Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Christmas is Here: Day 1 of Service Dog Training

Wow, meeting Elf truly did feel like Christmas morning complete with the anxiety of hoping that your child adores the present that you have picked out for them or that you have interpreted their needs and wants correctly.  Today was exciting, inspiring, draining, and eye-opening.  

Caden was more than ready to go meet Elf this morning after breakfast (I can’t compare our hotel with the other options but I will say that we are thrilled to be staying at Homewood Suites—the suites are roomy, breakfast is great, there is plenty of outdoor space for children and dogs, and thus far the staff has been very accommodating). We weren’t sure about traffic so we left early and used the extra time for a quick Walmart trip. This threw Caden into a bit of a fit because that errand wasn’t on the list we had been reviewing with him for the morning—he actually said but I thought we see Elf!  

Upon arrival at the 4 Paws facility, we were relieved to realize that every other family (there are 8 in the August Angels class) had as many bags and supplies as we did (a bag for Caden’s toys, a bag for miscellaneous stuff we might need, and a small cooler). We were greeted warmly and the woman at the door understood how much Caden wanted/needed to see Elf to make the morning okay.  She walked us over to a row of 8 massive crates and there was Elf in the second crate in the row.  I couldn’t believe he was actually right in front of us and our next journey was about to begin.

Jeremy (the dog trainer extraordinaire who as far as I’m concerned pretty much walks on water) started the class with introductions. When he passed the mike over to Peggy, an intern from Alaska, she quickly introduced herself and passed the mike on. Jeremy mentioned they could talk about themselves and the trainers simply laughed and said Jeremy they want to meet their dogs. And so we did. They brought our dogs out one by one and ELF was the FIRST dog to be brought out!!!! I wish I had words to describe the moment but all I can say is that 2 years of waiting and dreaming and wondering walked towards us with the happiest and sweetest doggy look that I’ve ever seen. Caden actually gave Elf treats. We were encouraged to use treats all throughout the morning to encourage bonding with the dogs. 

If anyone in class had any doubts about the dogs’ training, those doubts were dispelled within 2 hours. One of the dogs started smelling and licking his little boy’s ears. Jeremy stopped and asked about the frequency of the boy’s seizures—turns out the dog was alerting to a child’s seizures that he had just met. Another dog alerted just before lunch and sadly his child also suffered a seizure over lunch break.  Although we didn’t have anything that earth shattering happen, Caden did drop his pacifier during a fall. Elf quickly picked up the pacifier and we thought he was looking for a quick toy but then he dropped the pacifier at our feet and kept picking it up and redropping it until we picked it up. Interestingly he was originally being trained for retrieval and was relying on that training.  

We spent the afternoon working on basic obedience and more bonding with the dogs.  Have I mentioned that Jeremy and the trainers really are amazing?  Jeremy knows not only each dog but has seemingly memorized each child’s video which is no small feat given how many hours of video we each submitted. Elf did so well for both Dan and I although I’m still scared about passing our certification test prior to graduation. I mean the dog even “goes” on command—we take him outside and tell him to potty. I’m trying to figure out if this is a transferable skill; this would shorten our trip back to Minnesota by hours if we didn’t have to stop at every exit because one of the kids needs a restroom and it is usually the same kid who argued he/she didn’t have to go and wouldn’t try at the exit 1 mile back.   And then there’s the sit (stay) and down (stay) commands; can you imagine if the kids would actually stay in their rooms when you told them or would sit down for dinner without anyone running laps around the table?  Did I mention Elf actually goes potty on command? Yea, I’m a little fascinated by that one.

Our dogs stay at the facility tonight and then tomorrow if training goes well, they will return to our hotels with us. The facility has a great fenced yard with play equipment and practice areas that we can use before and after training each day. Indoors there are rooms you can bathe the dogs in as well as a huge playroom with lots of sensory items for the kids. Caden handled today better than I expected although all of the kids were on stim overdrive and unfortunately it seems like each child’s stim was another’s trigger. For example Caden was Mr. Safety reminding each child to hold onto the indoor trampoline’s handle while another was compulsively putting toys away even if it meant taking them from the child who was playing with them. Of course Caden and another child did manage to cooperate enough to switch pacifiers a few times---gotta see if Jeremy has a command to prevent that tomorrow!