Posts Tagged 'Gilbert'

Thoughts about my Future Dog

Last Friday June 22 should have been an idyllic evening. Mom, Dad and I all had uneventful workdays and enjoyed a delicious dinner of shrimp marinated in teriyaki sauce. Them Mom took Dad to pick up his car that had some routine maintenance done, but when he got back, he offered to take me for a walk. I jumped at the chance as it was one of those perfect, cool summer evenings Wisconsinites wait all year for, and sometimes Mom is tired and does not feel like going for a walk, and Dad has so much work to do he cannot take me for a walk and I have to go on the treadmill. Unfortunately, as I have written about in the past, our street is a quiet country road, but my parents don’t think it is a safe road for me to walk by myself. There is a spot known as the hairpin curve where cars cannot see pedestrians and pedestrians cannot see the cars until they are about to run you over. Mom and Dad have almost been run over at other spots too because drivers don’t expect pedestrians and go flying down our street not even watching out for pedestrians.

Gilbert has had a little bit of arthritis since 2014, but in the past year and a half or so, it has become more pronounced. In the early days of his arthritis, he had no problem walking the two miles to Calhoun and back with Dad and me, but last spring, he would start limping on these walks, so we started taking him on shorter walks. This summer, we have developed a routine where Dad and I walk to Calhoun, and then as we are turning around to come back home, Dad calls Mom on his cell phone, and she brings Gilbert and meets up with us. It has been a win-win for everyone. Dad wants to get back to his work rather than have to go back out to take Gilbert and me for another shorter walk, and Mom prefers shorter walks as she is tired by evening. But last Friday night as Dad and I were walking, I was inexplicably overwhelmed by a mixture of sadness and frustration. “This is such a quiet street. I don’t understand why you and Mom won’t let me walk it by myself,” I said. Forgetting about the stories both my parents have told of almost being run over, and a time when Mom had to practically throw Gilbert and me into the ditch, I explained how I could hold Gilbert’s leash and walk him as I would a pet dog, and shoreline the grass on the left side of the street with my cane to eliminate the danger of Gilbert drifting to the middle of the street without me noticing as has happened in the past. Dad sighed in frustration himself and said, “we live just a short drive from tons of nice park trails where you wouldn’t have to worry about cars, but you never want to get in the car and use them.” He has a point. I will go to one of these trails on a Saturday every now and then, but it is so stupid and frustrating to me that we have to drive somewhere to take a walk. To me, it takes something that should be simple and turns it into a chore. In addition, while it is true that I don’t have to worry about cars on these trails, the trails aren’t completely stress free either. A lot of people walk their pet dogs on these trails, and while Gilbert is an amazing guide dog in all other situations, he has always had a bad habit of going bonkers when he sees other dogs, something I have never figured out how to break him of completely. And then you’ve got crazy bikers who think the park trail is a racetrack and come flying out of the middle of nowhere, and not wanting to slow down, they shout “left!” and there is this split second where neither my parents or I are sure if they want me to move to the left or if they want to go around me and want me to move to the middle. At the last moment, we always figure out what to do and I have never been run over by a biker, but that split second of panic is aggravating. Bikers are allowed on the trails we use, but these trails are meant to be strolling trails, or trails where little children can safely ride their bikes. If these crazy bikers want a trail where they can fly, my parents said there are hundreds of miles of bike trails in the country for this, so my dad and I have decided we will not feel intimidated by these bikers this year when we use the trails. If a biker tries to intimidate us, we have decided we will stay our course and force them to slow down. If I could walk right out the door of the house and be on a walking trail, I would be more than happy to put up with the annoyances of other dogs and these crazy bikers. The joy of being able to go for a walk independently would be worth it. But the way I look at it is since for the time being, neither the park trail nor our street are completely peaceful and neither allow me to feel independent as my parents have to drive me to the trail, I prefer to just walk on our street.

When Mom met up with us and I explained how restless I was feeling, she thought maybe I had become too much of a homebody and just needed a vacation. No, a crappy night’s sleep, a gross hotel breakfast, and a complete loss of independence was definitely not the solution I was going for. I love our quiet, off-the-beaten-track neighborhood, and until that night, the fact that there were no sidewalks or safe trails for me to walk independently had been in the mildly inconvenient and annoying category of my mind. But last Friday night, by the time we got home, I was so enraged by the inability to travel independently where we live that I was in tears. And then it occurred to me that this was the weekend the program that trained Gilbert was holding Jog for Guide Dogs, the fundraiser where I met Gilbert ten years before. Remembering some psychology from the communication courses I took in college, it occurred to me that what I expressed outwardly as anger over where we lived was actually just sadness as it struck me how old Gilbert is now. He will likely need to retire soon. He can still go to work with me, but his stiffness is very apparent now and he cannot walk to Calhoun and back with Dad and me like he used to. And his retirement and inevitable passing will also mark the end of an era. Ten years ago, I was young and full of dreams and ambitions. I couldn’t be as independent as I had hoped because the college dorms were just too stressful for both of us, and little did we know that the sidewalks we had practiced so well would be torn up by construction equipment the first week of school. So Mom or Dad would drive me to school, but Gilbert and I still cruised all over campus independently. I felt especially blessed to have him on a frequently used route through a tunnel full of twists and turns that went from the technology center where I had several night classes and study sessions, to the main campus center which included the dining room. I would get hopelessly lost when I tried to do this route with my cane, but he breezed through this tunnel with such grace. I am at peace with my current job, and it is a perfect job for Gilbert’s age as there is hardly any walking. Every Spring since 2015, the Guide Dog trainer (a different person than the one who trained Gilbert) gives me a call to discuss how Gilbert and I are doing. This trainer is extremely compassionate and back in 2015, he told me that while he knew of a guide dog that worked until he was fourteen years old, the average retirement age for guide dogs is nine years old. He wanted me to be emotionally prepared for the reality that Gilbert will eventually need to retire. But he sees nothing wrong with me continuing to work Gilbert even with his arthritis since my job doesn’t require him to walk a lot. Both last year and this year, we considered retiring Gilbert and training with a new guide dog, but the trainer thought, understandably that my current job would not provide enough physical activity for a young dog. This year, I mentioned that my parents were eventually planning to move to a smaller, lower-maintenance house and one thing they were going to prioritize when deciding where to move was a safe location where I could step out the door and go for a walk independently. In my mind, I was thinking along the lines of a long peaceful nature path, but the dog trainer hinted that ideally I should try to find an urban setting where I can learn routes to restaurants or stores. I didn’t tell the dog trainer this, but after we hung up from this call, it occurred to me that I didn’t really want to live in an urban setting. There are very few restaurants I trust given my Celiac Disease, and while I suppose I should know how to get to a grocery store in the event of an emergency, when my parents are no longer able to handle grocery shopping, I plan to join the modern age and order all my groceries online and have them delivered. Why struggle trying to maneuver heavy grocery bags and a dog when even sighted people are increasingly having their groceries delivered? I felt safe crossing the streets of my college campus because my college campus was in a smaller city where the streets weren’t terribly busy, and the streets had those beeping crossing lights for the blind. But given that I grew up in a suburban setting, busier streets, especially if they don’t have the beeping lights, are just too intimidating for me. So my parents and I have come to the decision that when they are no longer able to drive me to work, there is no reason for me to navigate bus routes and busy streets in the age of Uber and Lyft. I do concede that I will need to live a little closer to an urban center than where we live now because where we live now is so off-the-beaten-track that cab service costs a fortune. I researched the cost of having a cab take me to work and back in January 2016 when my mom had to go to New York for a few weeks to help my sister who had just had surgery, and found out that I would essentially have to pay two days worth of my wages for every day of cab service. Fortunately, my dad was able to adjust his schedule with another co-worker and drive me to work in the morning, and my brother who lived with us at that time was able to pick me up in the afternoon. So I recognize that eventually, I will have to live closer to the city where cab fare is more reasonable, but I still want a quiet neighborhood where you can open the windows in the spring and hear birds, not a constant flow of cars and trucks. But last Friday, it occurred to me that the consequence of these lifestyle choices might be that once Gilbert retires, I may never hold the handle of a guide dog harness again.

It costs over $20,000 to train a guide dog. Since no one would be able to afford a guide dog on his/her own, guide dog programs, with the help of generous donors, provide guide dogs to blind people free of charge. But since these schools are accountable to donors, they all require verification that the person would really utilize a guide dog. Each program enquires about a candidate’s lifestyle, daily routine, and living situation and requires that candidates are independent and confident cane users before they will match them with a guide dog. Gilbert had a productive career through 2014. He was with me as I pursued my Bachelor’s Degree at Carroll University, did an internship at the Milwaukee Public Library which also had whindy hallways I would have gotten lost in without him, and earned my Paralegal certificate at a technical college in downtown Milwaukee. By 2015 when I landed the job at the law firm where I still work today, he was showing signs of arthritis so the timing was perfect. My parents thought I might have been too humble when talking to the guide dog trainer, but I can see where the program is coming from. Since so much time and expense goes into training a guide dog, it makes sense to prioritize the blind person who lives independently and would benefit from a dog to navigate bus routes and cross busy streets to get to work each day over the person who gets driven to work at a very small office that is easy to navigate with my cane when Gilbert is sick, and would mostly use the dog for recreational walks on park trails, church and maybe the occasional outing with family and friends. I am the kind of person who has delayed emotional reactions to some things. I am the kind of person who doesn’t cry during a funeral, but a couple hours after it has ended. So when the dog trainer indicated back in May that I wouldn’t be eligible to train with a new guide dog until my lifestyle changed and I lived in a more urban setting, I was fine with this reality. But it wasn’t until June 22 that the sad implications of this hit me full-force.

Another realization that has struck me recently is that I get the impression that my parents want a break from pets. When Snickers passed away, my parents both indicated they did not want another cat, at least not for awhile. Mom wanted a break from washing cat hair off of every counter and table, and wanted to find out if some of our allergies cleared up by no longer having cat dander in the house. I was fine with this as Snickers was one-of-a-kind and it would be hard for any new kitten to measure up. And I still had Gilbert who was especially sweet after Snickers’ passing. I think he sensed I was sad, and maybe he was sad too because they had a lot of fun times together. But Snickers’ passing brought into sharper focus the realization that Gilbert is getting old too. Dad loved our German Shepherd, Indy who passed away when I was in seventh grade, but after she passed away, he wanted our next dog to be my guide dog. I was sad about having to wait so long for a dog, and my sister and I even made the mistake of convincing Mom and Dad to adopt a dog who had behavior problems we couldn’t handle, so we had to return him to the Humane Society. I was devastated for a few days but soon came to terms with it, and I still had Snickers and my brother’s dog Mojo whom we got to dogsit often. My dad has talked half-heartedly about maybe getting a German Shepherd when he retires, but he has also indicated that he wants a break from the responsibility of a dog so we can all travel without having to make arrangements for a dog. They are fully supportive of me working with another guide dog because the dog is my responsibility, and he is not just a frivolous pet but a dog with a job who would travel with us. I have had pets in my life since I was four years old, but it occurred to me that once Gilbert passes away, if the program determines that my lifestyle cannot justify the need for a guide dog, there will be no furry companions in my life.

Even if Gilbert is the only guide dog I ever work with, I had made up my mind that when we move to the house with the walking trail, I would adopt an easy-to-care-for pet dog to hit the trail with, his leash in my left hand and my cane in my right hand. My parents have talked about getting a house with a walk-in basement where I could have even more independence and privacy, so I could confine this dog to my basement area and he wouldn’t bother my parents at all. It wouldn’t be the same as holding a guide dog harness, but at least I would have more companionship on my walks than just a white stick. But on June 22, it struck me how much I wanted to walk park trails independently with a guide dog. That Friday night, Mom and I decided that rather than having her meet up with us Mom would go for a walk with Gilbert and me earlier in the day to the hairpin curve and back every day the weather permitted (Neither Gilbert or I do well when it is over 90 degrees). She would walk behind us and just alert me if Gilbert was drifting to the middle of the road, or rescue us if a car came upon us suddenly. It was wonderful to walk this route together again. The first half of the walk, he does pretty well, keeping to the left side of the road most of the time. On the second half of the walk, Mom and I speculate that he is either tired and loses focus, or just wants to get home so I have to correct him more the second half. But on this first peaceful walk last Saturday morning, I had a revelation.

A few days earlier, I was snooping around Facebook curious about what some old friends were up to as I had gone off the grid for awhile. When I was working full-time, I was so burnt out I didn’t feel like being online after work, and then I heard about all the political nastiness going on. But that day like I said, curiosity got the best of me and I discovered that one of my friends had trained her own guide dog, and she joined another blind friend of mine to start an owner-trained service dog academy to support people in training their own service dog. That day I was impressed, but shrugged it off as something beyond my abilities. But last Saturday, it occurred to me that before dismissing it as something I couldn’t do, I should give it some consideration.

I have been reading articles about owner-trained service dogs all week and plan to read a lot more and talk to people I know who will be honest with me. I recognize that choosing to train your own service dog is not a decision to make lightly. There are advantages and disadvantages to training your own service dog. The biggest advantage is that you can choose the training method that works best for you. When I received Gilbert, I had never heard of clicker training or the concept of positive re-enforcement. Gilbert was trained using the “choke collar.” If he obeyed my commands, I was taught to praise him, but if he disobeyed or got distracted by another dog, I was supposed to administer a correction. The dog trainer showed me how if the collar was put on right, it doesn’t choke the dog. He just feels a pinch when you administer a correction. Even when the dog trainer was still working with us, Gilbert got distracted by other dogs a couple times. The trainer would tell me to correct him and I honestly thought I was but Gilbert wouldn’t be fazed by it. So one time, the trainer took the leash from me and gave Gilbert a correction himself. I could tell by the sound that his correction had more strength behind it than I was capable of. I tried to be more forceful but my corrections were never as effective as the corrections administered by the dog trainer, and a couple times my dad. I would love to have my next dog trained according to the positive re-enforcement philosophy, not only because dogs trained this way are happier since they obey out of true eagerness to please rather than out of fear of punishment, but also because this style sounds more compatible with my personality and physical ability.

In traditional training programs, the dogs have passed through many hands before they are matched with a blind person. First they are matched with a puppy raiser, and sometimes are passed around to multiple puppy raisers their first year of life to expose them to many experiences. Then they spend a few months with the guide dog trainer learning formal harness commands, and then they are matched with a blind person. So just when a dog has forged a bond with someone, they are sent to a new person. For this reason I was not surprised when I learned that it can take a year or longer for a guide dog team to really feel as though they are bonded. I realize that formal training programs have to operate this way as these programs would be drastically limited in the number of people they could serve if the guide dog trainer had to raise every puppy himself, but if an owner raised her own guide dog and then just consulted with a trainer when it came time for formal harness training, think how bonded the dog and handler would already be before even putting on the harness for the first time. I would imagine that with this lifelong bond, the guide dog team would have smoother training sessions and the dog would be ready to work at an earlier age. Also although guide dog programs have procedures and reporting requirements for puppy raisers to try and ensure consistency and continuity, it is impossible for the program or the new blind handler to know everything regarding how the puppy was raised. So for example, if the handler is walking through a store one day and the dog won’t go down an aisle where there are small children, a person with a guide dog from a program will not know why the dog is acting this way, but a blind person who raised the dog from puppyhood would remember a specific negative experience involving children and this may make it easier to overcome said issue. On a similar note, by raising your own service dog, the handler gets to set the rules most important to them and make sure they are enforced from the start. For example, if it is very important to a handler that the dog doesn’t get overly excited when he sees other dogs, the handler can enforce right from the start that the dog must wait for handler’s permission before socializing with other dogs. But if handlers in the dog’s past allowed the dog to do things you don’t want them to do, it is a lot more difficult to re-train the dog when he is older.

The final and perhaps most obvious advantage to owner training that I have thought about is that the owner gets to find their own dog. The most common breed used for guide dog work seems to be the Labrador Retriever. Poodles and German Shepherds are also used for guide dog work but there seem to be fewer of these dogs. Most guide dog handlers I know have Labrador Retrievers. I absolutely love Labs. Gilbert’s happy nature and sweet personality makes me smile every day, and as long as he doesn’t spot another dog, especially a potential playmate his size, he has been a fabulous guide dog. Labs are also great for public relations as their friendly disposition means they are adored by almost everyone. But this can also be a disadvantage. In 2008 when I received Gilbert, the program encouraged, and I fully supported the idea of being friendly by letting people pet Gilbert as long as I wasn’t holding the handle of the harness and actually walking with him. I have no regrets about allowing this as Gilbert helped break the ice when starting college and meeting new people, which helped me quickly make new friends. Gilbert could sense who some of my closest friends were and would occasionally get distracted if he saw them while we were walking, but for the most part, this friendliness did not interfere with his work. But now that I am more mature and in the professional world, I would like to experience working with a Poodle or German Shepherd (ideally a Poodle) as these breeds have a less friendly, more aloof disposition that would draw less attention from the public, thus making it easier for both of us to stay focused on getting where we need to be. If I applied for a dog through a program, I could indicate that I would like a Poodle or German Shepherd if possible, but the program has the final say in the breed of dog I receive.

The biggest disadvantage to owner training is that you are largely on your own. Of course in my case, I could receive some support from the owner-trained service dog academy my blind friends started. If I enrolled in this program, I would need to go to Madison once a month for classes, but the rest of the month it would be up to me to make sure the dog was socialized and trained properly. In the early days of training, this would be no different than socializing a typical pet puppy. The challenge will come when I am ready to train the puppy in places where dogs aren’t typically allowed. Puppies-in-training don’t have the same legal protection as fully-trained service dogs and even puppy raisers who volunteer with recognized training programs are advised to ask permission before bringing the puppy into an establishment where dogs aren’t typically allowed. But owner-trainers can have more difficulty securing this permission because they don’t have the rapport of a recognized program behind them. If getting permission from businesses proved too difficult, I could always just use the guide dog only for outdoor walks and places like the Farmers Market where dogs are allowed. But ideally, I would like to be able to have my guide dog at work, church and the occasional outing with family or friends.

Another important disadvantage to consider with owner-training is the financial aspect. In addition to the cost of acquiring a dog from a reputable breeder, I would also have to purchase my own guide dog harness and any other necessary training equipment because all programs I am aware of require that the harness the program provided be returned when the dog retires. In addition, at least for the first dog I owner-train, I would have to pay for the assistance of a freelance guide dog trainer since I have never really trained a pet dog, let alone a service dog from the ground up. If I worked with the Academy my friends started, they would assist me in fundraising, but this would still be a huge financial investment that I would need to pray about and consider carefully.

Training a service dog from the ground up would also require discipline and a huge investment of time. Unfortunately, when college life got demanding, I fell off the wagon in regard to daily obedience sessions with Gilbert. Just like with a New Year’s Resolution, I would resolve to do obedience every day and would be great for a couple weeks, but then would fall off the wagon again. I will never know if some of Gilbert’s minor behavioral problems, even his craziness when he sees other dogs could have been lessened had I been more diligent with this discipline. Now I am doing an obedience session right before Gilbert and I set out for our walk to the hairpin curve. But now that I am ten years wiser than I was when I started working Gilbert, I regret not being more diligent with obedience sessions. So regardless of who trains my next dog, I WILL be diligent from day one and do obedience every day before I allow myself to eat breakfast. But a guide dog trained by a program has already been molded into a well-behaved dog when the blind handler receives him. Thus the daily obedience sessions can be short as the purpose is simply to remind an already good dog that you are the leader. But if I trained my own dog, the training sessions would need to be longer until he is mature and well-behaved, and falling off the wagon of daily discipline with a puppy would have catastrophic consequences. Also, while I worked him in all kinds of weather during college, now that Gilbert has arthritis which is worse in the winter, I don’t have to go out for walks in nasty weather which is fine by me. But for young dogs, daily exercise is crucial. So if I took the leap into owner-training, I would have to just tell myself that even if it is below zero outside, that’s just too bad. I have to suck it up and walk my dog. If I was able to get a dog trained by a program, I could at least take the dog to indoor places for exercise like the mall since he would already be a full-fledged service dog.

Finally, perhaps the biggest disadvantage I have read about with owner-training is that after pouring your heart into training the dog, the dog may need to be “washed out” meaning that the owner realizes the dog is not able to be a service dog, due to a health issue like hip dysplasia or a temperament issue that was missed when the owner selected the dog. Owners often enlist the help of a behaviorist, and they carefully research breeders to reduce the risk of such problems, but still there are no garuntees. The requirements for my dog would be less stringent than a traditional guide dog since the dog wouldn’t have to cross streets or handle stressful urban situations like public transportation, and if the dog didn’t work out as a service dog, he would still be kept as a pet. But it would be emotionally difficult to come to terms with the fact that after all the time and money you invested in training him, he couldn’t be a service dog after all.

Some people say I overthink things, but in a matter as important as this, I think this is a good thing. I plan to do a lot more thinking and talking to people I know who are both for and against owner-training, like a judge listening to both sides of a legal argument. Before making a final decision, I would also volunteer at an animal shelter to build confidence handling other dogs. Any puppy I adopt, especially one I want to train to be my guide dog, would be my responsibility. My goal if I chose to owner-train would be to only ask my parents for help when it came to driving me to the vet or obedience school. But I realize that since I really only have experience handling well-behaved dogs, handling a puppy at this point would be quite a culture shock that I honestly don’t feel ready for at this point. I need to make sure I can confidently handle being nipped, jumped on, peed on, you name It, by other dogs, and would appreciate feedback from staff on things I could do better, feedback I could apply to a puppy. And if the six month commitment is a horrible experience for me, then I will know for sure that I am not equipped for the daunting task of owner-training and will try for a dog trained by a program or just adopt an old, well-behaved trail buddy. Actually even if I do get a program trained dog, I still might volunteer at the animal shelter as gaining confidence never hurt anyone even if the dog will already be well behaved. I might even ask the staff if I can bring the guide dog to work with me so that he would have regular opportunities to practice ignoring all kinds of dogs.I will keep you readers updated on my thought process and what I ultimately choose to do. But if anyone stumbles on this blog who has owner-trained a service dog, feel free to share your thoughts.

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College Graduation Part 2: A Perfect Celebration

Gilbert and me on steps of Rankin Hall

Here we are, both proudly wearing our caps and gowns.

Well readers, although there was anxiety leading up to graduation, there is only one word I can think of to describe the graduation festivities themselves. Perfect.

     Just hours after checking my grades which officially confirmed that I would be graduating, Mom took me to the Almost There Fair. The primary purpose of the fair was to pick up rain tickets, brunch tickets and a packet with the important information on where we were supposed to be and when on the big day, but there was also a class picture and champagne toast with the president of Carroll University, a tradition for every senior class. This fair was at 4:00 that afternoon. The festivities began at 2:00 with a barbecue, outdoor games and a raffle drawing, but I had a little bit of a headache that morning, so I decided to just come for the main event at 4:00. The original plan was for Mom to take me around to the tables to get the information we needed and then leave since I didn’t think to make prior arrangements to meet up with a friend. But to my joy and amazement, Mom, Granny and I had literally just stepped out of the car when one of my best friends saw me! We met through an american history class first semester of my freshman year and enjoyed each other’s company so much that freshman and sophomore years, we would get together for lunch twice a week and occasionally do other things together like ring salvation army bells. She even came to my house to visit me when I had to miss a week of school for surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. But junior and senior year, school requirements were so demanding for both of us that we hardly ever saw each other. She gladly agreed to take me around the fair, so Mom left me with her and we had a great time catching up. Both my friend and I don’t care for champagne, and usually hate standing for pictures, but we didn’t mind watching the others drink the champagne and just enjoying the president’s speech celebrating our accomplishments. We also had such a good time talking and savoring the beautiful weather that day that even the tedium of positioning 600 students for a class picture went fast.

     After this fair, I made a quick trip to the disability services office just to tie up loose ends for some special accommodations being made for me so that commencement would go smoothly, and then out to dinner at a nearby mexican restaurant that is a favorite of college students, especially on Thursday nights which feature discounted margaritas. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t drink, but the food is awesome too. I had two chicken tacos and one beef taco, each topped with guacamole, and of course, more chips than I needed, but hey, college graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime event right? I think that was the most relaxed social function I ever went to because everyone was in a festive mood, brimming with excitement on the cusp of graduation, and since grades were submitted and all the hard work done, the faculty member that went with us no longer felt like a professor, but an equal. We were all adults now! And just when I thought the meal couldn’t get any better, I pulled out the money to pay for my meal but was told that the communication department had set aside money for this celebration, so it was free! The only damper to the event was that we might have liked to stay a little longer to chat, but when we were done eating, the restaurant more-or-less shooed us out. It must have been a busy night and other people wanted our table. But I guess we were about done anyway.

     Even preparation for graduation was festive. Unlike my high school graduation, this time around there was no need to host a bridal shower and a graduation all in one weekend, no one had just moved out of the house leaving it a mess, the weather was beautiful and everyone stayed healthy. Since I wasn’t used to a party free of these complications, I was at first perturbed when Mom did other things unrelated to the party in the days leading up to it like planting flowers and shopping at the mall for a baby gift for my brother-in-law. But she assured me that this time was different. Everything was in place, and there would be plenty of time to set up tables, make sure caps and gowns were ready to go for me (and Gilbert), and order the food with no stress. She was right. With my high school graduation, I remember staying out of the way as Mom frantically ordered food, but this time around, there was so much time the whole family could come along to Costco and pick out food based on free samples! I think I have mentioned in past entries how eating good food is half the fun of parties for our family? This party was no exception as we went all out! For appetizers, we picked out guacamole, salsa, spinach and artichoke dip, cheese spread and crackers and chips for dipping. For the main course, we picked out some wonderfully seasoned pre-cooked chicken and meatballs and a round steak which my brother-in-law who likes to cook made a fajita seasoning for. And let’s not forget about the usual party standards we all love like pasta salad, potato salad, bean salad and my dad’s famous tomatoes seasoned with olive oil and spices, topped with fresh mozzarella cheese! And of course, it was all topped off with a beautiful chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, cream filling, and a crunchy chocolate mortar board on top! A large chunk of this cake is still in the freezer for whenever the mood strikes me and I want to re-live my graduation via the taste of cake. That evening after a delicious pizza from Papa Murphy’s, I helped cut ribbons which Granny curled around napkins which had plastic silverware rolled in them. Mom also found streamers in my school’s colors which she cris-crossed over all the tables and despite not being able to see, I could tell it was beautiful.

     There wasn’t much time for breakfast Sunday morning as I had to be at Carroll in my dress, cap and gown by 9:15 to line up for a Baccalaureate, a fancy name for a prayer service at 10:00. I had my usual oatmeal, but was too excited about the events of the day to be interested in food yet. From the moment I stepped out of the car and heard the festivities of guests already arriving, felt warm sun and a perfect balmy breeze on my face and heard pretty church bells off in the distance, I just knew it would be a glorious day. In the arrangements worked out with the disability services office, I was assigned a student volunteer, who actually ended up being a classmate from public relations, so I knew her. She stayed with me all day and was such a wonderful help to me, getting me everywhere I needed to be that day that I sent her a thank you note with a $50 Target gift card. The funny thing was, she actually graduates next year, but several students walked up to her asking if she was graduating with me. But she said it was fun to be a sort of unofficial participant in my ceremony to get excited for next year. She found my dad and me right away and took over. There was the usual chaos of a faculty member shouting over a din of chattering graduates trying to get us all lined up, but it wasn’t long before we were all lined up and processing in to the auditorium to beautiful organ music. It was a beautiful service with various students leading prayers thanking God for the education and support we received at Carroll and asking Him to bless us wherever our lives lead us in the years to come. Then ironically, a student named Luke read a parable from the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the good samaritan, after which the chaplain gave a sermon encouraging us to think about how at different points in our lives, we resemble all the characters in this parable. Sometimes, we are all like the man beaten and left on the side of the road, and sometimes while we don’t mean to, we get so focused on our own lives that we ignore those in need, but we should all strive to be like the good samaritan as we go about our lives.

After this, the student volunteer and I met with the Dean of Students to orient me to the stage, and then my dad picked me up for brunch held in the main dining room. Brunch wasn’t as relaxed an affair as I hoped it would be because graduates had less than an hour to eat before we needed to line up again for the official ceremony and the line for the brunch buffet was really long, but it was worth the $20 ticket to eat in the dining room one more time as an undergraduate. After brunch it was back to the auditorium to line up, and seemingly in the blink of an eye, the sound of bagpipes announced that commencement had begun.

     Carroll has a proud tradition of having each freshmen class process in to the opening convocation the day before the start of every fall semester and then process out of Carroll with the same bagpipes as seniors. Unfortunately, my start to freshman year was so chaotic what with getting used to Gilbert, transitioning to the dorm and getting trained with new technology that I somehow missed the freshman procession. Mom got me there in time for the main convocation event itself, but somehow the fact that I was supposed to march in this procession got overlooked. But to be honest, given my nervous state at the time, the weight of these four years of hard work ahead of me, and uncertainty about whether Gilbert and I would actually survive to see graduation given our stressful start, I probably would not have enjoyed it. But I didn’t miss this procession, and as the bagpipe sounded and the student volunteer and I processed in, I felt almost euphoric. Ever since the end of my last final exam, people from my parents to the president of Carroll had been saying “you did it! Congratulations!” But it wasn’t until I was actually processing in to the commencement ceremony that it hit me, that yes, “I did it!”

     Unlike high school graduation when roads were washed out from flooding the day before and even during the ceremony, thunder could be heard outside, four years later at college graduation, rain tickets weren’t necessary. It was the most glorious sunny day you could ask for and in fact, the chaplain announced that morning at the baccalaureate that he was informed there was a 0 percent chance of rain!

     Unlike many of my peers, I always love graduation speeches. Yes, they can be long, but if they would quit checking their watches and listen, they can be very fitting opportunities to celebrate the accomplishment of graduating and be inspired to make a difference in the next chapter of life. The speakers at my commencement were excellent. The keynote address was given by Dr. Howard Fuller, a 1962 alumnus of Carroll who has become a nationally renowned advocate for education reform. The speech had light moments as he talked about his athletic involvement at Carroll and how he injured himself playing basketball the day before his commencement but would not allow this injury to keep him from walking across the stage. But he also talked about how America has shifted away from its values like free, quality education for all and protection of the most vulnerable of our society and how as graduates, we should go out in the world to embrace these challenges and make a difference.

     Then the class speaker, elected by the senior class gave his speech. I was actually nominated to be class speaker. Around the middle of February, all graduating seniors got an e-mail inviting them to nominate someone they think would make a good class speaker. I disregarded this e-mail because I didn’t want to be the one to put one of my friends on the spot by nominating them, and because I wasn’t really involved in campus life and always feel like a stuttering nervous wreck when giving oral presentations. I honestly thought that the odds of someone nominating me were as unlikely as the odds of me being elected president of the United States. But a week later, I would come home from class to find an e-mail in my inbox announcing that someone had nominated me!

     Needless to say, since I never considered the possibility of being nominated, I hadn’t considered how I would respond either. After the first reading of the message, I was just speechless. After the second reading, I was elated that someone had that much faith in me to nominate me for such an honor and was tempted to send a reply accepting the nomination right then and there. Then my brother, a voice of reason who came home to visit that day asked me, “are you sure you want that kind of pressure on your graduation?” Maybe he was right. Graduation is supposed to be a day to bask in the glow of being finished with four years of hard work. Would the pressure of delivering a speech that would forever represent the class of 2012 spoil the day? But then again, it might be worse to decline the nomination but then kick myself the rest of my life, wondering if the class would have voted for me if I had accepted. Thus began two days of mental agony as I wrestled these questions to the brink of a headache. The e-mail was sent to me on Tuesday February 28, and we were supposed to accept or decline the nomination by March 2. On the evening of March 1, when I couldn’t stand my indecisiveness any longer, I decided to bite the bullet and accept the nomination. And then I had to figuratively hold my breath for three weeks until the outcome of the class vote was revealed. As crazy as it sounds, when the e-mail said “the class speaker for commencement 2012 will be…Greg Pateras!” I actually breathed a sigh of relief and cheered, realizing I had scored the best outcome of all. I would die an old lady with no regrets and tell my children and grandchildren that I wasn’t a chicken. I didn’t decline the chance at the opportunity of a lifetime. But I would be able to relax on graduation day and leave the pressure and stage fright to someone else.

     But actually, since he studied to be a teacher, a career that requires daily public speaking to children who can be a tough audience, and since he had done a lot of public speaking for student organizations, he was definitely a more qualified speaker than I would have been. Of course, my family members naturally would have loved to hear the speech I would have given. Inspired by Josh Grobin’s performance of Believe on the Polar Express soundtrack, I had a rough outline in my head of a speech on how our childhood and college journeys ended so quickly it was scary, especially given the economic climate we are entering. But as the song says, destinations (and graduations definitely qualify as destinations) are new beginnings and with our Carroll education, we should go forth with confidence that we have everything we need, if we just believe! But I am sure this speech would not have been as beautiful in practice as it sounds in theory, and we all thoroughly enjoyed Greg’s more light-hearted, impromptu speech with no traces of stage fright apparent to me at all.

     And then it was all over but the walk across the stage, such a fleeting moment but one I will always cherish. But unlike most graduation walks which are only remembered by the graduate and friends and family close to that graduate, my walk across the stage was cherished by the whole audience. Remember how earlier in this entry, I casually mentioned the necessity of making sure caps and gowns were ready for Gilbert and me? Yes, that’s right. Gilbert also wore a cap and gown!

     Here’s the story. The manager of the bookstore absolutely loves dogs, and since his adored lab was old and had to be put to sleep right around the time he met Gilbert, Gilbert held a special place in his heart. So every time we went to the bookstore to get the required materials for a new semester of classes, I would allow some time for this manager to pet Gilbert and we had a good time chatting about our dogs. Well, at the end of my junior year, what started as small talk became the early stages of planning for graduation.

     “So what year are you now?” he asked.

     “I’m going to be a senior,” I announced proudly.

     “Hey, does that mean you and Gilbert will be graduating next year?” he asked.

     “Yes, we are!” I said. After we all, including my dad who was with me, exclaimed over how fast my first three years at Carroll had gone, the manager asked in a mischievous voice, “is Gilbert going to wear a cap and gown?” to which Dad and I laughed hysterically. I had already decided that I wouldn’t mind if Gilbert was acknowledged at graduation. But the thought of him wearing a cap and gown was so silly, and awesome we hadn’t thought about it!

     Then the manager proceeded to tell us that a few years ago, the company that supplies the graduation gowns came out with gowns that were so inappropriately revealing that the administration deemed them unacceptable to wear at commencement.

     “I should see if we kept any of them. With a little altering, I’m thinking one of these gowns would fit Gilbert perfectly!”

     So on February 29, I went to a graduation fair to order my cap and gown and five days later over spring break, I took Gilbert to the bookstore to get measured for his! Then on May 8, after finishing my last final exam, Mom and I walked out of the bookstore with an altered cap and gown for Gilbert, stuffed incognito in to an ordinary shopping bag.

     I knew everyone on campus would love it, but even I had no idea the extent to which everyone would love it! Thinking Gilbert might be uncomfortable wearing a cap and gown all day, my parents and I decided that I would be the only one wearing a cap and gown for the baccalaureate service and brunch, and we would put Gilbert’s cap and gown on just in time for the real event, the commencement ceremony. During the final instructions for how to line up at about 12:30, my siblings tried to walk in and discretely pull Gilbert aside to put on his cap and gown. (Since numerous safety pins were required to hold everything in place, there was no way I would have had time to dress him myself).

     “It was kind of hilarious,” my sister recounted laughing after the party, “here the instructor is giving important final instructions for a dignified ceremony and we come in to dress a dog!” In other words, the popular four-legged graduate was clearly drawing more attention than the instructor, as evidenced by the sound of several cameras clicking, giggles and whispers of “aw, so cute!”

     As usual, Gilbert agreed that he was cute too. I think I mentioned in an earlier entry that Gilbert was originally bred to be a show dog, but was instead donated to the guide dog program? Well, Mom noticed a trace of his show dog personality as my volunteer helped us up to the stage to accept our diplomas. As we were walking through the crowd, Mom said he would occasionally turn his head to look at the crowd, just like a human model strutting down the runway!

     Before I knew it, the voice of a faculty member from the biology department boomed, “Allison Michelle Nastoff, magna cum laude!” Realizing in that instant that all of those late nights, big tests and stressful projects had paid off, and I was actually accepting a college diploma cover, an honor which many never see, my face wasn’t big enough for my smile as I graciously extended my hand. But that wasn’t the end of our moment.

     “We would also like to acknowledge Gilbert, who has attended all of the courses required for graduation.”

     The crowd which had applauded enthusiastically but politely for me, erupted as Gilbert was shown his diploma, a giant bone! I know some blind people ask that their dogs not be recognized in commencement ceremonies, and I respect and understand where they are coming from. The dog didn’t have to write any papers or pass any exams after all. But in my view, Gilbert deserved some recognition because as I would tell a blind freelance reporter and former Carroll alumnus who wrote a newspaper story about the event, Gilbert and I grew together through college. As I mentioned in previous entries, I graduated the training program with Gilbert exactly one week before moving in to the college dorm, so we were both scared freshmen in a sense, adjusting to a new environment, and each other. But by senior year, we were a mature, confident team. I also believe that just because Gilbert’s work wasn’t academic didn’t make it any less important and worthy of acknowledgement. He faithfully guided me to class every day, both the beautiful days and days when he had to shake rain water from his fur or lick paws that got rock salt in them. I will also cherish the countless times Gilbert breezed through the twisty turny confusing tunnel that brought me to tears when I had to practice it with my cane senior year of high school. He slept patiently and without complaint through every course I had to sit through, on cold hard floors that surely made him long for his fluffy bed by the couch at home. And most importantly, his adorable, sweet demeanor encouraged peers who may have otherwise felt uncomfortable approaching a blind person, to come over and strike up a conversation with me, thus forging friendships with people I look forward to staying in touch with the rest of my life. I suppose I could have gotten through the nuts and bolts of college–the lectures, the exams and papers–without Gilbert, but it definitely would not have been as rich and rewarding an experience. So as Gilbert and I returned to our seats and I thought of the numerous people who had high-fived and hugged me saying “congratulations! You did it!” I realized it was time to pat Gilbert on the head to tell him “congratulations! We did it!”

     By the way, Tuesday after the ceremony, I discovered that the alumni office put a video of this moment on YouTube! So if you couldn’t be at my graduation and would like to see this precious joyous moment, go to YouTube and search Carroll University commencement 2012. When I searched these terms, it came up as the first result. It is called “Carroll University Commencement 2012 — Gilbert the Guide Dog Receives Honors, Too.”

     In no time flat, the ceremony ended with the singing of Alma Mater, Carroll University’s school song which is also on YouTube, and a final procession and I was officially an alumnus of Carroll University.

     After the ceremony, my siblings and grandmothers headed home to get ready for the party and greet anyone who arrived early, but as I anticipated, Gilbert’s formal recognition made us celebrities and it seemed everyone wanted our picture! My parents also thought it would be nice to have a picture of Gilbert and me standing on the steps of Rankin Hall where I had many classes. Usually I think Gilbert and I both get tired of having pictures taken, but that day, we were all smiles and wags. For my part, I knew that this was such a special sweet day that I wanted to savor it, even by staying longer to take pictures, and for Gilbert’s part, his tail wags any time someone gives him attention!

     The party that evening was the perfect icing on the cake. Unlike the storms that spoiled my high school party, that night was the perfect evening to be on our patio surrounded by family, close friends and a couple special former teachers. And speaking of icing on the cake, it was a delicious cake which I shamelessly accepted a huge piece of, as I wasn’t going to spoil such a special once-in-a-lifetime day by worrying about calories.

     All too soon, the day was over, my dad had to get ready for work and family had to pack up and fly home the next morning. While there was a little bit of that let-down that I talked about in a previous entry, that “I cannot believe it’s all over” empty feeling, it wasn’t as pronounced as it was after my high school graduation. Perhaps it was because exhaustion won out. I had to work much harder to get through the last semester of college than the last semester of high school. Perhaps it was because I have gotten over my anxiety about the future, realizing that life is a river that always has a way of working out. After my high school graduation, my let-down feeling was largely based on anxiety over college. Will I be able to handle the higher expectations, and the absence of an assistant to advocate for me? But now that I had not only survived, but thrived in the beautiful experience of college that I had been so worried about four years before, I woke up the day after graduation more mature and confident that I could handle anything life threw my way.

     But I think the biggest reason for the less pronounced let-down was the realization that graduation wasn’t only the end of an exciting chapter, but the start of a new one, full of possibilities. Even so, if I could leave college freshmen with one piece of advice, it would be the advice I gave a neighbor girl who started her freshmen year at Carroll as I was beginning my senior year and who expressed dread of her first college class scheduled for 7:00 in the morning. College may seem daunting now, but enjoy these college years, because they will go fast!

Slamming in to Obstacles

This entry is for the sixth edition of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. For more information about this carnival and how you can participate, visit http://dogstaracademy.com.

The theme of this carnival is “obstacles.” Many contributors will likely go the figurative route with this theme, but given that I use a guide dog who is trained to navigate me safely around obstacles, I thought I would take a slightly more literal approach to this theme.

     I will never forget the first day of training when the dog trainer, my parents and I sat around our kitchen table for a meeting before Gilbert was brought in to the house, and the dog trainer mentioned that guide dogs, just like humans, are not perfect. Guide dogs can and do stop for curbs and stairs, guide their handlers around obstacles more gracefully than clunking them with a cane, back up quickly if a car pulls in front of them, even practice intelligent disobedience if a handler commands the dog “forward” to cross a street when cars are coming. Guide dogs have been declared heroes too, such as Roselle who calmly guided her handler Michael Hingson out of one of the twin towers on September 11.

     But just like humans, guide dogs have their off days, or just moments when they are not paying attention, slamming their handlers right in to obstacles instead of navigating their handlers safely around them. While I have bragged in past entries about how wonderful and cautious Gilbert is, I will never forget the day I discovered he wasn’t immune from these off moments either.

     It was a cold Tuesday morning in January 2010. Usually at that time, I am in class, but since our college doesn’t begin the spring term until after Martin Luther King Day, I was off and so decided to go to bible study with my mom and grandmother at a nearby nondenominational church. The speaker that day was a pastor who is well-known locally as an excellent speaker, but I forget what he talked about now. It could be that what happened on the way home from hearing this speaker overshadowed that presentation, but it is possible that minor brain damage could have had something to do with it. (smile).

     Gilbert and I walked in to the chapel uneventfully. After the usual admiration of my dog by Mom’s friends, Gilbert sat quietly at my feet through the presentation. Then we followed everyone to a classroom for a small-group discussion, where again, Gilbert was a shining example of the grace, independence and confidence that the sighted public adores in guide dog teams. And then it was time to go home.

     Usually Gilbert and I walk so slow it drives my parents crazy. Dad will run ahead and say “come on! Come on!” Mom will laugh and tell Gilbert he walks like a little old lady. But that day was one of those rare days when Gilbert felt like booking it. Yes, as his handler I could have disciplined him to slow down but since guide dogs are actually supposed to walk faster than Gilbert and I usually do so they stay focused, I decided to trust him and go with it.

     It was one of those moments when all felt right with the world. I had been enriched by an excellent speech and lively discussion and was happily chatting with Mom’s friends as Gilbert and I walked down the hall in perfect step. And then a loud PING resounded through the halls of the church, and Mom thinks the building may have even shook! I wonder if any pastors felt the building shake and briefly wondered if the end of the world had arrived.

     Half a second later, as I and everyone following behind me stood in shocked silence, I realized that PING was the sound of my head hitting a metal pole so hard that despite being totally blind since I was six months old, I understand what sighted people mean now when they talk about seeing stars! I learned that day that some hallways in that church are separated by double doors with a metal pole between them. Usually, Gilbert guides me through them so smoothly I don’t know they were there, but that day, he wasn’t paying attention and while he got through the left side of the door and kept walking, I hit the pole.

     It was one of those moments when I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. My head really hurt, but on the other hand, when you are blind, you tend to develop a dark sense of humor to cope with the challenges. So as I stood there massaging my head, and assuring the alarmed friends of my mom behind me that I was alright and that despite what they just witnessed, Gilbert really is an excellent guide dog most of the time, I think I did both.

     After these several seconds of shock, I rubbed my head one more time and kept walking. On the way out, my mom and grandma wanted to take a few minutes to peruse a christian bookstore operated out of this church. Since this bookstore has narrow aisles and is crowded that time of day, and since a nice ugly shiner was starting to take shape on my forehead, Mom found a chair outside the store for me to wait and some ice to hold on my head. As I sat nursing my head, it occurred to me that amidst all the excitement, I never officially corrected Gilbert or had him re-work that door which is what guide dog handlers are supposed to do when the dog makes a mistake, especially one as egregious as this one was. But it would turn out I didn’t need to.

     In the days following this literal obstacle, I found myself facing an obstacle which I thought I had overcome in training: I found myself lacking trust in him. I found myself wanting to walk with my right hand outstretched in case he ran me in to something else, and my demeanor was nervous and alert, not confident and trusting. A week later when I went to bible study again, I asked Mom to walk ahead of me a little ways and stop us if it looked like Gilbert might run me in to that pole again. But to my astonishment, despite not getting corrected on his mistake, I would discover Gilbert had been shaken up by this incident too. A full week later, he remembered this door, stopped a few feet before it and was afraid to take me through it! After talking to him gently and coaxing him forward, we got through it but he took it very slow, making sure I was well clear of the pole. To this day, despite the fact that it is often months between visits to this church, he still slows down when we come to that door!

     The journey toward overcoming this obstacle of diminished trust and confidence in Gilbert which plowing in to the pole symbolized was bumpy. But in the same way that you often hear how rough patches in a marriage or mountain climbing team make the partnership stronger, the journey to overcome this obstacle has definitely enhanced my partnership with Gilbert. I think it has helped us both be more cognizant of the fact that guide dog teams are called teams for a reason. Neither one of us can be successful without the other pulling his/her weight. It is all too easy to get lulled in to complacency by life and forget this fact. Gilbert didn’t uphold his responsibility to the team when he slammed me in to that pole, but I have also let him down, all too often forgetting that he relies on me to know where I am going and getting flustered when he stops at the intersection of two sidewalks on campus waiting for me to direct him, or when I fall off the wagon of daily obedience time and then wonder why he seems to be getting distracted easily and not obeying me as dutifully as he should.

     Thus, I hope that this experience can provide reassurance to new guide dog teams just beginning their journey, or even seasoned teams lulled in to complacency as I was that slamming in to obstacles, literal, metaphorical or both, is a natural part of any team oriented relationship. No matter how much training a dog or human goes through, neither are perfect. Thus it is unreasonable to expect a service dog team to be perfect all the time. So the next time you do slam in to an obstacle of any kind, don’t lose confidence or view it as a failure. Instead, view it as an opportunity to learn from one another and grow stronger as a team.

Dig Me Up a Piece of that Kit Cat Scat

It was a very cold, rainy, dreary Saturday morning, the kind of day when I’m glad I only have to go outside the couple minutes it takes for me to do my business in the grass. When Mom brings me back in and I shake the water off myself and wag my tail, I already feel as if I have put in a whole day’s work and have earned a day where my only responsibilities are scarfing down the kibble Mom puts in front of me, occupying my dog bed in front of the couch and barking at the occasional animal that enters our property.

     Of course, humans take life too seriously to spend the whole day being lazy, but on Saturdays Mom, Grandma and Grandpa will treat themselves to a little bit of laziness in the early morning hours: Mom sits at the dining room table savoring a bowl of oatmeal and a banana, while Grandma sips coffee and shares the newspaper with Grandpa. I, of course, am snoring in front of the couch.

     But before long, Grandma can be heard taking her last sip of coffee and stretching. Grandpa can be heard yawning and Mom is scraping the last morsels of oatmeal from the bowl. It is that moment when no one wants to admit it yet, but the newspaper has been read, the coffee finished, breakfast completed. It’s time to get to work.

     “So what’s the plan for today?” Grandpa asks at last.

     “I guess I should do some reading for school,” Mom says.

     “I was thinking since it’s too nasty to go out today, this would be the perfect day to work in the basement,” Grandma says.

     “I agree!” Grandpa says.

     I agree too! But I pretend to be sound asleep and oblivious to this conversation, so as not to draw attention to myself that if noticed, would put Grandma, Grandpa and Mom on guard and a rare opportunity would be lost.

     You see, there is a storage room just inside the basement, to the left of the staircase. I happened to be exploring this room shortly after joining this family three years ago and found the most amazing treats! But when I came up from the basement smacking my lips, Grandpa flipped out, yelled at me and put a barricade behind the door that only the cat can get around.

     But I have found with this family that when they have a big project to do, two things happen. They remove barricades so they can easily get from room to room as they are sorting, and they forget about me. In other words, if I play my cards right, I have a very good chance of getting a treat today!

     As I sleep, I am planning. This crime does take careful planning. If I make no noise at all, I can be naughty right under Mom’s nose because she is blind, but Grandma and Grandpa can see. So sneaking down while they are working would be risky. I could maybe sneak down while Grandma and Grandpa are gone putting stuff in the garage, but that might not take long enough for me to enjoy my treat.

     Wait! I’ve got it! They always stop for lunch which takes at least an hour! And they chatter loudly during lunch too! Perfect!

     All morning, I sleep patiently. At noon when Grandma and Grandpa come up chattering happily about all they accomplished, as they open a can of soup and pull the lunch meat out of the fridge, I continue to sleep, all innocent and cute on my bed by the couch.

     “Lunch is ready,” Grandma calls up to Mom, who closes her book with a sigh of relief that she has an excuse to take a break from reading and emerges happily from her room. This means the opportunity is approaching. Still I sleep patiently.

     But it isn’t long before they are seated around the kitchen table, fully immersed in happy conversation. I listen for a few minutes to make sure I don’t hear any mention of words like “dog” or “Gilbert” topics that would increase their awareness of me and could blow my cover. When I was pretty certain they were talking about what they had done in the basement, I very quietly stand up. The time has come. Usually I shake myself to wake up, but not now. Too noisy!

     Quieter than a naughty child, I make my way to the foyer, careful that my claws don’t click on the tiles. Soon I approach the first seven stairs, the most dangerous part. The steps are carpeted so I don’t have to be as mindful of clicking claws, but they are situated where Grandma and Grandpa could potentially glance over and spot me. I’m so excited and nervous all I want to do is run down these stairs, but I’m a big dog. That would make too much noise and I would be busted for sure. So ducking my head and hugging the wall of the staircase, I creep down one step at a time.

     The second flight of stairs down to the basement poses less risk of being spotted, but the steps are made of wood. Mom has very astute hearing. I’d better not get overly confident. I make my way slowly and calmly down these stairs and at last reach the basement where I discovered my theory was correct. They had forgotten about me! The door is wide open!

     Wagging my tail, I enter the room where I find a box of litter, stick my nose in and savor some delicious pieces of, let’s call it kit cat scat!

     When I have dug up all I could find, I run up the stairs unable to suppress the joy over my successful mission.

     “Uh-oh,” Mom says hearing me run up the stairs.

     “What?” Grandma says.

     “Gilbert just came from downstairs,” Mom states.

     There is no need to say anything more. They all know what that means.

     “Did you close the door?” Grandma asks Grandpa.

     He doesn’t even need to answer. The smacking of my lips as I enter the room nonchalantly confirms he didn’t.

     “GILBERT!” they all shout in disgust.

     Then they realize they cannot really punish me now that the deed has already been done. All they can do is sigh and laugh.

     “Well, you’re not allowed to lick me for a few days,” Grandpa says.

     “Why not?” I wonder. “I was just digging for a treat. There is no difference between that and digging through a candy bowl, is there?”

     Apparently there is, according to humans. I don’t understand it. But for months after this infraction, they will diligently check and make sure the barricade is up.

     But us dogs, especially labs like me, are patient and undeterred when it comes to pursuing guilty pleasures like kit cat scat. So I am always listening, watching, waiting. If that door is ever left open again, I’ll be ready.

Students Suspect Preferential Treatment of Blind Student

Shepherdsville, WI. School administrators at Clifford University are investigating student complaints regarding perceived preferential treatment of a blind student by professors. The student, Allison Nastoff, is a senior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a politics minor.

     Typically people at the center of serious investigations like this decline our interview requests, but Nastoff says she has nothing to hide.

     “An investigation isn’t necessary in all honesty,” Nastoff said, “the preferential treatment my peers speak of isn’t perceived. It’s real.”

     Nastoff, who has been blind almost her entire life, said some preferential treatment has always been a part of life.

     “I’ve always received a little bit of special treatment, simply because totally blind people like me are rare, and thus fascinating,” Nastoff said.

     But even she has noticed a sharp increase in preferential treatment since she started college. It just so happened that the start of college coincided with the acquisition of her first guide dog, a yellow lab named Gilbert.

     This issue was first brought to the attention of the administration by Thomas Truman, a student in Nastoff’s history class freshman year.

     “I had to stay up all night finishing a paper and I was exhausted. But being the motivated student that I am, I dragged myself out of bed and made it to the 8am history class. But I inadvertently dozed off and my head slumped onto the desk,” Truman said.

     According to Truman’s official complaint, Dr. Jefferson noticed and reprimanded him for being disrespectful, telling him he shouldn’t come to class if he is too tired to pay attention. But a couple days later when Gilbert snored loudly during a lecture on stagflation, Dr. Jefferson laughed and said affectionately, “I guess Gilbert isn’t interested in stagflation.”

     “How is that fair?” Truman would like to know.

     Since Truman first raised the issue, other students have started to come forward.

     “I sat next to her in an International Relations course last year,” said Hillary Palin.

     Palin recalled one assignment where they all had to write papers about whether or not the United States should send foreign aid to countries with corrupt dictators like Libya, and come up with our own ideas for how the United States could get aid to these impoverished countries without supporting corrupt dictators.

     “The day papers were handed back, I overheard Dr. Biden say to her “95 percent! Nice job!” as he gave Gilbert an affectionate pat. At first, I was impressed that she scored so high and was going to congratulate her, but couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder and noticing a comment Dr. Biden wrote on her paper,” Palin said.

     As Palin tells it, Nastoff proposed as one of her solutions to the issue that money should be sent to non-governmental organizations like the Peace Corps, to which Dr. Biden pointed out that the Peace Corps is part of the government.

     “I had no idea it was possible to even get in to college not knowing that. Would such a demonstration of stupidity have been so easily forgiven if I had written the paper, being that I am not allowed to bring my dog to class? I doubt it,” Palin said.

     Phillip Peepys is in an english class with Nastoff this semester.

     “Class had just begun, I mean JUST begun, when Allison and Lynda Dillard started giggling. Now if my friends and I had been giggling amongst ourselves during class Dr. Webster would have asked us to leave for being disruptive,” Peepys said, “but when Dr. Webster found out they had been laughing because Gilbert was already snoring loudly, she laughed herself and stopped class, not to reprimand her but to rub Gilbert’s belly! Now I don’t care what anyone says. Laughing while the professor is giving a lecture, even over a cute dog is rude and the fact that Allison was able to get by with it is so unfair!”

     Yet the administration has also gotten wind from a student who is in Nastoff’s senior capstone class this semester that this unfairness has gone beyond the campus boundaries as well.

     To graduate, all students in the communication program are required to have 150 hours of internship experience and are expected to seek out and apply for their internship independently.

     “I found an internship, but only after sending out over fifty applications and attending numerous interviews,” said Norah Rawls, “Allison used to be my best friend until I was chatting with her on the first day of school while waiting for Dr. Johari to start class and learned that she only sent out three applications, two of them resulting in interviews, both of these interviews resulting in internship offers!”

     One of these offers, and the one Nastoff ended up taking was an internship with the governor’s office. Rawls acknowledges that Nastoff is smart and an excellent writer but “come on! No one gets such an impressive internship with such little effort these days. I personally feel these offers had more to do with Gilbert’s cuteness than Allison’s intelligence.”

     We contacted the Dean of students who declined our request for an interview but sent a written statement.

     “Our investigation is still ongoing, but at this point we do not intend to discipline these professors, partly because the same students who filed complaints later asked that they be recanted because they love Gilbert too.” We were able to confirm that this is true.

     “I regretted filing that complaint as soon as I did it,” Truman said, “he’s a dog after all! He can get away with not paying attention to the professor.”

     “If I had a choice of either playing with an adorable dog in my dorm room or doing the research that would have shown the Peace Corps is part of the government, I cannot say I wouldn’t have chosen to play with the dog, so I realized I shouldn’t fault her,” Palin said.

     “Even professors admit lectures can get boring,” Peepys said, “it occurred to me that I shouldn’t be complaining about a momentary diversion from a lecture, a glimpse of pure innocence from a dog who can do what we all wish we could do without any consequences.”

     “If I were a hiring coordinator, I suppose I would have hired someone who can bring a dog every day to lighten the mood of the office,” Rawls said.

     “I do sincerely apologize for any bitter feelings Gilbert and I may have caused for my peers, especially regarding the prestigious internship. But the reality is that in a society where the unemployment rate for blind people is 70 percent, I’ll take any advantage I can get,” Nastoff said, “and frankly, given how much Gilbert has made life easier for me by charming professors and employers, I don’t understand why only five percent of blind people choose to have a guide dog.”

     So while most of her peers are already fretting about how they will find a job after college, Nastoff is confident that Gilbert’s charm will land her any job and any promotion she wants. Her ultimate dream is to get a job that pays enough that she can spend two weeks a year in the Gilbert Islands.

Happy Labor Day Working Dogs!

Hello readers, it’s Gilbert here. Mom just realized that while she has talked a lot about me in her entries this summer, she forgot to give me the chance to speak for myself. “What better day is there than Labor Day to let the working dog speak for himself!” she told me. I agree! But don’t worry. I’m not going to go on strike because I’ve got a good life and except for a couple days when she took me for walks and didn’t realize how hot it was, she hasn’t made me work too hard. I am a little perturbed that one of these times was August 4, my three-year anniversary with her. We were in Cincinnati for her grandma’s 80th birthday and after my grandma and her grandma had been doing sight-seeing from the car for awhile and Mom was getting bored and cranky, Grandma tried to console her with a walk on a park trail. I was quite content sleeping in the air conditioned car, but since we dogs cannot talk, humans always get their way in these disputes and I found myself being harnessed up and forced to walk in the heat and humidity. It wasn’t long before I was panting for mercy. But fortunately, my mom started sweating not long after so it wasn’t a very long walk and when we got back to the car Mom and I both drank lots of water and Mom finally came around and appreciated the simple contentment of sitting in an air conditioned car.

     But the overwhelming majority of the summer, I didn’t have to go out in the many days of heat and humidity because Mom didn’t like to be out in it either since she has a medical condition that makes her miserable the rest of the day if out in the heat too long. If it wasn’t hot, Grandpa, Mom and I would go for walks, but there were many days when it was so hot that once I had guided her down the steps of her internship building and found the car, my work day was done.

     Occasionally, I had to work weekends, but Mom tried to keep these to a minimum because she prefers to be home on weekends too. On May 14 and 15, we took a trip to visit the church that Mom raved about back in March, the church that she heard was the site of an apparition of the blessed mother and where she has heard miracles have occurred. I am relieved to report that she did not experience a miracle at this church because if she had gotten her sight back, she might have been ethically obligated to give me back to the program that trained me which would have been a sad occasion for both of us. I didn’t get to partake in the full tour of an outdoor area of this chapel because some dog in the neighborhood came over and was following me around trying to talk to me. I wanted to socialize with him so badly that Grandpa had to put me in the car. (It was a cool rainy day so I didn’t get overheated and we were about ready to leave anyway). About a month and a half later was the trip to Wisconsin Dells that Mom told you all about in the “There’s No Place Like Home” post. Then on August 13, Mom attempted the state fair with me again. As she mentioned, that didn’t go so well as I’m getting too old to handle all those big scary cows up close. And when we got home, Grandma and Grandpa said I was filthy and needed a bath before I could set foot in the house, but it was after dark and kind of chilly outside. I know I was trained to be good during grooming, but given these circumstances I couldn’t help crying when I was sprayed with the hose. The whole family felt bad about this and gave me extra love the next day. But two weeks later, I had to go through the same thing after a day at the Bristol Renaissance Fair, a silly event out in a country area with unique things like jousting, silly sword fights and whip cracking shows. The fair itself was much more enjoyable for me since it wasn’t crowded and I didn’t see any animals. But when we got home, I had to have another bath. (If this cruel treatment keeps up, maybe I will go on strike). But my mom told me that since we may be living on our own next summer, life will be crazy enough between keeping up an apartment, getting herself to work, buying her own groceries and cooking her own meals that she won’t feel like going to the fair. If she does, she promised she would insist that Grandma and Grandpa only take her for a couple hours rather than making it an all-day event so that I can stay home.

     Speaking of the possibility of living at home, Grandma, Mom and I took a tour of an apartment building last Wednesday that is specially designed for visually impaired people. I will let Mom speak for herself about her opinion of the place, but I’m not sure I liked it. Part of it was that I could sense my mom’s excitement about the place which made me nervous and excited. Some loud construction we had to pass to get to the building only added to my nervousness so that when we got in to the building, I was walking too fast, sniffing everything and not listening to commands, which Mom feared was giving our tour guide and potential landlord a very bad impression of us when I don’t usually behave like that. When we passed a stuffed dog, I even barked at it, resulting in an uncharacteristically fierce leash correction from Mom. This settled me down a little bit, but I still wasn’t quite the mellow dog I usually am. The landlord was very understanding and even told Mom to let me sniff the stuffed dog so I could see that it wasn’t real. But once we were back in the car, Mom told me if she did decide to live there, I would need to take a huge chill pill. But let’s not worry about that right now. Mom says she doesn’t think she could handle living on her own until after graduation which is still a full eight months away.

     Then the next day, September 1, was our last first day of school. I can already tell it’s going to be a wonderful year. For one thing, although I think the campus community always thought we were the coolest kids on campus, this unofficial designation has special meaning this year since we are seniors. And, the fact that we are seniors also meant that Mom got first pick of classes at registration last year, a privilege which she used to our advantage so that our first class isn’t until noon each day! Needless to say, we haven’t had any difficulty getting used to sleeping in and taking our time getting ready in the morning. And come November and December when it starts getting cold, we won’t suffer as much because the sun is higher in the sky at noon than it is at 8:00 in the morning when we used to have classes.

     Anyway, it was so wonderful to see all of our friends and favorite teachers again and we both got complements for loosing weight over the summer. I was delighted to learn we have the same English teacher as last semester because while all the professors love me, this professor REALLY loves me, and always gives me pets before she starts class. I was a little sad that one girl who loved me so much she gave Mom a bag of home-made peanut butter dog treats for me wasn’t in this English class, but maybe we will see her around campus.

     I got corrected in Interpersonal Communication for trying to sneak off and sit with one of Mom’s friends instead of staying by her feet, but other than that, she said I did a great job, especially when walking the route from Main Hall back to the campus center, a route which I hadn’t done all summer. (I took her to the crosswalk on this route when she prefers to use the beeping light, but that was her fault, and she admitted as much, because she was rusty on her directions and didn’t tell me where she wanted to go).

     Then at 4:00, we went to a barbecue exclusively for seniors where there was information about special activities for seniors and of course lots of food. As usual, Mom wouldn’t give me any of her burger, but as usual, I found plenty of food on the floor. Thursday was also a hot humid day and Mom noticed I was panting even just lying down in the grass under the picnic table. But it was worth it because I got lots of pets from old friends from choir and Statistics. I wish Mom would shave off my coat for these brutal summers, but Mom says I might regret not having my coat if it didn’t grow back in time for winter and I guess she is right. Winter is so much longer than summer where we live too.

     The school year will really get underway tomorrow but before life got crazy again, a relative on Grandpa’s side of the family wanted to have an end-of-summer family reunion/party at her house near Chicago. At first, Mom wasn’t sure if she could go because she had a lot of reading to do. It was so funny to watch her read in the car because she could barely keep her eyes open. She told me it was pages and pages of philosophical rambling about an essayist named Montaigne and his views on “the self” and “the other” and how man’s idea of nature and customs is different based on the society they were raised in. I don’t get why humans have to study stuff like that and make life more complicated than it needs to be. When will we dogs ever convince you humans that life is about living in the moment, melting the hearts of anyone who gives attention and/or treats and sleeping the hours away in blissful ignorance about the problems in the world? (Actually, I think Mom secretly agrees with me, but as usual, she is in that phase where she is refreshed from summer and determined that this will be the year she actually completely reads everything she is supposed to read. But it won’t be long before my influence rubs off on her and she’ll be back to quickly skimming these ramblings right before class).

     But anyway, yesterday she decided it was too beautiful a day to stay home alone and she wanted me to have the chance to meet and possibly play with this relative’s big dog named Otis. I’m so glad she came to her senses because we both had a wonderful time. Well, Otis wasn’t happy about another male dog invading his turf and getting all the attention. While he sniffed me a little bit, he mostly barked his displeasure from the house, especially when Mom let his owner give me one of his Purina Frosty Paws, a cup of ice cream specially made for dogs! It was so good I was in denial for several minutes after the relative took the empty cup away that it was really gone! Mom says she had never heard of them, but if I’m good, she’ll look for them in our stores and let me have one every now and then. They would be perfect for next summer if it is anything like this summer was! But I digress. Usually I go crazy with excitement about the prospect of playing with another dog, but since Otis wasn’t happy about my presence, I was respectful, getting in my submissive pose and letting him have his space. But since this house has a fenced in yard, I did get to run off-leash a bit, the perfect way to celebrate the end of the dog days of summer and the start of our senior year.

     Well, I better get going because Grandpa is cooking barbecue ribs and he might need my help. In honor of Labor Day, I hope working dogs everywhere are helping their cooks out too!

Discipline Returns

(I intended on posting this yesterday, but LiveJournal wasnt working again. I didn’t want to change anything in this post though, so just keep in mind that it was intended for yesterday when you read it).

     Well readers, remember back in January when I wrote an entry for an assistance dog blog carnival on the theme of Decisions? One thing I mentioned in this post was how I could totally relate to those new mothers and their utopian determination that they are going to be perfect and do everything the experts say you are supposed to do, only to discover after a couple days or weeks that perfection is unrealistic. Well, in the midst of my fury about being criticized for not walking Gilbert when the weather was bad, having him sleep in a separate room and forbidding any and all treats and table scraps, I neglected to mention perhaps my most serious deviation from the perfection I was so determined to maintain in my early days with Gilbert. I am speaking of the daily obedience ritual, which so many dog trainers and guide dog handlers say is crucial for bonding between dog and handler, and for preserving the good behavior of the dog in public. I’m not going to make any excuses. Unlike the expectation that I walk Gilbert when the ground is covered in ice, daily discipline is not an unrealistic expectation. It only takes a couple minutes which could have easily been worked in even on the days when I was swamped with homework. But a week after the dog trainer graduated Gilbert and me, I just fell off the wagon.

     My parents tried to help me get back on. My dad would ask “did you do discipline today?” or say “you need to do some discipline with him” whenever he was the slightest bit naughty. But I never could get back on. I would do discipline sporadically over school breaks, or a few days leading up to an outing where Gilbert would see other guide dogs and I would be unofficially judged on my competence based on his behavior. I even tried to make it a new year’s resolution! But like a lot of new year’s resolutions, it collapsed by January 3.

     When I started feeling guilty, I would rationalize with myself. “He doesn’t need discipline. When we are in public and I ask him to sit, he obeys me perfectly!” Or “discipline doesn’t have anything to do with behavior. When we are out in public, I am constantly showered with complements by strangers about how calm and well-behaved he is, just lying at my feet.” Or “even when I was doing discipline, he would still go crazy at the sight of another dog, so daily discipline wouldn’t help this behavior.”

     But what better time is there than the start of a new school year, and my final school year at that (I will graduate college in May with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science), to try and turn over a new leaf and do daily obedience again?

     A couple other factors played a role in this decision as well. Last week, I took Gilbert to our state fair, thinking that since he is approaching midlife (he will be five in January), that maybe he would have an easier time keeping a cool head while walking me slowly and carefully through the large crowds. Well, I was wrong. My parents ended up having to do sighted guide most of the time because he got so overwhelmed by the crowds, walking too fast for conditions and bumping me in to people. And then when we walked past a toy mechanical cat in the exposition hall and when he saw another dog in an exhibit outside, you would have thought he was a puppy! I mentioned that even when I did daily discipline, he would still go crazy when he saw another dog. But I got to thinking maybe that was because we were such a new team at that time that we hadn’t bonded enough to apply the philosophy behind this daily obedience ritual, the fact that I am the boss, the leader of the pack, to the rest of the day. But now that we have been together three years, maybe this discipline will be more effective and we will both remember the purpose of this ritual when faced with high-distraction environments.

     But another reason that I have been motivated to return discipline to our routine is that I have noticed that this summer, I have been so wrapped up in my internship and my dreams of being a writer that I haven’t spent enough quality time with him. I do take him on walks of course, but my parents don’t feel comfortable with me going by myself because our neighborhood has no sidewalks, and with them following close behind me, these walks are not the private bonding affairs I had dreamed of when applying for a guide dog. The same story is true when working him in places other than my college campus.

     Just before Memorial Day, my parents, Gilbert and I went to Indiana to visit my grandma and watch a parade at my aunt’s house. The fact that I felt a cold coming on that weekend and was tired from a long car ride combined to make me irritable that night by the time we got to Grandma’s house. But after dinner at the American Legion, my grandma wanted to visit the cemetery to decorate my grandpa’s grave and look at the Memorial Day decorations. My mom told me this cemetery has a nice paved trail where Gilbert and I could walk, so while my parents and grandma were decorating the grave, Gilbert and I struck out on our own. My irritability melted away almost instantly. It was just getting dark out so it was cool and quiet with the most wonderful breeze and the air smelled fresh. When I realized there were no voices yapping along behind us, I found myself talking to Gilbert, not just praising and encouraging him like the dog trainer said to do, but actually having a one-sided conversation with him, kind of like Mr. Rogers talking to his neighbor. “How are you doing Buddy? Isn’t it the most gorgeous night? I just love the smell of flowers! Can you smell them? I love the peace and quiet of this place.” Just like Mr. Rogers’ interaction with his neighbor, which was anyone watching the show, it didn’t matter that Gilbert couldn’t talk back to me. Though he wasn’t wagging his tail, I could just tell that he was content, so I bet he would agree that when so much of life is loud and busy, resembling the singing dinosaurs and talking moppets that are the mainstay of so many shows, a few moments resembling Mr. Rogers’ more subdued approach and soothing one-way conversational voice is a wonderful treat. And when Gilbert had a brief moment of naughtiness and wanted to veer off the paved trail and explore the grass, I loved having the chance to notice this and correct him all by myself. My parents try not to interfere on walks, but sometimes, they just cannot help themselves, so I never get the full experience of working him on my own and bonding with him that I got to do in this cemetery.

     Gilbert is a difficult dog to play with because generally, unless another dog comes to visit, he is not a playful dog. I have tried playing fetch, but have to do a tun of coaxing to get him to bring the ball back to me, not go hide somewhere to chew on it. So between his laziness and disinterest in bringing the ball back and my lack of patience trying to train him to bring it back, it is a game we both tire of quickly.

     On a hilarious side note though, there is one toy that I discovered fascinates him. Gilbert loves the slinky! One day back in March while I was on spring break, my dad was cleaning and uncovered a slinky I hadn’t seen in years. He had been absently rolling it in his hands while watching television the night before, and the next day when I happened to be home alone, I was looking for something else and discovered the slinky lying on the coffee table. As soon as I felt it, I was overcome by the urge to be a kid again and try to get the slinky to walk down the stairs. (Important practical life skills like getting a slinky to walk down stairs have never been my strong suit, so I ended up cheating a lot, putting one end of the slinky on the top step and the other end three steps down when I’m pretty sure you are supposed to put the whole slinky on one step. But hey, it still made a sound that resembled walking, and I had fun which is all that really matters right?)

     Anyway, as soon as I picked up the slinky and headed for the wooden stairs leading to the basement, Gilbert woke up from his nap and followed me. When I sat down on the first step, he sat behind me watching curiously. He just sat there while I positioned the slinky and gave it a push, but when I heard it reach the basement floor, a rare feat when I was a child as the slinky would never quite make it to the bottom back then, I cheered and clapped! As if that cheer were the sound of a take-off bell for a race, Gilbert was off, almost knocking me down as he shot past me tail smacking me in the face as he passed, ran downstairs, grabbed the slinky in his mouth and brought it back! I was so amazed I had to do it a few more times and show my parents when they got home. But then it occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t let him play with the slinky anymore for fear that since it wasn’t intended to be a dog toy, he could choke on it. But as of yet, it is the only toy he has ever shown that much interest in. So until I find a more dog safe toy that excites him as much as the slinky did, I am not sure how to get him interested in playing.

     Despite the absence of play and discipline, Gilbert hasn’t been ignored by any means. I still bond with him through his daily care and he gets plenty of belly rubs and scratches behind the ears. I work him every chance I get when on errands or vacations with my family. But I want to do something more, something fun in addition to just his physical care for just the two of us with no sighted supervision. Returning daily discipline to the routine, it occurred to me, would be the perfect solution.

     The good news for Gilbert though is that in addition to returning discipline, I have also decided to try returning the daily dog treat as well so that discipline can be something we both look forward to. He looks forward to eating the treat, and I look forward to the adorable way he sniffs my pocket, as if to say, “you cannot fool me. Hand it over!”

     It so happened that on Friday, the day I came to this resolution, Mom and I had to go to my college to pay my tuition, and my college is located near Pet Supplies Plus, the only store in our area that carries Nutrisource, the dog food recommended by the dog trainer. So we decided to run in to the store and buy another bag on the way home. As we were walking past the dog treats, Mom said “remember those treats we used to give him? Would you like to get some of them again?” “You know, why not,” I decided. As I said, it would make discipline more fun and rewarding, and now that the oppressive heat and humidity has released its grip on our area, he is getting regular walks again so I didn’t have to worry as much about him gaining weight.

     We couldn’t find the treats we used to get, but settled on Natural Choice dog biscuits. I don’t like the fact that they are kind of big, probably the size of two milk bones put together. (I wish, for the benefit of blind people, that products could have a tactile picture of the product so I could have a better idea of what I was getting before I had already paid for it, brought it home and opened the box.) If he appears to be gaining weight, I will definitely start breaking them in half. But the package claims they are an all-natural chicken and rice formula so it sounds high quality and reasonably healthy.

     The dog trainer told me he didn’t give Gilbert any treats during training or discipline because he likes dogs to work for praise not food. Instead, he liked to give the dogs their treat as a bedtime snack. I like the philosophy of working for praise, so I don’t give him pieces of the treat during the discipline session. But as a person who finds a treat like a scoop of ice cram especially meaningful if I have earned it after a hard college exam or something, I like the idea of treating Gilbert at the end of every session for a job well done. I am proud to say that I have stuck to the routine for three days now. We haven’t done the discipline session for today yet, but I have no intentions of falling off the wagon now because this new routine has lived up to the fun and rewarding experience I had anticipated.

     So here’s the routine for our discipline sessions these days. I haven’t established a set time of day for discipline. I have heard some people say the best time to do it is first thing in the morning, but I have no ambition first thing in the morning. While some say that designating a set time of the day to do it helps them stick with something, I have found that as soon as something comes up like a new class schedule that interferes with the time I had set, I cannot re-adjust the routine accordingly and my good intentions collapse. So I am going to use the same policy I use to stick to my exercise routine. It doesn’t matter when you do it, as long as it gets done once a day.

     Since we haven’t done discipline in so long, I am starting simple and keeping him on leash, but once we have discipline well mastered again, I am excited about incorporating distractions, like making him sit and stay by me when the doorbell rings, when the car horn honks to announce my dad’s arrival home from work, while I am preparing his food and ultimately my goal is to ask a neighbor to bring their dog to visit and make him sit and stay until I give the command that he can play. But for now, we start by practicing sit and down on leash. He doesn’t ever disobey the command like he did occasionally in the early days of training, but now during discipline, he will anticipate the next command before it is given. So after I have said “Gilbert!” but before I have said “sit!” he is already sitting. So every day, I have had to correct him for this until we have done it three times without anticipation. (He will still twitch a little every time, but as long as he catches himself, I count it as a success). Then I lengthen the leash, walk out in front of him telling him to stay until I call him. Then I call him and once he is sitting in front of me and I have praised him, I tell him to heel and he sits at my heel. And then comes the hardest but most rewarding part of all. I tell him to stay and then I walk further away, his treat still in my pocket. I have decided to do discipline in the downstairs family room of our house and walk upstairs to the foyer with his treat. (Friday and Saturday, I asked my parents to peak downstairs and verify that he wasn’t doing anything sneaky, but when they told me both times he wasn’t, I decided to start trusting him with this exercise yesterday.

     After humming a song, making him wait a short but for him torturous amount of time as I later noticed drool on the carpet where I left him, I say “Gilbert come!” And with absolutely no hesitation, I hear happy paws dashing up the stairs and Gilbert comes to sit in front of me. He has earned his treat!

     I have already noticed small changes in him after just three days of discipline. Most notably, I have noticed that when I call him to me, his obedience is more instant. He would always come, but a lot of times, I would hear him stretching and dragging his feet a bit. Already, our bond is improving, a beautiful realization, especially because it occurred to me that today is the three year anniversary of our graduation and the official start of our life together. If I keep doing discipline every day, just imagine how much stronger our bond will grow in the years to come.