Paws and Effect: The Service Dog Story, Part 2b

Arguably this part of the story was one of (if not the) lowest points for me since Josh was diagnosed, so, bear with me.  Hopefully I can convey it well enough.

The Northwest debacle behind us, Josh and I made our way from Dayton to Xenia.  Managing the luggage, Josh's car seat, and our carry-ons as well as Josh himself en route to the rental car was something.  We had to walk (Dayton is not a major airport) to the parking lot where the rentals were and it was a bit of a hike.  I managed though and was trying not to think too much about the return trip when I would also have a dog to handle.   The dog.  Josh's dog.  I was getting excited again despite the trials of the day. 

Now the dogs all have names, obviously, but 4 Paws makes it clear that if you and or your child wish, you can change the dog's name to what you want.  Enough treats and repetition and they can make the transition.  I had thought about it before we got Ellie's info, and decided that our dog would need a name that would be relatively easy for Josh to say, if it didn't already have one.  Then came the e-mail.  I really like the name "Ellie" - but we had had a dog named Ellie and it just didn't feel right to have another one.  So I came up with "Sunny".  She was a golden lab, so it kind of made sense, and it was just two syllables and had the same ending sound as her original name.  Easy for Josh to say, and seemed like it shouldn't be too hard of a change for the dog.  So Sunny she was. 

We were booked in the Holiday Inn in Xenia.  The hotel is/was recommended by 4 Paws as it is close to the training center and they have been hosting training families for years, so they are used to the dogs being there.  Now, traveling with Josh is not only complex as far as the actual transportation goes but also as far as accommodations go.  Ideally a kitchenette is optimal given Josh's eating habits and guest laundry facilities are practically a must with Josh not being potty trained, accidents happen even with pull-ups on.  Of course neither of these things was possible at this Holiday Inn.  They did have microwaves and fridges in some rooms, but that was it. No laundry, no way to cook anything unless it was microwaveable.  Hmmm.  Well, there wasn't really an alternative so I asked for a room with the microwave/fridge and there we were.  One queen sized bed for Josh and I, and one bathroom.  Not a big deal, but we were to be there for 10 days, with a dog - I was praying that the few things I had been able to pack for Josh's entertainment would suffice for as long as we were to be there.  A few of his books, couple of small toys, and of course the portable DVD player and Blue's Clues DVD's.  There was a grocery store close to the hotel so I went there before we got settled and picked up some things, I really didn't want to eat out with him the whole time we were there.  We checked in, un-packed, and settled in to get ready for the morning, our first meeting with Sunny and first day of training. 

Morning arrived and we got ready to head out.  Now this was March, in Ohio.  It was cold still and there was even snow forecast for later in the week.  I knew we'd be outside some days but the first day was pretty much all inside.  Josh will not wear hats, or gloves, mittens, anything like that so I knew that it might get tricky with him later in training but we'd figure it out.  The 4 Paws facility at that time was small.  Very small.  There was one room in the back of a house that was used for the classes and most of the training that was not outdoors.  There were I think 7 families in our training class, and this means a lot of people.  Pretty much everyone came with spouses, siblings, some even brought grandparents, you name it.  So there were quite a lot of people in this not so huge room in the back of this house.  They had a small basket with a few toys in it, but that was it.  Now in the months following this particular session, they moved in to a much larger facility complete with enclosed back yard with a play area for the kids and lots of toys.  But for this class, it was the old place.  That feeling in my stomach was coming back.  How on earth would Josh manage here for 10 days???   I had no idea how I was going to do this but there was no choice now.  I had brought a few snacks for him for the day, but not the DVD player as I knew there would be other kids there and that could be a potential source of problems. 

They had us all sit down in a big circle of chairs around the room, and one by one, they brought our dogs out to us.  We all had treats in our pockets that the trainer had given us as we arrived.  They brought Ellie/Sunny over and she was a pretty dog.  Not overly enthusiastic, but a nice girl.  I did what I was told as far as working on changing her name, treating her every time I said "Sunny" and she looked at me or responded in any way.  Josh was uninterested.  I didn't really expect him to be at this stage, and realistically figured it would take quite some time for a bond to form if there was even to be one.  Still, it was a little tough.  All these other families were there melting over their dogs and here I was, alone with Sunny as Josh busied himself with some of the toys in the basket.  I had known what I was in for when I decided to take him alone but it didn't make it any easier.  But we were off, listening to the trainer teach us about our dogs, what they know how to do and how we need to work with them.  We started with basics.  After each talk, we would get up in the center of the room and practice with the dogs what we had just learned.  It was clear that the dogs whose names were changing had a harder time initially but we were told to be patient and consistent and that would change before too long, which it seemed to.  There was so much to learn.  I was trying to take notes and watch Josh at the same time.  He was putting a lot of the fur that was all over the floor in his mouth... sigh, well, whatever, he puts EVERYTHING in his mouth, a little fur won't hurt him.  I had given up getting upset about the stuff that went in to his mouth a long time before that, I didn't really have any choice.  He wandered in to the laundry area that was off of this room, and seemed to like walking around on the floor in there.  So I always had one eye on him, one on Sunny, both ears on the trainer, all the while taking notes.  Every day was like this.  Josh would start getting pretty undone toward the end of the training days, so sometimes we would have to take a break outside for a bit, just let him get out of that room for a while.  It wasn't always easy getting him back in, but I did.  It was exhausting.  Of course the dogs were staying with us now, so when we would go back to the hotel I had to practice with Sunny as well as keep Josh happy.  I was managing ok.  The hotel wasn't really a problem, Josh had his DVD's there and his books, he could take his shoes off and be more comfortable.  We practiced with Sunny a lot.  Josh was still fairly indifferent but he didn't seem to mind her at all even when he was tethered to her, so that was good. 

As our training progressed we started learning to track with the dogs.  Tracking practice happens outside, rain, ice, snow, or shine.  I thought this would be better than Josh being cooped up in the hot little room all day.  Not so much.  For two reasons.  The weather, it was REALLY cold, and snowy, and I knew Josh was freezing since I couldn't get him to wear what he needed to. Hands in his pockets was the best I could do.  The other problem was that I needed to be handling Sunny while she was tracking, Josh needed to be somewhere out of our sight... oh.  Uh, hmm.  Well, I told the interns that they could try taking Josh out to hide but that I was pretty sure he wasn't going to be happy and I couldn't guarantee how he would behave.  The first couple of times they let me take Josh out, and just watch as they tracked with Sunny to us.  But there was a point at which I really had to handle her myself and learn all her signals.  So we sent Josh out with an intern a few times and I tracked with Sunny.  Josh was not thrilled with this but he wasn't in full-on tantrum mode either so we just kept doing what we could. 

We were getting toward the end of the week and had been to a park, tracking, practicing at the hotel and in the center.  Despite how difficult it was for me, I thought we were doing pretty well, Sunny was responding to me, and there were no issues that came up during our training sessions except to continue to work on reinforcing the name change.  

For a few days, I had been noticing that Sunny was shaking her head a lot, "flapping her ears" as I call it.  If you have ever had a dog with ears that hang down, you know what I am talking about.  When our golden retriever would do this a lot it meant he had an ear infection.  So I was keeping an eye on it.  It did seem to be happening more and more and by the Friday morning of the first week, she was flapping and scratching at her ears almost non-stop.  The scratching was so extreme I was afraid she was going to hurt her ears.  I was convinced she had an infection, it's common in labs and retrievers.  That morning, as we were leaving the hotel to go to the day's session, she growled at a man that was walking by us as we were leaving.  This startled me somewhat but she had also done it during our practice outing with the class to the park the day before, at a man who was walking very close to Josh and I at one point.  I thought she was just being protective, but was a bit concerned as a service dog should not be growling at people who pass by.  She was not aggressive with anyone else nor did she do anything other than the quiet growl.  Between this and the ear thing, I knew I had to talk to the trainer when we got to class.  I did, and after I told him what I had noticed both with her ear scratching and the growling he got very quiet.  We went through our morning lectures and then as we were heading out to practice more tracking he came to me with an intern who had another dog with him.  He told me that they were going to have Sunny seen by the vet to check out her ears and we could practice with this other dog in the meantime.  Okaaaaaay, seemed a little pointless without the dog we were working with but I wasn't going to argue, figured at least I'd get my part down.  So we spent an entire afternoon out in the cold with a strange dog. 

When we got back to the training center at the end of the day, the trainer asked me to stay behind after everyone had left, he and the director wanted to talk to me.  This was one of those moments when I felt like my blood had literally turned to ice, my whole body went cold, and the sense that something bad was about to happen was coming at me like a freight train.  I stayed behind with Josh.  They sat down.  The director proceeded to tell me that Sunny did not have an ear infection but that she had "severe injuries" to her ears that had caused pockets of blood to accumulate under the skin.  This was why she was "flapping" and scratching.  The vet said the blood would likely re-absorb and she would be fine.  I said that I wasn't surprised given all the scratching she'd been doing, her nails were bound to have done some damage to the sensitive skin inside the ears.  That's when this happened: "Sunny didn't do this to herself, Josh had to have grabbed and pinched her ears really hard multiple times to have caused this".  She may as well have shot me with a gun.  Whoa, what?!?  No, I said, Josh did not do this to her.  First of all, he barely acknowledged her existence, he was simply not interested in her.  When we were at the hotel, he watched his DVD's or looked at his books, and I practiced with Sunny.  Period.  She was adamant that it had been Josh.  I was just adamant that it could NOT have been.  We were in a one room hotel room, aside from the bathroom, and Josh was NEVER alone with the dog. Ever.  Even once he'd gone to sleep, I'd take my bath or shower and Sunny would come in the bathroom with me.  They were simply never alone.  There was no way he did anything to her.  Well, they believed he did because when the interns had taken him to hide for tracking practice he had pinched a couple of them.  No kidding people.  I warned them that he would likely do that.  He can pinch when he is very upset.  A complete stranger taking him away from me and making him go into brush and woods and bushes to hide... like I said, I'd told them that would likely happen, they said not to worry about it, they understood. Apparently not. That does not mean he hurt Sunny.  Again, they were never alone.  The three of us were together all the time.  Simply didn't happen.  Well, then how do I explain her growling?  Um, she's being protective?  No, she never behaved that way with anyone else the whole time they were training her.  So their theory was that Josh had hurt her, so this was causing her to act out and growl at strange men.  My head was spinning.  I knew Josh had not touched her.  There was not a single opportunity for him to have done it and he was never upset at the hotel.  But they were not to be dissuaded from their opinion.  They tried to tell me that the vet told them this was the ONLY thing that could have caused this.  I was incredulous.   Eventually they admitted to telling the vet that this is what they thought had happened so the vet said, well, that could have done it.  That is a very different thing than what they were telling me at first.  I have had dogs.  Most of whom have had ears that hang down like labs and retrievers.  She had been scratching at her ears quite hard the last day or so, it seemed likely that her scratching with her claws had caused the bruising under the skin.  They just refused to accept that it wasn't Josh.  Then they started going on about how I was there alone and they hadn't been happy about that, how I was probably stressed out so Sunny was likely picking up on my stress and since dogs don't understand stress she interpreted this as fear, and this was why she was growling.  Wait, I thought you said Josh was the cause of her behavior?  Story was changing.  As I sat somewhat bewildered in my shock, anger, and distress, a deeper, darker realization was beginning to dawn on me.  We were not going to get our dog. 

When this hit me I asked them if this is what they were leading up to.  The answer was yes.  The last two years of preparation culminating in the exhausting work Josh and I had both done over the last several days, including just getting to Ohio, came crashing down on me and I fell apart.  I couldn't stop crying.  Both the director and the trainer are very good at what they each do, but neither are very good in the people skills department.  They just sat there.  I just didn't know what to do.  Josh is really a sweet little boy when it comes down to it.  Yes, he can be difficult to manage under certain circumstances, but he is also truly affectionate and loving with those he is close to.  I knew he hadn't done anything wrong.  Now I was blaming myself and it seemed like they might be doing that too given the direction the story had taken.  They didn't have much else to say.  I went back to the hotel, with one of the interns following me so that I could give him back the crate that they had loaned me for Sunny while we were there.  He left, we were alone.  In nowhere-freakingville Ohio.  I just cried and cried.  Our flight back wasn't for 6 more days.  The vet calls me.  He is upset that I was under the impression that he had said that the only way this could have happened was for Josh to have done it.  I told him I had that impression because that was what they told me he said.  He starts trying to tell me that I must have been too upset and not heard properly, blah, blah, blah.  I sensed an ass being covered.  He tells me that when they told him what they thought, he said that it certainly could have been that, but not that it was the only possible explanation.  Whatever.  Phone's ringing again.  It's a friend I had made in the class.  She wants to know what happened.  I told her, she was upset and wonderfully supportive,  but in the greater scheme of things, wasn't much she could do to help.  Phone is ringing again.  Seriously, leave me the hell alone, I can't handle this.  Crap, it's home... Zach was performing with his dojo's demo team at a high-school festival that night and they were calling to talk before they left for the night.  I didn't want to ruin their night so I didn't tell them.  We talked, I let them go.  Glad that his performance and my mom's and his dad's enjoyment of it wouldn't be marred by this.  So Josh and I were alone.  Very much alone and very, very sad. 

I called Northwest to try to get our flight back moved up so we wouldn't have to stay there too much longer.  Best they could do was Monday was Friday.  Good god, I have to stay here in this hotel room with Josh, no dog, until MONDAY afternoon.  March.  Xenia, Ohio.  Fairly certain I was being punished for something.  Saturday posed several added challenges to not completely losing it.  I knew I had to tell Bruce and my mom and Zach.  I knew that they would be upset and angry like I had been and I would have to re-live the whole horrible thing over again.  Which I did.  Then on the few occasions that I took Josh out that day, several of our classmates stopped to talk to us.  First, they of course all had their dogs, and that was like a little slap in the face, but worse was that they were all telling me that some of the staff were talking about Josh and what happened in front of them.  Talk about un-professional and talk about angry, I can't even begin to tell you how mad I was now.  I called the director.  She said she was glad that I called because she and the trainer were upset with how things were left yesterday.  I told her she might not be so glad when she heard what I had to say.  She asked if we could come back to the center to talk to them again.  So we did.  I ripped them up one side and down the other about the staff's inability to maintain some professionalism especially since there was no proof whatsoever that Josh did anything to Sunny/Ellie.  They were sufficiently unhappy upon hearing this and assured me that those involved would be dealt with.  What they had wanted to tell me was that they never meant to suggest that we would not be able to get a dog for Josh.  They just felt that Sunny/Ellie was not the right dog for us and that now that they knew Josh better, they could find a more suitable dog and have us come back out to another training session.  Keep in mind, all of this would be at our expense.  This made me feel a little better, though not a lot.  I was still reeling from the whole situation and still really angry about their accusations and the staff's behavior.  We agreed that we would keep in touch and discuss it more after I was home.  Home.  I had to go home, though still not for two more days, without a dog.  I was going to have to explain to everyone at home what happened, why Josh did not have his dog.  I was going to have to go through this over and over and over again with everyone who would ask.  I was wrecked.  I actually didn't talk much about it after we got back, I couldn't.  Just told people that there had been a problem with the dog, and we might be going back another time for a different one but weren't sure yet.  Eventually as I had been home longer, I was able to tell people about all that had happened. 

It's still hard for me to talk or even write about, I even teared up a couple paragraphs back just writing this and it has been 4 years now.  I'm not sure it comes across very well, the impact of it all, I can just tell you that the whole thing, from the work I did to get to the point of being on the list with both organizations, through the preparation for traveling and training, to the training itself, only to culminate in that, took an enormous toll on me.  I very much wanted to go after Northwest for their part in making our lives miserable but I just couldn't.  I had nothing left when we got back.

Believe it or not, this is not the end of the story.  You'll have to wait for part 3 for more though.


ps. Happy Star Wars Day... May the 4th be with you :)  I can get away with that, I was 12 when I saw Episode IV in the theater.  That was the first, and only time I have ever been to a movie in my life where the entire audience jumped to its feet at the end in a standing ovation... George Lucas is a genius, I'm a geek, carry on.