On the Road Again…by Lisa Harmon


Kenai enjoying the sunshine, 14 mo old

Our meeting with the trainers Friday was encouraging, for me at least. Yay! We mostly talked, while Kenai acted the nervous nelly. I waited for them outside without his vest so they could meet properly, and I thought he was going to crawl out of his skin when a truck’s air brakes released. The trainer’s husband’s walker made him nervous too.

Kenai was spooky, wouldn’t stay down inside the restaurant..I didn’t like it, and would have taken him back to the car, but the trainer wanted to let him settle himself, and just ignored most of it. Their approach is to let the dog work through it, I think. Susanne has a very calm and reassuring air about her, that Kenai took to immediately. I wasn’t surprised he did his downs et all for her better.

The gotta-act-right drilled into me was nervous about Kenai’s not staying down and relaxing. Maybe I am too concerned about possibly being asked to leave a place? Perhaps I’ve just heard too much “owner trained dogs are terrible”, and have semi-consciously set out to prove them wrong. (We will someday, ya know.)

This Steak and Shake is very used to Susanne and Steve bringing their SDit in, and it was a peculiar relief to not have to worry about it. A whole bag of access concerns about taking Kenai places like Wal-mart just moved off my back to Susanne’s, and I actually almost felt the weight lift.

I went through the command and task list they gave us when we got home, and turned it into a detailed eval of where Kenai is right now. It’s on a page under his training progress. I also made a list of tasks I’d like him to learn in the future, and places I want to be able to go again someday.

Like a craft fair. The milling crowds, noise, and tight quarters can be disorienting to me, eventually messing with my balance, and making me tired. But the big fat funnel cakes are calling! Maybe soon Kenai can walk me around, keep me from wobbling, shield me from the pushy bumper people, and guide me back to my car when I want to go home.

Oh, and going to church again! The sound systems are the problem. Even in tiny little places, they have sound systems for some reason. To be cool for the teenagers I guess, or for those who are hard of hearing. But the volume is always too loud for someone as sensitive to noise as I am, and after an hour, I wouldn’t be able to find my way to the bathroom to throw up. Meniere’s disease and migraines strike again.

If I could find a little old country church that realizes small spaces don’t need amplifiers, me and Brown would learn to handle the running kids, up and down for singing, and parking his lovely big bum out of the usher’s way. I miss church. I would be put out with the big little guy if he disrupted my warbling!

Wishful future stuff aside, I was amazed at just how much Kenai had learned. Yeah, he’s slid off the reliable teeter-totter for the moment, but he knows and is in various states of solid on nearly 30 commands and tasks. The last ten mostly have to wait until he’s done growing. This here kindergarden level obedience teacher (me) has managed by grace and books to get us into college level work. Wow.

Told ya the meeting was encouraging!

So we’re ready to hit the road again, with direction along our learning path. The subtitle I choose last February for this blog is “my wandering way into training my own service dog”, and it was slightly prophetic, huh? Wander, ouuups, dust off and march has been the cadence.

That’s okay, though. There’s something spiritual about a disabled person who finds the courage to switch into “I can”, the love not to give up, and the hope to think about the future as better. All that would be missed in many ways were I to have taken a program dog when it was possible for me to train my own service dog.

No, not ‘dissing program dogs. I’m just thinking about what training Kenai’s done for me as a person with limitations; not just pulling me into considering what I can do and how to do it, but the fact that I’m doing for myself what I can do myself.

There are many people who simply couldn’t do all this, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. That’s why SD training programs are so important. I just wish more programs had owner training side programs, for those of us who can, but need the experts to guide us a little. It would seriously shorten the waiting lists for service dogs.

Anyway, owner training has been a huge paradigm shift for me, and it’s what I needed.

So I’m back to being secure in our future together, and have gotten ready to get to work with some help. Strange, so many others have said they too hit a patch of doubt when their dogs hit adolescence. Part of the process I suppose. I bet the dogs get tired of us humans and our flubs about this time too! Grin.

Kenai was a bit “hung over” for a couple days, from the big hour long scare he endured. But he got a chance to make himself all muddy running in the kennel with BB outside it, a boy fun thing. He’s tall enough there usually isn’t too much splatter on the undercarriage, but those giant snow-shoe paws spread out when he runs–they were packed with clods of sticky clay.

Good thing he’s used to getting his feet cleaned, ’cause it took awhile. His brother BB just nearly needed hosing down, the silly little wump. His butt slopes like a German Shepherd so everything from the shoulders back was a mess. Had a big grin on his slobbery face, though. He was happy boy, and snored later to prove it.

Sasquatch Stuff…by Lisa Harmon


Kenai looking ever so regal in his new vest! And check out the shine on that fur again.

This pic was from Saturday, our public practice time without his gentle leader. He was doing so well! Tuesday he turned 47 weeks old. It’s interesting in a useless sort of way that counting his age in weeks makes him “older” than just going by months. There’s 52 weeks in a year, not 48 weeks, and 48 divided by 4 is 12 months.

Oh well, when he turns a year old officially, January 1, 2009 (New Year’s baby), I’ll stop counting weeks and just go by months old on his growth and progress pages. He and Beebs are New Year’s babies. BB’s official AKC registry name is “Shakira’s New Year’s Champagne”, since his color is a little lighter than Kenai’s. It fits his bubbly personality too!

Kenai’s registered as “Shakira’s New Year’s Celebration”. I chose “celebration” because he is a celebration for me; he’s going to make going places and doing things possible that I generally don’t without help. That’s worth celebrating! He’s already brought about some remarkable changes for me, and in me. My lovely lion pawed dear is worth more than the world to me.

Kenai’s had a couple days at home, okay 3 days, getting ready for the Thanksgiving holiday. Our friends, Wade and Melba are coming over. We’ve split the cooking between us, which makes it easier for me to actually enjoy their company. I hate that inner tension of wanting to see my friends, but dreading the fatigue and pain that comes from having company. Bluck!

I’ve been able to scrub the couch, since it picks up the oils and odor from the boys laying on it. BB especially has a very strong body odor. I’ve also dusted, and today I’ll run the sweeper to pick up as much pretty brown hair as I can. There’s not as much coming off the Brothers Grin as there used to be!

Kenai’s weigh in Monday has me floating! He’s gained 1.3 pounds–I can’t see the vertebrae of his spine anymore, nor the ridges of his shoulder blades. The depression between his hip bones is gone, and I’m only seeing the last two ribs now. Not to mention his coat has shine enough to show up in a picture once again.

I’ve done something novel, at least for me: I opened a cafepress store with Kenai’s pics on mugs, shirts, and other gift items. There’s a link in the text box to the right. I’m slowly changing the jpeg pics to png pics for better quality printing, but this darn dial up has trouble with the larger png uploads. And being a fumble-bumble when it comes to photo stuff, I haven’t figured out how to put captions and such on the pics. Working on it, though.

Maybe there’ll be some income to pay for his expenses. Between the two boys, it’s $145 a month for enzymes, almost $100 a month for food. Special K really needs a harness soon, and that’s a costly thing to buy. So I’ve made a 10% mark up on the cafepress–If 10% is good enough for Jesus, it outta be good enough for me.

I’m not depending on cafepress income, not with the current economic situation in the US, but it surely would make the budget breathe easier. Me too. Mom three. Who knows, maybe I’ll give BB a shop too? Besides, a boy should have stuff, right? Sasquatch stuff!

Since it is Thanksgiving, I probably should give thanks for heaps of good things in my life. I’ve got a pair of really good friends I can count on for anything, Wade and Melba. I’ve got a terrific Mom, who supports me financially while I’m not able to support her and I. I’ve got a pair of baby bottoms, one all wiggly and fun (BB), and one that’s strong and caring (Kenai).

I’ve gotten encouragement from so many people via comments on this blog, which I don’t always get a thankful reply back to. I’ve had such good advice and reassurance from the yahoo epi group, helping me get my boys back to health and vigor. Mom’s been able to pay for their care, thank God. My health has held up enough to care, train, and provide exercise for Kenai–it could be so much worse, remembering how hellish the first few years of my 30’s were.

I could rattle on, but the idea is remembering the good things and giving them more emotional weight than the not so good things. I’m not as steady in my thankfulness as I could be, but who is? It’s a lesson that could be learned from dogs, isn’t it? Enjoying whatever is in front of us right now with all our hearts is no little lesson!

Thank you Kenai, my growing up rhino baby. You’re a gift from heaven itself.

You Can Do It, So Can I…by Lisa Harmon

Hey! I want some too! The Brother’s Grin, 21 wks

I feel like a brighter color text today, don’t you? It’s summer, and brown just feels a bit dull to me. So ya’ll get to read in green. Green’s a good color. It’s bright, it’s lively. What’s not to love about it?

There are lots of questions on the blog stats about owner training a service dog. You most definitely can. I’ll give a general description of what you need your dog to be able to do, but keep in mind that the type of service they give you depends on your disability. A mobility dog doesn’t have to watch for traffic for you, like a guide dog would.

Step one is socializing and obedience training: sit, down, stay, come, wait, leave it, heel, and back are the “biggies” that a dog needs to learn. The two things that are most important but aren’t actual commands are loose leash walking and paying attention to you.

Loose leash walking means the dog isn’t dragging behind you or pulling ahead of you. You want them to have their shoulders beside your leg, close enough that your hand is above them. Toes may get stepped on once in awhile, but they need to be close to you. They cannot sniff merchandise, or greet people and dogs they come across when working, either. Leave it command is your best training tool to get that done!

And paying attention is vital. If you need to turn or perhaps go around an obstacle, the dog should move with you, without being told to or using the leash. That doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is looking at your face constantly, or they’d walk into a parked car! But they must be aware enough of what you are doing and needing that you don’t have to get their attention to walk around a shrub on the same side as you.

Keep in mind the “little things” that you might need to change in a standard obedience class. A standard heel is on the left side. But if you need the dog to support your right side, you’ll need to change that. Personally, the leg that needs support changes for me, so I expect Kenai to stay on whatever side I put him that day, regardless of where he usually is.

Wait and stay are different: wait means “pause ’till I give another command”. Getting out of the car uses wait, until their leash is on and you give the okay to get out. Going through doors uses “wait”. They stop and stand beside you until the door opens, and wait for you to say “forward”. Then wait again until you’ve closed the door.

Stay means park and don’t move until I return to you. You can put the dog on a stay, sitting, down, or standing, and expect them to not move. If they can see you, they watch you. If they can’t see you they wait and don’t move anyway. If your dog is playing with a buddy accross the street, you won’t want them to come across the street with cars going by. So you give them a stay, walk over to them, and release them from the stay. That way you can walk back together.

Come is a huge deal for a service dog. No matter where they are, or what they are doing, when you need them, they have to drop everything and come. Playing in a dog park, if you can’t get up from the bench, you can call your dog to come and they will, no matter how much fun they’re having.

Socializing an intended service dog never stops. You’ll never reach a point where they have seen it all. From the time you get them, take them everywhere, and try everything: kids soccer games, elevators, busy downtown sidewalks, skate parks, outdoor cafe, parking lots, beaches, shopping carts, auto repair shops…you want them to be exposed to and able to concentrate through any noise, any movement, any environment.

Once the obedience skills are totally reliable, you should take a test like the AKC Good Canine Citizen test. You don’t have to by law, but please do. You and your dog’s abilities are objectively analyzed, and you’ll have a peice of paper in your hand to prove to a nervous store owner that you’ve put the time and effort into training an outstandingly well behaved dog.

In addition to obedience training, a service dog must have at least one task they perform to assist you. For example, picking up keys you’ve dropped, or a harness to help you keep your balance. The task training doesn’t have to wait until after obedience–young puppies are sponges and learn very easily. Kenai and I have to wait for the harness until he’s done growing at 18 months or so.

I have a page about the requirements, and about temperment testing. The blog roll also has lots of links. There are plenty of online groups, like yahoo’s Owner Trained Service Dogs for Beginners where you can find advice and support. And if you can find a professional trainer to assist you, so much the better.

You can use any method of training that works for you. The training I was doing with Kenai was not going well, so I’ve changed tactics and shifted towards positive clicker training to reinstate the sense of fun and joy we had lost somewhere. Maybe it was me that lost it and Kenai followed, but I still say we because he and I are a team, and we feel everything together. What one of us goes through the other goes through. 

No matter what training method you use, you’ll hear again and again the golden dog training mantra “be a calm leader”. I have it all over my blog because it is without question the easiest and best way to train a dog. But like many Americans, I have an anxiety disorder, compliments of fibromyalgia. Many Americans have depression, panic attacks, and all sorts of “not calm” difficulties.

Sometimes it is possible to just not train when the day’s stress is too high. But when it is an ongoing problem, many, if not most trainers will give up on you. They will tell you that you can’t do it. It’s been said to me.

There are more than enough things I must say “I can’t” to. But dogs are not one of them. I have more faith in them than that. Dogs give. They bend and they adjust. They take us as we are and work with the human they have, whether we are imperfect or not. Humans may call you defective, but dogs don’t even think of it. Impossible is not a word a dog knows or understands.

Training a service dog when you have anxiety disorders may not go as smooth as the Godiva chocolate cheesecake I had for my birthday, but you can and will find dogs trained to alert to anxiety and panic attacks. THEY CAN HANDLE IT, and so can I. For me, it is a matter of finding a way that works, a method that gives me confidence. I have the love not to give up.

My anxiety levels rise for awhile, and go down for awhile. That’s how it is for me. If anyone doubts that dogs are more humane than humans, then think about this: Kenai takes the ride with me. What I go through, he goes through with me, and doesn’t just give up and tell me to go away. He’s never once said “you can’t do it”.

When faced with difficulties, you need to keep your optimism. Tenacity is the best tool in life, and the flexibility to change tactics when you need to. You don’t need someone whispering in your ear that you can’t do it, you have the wrong breed of dog, that if you had kids they’d be neurotic…That sort of pessimism and inflexibility is death to any training program.

(as an aside to trainers, Labliness isn’t Godliness, so can we stop with the breed bias, please? Labs have their flaws too.)

I am forever telling Kenai’s timid littermate BB “you can do it, little buddy” when he hesitates at the stairs or gets scared of the shiney floor. I praise every little step he takes, and this blog is a record of every little step I take on the shiney floor of training my own service dog. I CAN do it, and I will. Giving up is not an option.


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