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Maintaining Service Dog Training
“Half the work of keeping a service dog trained is tricking them into thinking things are a certain way.”
This is what I tend to tell people after denying their request to pet my dog. It tends to get the best responses from the public and gives them a little insight into my life. If I were to allow every stranger to pet Thor, my service dog, he’d begin to believe it was his job to seek pets in public. As much as I love seeing his tail wag when he gets an ear scratch or belly rub, I know doing so in public puts me at risk of a medical emergency that could have been caught so much sooner. So instead, I trick him. Making him believe that pets are for home and special occasions. This keeps him on track to complete his trained tasks while allowing me to participate in my community, mostly, independent.
I named him Thor because a hero dog needs a hero name. This eighty pound golden retriever saved my life. When the symptoms of my Borderline Personality Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were increasing in severity and my meds were no longer working, I was entering a dark place. I was just finishing college and I thought, after all that hard work, it was all for nothing. How could I interact with a world that triggers panic attacks and dissociations? My meds had kept them at bay for so long but now nothing seemed to control the psychotic symptoms of my psychiatric disability.
Then Thor happened. A little butterball of a puppy, rejected by his original curls that deviated from the breed standard. The moment I saw him, I knew we were meant to be together. Training was difficult, with the transition period between him working full time and me quitting my meds restricted my independence terribly. But after a year and six months of training, he was ready to work, and my world opened up. For the first time in years, I could safely be alone. It was Thor and I, on a schedule, living the exciting life of a twenty-something who finally got the independence they craved.
That schedule came to a halt this past March. I wasn’t aware March 13th would be my last day on the schedule both Thor and I had learned to thrive in. The first week was difficult. He didn’t understand why we weren’t getting in the car after our morning walk, or why he had to sit with me in our guest bedroom (which I’ve come to call my “Covid Cave”) while our border collie puppy got run of the house. Breaking this schedule began to chip away at his interpretation of what his job was. Why work while we were only home all day? Our first trip during quarantine was to the doctor’s office to get my partner’s cough checked in perjson. Thor didn’t want to get into his vest. He just laid on the kitchen floor, looking at me as if asking “This sh@#? Again? Really?” After a little coaxing, he eventually got up and walked into his vest, but I was already worried. What if he didn’t follow directions in the doctor’s office? Our anxieties were already high as my partner was showing symptoms of Covid-19. The last thing I needed was a service dog off his game.
We got to the appointment and he was….adequate. To those unfamiliar with service dogs, they would recognize the excessive fidgeting and readjusting as regular movements of a normal dog. But Thor isn’t a regular dog. Though cute, he’s an expensive piece of medical equipment with thousands of hours in training under his belt and an even greater financial investment. More importantly than that, he’s my lifeline. I can’t let all of that time spent training go to waste.
This doctor’s trip was a wakeup call of how much was on the line. He had kept in training before because he practiced each day as I went about my life. Now in quarantine, there is no repetition, no schedule. Daily life is on hold. Though I can’t make up all the hours of training missed as I quarantine, I can set aside time each day for us to practice. Though it is just another thing to add to my to do list in a time where the list never seems to end, I know it’s something I must do for future me. Just as those difficult months transitioning from meds to a service dog were a past investment made for present me, I know the least I can do is pay it forward.
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