At A Better Pet, training a team for a service dog working relationship includes identifying functions and setting up a treatment plan with realistic goals and techniques. It requires commitment and a proactive sensibility to set up for a successful partnership. Kathy and Olive, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, continue to develop their team skills and have found great camaraderie.
Now that it is April and they have been working together for a few months, I asked Kathy a few follow-up questions that came up from this past January’s Podcast episode interview, Rachel, Kathy + Olive on At Home Radio.
Let’s learn how Team Kathy + Olive have grown! (If you haven’t heard the podcast yet, we recommend you listen to get a clearer idea of how service dog training develops at A Better Pet.)
Rachel: Remind everyone of our current stage of training.
Kathy: Olive and I are currently in month 4 of our 6-month training agreement. We meet once a week via Zoom, I find I text you daily to discuss Olive’s progress and challenges, and we attend DIPs on the weekends. Though the training contract runs 6 months, as you remind me, Olive will continue learning new skills and practicing her existing ones over her entire life. And I will have the skills to teach her new things down the road.
Rachel: We’re over a year into the pandemic and social distancing is still very much a thing. To that end, share if you can, the variety of social outings you have had the opportunity to do in the past month or so.
Kathy: Olive and I have gone to medical appointments together, weekly church services and various retail locations. At Starbucks, where I’m a regular, we are always received very warmly. Before Olive, I always used the drive through. Now with Olive, I take the time and go inside. Olive gives me the confidence to do this. Previously, when I have gone into places, I always felt like I was in the way. Possibly blocking with my wheelchair. With Olive, I don’t care anymore and I actually realize I’m not in the way at all. I also just began to lead a grief support group at my church and Olive is of course in attendance. She is so generous about offering emotional support to me during the meeting, and also, to attendees. Her presence helps build my confidence in public speaking opportunities. I did a talk for Disability Month (March) and she laid there beside me for support. Being out in front of people has always been difficult for me and having Olive with me makes me feel more confident in those roles. I guess what I’m saying, now that I’m talking about it, is that Olive has just really helped boost my self-confidence and reduced my anxiety.
Rachel: Curious. When you’re out in public with her, where is she in relationship to you?
Kathy: True story. She usually sits on my lap and rides along in my wheelchair with me.
Rachel: Funny you should say that. Because now that the weather is sort of warming up (snow storm in late April notwithstanding), we will be continuing to work on teaching you to encourage her to walk alongside you more and fine tune some of the challenges with some tasks you’re working on. As restrictions from the pandemic ease up in the coming months, we will increase our ability to do public access outings both indoors and out. How would you describe how Olive helps you in your day-to-day life?
Kathy: There are two times of the day I’m going to mention as they are very significant as I think about them. One is that at the end of every workday, Olive helps me decompress. My job can be very stressful for me because I work in customer service in the medical industry. I often handle lots of financial discussions and help people dealing with complicated situations. After I finish my day, which is at home these days, exhausted and stressed, I make my way from the wheelchair to the couch. Once there, Olive comes on the couch with me and will sit on my lap and cuddle me for a very long snuggle. It usually lasts 20-30 minutes. It is a great comfort. And the second one is at bedtime, which at first had been a problem when Olive had a habit of nibbling on my toes. You taught us how to fix it which of course worked and now our bedtime routine flows smoothly and peacefully. When I get into bed, Olive already in there, when I lay down she comes next to me and lays beside me and that makes me feel loved and safe. Significantly different for me than before Olive. These two times of comfort are especially cherished.
We are working on one challenge. Olive struggles with the retrieval of objects that I need. While she does pick up a variety of objects that I drop or need her to fetch for me, she has not yet mastered handing me the object after picking it up. There’s some breakdown in my communication with her. With some new strategies, we are working on solving this problem.
Rachel: Yes, the chain of sequences has a breakdown within it–Olive hasn’t learned the “what to do” once she has picked up an item. It isn’t playtime or a game of keep-away which may be what she wants it to be. Olive will learn what you want as you continue to evolve your Benevolent Leadership with her.
Next question. Kathy, how has Olive helped you in your social life?
Kathy: Well she’s definitely helping me be social! Olive is definitely a bridge to connection for me. Everywhere I take her, people always want to ask me about her and in the process, I end up talking to people about all kinds of things. That never happened before I had Olive. Before I had Olive, I didn’t know any of my neighbors’ names and now everyone yells out “Hi Kathy! Hi Olive!” It makes me feel seen, not invisible, that people recognize me and look out for me in the neighborhood. This type of activity helps “normalize” things a bit for me–before I wouldn’t have spoken to any of these people but having Olive is opening me up to new experiences. I have much more laughter in my life and less anxiety.
Rachel: How about attending DIPs (drop in play sessions)?
Kathy: DIPs have been a great reality check for me. In meeting other dog owners and learning about why they have chosen to get a service dog, I’ve really found that I am not alone in my struggles, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. We are all in different phases of our lives and we discuss our wins and challenges and that we each have dogs with differences but that we all have a lot in common. It is an informal support group in that way. I appreciate that you encourage us to continue talking as we build our teams.
Rachel: Overall, do you feel that entering into this service dog training agreement with A Better Pet was a good decision for you? What would you say to people considering a service dog in their life?
Kathy: I have learned that both Olive and I are being trained together. You are showing me how to be the Benevolent Leader that Olive needs in order to meet my needs now and moving forward. I cannot imagine my life without her. She is by her very nature showing me new things that help me improve my life in subtle and very obvious ways. I think it is important to have the right mindset and the commitment to go through the training process. You are very straightforward and I appreciate that you always tell me your honest opinion even if it’s hard to hear. My work with you and Olive has been incredibly rewarding.
For me, the greatest lesson I am taking away from this experience is that my dog is my left hand, a part of me that I never knew I needed. I don’t know how else to describe it… I depend on Olive in a way that I could not live without!
We’d love to hear from you. If you or someone you know can benefit from a similar placement, reach out and tell us about your needs.