Venturing Off-World

The subject of traveling with Josh has come up within the context of several previous posts but none that have focused on it specifically as the topic. Since going anywhere with him, even just out to dinner, is an exercise in anticipatory planning, preparation, packing, and co-ordination, I felt it deserved a post all its own.

It's amazing, really, the things you take for granted before you have kids.  Of course, you don't realize that you are taking anything for granted until the kids come along and change everything.  Going places, and I mean, anywhere - grocery store, post office, DMV, or you know, Europe, is no exception.  It is probably one of the things that changes the most.  Kids = stuff.  Whether it's in your house or on the road, they have and need a lot of stuff.  Special seats, special beds, special food, special toys, special mobility devices, you name it, they've got it and you need to take it all with you.  Gone are the days of simply jumping in the car to run a "quick" errand.  Of course you get well versed in how to manage, marveling at how adept you become at handling strollers, bags, carriers, other kids and sometimes, dogs.  You get used to it.  And just when your memory of the time before all the stuff arrived in your life is about to fade completely... BAM, circumstances allow you to go out somewhere sans stuff and it all comes back to you. 

The amount of stuff  is always inversely proportional to your kids' age(s).  Normally, as they get older, the amount required when you go places becomes less and less.  This is not so much the case with Josh, or, I would imagine, any autistic child.  The first real travel challenge with him was when we moved from Philadelphia to Seattle when he was just two.  Though he had not yet received his "official" diagnosis, he was already in Early Intervention for all of his delays as well as his sensory integration/processing issues and we pretty much knew anyway.  We decided to fly.  Even though Josh had not turned two yet when I bought the tickets and he could have sat in my lap, we decided it would be best to buy a full ticket for him and have him in his car seat on the plane - he was used to the seat, comfortable in it, never fussed in it, so it seemed like a good idea.  It was... sort of.  While the theory of how Josh would be in the seat proved correct, traveling with a full-sized car seat ON THE PLANE is not easy.  His seat actually got stuck in the x-ray machine when we were trying to leave Philly.  True story.  Josh's dad managed to get it out, though the TSA folks were not at all happy about the damage to the x-ray machine.  Maybe they should have thought of that before making us put the seat through it.  Then you have to get it on the plane and fastened in to a seat, all the while managing the child or children, and all the rest of the stuff.  This, is why they invented pre-boarding.

As he got older, the thought of trying to manage his now special-ordered, extra large car seat on a plane was just too much.  So now a days he just sits in the airplane seat.  He can easily undo the seatbelt though, so the trick these days is to make sure he stays calm and happy for the duration of the flight.  A task that I'm sure you can imagine is easier said than done.  Since the move 10 years ago, we have not attempted any single flight longer than about 3.5 - 4 hours and I'm not sure I'd want to any time soon.  There is just so much that could potentially go wrong, visions of being escorted off a plane in the middle of nowhere because Josh becomes too disruptive make me too nervous.  Four hours or less is doable though.  Of course there's still a lot of stuff involved.  I mentioned in the Service dog posts about giving him a tiny dose of a sedative prior to flying - I may have said it was Valium, that was incorrect, we use Ativan, in an extremely tiny dose as prescribed by his psychiatrist.  We made sure to try it at home before the first time so we would know how he reacted to it.  You don't want to be trying out a new medication when you are traveling without knowing how your child is going to respond. I always try to make sure I have everything he will want DVD-wise, as well as having a spare, fully charged back up battery for the portable DVD player.  I order new or replacement Blue's Clues books before the trip and don't let him see them until we are in flight.  I bring a variety of special candy treats, and try to find a few other small, desirable (aka sensory) objects to surprise him with as well.  We always need a change of clothes and pull-up changing supplies.  I bring a small pillow that he's had since he was a toddler in case he wants to lie down.  I already mentioned I don't like the bulkhead because you can't lift the arms of those seats, but there is always the fear that if he does get upset, he will start kicking the seat in front of him.  The times I've flown with him, I have taken a chance on that not happening and not been seated in the bulkhead.  But we've been lucky, and if we were ever to risk a longer flight somewhere, it might be better to sit there as there would be a higher risk of his being unhappy at some point.

And of course there's Buddy.  He has his own stuff.  I talked about security with him in the Service Dog posts, that's always fun... on top of everything Josh needs/might need, I have to make sure I have Buddy covered too.  Poop pick up bags/cleaning supplies in case of any accidents, treats, vest, harness, leash, food, bowls, documents to verify vaccinations, etc...

The car is not quite as daunting as plane travel with him, though it still requires a lot.  I bring more in the way of food for him when we go places via car.  More of his toys and a blanket or two, as well as everything I usually bring for plane trips.  We don't use the Ativan for car trips though, that is strictly for flying.  And it doesn't knock him out, by the way, it really just seems to keep him mellow for a couple of hours.  Of course in the car I've had to stop at highway rest-stops to change him.  Which is not something that is enjoyable by any stretch of the imagination, just sometimes necessary.  When we go up to visit my family in Canada we have to stop at the border to go through customs.  The lines are often very long.  Josh is usually fine in the car unless it's not moving, then he's not so happy.  So border waits can be difficult.  There are two different ways for us to cross so when I am getting close I have to pay attention to the signs indicating wait times at both crossings to see which will be faster.  Man, when both boys were little and Josh was on the GFCF diet, I was packing food for both of them for however long we would be away... GFCF stuff for Josh, things Zach could eat because of his allergies, I had grocery bags, coolers, you name it.  I'd open the back of the car at my mom's and she'd be like "um, how long are you staying, exactly?!" Would take me half an hour just to get everything unloaded and unpacked.  Good times!

These days I don't travel with all the food, just some things for Josh that I can't find up there for him, like his almond milk (because I could not get him back on cow's milk after going off the GFCF diet).  We also don't pack as many toys as we used to for him - just a few of his most favorite books, a few favorite toys, and all his DVD's are usually ok at this point. 

I have to take those things when we are simply heading out for dinner as well, though.  Along with spare pull-ups and changing supplies and special candy treats.  We also have to plan so that we don't head out later than 4:30 - 5pm, as there are usually longer lines to be seated when you don't get places early, and Josh will NOT tolerate waiting when he knows fries are going to come. 

When I have had the rare opportunity to venture off without Josh in tow, I realize just how easy it is and am shocked.  Driving up to visit my mom a few months ago, by myself, I didn't have to worry about border waits, I could make a pit stop and not lose my mind over everything that Josh was touching, I packed in about 10 minutes and had one, small, bag.

My mom just looked at me.  "Where is everything?"  I laughed.

Paws and Effect: The Service Dog Story, Part 3

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 tvZach 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. 

His name was "Buddy".  This is the picture we got of him in that e-mail. Buddy

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 :) 


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.


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

Alternative title: Why I will NEVER fly with Northwest Airlines again, ever. 

I may have subconsciously been putting off writing this second part because to this day, this is a very difficult memory for me but it's part of our story so I need to do it.

So we got Ellie's picture and note and were beyond excited.  I just couldn't stop thinking about what a difference she was going to make for us and Josh, plus I love dogs, so I was like a little kid waiting for Christmas.  Now, getting your dog requires attending a training program at the organization with your child.  This is true of both NSD and 4 Paws.  The dogs have already been trained, their new families need to learn how to work with them and all need a chance to bond.  If you are getting a dog that is trained to track, then the training is more extensive.   We had asked for tracking so this meant a longer training session.  They invite a certain number of families to each session as the dogs are felt to be ready.  We were set for March (2006). 

The training sessions for tracking dogs is 10 days long.  4 Paws asks that at least two adults accompany each child who is receiving a dog, so that there will always be someone who can be with the child while the adult who will be the primary handler can participate fully in the training process.  The children are a part of the process as well, especially during the tracking work, but their participation is not needed 100% of the time as is required of the adult handler.  Given that this is a program to place dogs with children of varying disabilities, obviously there will be times the child will not want or be able to participate.  At the time, Josh's father could not take any time off of work.  It was March, so school was still in and I was very reluctant to pull Zach out for that length of time.  I decided that I would just take Josh on my own.  This turned out to be a mistake, but at the time I felt I could manage.  Josh was also not very good about being with too many other people at that stage aside from myself, some of his teachers, and family members, so I just figured I would be best able to manage him and we didn't have a lot of options anyway.  After a little more than 2 years of working on this, I was also just so anxious to get him his dog, I couldn't bear the thought of putting it off any longer.  I discussed it with the director of the organization, told her we just didn't have any options at the time, and that I believed I could manage it.  She was reluctant and told me to continue to try to figure out a way to bring someone else along.  My mother was coming to stay with Zach and his dad so that she could help with taking care of Zach while Bruce was at work and I didn't have any friends or other family members that either were able to take that much time off or close enough to Josh for it to be helpful (didn't make much sense to bring someone if Josh was simply going to tantrum with them the whole time).  So I just decided I was taking him on my own. 

Then came the travel plans.  At that time, Josh was still fairly difficult in terms of public melt-downs and I was extremely nervous about how to manage him on my own with carry-ons, changing planes, and very specifically, security.  Josh is not someone who is capable of standing in a line for great lengths of time without dissolving in to a tantrum (if you haven't read my post titled "That Woman With the Screaming Kid", now would be a good time to do that so you understand what we're talking about here!).  I also knew that coming back, I would have all the same concerns but we would be traveling with the dog as well.  I knew I had to do a lot of planning and preparing.  I spent hours researching airline rules and regulations and policies regarding traveling with people with disabilities as well as service animals.  Did you know that there are "Helper Monkeys" ?   Seriously.  I came across policies relating to them in my research travels.  I have never, ever heard of a "helper monkey" before, let alone seen one in action but now I want one!  Anyway, helper monkeys aside, I figured I had enough info under my belt to make some calls once I'd made our flight reservations.  I booked with Northwest Airlines.  4 Paws is in Ohio, little town called Xenia, which is closer to Dayton and Cincinnati than to Cleveland, so I ended up on a flight that went from Seattle to Minneapolis-St Paul where we would need to change planes and get a second flight to Dayton.  I e-mailed the folks at Northwest Airlines customer service about my situation and was told that traveling with the dog would be no problem as long as it was clearly a service dog.  I also called them.  I know a lot of people like to request the bulkhead seats but I did not want those - I knew Josh would have his baby dose of Valium on board at least for the longer of the two flights and there was a definite possibility that he would want to sleep.  You cannot lift the arm rests of bulkhead seats, your trays come out of them so they are immobile.  I wanted to have the ability to lift the arm rests so that Josh could lie down more easily if he needed too.  The people I spoke to about it said that was fine.  I also asked them if they could have a service agent meet us in Seattle as well as in MSP, to help get us through security faster in Seattle and help me get us to our next flight in MSP, as our connection time was pretty tight.  They said they would do all of this for us.  I actually called them again a couple of days prior to our scheduled departure to make sure all was in place and they assured me that they had notes about it all with our reservation and everything was set. 

We arrived at the airport for our departure and upon checking-in, asked the ticketing agent about the service agent that was supposed to be meeting us, as there wasn't one when we got there.  She said she would check for us.  Josh was already upset because his dad had to leave us at the airport and I was starting to get a really terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach.  No agent.  Ticketing lady said she couldn't find anyone.  I told her there were supposed to be notes about this on my reservation.  She says she sees the part about the dog, wants to know where the dog is.  I tell her we will have one on the return trip but what I really needed now was someone to get us to the front of the security line because at this point Josh was in full-on melt down on the floor.  She said she would try to find someone for us.  I am livid.  But I have to deal with Josh so there is no time for me to let loose on Northwest right now.  I dragged him, literally, off to the side after she checked us in and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Keep in mind that Josh was screaming the whole time.  On the floor.  This is a busy airport.  I'm getting those looks.  I know that each and every person who passes us is praying that we are not on their flight, and I didn't blame them, I was really scared about getting on a plane with him for several hours at this point.  I couldn't give him the Valium yet, that had to happen as close to flight time as possible because of how long it lasts, I didn't want it wearing off mid-flight, and really didn't want to give him more than one dose despite how small it was.  Still no service agent.  So, I steel myself, set my jaw as I do when I am pissed off and determined, and maneuvered my screaming son to the security line, people's looks be damned.  I decided if it got too disruptive security would just pull us up and put us through on their own, so whatever.  The one small miracle of this day would be that the line at that time was not very long, luckily for all of us. 

We got through security, me  still fuming, Josh is calming down a little as we are walking.  I look to see where our gate is...Terminal C.  Where the hell is Terminal C??  I find a map.  Oh, goodie, we have to take a train to get there.  OK.  I can do this.  I find the escalator to take us down to the transit level.  Josh loses his mind and starts screaming like I have never heard him before.  Wow... what the hell?  I realize as I try to get him to the escalator, that it is, the escalator that is the problem.  He had never done this before.  Mind you we had not been on too many in his life so there wasn't a lot of past experience to go on.  He was clearly terrified.  I looked around quickly for an elevator but couldn't see one in the immediate vicinity.  It was at this point I thought about just bagging it.  This was ridiculous, I couldn't even get to our gate with him.  I have a real stubborn streak (all of you who know me STOP SMIRKING!) though, and just felt that if I could get us to the gate, I could give him the Valium and he would calm down.  So we went in search of an elevator to get us down to the train.  Finally found one - note to SEA, you should really make handicapped access more ACCESSIBLE by having it closer to where people will need it.  We got to the train and made our way to Terminal Freaking C.  We get to the gate and I take Josh to the bathroom so I can give him the Valium.  This does not come in child-friendly liquid or chewable forms, for obvious reasons, so I had a small spoonful of peanut butter in a medicine cup in our carry-on, stuck the pill into a blob of it, and stuck it in his mouth (thank goodness he likes peanut butter).  He ate it, and we were set.  We boarded the plane and took our seats, which were perfect, no bulkhead and no one sitting with us.  We get settled, I can see Josh calming down already so I start to relax a little.  Flight attendant comes to me.  Says we are sitting in someone else's seats.  I show her my boarding pass which has these seats printed on it.  She is confused and goes back up front to pow-wow with the other attendants.  No more relaxing for me, that feeling is back in the pit of my stomach.  She comes back.  Tells me that someone must have made a mistake when we checked in because we are supposed to be sitting in the bulkhead seats.  Ok. No, we're not, I told her that I had specifically requested NOT to be sat there and explained to her why.  She goes back to pow-wow some more.  Back to me.  Well, the note we have on your reservation says that your son is disabled and our policy is that you are supposed to be seated in the bulkhead seats.  You're kidding me, right?  I DO NOT WANT THE BULKHEAD,  IT WILL BE WORSE TO PUT US THERE,  THESE SEATS ARE FINE YOU NEED TO TRUST ME ON THIS.  He's my son, I know what will work and what won't and I was told that none of this would be a problem.  Mind you, I had been told a lot of things by Northwest at this point.  Back for more discussion amongst her crew.  I am fairly certain that steam was actually coming out of my ears at this point.  My jaw was starting to hurt from how clenched I'd had it all morning.  I may have scared her.  She came back and said they would LET us stay where we were.  Oh, thank you, how kind.  Plane takes off, Josh is actually doing well, quietly looking at his books and watching Blue's Clues DVD's on our portable player.   I have a picture of him during the flight, I will put it up in the photo gallery after I post this.  For a couple of hours I let my jaw relax and was able to go back to being excited that we were really on our way.  Josh managed the flight really well, so that helped a lot.  We get off in MSP, a little late, so I knew we were going to have to really move to make our connection.  Was there a service agent there waiting for us as we got off to help us as there was supposed to be? Of course not.  How silly of me to think at this point that Northwest was going to come through on ANYTHING they had told me they would do.  So I told the gate agent what my issue was and asked where the next gate was.  I am not sure how many of you are familiar with MSP but it is a massive airport, I mean, really just enormous.  She tells me that our next gate is way the hell away in some other terminal and that we'd better hurry, because we hardly had any time.  Uh, thanks for the help.  She didn't call anyone, wouldn't get a cart for us, nothing.  Also, neglected to tell me about the inter-terminal transit system.  I had never been to MSP before and had no idea where to go except to follow the signs.  I think we only had about 15 minutes at this point.  I was beside myself.  I grab all our stuff, get Josh by the hand, and started running.  Really running.  Poor Josh, for a while he found this amusing but then he was getting tired, it was a long way and he is a little person.  I was dying, I had my purse,  and 2 carry-on's over one shoulder and Josh with the other hand.  People were looking at us.  Carts with older people on them would drive by us but none would stop.  One man even started laughing as we went by and made a comment about how we'd better keep running.  Why are people so horrible?  I stopped at a gate of a different Northwest flight along the way, desperate, sure we would miss the flight.  I asked the agent to call to our gate and please let them know that we were coming.  She wouldn't.  Why not?  She never really even answered me except to say no.  This was the same damn airline, is this really a problem?  Wow.  So we keep running.  We get to the gate as they are literally starting to close the doors and we actually got on the flight.  I am sweating, out of breath, so is Josh, I feel like I have been bulldozed both physically and emotionally.  Northwest not only failed to do any of what we had arranged for them to do, but essentially went out of their way to make things MORE difficult for us. 

We land in Dayton.  As I am at the rental car counter I realize much to my horror that on the way back we will be dealing with Northwest again, this time, dog in tow.  Or so I thought.

(Evil as I am, going to leave it at that for now.  Since it was clear that part 2 would have be divided in to an "a" and a "b", looks like this is going to be at least 4 posts for the whole story - told you not to hold me to 3!  Might even be 5, there is a lot to it). 

To Be Continued...