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I know, I vowed to be a better blogger

But then life got the better of me, as it does. Josie did have babies, two of them! They are adorable, now the ComfortCam is our pick for the best wifi baby monitor that way we keep on eye on them all the time. Pics later, I need to take a few more. She presented me with two little doelings which is quite nice as they will be easy to sell.

Chicken plans are in the works, and the brooder is full of week-old Old English Game Bantams at the moment in crele and black-breasted red. The incubator is full of Feltner line Pumpkin Hulseys, the most gorgeous of the American Gamefowl I have ever seen. I’m planning on getting out of silkies entirely, which means I need to sell them all off, and for that matter need to set up a “for sale” page here to publicize the chickens and goats on offer.

Last weekend I was at the Salesforce headquarters and had an absolutely amazing time and spent time with wonderful people. I worked Sid, it was more or less his graduate-level Final Exam and he passed with flying colors securing the sale of 30,000 web clients!

The cats are all doing well with the exception of Aida, who has been very ill but is hopefully on the mend now.

Tink, Beowulf, and Zille are their usual wonderful selves.

I’m trying to decide what classes to register for this fall.

More updates as events warrant.

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I feel like I can fly when I stand next to you…

Can I take a minute to be mildly serious? Sure? You guys are the best gentle readers, seriously.

So anyway I was reading Dog Is My Co-Pilot, which is a collection of essays by Dog People and Speedy Paper of various types, and one of the authors made a comment about being a service dog handler — said it was “humbling in the best possible way.” And you know, nobody elected me Spokesperson For All Handlers Everywhere; for one thing if they were electing a spokesperson they probably would not want someone who has a tendency to swear like a sailor (hey, I was one!) when she gets frustrated. Also probably someone not quite so covered in dog and cat hair, with the odd bit of chicken fluff stuck to her. Spokespeople are supposed to look respectable, after all.

But I digress. I read that bit, and I thought, “I wonder if this person is a service dog handler.” I mean, I don’t know. Maybe she is, and that is how she experiences her relationship with her working dog. Maybe she has friends who are handlers, who have expressed to her that they experience their relationship with their service dogs. Like I said, I don’t know — not about her disability status or her SD handler status or any of it.

What I do know is that in terms of my relationship with my service dog, she got it totally wrong in every conceivable way.

Let me tell you a little bit about my disability, so you have the background. I have chronic pain and balance issues, which looks short and simple there on the page. The reality is, you know that one time? When you did a LOT of physical labor maybe, or took your workout a lot farther than you were ready for, or your first week or so in boot camp? Remember not that evening, but the next day, when you woke up and tried to get out of bed and every muscle in your body screamed a protest and it took you forever to be able to move without screaming/crying/swearing a lot (according to your particular temperament)? That’s what the phrase “chronic pain” covers. That day. Only it’s every day. The balance issues are like being out to sea again with the Navy, underway at about 25 knots at sea state 4. For those of you who have never been stationed on a destroyer, it may help if I tell you that when we first started having the earthquake last week, I thought it was me.

When I use a cane to compensate for the balance issues, I feel as if I’m creeping along, feeling my way through a world that is not steady. I have to tilt myself toward the cane, lest I wobble away from it. I can gimp along at a pretty respectable speed, but I’m always kind of watching where my feet are going.

When I’m with Sid, I can fly. We become, on the best days, a strange six-legged beast with one working vestibular system between us. He’s still young, still learning, but generally sharp as a tack. I can walk upright, because when I wobble toward him he moves closer to get under me, and when I wobble away, he moves out to pull me back into straight. He watches our feet so I don’t have to, so I am head up and walking tall through the world.[1] My posture is actually better, working with Sid, than it is with a cane or ever was walking on just my own feet. He provides a dose of momentum, something for me to brace against, which obscurely makes it easier to walk.

And, of course, he is my ever-present partner in crime. We share a laugh in a look, we have small disagreements[4], we discuss the route to take and say thank you to each other. We like to sit in the sunshine and people-watch. When I am having horrible vertigo and sitting down, he will obligingly lay his front end across my lap, steadying me. He gives me beautiful smiles as we walk together, partners together in the world. We are joyful about the fact that we’re together, we have each other, him watching out for me and me making sure that we don’t cross pavement that will burn his paws and that doors don’t shut on his tail.

I am not humbled by working with Sid. Instead, I am freed by it — I go fast! I walk at speeds I walked at back before all the pain and the vertigo, and I do it safely and without fear of falling. It is joyful and joyous and liberating and far, far from humbling me — it lifts me up.

[1] This is not infallible. Today at Walmart he walked me into a 5 gallon bucket. Twice. He took me around it each time on the reattempt, but still. I suspect it was revenge-motivated because I would not let him steal the “Caution Wet Floor” sign on our way in[2]. Today was not, as you might have gathered, our best day.

[2] Yes I know it probably wasn’t. But it’s funnier that way. Bear with me. I did let him “steal” a toy from PetCo later to make up for my cruelty at Walmart, mostly because I am trying to get him accustomed to carrying things in his mouth while in harness so he can carry my gun.[3]

[3] I’m kidding. And I’ll stop footnoting now.

[4] I lied about the footnoting thing. There was this one time when we went to a wine tasting with Daniel and Daniel’s sister R. I tasted eleven wines and two flavors of wine slushie, and our pourer was very generous, giving us 1/4 to 1/3 a glass at a time. Coming out, Sid refused to take me the shortest way to the car, which involved walking across grass, and instead stuck to the sidewalk. And then when I asked him to speed up, he gave me a look that loosely translated to “No, you idiot.” Or possibly, “Have you been taking drugs your doctor did NOT prescribe?”

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Sid cleared to work! Huzzah!

Siddy went to the vet yesterday for joint x-rays and has gotten the all-clear to be a mobility dog. His hips and elbows look excellent and the growth plates in his long bones are closed, so he’s good to go. That was the last hurdle I have no control over, from here on out it’s all training.

Wednesday he also went in for a bath. Usually Daniel drops him off for baths but I hit a deer Wednesday morning and was home from work dealing with my insurance company. Whee. Anyway, that meant I got a look at all the options on the bath form…

Sid, a black German Shedder, stands smiling into the camera, looking a wee bit dorkish.  Hey, what's going on with his paws....

A close-up of Sid's ginormous front paws, clearly displaying the fact that his nails have been painted shiny silver.

Yes. I had them paint my dog’s nails. You want to make something of it?? The silver nails look quite dashing against his black fur, I think. I am highly tempted to buy a bottle of dog nail polish for home use to touch them up between groomings. Although it did occur to me that gold would look better with his Service Dog gear which is all tan leather. Something to consider.

In poultry news, we lost one of the two bantam chicks who hatched out last weekend, which sucks. The other is still going pretty strong. Today we’ll be delivering the six blue-laced red wyandotte chicks to Blackthorn Kennel, where we will pick up four crele pullets for Merlin, bringing him to a grand total of six ladies. Then the bantam EE’s and the non-bearded silkies that are in the little banty pen will move into the big banty pen and Merlin and his six ladies will get their own home in the little banty pen. When the ladies start laying, we will have our own little breeder flock of creles! Stripey chickens for everyone, really.

This fall, we’ll be building a pen for Mad Mel the Magnificent and giving him the non-bearded silkie ladies for his very own so that I will have more showgirls when I want them. Then we just have to figure out how to set up breeder pens for silkies for next spring when they’re mature enough to be a breeding population! I am aiming to start showing my silkies next fall, so I need to pick the best and group them into breeding populations. Should be fun times.

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Weekend fun, Sid is very handsome.

Daniel’s sister was here on Saturday, and then while he took her off to the airport on Sunday, I headed down to Blackthorn Kennel. Christine and I had a heck of a good time trying to get a family photograph of Sid, his sisters Oda and Olivia, and his mother Xita.

And then before we went off to lunch, I got Christine to get a few of Sid in his spiffy new mobility harness:
Sid, a black German Shedder, stands with his body pointed left and his face looking at the camera with good humor. He is wearing a tan harness with a Y-front and a wide girth behind his front legs, and a narrow girth four inches back from that one. A rigid handle stands eight and a half inches above his back.

You may notice he’s in a prong collar. This is because 98% of the time, he does not pull on the leash. That remaining 2% of the time has a good chance of knocking me over and getting me hurt, though, so he wears a prong for insurance. It’s not something I’d put on a dog who still chronically pulls, because I don’t want them getting constantly pinched, but it makes an excellent insurance policy in case my adolescent partner forgets himself in the face of a squirrel.

And for reference, here we are together:
I stand to the left of the frame, a white woman of average build, about five feet eight inches tall and wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Sid's ears are obscuring the handle of the harness but you can see my hand grasping the cross-bar between them. I wear a leash looped across my body, one end attached to Sid's prong collar.
He looks, as Christine put it, like he’s wearing his daddy’s work shirt at the moment, with the harness so big on him. It’s actually loose at the moment but that’s all right since I can’t put weight on him. At the moment when he works he provides me some forward momentum to brace against and I use him in exactly the opposite fashion as I use a cane. With a cane I lean toward it to keep from wobbling away from it, with Sid I lean away from him to keep from falling into him. I’m am so happy with my pet insurance, I can hardly wait until his growth plates have fused and we get the OK on his hip and elbow X-rays, I can stand a little more upright. But you can see from the photo that his prong collar isn’t going to tighten unless he’s actually gotten far enough ahead of me that I can’t hang onto his harness anymore.

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Sid: Still Brilliant

So in all the chicken-related excitement this weekend, I failed to update you on Sid’s latest fits of brilliance. Sunday he went all kinds of places: the car dealership to drop my car off (and then pick it up later), Panera for breakfast, WalMart to get buns for bratwurst and sloppy joes. He was, as the post title will tell you, still brilliant for a dog who will be one year old on the 4th of July.

At Panera we sat outside again, and now he’s not even bothering to get up when the suicidal little birds hop right towards him all “I could totally take you, dogboy.” Sparrows are hilarious but not really all that bright. Sid is also starting to figure out when I get sudden fits of vertigo, good boy. Sitting in a chair at Panera and waiting on my food I started to feel dizzy, which resulted in Sid heaving his front half into my lap and leaning into me. It was soothing and actually pretty helpful but I’m thinking it might not be an ideal response for restaurants, where service dogs are suspected to be less obtrusive.

Then on the way into WalMart I asked him to pick up the pace while vertiginous and he gave me a look that is possibly best translated as “Are you on drugs that your doctor has not prescribed?” and kept noodling along at a leisurely pace until I was less wobbly, at which point he was happy to kick in the afterburners and lean into his harness. These are fantastic developments! Pet dogs and obedience champions may be required to unquestioningly follow orders, but when Sid decides to tell me that no, he will not be speeding up while I’m dizzy, it’s just evidence that he’s picking up that he is supposed to be keeping me safe, and part of keeping me safe may be ignoring me when I ask him for something like that. Sometimes it feels like my only task here is to make the right pick of dog treats on the Blue Buffalo page.

The day was also marked by a total lack of people attempting to interfere with him, which was fantastic. The guy at the car dealership did, however, want to talk about him and how pretty he is. I get that a lot with both Sid and Zille: people who had GSDs as kids want to tell me how good looking they are, how they’re built just like those childhood Shedders, and then they fondly reminisce about their dogs.

But anyway, I will soon get a chance to ask an expert about training and reinforcing the intelligent refusal that Sid is just now developing on his own, because in a couple weeks PawPower will be stopping through the area and I will get to meet her! I am very excited, we have known each other online for a while so meeting off-line will be grand fun I suspect.

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Does it count as a task if the dog taught himself? Also, baby chicken.

Sid will now open the gate to the fence on cue. Of course, he will also open the gate not on cue, such as when he has decided he is bored sniffing the things in the fence and would like to sniff the things outside the fence, or when he would like to go for a ride in the car and therefore needs to go stand next to it and stare at me hopefully. We are having to be REALLY RELIGIOUS about putting the carabiner clip on the gate latch, and I do not have any faith whatsoever that Sid won’t figure out how to remove the carabiner at some point if we give him the time to explore.

He’s kind of scary that way. He is not a terribly analytical dog, one who sits and thinks a problem through and then performs a solution. Zille does that, and it weirds me out on occasion. But Sid is really, really scary good at figuring out what he just did that got him what he wanted. Case in point: the door to the bathroom in the hotel room we stayed in when we went to Kentucky. The problem, from Sid’s perspective, was that the door was between him and me. He started out just randomly bashing at it, but his random bashing brought him in contact with the lever-style doorknob, and the door opened. He was pleased. And the next time he wanted the bathroom door open, there was zero random bashing, he just went straight for the knob.

Another case in point is the gate latch. He opened it the first time with random jumping and flailing because the gate was between him and me. The second and all subsequent times, he has opened it with a quick and practiced nudge from his nose, followed by a nudge to the gate itself to swing it open. He learns scary fast, seriously. Tink, for instance, will work on problem-solving by manipulating objects, but it takes her a few successes to figure out exactly what she did that worked. With Sid, it never seems to take more than one success for him to recognize what just happened and what he needs to manipulate and how to make it happen again.

You may also notice the theme of “there was a barrier between me and Sid” as the precipitating factor in his door- and gate-opening expeditions. Sid does not approve of barriers that prevent him from being with his person. As we do more training on his service doggery, he becomes more and more certain that his job is taking care of me, and that this job requires him to be near me and not, for instance, on the other side of the bathroom door. Since our bathroom at home is quite tiny, things get a bit crowded in there, and have you ever tried to pee while a 75lb dog sat between your knees and stared up at you? It’s an adventure.

Meanwhile, on the chicken front, the baby silkies are about ready to move outside. Daniel is going to set them up a temporary pen today, since unseasonably high temps this week have kept us from building them a more permanent home. Once they’ve moved out, the 16 bantam babies of various breeds in the smaller brooder will move into the Big Brooder. This weekend, the six members of the Pasty Butt club will go back to their home with Christine, leaving ten here as permanent residents. There’s five blue silkies and five Ameraucana babies. The Ameraucanas are hilarious, and have a tendency to stare at me intently whenever I appear over the edge of the brooder. I’ve named them after quarks, using the names I learned in high school (because Truth and Beauty are much better names than Top and Bottom) and so have Up, Truth, Beauty, Charmed, and Strange.

Here, have a picture of Charmed making eerie eye contact:
A teeny fluffy grey-brown chicken, cradled in my hand.  He is staring directly at the camera in a sort of unsettling way that suggests he will peck you if you get out of line.  And he will, because he is like that.  I have been pecked by this tiny, tiny chicken more times than I care to think about.

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On Sid’s Brilliance and Dog Envy

This started out as a comment in response to Sharon Wachsler (of After Gadget) on my last post, but it started getting really really long so I thought I’d just make it a post.

I should probably just get it out of the way that I am tickled to death that Sharon is reading, I used to pop into After Gadget before coming to terms with the fact that my chronic pain wasn’t going to get better because dog training! and it definitely went in my feed reader when I made the decision to partner with a service dog and realized I would have to train my own dog because service dog training! Plus her comments are further evidence that my blog is read by people who are not, in fact, related to me (hi Dad!) which is pretty cool, let me tell you.

Anyway, what Sharon said that started this whole line of thinking off was

Wow! Doing so well at such a young age! I thought GSDs tended to mature slowly, as is true for bouviers and a lot of the other large, herding breeds.
Can’t say I’m not jealous, though trying not to be. (Recently talked to Barnum’s breeder, who told me his litter had been particularly slow to mature. Makes me feel better — it’s not just me/us!)
However, he has magically gotten calmer, more food- and work-motivated once the testosterone pump was turned off, if you catch my drift. ;-)

I feel I have to start out with a disclaimer: I’m not sure I would have posted it if I’d made that training/assessment run and Sid had been a total dork-faced scatterbrain the whole time. I would have needed a lot of time to process the fears it would raise in me of having to wash him out, and time to get over feeling like a bad trainer, and all the other inevitable anxieties that arise when our dogs turn out to be fallible beings instead of the perfect angels we’d like them to be. And Sid carries the weight of some extra baggage: not only is he a Service Dog In Progress but I am not kidding when I tell you I have loved him since he was 2 weeks old, when I cradled him in my hands and he went “grrrrrwoof!” at me amid his infant puppy dreams.

So not only do you have the usual worries, but if I have to wash him out, he cannot stay, or I have to adjust my meds or stick with a cane or something. We don’t have the space, time, or finances for five dogs in the house, four pets plus a service dog, and I don’t think I should contact the Rhinosure agency just because I want more dogs. We just don’t. And a cane is not terribly ideal for me and I don’t feel 100% safe using one, because I have to develop a compensatory lean to make sure I don’t wobble away from the cane and fall over. And let me just keep dragging Sharon into this, because she wrote a couple really good posts on the issues she was having with her SDIT, Barnum, and the heartbreak that goes along with these considerations. Those posts hit a couple different nerves with me. Part One is here, Part Two is here, and here’s Part Three.

So anyway, if I had taken Sid out and he had seriously scared me about his ability to handle what I need from him as a service dog, I probably would not have written about it for a good long time. Because there is so much hanging on his ability to service dog for me.

But yeah, I am proud to say that Siddy is performing at an unprecedented level for a dog as young as he is, who is as new to public access work as he is. Stupid fatigue and pain keeping me from taking him out all the time, but anyhoo.

I can’t claim this is entirely due to me as a trainer. GSDs are slow to mature, and but I have some advantages with Sid:

1) He has a good “off switch.” I’m not sure if you can train this, I’ve never had to try. Beowulf has a great off switch. Tink’s off switch sucks. But a good off switch, or the ability to just lie around and zone out, is essential because a lot of what I need a service dog to do is lie around and zone out. Or at least lie quietly and watch the world go by. Sid is happy to do this as long as the world is busy enough to hold his interest.

Really, Sid is just good rough material in the first place. He comes from a long line of dogs who were selected not just for their willingness to work with people, but their desire to work with people, which is an important distinction. This can make a real difference, and it stacks the deck in my favor because I’m not trying to constantly convince Siddy that it’s worth his time to work with me; working with me is what he wants to do.

2) I’ve spent a lot of time reinforcing that “off switch” and the “lying quietly” behavior. There’s a bed under my craft table, if we’re in my room and I’m busy then I direct Sid to the bed and pause periodically to ruffle his ears, feed him a piece of cheese, or hand him a good toy. He gets a lot of reinforcement for just lying quietly.

Which is one of those things that I kind of figured out on my own, actually. You can find a lot of resources out there on training your own service dog, but they all focus on task training and how to break down tasks. None of the ones I saw said “Figure out not only what tasks you need, but what your dog will actually be doing when you’re out with him.” Working Beowulf at school proved to me definitively that I needed to teach Sid to be OK with just lying around.

All of this is not to say that Sid does not have moments when I kind of despair that he will ever be grown up enough for me to trust him 100% with my well-being. He’s still a puppy, and while he can straighten up and focus and fly right, sometimes his natural dorkishness gets the better of him. And I don’t want to train all of that out of him, I love his big dorky grin and the way he rolls onto his back and flails around with his eyes wild and his tongue lolling out. My job at the moment is to teach him to save the dorkface for times when it’s appropriate, and expand his ability to focus.

And, y’know, envy is all over the dog world. While Sharon is jealous of Sid’s ability to just chill, I was reading this post with a list of things Barnum is working on and feeling like a serious slacker trainer with an under-educated SDIT. It’s too bad, in a lot of ways, that owner-trainers can’t do week-long “dog exchanges”; I think we’d all feel a lot better about our own dogs and ourselves as trainers if we could do periodic “trade-offs”!

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Sid clears the first hurdle!

Today was Sid Measuring Day. He came in at 25″, which is exciting! Cane height for me is around 34″. The tallest mobility harness I’ve found has a handle height that goes up to 9″, so I needed Siddy to hit at least 25″ to make him a viable mobility candidate. That harness costs $400, so I’m looking forward to him putting on another half inch, which would let us use a $100 harness with an 8.5″ handle height. Although I suspect that once he’s approximated his final adult shape, I’ll go ahead and spring for the expensive harness, it has much better padding and the handle folds down to make it easier for a tall dog to do things like crawl under a table at a restaurant.

I think we might get another couple inches out of Sid, he’s been growing at or just over 1/2″ per month since we got him and his growth plates won’t close for probably another 5 months at least according to my vet. That would also be exciting, since it would let me use the harness with a 6″ handle that I already own, courtesy of my friend F.

Of course, the final determination of harness will be made when Siddy finishes filling out. Right now he’s tall but so narrow that he toes out in front and is cow-hocked behind, a common problem for young dogs who are going up faster than they’re going out. Also his head is broadening before the rest of him, so he’s a wee bit weirdly proportioned at the moment. Soon enough he’ll start getting wider instead of exclusively growing straight up, and will stop looking quite so goofy.

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Answering Googled Queries

1) “should you pet a service dog”

Well, that depends on who you are. I pet my service dog all the time, and also my SDIT (Service Dog In Training). They like it when I pet them, and I often pet them just because we both enjoy it, as well as to tell them in a low-key way that they done good in a particular moment or decision point. I firmly believe that service dog handlers should absolutely pet their service dogs. If, however, you are John Q. Random Stranger, you should not pet someone else’s service dog. You should not ask to pet someone else’s service dog. If a service dog handler invites you to pet the service dog, that is OK, but don’t expect it.

2) service dogs vs. pet dogs

The key difference here is that service dogs are trained to assist a person with a disability. This means that in order to have a service dog, you must first acquire a disability. Then, the dog must be trained to perform tasks that help out with that disability. Also, the dog must be capable of handling public situations without being obnoxious and disruptive.

There are a lot of areas where pet dogs and service dogs overlap. For instance, my SD and my SDIT both spend a lot of time being petted (see question 1) and a lot of time cuddling, and chewing bones, and lying on the furniture, and playing games with me and with other dogs. All four dogs are concerned if I am especially wobbly. The difference is that if I am especially wobbly, Beowulf and Sid (well, Sid is working on it) both know how to steady me.

So for example, if you are get panic attacks, you might have a pet dog who is concerned and comes over and licks your hands, and you pet the dog and it helps you refocus and get past it. This dog is a pet dog, who might qualify as an Emotional Support Animal. If your panic attacks are disabling (i.e. they interfere with major life activities), and you have trained the dog to, for instance, spot when you are about to have one and perform a behavior that helps you refocus and not have the panic attack, the dog may qualify as a service dog.

You do not have a right to take a pet animal to places where dogs are not normally allowed, not even an Emotional Support Animal. But a person with a disability does have a right to take a service dog almost anywhere, because they need the dog to help them out.

Which leads to the final distinction: a pet dog is a well-beloved family member, ideally, and friend. A service dog is a vital partner in every-day life.