, but the test would cost 250 dollars and it wasn't a guarantee he would pass. We could go ahead, spend the money and he could fail due to hip dysplasia or something like that and we would be back at square one-big decision.The upside was that if he passed, PAALS would take him and put him on a trial run for six weeks or so. If all was good, then they would keep him and start his more advanced training.
At first Mr. K did not go for the whole 250 dollar thing, but after thinking about it a bit, he came around. He realised that it would be a small price to pay if this dog could go on to make a difference in someone else's life the way Jetta (my first guide), Glacier (current guide) and Roscoe (Mr. K's guide) had.
I called J back and told her we would do it. Kyo's temperament test was scheduled and I am proud to say he passed. The next step was the longest three weeks of my life. We took him in to have his joints X-Rayed and then all we could do was wait. I kept wondering if I was making the right decision-did I really want to give him up? Couldn't we find a way to make it work? All the while, I kept up his obedience and threw in some new cues and tried getting him used to picking up objects and bringing them to me instead of running off with them. I thought the more I could teach him and prepare him for, the better chance he would have. Just as long as those tests came back negative.
The weeks might have went slowly, but now that I look back on them, they went too fast: those were the last three weeks he spent with us as our dog. The tests were negative and Kyo was asked to join the fleet of dogs in training at PAALS. When Kyo entered the program, he was dog number nine and a few weeks into his training, it was announced that there was a litter of puppies on the way as well. I knew J had her hands full with all of these dogs plus Kyo, plus puppies, but I knew if anyone could turn Kyo into a working dog it was going to be her.
I had watched her a few times at training sessions and public events. I really appreciated her way of training and her manner with the dogs. Kyo seemed to take to her right away and had no problem bringing me J's shoe on the first day when I was demonstrating the things he knew.
PAALS does things a bit differently than other service dog organisations, but I think it really benefits each dog. The dogs stay at the training facility all week and then go and spend the weekend with foster families. Kyo spent his first few months moving around from PAALS' main training place to a few different foster/volunteer trainers to see how he would do. I volunteer with PAALS as regularly as I can and was able to see him from time to time. Every time I saw him, it seemed like he was improving. The horrific whining/howling stopped. There was one day when his separation anxiety was so bad, he ran to J when she was trying to leave and wrapped his front legs around her legs so that she could not leave the house. When she told me, all I could do was laugh because that sounded like my big Moose (a nickname we still fondly refer to him with). A month or so after hKyo moved to PAALS he was able to perform his training regiment with Glacier and I in the room. Thankfully, J let me squish him after his session and he was the cuddly guy I remember-Kyo was always the best cuddler despite weighing eighty pounds. He was so excited to be learning new things and seemed to be back to his happy self. J had taught him to walk on a loose leash, something I had never been able to do-heeling is a tricky thing to teach when you are blind. :)
The last update that I got was at the beginning of this week and J said that he is living with a volunteer foster mom who used to foster for Guiding Eyes, which is one of PAALS' partners. When he was at another foster mom's house, he did well with people of all ages and all sorts of events, but got a little too excited when she used a salad spinner and was not happy when people were hammering in front of him. If I know Moose, it's probably because he thinks those objects are hurting the person and he must save them-you should have seen him try to rescue me when I went swimming this summer. He hates swimming and doesn't know how, but insisted on trying to get to me any way possible; drinking the water, leaping over it, barking frantically at it. He was bound and determined he was going to play lifeguard.
If I were to return to the theme of "decisions," I would say that giving Kyo up was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but one of the most rewarding. There was so many things we had to gamble on-whether or not he would pass the temperament test, would his joints check out, would he make it through the first six weeks? I had to recognise that I could not give him what he needed and my pack of dogs was not suited to him. He needs someone who needs him as the centre of their universe. It took me a while, but I had to come to the conclusion that I was just a stepping stone to help him to get to where he's going. He traveled seventeen hours from his original city just to end up in a service dog organisation that I know will give him every chance they can. Kyo is a great dog that I hope can make someone very happy one day because that in itself is what would make Kyo the happiest dog in the world.
PAALS is an organisation that was started in 2006 and started with dogs from Guiding Eyes.
PAALS has one bitch named Akira and she had her second litter on December 12th 2010.
PAALS train dogs for five different jobs all of which fall into the "service dog" category. (For more specific details on these jobs please visit their website which is listed in my "links" section).
J would eventually like to expand beyond using just dogs and include horses and other animals.
PAALS is a non-profit organisation that is run with two paid staff members and the steam of a lot of volunteers.
I hope this has been interesting and, when you have time, you will visit the PAALS website for more information.