Walking

Yesterday afternoon was spent at Crossings Park with Alice and Josh. In many ways it was a far more pleasant walk than the one a few weeks ago at Washington Park, but it did rain and there were a literal ton of bugs out. Alice mentioned they were so thick in the air it looked like it was snowing, which is a visual I’m glad I wasn’t privy to.

Even with the pesky bugs it was a very lovely walk. We meandered our way through a good portion of the park, wandering down different paths. I’ve been to the park a fair number of times and I still don’t understand how the paths are laid out, which is probably why I’ve managed to see new things every time I’ve gone to this park. But since the goal was merely to get in Alice’s steps we were mostly choosing our direction based on the simple need to walk rather than searching for any specific destination. We actually walked along one path that had various workout stations along it, like a pull-up bar and a bench to do situps on. I don’t know how popular randomly stopping a walk outside to do different workouts is, but I thought it was kind of random.

I was a bit wary of this outing because of how Uschi had been the last time we were at the park, though, I knew at least some of that was because I’d been too hot and exhausted to really keep on her like a good handler. We saw a lot of different animals during our walk and that included quite a few dogs. Uschi was certainly aware of them, especially the little dogs, but she wasn’t too bothered by any of them and was put back on task rather easily. She even walked by an obedience class where several dogs were off leash practicing sit-stays and recalls and gave as much notice to them as they did to her. As we were leaving we ran across a cat, which we assumed belonged to someone in one of the nearby housing developments, and that was definitely an issue for Uschi. I really can’t fault her for that because they’ve been an issue for her for, um, awhile and honestly we don’t often run into random cats in our travels. Plus she’d been tethered to a picnic table while I was trying to take photos of the crane pictured above and she took the opportunity to bark her head off at two dogs walking by with their owner. I wasn’t really near enough to correct her for that and in general I don’t really care if she barks at things when she isn’t working.

Anyway, in what is truly perfect timing, Becky from Fidelco is coming today for a follow-up evaluation. I talked with her yesterday about the intermittent issues I’ve had with the animal distraction and from what she said it seems to be a common issue with Uschi’s litter. I think we’ll probably go for another park walk today, though, I’m going to suggest Central Park since they treat the lake there and it’s basically bug-free. Either way I am glad to get in more work with Uschi on this particular issue.

Official

Earlier this week I received my graduation certificate from Fidelco for completion of my training with Uschi:

Fidelco graduation certificate; reads: "This certifies that Cynthia Otty & 'Uschi' have satisfactorily completed the course of instruction with Fidelco's Jason Stankoski and is hereby entitled to this diploma presented April 10, 2012."

I can only assume that I’ve only just now received this “diploma” after such a lengthy wait because I didn’t attend last year’s walkathon and thus was not present for the graduation ceremony at the banquet as I was with Yara back in 2008. Of course, I generally think of my partnership anniversaries to be the date I’ve first been introduced with my guide dogs so I’m not really concerned with the delay. Frankly, I wasn’t even sure that I was going to ever have a certificate and thought they might be merely a part of the ceremony itself however informal they may seem.

However, I must admit that it does boggle my mind to realize that Uschi and I have been partnered for almost a year-and-a-half already. The time has truly flown by!

Stars

Yesterday was a bit of a bust for the birthday celebration because I felt like crap. I’m still dealing with the migraine, though my teeth and jaw aren’t aching nearly as much. But even though she was all manner of hyper and excited, Uschi didn’t seem to mind that I stayed holed up in the cave of my bedroom for most of the day. In fact, if anything she wanted another pupcake to enjoy!

Profile headshot of Uschi in harness on a brown backgroundSo, fun activities are on hold, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate via other outlets. Today, for instance, Uschi is the featured grown-up puppy on DailyPuppy.com! She’s one of the few guide dogs to ever be featured and joins the illustrious ranks with Yara, who was featured last year and the Guiding Eyes puppies and guide dogs.

I love the selection of photos they chose out of the submission I gave; I think they really show both sides of her widely dynamic personality. Doesn’t hurt either that some of them are personal favorites of mine.

On an unrelated note, I’ve extended the deadline for submissions to the fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. I had a few people contact me that they wouldn’t make the original deadline and others who voiced some displeasure at the submission they did make. Plus, since yesterday I was finding reading to be nauseous I knew I wasn’t going to get the Carnival up any time soon anyway. So, if you wanted to participate you now have until October 31, 2011.

Home Training

In talking with other guide dog handlers, I’ve been reminded of the many differences between “in-community” — home-based — and campus training. Personal preference is a big part of many aspects of working any type of assistance dog and training at home or at a school is no exception. Having experienced both forms of training, I have formed several opinions and as is probably obvious I find home training to be the route for me. That isn’t to say it is what works for everyone who wishes to obtain a guide dog. It’s a choice and there are a great many differences which may be incentives for some and cause a great deal of hardship for others. For my own purposes of discussion, I’ll go through my personal list of positives and negatives and compare each between the two forms of training.

Location, Location, Location

Obviously, by its very nature, home training occurs at home. This means that there is no need to travel to a campus and spend the duration of training there. For the most part, I had little interruption in my daily activities during my two weeks. I did some work; I went grocery shopping; I shoveled my front walk (a lot). On the other hand, during my time at GEB I actually felt cut off from my regular life. In fact, one of my classmates made a comment regarding this — and later that day I found out there had been a hurricane at my house the week before and I’d never known!

Being in my own community also meant far less travel to a route to work. The only time I spent more than 30 minutes en route to somewhere was when Jason and I got sort of lost and had to drive through a blizzard. However, nearly every day of training at GEB required at least a half hour trip to get places. Frankly, I felt like a sardine packed in a can when we traveled, and the transportation I experienced was apparently an improvement over previous modes used. (There have been further changes since I was there, though I don’t know exactly what.) This lack of long travel also meant a much later start to my training each day — potentially I would have been able to sleep in if I didn’t have insomniac GSDs — whereas whether I wanted to or not, I was forced awake at 6:30 sharp every day at school. And life from that moment was commanded by the regimented school’s schedule: meals at this time, lectures at that, etc. Fidelco’s training also had a schedule, but it was by comparison so much more laid back; for instance, even though I was still waking up, generally, just as early I did get to take a nap most days because we either had completed our daily routes early enough or there was a substantial break around lunchtime. With everything involved with traveling away from campus each day, I was never afforded such a luxury. Most days, when I wasn’t actively walking a route, I found myself in an exhausted and bored stupor.

Less Is More

Believe it or not, I actually am incredibly shy. Specifically in situations with many other people. I find it hard to single a person out to communicate with and I never feel comfortable trying to express things to an audience. Understandably this makes the 1:1 student/instructor ratio that home training affords much more enticing to me than the class of 16 with two instructors and a supervisor that I had at a training school. I had the misfortune of being in a class with almost no one I could relate to — I was the youngest by quite a margin and most of the students were veteran handlers. For a great many reasons, I also had a very hard time interacting with the staff. Truthfully, I felt very lonely during my month of training. So much so at first that I cried myself to sleep one night. Dolly helped ease this burden, but then when I’d found myself already bonded with her, I was forced to relinquish her to the school to mend from her feet injuries for nearly a month. (All of this is a story unto itself.) This undoubtedly contributed to my feeling that I was always competing for time and attention from the instructors. But with 15 other students, there was obviously a lot of “down time” where I waited for my turn. I knew this was the case beforehand, but I was unprepared for the extent of “sitting around” that actually took place. It made a lot of my training work seem nearly insubstantial.

My experience with Megan was so different that it’s nearly unrecognizable in comparison. I found Megan very easy to talk with and by the end of training we had truly “clicked.” With no one else around, I always had my instructor’s complete and undivided attention. Which meant I could focus completely on working with my dog and not neurotically ruminating on how I might be coming off as a nuisance. This one-on-one relationship also allowed the trainers to fully absorb themselves in me and the dogs, which gave them the ability to notice anything and give immediate feedback to me. This also meant that we had time to work together more; there was no rush to accomplish any day’s tasks. We could extend our time working a route for as long as we wished or rework on specific things without taking time from anyone else. I was able to have long conversations about all aspects of my dog from equipment to food. It was a very comfortable and enjoyable training. Of course, there is the chance that the instructor and student don’t mesh as well — a fear I certainly had and voiced to Megan, who admitted there certainly were times that such a thing happened and it was always a bit of a “strain” but I would have been well within my rights to ask for a different trainer if it were enough of an issue.

Working Like a Dog

[Note: As I have never attended an “accelerated” training program at a guide dog school, in which you are not required to attend for the full 3-4 weeks. This specific comparison ignores anything attributed to them.]

To anyone who’s never trained with a guide dog, it can be hard to explain how intensive it can be. Depending on how physically fit you are, it can be downright grueling. Especially if you have a rather exuberant dog! But more so it is very emotional draining. Home training can be even more exhausting because it is much more condensed than training at a school. The shorter length in time requires that more work is done and more information given in a quicker time frame. As an experienced handler, who is quite physically fit, I had to admit that at times I did experience a bit of information “overload” and I was utterly exhausted by lunch time. (It didn’t help that I was horribly sick during Uschi’s training.) I did find myself quite astonished at how much was accomplished so quickly at several points during my home training, but I was never overwhelmed. Whereas at a school there is much more time and all of this is far more gradual; sometimes I felt like nothing was happening at all. Though, it should be noted that in all types of training, the steps are such that the handler and dog are eased into the work.

The I in Team

Somewhat in contrast to the benefits of the ratio size, home training does require a bit more self-monitoring than training in a class. When you train at the school, you have your classmates and instructors (and sometimes other staff) to give you constant feedback, criticism and advice. For the inexperienced handler especially, this can be a goldmine of information and assistance.

Home training requires you to be your own teacher and student in a lot of ways. Depending on how experienced you and/or your instructor are, you may be at a disadvantage in terms of information you may not receive. There were a lot of nuiances of guidework that I gleamed during my month at GEB, other handlers, and my own years of working with my guides. This prior foundation was all quite beneficial while working with Megan and Jason. Fidelco instructors do not have any O&M training and, of course, have not had the experience of living amongst their students that school-based trainers get. These deficiencies didn’t seem to bring about anything that jumps out to me as lacking in my training, but I would have qualms if I were a more unsure independent traveler or the like.

It’s a Vacation, Of Sorts

When I was first researching guide dog schools, one of my handler friends said to me: “You’re going to love it! Seriously, it’s like going to Club Med — and you get a dog in the end!” Her tongue-in-cheek description basically was in references to how well cared for you are at a school; living quarters are comfortable, meals are delicious, and your roommate is this spiffy canine. Most schools will also at least partially cover your travel back and forth to the campus, though, you are always welcome to make your own plans. (I did.) Depending on your classmates, it can be an almost tranquil experience to be at a guide dog school and, as I hinted above, you basically are removed from your life — you can “get away from it all” as it were. Certainly an impossibility at home; and for some this could prove to be a major handicap depending on your lifestyle. Those with very important or busy careers (especially parents) may find it incredibly difficult to concentrate on training in such a distracting environment.

Easy Come, Easy Go

As I said, there is generally quite a lot that is included under the umbrella of going to a campus for training. Though, in my experience, I did find it rather impossible to avoid spending undue money while at the training school. I donated a rather large sum of money (especially for an unemployed college student) and then spent nearly that same amount via purchases through the equipment and gift stores. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t be faithful and grateful to their guide dog school; or that one shouldn’t feel the need to support them. But whether it was from inexperience or youth, I did feel consistently pressured to make purchases on several occasions by various staff. Since Fidelco came to my home, I never interacted with a staff or volunteer whose sole purpose seemed to be to fundraise. In fact, a good deal of additional (read: “optional”) things I’d bought at GEB were provided as standard by Fidelco.

Four + Two = One

Much of the bonding process begins — even occurs — during training. In my very humble opinion, this is one of the main reasons a first time handler should not utilize home training because this bonding process is a new concept and can then occur removed from one’s normal surroundings. In specific, when I was training with Dolly I spent a month with her away from my friends and family. Never once did I need to remind those close to me to not interfere — and frankly I doubt I would have realized the necessity or known how to adequately express this as a new handler. These are things I learned from being away and also from the shared experiences of my classmates who were training with successor guides. I feel quite strongly that this was a vital foundation in working with Yara and Uschi, even though ironically enough between the busy training regimen and horrendous weather I didn’t see much of anyone during either training at home. Though, that could very easily have not been the case. Still, this knowledge of how to isolate myself to bond with my new dog and how to tactfully get people to back off from my guide were absolutely not something I would have garnered without that school background and years of experience as a handler.


In conclusion, I am neither advocating for or against either method of training. As I have stated there are pros and cons to both. Personally, I have absolutely no desire to ever train at a campus again based solely on the 1:1 ratio. But in no way do I think home training is without any flaws, nor is it the ideal choice for everyone. When asked by those interested, I have been honest about my feelings on both forms of training. And have expressed my own qualms regarding first time training at home. Of course, I do know of a people who have gotten their first dogs from Fidelco and/or trained at home. I also know of a few people who have never been to a school to obtain their guides. To that, I will merely say that I do not feel there is really a right or wrong approach, but that an informed decision is the best course in choosing what works for you.

Trials and Triumphs

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is a genetic condition where the pancreas does not produce the necessary enzymes required to digest food and absorb nutrients causing starvation regardless of the amount of food taken in. For further information and other resources on EPI I highly recommend visiting epi4dogs.com because my knowledge comes entirely through my experiences with Yara. Much of which has been chronicled here on my blog.

EPI is highly treatable, thankfully, but to say the entire thing was a struggle is truly an understatement. Yara has a penchant for stubbornness and from practically the moment she entered my life her choice method to showcase this was refusing to eat. Looking back it’s hard not to focus on all the mistakes that I made. Signs of her EPI were present from the moment she entered my life; her bowel movements were a tan color and always disproportionately large in comparison to how much she ate. Our instructor assured me that this was normal and so I never gave much thought to it. At her first annual checkup she got a clean bill of health, but had dropped an alarming twelve pounds! The weight loss continued steadily over the next three months, which was certainly baffling but not exactly alarming. Other than a noticeable increase in her bowel movements and an occasional bout of diarrhea or vomiting Yara seemed fine.

Portrait of me and Yara on a white background; Yara is standing beside me with my arms wrapped under her bellyThroughout this I was in constant contact with Yara’s school, Fidelco. They were very sympathetic, but hardly alarmed by the weight loss. They offered a bunch of suggestions that included adding everything from vitamin supplements and probiotics to canned dog food and raw beef to her daily meals. At her peak Yara was eating what amounted to more than nine cups of food a day! The addition of the raw beef ignited the first undeniable symptoms of EPI; Yara’s stools morphed into a bright yellow “cow plop” and she started vomiting almost daily. It was exactly the worst thing she could have had in her diet, but I’m strangely grateful that we did because it alerted everyone to how serious things were. Still, it would take nearly two months before she was formally diagnosed. She had a battery of different tests run and they all returned normal results; in fact, the GI test that determined her EPI diagnosis initially showed that she was “marginally” in the range.

By that point I was fully on board with whatever the vet told me. Yara was clearly sick! She never was as ravaged as some EPI dogs I’ve seen, but her ribs were clearly visible at the height of her weight loss. (This photo is the best example I could find.) A fact that the general public made me aware of almost constantly. In fact, there was even a formal complaint made to Fidelco! I tried not to take it as a personal offense when they sent a trainer out within a few days to check on things while for months before they were made aware of the entire situation at every interval and had been completely nonplussed.

The resounding memory of these six months is the amount of stress I was under. I felt pressure from Fidelco to take their advice against my own better judgment or that of my vet’s. This greatly influenced the length of time it took to diagnosis Yara. On the rare occasion that I didn’t side with the school it was made abundantly clear they felt that decision was the root of the problem. I had changed her food, for instance, so that might be the culprit because she was used to the other food. Admittedly, I took a substantial amount of time off because of Yara, but my superiors at work were largely unsympathetic. The level of passive aggression and outright punishment directed towards me probably only furthered my own health issues with chronic migraines. So, when I needed time off because I was sick it was a Big Problem. And I got no respite because everyone from my family and friends to outright strangers made it known how bad things were. People made a point to remark about how thin Yara was and suggest ways to offset this. (“I think you need to feed her more.”) On countless occasions I was accosted in public about my “obvious” abuse; one woman actually dragged me by the arm while literally in the middle of crossing a street to yell at me!

Portrait of me and Yara on a white background; Yara is in harness, lying on the floor beside me, resting her head on my kneeWorst of all was my own personal struggle. I scoured every possible resource for anything that might help. Perhaps she was sensitive to chemicals and so along with her various food alterations she drank only purified water. For months. I changed all of my cleaning and laundry supplies to green products, which I admit I had wanted to do anyway because of my migraines. I went so far as to replace all of her bedding, including a very expensive bed, thinking that she might have an allergy (which she does but that’s a whole other story) and began a long process of eliminating things one by one to determine the cause. But with every change that netted no resolution I kept coming back to one constant: me.

Part of me couldn’t believe that this was possible. I rejected the notion that I was the problem by reminding myself of her nearly flawless work in harness. But every time she refused a morsel of food or had an accident in the house I became just a bit more convinced that she was stressed out by her job. I felt like a rotten human being; I was selfish to want to keep working her and cruel to continue to do so if she wasn’t cut out for this life. Mostly, I felt like a failure. The partnership was faltering and I couldn’t fix it. I was increasingly convinced I was doing something wrong, but proud enough that I wouldn’t dare admit it. Friends tell me they guessed as much, but I never told anyone how bad it really was for me or how close I came to calling Fidelco to take Yara back. To this day I can’t tell you what stopped me. I could say I didn’t want to give up, but I did. I could say that I didn’t want to be parted from her, but that’s hard to believe when every room in the house is covered in dog sick.

Obviously it wasn’t all for naught and we made it through all of this. Yara’s recovery was very swift and though I did eventually retire her because of her health issues it actually had very little to do with any of this or the fact she has EPI. I’ve since remarked on how profoundly she impacted my life in her short working career even though we had more than our fair share of “downs.” Not that I want to repeat it, but I don’t regret the struggle. For all I know it only made the bond we shared even stronger. Mostly, it made me appreciate all the positives we had. Sometimes it was a way to distract myself from how miserable things were and other times that focus was the driving force behind figuring it all out. Together, we accomplished so much!


This post was written as part of the fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This edition’s theme is “Achievement” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.