THE FAINTING SPELLS
When I came to it was because Autumn was licking my face. Then, she put herself in the brace position so I could get myself up. Although, I only got up to my knees because I had already fainted multiple times. And, if I was only on my knees, and fainted again, I wouldn’t have far to fall. She was a good dog, but this is the first time we seemed to bond. Over the bloody mess that was my face.
I started researching service dogs when my blood pressure started falling too low. I found one local organization that provided training with your own dog – claiming that there was no dog they couldn’t properly train. So, I took Cricket. She responded well to the first class. I didn’t. The instructor was inappropriate with me. He triggered my PTSD and set me back on weight loss journey and my recovery from sexual assault.
I was discussing this with my therapist when she told me about an organization that visited their site a few days prior – Joys of Living Assistance Dogs (JLAD). They were looking for volunteers in our area. They had actually come up in my most recent search, but by now I was skeptical and they were in Salem – a good hour's drive away. My therapist encouraged me to call them. It wouldn’t hurt.
I did call and I spoke to Anna. One of the employees with JLAD. She filled me in on the process to receive a dog and the two year long wait list. She also explained their volunteer programs and how it could cut down the waitlist, and would most definitely help me with the cost because if I volunteer as a socializer they’d reduce the price of the dog. Now, this I was interested in.
I could help to train dogs and get the benefit of having a service dog before it’s fully trained. I, along with Joy, the program director, could decide at the end, which dog best fits my needs and is most bonded with me.
The dogs are trained in the local prison facilities for two weeks at a time. Then they rotate out to the socializers who do just that – socialize the dogs….take them out in public to different surroundings and experiences including stores, elevators, small children, farm animals, bicycles, statues, airports, etc. We also continue the training they learned in the prison, so we attend class every week to learn what the dogs know so we are giving them the correct cues. We are assigned two dogs so that we always have one – as one rotates into the prison one rotates out to us. We’re responsible for writing reports for the prisoners so they know what their dogs are doing outside the prison and another training report for JLAD.
THE DOG THAT WOULDN'T MAKE IT
Scott and I went to one class just to observe and watch the training. I was extremely impressed. This was polar opposite from the training I had attended with the local organization. JLAD is Assistance Dog International (ADI) accredited. Dogs are not required to come from ADI accredited facilities. In fact, you can train your own service dog, but having a dog come from an ADI facility gives credibility to the training. Becoming ADI certified is a rigorous process. The dogs also have to go through public access training every two years to maintain their ADI accreditation. Do not confuse this with registration or certification. I’ll go over that in another post.
After class we talked to Joy. She told us that in all the years she’s been training service dogs – which has been a LOT of years, she has only ever seen two labradoodles make it through the program and the labradoodle was the #1 most owner trained dog brought to her. So, she’s seen many of them fail.
Because of this we didn’t want to waste time trying to train Cricket who we knew had a short attention span and had so much energy that she literally bounced off the walls and could jump from one piece of furniture to another without ever touching the floor. Remember the “lava game” we all played as kids. Cricket wins – hands down.
We filled out the paperwork so we could both be trainers, meaning that if Scott were to go somewhere without me – to the store, he could take the dog. We went to several training classes before we got our assignments. Venus and Autumn. Venus was the first dog we had placed with us while Autumn was in the prison.
Venus was a sweet black lab. She was only 8 months old. She was pottying in the house which really frustrated me. Joy assured me that this was normal because she a) was testing her boundaries at our house and b) didn’t know how to alert us in our house that she needed to potty. We stayed calm and took her potty often. Service dogs are trained to potty on command. It didn’t take but a couple of days for her to ‘get it.’ I didn’t feel a bond with her at first, but we were getting used to each other and to be honest Scott and I were nervous every time we took her anywhere. Dogs in training WILL potty in public places. They WILL bark in public places. They WILL act inappropriately in public places. They key is how we, as trainers, respond and work them through the behavior, so they know what IS appropriate. It’s how they learn.
Before we knew it, it was time to rotate and we got Autumn. Autumn was only 7 months. She was black lab and golden mix. Autumn was beautiful. She went through the same phase that Venus did which just reinforced that what Venus did was normal behavior. We trained Autumn the same way and after a few days she too was pottying outside on command without any indoor accidents.
When I fainted, Autumn did exactly what she was trained to do at such a young age. She even sat by my side waiting for Scott to come through the door and when he did, she ran to him and walked him back to me.
Autumn liked to jump on people – on me especially. It’s not uncommon behavior as a puppy but is something that needs to be worked through. I didn’t think I was the right person to work this behavior because I was already fainting and falling on my own. I didn’t need any help to do it. I cried as I told Joy that I needed to exchange Autumn with another dog. How could I exchange a dog that did exactly what she was supposed to do for me? She bonded with me so quickly. Joy warned us in the beginning that it’s difficult to give up the dogs and I thought I was ready, but clearly, I wasn’t.
THE NEW DOG
We received another dog, Midori. Yes, like the drink. She was a full golden. She was playful and a sweetheart. She liked barking at the cats. But the cats were constantly attacking her, so I don't blame her. I had a hard time keeping her attention. It doesn’t mean she won’t make it as a service dog. It just means I wasn’t the right socializer for her. We had her for several months before she was rotated from us to another socializer.
Joy didn’t give us another dog this time. We would only rotate Venus back and forth. I didn't take it as a bad sign, but as a positive sign. For the first time in the history of JLAD, Joy had more volunteers than she had dogs.
And then, Covid-19 happened. So, Venus didn’t rotate back into the prison at all. We’ve had her since the beginning of March.
THE LOVE WE HAVE
At this point Venus and I had a strong bond. When I had an anxiety attack and laid down on the couch she kept nudging me and I kept telling her I was ok and to get off the couch. Getting on the furniture was definitely not ok. This happened over and over again. She finally ignored me and crawled up on top of my chest, with her rear legs still on the floor and laid across my body. I fell asleep for 45 minutes and when I awoke – she was still there. She knew better what I needed than I knew. That’s the day I knew she was mine. When I start any PTSD behaviors – nervously bouncing my leg, wringing my hands, putting my head in my hands, she interrupts the behaviors. When I have a nightmare, she wakes me. She can be fast asleep herself, but she wakes me. When I fell, she came to me and licked me all over to make sure I was ok. She lays at my feet, under the desk, when I’m working in the office. She lays on the floor by my bed when I’m sleeping – so she can be close in case of a nightmare. If I’m on the couch working on the laptop, she occasionally nudges the laptop so she can see my face – just to make sure I’m ok. Then she lays back down. Only to do it again 20-30 minutes later.
I can’t imagine not having her. I love her. She loves me.
THE PROVISIONAL OWNERSHIP
On April 30th I got an email from Joy telling me that I would receive provisional ownership of Venus as of May 5th. We were scheduled to go through Public Access Training in June, but Covid-19 meant that wouldn’t happen. So, the provisional ownership will stay in place until we can get the PAT completed.
For all intents and purposes she’s mine. I just have to keep Joy in the loop about everything Venus is doing….medical issues, training issues, etc. And, I can keep going through any training classes that I’d like. They will support me and even send her back to the prison if she needs remedial training.
I was positively thrilled and excited the day had finally come!
THE TASKS SHE CAN PERFORM
In addition to the tasks I’ve already mentioned, Venus can take off my shoes, socks, shirt, pants, jacket. She can retrieve my phone, keys, her own leash, and many other things. She can put her dish in the sink after she’s finished eating. If I’m walking somewhere carrying something heavy, she can walk beside me carrying her own leash. She can stand close to me to make me feel safe or stand further away from me creating a bubble around me to keep others away. She can open and close doors, including using the door buttons at stores and businesses. She can pull me up to a standing position from a sitting position. She will allow me to use her to brace myself so I can stand. When I'm in public, she can find the exit if I need her to – for example, if I start feeling uneasy, have anxiety, or feel a panic attack coming on.
She will give me kisses if she finds me unresponsive until I am aroused from unconsciousness and if I don't become conscious, she'll go get help or call 911.
She can walk backwards, even up and down stairs. She knows how to pick up items and go around obstacles. She can retrieve my medication. She ignores people, things, and food on the ground. She occasionally likes to sniff another person when I stop to chat, but she stops when corrected. She sits quietly under the table at a restaurant and if she starts whining, she’ll be quiet on command. She knows how to roll over and stay on her back, but it’s not for fun, it’s so we can examine her belly. I recently had her do this when she was attacked by another dog. I needed to make sure she was unhurt.
She knows how to give us all four paws, again so we can examine her paws and cut her nails. She can drag the laundry basket into the laundry room or from the laundry room into the bedroom. She shakes her body and stretches on command – something we have her do after sitting under a table or chair for long periods of time. She can stay, when given the cue, for hours.
She potties on command
There’s so much more she’s trained to do. She can give me a hug when I need it if she hasn’t detected it on her own. Yes, a hug.
She knows approximately 100 cues
Many service dogs go through a full two years of training, but because I didn’t need a lot of the mobility training and wheelchair training, etc., I was able to get her placed with me a little early however, if I ever need those things she can go back to the prison for more training.
THE BEST FOREVER GIFT
Joy and JLAD donated Venus to me. A payment I was planning to have to come up with was not needed at all. God always answers prayers and this time he answered mine in a big way! As a volunteer and disabled veteran, I was gifted a service dog by an amazing person and an amazing organization. A gift that means more than words can express. A gift that I hope I can pay forward someday.
Venus is my dog. I'm her person. Forever.
Next week read about the ADA rules governing service dogs and how to spot a fake!