My Future Service Dog

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Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since I decided to retire Rally, and in that time I’ve done a great deal of soul searching and contemplating on my future. I consulted my doctor, my family, my best friend, and most importantly, thought about what I wanted my future to be like.

I didn’t want to only rely upon medication to control my migraines. There are marvelous advancements in pain management and in treatments thought to have some effect on migraines, but at the age of 21, I didn’t relish the thought of having to take three to five pills a day, give myself injections or feel as though I were depending upon pills to keep my life running. I am independent to a fault, with a control streak a mile wide, and I knew immediately that medication were not a self-empowering, liberating choice.

I took a week and explored all other options related to controlling migraines, but hemiplegic migraines-besides being agonizing-are also very dangerous because of the stroke symptoms that accompany the headache. I didn’t feel comfortable spending months waiting to see if drinking chamomile tea every night or taking beta blockers and antidepressants had an affect on my migraines.

As I thought about retiring Rally and choosing my future rout of coping with my disability, I realized that the time in my life I felt the most in control and positive and independent was with a service dog at my side. True, with a dog you can’t always make spontaneous decisions. You can’t go to a water park, ride a roller coaster or walk down the street without people staring. And yet, Rally has given me the gift of being able to gain control of my migraines without relying on heavy doses of medication. He is my best friend who never judges and is always there for me. He gave me my life back.

After I realized that I wanted another service dog in my life, a sense of peace and purpose swept over me. I immediately called my parents and asked for their support in training another service dog; they agreed without hesitation.

The commitment to train another service dog was not something I entered into lightly. I remembered the hours and hours of training and socializing that went into transforming Rally from a pet to a service dog. I had learned a lot from training Rally, and I was aware of the pitfalls and challenges that came from owner training.

The first step was deciding whether to get a pup or an adult. I decided to get a puppy to train.  Although pinpointing a suitable adult candidate might be easier when he is older because his personality is evident, available adult Goldens were few and far between. I scoured all of California, Nevada, and every neighboring state. I called nearly every single breeder within a twelve hour driving radius, asking if they might have a young adult Golden for sale. The few times I found a dog I turned because the candidate was ill-inclined for service work, was too old, too young, or had other behavioral problems.

I also wanted to get a puppy so that I could start from scratch. For example, by the time I got Rally he hauled on the leash, barked when he was bored, had such severe separation anxiety he could never be left alone, and his hips had already been broken. He was scarred, frightened of loud noises, and had endured more than his share of abuse before the wonderful rescue found him. That was fine, because he could sense migraines and I was confident of my ability to train his bad habits out of him using love and positive reinforcement.  I didn’t want to have to un-train phobias or problems, and I wanted assurances that a dog would be raised with love, care, proper socialization and early training.

A further-and very important-reason I chose to raise a puppy is that learning to alert to migraines is easiest when the dog is very young. The puppy watches and learns from a source dog, in this case Rally, and learns to mimic his behavior. Training dogs to alert to migraines is an iffy business and great success has been met by forming a close bond with the puppy and having your current service dog alert when a migraine is coming. The puppy wants to please you, and upon seeing Rally get a reward and praise for his actions, will pay attention and learn the behavior (in this case, alerting to a migraine). Of course, not all dogs can sense migraines; selecting a strong candidate for service work (focused, food motivated, curious, intelligent and tolerant) and one that has a black or spotted mouth (indicators of a good sense of smell) are all vital to improving the odds that the puppy I choose will have the ability to alert to my migraines. The rest is hope, luck, and fate.

I spoke to my parents about the huge amount of work that raising a puppy was. After all, I am a full time college student and I don’t have much-if any-time to tackle the challenges that come with raising an 8-week old puppy. My Mum volunteered.her time-quite bravely-to raise my Golden puppy until he was four months of age. Her job is to house train, socialize and begin basic obedience while I am in school. The single most important thing that Mum will provide the pup is socialization. She will take the puppy everywhere he can safely go until his vaccinations are complete. He will see parks, cars, cats and strangers. He will be able to hear sirens, washing machines, vacuums and trains. By walking on all sorts of surfaces, interacting with all kinds of people, he will grow up experiencing as many situations as possible, so that when I get him and we take the next step of riding an elevator, walking on slippery floors or taking the bus, he will be as calm, confident and secure as possible.

Once I knew I wanted to train a puppy, my next step was to decide what breed of dog I wanted. I decided not to train another German Short-hair like Rally for several reasons; first, I was very fortunate that Rally is as calm and laid back as he is. Generally, Pointers and other hunting breeds are excitable, hyper and high energy. I needed a dog that could sit quietly and contently at my feet while I worked or studied. I didn’t want to risk getting a puppy that grew up to be too hyper for service work. Another reason I chose not to pursue the German Short-hair is that I wanted a breed that was a little smaller than Rally. Rally is tall enough that when I stand, I don’t have to bend to touch his back with my fingers, and at 78 lanky, muscular pounds, he has difficulty curling up beneath most restaurant tables. My last reason for not training a German Shorthair was that I already felt like I was swapping Rally out for a younger, healthier version of himself; I didn’t need to miss Rally and be painfully reminded of his absence every time I looked into amber eyes.

I considered nearly every breed that fit my requirements of being medium to large sized, had a good sense of smell and a wonderful temperament. While I don’t mind pit bulls or other bully breeds, such as the German Shepherd or Doberman, I didn’t consider them for my service dog. They can-and often do-make wonderful service dogs, but I had dealt with a disbelieving and disapproving public before, and I decided that I didn’t want to choose a breed that the public might have a phobia of. This was a part of why I eventually chose a Golden Retriever for my next service dog; the public generally loves the breed and feels safe around them. The odds of me being confronted over my service dog would go down, which would make my life and those around me more comfortable.

I also chose the Golden Retriever for their temperament, size, intelligence and drive to please. Goldens are famous for getting along with just about everyone, dog, child or adult alike, and have an incredible desire to please, all good traits for training.

So now I knew I was going to train a Golden puppy as my next service dog. I set about researching and finding a suitable breeder. Selecting a dog with the potential to perform service work begins long before the dog is born, with the breeders and the puppy’s parents. I selected responsible, aware breeders whose dogs were stellar examples of poise, intelligence, tranquility and composure. I spoke with the breeders and we discussed what I wanted from a puppy extensively. The timing of their next litter was perfect, and I went down to visit with the puppies and their parents with my family. The puppies mother and father’s temperament is a strong indicator of their own; I was pleased to see the parents were both happy that we were handling and playing with their pups. The mother was exceptionally calm and caring, and the father was playful and intelligent. We left agreeing to return on November 8th to select my puppy.

Needless to say, this entire thought process took time and a great deal of soul searching. I have not made the decision to train my next service dog lightly. There will be a few months where I won’t have a service dog at all, with Rally returning home at Thanksgiving and the puppy needing to mature. However, I knew that this is the best option for me. My heart is at peace knowing that Rally has done his best for me and will receive a wonderful life as a cherished family pet. I will miss him dearly, but adapting to a new dog and a new personality will be a great adventure.

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Retiring Rally

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The decision to retire a service dog is a very difficult one. When your dog has been besides you 24/7, never more than an arms-length away, and when your very health depends on him doing his job, you grow very close to your four-legged guardian angel. However, service dogs aren’t machines. They grow tired and old and it’s not responsible to demand that they continue to work at your side.

Over the past four months Rally has grown slower and stiffer. The arthritis in his hips make it difficult for him to climb stairs. He can’t stand or sit for more than half an hour at a time, and although I have eased back on my normal activities, he remains in discomfort. It wasn’t fair of me to ask that he continue to work when he was in pain, so, very reluctantly, I made the decision to retire Rally.  He will return home with my parents during Thanksgiving break as a beloved family pet where he will be in constant loving companionship. I have already planned to visit often, and although I am sad to be loosing my guardian angel, I know this is the right choice.

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