In May I got the diagnosis that my feet were in bad shape, and were only going to be getting worse. Well, that explained why the treadmill hurt so much! I've been using a cane since last June, and dealt with a wheelchair and a walker since the knee surgery. At the moment, I'm actually walking unaided. It hurts, but dammit I'm going to do it while I can. When I start falling again, it'll be time to go back to the cane.
Honestly, I will be back in the wheelchair again at some point in time. I know this. It's one of those inevitabilities in dealing with my conditions. However, knowing that it's coming means I can have some time to prepare for it. I can make sure we live in houses where navigating a chair won't be a problem (mental note, sharp turns from the hall to the door, even when the door is wide enough, are a bad idea). I have a fairly good idea of what the limitations of being in a chair will be. It's hard enough picking up a dropped object while sitting in one of these contraptions; add in a back that doesn't bend all the way, and that pencil on the floor might as well be in Djibouti for all the good it does me.
One of the preparations I'm making now is training my Doberman-mix pup to serve as a mobility dog. I'm very lucky that I got this guy from leliel
last December. I'd originally planned to train him for Search and Rescue work; obviously my body won't live up to the demands of that any more. Right now, he's an excellent furry alarm system. He's not mean; he gets about a foot away from people in his house he doesn't know and barks at them. Once he's introduced, he grumbles a little bit and then happily lays down on my feet with a chew toy. Out in public, he's generally very well behaved. He gets along well with other dogs, is cautiously friendly with people and minds his manners. I've been training him on how to behave in public all along, of course, doing things like going out to the town square to walk around and have lunch in a public space.
We've recently gone through the PetSmart intermediate puppy training together. He'd be doing better with his stay if I'd been in better shape to work with him, but he did graduate and I've got the training tools to start working with him on meeting my specialized needs.
Yes, he does have laser eyes.
Guinness is big enough that he can work as a stability dog when I walk. He walks close to me, and if I start to lose my balance he can catch and steady me. He also gives me a stability point when I'm getting out of bed in the morning. This was pretty easy to train--all he has to do is brace himself and stay still until I can get back on my feet.
He's also getting trained to pull me when I'm in the wheelchair. He really enjoys doing this, because it means he gets to go a lot faster than he normally can with me. He really loves wheelchair ramps. When we practice in the deserted lower halls of the church during the week (with permission) or in the aisles at PetSmart, you can tell he's having a good time. He gets a big goofy doggy grin. We don't do this very often right now. Guinness is just under a year old, and his joints won't be done growing and developing until he's about 18-24 months. I don't want to put too much strain on him while he's developing, but we have been working on the basics.
The third part of his training is the "special tricks" training. He's got switching lights on and off down; actually, he'll do it randomly in hopes of getting a treat. We're working on naming and retrieving objects. He's not quite as good as this--whatever his other half is, it's not retriever! But the advantage of having some time is I can work with him on this. Hopefully be the time I need it, he'll be good on bringing me the car keys, or his leash, or whatever else I need.
A lot of folks have been surprised that I'm training my own assistance dog. Thing is, in the US there is no governing body of assistance animal training. According to the ADA, (28 CFR, sec 36.104),
Service animal means any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items.
There are no provisions for who must do the training, or a regulation of the training provided. The law was deliberately left vague to cover a variety of contingencies. If a person is severely agoraphobic and can only leave the house when Bucky the Wonder Hamster is in a shirt pocket, then Bucky is a service animal and is protected under the ADA. A business owner is allowed to only ask two questions of a person entering an establishment with an animal, "Are you disabled?" and "Is that a service animal?" If the person is visibly disabled or the service animal is clearly marked with his job, even asking can be construed as harassment.
Guinness has a minimum of special equipment. He has a harness with a handle in the middle that I hang on to when we're walking together or he's pulling the chair. I have an engraved tag on the harness that has his name and that he's a mobility dog, and another with my name and phone number. Right now I identify him as "in training" when we go out. Most business folk are perfectly willing to allow us access, and I try to make sure Guinness gets enough free exercise before we train that he's not easily distracted. If I were asked to leave an establishment because of the dog I'd happily do so--and not go back. There are enough alternate public shopping places that I'm not compelled to use any one store.
Overall, my experience so far with training Guinness to be a service animal has been overwhelmingly positive. I know what pizza place is fine with him coming in and sleeping under the table while we eat (honestly, there are times when Guinness is better behaved than my 8-year-old son). There are a few places where I'm regularly asked how training is coming. Guinness is happy, because he's one of those dogs who needs something to do. Training keeps his mind focused.
Job well done!