The final chapter. Well, sort-of.
I'll be honest. After Josh and I returned home from Ohio I really wasn't sure I wanted to continue working with 4 Paws, given what had happened. Having had a brief go of it with a dog for Josh though, I was as convinced as ever that it was a good idea. I figured we could probably get back on the NSD list if I talked to them, but, we'd be back at the bottom and I couldn't see waiting yet another 2 years. There was also the tracking piece. NSD does not train the dogs for tracking as 4 Paws will and at the time, I had some concerns about Josh wandering off so I still felt that would be a good thing. With reluctance I resolved to keep going with 4 Paws. It was hard though, not going to lie, I was still so angry and so hurt about what had happened.
I was in e-mail contact with the director and she informed me that the intern that had been the one talking about Josh with the other families and staff had been terminated. Apparently she was not well liked by them anyway and her indiscretion just solidified their decision a little sooner. Small victory.
This time around, instead of finding out with not much notice when we would be looking at heading to training, she told me that they had a dog in mind already for Josh and figured that dog would be ready by August (it was April at this point). So, we agreed to come back and were set for their August class. She reminded me that they would be moving in to their new facility before then so things would be better for the kids, easier for the families.
So now I had several months to plan. I also had the experiences of the first trip out there to draw from so this time I would do some things differently. Many things, actually. Maybe everything. For starters, I would not be going alone with Josh. Both my mom and Zach would be coming with us. Josh really likes my mom and I knew Zach would be a big help with whatever might be needed of him. I also knew that if there was ANY way to avoid it, I would not be staying at that Holiday Inn again. Especially with 4 of us going this time. I searched and found a Residence Inn that had kitchens, 2 bedroom/2 bathroom suites, guest laundry facilities, and, an indoor pool. PERFECT. It was not in Xenia though, so I had to get it approved by 4 Paws. Their rule was that it had to be within a certain drive-time/distance of the training facility. It looked to me like it wouldn't be too long of a drive, maybe 20 minutes or so. The director approved it, but we were warned that being late to training sessions would not be tolerated so we had to use judgement about whether we would have enough time to go back on lunch breaks, etc.
Just the change in where we were going to be staying for almost 2 weeks made such a big difference in my outlook on the whole thing. I knew it would be easier, more comfortable. I could cook the things for Josh that I knew he would eat. We'd have enough space for all of us, Josh could be in one room watching his DVD's while Zach could be in another watching whatever he wanted on tv. Zach and my mom would share one bedroom, while Josh and I had the other. This way Josh could be up at night without bothering them too much. There would be plenty of room to practice with the dog. And of course, there was the pool. Josh loves water. LOVES IT. He cannot swim but loves to just be in it. So I knew having the pool to use in our down time would be a great thing. Then I found out that my friend from the first training class was going back in August as well. They had taken their dog home but decided that he was not a good fit for them and so they were coming back. She had actually requested to come back for the session that I would be in, so that was another plus. She arranged to stay at the Residence Inn as well.
Goes without saying that we did not fly with Northwest. This time I went with Frontier. We were booked from Seattle to Indianapolis via Denver, had a minivan rented, and would drive from there to Xenia, OH. Was about a 3 hour drive. I didn't care, it was relatively inexpensive compared to flying in to Cincinnati or Dayton and it wasn't Northwest. I also did not do anything as far as telling them that I had a disabled child with me though I did mention there would be a service dog coming back. I did not want to have to go through the hassle about bulkhead seating again. I would deal with Josh in the airports myself, I had Mom and Zach to manage bags this time, plus, I knew that my mom coming with us was going to make Josh intrigued so I didn't anticipate too much trouble this time. Besides, after what we went through last time, I knew I could handle just about anything.
The other thing I decided to do differently was not to change the dog's name. Yes, they can learn new names. But when there is so much else for us and the dogs to learn and get used to with each other, it really seemed like that was only serving to make the whole process slower, more difficult for the dogs and potentially frustrating for the families. So we (our family) agreed that no matter what, the dog's name was the dog's name and we would just go with it so that would be one less thing to have to work on when we started training.
I was letting myself get excited again. More so when I found out that my friend from our first class would be there with us too.
August was getting closer but I didn't have too much time to anticipate - we were moving, so there was much to do on the home front. In fact, we were to leave for training a little less than 2 weeks after getting in to the new house.
At some point during all the insanity of the move we got the e-mail, the one introducing us to the new dog.
The story was that he had been taken in by a family down south somewhere, and they believed very strongly that he would make a good service dog so they drove him all the way to 4 Paws in Ohio.
He has one brown eye and the other is half blue and half brown. They had no idea what kind of dog he was, just that he was unique and had a wonderful temperament.
I'll admit I was a bit taken aback when I got the picture. When you think about service dogs, the usual labs, retrievers and shepherds come to mind. Buddy was definitely unique, I didn't really know what to make of him. But Josh is also pretty unique, so, who am I to judge?
So, the time came and we were off. Again. Much more prepared this time, armed with experience and help. Flights were no problem, we arrived in Indianapolis and then drove to Ohio.
Training this time around was like night and day. The new facility was certainly a big factor. There was so much more room, it was much more comfortable, the kids had more room to move around in relative safety and there was the back yard. A huge, fenced area where we could take the dogs out for breaks but also had a play set for the kids. It had a swing. Thank goodness for small miracles. My mom took Josh out to the swing and spent most her time there with him. He was happy. He would hang out inside with us too sometimes, but there was always the ability to just take him out to do what he likes best while I was working with Buddy inside. There were other siblings there so Zach made a new friend or two when he wasn't helping my mom or watching me work with Buddy. He actually got to participate sometimes - the trainer would have him and some of the other siblings walk around the dogs as "distractions" while we had them "sitting" or in a "down". Zach loved it. Most lunch breaks we spent in Xenia, there were a few places we could eat and it gave me a chance to practice taking Buddy in to places like that. On days when we had a longer break we would just go back to the hotel. The evenings were spent mostly with me taking Zach and Josh to the pool, while my mom was either bonding with Buddy or doing laundry (seriously, she offered, I certainly didn't ask her to do it!). It was nice, the dog got to rest after working all day and the boys got to play in the pool, something they both love doing. I had to be in the pool with my hands on Josh the whole time but it's fun to see him happy so it was never a problem.
The tracking went much better this time as well. Josh would go with my mom and sometimes Zach as opposed to someone that was a stranger to him. So I was able to learn to handle Buddy and that was important since Buddy is basically a rocket with legs. I kid you not, this dog can MOVE. Had everyone wondering if he had some Greyhound in him, given his deep, barrel chest and his speed. And boy did he love tracking, this dog has a nose on him that could find you in another country I think. Most of the dogs needed a trail of hot-dog pieces to get used to tracking their children. Buddy did that once, then did not need them again. He really LIKED the hot dogs mind you , but he didn't need them. This was Buddy's world. So I learned quickly how to work with him, learn his signals, manage the track, and not get myself pulled off my feet or dragged by him. He always found Josh. I got better and better at managing him and reading him.
Everything was going well. His obedience was a little less solid than his tracking skills but nothing truly worrisome. The hardest thing really when it came to the 3 of us as a team (Josh being tethered to him) was that he just moved too fast. Keeping this dog to a more casual pace was going to be the biggest challenge, he wants to have the nitro firing at all times. Other than that, it was just a world of difference from our first time out.
On our last tracking training session, the trainer took us to a wooded area and instead of telling people where to take the kids to hide, he just sent them off in to the woods so that we would be working a completely blind track, none of us knowing where they went. So it was a simulation of what it would really be like if heaven forbid your child ever did become lost or wander/run away and you needed to find them. For this track, we had Zach go out and hide with an adult from another family. Josh was not in a great mood that day and since it was a blind track, we all knew it was going to take longer and it was unlikely that Josh would handle being in the woods/bush for any length of time. The trainer said that was fine, most of this training was for the people, not the dogs, since the dogs already knew what to do. It was for us to really get a feel for how to handle them through any type of terrain and know what to do with whatever signals they were giving us. There is a lot to know about tracking, it is not simply a matter of following the dog. You have to watch, sometimes they lose the scent, you have to know how to help them find it again. You need to understand the difference between the dog being on the child's scent vs the dog getting distracted momentarily by some animal that had also been there. They need water regularly so you have to watch the time. More than I can tell you here, just know that there is a lot that goes in to it so this was really a big test for those of us handling the dogs.
Zach and the person who took him out to hide did a good job, meaning they were well hidden. Buddy went for it and never gave up. We were running through bushes, trees, mud, you name it. I was sweaty, out of breath, and looked like I'd just been voted off Survivor on Day 28. We even had to come back out to where the cars were, give Buddy a drink, and then went back in again. The deep, barrel chested dogs have a much bigger lung capacity than dogs who aren't built like that so the trainer said that most of the other dogs would have stopped before this point, just wouldn't have it in them to keep going. Buddy did though and he knew Buddy was good (one of their best trackers ever, they told me) so we kept going. We eventually found them. Poor Zach, sitting out so quiet in the bushes for so long, what a trooper! It took us over an hour. Might have been an hour and a half, I can't remember. All I know is we made 4 Paws history, longest successful blind track they've ever done. Apparently the trainer still tells classes the story. They gave me a bonus break that day and let me go back to the hotel and shower before coming back that afternoon.
We completed training with a test in a large shopping mall. Met the trainer there at the set time, had Josh tethered to Buddy, and I had to walk with them through the mall, around the Food Court, in to different stores, etc. Josh has never, ever, been a fan of malls. In fact, it had been years since I had even been in one, I just stopped going since it would always be a nightmare. Yet Josh was great, walking around without having me hanging on to him, but tethered to Buddy. It was just as I had imagined it would be. We passed the test. Went to the class graduation ceremony back at the center, and got ready to leave.
Now came the hard part. Doing everything with a service dog. The dogs have special vests/harnesses that they wear so it's obvious, but it's still something that gets a lot of attention and not everyone is always as understanding as you would think. When we went to dinner that night before we drove to Indianapolis, the hostess who sat us made us wait while she went to talk to I assume the manager, and then sat us way in the back of the restaurant at a tiny table that wasn't really big enough for 4 people but it was not in their main restaurant area. Pretty sure they were trying to keep us away from as many of the other customers as possible. Buddy tucks himself under the table as he is supposed to so most people won't even know we have a dog with us until we leave or unless they happen to see us come in. They had us sitting at this tiny round table that was free standing, almost like a little bistro table, as opposed to a booth, so it was really hard for Buddy to manage sitting under this, but he did a good job despite the awkwardness of it.
The flying home presented a lot of stress on my end with him. Had to make sure he went to the bathroom as close to airport time as possible, didn't eat or drink much before the flights, and just hoped like hell he wouldn't have an accident somewhere. We were told in training that this happens sometimes, so we were to be prepared for it. I had clean-up supplies if I needed them, just really didn't want to have to deal with that, it was hard enough making sure Josh was not going to lose it while en-route. Security turned out to be an interesting and ultimately humorous experience with him. So Josh, Buddy and I are a team, all attached by the dog's harness, Josh's tether, and the lead I hold. My mom and Zach do their thing and walk through the metal detector. We're up. The security team is just looking at me, scratching their heads. They ask if I can un-attach everything and if we can come through one at a time. I tell them I'll try, but that Josh is autistic and not likely to do that well without me managing him. They want me to do it anyway. So, I get us separated, and do my best to send Josh through, then I walk through with Buddy. Of course alarm bells are going off everywhere, the harness has several metal attachment rings on it. We take off the harness completely. They want to "wand" Josh. He is supposed to stand still with his arms out so they can do this. I start helping and they tell me I can't touch him. I start laughing and say, "well, good luck with that". Maybe not a great idea to laugh at airport security but really, watching them try to get Josh to stand still was a joke and I had explained that it wasn't going to work. They did what they could and kind of gave up on Josh. It was my turn, so I stood still like a good little passenger and got properly wanded. Too bad that isn't as fun as it sounds. *ahem* So then it was Buddy's turn, yes, they wanted to wand Buddy. They even switched from the female agent to a male one for him, which made me bust out laughing again, I mean, guys, it's a DOG, he doesn't care! He'll be happy if one of you gets his happy spot going, don't worry about your sensitivity training with this one. The agent got down to Buddy's level and sat there for a minute, wand at the ready. I was trying not to giggle too much watching him try to wave the wand around Buddy's tail. He looked at me, then the other agents and just said, forget it, pretty sure the dog doesn't have any weapons on him. Indeed. So we got our selves put back together and made our way to the gate.
Buddy was terrific on the plane. Little nervous on take off mostly because of the noise, but he settled down quickly, I gave him lots of treats, and he curled up at Josh's feet for the rest of the flight. Since Josh is small, and Buddy is not a large dog (I swear he can curl up in to the tiniest ball, it's pretty impressive) he fit with no problem at all and we weren't even in the bulkhead. Most of the fight attendents were surprised to see him when we got off the plane, said they had no idea he was even there.
So we were home once again, this time with our dog. Buddy. The story that the director told me when we got there was that he had been a Katrina refugee, his original family had been displaced by the hurricane and were not able to keep him where they ended up, so another family took him in. They were the ones who brought him to Ohio. My mother and I are convinced he is a Catahoula Leopard Dog, a breed indigenous to Louisiana. Who knows. Our journey with Buddy has not been perfect - there have been a lot of really great things and some not so great things that have happened with him over the last 4 years. I will be putting up pics of him in the photo gallery. I will end this story here. I can talk more about Buddy, but will leave that to future posts. These were more about what it took and what we went through to get him.
What is this, 8 pages long? Seems like it should be, takes me half the day to write these things :)