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, 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.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Sometimes I get frustrated and want to ask . . . "Exactly what about 'Please do not pet me, I am working' is difficult to understand???" Now, I realize that part of my shock and surprise is caused by the fact that I was taught to ALWAYS ask before approaching, let alone petting, a strange dog. I also know that such a negative reaction to those gushing dog-lovers who simply MUST pet Cura would be a perfect example of what it means to be counterproductive . . . but still!

Very early on, I realized that there is virtually nothing that will prevent those intent on petting Cura from doing so, but I also realized that I really needed to do something to curb that reaction whenever possible. So, I invested in some of those lovely patches which have been placed on her vest, cooling coat, and pack in strategic locations for maximum visibility. This has significantly cut down on the spontaneous petting, but there are still those who are not able to help themselves! I think the time that I found most humorous was the time that someone was gushing over Cura, reached out and pet her -- right on the 'please do not pet' patch located on her vest! She was so enthusiastic that she didn't even notice! I still smile when I think about it and it happened over a month ago (at least I am no longer laughing out loud about it).

Now, frequently the attention from the public is, at worst, slightly inconvenient and, at best, down right amusing. But, there are times where it can be very inconvenient and potentially dangerous. For example, there are the times where I am simply trying to complete necessary errands in a very short period of time -- it is during these times that, being stopped by a person who wants to know everything there is to know about Cura in addition to petting her in a way that gets her all excited and decidedly NOT concentrating on her job is very counterproductive to my purpose of getting a bunch of things taken care of as quickly as possible. After all, Cura is still in training and I still have to make sure that -- no matter what my schedule -- I deal with any challenges that come up regarding her working behavior. This alone can make errands take more time than planned and has resulted in things on the list not getting done as anticipated -- so adding petting distractions into the mix can throw a real spanner in the works.

Sometimes, people get so enthusiastic when petting Cura, they get her all excited, playful, and jumpy, pulling her well and truly out of 'work mode'. Many times, this is not a serious problem because usually I can refocus Cura and we are able to continue with our activities with only a rather short delay -- though, sometimes it takes a bit more time for her to get completely back on task as she is easily distracted by random things for a period of time afterward. However, there are times when Cura becomes so distracted that it is difficult for me to get her to refocus on the job at hand -- annoying, but only time consuming rather than dangerous. What truly concerns me is when Cura is distracted by others when I am having a particularly difficult day physically -- this does have the potential to be dangerous because it is during these days in particular that it is necessary for Cura to be very focused. While Cura frequently is very focused on these days instinctively, it IS possible to distract her and that could lead to some unpleasant results.

Then, there is the other side of the coin -- something that always brings a smile to my face. First, there are those who just stop and watch us go about our business. It is clear that they are dog lover's and would LOVE to pet Cura, but they restrain themselves. Then there are those who just can't help themselves and must say something, but they limit themselves to something akin to commenting on either what a beautiful dog Cura is (she really is lovely, even if I do say so myself) or how well behaved she is. Then there are the parents of young children -- who are GREAT! Usually, I am alerted to them by some type of childhood squeal, sometimes just an unidentifiable squeak and sometimes a recognizable word like 'Doooooggggiiiieeee!' This is quickly followed by the parents patiently explaining that they can't touch or bother the dog because it is doing a very important job and that it is a dog that helps people. Of course the wording is adjusted to reflect the age of the child or children involved, but the result is the same. I love this particular reaction (both the children's and the parent's) -- it is very encouraging because not only is it proof that there are a number of people out there that know they should not distract a service dog when it is working, but young people are also being taught how to react around an assistance animal.

All-in-all, every excursion is an adventure -- one where I am always learning and frequently pleasantly surprised. Now, I enjoy my outings much more -- even if Cura gets distracted -- because I am less anxious about being out and about. Even if my plans get waylaid by curious and enthusiastic dog lovers, it beats spending the entire time worried about falling, tripping, being bumped or otherwise running into problems while out.