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!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Changing Habits

Habits can be insidious things! Sometimes I think that both Cura and I are struggling to recondition previous habits that are not helpful to our partnership. I say struggling only to convey the 'unnatural' nature of our efforts. Because of previous conditioning, we both have things that we do naturally that are counterproductive to our relationship.

Since returning from our Road Trip, I have been dealing with a particular habit and making some progress -- though there is still work to be done. I have mentioned before that in order for Cura to know where she is supposed to be (physically and mentally) when we are on the move, I have to make it clear to her using a combination of corrections that involve very specific timing. Well, a number of things came together just before and during the Road Trip that made it clear that this particular 'skill' needed some serious attention.

I knew before the trip that Cura was not placed where I wanted her -- she was about 3-5 inches forward of that point. However, just before the trip Rick made it clear that I needed to make a particular lifestyle change . . . I had to give up carrying my purse. Instead, it was Cura's responsibility to carry anything that I needed. This effectively served three purposes. The first was to relieve the stress and imbalance that carrying the purse caused physically. The second was to eliminate one of the things I had to handle when I was out and about. Instead of dealing with a bag of some kind that was potentially always having to be repositioned and Cura's lead, I only had to worry about Cura's lead. The third, and potentially most important, was psychological . . . having carried a purse of some kind since my early teens, it had essentially become an extension of myself -- carrying very important items that formed a part of my identity in some way. This fact was very clear to Rick, who promptly pointed out that my reluctance to give up my purse was precisely WHY I needed to. If I began to view Cura in the same way as I viewed my purse -- as an extension of myself -- it would positively influence our relationship because she would pick up on that attitude and react accordingly. Hence the rather quirky mantra was born -- Cura is my purse!

Well, dutifully I went home that night and evaluated the contents of my purse, determined what was absolutely necessary, and began working out where they would go so that Cura could carry them. It is all still a work in progress, but essentially the absolutely necessary things go into the pockets of Cura's vest (her most frequently worn item) and my usually necessary things and her important supplies go into her pack -- frequently with us but not necessarily being worn by Cura unless we are out for the day without the car. So far, this method appears to be working. With only one problematic development . . .

When Cura is wearing her pack, and she is walking beside me -- even if she were placed where I initially thought I wanted her -- the pack hits my leg. On a bad day, this could potentially throw me off balance and it almost always causes the pack to become unbalanced. This became very obvious during the Road Trip because Cura was using the pack more frequently than normal because she needed her equipment with her and I needed more than just the absolute essentials. So, it soon became clear to me that Cura's placement was a serious issue that needed to be dealt with. Which I presented to Rick and Heather as a priority issue at our first training session upon our return. Not only was I not managing to get Cura placed where I HAD wanted her (an ongoing issue that I had been trying to resolve without success despite Rick and Heather's efforts), she now needed to be even further back to avoid interference with or by the pack when she was wearing it.

So, the Thursday after our return from the Road Trip, we had the good fortune of having a two hour training session. This was combined with the long awaited arrival of custom made slip collars that Rick and Heather had commissioned. Cura has always responded well when her slip collar is set high on her neck (picture where handlers have the slip lead on the dog in dog shows), but I can't seem to keep the slip collar there because my correction timing is a bit late so my corrections actually cause the collar to slip down Cura's neck. This new collar is constructed in a way to counter that -- Whooooohoooooo!! So far, it appears to be working well.

It was while working with this collar that Rick and Heather helped me to realize that I had a habit that needed to be broken . . . I am used to 'feeling' a dog at the end of a leash! While I have never tolerated any of my pet dogs dragging me down the street -- they have always put slight pressure on the leash so I am used to feeling minor tension on the leash. Cura, as a service dog -- and particularly as a mobility dog, must 'float' beside me, putting absolutely no pressure on the lead. Why is my habit a problem? It means that I need to be reconditioned to correct Cura's placement before there is even slight pressure on the lead. Because I was used to feeling slight pressure on the lead, I did not correct until the pressure exceeded the pull that I was habitually used to. So, now I am not only working on changing Cura's placement drastically to compensate for her pack, but I am also learning how to keep the lead completely slack with absolutely NO pressure. As usual, my success varies, but we are both improving and now she is placed in a better position much of the time.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Navigating a Road Trip

Whew! We have been back from our Road Trip for a full week now and things are (very) slowly getting back to normal. Well, at least as normal as they can be when family is visiting. Now that I can take a little breath -- I have actually caught up with my course grading and have nothing outstanding to return to students -- I have time to contemplate our trip from a 'person and service dog partnership' perspective. A few thoughts come to mind.

First, this was an authentic 'Road Trip' because we traveled by car going from New Mexico up to Omaha, Nebraska then back down to Hays, Kansas and back to New Mexico. It was 'girls only' -- myself, mom, Cura and Skye -- spending a week together filled with driving in the car, living in hotels, and strange environments for the dogs.

Amazingly enough, Cura did a wonderful job of reminding us to stop on a regular basis to take a break, stretch and get the blood flowing after sitting in the car. About every two hours, she would get restless and give a little whine. If we didn't stop within about 5-10 minutes, she would whine again. Never anything overwhelming -- just a little noise that seemed to say 'Hey, we need to stop soon.' Funnily enough, when we stopped and got out, she didn't always need to relieve herself, sometimes she just walked around for a bit. Whether she intended her actions to benefit mom and I or not, the result was that every few hours we stopped and walked around for a bit. When we got into North Platte that first night after 13 hours on the road, both of us were much better off than I would have expected. I was amazed at my condition. To be honest, I had anticipated having a disturbing sleep that night brought about by overexertion since one of the things that complicates my condition is staying in one position for too long at a single stretch or too frequently throughout the day. Instead, I slept surprisingly well and awoke fairly refreshed the next day. If we had not been traveling with Cura, I don't think we would have stopped as regularly and the trip would have ultimately been more physically difficult.

One thing that I didn't expect was to have a difficult time getting the dogs to eat! We ended up bringing home half of the food that we took on the trip and we had portioned out the food so that we took only what was needed, plus a cushion of two meals just in case. They averaged one meal a day, but in actuality, there were times that they didn't eat for 24+ hours. Try as we might, sometimes Cura was just not comfortable enough to eat. I am sure that there were a number of factors that played into this and it was probably a different issue or combination of issues each time. I am sure the weather had a role in it because there were times when it was at least threatening if not actually stormy. Also, the fact that she was in a strange place and was being asked to eat in a different place than she was used to (she always eats in the same place at home) and she didn't want to be left behind (not that she ever is, but then again if one thing is different, maybe other things will be too!). There were times when she planted herself in front of the hotel room door so that she would know if anyone left. On the few occasions that I left the room to get something like ice or something to drink, if I didn't take her with me she was sitting right in front of the door waiting for me when I came back even though mom and Skye were in the room with her. Definitely a disconcerting thing for her.

I realize that this installment is starting to get on the long side but I want to share one final thing before signing off. We were in Nebraska and went to breakfast at the hotel. Cura was, of course, with me. Immediately upon seating myself in the breakfast room while I was still getting Cura settled, I was approached by a member of staff and informed dogs were not allowed in that area of the hotel. I explained that Cura was a service dog and when they insisted that Nebraska Law forbade dogs in any area where food was served I replied that I did not know what the relevant laws were for Nebraska, but Federal Law dictated that service dogs did have access to any area that was open to the public and to my knowledge no state had the authority to ignore Federal Law. She went away a bit flustered, but came back a few minutes later apologizing SEVERAL times.

I tried to reassure her that it was not a problem. Even having a service dog for as short a time as I have, I have been challenged directly on a number of occasions. If I got upset every time it happened I would be wasting a lot of energy! She went away, but came back again after a few minutes still apologizing and then started to strike up a conversation. Now, this would have been fine except that in her desire to be out of the breakfast traffic, she chose to stand very close to the spot that I had tucked Cura in so that she was out of the way. What do you suppose happened??? Yep -- she stepped on Cura's tail!!! KNOWING that the dog was there, she managed to step on her! It was not a light step either because Cura yelped and jumped up. The good thing is that she didn't do anything else but lean up against me -- so a desirable reaction, given the alternatives. But the whole situation was a bit infuriating because this prompted yet another shower of apologies! Please -- apologize if you must, it is greatly appreciated. BUT, only a single sincere apology is necessary! And, for goodness sake -- don't step on the service dog!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Traumatic Experiences

Life is rarely completely smooth and the past couple of weeks or so have been pretty much anything but uneventful (which, I suppose, is a rather lame way of apologizing for the long delay since the last post).

First and foremost, we are now in monsoon season here in New Mexico (being a non-native, this is not something I would have associated with the desert that is New Mexico before moving here -- funny how preconceptions of an area exist!) which means high winds, thunder, lightening, and rain. I have already shared a few of the challenges that unsettled weather triggers for Cura so there is no real need to rehash them. Just picture these taking center stage pretty much every night and sometimes throughout the entire day . . . oh joy!

Evening walks especially have become exercises in patience and diligence. If that were the only challenge, I would just suck it up and deal, but by the end of the walk Cura is very stressed. Plus, she is starting to avoid going out in the first place (a very uncharacteristic thing for her). It isn't even like it is a long walk . . . just up the street one last time before we are in for the night, maybe a 5-10 minute affair if there are no complications, but recently they are more like a 15-20 minute activity because Cura is not focusing well (though, it must be said that she is trying VERY hard and is no longer trying to bolt -- just trying to avoid being outside). Fortunately, we will be having Play Date this Thursday at Rick and Heather's place and the weather forecast predicts less than pleasant weather all this week so I should be able to get some good pointers on how to help Cura through this. If the weather is even slightly windy or there is the least threat of rain, Cura is not likely to be interested in playing but if that is the case, it is a good opportunity to help desensitize her to the weather.

On top of the weather issue, we have had the lovely experience of being charged by two separate dogs in a span of ten days! For the most part, Cura is pretty good about not reacting to dogs when they are around her. If the guideline for a service dog is no reaction to a dog within six feet (a guideline I have heard Rick quote on several occasions), Cura is not perfect but she is pretty good. She will frequently prick her ears at a nearby dog and occasionally, particularly if the dog in question is excited in any way or we are moving toward the dog, will take a couple of prancing steps but she does not pull hard at the lead or attempt to charge the dog. However, if we are charged, to some extent all bets are off! Though her reaction during the second charging incident was better than the first, it could not be classified as 'not reacting'.

Now, on this issue I am torn. On the one hand, one of Cura's services is to keep me safe and, now that her training is focusing on her specialist skills, that responsibility is becoming more obvious to her. So, on the one hand, if I am threatened, it is logical for her to view her responsibility as protecting me from the perceived danger. However, there are TONS of reasons why she needs to allow me to handle these things if I am in a position to do so (i.e. I am conscious) not the least of which is that I don't want her to be injured!

A few weeks after she came home, we were out and about and a dog came out of a business located on the street we were walking on. I didn't even know we were being charged until Cura pricked her ears in that direction, the dog was so silent. But, as soon as Cura alerted me to the dog, I turned -- set the boundary while putting myself between the charging dog and Cura -- and the dog braked so fast it practically sat on the ground, turned and went back into the shop. Problem solved and my confidence in dealing with these situations was boosted -- job well done.

This incident, combined with some boundary setting exercises that Rick and Heather had set up, helped me to feel better about my ability to keep other, less controlled dogs from bothering Cura while she was out and about doing her job. Then came the first traumatic encounter . . . Fortunately, Cura was not injured, but I managed to get bit keeping the other dog at bay (not a serious bite, just some moderate scrapes and bruising). We were headed out for an evening run, so I was not alone (which was good) and Cura was in her harness rather than her normal slip collar (which was bad because I had less control over her head and she had more leverage). Essentially, this incident, while not actually causing physical injury to Cura, set back her focus a bit because she began to forage excessively again -- something that we had managed to cut down significantly at that point. To be fair, before this charging incident she still tended to get distracted by her environment, but a quick correction usually re focused her with little difficulty-- now her attention was constantly flitting to and fro and focusing on pretty much everything BUT what she was supposed to focus on -- me.

The second charge happened on our road trip. Although her reaction was lower keyed, she still did react. This time, not only did Cura not get hurt but neither did I -- however, this is due more to the efforts of others than my ability to set boundaries for the other dog. Regardless of the successes of each of these incidences -- and believe me, I recognize the fact that there was no contact between Cura and the dog involved and that Cura's reaction was lessened in the second incident in relation to the first -- my confidence in my ability to deal with these situations has been shot.

I didn't know how badly until today when we went to the basic training class. The last series of classes that Cura and I sat in on I was comfortable with the proximity of the other dogs and not overly concerned about whether or not I could handle a situation, should it develop, at least long enough for Rick or Heather to step in and sort it out. Today, I found myself hitting 'OMG' mode several times -- the adrenaline kicked in and my initial reaction was pretty close to panic. Cura did great, and I guess so did I outwardly, but I frequently had to deal with the spontaneous adrenaline shakes in the hour and a half of the class -- clear evidence that my confidence in my ability to control other dogs when needed is not what it was before these last two incidences.

So, between the weather and the charging incidences, Cura and I have had a few setbacks. Fortunately, we have excellent trainers, a strong bond, persistence, and a desire to succeed on our side (ok -- so the desire to succeed concept probably is more a trait of the human part of the equation and, for Cura, persistence may not be the most accurate word -- but the result is the same since she keeps making the effort regardless of how difficult -- she may not want to, but eventually she takes that step over the threshold and goes outside regardless of the weather). I have confidence that we will work through this and Rick and Heather have already presented ideas and taken steps to work on things. Gotta LUV a proactive philosophy!

If you have been following Cura's tweets, you would have known before reading this post that Cura and I have been on a road trip. This post is already on the long side so I don't intend to go into the specifics on the trip here, but I plan to elaborate on other parts of the trip later. For now, I will say 'good night'.

Oh, and if anyone out there has had problems with dogs charging them and have developed some successful techniques -- please feel free to share -- any helpful and constructive suggestions are welcome. I am all about learning where Cura is involved -- she deserves a charge that is willing to consider anything that may make her more successful at her job.