The Kender Report

Yesterday we went to Meijer Gardens with our homeschool group.  We’ve been so many places this summer: the aquatic center, the zoo, so many parks, the county fair, the children’s museum, to the store almost every day.  I’m learning to turn what’s been, “always no, unless there’s a really good reason,” into “always yes, unless there’s a good reason not to.”  We’ve never been challenged on access with A’Kos, he just is there, like a cane, ready to help.

I thought about Kender’s development today in terms of question words.  We all know the basic six question words: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.  We all learn how to answer each of those questions one at a time as we grow and mature.  I can see Kender progressing through these, and each one he gets reduces his frustration and increases our ability to interact with him.

Kender has mastered What.  He can answer to, “What is that? What are you doing? What do you want?” Being able to tell us what he has and what he wants are huge helps for us as parents.  It can get a little hairy sometimes, such as last when when he was throwing a huge fit because he wanted “lip balls” for breakfast.  It took what seemed like forever for us to figure out he was trying to say “Fruity Pebbles”!  It can be strange sometimes to here him make these kinds of toddler speech mistakes after so many years of perfect mimicry, but it is in fact a step forward as he learns to create his own speech instead of simply parroting the speech of others.

Now Kender is working on Who.  He has been saying “Hello” and “Goodbye” and giving people names for a while.  Last night, he amazed me by answering, “Who made your quesadillas?” with, “Daddy made my quesadillas.”  He has learned pronouns, which is a pretty big leap in abstract thought.  When he repeats something we say to him, he will replace pronouns appropriately. “What are you doing?” “I am getting my book player.”

Where is probably next, I think.  He can answer, “Where are you going?” and will often ask, “Where is Daddy gone?”  Sometimes he’ll repeat that over and over, asking Where for MawMaw, the cats, his brothers and sisters, so I can see his mind working at it.  While I can tell him to throw something away or put something in the dirty clothes chute and he will do it, asking him where something is doesn’t always get a response, even a non-verbal one.  He’s working on it.

I’m looking forward to When.  I feel like that is the point where we will be able to start working on prereading skills a little better.  When is very abstract because it involves thinking outside of the Now.  Even the Who and Where are usually pretty tightly bound to Now.  When requires reaching backwards and forwards in personal time.  Being able to answer What and Who questions for the past and future, being able to anticipate future events, having a sense of days and weeks and months, all of these will be a big leap.

When I think of where he was just a few short months ago, though, he’s made huge leaps already.  It’s so exciting to watch!

Links and Things

I don’t have a loud voice shouting to get out today, so instead here are some little voices.

  • My middle child loves to go out in the rain.  As soon as a downpour starts, he’s at the front door asking to go out in it.  I love being able to say yes.  Yes! Go dance in the rain!  Revel in Mother Nature!  Get wet and muddy and laugh about it!  What is life if you can’t go play in the rain?

    My neighbor caught this shot of my son in the rain.

    My neighbor caught this shot of my son in the rain.

  • Michigan State Police Say Most Speed Limits Are Too Low.  Most people realize that you’re not safe out there on most highways if you’re driving the speed limit.  I realize it.  Yet I’m one of those assholes driving the speed limit, partly because I have panic attacks whenever I have to deal with the police, partly because I can’t bloody well spare the cash to pay the government squeeze for the privilege of driving safely with the flow of traffic.  I get tailgated.  I get cut off.  I get honked at.  Thanks to the speed limit laws, I’m stuck.  Government needs to back out of micromanaging driving and concentrate on the truly dangerous, as in so many other areas of life.
  • The Ingham County Fair was last week.  The older kids all went on their own one day, most with free tickets from the library and allowance money for rides, one because a friend took him.  I wasn’t planning to take Kender until my mother offered to do it, but I’m sure glad that she did, and we did.  With A’Kos, Kender waited in lines, allowed operators to help him on and off the rides, asked for more rides, and generally behaved like many other kids there.   It was so wonderful to see him riding the rides, holding on and smiling.  While handling A’Kos in crowds comes with a bit of stress of its own, overall the experience was so much better than taking Kender alone would have been.  Instead of melting down, Kender would just occasionally bend over and give A’Kos a hug.
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Fake a Disability

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Without AKos, this trip to the zoo would not have happened for Kender.

“Hey, did you know that [insert disability here] people get to [insert special access here]?  We could do that, too, because the government says that businesses aren’t allowed to ask questions.  Here, you pretend to have [insert disability here] and I’ll [get fake certification/baldly lie/pretend nothing’s wrong], and then we’ll get [insert special access here], too!”

Handicapped parking. Special access to rides without waiting in line. Special test-taking accommodations. Front row seating. Service dog access.  Whatever the accommodation, I’ve seen folks lie and cheat their way into gaining access.  I’ve seen little pet chihuahuas in their service dog vests purchased online.  I’ve seen the looks when we jump a line or take our reserved seating.  I’ve even had friends brag to my face, in front of my blind husband, about how they were parking with grandma’s handicapped plate.

Only a poor simulation of what you might see

Only a poor simulation of what you might see

Stop and think for a moment about the difference between your life and what your life would be like disabled.  What if you were visually impaired?  Put some broken sunglasses on, and put some tape around the sides so you can’t see around them.  Just for good measure, splatter some paint across them, and maybe give them a prescription that’s wildly inaccurate for your eyes.  You can’t take them off or fix them, not ever.  Walking down the sidewalk, you can’t see that bench sticking out just far enough to hit your shins.  You also don’t notice the chairs in the restaurant, the shipping pallets in the store, the little kids running in front of you, the holes the gophers dug in your lawn.  Every step you take comes with the possibility of pain and embarrassment, and because you have some vision you might try to forgo the mobility cane, forgo the obvious label and free up a hand because, after all, you can see a little.  Going to the movies, a live show, comedy or a concert, attractions at Disney?  You’re only going to be able to see bits and pieces, a flash of light here and a moving shadow there, unless you’re lucky enough to talk your way into the front row where you can see more detail, maybe somewhat approach the experience of everybody else who paid $5/10/50/100 to be there.  Waiting in line for a ride?  You can’t see the cute movies on the TVs overhead, you can’t see the decorations in the bushes, you can’t watch the ride and the faces of the riders as you approach your turn.  All you are doing is standing there, nothing to look at, for an hour or more.  How about that parking lot?  Imagine parking at someplace like a Ren Faire and walking a half-mile or more across a rough field when you can’t see the rocks, the tree roots, the way the ground goes up and down every couple of feet.  Can you make it without a sprained ankle or bloody shin, even with a mobility cane?

Still think it’s pretty cool that you used somebody else’s parking space?  Still thinking about lying to get a disabled wristband at the park?  Still grumbling when you see us get seating up front, while you watch the show from behind us with your perfect vision?

a small piece of the form we send to our police department every year

a small piece of the form we send to our police department every year

How about autism, that condition you think your kid can mimic for as long as it takes to get that special access card?  If you only have neurotypical children, it is so difficult to convey the reality of raising a child with autism.  Think about trying to potty-train a child when you can’t reason with them, can’t talk to them, can’t explain anything (in our case, you couldn’t even show him), can’t read it in a book, can’t watch it in a movie or TV show, can’t play a computer game about it, can’t use stickers and charts and earn delayed rewards, can’t talk about the difference between big kids and babies, none of that, you can’t do any of it because your child can’t talk, can’t understand rewards, can’t understand future and past, none of it. Think about having to make sure your child has a diagnosis and is registered with your local police department just to protect yourself (or your child!) from going to jail and your child from the foster care system.  Think about trying to go to the store, go to McDonald’s, go to a park, do any of the normal things you don’t really even think about with a toddler in a 6-year-old body.  Think about trying to figure out if your child has an ear infection, a stubbed toe, or gods forbid something like appendicitis, when your child’s only way of expressing pain looks exactly like the way he expresses frustration, impatience, fatigue, and confusion, via a total meltdown that involves hitting, biting, screaming, and destruction of property.  Try, just try, waiting in line for an hour with this child who doesn’t understand what’s at the end of the line.

Right now, federal law protects you when you lie and cheat your way into the accommodations that help make life just a little more bearable for those of us with disabilities.  Businesses aren’t allowed to ask you if you really need that alleged service dog, they aren’t allowed to ask for proof that your child is autistic before granting access.  It’s not going to stay this way, though.  The more these accommodations get abused, the more businesses are going to fight back.  Already, we’ve seen our access to accommodations get taken away completely as parks like Disney take away the ability to skip lines at the rides (because waiting for an hour outside of the line is no better for an autistic child than waiting for an hour inside the line, and skipping the lines for many was the difference between riding one ride and leaving, and maybe riding as many rides as everybody else before going home to have their meltdown).  Handicapped spots are getting moved farther down the parking lot, only requiring a ramp to qualify, nevermind the actual distance involved.

If businesses had their way, many would probably already be denying access to service dogs.  Incidents that happen across the country with untrained dogs make it dangerous for businesses to allow access.  You may still be protected by the terms of the law for now, allowing you to declare your own service dog and make your own identification, but that’s not going to last.  All it takes is enough people to be upset about this to change the law.  What will happen then is the question.  Will the law be changed to simply require us to provide proof of disability, certification of our dogs with numbers a business can call to verify training?  Or will dogs and other service animals be suddenly outlawed, all access protections taken away, leaving those of us who need these animals to go out into the world at the mercy of businesses jaded by their experience with fake service dogs?  As it is, children who deal with the government school systems do not have the protections you would think, and I have yet to hear of a school that did not put up some kind of resistance to having a service dog come to school with their child.

“But you’re a libertarian!  What would you do without any government protection?”

Kender with AKos, calm and not screaming

Kender with AKos, calm and not screaming

I’ve never had a problem explaining myself to people with questions.  Want to know exactly what Kender’s service dog does for him and why he’s with us?  Ask away!  Better yet, just watch.  Every minute they are walking together, you can see how A’Kos keeps Kender going.  You can watch them curl up on the floor instead of Kender having a meltdown.  You can watch A’Kos make Kender smile.  I’d rather it didn’t happen, but you might even see Kender get away from me and A’Kos track him down.  A’Kos is working whenever we are away from home.

Other service dogs’ skills may not be as patently visible.  In a free and voluntary system, we would still have our dog from 4 Paws for Ability with our certification and identification cards, as we do now.  We would still provide phone numbers for businesses to contact 4 Paws for Ability if they had questions.  Many libertarians foresee the kinds of ratings systems used on Amazon and eBay expanding to cover more and more kinds of businesses and services, so that you could hop online and see what kind of ratings 4 Paws has, whether they are legitimate or have been labeled as an ID factory.  You could train your own dog, certainly, but your self-issued certification would need to have some backing by a third-party with a reputation for valid certifications in order for anybody to truly respect it.

And I think I would be more okay with that system than the one currently in place.

Happy Birthday, Kender!

20140722_185842Today is Kender’s sixth birthday.  I don’t think he understands what that means.  He screams no, covers his ears, and walks away if we say, “Happy Birthday!” or try to sing.  He’s never been able to say, “I’m (xx) years old.”  He doesn’t talk about his birthday, he doesn’t ask for a party, he doesn’t spend the whole year planning his party and begging for presents, like all my other kids do.

I thought about having a party this year anyway, but I never planned anything.  Instead, I went by the store today and picked up all his favorite things for dinner, a strange Kender-only mishmash of junk food like macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets combined with blueberries, salad, celery and cucumbers.  I got some cupcakes, too, telling myself that it was not cheating, he doesn’t care, even the other kids don’t care, they just want cupcakes and don’t care what kind or who made them.  We’ll all have dinner together, and then we’ll sing Happy Birthday to Kender and eat cupcakes.  I’ll dig up at at least one candle to light, but we have to be careful.  He’ll lean in too close and risk setting his hair on fire, and he doesn’t fully understand blowing out the flame yet.

I haven’t gotten him any presents yet.  Neither has anybody else (aside from a savings bond, something he can’t see, touch, or understand), not even the grandmothers.  My present to him this year is clearing and organizing his room, though he may or may not realize it.  I wanted to get him a light table, too, but haven’t managed it yet.  He’s already been exploring the toys I left in his room more, pulling out some special books and playing with the blocks.  He dumps things, too, and we rush in to pick them up.  I’ve gotten him to help with picking up once or twice.

It’s hard not to compare him to other kids.  Six-year-olds are heading off to kindergarten or maybe even first grade.  They know how to read and are working on writing.  They can do basic math.  They can tell you their name and address and phone number and show you the way to their house.  They play games like tag and softball, they ride bikes and scooters, they have favorite movies and books.  Not Kender.

For Kender, we celebrate how much he is talking, how he will frequently answer questions like “What is that?” or “What are you doing?”  We’re happy on days when he doesn’t scream and throw furniture or bang new holes in the wall.  We ask for a kiss or a hug and hope for an outstretched cheek instead of a scream.  We comb his hair and scrub his body, brush his teeth and fasten his shoes.

This year, I hope he will eventually be able to sit with me and listen to a story, show some interest in the words on the page or some indication that he is comprehending what he hears.  I hope we can start talking about shapes and textures, maybe even colors and numbers.  Goals and expectations were always my least-favorite part of the dreading IEP process when we were still getting services from the schools.  I don’t expect him to be reading and writing and playing cooperative games by the end of the year, but I don’t have anything concrete in between that I expect him to do.

I’ll just keep on doing what I’ve been doing for six years: keeping Kender safe, giving him love, and doing my best to create an environment that he can learn and explore in…and hoping someday to get the keys to unlock the little boy inside that I’ve never really been able to talk with.

The Kender Report

It’s been 2 months since we first brought A’Kos to stay with us.  It’s time for an update on how things are going, and things are going amazingly well.  A’Kos has blended right into the family.  Perhaps I’ll be a little more resentful of taking him potty when it’s 20 below outside, but for now I’m okay with it.  Kender gets more comfortable with A’Kos every week.  He’s finally learning to enjoy throwing things for A’Kos to fetch.  He particularly likes throwing A’Kos’ hard bones because they make really neat noises on the hardwood floors!  Today I even got Kender to give A’Kos his treat at the end of our daily practice track, which was a big step forward for Kender.

A'Kos with Liam, Jarod, Kender, and Caitlin, taking a bench break while out on a hike

A’Kos with Liam, Jarod, Kender, and Caitlin, taking a bench break while out on a hike

For the most part, having A’Kos along makes getting out and about with Kender much easier than it used to be.  When I need to fill out forms or spend time at the checkout, Kender will tend to lie down on A’Kos at my feet while waiting.  Where before we had to drag Kender by the hand or carry him (a mightier task by the month!), now all we have to do is say, “Grab your handle, Kender!”  Kender grabs his handle and we can take off at a normal walking pace.  Normal walking pace…that in itself is amazing.  Also, with the mobility harness Kender doesn’t need to use his cane.  We didn’t realize what a relief it would be for Kender to not have his cane in hand when he has a meltdown!

Kender and A'Kos exploring the new light exhibit at Impression 5

Kender and A’Kos exploring the new light exhibit at Impression 5

Last week, we went to the local children’s museum.  Although I used to be a regular visitor to children’s museums when the other kids were little, we haven’t made many trips with Kender.  He would get fixated on just one spot, play too roughly or inappropriately, scream when we tried to redirect him or leave.  With A’Kos, I could lead Kender from exhibit to exhibit.  Anytime I saw him getting stuck, I’d just say, “Come get your handle!” and we’d be off to the next thing.

When we go to the park, A’Kos waits patiently while Kender plays on the equipment, frequently getting plenty of attention from the other children.  If Kender starts to wander off, we go get him and bring him back.  When it’s time to go, again all we have to do is go to Kender and say, “Get your handle!”  No kicking and screaming.  Well, not much, anyway; no more than any other kid!

Some things are still challenging.  Kender has very strong memories of the place where we’ve been holding our church rituals and the people involved.  This makes A’Kos a less effective anchor and distraction.  Kender is accustomed to wandering about during ritual and playing with lights and fans, or being held by one of his sisters while I work as a priestess.  At Litha, he didn’t want to sit with A’Kos while we were drumming.  At our Full Moon this month, he kept asking for Tamara whenever I would pick him up or steer him away from the altar.  Since we only hold ritual once a month right now, it’s going to take a while to work out how the Kender-A’Kos team needs to work on circle.  We’re very grateful for our understanding and forgiving church family while we work through it!

Aside from A’Kos’ trained abilities for tethering and tracking, having him available as a companion is making a huge difference in Kender’s development.  Someone in our church who only sees Kender every couple of months came up to me this weekend and asked when Kender started talking, because they’d never seen/heard him talk before.  Kender has started talking about things that recently happened, things that are about to happen, and things that other people are doing.  He’s saying hello, goodbye, and thank you, appropriately and with names.  He sat in the living room with us to watch a movie when the girls had a sleepover.  Tonight, he asked for more dinner after eating what was on his plate, handed me his plate, and said thank you when I brought it back. (You’d have to have eaten dinner with us recently to understand how huge that was!)  It’s wonderful to see so much growth in the areas of communication, social interaction, and abstract thought, things that I’ve been waiting to see for so long.

Next week, Kender will be six years old.  I think his seventh year is going to be the most amazing yet!

Graduation

The last day of class finally arrived on Friday.  No more lessons, no more lectures, no more getting up early to track Kender through the mud.  We volunteered for the last available test slot, so we didn’t even have to check out of the hotel early.  At breakfast, A’Kos and Kender cuddled up even more than they had been.

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A’Kos curling up around Kender

We were able to sit around the hotel for an hour or so after we got packed up, and then it was off to the mall for our public access test.  Although there is no national certification for service dogs, 4 Paws has a pretty thorough test they put everybody through before issuing their own certifications.  For the first part of the test, A’Kos needed to demonstrate that he could sit quietly in the Food Court without trying to get food off the floor or otherwise being disruptive.  We got lunch for ourselves during this portion, and I think A’Kos just went to sleep!

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A’Kos sleeping through his public access test

For the rest of the test, Brian walked A’Kos through the mall, essentially showing that A’Kos was fully under control the entire time.  The kinds of skills he needed to demonstrate were passing temptations without breaking the “close” position, remaining sitting or down if his leash was dropped or passed to a stranger, coming when called, and generally maintaining any command he was given.  At the end of the test, Jessa came out to watch Brian load A’Kos into the car.  We passed!

After the test, we went back to 4 Paws for paperwork and graduation.  The trainers and handlers at 4 Paws went through and gave all the dogs baths for going home.  We received A’Kos’ medical history, a contract with 4 Paws, his collar and tags, next month’s flea, tick, and heartworm medication, some antibiotics to prevent him from bringing the Giardia home, patches that we can sew onto a service vest or anything else we want, identification cards to keep with us when we are out in public, a 4 Paws bandanna, and a gift card to PetSmart.

Lots of people come to graduation: breeders, other 4 Paws clients, volunteers who foster and socialize the dogs, and even Junior Miss Ohio was there for our class.  The building became more and more crowded, making it hard to keep track of Kender and A’Kos as I was expected to pay attention and sign paperwork.  Kender really wanted to leave and kept throwing fits.  Sometimes he would go and play with the toys in the play area, but if we tried to make him sit with us he went berserk.  Brian eventually had to take him outside for a walk once we got our graduation pictures taken.

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Graduation! with a fussy Kender and Ghost Dog with glowing green eyes

Kender’s two student volunteer fosters came, along with one girls’ mother.  It was so sweet to see A’Kos with them.  He remembered them and wanted to play and cuddle, wet as he still was from his bath.  I’m a terrible person and can’t remember all their names, but I took pictures.

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After all the pictures were taken, we got to sign Kender and A’Kos on the graduation banner, with all the other graduates of 4 Paws.

We left as quickly as we could, considering all the goodbyes that needed to be said to our classmates and the staff.  We finally hit the road around 5pm, and we got home around 11pm after traffic jams and a stop for dinner.  A’Kos was very excited to come into our home, sniffing every corner twice.  Any bits of cat food that were spilt are now gone, the bunny has been properly intimidated, every rawhide bone we still had on the floor has been dug up and taken away (there were six of them!), and A’Kos claimed the lovesac in the living room for a dog bed.

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A’Kos thinks the lovesac is pretty comfy!

The other kids were surprised to see that A’Kos was bigger than they expected.  We showed them how he can do “nuzzle” and “kisses.”  When Caitlin asked what “kisses” was for, we asked her what she would do if we sent A’Kos to “kisses” her when she started stomping and slamming things.  Then I told her she’d been warned!

Kender is still A’Kos’ boy, though.

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Home at last!

Practice, Practice, Practice

Most of this week has been practice, review, doing the same things over and over.  We do an outdoor tracking session every day, followed by time at 4 Paws for lecture, practice, and questions.  Afternoons are either at the mall for practice, questions, and indoor tracking, or else more lecture and review at 4 Paws.  It doesn’t feel quite so much like our heads are getting stuffed with information.  Tracking is becoming more natural as we learn to read A’Kos, and A’Kos and Kender continue to bond.  It’s really amazing now to watch A’Kos whimper as Kender takes off to hide, and then pull and pull at the leash as he tracks down his boy.  We get comments from strangers almost every day about how adorable Kender and A’Kos are together.

The park we have been using for most of our outdoor tracks is big and open, full of every kind of ballfield.  Which explains the signs, I suppose.

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CAUTION: FLYING OBJECTS, PARK AT OWN RISK

The other day, Kender was very upset about waiting.  We usually end up being near the last of our group, which means we sit around in the parking lot for an hour or more, chatting and watching the other dogs head off.  That day we let Kender “hide” on the swingset, which made him very happy when it was time to hide…and very unhappy when it was time to leave!

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Kender running away to swing is a pretty realistic track!

The past few days of outdoor tracking have been eye-opening, as both Brian and I have learned to read A’Kos and recognize when he has the scent and when he doesn’t.  A lot of variables affect how A’Kos finds Kender.  If the wind is blowing, A’Kos will follow a scent path downwind of the actual path Kender took.  A’Kos may follow scent on the ground most of the way and then switch to following scent in the air as he gets close. Different ground surfaces hold scent differently, but he follows it all.

Yesterday afternoon, we had our second session of tracking at the mall.  Kender ran off down a couple of hallways, again a pretty realistic track for that situation.  Unfortunately we had to wait for an hour again for our turn, but Kender took it much better, crashing on A’Kos for most of the wait.  Tracking in the mall is very different from tracking outside.  There isn’t as much airflow to blow the scent around, and there are lots of possible false trails.  We really have to led the dogs lead the way, allowing them to investigate all the possibilities without inadvertently encouraging them to take the wrong path.  We also found out that the scent A’Kos follows doesn’t have to match the path Kender took, especially in a relatively open area.  A’Kos will smell Kender around either end of a divider much as I can follow my nose around either end to a brewing coffee machine.

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Waiting for our turn at mall tracking.

One of our afternoon lecture sessions covered again the details and intricacies of tracking.  We will have to continue to practice daily for some time, taking the dogs through every possible area we can think of that Kender might take off through.  The more familiar A’Kos is with the area, the less he will be distracted by cows, machinery, other dogs and people, things like that which can throw him off his track.  We studied diagrams of various tracking scenarios, and discussed blind tracks, where we have no idea where Kender may be.  In that case, we would need to start from the last place Kender was seen and allow A’Kos to cast about for the freshest scent trail to follow.

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How to find the trail when you don't know which exit Kender used

Tuesday afternoon I got my shipment from Shari’s Berries.  I won a gift certificate from Free Talk Live before Mother’s Day, and I thought having them delivered to the hotel would be a nice treat.  And was it ever!  They showed up just in time to share with another mom in our class who was having a birthday, and I’ve enjoyed some every day.  I didn’t fully realize how much two dozen strawberries from Shari’s Berries would be!

Last night we had some serious weather roll through the area.   Originally it looked like all the storms would just miss us, but as we stopped by Kroger for some last minute things, I saw some amazing clouds forming up.  I ended up getting several videos as a wall cloud started to form up and then dissipated almost right above us.

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Yes, that round area was absolutely rotating!

No tornadoes actually touched down in our area, despite the rotation in the clouds and the sirens that kept going off at the nearby air base.  It rained and rained and rained, though, enough to drench us as we ran into our hotel.  It rained so hard that houses were already getting flooded yesterday evening, and by this afternoon more rainwater had come into the area and caused that park we’ve been tracking in to flood.  The sun always come out after the storm, though, and last night was no exception.

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Sunset catches the clouds left behind by a fierce storm

This afternoon’s lecture was all about going home.  We learned about how the dogs’ microchips work and where they are located.  We selected collars to hang all of A’Kos’ tags from, and found out that we do not in fact have to pay for a license for him in Michigan. We learned how much detail is in the medical records we will receive tomorrow, and about how heartworm medicine works and what vaccine boosters would be needed when. (The dogs are from various litters and so are not all the same age or on the same vaccination schedule.) We saw a copy of the test form that the trainers will use for our public access test tomorrow, which proves that A’Kos is well-behaved in public and fully under our control.  We learned that the medicine the dogs have been taking this week is to treat any possible Giardia infections so that the organism doesn’t go home with us.  We went over in detail how to travel with the dogs, especially for those families who will be flying home. (We live closer than anybody with only a 4-hour drive.) Finally, we learned techniques for introducing our dogs to our other pets, our friends’ pets, our kids’ schools, all of those little details that probably many of us hadn’t thought much about.  Just when we thought the learning was over!

But now it is over.  Tomorrow we are scheduled for our public access test starting at noon in the mall.  After that, we will head back to 4 Paws to finish filling out and receiving paperwork, including our official identification cards, rabies tags, all of that.  At 3pm we have a graduation ceremony, and then we will be on the road home!  I can’t believe the day of bringing A’Kos home is finally here!

So Tired!

Everybody is tired right now.  All of us parents are tired and venting to each other online (because we’re often too busy with our children and too tired to actually socialize at breakfast and dinner). Our children are tired and acting out, harder to control, having more seizures, running away more, every problem we are here to ameliorate magnified.  Even our dogs are tired, working all day every day and then practicing at night, stand, sit, down, stand, sit, down, bark, would you humans just shut up already?  Even so, we are all trying our best, from the dogs to the children.

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Falling asleep in class.

This morning’s track went much better than previous ones, I felt.  I could actually tell that A’Kos had Kender’s scent this time, I could recognize the head snaps as he moved in and out of the scent trail.  This makes me feel so much better about the tracking, because I was starting to feel a little stupid, like I was the only one not getting it.  Combined with this afternoon’s work in the mall, I’ve have a couple of clear and successful tracks in a row, and I’m feeling confident that we will have this down by the end of the week.

After tracking, it was back to the training center again for more practice.  We practiced tethering again with Kender this time, and once he realized he was connected he started repeating, “I need some help!”  It reminded me of what Jarod would do going in and out of stores when he was 2 or 3, dropping limp from my hand and then shouting, “Mommy, you’re hurting me! Stop hurting me!” at the top of his lungs.  Hopefully nobody will listen to the boy tethered to his service dog, either.

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Kender still loves A'Kos, even if he hates the tether.

In the afternoon we went back to the mall for another chance to walk about with a trainer to observe us and answer questions.  I walked around the mall with Kender tethered and with Shelby to watch.  Kender and A’Kos walk around really, really well, even up and down stairs.  I did get an important tip as to when A’Kos might need to go potty, so we can avoid more accidents in the future.  Then we practiced several short tracks through the racks at JC Penney.  For indoor tracks, or really anytime when we’re indoors or away from our other tracking equipment, we leave the guide harness on and just move the leash from the gentle leader to the tethering ring.  It would be pretty unwieldy to try and track inside a department store with a 15-foot lead!  A’Kos continued to do well.

We stopped at the pet store to get grooming supplies, then came back to the hotel for the night.  I am beat!

Over the Weekend

I didn’t post last night because it was just a rotten evening.  Everybody was exhausted, and I had some bizarre allergic reaction to I don’t know what that left my eyes crossed and my brain fuzzy, so we just came back to the room and went to bed early.  Friday evening, though, the most amazing thing happened.

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Kender walking with A'Kos for the first time

Because Friday afternoon in the mall was our first public access lesson as a class, Friday night was the first time we could take the dog out in public. It was also the first night our hotel did not provide a free dinner, so we decided to walk over to Taco Bell. Kender grabbed onto the harness on the way over there and fell in love right away. He held on tight all the way there and all the way back after, and he didn’t want to let go when the walk was done! He tripped once on a curb because he hasn’t yet learned how to read the ground through A’Kos the way he can with his cane, but he’s learning.

While we ate dinner that night, a little rain shower moved through just long enough to provide us with a brilliant full arc rainbow. That, combined with the beautiful rainbow and moon sighting I had on the way down here, really makes me feel like the Mother is smiling and cheering on with us.

All the walking in the mall and then to dinner really wore A’Kos out. The dogs have not gotten as much exercise as they would like these past few weeks as they finished their training. There are only so many trainers, and 4 Paws’ current facility has gotten quite crowded. (Plans and funding are underway for a big new facility to be built very soon!) So all the work with obedience training and tracking and walking about with us is more than they’ve been used to. A’Kos better get used to it, though; we tend to be a very walkabout family!

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One worn out doggie!

Yesterday, we got a little sprinkled on during tracking practice but it was much better than previous days. I hid with Kender while Brian followed as Jeremy handled the track. A’Kos still had a hard time identifying the scent, but he did pick it up near the end. This morning at the mall, I hid again while Brian handled the track for the first time officially, and A’Kos dida great job, pulling hard all the way. In the meantime, we’ve done a few short tracks around the hotel, alternating which of us hides with Kender and which holds the leash. I also make sure to grab his leash and play a short “Where’s your boy?!” game with A’Kos whenever Kender wanders off at a play area, always giving A’Kos treats when he “finds” his boy. He is still not the best, but he is steadily improving, and hopefully with enough practice we will soon see A’Kos finding Kender as readily as we watched him find Venus last week.

Back at the training center, we are constantly learning so many new things. Over the weekend, we have learned the “lap”, “over”, “nuzzle”, and “touch” commands, all of which can be used for calming and behavior disruption. “Lap” tells A’Kos to place his head (and maybe a paw) across a lap or other body part while maintaining a “down” position.

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Elayne practicing "lap" with A'Kos

“Over” tells the dog to step over your lap and then lay down across it. This provides weight sensations similar to using weighted vests or blankets, and is a technique I’ve seen used in many photos posted by other families.

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Brian practices "over" with A'Kos

“Nuzzle” tells A’Kos to go stick his nose into your face. He has been trained to do this while the trainer pretends to be a child crying with head in arms, so A’Kos will go stick his nose up under the arms and break the position. “Touch” is similar to “shake”, but he touches the body part pointed to and hold his paw there, providing a distraction.

All four of these commands can be used for behavior disruption and calming, but we will have to train A’Kos to do them for Kender. First, we will need to practice the commands the way the trainers have been, to transfer the command to us. Next, we will practice while pretending to be Kender, imitating whatever behaviors we want A’Kos to disrupt. Finally, we will practice sending A’Kos to a third person pretending to be Kender, imitating the behavior. At that point, A’Kos will go perform the command on Kender when we tell him to, and eventually he will come to associate Kender’s behavior with the command and perform without the command word. It will take some work on our part, and there is no shortcut, but if we can stick with it we will have a pretty powerful tool. We could use “nuzzle” to break Kender out of his turtle position, or “touch” to help avert a meltdown before it really gets going. There are more commands, like “kiss”, that we will be learning later on for the same purpose.

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Practicing "lap" on Kender

Another thing we started working with this weekend is tethering. As you can imagine, almost all of us wanted tethering as one of the primary jobs for our dogs, and we’ve all been anxious to get started. Jeremy explained today that they don’t start it sooner because they don’t want it to disrupt the bond between the dogs and their children. We tether Kender to A’Kos using a special tether custom-designed by 4 Paws for their clients. It is about 3 feet long with about 30% stretch and a screw-lock link at either end. A’Kos gets it clipped onto a D-ring on the back of his harness, under the handle, or in a similar place on the tracking harness (which is what the other families are using full time). The other end we are clipping onto Kender’s Cabela’s vest, which zips and buckles onto him and has four different spots we can hook to. The dogs have all been trained to resist any pulling that comes from the back off their harness, to only pay attention to tugs on their leashes.

Before tethering in public we all practiced in the training center. First we practiced pulling on the dogs while they were in a “down” position, which would be useful when checking out at the store or when standing in circle at ritual. Other parents would come and essentially drag the dogs around by the tethers, just as the children try to do when attached. The dogs all just lay there. A’Kos could be playing dead and win a prize; he didn’t move a muscle! No special training was required for the dogs to do this, so this was more of a demonstration for us parents, one we all enjoyed. Next we practiced having someone pull on the tether while the dogs were walking with us, and we learned how to use the leash to counter a child’s pulling and assist the dog, which did take some practice.

At this morning’s track, all of us tried out our tethers, with varying success. One boy actually did keep dragging his dog across the sidewalk, and they had to put the tether away after only a few minutes. Kender did really well with it, though, after only a few attempts to take the vest off. I feel like the tether will be really helpful when we go places, as Kender lets go of the harness more readily when we stop moving or go through doors. The tether will keep him from wandering off during those moments when he is distracted and Brian or I can’t pay such close attention.

This afternoon was all about health and grooming. How often to brush teeth (twice a week), wash ears (weekly), clip nails (every 3 weeks), brush hair (daily), bathe (every 1-3 weeks). We need to use an undercoat rake, a slicker brush, and a furminator or other deshedding tool to brush A’Kos’ coat. Of course he will need heartworm and flea medicine every month, whatever works and is okayed by our vet. We learned about what toys were safe (Kongs and Nylabones) and unsafe (pretty much anything else), and most importantly why. We learned not to play tug of war or chase with our dogs because it would lead to unsafe behavior when they are working, and we learned how to get A’Kos exercise and allow him to play ball when we have no fence and we can’t use a tie-out or let him off leash outside (use a 50-foot leash hooked to a belt).

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A'Kos watches his boy on the playground

Meanwhile, the bond between A’Kos and Kender continues to grow. A’Kos comes to every meal with us, and Kender gets down and spends time with A’Kos when he is done eating, often without any screaming at all. When we go out, Kender walks with A’Kos holding on to the handle. I had a moment this evening where I fully realized how stressful simply going for a walk with Kender has been, constantly watching for him, always with a hand out to catch him or redirect him. Tonight we walked again to dinner, Brian handling A’Kos and Kender holding onto the harness handle, not even tethered. I walked along beside or behind them, hands in my pockets, chatting with Brian and admiring the scenery. I felt so relaxed, so peaceful. To finally have that peace with my family again for something as simple as a walk is such a precious thing, one I didn’t even expect or realize that I needed until it was there.

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Finally, a real playground!

Out In Public

This morning Kender got up close and personal with A’Kos again.  He stayed up a little late last night and so was grumpy and sleepy today.  A’Kos became a handy cuddle toy after Kender was done with his breakfast.

This morning’s tracking session was wet and rainy, but blessedy not as cold and windy as yesterday.  Brian still waited in the car with Kender until it was our turn, but I enjoyed being outside with A’Kos in the sprinkles.  We jogged together up and down the parking lot to let out some energy, and I got a chance to chat a bit with some parents I hadn’t gotten to know yet.

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A'Kos in his tracking harness

Brian and Kender went out alone this time, without Venus. (We didn’t switch because Brian was concerned about keeping up with A’Kos in the rain his first time out.) Jeremy handled A’Kos. Again we let him watch Kender leave, saying things like, “There goes your Kender!”  Then we took A’Kos behind a van as Brian and Kender finished hiding.  When we came out, even I didn’t know where they were!  A’Kos didn’t not do as well on the track this time. Jeremy says about a third of the dogs are like this the first time they are told to track their child.  We need to keep up the “Where’s your boy!” games in between formal tracks to strengthen the association for A’Kos.  He got his treat and a ball to play with anyway once we got to Kender.  The important thing with tracking practice is to never ever have a failed track.  A’Kos needs to expect a super treat for  finding Kender, so he thinks this is just the best game in the whole world.  That way, he will do his best at playing the game.

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A tired boy and his dog after a long, wet track

Back at the training center we prepared for our first public access outing.  We practice walking with A’Kos at “close” past strange people, other dogs, and even a person carrying a shopping bag filled with pupperoni treats, corrected the dogs until they ignored everything.  We practiced keeping the dogs in “sit” while other people came up to pet them and call them good dog…and while Kender menaced the room with a shopping cart!

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Kender just wants to drive a cart!

We also practiced the “under” command and Jessa discussed the importance of making sure the dogs are out of the way and not likely to get stepped on in places like restaurants.  This is something that Brian and I have noticed other service dog owners often forget about.  A service dog in a “down” should never have to choose between being stepped on by traffic and breaking his command!

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Being used as a pillow while in a "down" is a requirement for this working dog.

As the other families headed out for lunch, Shelby called us aside to give us a wonderful present: a guide dog harness for A’Kos!!  We’d been wondering and hoping that they’d trained A’Kos with this type of harness, and we’d kept our eyes on some we liked online to buy when we got home.  It turns out that 4 Paws planned to offer this harness to us as our one “free” included harness with A’Kos’ equipment!  We broke it in today for out first public outing.  It definitely makes A’Kos stand out in our class a bit.  It’s going to be so nice for Kender because he can hold not only the usual handle, but the sides of the handle and a couple of handholds on the side of the harness.  There’s also a ring on the top that we will use for tethering.  Brian will be able to make use of the handle as well when out and about with A’Kos and Kender.  We’ll be keeping the red strapping harness for tracking, and saving the nice leather guide harness for the rest of our public time with A’Kos.

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Look who got a spiffy new guide harness!

After our practice session, it was time to head to the mall for our first public access outing.

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Kender rides most often with his head on A'Kos now.

We ate lunch in the Food Court, and then we waited for our turn with Jeremy or Shelby next to a play area for Kender to run around.  A’Kos won the blue ribbon by being the first to poop in public.  I wasn’t too upset with him, as his tummy has been a bit upset today. I was just glad that I was fully prepared and able to blow it off as no big deal, nothing like the humiliating experience of taking Blackie out in a pet store years ago.  Brian and I took turns walking around the mall while we waited for our turn.  Lots of folks watched us and commented. I overheard one lady in the Food Court telling her friend all about the local dog training program that always comes to this mall to practice.  Several kids came up to pet the pretty doggie in the play area, and we got to play “Where’s your boy?” a few times when Kender would run out. Brian and I both walked around the mall and up and down the stairs and elevator with Shelby watching how we did, and we both passed.  We are officially allowed to take A’Kos with us wherever we go from now on.

After the short night, the long, wet track, the running, and the mall walking, A’Koos and Kender are both pretty exhausted.  A’Kos is chilling under the table even though we got him some new toys on the way home from the mall, and Kender is just plain whiny.  Sounds like a quiet evening and an early bedtime are in order!