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!

Our First Track

Today started out with our first tracking session. Fortunately it had stopped raining, although the ground was sopping wet and the first tracking team accidentally went through a puddle.  We got a handout about tracking procedure and behaviors last night, but it was another thing to see it in action.  I didn’t get very many pictures, and none of A’Kos in action because I was too busy!

First, we put a harness on A’Kos.  Then Brian and Kender start walking off to hide.  Because A’Kos has been trained to track Venus, one of the trainers at 4 Paws, she goes with them, and A’Kos is allowed to watch them walk away.  We hide A’Kos behind a van and distract him as Kender is hidden.  Today Jessa, one of the trainers, handled A’Kos to show me how it is done.  She gets a 16-foot flexi leash out along with a thick leather glove.  (The glove acts as a brake to slow A’Kos down so he doesn’t jerk the leash out of our hands when he hits the end.)  As she hooks the flexi leash and unhooks the regular leash she starts the build up: “Where’s your boy? Where’s your boy? Where’s your boy?” Then she lets him go, paying out the flexi leash through the leather glove. A’Kos makes several circles around us, finally slapping the line taught twice in the general direction of Kender’s trail…and we’re off, running through the sloppy grass, A’Kos making huge bounding strides as the trainer keeps repeating, “Where’s your boy?!” A’Kos never hesitates, around a cone and over a hill and straight for Kender in the trees.  When A’Kos finds Kender, we reward him with a bag of Bil-Jac (his favorite treat) and tons of hugs and praise.

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One of the other dogs watches his girl walk away

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One of the other dogs begins the search for the scent

Over the afternoon, we learn more details about how the tracking works, and we get to hear stories of how tracking has worked for other families.  We’ll be practicing our tracking with Venus and alternating which of us tracks and which of us hides with Kender. By the end of next week, A’Kos should have Kender’s scent down, although blind tracks will be a daily practice task for a long while.  In the meantime, we can practice using, “Where’s your boy?” and taking A’Kos to Kender even if he’s just in the next room.  This conditions the dog to connect that phrase with the act of finding Kender.  Jeremy told us this afternoon about a mom in a training class with a boy named Kenny (I’ll never forget that name now!) who would elope every day, several times a day, straight out the door.  When he did, his mom would shout, “Kenny!!” and go after him…with the dog in tow. After just a few days, Kenny managed to fully escape without anyone seeing where he went. When his mom shouted, “Kenny!!” the dog immediately went after him, through several doors and around several corners to catch up with Kenny in a stairwell just before he got outside.  All of this even though “Kenny” was not his established tracking command and the mom did not get out the tracking equipment for a formal blind track.

I bet I know some moms who can see a use for this trick at Foster!!!

We got to learn all about how the seizure and scent alert dogs work even though A’Kos is not trained for that task.  It was fascinating to hear about how each seizure dog will alert with a different but consistent time window before a seizure, anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours.  Also, that window will usually get wider if the seizure is going to be stronger.  The dogs will often alert on seizures in other people as well, not just their own child.  One family told how their dog had already alerted to a seizure on its first night back in the hotel! Jeremy stressed the importance of keeping a diary so that they can be sure of their dog’s alert window.  Shelby also demonstrated practicing on physical seizure alerts, where the dog alerts to the seizure itself.  One dog in the class has been trained to alert for peanuts, and he discussed handling that alert as well.

During all of the tracking and scenting lectures, Brian and I worked on acclimating A’Kos to Kender’s cane.  Although he was conditioned using a modified golf club, Kender’s cane is different enough to need special treatment. Also, unfortunately, Kender tends to throw his cane around when he gets into a meltdown, and A’Kos was too close to one of these yesterday.  So today, we worked with the cane, tossing treats around it, laying it across A’Kos while he was in a “down”, feeding A’Kos treats while swinging the cane back and forth near him and even toward him.  Sometimes I would just walk up with the cane and give A’Kos a treat with the cane right next to the treat. By the end of the day, we had A’Kos back to pretty much ignoring the cane.  Amazing!

The last thing we learned about was the “come” command.  Jeremy stressed that this command needed to be reserved in use so that it would be effective in emergency situations.  We should never use “come” to bring A’Kos to the vet, to put on his harness, or to give him a bath.  When we practice the “come” command, we should use Bil-Jac so that A’Kos places the highest possible value on obeying this command.  We watched Jeremy practice with his own dog Brody, getting him to come from anywhere in the room as excited as if chasing a ball.  I also noticed how Jeremy dealt with Brody as he was leaving.  On the way from the building to his car, Jeremy never once said, “Come.” Instead he used words like, “Come on,” and “let’s go” and “over here” with Brody’s name.  The name and the excited voice were the important part.  “Come” is special, so Jeremy knows that Brody will always come when called with that word, whether to dodge a car or make it out of a burning house or whatever the urgent need is.

When class was over, Kender and I were dozing on a couch.  A’Kos came over and grabbed a ball right out of my purse, so Brian took him out back to play ball for a bit before leaving.  Boy, does A’Kos love to play ball!  Yesterday and this morning we had trouble getting A’Kos to get into the car.  This afternoon, we just tossed the ball in, and A’Kos went right in after it!  In the hotel he still wants to play ball.  He will go get the ball and bring it to me, dropping it at my feet to get my attention.  If I toss it into the next room, I get to see him bounding away after the ball, happy as anything and completely adorable.

Kender wasn’t as close to A’Kos at dinner tonight as he was last night.  He also spent time with other dogs today, even going up to lean on Brody during the lesson! The bond is still growing, though.  A’Kos is learning to look at me now when Kender fusses, so I can use the disruption commands later on.

Our First Night with A’Kos

Today it was rainy a good chunk of the day, so instead of going outside Kender had to stay in.  He found his favorite riding toy and did laps with that for most of the day.  He snuck off into the back room a couple of times, and he climbed into empty dog kennel several times, but on the whole he seemed much happier than he has been the past few days.

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Jeremy talked a lot more today about how we are going to gradually get the dogs to want to come over to our kids when they are kicking and screaming, or just doing something else we don’t want them to.  First we have to mark our children and the behaviors for the dogs, to make them super appealing.  When Kender screams or kicks, we move right in to give A’Kos treats, especially if he doesn’t move, and we try to lure him closer to Kender with the treats when we can.  When Kender is being good and happy, we encourage him to give A’Kos treats. We get excited with A’Kos whenever Kender comes near, saying, “Look, it’s Kender!” and petting and rubbing him.  When Kender does what we call turtling, where he curls up in a ball on the floor and refuses to respond to anybody, we put treats on his back or side for A’Kos to eat off him.  Sometimes that gets Kender giggling and moving again!

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We worked more on distractions and on walking close.  A’Kos has an extra step to learn with us because we want him to walk on our left side, so that with Brian he is not on Brian’s blind side.  To do this, we are retraining A’Kos to use “close” instead of “heel” to walk on our right.  A’Kos is such a smart dog, he is picking this new command up very quickly, and despite some apprehension from Jeremy he seems to distinguish between “close” and “A’Kos” just fine.  A’Kos is learning very well to stay with us, and successfully ignored treats and balls on the floor and even Jeremy’s own dogs as they bounced and ran through the room after treats Jeremy threw at them.  We dropped his leash and walked away, let other people walk around him, and even took turns stepping over each other’s dogs…and all the while, the dogs stayed where they were given a “down” command until they heard “free”.  It really is amazing to me to see this!

Another command we learned today was “place”. This command goes along with a mutt mat or floor pad that can be rolled up and taken wherever we go.  When we give the “place” command, A’Kos will go to his matt and stay there until he hears “free.”  We can use this at home or while traveling, or at Foster when we are there all day.  4 Paws gave us a first “place” matt for A’Kos, and Kender really likes it.  I’ve even caught him using it as a blanket this evening!

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At the end of the day, it was time to bring A’Kos back to the hotel with us for the first time.  We had to bring back food, bowls, the mutt mat, and The Kennel. (I capitalize that because this thing is so huge I still have trouble with the scale of it, sitting here in this little hotel suite.)  The Kennel was so big we could not get it in the car, so another family who came with a pickup truck offered to carry it and follow us back to our hotel.  Thank goodness!

Although we are not allowed to take A’Kos into public yet, the hotel lobby does not count as “public”, even at mealtimes.  This evening we got to bring A’Kos to dinner with us.  He behaved wonderfully, coming in at “close” and calmly going “down” behind the table, waiting while we got food and ate.  Then, the most amazing thing happened, something that still makes me a little teary hours later.  Usually, when Kender loses interest in his food, he’s done with sitting at the table.  In a restaurant or hotel, that means he’s off and running, out the door or getting into trouble.  When Kender got up from his chair tonight, he wandered over to sit and lie down next to A’Kos, petting him and hugging him and using him for a pillow.  This was so amazing to see, especially since Kender had been showing no interest really in A’Kos at 4 Paws.

After dinner, Kender seemed like a different boy.  He was talkative and cooperative as we went shopping for ponchos, swift to get in and out of his bath, and not fussy when it was time for bed.  We tried putting the mutt mat on top of the bed we got for A’Kos and putting that next to where Kender sleeps on the couch. We put Kender to bed, then gave A’Kos the “place” command.  A while later, I noticed Kender had his hand on A’Kos.  Kender petted him for a while, and I let him feed A’Kos some treats.  When Kender hit A’Kos or pulled his tail, first I gave A’Kos treats, then I would “free” him, at which point Kender would declare A’Kos needed to come lie down!

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Much as I can’t believe how well-behaved these dogs are, I can’t believe this bonding is really truly happening right before my eyes, so fast!

Tomorrow morning bright and early we do our first track, rain or shine. Probably rain–which is why we were shopping for ponchos tonight.

Obedience School

All of the 4 Paws dogs are wonderfully trained.  The training room is full with nearly 20 families, some of them with more than one child, and we all have our dogs out at the same time.  Our dogs spend most of the time at our feet, and two or three teams will be practicing a particular command in the center of the circle.  All day long, the kids and their caregivers are in and out of the room, and there is screaming, throwing, hitting, chasing, kicking, everything.  Today, one child threw a plastic “lava lamp” type of toy across the room, and it shattered right next to one of the dogs out in the middle walking.  No matter what the distraction, these dogs stay where they are.  They may look up, but they never move their bodies until they are explicitly freed, and many of them won’t even look up.

Our biggest objective these first few days is transferring A’Kos bond to us.  Today, we again practiced the basics, adding “potty” to the “sit”, “down”, and “free” we learned yesterday.  The other dogs in the class also added “heel”, but for us this will be an extra step.  Brian is totally blind on his left side, so any person or dog he walks with needs to be on his right or he can’t see them.  Kender is opposite, blind on his right side.  We will be retraining A’Kos to primarily walk with us on our right side, so that he is on Brian’s good side and Kender’s as well.  For today, this meant just practicing a close walk with gentle corrections and lots of encouragement as A’Kos unlearns walking on the left.  Tomorrow, we will add a “Close” command for that position on our right, so that we can retain “Heel” for the left if we need it.

In between working on walking and heel, we all practiced the stay.  4 Paws dogs are taught an implied stay, so they learn to remain in a sit or down position until they are given a “free” command.  Our dogs practiced their staying power while the trainers gave them all kinds of distractions.  In addition to ignoring our kids, the dogs completely ignored bouncing balls, squeaky toys, and even half a bag of Beggin Strips scattered in front of their noses one piece at a time!  All of the dogs are so well-behaved, and they are all quickly learning to see us as their new family.

Although the dogs have been trained to not be frightened or startled when their trainers mimic the behaviors our kids showed on the videos, they still have not met our actual kids before.  We have to work to teach the dogs that our kids are good things to be around, even when they scream and kick.  Jeremy says the best way to do this is to have the kids give their dogs the best-tasting treats, while parents use the dog food.  Today we finally got Kender to give quite a few treats to A’Kos while we repeated his name and “good dog”.  Kender is starting to get the idea a bit, and when he turtles up on the floor I can bring A’Kos over to him and make him smile.

We will have to work even harder to get the dogs comfortable with meltdowns and things.  Whenever a child acts out, we praise the dog and give it treats.  If our child kicks the dog, Jeremy says we should pet the dog with our feet.  Give the dog treats if the child comes and lays on it.  Kender hit A’Kos accidentally with his cane this afternoon; Jeremy suggested putting treats on the cane and letting A’Kos eat them to make the cane a happy thing.

Kender spent most of the day outside today.  Every time we go in the training building, he shouts to go outside, kicks and screams.  Toward the end of the day, as he got more tired, Kender would just turtle or plank in the middle of the training floor.  Hopefully over the next few days we will get better at learning how to use A’Kos to comfort and distract Kender.

I’m going to have to get somebody to take a picture of Kender giving A’Kos a treat tomorrow.  I didn’t really take any pictures today, so here are some more from yesterday:

Meeting A’Kos At Last

Today was amazing and exhausting all in one. I spent half the morning fighting back tears and half the afternoon fighting off Kender.  I have more pictures, but because I am posting from my tablet most of them will have to wait until I can get to a real computer that isn’t painfully slow at inserting pictures!

We got up early and had breakfast in the hotel lobby, where we met some of the other families in our class for the first time.  Something about seeing the other families with their children so much like Kender makes me feel a little less alone in the world. We really haven’t spent a lot of time around other autistic kids, and I didn’t realize how much I needed to see that.  I wonder if the other parents felt the same way. There are 18 families in our class, I think, and all of the kids have at least some level of spectrum issues.  At breakfast we met a bouncy little girl who was too grumpy to sit and eat breakfast…just like Kender.

The hotel provides a fabulous spread.  Getting all our breakfasts and more than half of our dinners cooked for free makes all of this so much easier, and the hotel does a lot of work with 4 Paws families so they are accustomed to our special kids in their dining area.  In fact, everything about this hotel is wonderful…except the in-room coffee.  The lobby has coffee all day long, it’s a quick walk across the courtyard, and it’s delicious coffee.  The coffeepot in the room is only a 4-cup pot, though, and they only give you a single pod for it.  That’s fine, we’ll have an eye-opener and then go fetch, but I want to share because if I had known ahead of time, I would have brought our Keurig, or even a French press or a moka pot.

Every time I stopped to think about what we were doing and where we were going, I started to choke up.  Kender showed some of that secret understanding he has, where he shows how much more he knows and understands than he is telling.  When we finally had teeth brushed, shoes on, canes ready, balls and treat pouches in the bag, he was up and out the door and into the car like he knew exactly what was going on even though he’s never really shown any enthusiasm about A’Kos.

We got to 4 Paws a little after 9:30, and I choked up again pulling into the driveway. And meeting Kelly, who worked with us on our fundraising efforts. And signing in and putting Kender’s name down on the sheet as “companion.” And seeing all the kennels lined up for us. And finding A’Kos’ kennel. And putting my fingers up to the door and saying Hello for the first time.

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Kender wasn’t really interested, although we tried to get him to come over and say hello.  Meanwhile the little girl we’d met at breakfast was running up to her dog’s kennel, saying his name and asking when he could come out. That was hard.

We met families from South Dakota and Chicago and even Ft. Worth. We worried about the family from the west coast who had missed their flight and were still stuck on the highway hours away as class was starting.  There were coffee and bagels waiting for us, and Kender found a nice circuit he could walk around the training area and the bagels and the kennels, the crowds parting before the mobility cane like they always do.

Jeremy, the head trainer, introduced himself and some of the staff, including Shelby, who seems to have done the most work with our dogs. He passed the mic around the room so each family could introduce themselves a bit. The kids were wandering around a bit, especially Kender and his new “friend” who seems so much like him.  Finally, the moment we were all waiting for came.  Time for the dogs to come out!  They got Breakfast Girl’s dog first, and from the layout of the kennels we thought A’Kos would be near to the end. No matter; I choked up again watching that bouncy girl get to hug and pet her dog.

And then they called for A’Kos to come out! The second dog!  I wasn’t ready!  Kender was still wandering over by the other side of the room! Shelby brought us one of the two bags of dog food that were on his kennel, labeled with his name.

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And there he was, so hungry and ready for his food!  I tried to dole it out a little at a time, to make it last, but then I discovered…

DOG SLOBBER!!!!!!!

Oh. My. Gods. I never considered this, never ever ever. I never had a big dog before. I grew up around dachshunds. Every piece of food I gave A’Kos got licked out of my hand, snuffled, garbled, SLOBBERED! And the more he ate, the worse it got! Slimy, slimy, slimy!

Yes, I have some sensory issues.

There’s the Fair Warning to you. Big dogs come with slobber and slime.  It got better as the day went on, and I was only giving him one piece every so often instead of a whole meal by hand. Still… Dog Slobber. *sigh*

About halfway through the bag, she asked if she could hand us his leash, and there we were, just us and A’Kos.

Brian went to get Kender, and we coaxed Kender into letting A’Kos take a couple pieces of food out of his hand, but it didn’t last long before Kender was headed back toward his new favorite riding toy. We brought A’Kos over to Kender then to say hello, but Kender still was not impressed. So Brian took A’Kos back over to our chairs to play a bit while I watched Kender.  Kender kept asking to go outside, so I finally asked somebody to show us where the playground was. We were the first to escape.

The playground area was really nice.  There is a big paved area with a basketball hoop and a ton of trikes and power wheels and things, two playsets with slides and climbing, a swingset with wonderful plank swings, a roofed area with picnic tables and chairs, and even a trampoline.  After planking a bit in the grass and enjoying the quiet, Kender spent the rest of the morning swinging and pushing a power wheels toy around. Brian brought A’Kos out to say hello again, and then it was time for lunch.

There is no shortage of anything around here.  Restaurants of every kind everywhere, all the grocery and convenience stores, malls, everything.  There is a Starbucks near our hotel and a Tim Hortons near the training facility. For lunch today, we chose Subway, and with breakfast and dinner covered by the hotel we might just be lazy and eat lunch at Subway every day…especially since they were nice enough to give Kender an extra bag of cucumbers and peppers!

The afternoon session was the real beginning of the training program.  Training us, the parents, that is. The dogs are already excellently trained.  It’s the parents who have to figure out how to handle the dogs.  Afternoon session was 3 hours, and all we worked on were “sit”, “free”, and “down”.  We have to practice doing all the commands and give a food treat with every command so that A’Kos will bond with us instead of Shelby and Jeremy.  He is such a good dog. I can get him to sit and down so easily. The problem I had was getting him to stay in down.  The little stinker would roll over to get to a neighboring dog to play with, or he would get up and lie back down in the walkway.  Jeremy said the walkway was the problem.  We happened to pick seats right next to the kennels, so every dog coming out to their family walked past us.  All those dogs are A’Kos’ friends, more so than we are right now, so of course he wanted to play.  I did a lot of practicing “sit” and “down” just getting him back into place and out of the walkway today.  Tomorrow, I will pick a different seat.

Kender was very upset and tired all afternoon.  Brian took him out to the playground for most of it, but kept bringing him in because it was hot and sunny and he was turning a bit pink. Every time Kender came inside, he starting screaming to go back outside, and he threw the most awful fits I’ve ever seen from him, kicking and screaming so hard he was hurting me and scaring A’Kos.  I think being out of his familiar environments is taking a toll on him.  Hopefully that will get better after a few days here.

At the end of the day, we left A’Kos at 4 Paws (Kender wouldn’t even say goodbye) and headed back to the hotel.  We had spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, with complimentary wine and beer (well, Coors Light; can’t have everything). The manager on duty came by and asked about our stay, why were we there, etc., and came by repeatedly to refill our glasses.  Kender ate a ton of breadsticks, which will surprise nobody who goes to Foster with us.  Later we went to Meijer  to pick up a few things, and Kender took several walks around the grounds with Brian.  He’s passed out, now, getting more sleep tonight than he did last night!

After today, I feel a little less sure about bringing A’Kos home. Even though I think I did well with him today, I worry about how I will do with him full time. We’ve known at least one service dog who essentially got untrained by his owner, and I don’t want that to happen with A’Kos.  I worry about my past failures with dogs.  Brian seems even more confident.  He trusts that A’Kos is a good dog and follows commands so well even on our first day with him.

We brought the dog bed we bought for A’Kos down here with us. It is sitting on the floor next to where Kender is sleeping, waiting for him.

Arriving in Ohio

We had a really nice drive down to Ohio. Most of the way, we were accompanied by an absolutely gorgeous rainbow so bright even Brian could see it. When the rainbow went away, I got a view of the almost-full moon out my window in its place.  I think those are wonderful omens for our trip to get Kender’s dog A’kos.

The hotel where we are staying has a full breakfast every day and dinner four days a week. We need to pack a lunch or eat out; tomorrow will likely be fast food since we haven’t been to the store yet.  The suite is smaller than I expected, but I don’t really plan on staying in the room for most of the day.  I look forward to lots of moving around town as we learn how to work with a service dog and see all the local sights.

I can’t believe in less than 12 hours we will have met Kender’s dog! So many months of waiting…it has only seemed real this past week, since we got A’kos’ name and picture, and it still seems a little unbelievable.

Kender is busy playing with every door in the room, including the outside door, flipping all the light switches, pulling the fan chain…

Meet A’Kos!

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This is A’kos’ letter to Kender today:

Hello!  Bet you want to know who I am! That is why I am writing to you!  My name is A’kos. My name is special because I am named after a type of Hawk. I am a member of the Hawke Litter. Hawke is a little boy who earned his angel wings because of seizures. I will work extra hard in my job to make him proud.  Our Dad is Gil, a Golden Retriever and my Mom is Delilah a Labrador Retriever. We are Golden Labs born 5/23/2013 and if you can’t tell by the name I am a boy like you! I was born at 4 Paws and then I went to the prison to spend time with some great inmates using their time in prison to do something good! After that I went to college at WSU and got really smart! Of course I did my advanced training at 4 Paws and now I am all ready to be your new BFF!  Please bring a ball so we can play! Hurry to Ohio! Xoxo A’Kos