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Canine Trauma

Haven's Quest

By Cheree Heppe

It's late winter in the city. A 911 call goes out and firemen respond to the report of a burning building. Inside, the mother tries to shelter her babies from the fire, although she is well able to save herself. The firemen rescue them all, but homeless, they require shelter.

A local newspaper article features the plight of this canine family and a local veterinarian offers to provide shelter and food. Five weeks later, as the vet finalizes his move to his newly built veterinary hospital, he weans and places the puppies then drops their mother off at the pound.

Despite the best efforts of Bill, the pound administrator, the place is a pestilential hell hole of disease and neglect. Apathy, bureaucracy and politics hinder improvements of conditions and thwart searches for solutions to the serious animal overpopulation at this shelter. Bill knows Lou, my service dog trainer friend and me, and he contacts us from time to time when he thinks he has a likely candidate. Bill phones Lou to say he has a Labrador and a German shepherd dog and invites us to come down and evaluate. Lou calls me and we make arrangements to drive down.

After saying our hellos to Bill, we begin testing and evaluating canine candidates. Finally, the mother is brought out almost as an afterthought. This female is as calm as the calm after great storms, very thin and very thirsty. We speculate she hasn't received water and possibly food consistently in days. I run my hands along her body remarking on the thinness and the umbilical hernia. However, her back and limbs are straight and strong. As I heel her up and back along the dirt road, she seems alert and aware and does not shy from the swing-tap swing-tap of my long white cane. Missing nothing, she allows me to handle her, to put her into sit and down and remains non-reactive around my very civilized German shepherd dog guide as well as Bill's spitfire terrier cross. She also is friendly with my toddler daughter, Tiara.

I decide to take her and Bill makes the administrative arrangements. As I am totally blind, Bill describes the dog to me as a sable or tan animal with black face, erect black ears and tan tail. He speculates she is a German shepherd/collie cross between one and two years of age. Bill finally confides the dog would have been euthanized the next morning because no one wants an intact older bitch. As we prepare to leave, Bill bends down to the dog and says, "See, little one, fairy tales do come true."

We toss out suggestions for names. I decide to call her "Haven," because of her bravery sheltering her puppies from the fire and because of her calm, sweet temperament despite everything that's happened to her.

On the way home, Haven rides on the floor in the cab of the truck while my 90 pound dog guide rides in the enclosed truck bed. It's close quarters in the cab and my daughter keeps squirming and inadvertently kicks Haven in the head. Haven shifts her position, trying to stay out of the way. It's hot and with no air conditioning, we stop to give dogs, kids and moms a break. Haven doesn't like McDonald's fries, but drinks and drinks. She doesn't throw up on the way home, but asks to relieve twice.

Haven's first month consists of recovering from a serious respiratory infection contracted at the pound. She is x-rayed and checked and deemed sound.

Haven starts her second month with rudimentary obedience including retrieval training. The dog recovers and gains weight; however, her training progresses slowly. This dog has a mind like muddy waters, cloudy and hard to fathom with occasional glimpses of crystal clarity. I reflect back along twenty-seven years of dog handling and training, recall how each dog teaches me something, watch for progress and remind myself to build upon success.

I have my daughter to care for and play with and a move to a new home to orchestrate. The new home, spacious and bright, has a lovely front and back yard. Dogs, daughter and I revel in the access to green space and the location between three bus lines makes getting around simpler and faster.

By now it's high summer. My three-year-old daughter attends preschool from 9:00 to noon while Haven continues her lessons around downtown. By her third month with us Haven performs rudimentary guide work and approaches her final retrieval training. At home, Haven starts relaxing and playing with squeaky balls and toys. She guides cautiously, but consistently around pedestrians and stationary obstacles and demonstrates a talent for returning to places we've gone to before. Someone used to seeing me working with my seasoned dog guide approaches me and comments, "That dog doesn't look like she knows what she's doing." "You're right," I answer. "She's being trained and she's new at it."

The season turns toward fall. I initiate traffic work by suddenly placing Haven at "sit" in the street when cars turn corners past us. After three or four of these surprises, Haven begins to slow by herself when cars cross our path. Later, I recruit Lou and her husband Dale to formalize Haven's reactions to vehicles pulling in and out of driveways. We use a bicycle and a car for the necessary close street encounters. It's then time to use natural traffic with assistance from my sighted friend John as a monitor. He walks behind me describing Haven's reactions. Thus, I am able to solidify and broaden Haven's traffic understanding.

I am lucky to have the assistance of Lou and Dale who train service dogs. Willing to learn about dog guide and traffic training, they accept direction and drive traffic effectively. Haven seems surprisingly cool and collected, but the close encounter portion of the traffic work stresses the dog. While first exhibiting correct reactions to natural traffic, inconsistencies then surface in Haven's willingness to work and in her understanding of her traffic obligations. I begin to question whether I have sufficient knowledge and background to diagnose this problem and question whether the dog can demonstrate sufficient intelligent disobedience to work as a dog guide. Haven receives correction for mistakes and praise for correct work, and I await developments.

Haven's education expands to non-routine environments. Tiara and I take the public bus to the Legislative Office Building to hear Justin Dart speak. Cautious but undaunted by unfamiliar surroundings, Haven locates seats for us in the hall. While seeming to ignore other service dogs present, she leads me up to a puppy in training as though she is actually going to the refreshment table. When reprimanded, Haven suddenly recalls the correct destination.

At the Science Museum, my daughter Tiara reacts to the lifelike dinosaur display while Haven seems oblivious to it. We go to a city carnival put on for the children where there are pony rides, petting zoo, face painting booths, balloons and food. Haven walks next to me while I seat Tiara on the pony and hold her in the saddle during the short ride. We visit the giraffe and the Shetland ponies who look for food from our hands. Haven touches noses with the animals and stands calmly beside us waiting for developments. We ride the little diesel train then find our way back to the bus stop and go home.

Because I don't drive, Haven always travels on public transportation. Now she must learn to avoid edges of raised platforms while still retaining willingness to board trains. I start some days of boarding and exiting trains which stop at our station prior to the actual edge avoidance work. The dog treats the trains as a different type of bus and shows no hesitation boarding and disembarking the steep metal stairs.

I make plans to test Haven in New York City and am able to combine dog work with a conference. Lou takes one of her service dog puppies, a six-month-old yellow Labrador female, and we travel by train into Grand Central Station. Haven uses her edge training to good effect, eats her breakfast outside the station and works cautiously but safely during our stay. She shows minimal distraction around the other working dogs at the conference and remains at a down stay when a golden retriever therapy dog unexpectedly comes to visit.

I lose track of Lou in the conference crowd, so I go to lunch with another dog guide owner. We ask people about where to eat and find a nice little place about two blocks away. Haven finds the service counter and locates a seat and settles down while we eat our lunch. Afterwards, Haven successfully retraces the way back to the conference at the Algonquin Hotel.

Halfway through the afternoon, we decide to leave and my acquaintance with the dog guide accompanies us. As Lou and the dog guide owner reach the opposite side of one of the streets, a series of cars and taxis speed between them and me. Haven backs, tries to continue forward but finds our way cut off and backs again. We finally get across and Lou says Haven has gone from green to gold today.

Two days later, I attend a Small Business Administration conference in Boston. From the city bus line, Haven guides me safely through South Station, which is under construction. We take the Boston transit system to the conference and avoid several overgrown tree limbs blocking the sidewalk in two places. I stop to get lunch at a Taco Bell, locate the campus of the business seminar and maneuver inside without incident. At day's end, we retrace our steps, Haven eats her evening meal and relieves herself and we board the bus for home.

Unexpectedly, the bus stops at a restaurant parking lot for some minor repairs. I enter the restaurant bathroom only to encounter an Arabic mother with her small daughter who are just leaving. They sidle hurriedly past us impervious to explanations that dog guides perform valuable services for people; the concept of a good canine citizen seems foreign to them. Finally, my friends meet me at the station, we pick up my daughter and arrive home at last.

Well into fall now, decisions must be made regarding Haven's worthiness to fully accept a guiding occupation. When guiding, Haven works left of center, which I attribute to the frequent presence of Tiara walking at my right side. This dog is very socially correct, showing no anxiety around other animals. She seems indifferent around wheelchair users and blind people using dogs or white canes. When people knock on the door of our home, Haven remains quiet. She requires virtually no control around distractions, gets along with our cat, seems healthy, with a good appetite, and has clean house habits.

However, her traffic work and judgments seem inconclusive. Historically, dogs from rescue backgrounds have done guide work, but statistically this group represents the lowest qualifying numbers. I want to afford Haven the full month's evaluation, but am increasingly concerned about consistency and safety. For two days she grudgingly retrieves her fetch articles then walks unhesitatingly into moving traffic for which she must be strongly corrected.

To bring this traffic matter to some kind of closure, Lou, Dale and I stage one more artificial traffic encounter. Lou expresses interest in taking Haven on if I choose not to finish her as a guide. I'm considering placing Haven with them and taking on a female purebred German shepherd dog and am undecided which choice to make.

A blind internet acquaintance from New Zealand who has trained her own dog guides for thirty years suggests compelling Haven toward natural traffic. When I actively compel the dog into moving natural traffic, Haven backs and resists strongly. It's time for effusive praise, time to see whether Haven generalizes and accepts this crucial responsibility.

Five days prior to month's end, Haven starts showing desirable traffic reactions. She backs and stops appropriately but is overly cautious about street crossings. As time goes on, Haven picks up her pace across streets and retains the stopping and backing response to oncoming or turning traffic.

As is usually the case, the best laid plans often undergo change. The dog who knows everything--my seasoned, reliable German shepherd dog--cannot continue guiding due to health problems. I could choose to medicate her and maybe work her into the ground because the dog works well. But she is not healthy and I want to give my old dog friend a fine retirement. She retires to a friend with a large fenced yard for dogs to run and play in.

On top of this, the placement option for Haven cannot be followed through. This leaves Haven available to continue working here with us. Although I love this quiet, serene dog whose poise and experience continues developing, she lacks seasoning. Taking on a new dog represents uncertainty and I find myself in the unwanted position of shifting from trainer to owner/handler. I remind myself that there are never any guarantees in this life and the thing to do is to go on from here.

It's mid-morning and the winter sun streams strongly through the glass of the locked front storm door. I'm in the computer room typing when Haven trots up and uses her muzzle to urgently shove my hands away from the keyboard. I try resuming my work but Haven pushes my hands away again. Getting up, I think maybe she has to go outside to relieve herself.

"What's the matter, girl, do you have to go outside," I ask? Haven trots purposefully toward the front door. Then I realize I don't hear my daughter. "Tiara, where are you," I call.

Haven stands at the storm door signaling to go out. I listen for a reply and hear Tiara answer from the front porch where she is not allowed to go by herself. Opening the storm door my daughter has managed to unlock, I call her inside. As Tiara steps through the door, Haven turns away with a satisfied swish, swish of her bushy tail to settle back on the front room rug.

Later, with my daughter in preschool, I walk seven blocks to a friend's house to work out a computer glitch. Haven and I fly along and in what seems no time I'm finished and back home.

Finally, on a sunny December morning, I ask a friend to drive me to the veterinarian. After dropping my daughter at school, we arrive at the vet's office and the vet greets us and checks Haven over.

Weight: 68 pounds. Height: 24 1/2 inches at the shoulder. She's young, teeth don't need cleaning. Healthy, he pronounces. Local anesthetic is used and the microchip is implanted. I pick up the heartworm, flea and tick preventative and vitamins. With Haven, now officially my guide, resting in the back of the car, I head home with a feeling of relief and accomplishment.

Haven's apprenticeship has ended and she has come fully into the very special ranks of a very special partnership. We slowly begin moving toward the strong bonds and sure confident work that will make us a successful team. I thank our great God for the ability, opportunity, resources, friends and time given me to exercise the option of owner-training my dog guides and look forward with interest to the life adventures ahead of us.

Copyright 1998 Cheree Heppe.

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