Cura and I have been together since 2009. We want to thank all of you who followed the early days as well as those who popped back on occasion during the long hiatus. Training was done, the days passed, and we were settling into our life together.
Fast forward: Cura is slowing down and a new member of the family is in training. On top of that, we are all busy with our new calling . . . Running the Training Department for Paws and Stripes. Join us on our journey!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Holidays . . . here we come

Noisemaker 3

Sales RackOutdoor LightsTime flies when . . . 
CookiesComputer3D Magical SnowmanTangled Lights
Christmas Lights
Walking Dogyou have ENTIRELY 
Grocerytoo much to do!

The good news is that, at least so far, I appear to be on top of everything -- or at least I am not yet snowed under! 

The problem is really that much of what needs to be done involves me NOT going out and about.  Things like getting cards out, grading the final papers that were just turned in, attending meetings, finishing up those hand-crafted gifts, Holiday baking -- oh, and writing a Holiday Letter.  I just didn't get started on the cards soon enough to individualize them all and it has been a busy year, so rather than have my hand become one huge, ugly, and painful cramp I am opting for that time honored tradition of writing a general letter and then personalizing the card with a short note. (postage be D*%#$D).   I am probably leaving out something else that needs to be completed before the end of December -- but I am either not going to think about it or have decided not to share!

Back to 'the problem' . . .
With me working on things that involve a lot of sitting and very little moving, it leaves Cura with very little to do but lounge. 

      <--- Case in point! ---> 

 So, I am trying to make sure that the times that Cura is working, she is getting a real challenge!  We have been doing a lot of off-lead work when we are outside.  Frequently, if the situation is right, I am dropping the leash and expecting her to stay by my side.  Which she does -- though not always 'in place'.  Cura likes to be about 4-5 inches ahead of where I would prefer her to be.  But, as Rick and Heather have pointed out, that is probably my fault because where she is tending to place herself is right where she was initially placed before I realized that the position  I initially chose was not good if Cura is wearing her pack.  So, basically, I am trying to undo what I put into place in the very beginning.  Slowly but surely, Cura is repositioning.  She just needs to be reminded every once in awhile.  The good thing is that the reminder is usually just a verbal correction or me stopping or changing direction -- especially when I am working with her off-lead.  That is actually one of the benefits of dropping the leash -- no physical correction is possible so I have to find a way to communicate to Cura what I want without relying on the leash . . . same goes for her, she has to concentrate on me more so that she catches the signals I am giving her -- so she tends to forage less.

We have started using a new piece of equipment -- as well as reintroducing gear that she has worn before, though not for awhile.  Now that the weather has turned cold, she is back in a coat (the difference being that this one is to keep her warm rather than keep her cool) and she has to wear her boots again.  Most of the time she is less than pleased about the boots (LOVES the coat!) -- apart from our trip up to Madrid last weekend -- she was glad for the boots then!  More on that trip later -- there are some pictures running around some place of Cura in 'full' gear that I will share in another post (in the spirit of trying DESPERATELY not to be long-winded in this one).

The new gear is a Gentle Leader.  I must admit that I quite like it.  It works very well with my physical limitations and Cura and I work together even better than we did before (which is saying something, because if Rick and Heather are to be believed, we are doing pretty darn good -- I chose to believe them, not that there is not room for improvement!).  

There are just a few problems that we have to work out . . . 
1) When she has the Gentle Leader on, she will sometimes try and rub it off her muzzle.  This is a rather significant problem when she decides to use my thigh to rub up against!  On a good day it is simply inconvenient -- on a bad day it could be dangerous.

2) After a couple of days with the Gentle Leader on, as directed by the instructions provided in the packaging,  Cura started showing signs of wear on her muzzle with a little bit of hair loss.  No redness or other irritation, but still . . .  We have loosened the Gentle Leader significantly (pretty much ignoring the directions provided -- now, I feel that I must be clear that we are not really using it to prevent pulling or lunging AND this decision is being made in consultation with professional and experienced trainers so the usual disclaimer applies . . . DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME, BOYS AND GIRLS -- if you are not a professional or are not being advised by one, you should follow the directions provided by the manufacturer).  We have a play date on Thursday, so we will reassess the Gentle Leader then.  If the irritation persists, the plan is to try a Halti, which is another 'head collar' with a slightly different design that will fit differently and may not irritate Cura's muzzle.

3) Regardless of the fact that the 'damage' is hardly noticeable, I feel horrible that this new tool is obviously a physical irritation to Cura.  I have even caught her rubbing her muzzle (against the carpet or her bed) when she doesn't have the Gentle Leader on and hasn't had it on for hours -- this is new, since we have loosened it -- or maybe it was happening all along and I just now noticed it (say it isn't so!). 

One of the difficult things about Cura and finding gear that works for her is that she tends to fall in between sizes.  Frequently, she is right at the edge of a medium and a large -- or between a large and extra-large.  So, it is very possible that just changing the size of the gear will solve the problem.  Unfortunately, vendors do not give individual's the option of testing the equipment for a realistic period of time to determine if it is successful.  They either require that you shoulder the costs of returning the equipment that proves damaging in the long run -- sometimes with a 'restocking fee' added on -- or do not accept the return of a 'used' piece of equipment at all.  Fortunately, I have great trainers who are willing to trade things out with me -- if something does not work, they will take it back at no cost!  I realize that they can still use it as a training tool, but it is still a perk that I appreciate and feel compelled to call your attention to because it is NOT standard operating procedure (at least in my experience) and if you are in the market for a trainer -- be it for a Service Dog or a Pet -- you may want to ask if your potential trainer is willing to provide you with this kind of service. 

Well, despite my attempts, this post is on the long side . . . maybe it is time to start thinking about stepping up the pace a bit and providing bi-weekly posts. (especially since I have not yet managed to share the details of our trip to Madrid last weekend).  Your thoughts, my phantom readers -- and those who are NOT phantoms -- on this would be appreciated.  Should I keep the posts short, but post more often. . . OR should I stick to once a week and let the posts get longer and take the risk that much of them will not be read?  Hey, I follow several blogs . . . I know what I do with long-winded posts -- be HONEST!).  I would love your feedback so PLEASE leave comments that will give me some indication of the best way to proceed when developing this blog.  Is it time to provide more frequent posts? 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Black Friday Adventure

I guess I should begin by confessing that, for as long as I can remember, I have been very uncomfortable in crowds.  I have never been officially diagnosed, but I figure I have some form or combination of demophobia/agoraphobia/claustrophobia because my anxiety tends to flare when I am feeling physically constrained, either by people or space.  For example, I can be in a very large room with few people in it, but if they are all clustered by the only door in such a way that I would be unable to exit easily, my anxiety increases.  Elevators themselves are not really a problem -- but, if given the chance I will never enter a crowded elevator and I have been known to exit one if it got too full, especially if I got stuck in the back away from the door and had several floors to travel.  When my medical issues required that I have an MRI, not only was Valium required to get me into the darn machine, but I also needed a person to stay with me just outside, touching me and speaking to me to get me through the whole process without flipping out.  Even then, it was a pretty close call.  All of the above described situations were before I had spent any time as a person with a physical disability.  Things only got worse when I was injured.

Now, fortunately, I never got to the point where I never left the house, but I have had periods where my anxiety levels (read panic attacks) were unmanageable for periods of time.  Even when my anxiety was not unmanageable, for years now I have tended not to go out much unless absolutely necessary and usually not unless I was with another person, meeting another person, or had some kind meeting/class/job to go to.  At some points, I did my best to insure that I limited such "commitments" so that I did not have to go out on my own.

So, with that (very) cursory background information, you will hopefully understand the significance of my Black Friday Adventure.  I imagine the only reason I actually stepped up and did it AND got through the whole thing relatively unscathed is because it was "training for Cura."  Yeah, right -- more like therapy for me!  Funny how so much of Cura's training is actually addressing my personal challenges . . .

Originally, the plan was to go shopping with Nonna Ear Rubs with the intention of scoping out a Christmas present for Fuzzy Face.  But, due to scheduling issues, Nonna Ear Rubs couldn't go.  YIKES!!  Well, let me tell you, that was almost the end of the Black Friday Adventure right there!  At the very least, the adventure was going to be postponed until Sunday when Nonna Ear Rubs could make it.  No way in ____ was I going to face the insane post-Thanksgiving crowds on my own . . . oh, wait . . . I would not BE on my own.  Cura would be with me . . .

So, we went -- though I managed to accumulate several errands in addition to "Mall Cruising."  For some reason, this helped me to prepare for tackling the insanity of the Mall.  Maybe because we were able to do some "normal, everyday" things first . . . who knows!  All I know is that it helped me get into a good state of mind before actually stepping foot in the Mall.

For the most part, we did great!  Cura was not overly thrilled with the crowds (especially the free-range, loud, rambunctious children that were naturally attracted to her lovely -- frequently curved -- tail . . . a part of me thinks this attraction may sometimes play a part in her lowering her tail when in stressful situations -- maybe not every time, but sometimes) but she stuck close and did everything that I asked her too.  Besides, it isn't as if I was thrilled about the crowds, either!  I did a bit of shopping for myself and scoped out some things to purchase later for Christmas gifts.

We used the escalators (up and down), wandered in crowded, tight spaces where Cura had to follow me rather than be beside me, stood in lines, and browsed the various counters.  With the volume of people, we still managed to either get jostled or "trapped."  Still, the jostling I received was drastically reduced -- hardly a brush -- AND I got an apology rather than the person(s) pretending that it didn't happen!  As far as getting boxed in . . . it did happen several times -- and I did start to get anxious every time.  When I did . . . Cura became VERY deliberate in her motion and, while slowly moving forward, also leaned against me slightly (just brushing my leg).  In hindsight, it was as if she was reminding me that she was there with me.  Regardless of her intention, the result was that my anxiety remained at manageable levels and we were able to spend a little over an hour in the Mall on Black Friday!

Was there room for improvement . . . of course!  But we managed to tackle a difficult situation together -- at the very least it strengthened our bond even more.  In reality, Cura managed to help me through a situation that would have been virtually impossible for me (especially in the past seven-plus years) before she came into my life.  I would have never contemplated attempting it.  Instead, I would have found a perfectly logical and acceptable reason for avoiding it completely.  Progress . . . I LOVE it!

Our next private training session is scheduled to take place in the Mall -- a wonderful opportunity for fine tuning!  I can't wait!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Party!

Yes, this is an 'off-schedule' post.  I know I usually only post once a week -- mainly because of time rather than lack of material, but this week is special.  Skye became a part of our family last year on the day after Thanksgiving, so this year we had a little adoption day celebration.  We even baked a doggie cake.
I found the recipe here.
There are several to choose from, but Skye LOVES Peanut Butter and Carrots, so that was the one we picked.

Peanut Butter Carrot Cake

Naturally sweet, colorful and flavorful, this cake is simple and easy to make. Great for Fall.
1 cup flour                                 
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup peanut butter                 
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup shredded carrots              
1 tsp. vanilla
1/3 cup honey                            
1 egg

Mix flour and baking soda. Add remaining ingredients. Pour into greased 8" round cake pan and bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Let cool. Puree cottage cheese in blender for icing. Decorate with more peanut butter and carrots.

 As you can see . . . the cake was appreciated by all . . . including the kitties!

Only Bear was missing -- he and Skye are still defining their relationship -- most of the time, that means they are not in the same room.  But they tolerate each other more than they used to!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One Pooped Pup!

I mentioned in the last post that Cura's next training session was going to take place on Rick and Heather's property and we were going to be putting her no-jump harness to a serious test by letting her frolic, 'be a dog', and do some off-lead work. With play-dates suspended until warmer weather prevails, it had been awhile since Cura had been given the opportunity to have some free-play.  She gets physical and mental exercise almost daily, but it is structured and controlled rather than time that she can just do what she wants.  Now, because of her weather reactions and jumping ability, she had only had short periods of time off-lead during play-dates in the past, but at least she was spending time outside.  Even though she was on an extend-a-lead, she was the one who got to decide what she did -- if she wanted to dig . . . she could dig, if she wanted to sniff . . . she could sniff.  On top of that, she got to interact with other dogs in a safe environment.

Having said all that, last Thursday was the first REAL play session she has had since coming home.  For all but the introduction/reunion period in the beginning of the session and the refocusing period at the end, Cura was off-lead.  The no-jump harness worked well -- though she never even made a move to jump the fence.  It is possible that she just didn't have any desire to jump, but until I see otherwise, I am content that the harness is doing its job.  For almost two hours, Cura had the run of the arena.  Of course, she did A LOT of sniffing!  She also dug for China!  I wish I had brought my camera!  There were some pretty hilarious moments when all you saw was Cura's backside sticking up from the hole with dirt being flung out behind her -- tail wagging.  A couple of Rick and Heather's dogs ended up getting dirt showers courtesy of Cura's enthusiastic excavation.  Next time I will bring my camera even if I DO think we will be working.  If nothing else, maybe I can get Rick or Heather to take some pics/video of us working as a team.

My 'job' during the training session this last time was to get more comfortable having Cura off-lead (building on the whole 'trust' thing with positive experiences), keeping track of her while carrying on a lively conversation, and working on her recall when she was either out of my sight or messing about in an area that was not a doggie free-play area, like the wood or compost piles.  For the most part, I did pretty well.  I really enjoyed seeing Cura having fun -- she obviously needed it.

When we got home Cura crashed!  Zonked out immediately . . . we had to really work to get her to rouse long enough to eat her dinner -- after which she went right back to sleep.  Once we headed off to bed that night, I don't think she moved at all until the morning.  When I got up on Friday, I got this bleary eyed look before she dropped back off to sleep.  Seriously, the only things that moved were her eyelids!  We did go for a run, but she was not as enthusiastic about it as she normally is and had slowed down and was ready to come home much earlier than normal.  When we got home, she went straight upstairs to lay on her soft cushy bed -- didn't even wait for breakfast!  After calling her back down several times, I finally brought her bed downstairs so that she wouldn't have to lay on the (carpeted) floor, since she obviously wanted some comfort.  She ended up sleeping most of the day!  I don't mean dozing . . . I mean hard core, snoring, dead to the world, sleeping.

I think she used muscles she didn't know she had!  Even with all the exercise she gets, Thursday was not only a day of fun and freedom, it was a great workout!  Here is hoping we can do it again when time permits.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Quiet Week -- sort of . . .

Well, usually after a week there is at least one or two things that REALLY stick out as topics to blog on . . . not so much this week.  It was a rather uneventful week, at least a far as big things go.  But there have been a lot of little successes that could very easily be overlooked on those weeks where something exceptional happens.  So, this week will be about the minor goal posts . . .

The weather has gotten colder and Cura has been ravenous.  She just can't seem to get enough food.  It must be the cold so, as an experiment, I have upped her food a bit instead of supplementing her diet with various treats.  The treats (think doggie junk food -- even if I DO go for the healthier options) combined with a couple of days where she didn't get her run, and Heather noticed that she was looking a little heavier than normal -- still within the healthy range, but not her normal svelte self.  We decided that giving her a bit more kibble, returning to a 'normal' treat schedule, and putting her coat on when she was out working might solve the problem.  It seems to be working, she isn't looking at me like she is starving so I am back to, at most, one treat per day and she is not looking around for more food.  She actually likes her coat when she is out and about.

I am working with Cura off-lead more now -- though always in a fairly controlled environment.   She has been working off-lead for some time at the doctor's office and now we are doing the same during evening classes.  The building is pretty secure so she is not going to get outside, but  she could certainly run me a very merry chase if she chose to -- so far, so good.  Also, at Rick's suggestion, I purchased a no-jump harness (the person who invented those things must have a sense of humor -- it is just one big puzzle until you get the hang of how it works -- I would show you a picture, but it is downstairs and I just don't feel like digging out the camera).  It allows her freedom of movement but prevents her from jumping by stopping her from fully extending her legs.  I have started taking her in the back yard after her run in the morning and letting her spend a bit of time off-lead back there with the harness.  Again, so far, so good -- she has not even tried to jump the wall again.  At our next training session, we are going to test the true freedom of the harness and work with Cura on Rick and Heather's property.  Hopefully, she will want to let go and run full out for a bit so we can verify that the harness does really give her complete freedom except for the jumping.  We will also be working off-lead. 

Cura is responding well to the recall using the whistle -- provided that she is on the extend-a-lead and distracted.  We think we may have worked out why she is not having the same response when off-lead or inside -- only time will tell if our strategy to solve this glitch will work.  But, the main reason for the whistle recall is to get her to come back if she is distracted -- and that seems to be pretty solid -- most of the time she is even enthusiastic about returning (thanks to that 'special' spot she LOVES to have scratched).

Mondays are going to be another 'official' training session -- at least on those days that we can make it.  The class is smaller and the venue is larger and more varied with additional challenges.  Cura is so comfortable at the usual class location that even the noisy heater cycling on for the first time didn't really phase her.  She looked up and tilted her head, then went back to sleep!  Yes, she is finding the whole thing VERY challenging -- not (at least not until another dog is allowed to get withing a couple of feet -- then she is not happy)!  So, it is time to give her other environments to practice in -- though the Sunday classes have more dogs in a smaller place so they are still very good for getting her used to working with other dogs around.

We had a bit of a surprise this morning -- and Cura did great!  We were out for her morning walk/run and while we were in the field, a jack rabbit bolted from cover about 20 feet in front of us.  Cura's initial reaction was to take a few bounds after the rabbit (she is on the extend-a-lead for this portion of her morning activities).  But she immediately stopped moving forward at my command, pranced in place, and came right back to my side when I called.  Despite the fact that she clearly wanted to 'play' with the bunny, she stuck with me.  She may have been a bit bouncy and barked a couple of times -- but she did what I told her.  When she was released to continue walking, she was obviously working hard at ignoring the direction that the jack rabbit had gone.  Excellent self-restraint -- well done! 

Sometimes, I think that the little successes are the best successes!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Setting Boundaries

About two and a half months ago, Rick and Heather took me to Watermelon Mountain Ranch Kennels for a training session.  It was a session that focused on training me rather than Cura.  Now, if you have been following this blog, you may be thinking something along the lines of "Aren't ALL the training sessions about training you?"  To some extent, you would be right.  This whole process has been quite a learning curve, even for someone who has lived with dogs much of my life, been involved in the training of some of them, and 'in charge' and 'responsible' for several of them.  But, this particular training session was very different since Cura was not involved at all.  It was all about learning to control other dogs in my environment.

The whole thing started because Cura and I had gotten charged by two different dogs in a very short period of time and both Cura and I were not doing so well with the prospect of other dogs in our vicinity.  I am sure that it was more me than Cura -- she was most likely responding more to my reaction than to the fact that another dog was near.  Hey, what can I say, getting bitten, no matter how minor it turned out to be, is rather traumatic.  I wasn't really afraid of getting bit again (well, I wasn't looking forward to it, either!), I was more concerned that, next time, I would not be able to stop Cura from getting hurt.  I had been successful so far but, to me, it felt that I had managed to keep Cura safe more out of luck than any kind of real control over the situation.  So, my lovely training team came up with a solution . . . go into the kennels and set boundaries for dogs that I had never met.

WHAT!!?? Don't worry, I didn't go in by myself.  Rick and Heather were with me to give me pointers and to step in if things got dicey.  Turns out I didn't really need it (quite possibly because I knew that they had my back) -- things never got out of hand at all.  Sure, it took some time for me to get the hang of setting boundaries, but at the end of the session I had managed to create not only calm, but set a circle boundary around myself that the five dogs in the pod did not attempt to cross.  Well, let me tell you, that was a serious confidence builder!

Since then I have been more or less successful at boundaries with other dogs.  I am beginning to notice that my success (or lack thereof) is reflective of my mental/emotional state at the time.  Big surprise! (she says in a voice dripping with sarcasm)  I am also noticing that my mental/emotional state is frequently influenced by the actions and attitudes of those around me.  I seem to have encountered a number of 'negative' people lately and it has taken its toll.  Hmmm . . . boundaries may come in handy for more than just the uncontrolled dogs that I encounter -- I am going to have to try it on the next negative person that comes my way!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Warning!! I am NOT a poet! :P

 Two eyes that watch for signs of distress

 A nose, always close at hand

Heart-shaped ears that hear when I call

And paws, so steady, they help me to stand

These are only a few parts of the whole

A lovely creature that nurtures my soul


A curly tail that shares your moods

A mouth that, soon, will fetch and carry

 Shoulders -- strong and steady when I am weak

That face, 
both serious 

and merry

These are only a few parts of the whole
A lovely creature that nurtures my soul
Although you have just begun
Thank you, already, for all you will and have done.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Little Rusty . . .

On October 19, Cura and I went back into a face-to-face classroom.  It has been about five months since she had to be in class and that first night was certainly a lesson in 'use it or lose it'.  Now, I am not saying that Cura was completely out of control, but she had certainly forgotten that when we are in class and I am up front, standing and/or walking around, her job is to lay quietly and pretend she is not there (unless, of course something goes wrong and she needs to perform some of her more active duties).  Instead, every time I moved -- and sometimes when I didn't -- Cura stood up and came by my side.  So, she was quite fidgety that night.

The whole experience gave me great multi-tasking practice.  By that, I mean it gave me an opportunity to practice getting Cura to behave in a desired way while having much of my attention directed at something else.  If I am honest, I would say I was only moderately successful on Monday, but the next class was much better.

One of the things that I try to do, no matter how successful we are in the situation, is to reflect on different experiences.  I try to figure out what may have affect both my and Cura's behavior in that situation and what I can try next time to help things to go more smoothly.  As I was driving home that night, I did just that.  I guess I had gotten a bit spoiled since Cura was doing so well in the classroom at such an early stage (after all, by the end of the term, she had not even been going to class for two months).  So, I suppose I figured that if she had mastered that so quickly, going back to class would be a piece of cake for her -- like riding a bike . . .

But, as I was reflecting, I realized a few things.  First, one of the people in the classroom is on oxygen.  The noise from the tank was not only new but, as Rick and Heather later pointed out, it sounds very similar to the noise made by Hot Air Balloons (although much shorter and not as loud).  Cura still dislikes Air Balloons -- need I say more?  That person was absent the next class and she was much better (I don't think that was the whole challenge because she did well when that person returned in class 3 -- but it probably had something to do with it.)

Second, it had been months since I stood in front of a classroom and I believe I reverted back to pre-Cura techniques.  What are those, you ask?  Well, it was kind of like revving up a car engine.  In order to keep things interesting and energetic, I tended to increase my internal energy levels.  But, I soon learned that this only caused Cura to behave as if she expected something to happen -- that we were going to 'do' something.  Well, I was -- I was going to teach -- but SHE wasn't.  Here I was projecting all of this 'let's get ready to do something' attitude and she was responding in kind.  So, I had to develop ways to keep that energy going for teaching purposes while conveying to Cura that we were not getting ready to move.  Since I had only been doing that for a short time before the term ended -- I slid into old habits that first class back.  Ooops!

Actually, when you think about it, 2.5 hours is a pretty long time for her to just lay quietly in one place -- even if she gets up a couple of times, that is excellent (provided she is not completely disrupting the class) -- after all, I have to move around once in awhile or I start to get stiff and uncomfortable . . . 

Finally, regardless of how hard one tries, a Service Dog is still a novelty and I am sure that she was getting more attention from students that first night than she was comfortable with.  As I mentioned, days two and three were much more in keeping with her stellar performances toward the end of Spring semester -- but since I am doing so much teaching online lately, I need to keep in mind that entering the classroom after a significant break may just involve a bit of a refresher course.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

So, What IS Cura's Recipe??

IT'S ABOUT TIME!, you say?  Well, yes . . . that last post was a bit of a teaser.  But, at long last I am posting Cura's DNA Test results.  I debated about whether to explain the test and THEN give the results but decided that everyone has waited long enough so, first the results (then the explanation).  Anyone who read the last post, has some idea of what Cura is NOT . . . here is what she IS!

Primary Breeds: None

Secondary Breeds: 

English Coonhound


In the Mix:

Golden Retriever

Chow Chow

Clumber Spaniel

and Bloodhound (trace)

So, apparently most mixes will have nothing listed in the primary breed category unless one of their parents was a purebred.  So, Cura is a product of mixes on both sides.  Secondary breeds are the ones that are present in high enough quantities that they will likely 'show' in the dog by manifesting as either physical or behavioral characteristics.  In this case, Cura just has two.  Nona Ear Rubs was pretty close when she picked Plott Hound -- they are very similar to Coonhounds.  Finally, the In The Mix category lists those breeds that have contributed to the DNA recipe, but probably do not obviously manifest in the dog begin tested. 

So, the suspense is over -- when people ask if Cura is a black lab I can -- with certainty -- say 'No, she is an English Coonhound/Viszla mix!  I have been reading up on the two breeds -- in many ways, I can definitely see it!
Bye for now!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

DNA Test Has Arrived!

The wait has ended!  Tuesday the long awaited DNA test results came in the mail.  But, before I spill the beans, I would like to share some of the breeds that some people thought might be in Cura's make-up.  All of the guesses come from people who have frequent contact with Cura so they have quite a bit more to go on than just pictures. Unfortunately, there were no guesses from anyone who was only going by the pictures -- or maybe I should say fortunately, because you would have been at a SERIOUS disadvantage given the results of the tests.

Watermelon Mountain Ranch listed Cura as a Black Labrador Retriever Mix.  I suspect that this was not their determination, but the classification that came with her from the City Animal Shelter that she was (fortunately for us both) whisked away from in February of 2008 -- thank you AGAIN Lady Liberator!  And, she certainly IS Black -- well sort of (more on that later).  She has the folded/V-shaped ears that are associated with Black Labrador Retriever, webbing between her toes, short, straight and wiry fur, and a tail that could beat the living daylights out of you if it didn't curl.  If her tail was straight, I might have welts on my thighs -- as it is, it tends to move in the canine equivalent of the traditional 'Float Wave' (elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist) when she gets particularly happy.  Even so, she did manage to knock over a wine glass at a recent dinner party we had -- fortunately, the glass was mostly empty AND she knocked it over onto a tray, making clean up VERY easy!  My Sychic Syster was one of those lovely souls who voted for the Black Lab -- well, to get to the point -- according to the DNA test NO Black Labrador Retriever (or Yellow Labrador either)!  Am I surprised -- nope!  Why?  She is too tall and slim and the characteristics that were being identified with Black Labs were not UNIQUE to that breed -- though I will admit that I also would not have been surprised if Cura DID have Black Lab in her make-up, I just had a hunch that that was not what was giving her the characteristics that were associated with Black Labs.  Now, take a look at some of Cura's pics (sorry, blogspot is being persnickety - you will have to check out various photos that have been posted on the site and in past blogs) -- while I do not yet have a picture of her in a similar pose without her equipment -- she is simply not as 'compact' and 'bulky' as a Black Labrador Retriever tends to be.  

So, what were some of the other attempts at identification?  Greyhound (that was me because of the way she runs), Plott Hound -- this actually was a pretty good guess -- take a look (photo to the left)!  Cura's tail is more curled and her ears are not quite as long, but she has the long legs, deep chest, and general facial features of a Plott -- but, there was no Plott Hound listed in the Cura Recipe (BTW: Plotts also have the long toes and webbed feet that Cura has -- though you can't see it in this photo).

Doberman Pincher was also put forward as a possibility -- you can't tell from the pictures, but Cura has a brown undertone to her Black fur -- especially on her legs (hey, and notice that the above shown Plott has a kind of Black and Tan coat -- how deliciously CELTIC is THAT!?).  Another suggestion was a Boxer -- again with the whole Black and Tan motif combined with Cura's tendancy to use her front paws when playing/wrestling (no, she doesn't wrestle with me).  Surprise, surprise -- neither of these were identified by the DNA test either!  

SO WHAT IS CURA, you ask!?  Well, as annoying as it may be, I have it on good authority of someone who has managed to have a successful blog that brevity is the key -- so, tune in later for Cura's ACTUAL  results!

Luv to you -- official, unofficial and frequent, AND occasional visitors ALL!

Check back soon! You will be amazed at the way genetics can blend!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fur Ball 2009

What a great night! And what made it so great? Funnily enough it was the normalcy of the entire evening and the fact that I was actually out and about 'on my own' socially (and by that I mean just Cura and myself) for the first time in YEARS! Cura and I have been building towards this activity since she came home and it has actually happened!

In the spirit of honesty, this was not a completely unsupported venture and not everyone was a complete stranger -- but it was a good compromise . . . considering. Rick and Heather (our trainers for those who are new to the blog) were there -- they were providing pet sitting services for those who chose to bring their animal companions to the animal blessing before the event and stay for the fundraiser. Also, since it was a fundraiser for Watermelon Mountain Ranch No-Kill Shelter, there were a few people from the Ranch that I 'knew' to some extent because they have either been involved in Cura's care (when she was Whoopee!!) in some way or have taken an interest in Cura's post-adoption life. But I was seated with none of these people so, to some extent for at least part of the evening, we were on our own (though we had the option of fleeing to familiar shores, if needed).

Before I go much further, I feel compelled to call your attention to a couple of the first pictures of both Cura and me taken that night -- some of the first pictures of the two of us out and about together. I believe the pictures should be credited to Heather -- though both she and Rick took photos that evening. It is nice to have some photos of both of us together -- doesn't Cura look great?! Smiling and cheerful in one and seriously working in the other . . . What you don't see is the numerous other dogs that were either in crates or on leash around her at the time -- what a star (yes, I am biased -- so sue me!).

Now, back to the lovely evening . . .

I have had about a week to digest the experience and I am still just as happy about the evening as I was when I got home that night -- which, by the way was rather early by many people's standards. But since our day out began with several errands before a morning committee meeting (another 'new' thing since Cura's arrival), followed immediately by more errands and a dash home to change and make it to the animal blessing at 4pm -- I think that 9:30pm was a very respectable time to get home. Besides, we stuck around until the dancing and loud music got underway. I figured if the music was a bit too loud for me, it must be BLARING for Cura and decided that it was a good time to excuse ourselves.

I mentioned that one of the best things about the night was how normal it was . . . let me explain. We got to the blessing just a bit early but it did not start anywhere NEAR on time! When I tried to check in, no one could find me on the list. Once I was found -- 30-40 minutes later -- I was seated at a table that ended up being over-booked and was asked if I minded being moved to another table. Having been involved in the planning of things like this on a MUCH smaller scale, I know that things like this always happen -- I was the lucky one at this event, so I just took it all in stride.

I ended up being moved to the same table as the Mayor and a 'local' celebrity, both of which were very friendly and were enjoying the evening immensely. That was a treat, of course, but was even more amazing for me was the fact that I finally got to meet another of the wonderful people whose actions enabled Cura to come into my life and I found out a little more of her back-story. So, it is story time . . .

Rick and Heather introduced me to Lady Liberator at the beginning of the evening and I was able to speak with her on several occasions during the evening. Apparently, she had been involved in a Pet Adoption and Cura (a.k.a. Whoopee!!) was one of two dogs that had not been adopted by the end of the event and would be returning to the City Animal Welfare Shelter (YIKES!). Fortunately for both Cura and me, Lady Liberator took a liking to this lovely black dog that reminded her of one of her own and called up Watermelon Mountain Ranch to see if they could take her (as she told me the story, Lady Liberator admitted that she was tempted to take Cura home, but there was no room with all her other four-legged friends). Ultimately, the Ranch agreed to take her (the exact events leading to this decision vary depending on the storyteller -- but the result is the same) and Lady Liberator whisked Whoopee!! off to the Ranch, rescuing her from what was possibly an early death since the City Shelters are not live-exit organizations (though that is their goal according to the advertising). So, without the efforts of Lady Liberator, Whoopee!! would never have been at Watermelon Mountain Ranch to adopt in the first place. Of course, the willingness of WMR to take on another animal should not be overlooked in this series of happy circumstances -- thank you, thank you, thank you!

Lady Liberator was thrilled to see Cura, just as most everyone who had a hand in her care and adoption was. The only difficult thing about the evening for me was that everyone kept referring to her as Whoopee!! So much so that by the end of the night, I was occasionally using her pre-adoption name -- and not always intentionally!

One final thing to note -- since this is getting a bit long winded -- by the end of the evening, Cura was doing great around the crowds of people. I have mentioned before that she does not particularly have patience with meaningless drilling of commands but, instead, does much better when I incorporate what she needs to learn into everyday activities. It is almost as if she needs to understand that there is a reason she is being asked to do things -- once she does, she is much more likely to perform the tasks when asked. One of the things we have been working on is the 'Behind Me' command -- meant for narrow spaces where we can't walk side-by-side. By the end of the night, she was automatically falling back every time we had to wind ourselves through the crowds. It was as if this intense environment helped her to focus more clearly on the job at hand. This concentration appears to have lasted beyond that evening so it looks like we may have taken another step toward eliminating Cura's tendency to forage . . . more improvement . . . YAY!

And how did I do? Hmm . . . my first response to that question is 'pretty well'. But for an honest assessment, I will have to give it some further thought. I have long been thinking that it was time to reveal some of the internal ways that I have benefited by having Cura as my Service Animal -- maybe it is time to go below the surface elements of this experience -- then again, maybe it is a bit too soon for THAT little rollercoaster . . . stay tuned to see if I suck it up and spill some emotional beans!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Time flies . . . again!

I promise that there will be a more lengthy post at some point in the next week. For now, just a brief announcement . . .

Watermelon Mountain Ranch is hosting a Fur Ball tomorrow night and Cura and I will be there. If anyone is interested in meeting Cura and me (okay, all you dog lovers, mainly Cura), please come to this wonderful fundraiser. If you are not able to purchase a ticket to the function, please stop by for the Pet Blessing that will take place at 4pm. To find out where, just (Google) search for Fur Ball 2009 Watermelon and you will find the location. Hope to see some of you there!

And for those of you unable to stop by . . . watch this space for news of our first independent social engagement since Cura's homecoming!

Bye for now!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Silence is Golden . . .

It is, once again, time to step up the training. Cura is doing very well and, apparently, Rick and Heather are ready to challenge us again! Latest Homework? Focus on non-verbal commands. Ultimately, the goal is for Cura to practically be able to read my mind and not require verbal guidance, though still be able to respond to verbal commands in the event that they are needed. Actually, my body will naturally develop subtle signs, motions, expressions, and combinations of these that Cura will ultimately learn to identify as commands. So, our Homework for the next little while is to start developing that mega-fine tuning to our communication. What exactly does that mean?

For Cura, it means having to pay more attention and figuring out what I want without relying on my voice to tell her. She still gets distracted and has to be reminded to focus. While those 'corrections' are less frequent, they are still too plentiful. After almost six months, usually the only corrections required are a very soft noise or a light pat on my thigh and Cura is back on task -- very subtle in comparison to our early days together. It also takes quite a bit more now to distract her -- although weather is still VERY stressful for her. Using more subtle physical commands rather than words should help Cura keep her focus because she has to pay closer attention to me in order to catch the signals telling her what to do. She just keeps improving in leaps and bounds so I anticipate success on her part with this next challenge -- particularly if I can manage to take care of MY end of the Homework!

What is my Homework?! As usual, it is focusing on a change in attitude that will promote a change in energy that will enable Cura to be clearer about her job. Those of you who have been following our journey for some time will remember that in late May/early July, I stopped carrying any kind of bag -- instead, Cura would be responsible for carrying the items that I needed to have with me, with the exception of one or two items in my pockets when I had them (see Changing Habits posted on July 23, 2009). One of the big effects of this change was my attitude -- it is hard to describe the change because Cura was important to me from Day 1, but with the elimination of my bag, she was responsible for things like my identification, keys, and other essentials. From my perspective, it was a very important element of her job and she reacted to the change in my attitude accordingly by being much less distracted. Now, my Homework is to work on changing my attitude to only focus on the moment. Easier said than done, believe me!

Instead of focusing on what I want Cura to do so that I/we can then accomplish x, y, z. I have to learn how to just focus on one thing at a time. It is a subtle difference. The difference between 'Cura, sit and wait.' and 'Cura. Sit. Wait.' The idea is that, by focusing on only one thing at a time, it will focus Cura's attention. Attempting to anticipate the several steps that are going on in my head is contributing to Cura's distractions -- so, my job is to stop thinking ahead so much and just focus on the now. Wish me luck!

On an aside, Cura is relaxing into her new home more and more as time goes by. When she first came home, she had no concept of 'play'. That has gradually been changing. This afternoon, I was able to catch Cura and Skye playing Merry Go Round in the Family Room. Don't blink or you might miss them!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ah, Genetics!

Much has happened since my last post -- but then, how could it not considering how long it has been! It is amazing how something as simple as the semester beginning can throw things off kilter! Over the years, I have gotten used to my schedule shifting every 4-6 months depending on whether I was involved in a semester or quarter system. It doesn't matter if I am on the teaching end or the learning end of things, the change in the term always dictates a schedule shift and requires a bit of schedule shuffling. It is interesting to see Cura adjust to the shifting schedule. But, that is not what I really want to write about this time . . . I have something much more exciting and fun to share.

I recently had a birthday (no, that is NOT the exciting OR the fun bit)! It wasn't a 'landmark' year, at least not apart from the fact that this is the year that Cura entered my life, but I still got a great gift! Fuzzy Face and Nonna Ear Rubs presented me with one of those genetic tests for dogs. One of the questions that comes up at least once a week is "What kind of dog is he?" No, that was not a typo, Cura is almost always identified as a 'he' by people that we meet. My response is usually something like: "According to the rescue shelter, she is a Black Lab mix -- we don't know what she is mixed with." After a surreptitious glance in the appropriate direction to verify that Cura IS a 'she' rather than a 'he', the conversation usually moves on to talking about a Black Lab or Black Lab mix they once had or knew. But, in closer circles, Cura's genetic make-up is an underlying topic of debate. We all have our own theories. So, when I was asked what I wanted for my birthday -- yes, we do that, it makes gift shopping so much easier and reminds me of making lists to Santa as a child -- a doggie genetic test was number one on the list.

As soon as the test arrived, the swab was done and the sample was in the mail for testing the very next day! So, in about 4-6 weeks, we will know! Meanwhile, the debate continues! Everyone is taking their picks. Personally, I would not be surprised if the test comes back showing that Cura has no Black Lab in her, and I am not the only one who thinks this is a real possibility -- after all, there are tons breeds that have black fur and folded ears (she does have webbed feet, but several breeds have those -- including Plott Hounds, which is Nonna Ear Rubs' primary breed of choice). Some of the breeds that have come up in conversation are based on behavior rather than looks (Fuzzy Face thinks she has Boxer in her because of the way she uses her paws when she plays -- as you know, I don't really have direct experience with the paw maneuvers being referred to since Cura isn't allowed to play rough with me). In many ways, it really doesn't matter what Cura's genetics end up being -- she is so much more than the sum of her 'parts' -- but I am SO curious. Plus I would love to be able to answer that inevitable question with certainty rather than what really amounts to a guess, since no one really knows anything about her dam or sire. The test results come with a certificate that can have Cura's picture on it -- once I have narrowed it down to 3-5 choices, I will post them and let everyone vote on their favorite so watch this space because I am going to have to upload my choice soon.

I have my own thoughts about what breeds may have combined to create my wonderful companion but I want to hear what others think . . .

So, take a look at the many pictures already provided and post your guesses as comments. Periodically, over the next few weeks, I will provide more pictures and tidbits of information -- you can always modify your choices as you get more information. Happy guessing!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Puppy Plunge!

Our local pool did a WONDERFUL thing for the residents and their dogs . . .

With the pool closing for the season, they invited local residents to bring their canine companions with them to enjoy the facilities. Below is a short video of the puppy antics that ensued. Both Cura and Skye proved to be quite good swimmers. This is not really surprising since Cura is supposed to have Black Lab in her -- can you say 'webbed feet'? -- and Cairn Terriers are also quite capable of swimming, though not all of them are thrilled with the prospect. (It appears that Skye currently falls into the NOT thrilled category!)

The day after their swimming adventure, poor puppies in this household were still recovering! They were clearly feeling the effects of exerting muscles that they were not even aware that they had! They not only slept well the night of their swim, but were happy to be quite lazy the next day. I have never seen Cura tire so quickly on a run! She only managed full speed for a few minutes -- usually she is maxing out the golf car speed and trying to pull it down the road! This time she paced it at full speed on the way out, but soon slowed. By the time we were pulling back into the driveway (a relatively short time later), she was barely trotting! Apart from Training Class later that day, all she did was sleep. Have you ever been so tired that eating and other necessary functions are just too much effort -- well, that was Cura after the Puppy Plunge. But she has recovered now and is, once again, eager to go for her morning run!

The Puppy Plunge was actually a great opportunity for Cura and me on several levels. First, it gave me a chance to find out just how much of the Lab's love for water Cura had inherited. Up until now, her exposure to water consisted of rinsing the dirt out of her from her play dates, cooling her feet in the kiddy pool out back and getting misted after a run (MUST get that little ritual on film!), rain, and the groomer -- no full body immersion! And, while Cura definitely has the webbing between her toes that would make it easier for her to make good time in the water, that doesn't mean she can swim. As an example -- there were a couple of dogs in the pool that LOOKED like they had some Lab in them and would take to water well, but the reality of their situation was just the opposite (there is one in the background of the video). Go ahead, give in to the urge . . . replay the video -- I'll wait!

As you can see in the clip, Cura swims just fine (though, as I noted, she is not overly thrilled about the lack of solid ground under her feet!) I am going to have to look into finding a place that she can swim more frequently. Hmmm -- can dog's read your mind? I'd swear she just gave me a 'look' -- not actually a 'dirty look' but not exactly a thrilled one either!

Anyway -- back to the opportunities . . .

It also gave Cura practice at not reacting to other dogs. I decided not to let Cura off the lead for several reasons. First, the fences were not very tall and there is still the jumping issue which is certainly improving but not yet resolved. Second, I want to be more comfortable about my 'introduction' skills before I handle something like that without backup. Third, it wasn't a 'bad' day physically, but it wasn't a good one either. Finally, the fourth, and most important reason is because running should not be allowed around a pool! If Cura had been off-lead, she would have joined in on the numerous games of chase that were taking place around the pool.

I am sure everyone who has spent time at a pool remembers hearing the LifeGuard's whistle blow followed by the clear bellow 'NO RUNNING!' Now, there is a reason for this. For some reason, the concrete surrounding any pool I have EVER been to becomes slippery enough to have a Curling contest! (I didn't know what this was until I went to Scotland -- check out the next Winter Olympics, it is an ice sport.) Suffice it to say, one could severely damage themselves by slipping on the surfaces around a public pool! This applies to EVERYONE -- four-footed fuzzies or two-legged youngsters. I saw at least three dogs come barreling around the pool only to lose their footing and slide for a foot or two on their face or chest! Fortunately, they all appeared to be none the worse for wear, but I didn't want to chance it with Cura. The visual of a dog sliding along the ground on its face may seem cartoonishly funny in theory, but the reality is very different even if the dog isn't yours!

So, Cura got to swim when she was in the pool and quietly sit and watch but not react to the other dogs when she was out of the pool. My job . . . practice setting boundaries! It was my job to keep all the other dogs from coming up to Cura and bothering her. I am getting better at this -- my confidence is returning, thanks to the persistence, understanding, and creative guidance I get from Rick and Heather. I still need some work, but at least now I am more confident about practicing on my own!

Final verdict? The Puppy Plunge was a great success! We are looking forward to next year!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

All Work and No Play . . . NOT

Yikes! How time flies when you are swamped! I must apologize for the posting delay. Being in education, the lead up to the start of the academic year becomes a bit insane. Before I knew it, over a week had gone by with no new installment! While there are a number of things that have taken place in the past month or so that I would LOVE to share -- I have not finished writing on them. Besides, a wonderful development has occurred that I simply MUST share . . .

Up until now, Cura's response to toys and play in general was either tentative or non-existent. The last 48 hours has seen a significant change in that behavior. Two nights in a row now, she has whole-heartedly engaged in play. She does play with me, but because of my disability, there are games that we simply can not play together -- our play needs to be more sedate. Since she is not overly keen to play fetch (after a few throws, she loses interest), there is really no form of play that I have come up with where she can just let go. However, Cura appears to have found a solution -- she plays with Fuzzy Face! There are no 'rambunctious' limits with him (at least not yet).

It was very funny the first time Cura really engaged Fuzzy Face in a game. After only a few days of being home, Cura began welcoming Fuzzy Face home enthusiastically (at least once he addressed her -- she is good about not bouncing around like a crazy puppy when people come home). You could tell that she was happy to see him. This particular time, Cura greeted him with a stuffed toy, nudging it into his hands and encouraging him to play -- he promptly obliged with a huge smile on his face and laughter in his voice.

Now, it is important to know that Fuzzy Face has never met a dog that didn't bit him . . . Okay, that is an exaggeration, but not a huge one. He has managed to get bitten on a number of occasions, and not always by strange dogs. So, here is Cura, stuffed toy in mouth, mouth VERY close to Fuzzy Face's hands -- the two of them merrily playing. Then, all of a sudden, Cura began making play noises . . . anyone who has owned a dog knows what I mean. A non-dog person would consider this noise a growl, and in some ways it is but not a menacing one. But, that first Fuzzy Face observing that Cura had 'big teeth' and, given the fact that they were very close to his hands, he was not prepared to 'risk it'. Despite reassurances that Cura was not vocalizing a menacing warning (I have heard Cura's warning growl and that wasn't it), Fuzzy Face stopped playing. Poor Cura watched him as he ascended the stairs, stuffed toy in mouth . . . (Cura's mouth, not Fuzzy Face's)

But, the next time Fuzzy Face was prepared and was not daunted by Cura's play noises. In fact, he appeared to take pleasure in them. I think this is going to be kind of his own little thing with her -- as I said, Cura just can't play like that with me. At a certain point, I have to stop the game if she does not drop her level of play enthusiasm. But with Fuzzy Face she can be much more bouncy and rambunctious. It gives her another outlet for her energy. Although her golf car runs, play dates, lessons, and work keep her very busy and constantly releasing any pent up energy, it is a different release than pure, unadulterated play. I really enjoy seeing Cura play with puppy enthusiasm. Prior to a couple of days ago, she didn't. But now it appears that, after 21 weeks, Cura is no longer all work and no play! May the games continue . . .

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Getting Back on the Horse . . .

Those of you who have been following our activities know that Cura and I had a couple of negative experiences with 'strange' dogs in the month of July. While Cura was not hurt on either occasion, for several weeks she was jumpy and distracted when we were out and about, especially if we were outside. On top of everything, my confidence had been shaken which was certainly not doing Cura any good!

By the end of July, I came to the realization that I was going out of my way to avoid other dogs when we were out on a walk or running Cura alongside the golf cart. Definitely NOT the best approach! After all, we can't go through life avoiding every other dog in the world and I definitely didn't want Cura to begin reacting negatively to every dog she met. Since Cura arrived I have had a few opportunities to be around other people with service dogs and was rather surprised at the reaction of these dogs to other animals when they were supposed to be working. The fact that some of their charges were actually visually impared surprised me further . . . these were fully trained service animals and they were lunging, pulling, whining, and/or simply ignoring their partners when faced with another animal. With only a few months training, Cura was better focused, and she was anything but non-reactive! That last bit is very important -- of course I am proud of the fact that Cura was so well behaved given her relative inexperience, but it is important to keep things in perspective and not get complacent -- or cocky. The last thing I wanted was for Cura to begin to take on such behaviors when meeting other dogs, and my reactions were ultimately going to result in negative reactions to other animals that could seriously interfere with Cura's ability to do her job. So, I made a conscious effort to deal with my own fears and stop playing the avoidance card.

Only a single day after I made this resolution, my resolve was tested. It was time to pick up some dog and cat food (yes, we have cats too -- a good friend of mine recently sent me a card and signed off by saying 'Give my love to . . . and the zoo!'). The most convenient place, based on my outing that day was a rather local mercantile that had a couple of shop dogs; both of which have been very friendly in the past. However, I had not been there since Cura had come home. I spent the entire time in the car debating with myself about whether or not I should bring Cura into the mercantile with me. After all, it was just a quick stop . . .

But, as I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that to leave Cura in the car was, once again, practicing avoidance rather than stepping up and working through the whole issue. As soon as I made my decision, I was overcome with a sense of calm and confidence. It has been quite awhile since I had felt so 'centered'. Taking full advantage of the 'calm, assertive' state -- yeah, I know, Dog Whisperer speak but Rick and Heather use it too --I boldly entered the mercantile with my trusty partner at my side. Now, I don't mean to imply that this was an overly challenging situation. As I already mentioned, the dogs at the mercantile are very friendly. On top of that, one is about 15lbs while the other may be 40lbs (if it is lucky). But, at this point, size and temperament didn't really matter -- I had been reacting nervously to almost all dogs and this was a relatively safe environment to start climbing my way out of that hole. Very shortly after our entrance, the little one came to see what was going on. I am happy to report one of those little successes that require celebrating. After coming around the corner and getting a peek, the little bundle of joy backed off and left us alone for the rest of our visit. We never even saw the other pup.

Funnily enough, this small success did wonders for me. Last Sunday we were in a room full of people with new adoptions. Some were puppies, others were adults . . . some were reactive to other dogs, others were not . . . some were fussy, others just curious. In all of the commotion, I once again had that calm, assertive feeling. Cura and I were placed in the middle of the circle (our new place so that Cura experiences more of a challenge) and I was quite comfortable, a fact that was illustrated by the fact that Cura stretched out and took a nap!

So, while there is still some work to be done, we are back in the saddle and ready to go!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Things Floating in the Air

Successful trip to the Aquarium! You may ask why the excitement over such a simple thing . . . after all, it is just a matter of walking around and looking in the tanks, right? It is, in fact, just wandering around and looking at all the different fish swimming around in their tanks -- and I if I had not been accompanied by my trusty sidekick, you would be correct in thinking that this was no big deal -- just another touristy event to take the visiting relative to for one of the many tastes of New Mexico.

But, let us take a step back for a moment and try to see this lovely excursion from Cura's perspective . . .

First, there are quite a large number of people milling around. After all, it is still summer and parents are desperately trying to find things to occupy their, by now, bored youngsters in the few days left before they return to days filled with lessons and homework. Ah, wait! Not just people, but little people . . . not just little people, but little people who spontaneously decide that the walking is not a fast enough way to get from A to B and that said travel must be accompanied by high pitched screeches or other similar sound effects. Now from our perspective, this is SOP for places of this nature. Children are understandably excited about what they are seeing and thrilled to be sharing these experiences with one or both parents -- naturally there will be the appropriate movements and sounds. But remember, dogs naturally have a prey drive -- if it runs, it not only usually attracts the dog's attention, but also sparks a merry game of chase (hence the reason that a great way to get your dog to 'come' is to run away from it). On top of that, as a rule, they have much better hearing than we do -- in fact, the only sense that is stronger in a dog is their sense of smell. So you can bet your bottom dollar that if that screaming and chatter is getting to be a bit much for your ears -- they have long passed the point of comfort for a dog. On top of that, since they can hear in frequencies that humans can not, Cura was likely dealing with additional sounds from machinery and possibly even the creatures in the tanks! (though I didn't see any whales or dolphins, so who knows.)

Puppy perspective number two: the smell! Naturally, an aquarium smells a bit like . . . well . . . fish. Not in a 'sitting out on the counter for three days' kind of way, but any of you who have owned an aquarium in your home or has known someone with one are very aware that fish tanks have a particular odor no matter how well they are maintained. It is not necessarily an unpleasant smell -- just a fishy one. My brother had an aquarium in his bedroom for several years when he was younger and when you entered his room, there was a decidedly damp and organic smell to everything -- think of freshly tilled earth or freshly cut grass and translate that into aquatic fragrances and that is what an aquarium smells like to me. Well, let's look at this from a doggie perspective, shall we? Dogs have 220 million olfactory receptors in their nose and we inferior humans have only 5 million! So, if I can register the smells of an aquarium can you imagine what smells Cura was identifying (even if she may not really know WHAT they are, she certainly recognizes that they are there!)?

Now, in some ways, I already covered sight with the flitting little people -- but there is an added visual challenge . . . the actual fish! First and foremost, just a little reminder that Cura is not overly fond of things in the sky/air . . . balloons, clouds, statues, tall signs, ceiling decorations, recessed lighting, smoke detectors -- all of these things and more have triggered a negative response from Cura at some point and some of them still do. Her reaction is increased if the object in question MOVES! Well, when you think about it, that is pretty much the definition of an aquarium -- a place where lots of things move around and float in the air.

On top of all this, Cura's dedicated owner (yes, that would be me) added to her stress in two very distinct ways. First, I made a mistake . . . that morning, we had gone for a run and I had switched Cura's slip collar to reflect the fact that in the run she is on my right instead of my left (most of the time, I don't drive). This allows the collar to release from any correction when she is running instead of pinching her neck (we are trying to reduce her 'enthusiasm' in the beginning of the run since, if I am having a bad day, her exuberance may be too much for me to handle -- I would not be surprised if she has the ability to dislocate a shoulder on some days!). Well, rocket scientist here forgot to switch the slip collar back to reflect the fact that Cura would be walking on her usual left side when we were out and about. So, what do I do? Here we are, going into the Aquarium and, because Cura is out of place, I quickly turn -- tightening the collar. Imagine my surprise (and guilt) when Cura yelps! The collar had tightened and pinched her because I had neglected to switch it after our run. That certainly did not help the situation -- though I waited until she had calmed before actually entering the aquarium.

The other contribution is a little harder to avoid. I have always been claustrophobic. This not only manifests in a discomfort -- that is an understatement -- when in small spaces, but also in tight quarters of any kind. For example, being in a crowded room where my access to an exit is blocked or I feel my movement is restricted is problematic for me. Combine this with an increased nervousness in places where I can be jostled which is a direct result of my disability and you have a person who does not react to crowds well. While I have noticed that, generally, people give me more space since I have Cura with me, I do still get quite nervous in such situations. When I am nervous, Cura reads that and tends to become nervous as well. Substitute pretty much any emotion or state of mind into that sentence and it will be true -- trainers will try to explain this and frequently people don't believe it, but dogs DO pick up on the energy of your emotions and state of mind.

Having grown up with dogs almost all of my life, I 'knew' this on some level, but until I was constantly being accompanied by a dog everywhere I went, I don't think it really sunk in. After all, a pet is not with you 100% of the time. If you are having a stressful day, you don't necessarily have to be around your pet (in fact, I would venture to say that some of the major stresses occur away from pets). But, a service dog is there all the time -- every spike or dip in your energy, they react to. Now, Cura did absolutely brilliantly all the way through the Aquarium despite the smells, floating objects, flitting and exuberant children, etc. She really only started to 'get twitchy' in the last room. This is the room where everyone had congregated because it was the location of one of the larger tanks, had several viewing points, and was the last glimpse of this amazing environment before leaving the aquarium. Naturally, the body density increased and so did both the noise and unpredictable movement. I became very aware of the close quarters.

Regardless of whether Cura was only picking up on my discomfort or if she was experiencing her own discomfort in addition to mine, her solution was just what we (Heather, Rick, and I) are looking for. Cura's flight response is clearly diminishing if not completely disappearing. Eighty to ninety percent of the time, when she is stressed, she moves closer to me rather than trying to bolt and get away from the situation. Even when she does 'bolt', it is usually only far enough to put me in between her and whatever has spooked her. On top of that, even if she is overwhelmed and stressed, she is now able to perform her obedience skills. This is a rather new development -- as little as five or six weeks ago, Cura had trouble performing a sit, down, stay, stand, etc. if she was stressed. Now, she is still stressed, but able to focus on her job despite it. I am sure that as I get better at managing my responses to situations and Cura has more experiences to draw from, she will just keep getting better and better.

So, now you may understand the excitement that I have because Cura had such a positive and successful experience at what would be a very mundane activity for you or I. She has been with me for just over four months and is constantly reinforcing the fact that all she needed was a job -- she was not unmanageable or untrainable, just bored. Thankfully, Heather and Rick saw her potential and introduced us. I will repeat an observation of another member of our household . . . "What did we do without you?" The training may require dedication from both of us (me especially), but ultimately it is worth it! All concerned benefit -- I see that on the rare occasions that I look at Cura sleeping deeply and contentedly (snoring, by the way) despite the thunder and lightening outside -- or because she has had a busy and challenging day filled with new experiences. I know that I find great comfort in knowing that I have helped to provide a fulfilling and active life for a beautiful and loving creature such as Cura. I hope that she finds a comparable comfort in providing me with a fuller and more independent life. I hope that, from her perspective, I manage to honor our bond as much as I believe that she honors it. Some of you may think that this is giving Cura too much credit. To you I say that, until you have been chosen by such a dedicated creature as my blessed Cura -- one who trusts you completely and is dedicated to, not only following your lead, but insuring you safety above their own -- you should take a step back and reserve judgment. Despite my mistakes and inner demons as well as the sensory challenges the aquarium presented, Cura was with me the entire time -- she did not bolt, instead she stayed by my side. In my opinion, there is no greater praise -- I am not the perfect leader; I have and will continue to make mistakes -- but Cura trusts me to take care of her as I trust her to take care of me. Heather and Rick have taught us that practice and persistence will only increase our success -- I believe that and Cura's progress is a testament to this philosophy.