Thursday, July 10, 2014

At your service

If you know us personally, or if you have read the other entries on this blog, you know that because of past events with our dogs have led us to decide to get a service dog.
We made this decision a year and a half ago. I won't get into the why, but you can read about it here: Dog Tales Part Deux
I concluded then that I would get back into price and financing, and I thought I might update, but I haven't talked about it since...
And three weeks ago today, Helio traveled North to finally join our family :D
So now it's definitely time to get back into it and tell you all about our journey to getting a service dog.

As I have a year and a half to cover, this will be a massive post, so I will try to keep it organized and clear (wish me luck).

The process (wait, funding, preparations):

Between late January to mid-April: the trainer tested a variety of dog for the right temperament. After a few fails she e-mailed us on April 14th 2013 that she had found us a puppy. She told us he was a purebred yellow lab donated by a breeder and roughly 4 months old. And that he didn't have a name yet, which meant we could pick :D.
We named him Helio after Helio Gracie, the founder of Gracie Jiu Jitsu (brazilian Jiu Jitsu). We had made a list of potential names and Dave had suggested it. I had agreed if we were getting a "yellow" male dog, as it comes for the Greek word for "sun" (helios). So when she said male yellow lab, it seemed like the best choice form our list!

In the meantime, I contacted all the local charitable organizations. We chose a pay service (I explained why in the post linked above) and we were ready to pay for the dog ourselves if necessary. The trainer is also very flexible and had agreed to a payment plan. But we decided to ask for financial  help.
The total cost for the dog including boarding, vet care, and of course training amounted to $13,560. As the training centre is over 900km away and the trainer brings the dog to us to train us for a week, there was also travel cost of about $1800.
I drafted a letter to explain why we thought we needed a service dog, why we chose this training centre and how much it would cost and sent it around. We were just hoping for a little help so we were happy when two organizations gave us $1000 each: Les Perles du Nord (a French women's club) and the Golden Beaver Masonic Lodge. But we were overwhelmed and speechless when I received a call from the Kiwanis Club telling us that they wanted to fund the service dog. THE WHOLE COST OF OUR SERVICE DOG!!
In our excitement we forgot to add the travel cost to the total we gave them, so in the end we paid those, which really seems more than fair, lol.

The waiting period was a big tough. We missed having a dog in our house. The trainer is a very busy woman who trains 20 dogs a year, certifies schools, and is working very hard at making service dogs more regulated and more available in Canada (and even the rest of the world). That is great and one of the reasons we are so happy we chose her services. The downside for us is that we were starving for news and felt like we were never getting enough...

As he was a puppy, the first 8 months were pretty uneventful. A dog has to reach adulthood before doing serious task training and community outings. So from April to December, there was not much for the trainers to report. We did call or email a few times and learned that he was very sweet and cuddly, very smart, a bit of an escape artist (they had to change his kennel lock 3 times), very gentle with and attracted to children. All in all, every time we talked, they told us that he was amazing, that he was one of the best dogs they had ever trained and that all was going very well.
I have to admit that waiting in between calls was really hard for me and I even worried we were getting scammed. I had absolutely no basis for thinking that, it's just one of these things my brain does to me. I have a vivid imagination :O
But every time we got news, I felt very excited and thought we won the lottery!
As of January 2014, we learned that he was still in great health, still doing very well and starting his public access training.

We also had a hard time getting photos, but bugged the trainer regularly and got a few over time, which allowed us to see him grow:

 This was in April, shortly after she got him (roughly 4 months old)

 This was in July (around 7 months old)

This was in May this year, right before he came to us (about a year and a half old)

During that whole period, as I said we had no dog. And we had seen Cédric be a little worried around big dogs. So after meeting the lady in charge of the St John's Ambulance Therapy Dogs team, we learned of a program that sounded great for us. The therapy dogs go to the local library for a program called Tales and Tails (or possibly Tails and Tales, I've never seen it written, lol). The goal is for any child with difficulties reading to practice by reading to the dog, without any correction or judgement. But as most of the dogs are large breeds, we starting bringing Cédric every Wednesday night, just to be around the dogs, see what he did and take notes, and maybe show him how to behave with the dogs. If I can pat myself on the back here, this was a GREAT idea! At first, Cédric wanted nothing to do with the dogs and just wanted to run around the library. And over the year, he started first noticing the dogs and paying some attention to them, calming down and staying around, then being more gentle with them and eventually hugging them right away when seeing them and enjoying the interaction. That was promising and encouraging as we heard a good amount of people saying their children never took to the dog and never bonded and we were hoping to help prevent that. It also allowed us to tell the trainer that Cédric liked to put his feet on the dogs, to play with their paws, to grab hair and touch noses. She took note of it all and made sure to get Helio used to all that.

We also used that time to prepare the house: we made room for Helio's crate in Cédric's room, we ordered a custom name tag, I had my Dad transform a barrel planter into a raised bowl, and I made Helio pillows.

Here you can see the bowls, the tag and one of the pillows :D

We also made sure to share everything with friends and family every time, and I LOVE how everyone responded. It felt like a gamble and every time, I thought maybe we should keep it to ourselves in case it didn't work out, but where's the fun in that... My Facebook posts with updates and photos of Helio are my most popular posts (hmmm, in retrospect, maybe I should be offended... lol). Each time, it made me really happy to see everyone's excitement and support in this new endeavour.

The big week (bonding and training):

On May 31st, Helio and his trainer drove over 900km to reach us in our remote Northern Ontario home. They left very early in the morning, hit an accident on the highway, and ended up getting here past 8pm.
When you pick up a puppy from a breeder, they are young and usually happy go lucky. But we had to keep in mind that this was an adult dog who did not know us and had also spent a very very long day in a car.
He was shy, cautious and very tired!
So the trainer suggested leaving him loose alone in the backyard while we talked. Slowly but surely, he came closer to us. She left shortly after. The idea was for him to bond with us and for that to happen, it was better if she left quickly. He spent the evening with us, sleeping really close to us, seeming afraid of the house and then slept the night in his crate in Cédric's room.

The rest of the week was intense:

- Sunday was put aside entirely to him bonding. Oddly enough, the most important thing was for him to bond with me, because as I will be his primarily handler, he needs to love me, want to please me and therefore obey me. So even before him bonding with Cédric, he needed to get used to me being in charge. I walked him, kept him close, gave him lots of love, and the guys even left us alone for a couple of hours so that I could make him visit the whole house without the impulsivity and noises of Cédric. He did seem quite scared, or at least cautious. Kitchen noises scared him a lot and he stayed a good distance away from Cédric.
All this, while completely normal and to be expected, is still a little hard to take when all you want is for this dog to be our best friend, especially Cédric's.
The two most important pieces of advice the trainer had for us, and that I kept repeating to myself, were "slow and steady wins the race", meaning things take time and try not to rush them, and "let him come to you". She told us, and we noticed, that Helio is a very cautious, very sensitive dog. She chose him for that to feel our moods, and mainly Cédric's. He won't be the kind of dog who is best friend with everyone. And coming at him too fast, forcing him to be close when he was scared, could have actually made things worse. So I concentrated on forcing him to be around, not too removed, to make him understand he was part of our family, but giving him enough space to observe without feeling overwhelmed.

- Monday morning, I started my training. We went to Walmart to start learning the rules and the handling techniques. It was a lot to take in, so I went back later and did some training at home. The trainer was really pleased with our bond, she said we had "the love part down", but Helio needed to see me more as a leader and obey more. That was true at home more than in stores, where I was really impressed with how calm and professional he was.
It is truly amazing to see the change in behaviour, concentration and obedience when the vest goes on!
I took him for the first time to pick up Cédric at the end of the day. Cédric didn't seem to care too much and Helio stayed on the other side or the backseat. I realized the car was a great place for them to get used to each other, being close but not in contact and without any risk.
I was also really happy to hear that she thought he was giving me looks of adoration and that the bond was really strong. I had never really thought about that being a problem, but I supposed a dog has a personality and he could have not liked us... She even seemed to worry about whether or not we like him. Again, it never crossed my mind that we might not, but again, who knows, sometimes the chemistry is not there. In this case, she chose him perfectly and we love each other :D

- On Tuesday, we went back to Walmart and added restaurant rules and behaviours to our practice. For hygiene and safety reasons, service dogs have to be tucked under the table, cannot be touched (verbal praises only), and are not allowed to eat or drink anything!! Not their own food, not what falls on the ground, NOTHING! Not even sniff. Labs being very food motivated, I thought this would be horribly hard, but he handles it very well. He lies there and sleeps. Again, colour me amazed. Still I made sure to practice the "leave it" command at home as I thought this would probably the hardest part of the test.
We had also scheduled to go to the restaurant that night, just Helio, the trainer and me, to introduce him to the members of the Kiwanis club who funded him and allow them to ask questions. They were almost shy at first, but in the end, I'm really glad we did. It was great to hear the trainer explain everything, I learned a lot too!

- Wednesday, we visited the pet store for a Kong and some training treats, went back to Walmart and McDonald's, but also took him to the dentist. In the trainer's experience, it is better for the dog to be familiar with the place and people before bringing him along with Cédric. She thought he might be protective of Cédric when seeing a stranger put his hands in his mouth... I would have never thought of that, but now, I'm trying to keep in mind that whenever we do something new, it would be good to get the dog used to the place before. I'm sure eventually, we won't have to as much, but while the relationship both with  me, his handler, and with Cédric is new, it seems like a smart idea.
And Wednesday night is also when the magic happened!! The #1 reason we got him in the first place was to allow Cédric a little more freedom and make our lives a little easier when walking together. As it is, we are always afraid he will take off and have him either in the stroller or in a vice grip. He likes the stroller, but it makes any outing a very passive activity for him, and he HATES the grip and tends to flop to the ground and refuse to move.
So the trainer got a harness at Walmart, one of the ones with a plush animal on it, and replaced their weak "leash" with a strong tether which attaches to Helio's vest. Cédric's is a grey elephant for which I still need a name (I'm weird that way, I like to name everything...). I put it on him the day before, expecting him to absolutely hate it, but he kept it on for a couple of hours with no complaint! So Wednesday night, we tethered Cédric to Helio and went out in the neighbourhood. It took us a few meters to figure out who should walk where. Well, Helio knew exactly what to do, but it was new for Cédric and I. I expected that to fail as well... but it was amazing! Cédric loved it, he seemed to feel free yet secure. We walked more than we ever have without him dropping to the ground or complaining. It was a very happy moment for us all (the trainer says it is always magical and she can't help having a huge smile on her face every time it happens!).

Here is what it looks like when we walk tethered. I've decided to call it "tandem walks" (told you I rename everything, I just don't like "tether" as much):

- Thursday saw more of the same (store, restaurant, work at home) to be really ready for our test on Friday. Helio also met Dave's parents, as they often watch over Cédric at our house and therefore needed to know the basic on handling him. This revealed that he indeed is very cautious and very attached to me. He was very protective of me, staying close, and growling and barking. As they are both very nice people and animal lovers, it was a surprise. The trainer suggested going to their house with him, so that he can meet them in a more neutral place than the house he feels protective of.

- And Friday was already the big day. After only 5 days together and 4 of training together, we had to take our test. Helio did very well, only fighting me a little when it was time to "down" at the cash register. But he didn't run after the ball the trainer through in his way, or get spooked by noises. He even did very well at two things we hadn't practice much at all: "a stranger hold" (I had to leave him with someone else and tell him to stay) and a "recall" (I had to make him lie down, move away, then call him to me). He also basically had a French frie (French fry? Who eats just one, lol) thrown at his face and moved around his body and he didn't flinch! The trainer took notes the whole time and made no comments. I felt it had gone well, but who knows, right? She didn't say anything and gave me an envelope saying the answer was in there. It contained Helio's certificate, plastic tags with his photo and his name which say that he is Cédric's service dog and some letters on their letterhead that explain that he is allowed everywhere (in case of trouble in a public place...).
We had passed and the most encouraging part is that the trainer said that even if some things still had to be perfected, she felt confident we were a good team and had put in enough work and effort. She thought she was leaving Helio in good hands, she had seen promising things between him and Cédric and she knew I would put in the necessary work to keep Helio certified (we do have to retake the test yearly).

We invited the trainer for a very relaxed celebratory supper Friday night, and she left very early Saturday morning. I honestly was sad to see her go, because I liked her very much and we had very interesting conversation. But also because I was worried about not keeping our team sharp, about messing things up or not knowing what to do. But she is only a text, email or call away and told us we can always ask questions. We've been on our own since!

The "Cédric-Helio" bond:

As I said, at first Helio was a little scared and overwhelmed by Cédric. He is not anymore!

The car was a great tool to get them used to each other. Day 1, Helio stayed far and Cédric paid no attention, day 2, Helio turned around and Cédric looked and reached down a couple of times, and since day 3 Helio snuggles right beside the car seat, often putting his head on the armrest and Cédric smiles, reached down to pet his head, nose, or ears. It's a very happy sight:

At home, as Helio relaxed, he started being very comfortable around Cédric and seeking him for play. The hardest part is just teaching him not to use his teeth (made hard by the fact that Cédric LOVES to put his hands in Helio's mouth) and to stay away when he is too excited. He is generally a very calm dog, but he is only 18 months old and gets excited a couple of times a day.

Cédric is also more and more tolerant of Helio. At first, he had many moments when he did not want Helio coming close. He was basically telling him to get out of his face! But as time passes, I see less and less of these moments. I also see an increase in him looking for Helio's company, laughing when he is around, and trying to interact.
I try to facilitate these interactions by making sure they stay positive, keeping Helio away when he gets too excited, making sure he uses his mouth as little and as gently as possible, telling them both when they do things right. And I absolutely love seeing them together. Look:

While on the bed, I even saw Cédric get up on his knees and give Helio a great big hug around the neck :D

The "effects":

As I said, the main goal was to keep Cédric safe with tandem walking. It does make us feel safer and and seems to give Cédric a sense of both freedom and security.

But people also report other "effects" on their children and we were anxious to see what would happen for our little guy.

The one I was most curious and hopeful about was sleep. I've read many times that the presence of a dog helps kids with sleep disorders or difficulties.
There are many factors that can affect Cédric's sleep but since Helio has been sleeping in his room, Cédric has slept well. He has not woken up in the middle of the night and has woken up very early much less than he used to. Of course, as I write this post (which I have done over the course of more than a week) he has had a series of 3 days where he woke up really early, but it is still better than it used to be.
The amazing thing we have discovered though, is that when he's asleep, noise does not bother him much at all. We thought he was a very light sleeper and have always been really careful not to make any noise once he slept. But with Helio, we sneak him into his crate when we go to bed, a couple hours after Cédric. Helio is very happy to go to bed because he gets a small treat and therefore wags like crazy, hitting the wall, the door, the metal crate, and making an incredible amount of noise. He then proceeds to do that strange floor scratching before lying down thing that dogs do. I still wonder what the evolutionary purpose for that is (warm up the spot, dig, release smells, ...?) but the one thing I know is that it is extremely loud. And so far, Cédric does not react to any of it whatsoever. One time he did sit up and reposition himself (my heart stopped for a second) and he went right back to sleep.
Helio has also barked and cried in the early morning when hearing us move around, and again, it has never woken up the little dude!!

I have not noticed a strong calming effect. Others have reported that the presence of the dog was soothing and calming and I can't say that we have really noticed improvement in that department. Cédric still has moments of high activity. He has been very happy though and we have seen few tantrums, so it might be that having the dog around improves his mood.

We also were surprised to notice an increase in language and vocalization. Cédric is pretty much non verbal. There are very few words he says consistently. But when Helio joined our household, we noticed a definite increase in the amount of vocal expression and even an effort to produce more different sounds. We're not talking about a miracle where he started talking in full sentences, but still we love hearing his voice and any move in the right direction is great.
And the connection was kind of confirmed for me by the fact that after only 5 days, Cédric said Helio's name! And he's been saying it often since. It may not be obvious to anyone, but to us who know him and are used to his repertoire, it is, and it makes me very happy. My favourite part is a resurgence of "je t'aime" (French for "I love you") which he used to say but had not said in a long time :D

And of course it has provided companionship. Cédric has an extra loving being to interact with. He laughs when Helio is playing, he goes to him and puts his hands in Helio's mouth, he puts his feet on him and rubs the fur, he plays with his ears in the car, ... He has a friend!
And so do I... I am so happy to have a furry friend back in the house and to get to pet him and cuddle.
Helio has been trained to provide deep pressure to calm Cédric and ground him. It seems a little too early in their relationship for it to be applied, though. Cédric doesn't seem to love when Helio is too much "on" him.
I have been enjoying it however. I love the cuddles and I have noticed that his leaning against me or sleeping on my feet calms me down.

The work in progress:

I don't want to give an unrealistic picture of this experience. Though it has been largely positive, there are aspects that have surprised us and that we have to adapt to or work on.

First and foremost, due to the distance, Helio was trained away from us and our bonding time and my own training was very short before the trainer had to leave. There are therefore a few things we need to work on and correct before they become problems.
Helio is amazingly professional when his vest goes on. He listens very well, he is quiet and discreet, and he pays careful attention to Cédric. But I have noticed that he gets spooked in entrances (double doorways in stores, malls, supermarkets, restaurants), at which point he pulls quite hard and sometimes panics and tries to in whichever direction. And he acts in a similar way in busy parking lots and open areas with large crowds.
So we have to work on that, expose him to that kind of situation a lot and make sure he calms down and is able to stay focused, especially if we ever want to be able to tether Cédric to him.

There are a few other things, but most of them are minor: the barking in the crate in the morning, a certain fear of visitors (especially men), jumping in the house or on me when playing (he is still young after all), getting a little too excited around Cédric and "nipping" at him (it's a playful nip, with a very gentle mouth, but it still would be better if he didn't).

Oh, and the hair! So much hair! He is a lab, need I say more.
I've invested in a better swiffer and if it pushes me to vacuum a little more often, it won't be a bad thing. But we are rethinking the choice of dark floors and black clothes, lol.

There is one aspect I did not fully expect: the attention from others. I knew it would attract attention, of course. I just did not realize how much and some of the reactions I would get.
Most people are respectful, tell their kids they can't pet him, say that he's cute, etc. I did notice that a lot of people say it loudly enough for me to hear, but when it's positive comments I don't mind at all.
Then there are the people that are also very respectful, but want to know everything (how old he is, what breed, what kind of service dog he is, where he was trained, whether he's in training, ...). I don't mind sharing, but sometimes I'm in a hurry and it's time consuming. And I'm thinking it will eventually get old... I read somewhere that someone has created a business card for her service dog and hands them out when people have questions and I like the idea!
And then there's the few but noticeable interactions. Some people ignore the vest and pet him, one even told me she knew she wasn't supposed to and was breaking the rules as she pat him on the head. Some people pry to find out what type of service dog he is, asking me if I'm training him for someone visually impaired (which I am obviously not), and one going as far as grabbing the card on his vest then the tag around his neck while I was talking to someone else, and exclaiming "ah, autism!".
Finally, there was that one woman at the dentist... It was the first time I took Helio in public tethered to Cédric. He panicked in the doorway and tried to turn around, and Cédric fell on his bum. She was in the entrance with us, behind us and just seemed horrified and from that point, gave me dirty, judgmental looks...
So I have to get used to all of that and remember to plan for extra time and extra patience!

So we find ourselves a family of four again. Dave is surrounded by 3 dark blonds (the trainer even mentioned that Helio and I had the same hair colour), and I am surrounded by my 3 guys (which is a departure as both previous dogs were females).
And one thing makes me absolutely convinced that Helio fits right in, that he is a true Gervais: the gas! Whether by nature, because of the stress, or because of something in his diet, Helio farts. He farts often, loudly and the stink is unbelievable. In public, it can be a little embarrassing...
At least, now, we can blame the dog ;)

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