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This blog post is written for the 10th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC), hosted by the wonderful Sharon Wachsler of After Gadget. Go read some of the other entries when you have a chance! I have learned quite a lot from other service dog owners through the carnival.
I have been using a scooter or wheelchair for five years. Five years, centered right around Martin Luther King Day, the midpoint in the week of buying and using the scooter at home and using it at work for the first time.
In my pre-wheelchair life, I was a Perfectionist with a capital P. Even my best was often not good enough for me, and I would strive to go further, to do better, and to make a difference. I was not easy on myself to say the least. Becoming more disabled was very difficult and meant letting go of a lot in ways I did not want. I had anticipated even as a wheelchair user continuing to work and go to school and volunteer, to travel extensively and to write copiously.
A year and a half ago, I received my service pup in training. We soon moved from training with an individual to training our dog ourselves. Through the help of my children, my pups, and the generosity of other service dog owners, including Sharon, in sharing resources, we've come a long way. I never thought that I could owner-train, not only because of the physical demands but because of my lack of experience. I'd had other dogs, sure, but they were constant companions, not service dogs at all.
Because I am so hard on myself, I can be very embarrassed if my dog behaves less than perfectly. I am not overly demanding on my dog; actually, I can be the opposite because of fatigue and exhaustion. Despite the help from others, there are times when I am not up to training for quite a while, or times where my dog has not been in public for a while since I've been stuck indoors. He may need some refreshers, and I worry that the perception is that he's not really a service dog if he makes a mistake, albeit a small one.
Recently, for example, my dog refused to pick up my keys in a parking lot. I'm not sure why. He's picked them up for me dozens of times before. We worked on this behavior again at home--at first he was hesitant, but with treats and reinforcement, he was quickly picking up my keys again. That's not what people saw in public, however--sometimes people only see the rare refusal to do a certain task or an off-day when he's tired or balky and not all the tasks he does help with. Since some people imply that he's not a service dog or is a "fake" one since he's an atypical breed, I feel more pressure for him to "perform" quickly and compliantly.
But my dog is not a robot or an extension of my personality. He is a thinking animal and a caring soul with his own needs and wants. He has the freedom to make mistakes--within reason, of course. And it's my job to guide him so that he doesn't make serious ones, endangering his safety or inadvertently harming me, such as pulling his leash. He likes to greet people he recognizes that we see often or semi-often--and it doesn't take him long to recognize people. I'd prefer that he not sniff a pants leg or get underfoot--but to me, he shouldn't need the reminder. When people tell me, "it's okay," sometimes I can't hear that. I have to teach myself to hear that. Here, I don't mean people who interfere with my dog in public, but the ones who see him with me and don't mind if he greets them. While I still want him to cooperate on first command and to show manners and not be intrusive, it's nice that many people don't mind him and the (very contained) enthusiasm that he shows for them, that they don't judge him or me if he needs a direction.
Intelligent disobedience is also easy to miss, and sometimes I don't pick up on it until later. As I mentioned in my last ADBC post, it took me a while to figure out why my dog would sometimes throw himself in front of my footplates--to prevent someone from bumping into me hard, to draw my attention to the kind of men who frighten me, or because he sees a large dog who's not behaving particularly well and who we need to keep an eye on. Ironically, I wanted to train him to do these tasks, but I almost corrected him out of doing them automatically! So what can initially look like a lack of perfection can be the purest of perfection--finding a need and fulfilling it, even when directed to do otherwise. It just does not appear that way to others. And I'm okay with that.
I have to be careful as a service dog owner that my perfectionism doesn't overtire my dog or put too many demands on him. When we were stuck at the optometrist's office for nearly two hours last week, my 12-year-old became increasingly restless and uncomfortable. So did I, and I, umm resorted to making ballet poses and shadow figures on the eye chart, which relieved my shoulders for a bit. I pointed out to my son that my dog has to be better behaved than any toddler, and even than us. When my dog stood to stretch and then just stood for a while, I told my son to allow him to do that; if it's overly automatic for us to ask him to lie still, as for shorter doctor's appointments, we would miss that he was at least as uncomfortable as we were and really needed some relief.
I don't always know how others perceive Gabby, so it's been very helpful to me when others have praised how well-trained he is, being very specific. And I've learned to relax more over time. While we want to be the best team we can be, perfectionism would be damaging to us--to his well-being if I am not training the behaviors as I should and expecting too much from him, and to me if I put concerns over others' perceptions over my health and train more than my health will allow. He conducts himself gracefully in public, lies quietly in restaurants and doctors' offices, does not disturb merchandise, stays by my side when other dogs or people tempt him. And, importantly, he's a help to me. If we're not perfect, well, c'est la vie.