Summer Solstice & Solitude

Myra

Dark, heavy clouds erupt in a series of thunderous cracks & turn mid-day to twilight.  Slowly, the rain can be heard moving in; somewhere out near the lake, then the edge of our yard & finally overhead.  Under the shelter of birches & maples, three of us surround her, waiting with her to the last breath as droplets slowly begin finding their way through the canopy.  A nod of confirmation before a hushed goodbye respectfully leaves the two of us to grieve beside her.  The lock of hair, final hug & wrap of pink blanket—details etched into memory as waves wash over us.  The swell of the storm rises fierce, unrelenting, matching the emotion of the moment, rushing over the expanse, pouring out with our tears. 

Summer’s a time for long days, graduations, vacations, reunions & weddings.  We often use summer as an adjective to describe life & love in all their glory: vigorous, dynamic, in full-bloom.  We associate spring & summer seasons with growth & development, both offer promise & a sense of anticipation; whereas, aging & death seem paired with fall & winter.  Somehow dying during spring or summer appears premature, untimely, even when it’s expected.  Truth is, anyone who has been a caretaker will tell you, death has its own schedule & itinerary.

Experiencing life means confronting death, our shared & certain fate at some point.  Just as we die, our pet companions will die.  Although most avoid talking about it, end-of-life discussions help families confront & determine their own desires for care & treatment.  Working this out in advance can make things easier for those we love to handle things once we pass on.  Advance directives & wills indicate a person’s wishes when incapacitated or dead.  They also often provide guardianship for those who might be orphaned.  However, most people don’t consider issues regarding a pets impending death, nor do many discuss or include adoption arrangements in their own directives should their companion be orphaned.

Myra was our second adopted pawed-daughter & was between 2 & 4 years old when caught & taken to a humane shelter a friend managed.  Horribly underweight, abused & exposed to the elements, Myra was a difficult foster.  Our friend had too large a pet-family to take her on—primarily because they were fostering & adopting over a dozen furry-orphans from a next-door groomer & boarding kennel at the time!  Sadly, numerous dogs were left at the business when their elderly owners died because very few people ever took responsibility for their deceased relative’s companions.

Hubby & I visited Myra in “lockup” & quickly decided we would rise to the challenge.  Without children & with fewer pet-kin, our home was a calmer, safer environment for rehabilitation.  This allowed us to focus our attention on integrating her into our household.  She adored hubby, bonded with him immediately, & reveled in us having two other “dawg-ters”—she had sisters!  Myra became part of our pack, healing & eventually gaining confidence interacting with people & other animals socially.  It wasn’t long before she became the alpha-leader of the group!

As the years passed by, our family, like all others, experienced a lot of changes including relocations & illness.  Family dynamics shift & change all the time, yet few of us acknowledge our own aging & our growing list of limitations or those of others.  We take moments to step back & assess the family situation from time to time.  Identifying changing needs & abilities of the family allows us to adjust behaviors & expectations—to better deal with obstacles & life transitions.

Hubby & I have gained & lost many companions over time.  When our family relocated two years ago we had four canines, all over the age of ten, with complicated medical conditions.  Our new vet & his staff were a godsend, gently reminding us that our “children” were now geriatrics!  Hubby & I began discussing the fact that all four of our dog companions were in the final stages of their lives.  We shared our feelings on their continuing care & impending deaths.

Euthanasia is a difficult subject for many people, but provides a compassionate way for our companions to pass away when we know illness or age prevents them from continuing to live comfortably.  They love us unconditionally & their lives are centered on our happiness.  Like small children, domesticated pets have limited capacity to understand or care for themselves; they depend on you to make important decisions regarding their care in life & in death.

About two months after relocating, our oldest adoptee Jasmine (17+yr Chihuahua) died of a heart attack & our youngest Lily (10+yr beagle-husky mix) was diagnosed with inoperable bladder cancer.  Jasmine actually experienced a series of heart attacks over a Saturday & died that evening at home.  The vet was closed for the weekend, and emergency animal clinics aren’t common here as they are in urban areas.  Hubby & I regretted not making arrangements earlier to prevent the pain of the attacks over the last hours of her life.  So when Lily developed further bladder & bowel obstruction from the aggressive cancer in just a few months, we recognized her discomfort was becoming too great.  We couldn’t justify keeping her with us any longer, and made arrangements for the three of us to visit the vet.

After the experience with Lily, we decided future “last hours” with our companions should be at home.  For obvious reasons, companions don’t always enjoy vet visits & can become anxious.  We did not want ours stressed with the ordeal of travel or setting.  A friend shared the number of a veterinary service that made house/farm calls for care, knowing our wishes & that we could use for future emergency care if needed.

There we were, left with Myra & Roenan, both over 14yrs old—ALL of us depressed, having lost both Lily & Jasmine within 6 months.  Adopting Benson shortly after that brought new life to the ‘ol gals!  Recently, though, Myra’s troubles with her back, hips & knees had worsened.  She was losing mobility, and remaining laying down to eat some days.  Weighing over 100lbs, it was hard for either of us to lift & assist her to the yard up & down the front steps.  Sometimes it took a second person.  Ear disease had caused hearing loss & difficulties with eyesight were becoming more troublesome.

Myra began to separate herself from the family at times these last few weeks.  She’d lie down in the bedroom rather than stay with everyone in the living room, preferring to be by herself (& sleeping) most of the day.  She stopped walking the hills or wild areas in the back yard, sitting off in the grass near the house watching everyone else play & run instead.  Desire for solitude & rest were some of the signals we had waited to see.  It was time; our grief tempered only by the knowledge we did all we could to make her life with us a happy & healthy one.

Myra was a great companion for so many reasons & had every bit as individual a personality as you or I have.  She loved kids, was so gentle around small toddlers & babies, was an awesome listener & took direction well.  She had always been independent but friendly.  Myra was protective but not aggressive—you knew someone had your back if she was there.  Her influence and demeanor made an impression on Benson, and he’s modeled after her.  Myra helped shape him into a gentle & playful alpha leader, loyal & loving, who has comforted us in this grief.

Soon, we will repeat this ritual yet again.  Before that though, we will enlist Roenan & Benson in the task of inviting a new sibling into their pack and beginning its training.  The crossover will allow Benson a playmate to ease the burden on Roe, as she’s losing mobility also.  When Roe passes, Benson will have bonded with his newest dog-buddy; having each other to work, train & pal around with should ease their sadness.  Roe has been Benson’s best friend since day one here.  We empathize with the grief and loss he will feel losing the last members of his “first pack.”

As summer-solstice passed, and days began growing shorter once more, our Myra left us.  She is not alone though.  She’s left for “Summerland” to join Jazz & Lily.  They are still running & playing… chasing squirrels & feline family right alongside each other… if only in our hearts.

Myra, you will be sorely missed.

Blessed Be baby girl, we love you always.

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Challenges & Opportunities

Challenges lie ahead, no matter where we begin our journey.  Obstacles of every kind seem to materialize, blocking the path; until we adjust our ‘framework’ and begin perceiving those obstacles as opportunities.  Suddenly a positive paradigm emerges, a rebirth of thought in constructive active tense—even when experiencing not-so-pleasant circumstances.  Our challenges become our ‘spring’boards into new being: catalysts of growth and change; a cycle of chrysalis, transformation and renewal; foundations for strength and perseverance throughout the rest of our journey. 

We’ve gotten to know the Foreign Service dog Firu, and resolved his family’s travel dilemma, while also highlighting some travel and documentation tips for ALL pet companions—service companions, therapy buddies, and typical pets alike.

[To catch up on the discussion visit our previous post, https://bensonsbuddies.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/traveling-buddies/
and http://mom2nomads.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/111/ ; for more on traveling with service pets (& notes on international travel) visit http://www.deltasociety.org/page.aspx?pid=492 and to meet other Foreign Service companions be sure to visit https://www.facebook.com/FabulousForeignServicePets ]

Having touched on the issues of medical privacy and legal documentation regarding assistance animals, I’d like to provide some background of my personal story and familiarity with service animals & therapy pets.  (I’ll link some additional useful resources a bit later in this story.)

Personal need and responsibility go hand in hand when working with service animals.  Just as we have the rights to an assistance companion to help meet our daily needs, others have the right to expect safe and positive interactions with those service animals and their handlers.  Having a service or therapy animal takes dedication and discipline, and demands regard not just for one’s own needs but those of the service animal, and the interactions the team has with the public, as well. 

A number of factors led to Benson & I training as a therapy team—primarily, my husband of almost 16 years being diagnosed with MS about 12 years ago.  We were already familiar with working dogs of many sorts (police K9; search & rescue; etc.) in addition to physical/mental service animals, but suddenly we were in the position of needing one.  We knew my husband’s MS was advancing and he would benefit from having a service dog to help with a few common tasks and depression resulting from MS over time.

Even as he recognized the need, my husband resisted the idea of a service dog at first.  He feared the expense, but accepting a service companion was also a statement to the seriousness of his illness.  Fortunately, a friend involved our church during the fundraising and training process of her second service companion which kept the idea fresh in our minds, and wanting to learn more.

With experience in ADA and compliance requirements for non-profits, I began researching human-animal welfare & health organizations.  I looked for groups empowering individuals and encouraging personal responsibility with human training as the primary component—the core—of service/ therapy teams.  I discovered Delta Society/Pet Partners.  Benson & I are working to certify through Delta Society, so at risk of sounding a bit ‘commercial’ I’d like to say that Delta Society provides a great amount of information and the following links I provide are through DS/PP.

Many people have questions regarding not just documentation of service pets—but also what is required: what basic standards are expected of assistance dogs in particular.  For an excellent overview check out http://www.deltasociety.org/page.aspx?pid=183  Basic training standards can be found in one of their free publications, “Minimum Standards for Service Dogs,” Delta Society http://www.deltasociety.org/document.doc?id=373 .  From legal information, to outreach materials, to sources for further study—Delta Society/Pet Partners is dedicated to “improving human health through therapy, service, and companion animals”—and is an absolute resource treasure.  With the information DS/PP provided, I began the process of developing & certifying our team.

Would it surprise you to know that handlers of service companions are not required to identify your or otherwise differentiate it from a pet?  Or that the dog does not have to wear any vests or tags to identify it as a service dog?  Did you know that they aren’t obligated to answer any questions regarding the nature or extent of a disability?  In fact, did you know others are prohibited, by law, from asking anything of the handler except “is this a service dog?”  Some of these facts made it easier for my husband to consider including a service companion pet in his daily life.  It helps to know your rights & how ADA & other laws can assist.

Once Benson & I embarked on this adventure, hubby decided to come along!  Suddenly, he was excited—his attitude toward training & having his own assistance dog became positive.  Hubby even discovered related interests (play therapy, animal-assisted activities & therapies, etc.) in his graduate studies of sociology & counseling!  As my husband’s physical limitations increase, we will focus Benson’s tasks to include more helpful interaction between them and create more specific service duties.

Benson & I value all the buddies we have in our lives, and so we continue to educate ourselves & others to the health benefits of our pet partnerships.  Benson has been a positive influence on my partnership with my husband, and is helping us transition through the daily difficulties of chronic illness.  Service companions require a lot of all parties involved, but the benefits are astounding and make every moment worth the effort—we know so!

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Check out some FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) regarding service animals: http://www.deltasociety.org/page.aspx?pid=304

For those who need assistance with aid for acquiring or training a service dog, Delta Society recommends contacting Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC) ,which “provides financial assistance to individuals who have the need for an assistance dog but have difficulty in raising the necessary funds,” and to people/programs “whose purpose is to provide assistance dogs to people with disabilities.”  Check them out at: http://www.assistancedogunitedcampaign.org/

A simple brochure like this one from the Delta Society, can help others to understand the role your service dog fulfills and help you learn your rights as a service dog handler: http://www.deltasociety.org/document.doc?id=239  Delta Society recommends keeping a wallet-sized “law information card” of the ADA & other laws protecting service animals with their handlers on you to share with others when needed: http://www.deltasociety.org/document.doc?id=346

Be sure to check out our FaceBook page: https://www.facebook.com/BensonsBuddies