Parade of Delightful Trouble: Toots!

Dawn greeted with smiles, kisses, and happy hellos on the way to day’s first potty break.  Following dad’s feet to the door & out the gate, they’re off—seeming to cheer “new day, happy day, follow me!”  Tearing across the field to the back lawn & tumbling over top one another, both take turns chasing each other back & forth.  After a few minutes, a quick stop to sniff about & do their business before continuing back inside.  A few sips of water, ‘first breakfast’ biscuit treats & it’s time to snuggle back down again.  Everybody finds their spots, settling in to enjoy the last moments of calm & cuddle before parade day gets in gear!

[Important: PLEASE DO NOT venture out to train in public environments like those described herein unless you & your companion have done the foundational basic training & practiced working together using those commands successfully. Taking a walk around the neighborhood with a companion, with occasional sirens or groups of people, is much different than being surrounded by crowds & startling noises for long periods of time.  Your companions should feel comfortable and secure with you before venturing into more active and distracting surroundings.]

Parades!  Every first Saturday in August, the Town of Wilton Annual Blueberry Festival Parade begins in the parking lot directly across the street.  By early morning everyone is getting vehicles & themselves into place, finishing last-minute touches & warming up for the march toward downtown.  The noise continues to build until about 10 minutes or so before start time, then everyone quiets down to almost silence waiting for the signal to begin.  9 AM & our family was ready—with its newest member, a new ‘baby sister’ for Benson, six-month-old Tootsy (aka Toots)—watching all the activity & enthusiastically greeting all other dogs in the crowd!

‘Front-row seats’ to a parade, complete with horses, sirens and Shriners speed-demons, provide a variety of stimuli that can startle or overwhelm a companion pet.  Similar venues, such as outdoor sporting events or fundraising walks, can prove valuable training experiences when planned & managed carefully.  Learning to navigate varied environments & situations, with varying degrees of activity and distraction, is a pivotal ability for any assistance or working companion.  We added one additional challenge this year: Toots!  This would be her first experience with large groups of people since days at shelter, and we knew there was potential Toots could spell trouble.

We were blessed with the Greater Androscoggin Humane Shelter [ http://www.gahumane.org/ or on FaceBook at https://www.facebook.com/gahumane ], whose staff & volunteers begin laying the groundwork with basic commands while sheltering & fostering all their rescues.  Benson & Toots were ‘best buddies’ from the moment we all laid eyes on her at Androscoggin, where she was known as Toodles.  Our home is alive with noises of fun and hope again, even if we could have done without the other aspects of puppy: occasional disemboweled shoes; late nights & early mornings of house-training; misappropriated items deemed toys by a cute wayward chewer, and so on. (We transitioned Toodles to Tootsy because a name meaning ‘goodbye’ is not ideal; it may confuse her when others use it in context during visitations.  It most certainly creates an ironic situation for those who are trying to teach their new forever-friend to come!  PetParents can more easily transition a companion to a new name if it is similar to its current one.)

Parades (and similar events as those staged from the facility across our street, like cycling tours/fundraisers and benefit runs/walks) offer an additional benefit when training: I can shift back & forth in the crowd throughout the parade to come or go as we please.  This is not the case at more formal settings or ticketed events where our movement is limited out of respect to participants & other audience members.   They also happen to provide prime opportunity to keep advancing Benson’s training while bringing Toots up-to-speed.   As with small children, we need the ability to duck-out with an over-stimulated and difficult young one.

Try to set up the sessions for success—limiting the high-stress crowd/drill time (we do 15 or 20 minutes at most to begin, working up to 30+min) followed by breaks of free play or relaxed walk (a minimum of at least 5 to 10 minutes) for frequent but unpredictable lengths of time.  We alternate between levels of high activity & concentration, at the front of the crowd (within 5-10 feet of the parade), to the fringes of the activity in the back or even further off.  Hubby & I also use several techniques to create a dynamic training experience for each of them: planning entrances & exits with each companion; pair-time mixed with family-group time; exchanging leads (our pairings); using gear (packs, Halti-collars, vests/safety-wear) at random points in the session, and so on.   These practices enable us to easily trade-off or separate or work with one individually at any point, or to deal with problems—both companions prepared to work with either of us regardless of who began their training session or walk that day.  Benson & Toots are a wonderful match, and their friendly competitiveness has actually improved attention span & skill training with both.

Benson needs ‘down time’ to process what he’s learned, observing the group from a secure, non-threatening distance periodically.  Whenever possible, take the time initially to assess the crowd & potential obstacles when training with your companion, before moving into the action, and then periodically at various moments during the process.  Benson is able to concentrate on our relationship, following direction from me during the close-quarters action, when he’s already observed the crowd.  He needs to take his queues from me, as he studies, trusting me to evaluate & ‘pilot’ until he develops enough skill & confidence to take the lead.

The parade was festive, the crowd raucous as ever, with Toots & Benson making it through together.  The only difficult moments were when the full-size horses trotted out.  Toots gave an ‘alert’ bark—they were the first horses she had ever seen!  Both she & Benson stood to go meet & play with them, struggling against their leads for a few moments.  Everyone settled down once the horses repositioned themselves & stood still, waiting for the queue to continue down the street.  Come nightfall, the whole family ventured outside & enjoyed some fireworks—a pleasant surprise since they scare many dogs.  We had prepared to be comforting & calming, possibly retreating home with distressed pups, rather than actually watching fireworks! 

Because we took the time to prepare & everyone had a pleasant experience, Hubby & I are really looking forward to the next parade or major outing.  Benson & I are now preparing for our training visitations beginning this fall: children’s reading sessions at the local library; the after-school program at the church; assisted living centers in the area.  Toots is a quick learner, eager to please, and has a great disposition.  I expect she may be far enough along by next spring to consider getting her certified when Benson tests (dogs must be at least a year old to certify through Pet Partners).  Tootsy’s enthusiastic, but sometimes troublesome, intellect may be the key to her future success as a companion.

Hubby & I are happy with how things are working out with our newly blended family so far, even if the timing wasn’t what we expected.  Occasionally you have to listen to your instinct and take a chance on integrating someone new into your life.  We saw an online listing for Toots, considered her attributes a potential match for our family, and took the time to research it further by visiting the shelter with Benson.  Take an educated risk and open your heart and home to a rescue you’ve carefully & lovingly considered.  We took a chance, and were willing to deal with the ‘trouble’ that went with that.  Now, we are all enjoying this fresh path & grand adventure together; we can’t wait to share our next steps with you!

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