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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8 thoughts on “My Future Service Dog

  1. Devon Drake

    Hello! I just wanted to say best of luck on training your new service dog! Right now I am in the middle of training my oversized puppy as my own. He’s a 10 month old German Shepherd who is quite the character. I was really happy I found your blog because I was really discouraged that I was one of the only people who had a service dog in college. I had already been to college my first year before I decided to get one because being on my own was getting to be too much but I was so worried about coming back and how my life would change with him. Did you have trouble adapting to having him with you? Did your friends treat you differently and was it harder to make new friends? So far my old friends have been so welcoming to him but when I meet new people I still feel very uncomfortable saying that he is in fact my service dog. I also have an invisible disability so I sometimes find myself brushing over that he is mine and I do have a problem that he helps.
    It’s super encouraging to see someone close to my age who has successfully navigated the life of college with their four legged best friend! Keep updating!

    • Devon Drake

      Also I noticed you were wearing a reno jacket! I’m from Las Vegas but moved to school at Iowa State. Hope Reno is great!

      • Haha yes I do go to the University of Nevada in Reno! I’m studying English and Spanish, and hope to teach high school students! It’s a great school! What are you majoring in?

    • Hi!
      Your German Shepherd sounds amazing and like such a great dog! I’m happy that you found my blog! I started writing because I wanted to reach out to people who had service dogs like myself, and to show the world that these aren’t machines, but quirky, hard working dogs who have their own adventures in and out of harness!

      I didn’t grow up with a service dog, so yes, adapting to having Rally with me was difficult at first. The first two months we kept tripping over one another, stepping on each other’s feet and making a fool of ourselves. I also wasn’t used to the staring or the constant commenting that the public showers handlers and their dogs with. It can be exhausting and overwhelming. I had to learn to be social and outgoing, or at least always polite, when strangers would demand to know what was wrong with me or asked if I was blind. In all candor, you will be treated differently, and it takes a while to get used to the attention.

      With Rally, I think I’ve made different kinds of friends. Instead of meeting friends based on a common interest in a common location, people will approach me specifically to ask about Rally. It’s not hard to meet new people-but it is more difficult to form close relationships because of the “disabled” tag. However, I can say that the friends I have are amazing and have embraced Rally as simply another part of me. It’s all the matter of picking the few gems out of the crowds that are only satisfying their curiosity.

      I completely understand about being uncomfortable proclaiming him as your service dog. I personally feel that when I say, “and this is Rally, my service dog”, I’m automatically becoming “crippled”, “disabled”, or “inferior” in the eyes of the stranger, particularly if I don’t know them well. I feel like they see my dog instead of me. I’ve had people turn around and leave, or look around nervously and offer me a chair in case I collapse in a fragile heap. Honestly though, the people who turn tail and run or judge you aren’t worth your time, so when I meet someone new, I shake their hand, look them straight in the eye, and introduce Rally and myself. Usually following up with a humorous icebreaker regarding Rally helps ease any tensions. Keeping a smile on your face and a light-hearted attitude will go a long ways to keeping you positive and uplifted.

      I love to see students my age training and handling service dogs! Feel free to email me if you have any further questions! My email is winship_k@yahoo.com. The best of luck to you and your four legged friend!

  2. Michael loetz

    If you don’t mind me asking what specifically did you train as the alert? And when the dog alerts what do you do? I ask because I am trainin my second service dog now, my first was easy she was mobility assitence, this one I’m training as migraine alert. She has proven naturally good at knowing when I have one coming but she doesn’t alert in the normal sense it’s more of just knowing how to read her.

    • Hi!
      I don’t mind at all! It’s not really a matter of training; Rally’s natural instinct is to nudge my elbow or knee with his nose and whine when he smells a migraine is coming. Because I can’t feel any pain at the time Rally is pitching a fit and I tend to forget to take my pills, I have encouraged him not to give up or stop until I take my medication. He’ll go around in circles, howl, stomp, sigh, but once I pop my pill in my mouth he’ll collapse in a heap and go right to sleep. Like I said, it’s not really a trained behavior; it’s more like frustration that I’m not listening to him so he acts out until he senses I’m out of danger. I know one woman from England who trained a migraine alert dog who used ball training to teach an alert, and another in Carolina who taught her dog to “speak”, then every time he seemed to alert to a migraine, would instruct him to bark. It’s just a matter of pairing one behavior with another. Let me know if I can be of any more help or if you need more information! Your dog sounds wonderful!

      • Michael loetz

        Thanks for the response, on average how long before pain does your dog alert? I’ve found so far my girl is at at 80% reliability up to an hour before pain. But twice so far she has alerted and I ignored her but 3-4 hours later the crippling pain hit. Not sure if that early is a fluke or if it’s actually possible to be detected that early.

      • Hi!
        Rally usually alerts about two hours before the pain hits. About four or five times he has alerted about three hours before an attack-so I think it is very possible (: Your girl sounds like she is doing an awesome job!

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