Sunday, November 16, 2008

The general public can be scary and kind

Well, we've been here one week and it has been an educational journey in ways I did not expect. Learning about service dogs, the law and about the purpose of establishing a strong bond with their new canine partners is right on schedule. Learning about the general public has been both annoying and enlightening.

When the men and their partners go out, whether individually or together, there are the expected stares and hushed whispers. Some of the stares can be downright hostile or full of fear. Not knowing the background that people have with dogs you can seize the moment to shower them with kindness or gently explain that this is a working dog who is competely safe. It's the questions from the general public that can shock you.

  • Q. Is the dog in training?

  • A. No, the dog is competely trained. I'm in training and we are learning to work as a team.

  • Q. Is this a military dog? Military working dog?

  • A. No, I was in the military.

  • Q. Can I pet the dog? ( This is asked quite a bit. )

  • A. This depends. Usually it depends on the situation. If the dog is in her service vest and is working at that moment, the guys explain that she is working and she can't be pet at that time. Then they thank the person for asking. Other times they allow the dog to be pet or spoken to, but only when they are in a sit/down position. I find they almost exclusively allow this when the children ask.

  • Q. (While looking directly at the men) they will ask are you blind? They blink at the person, look them square in the eye and say no. Sometimes they explain that they are Iraqi War vets and this dog helps them injuries they received there. Most people nod, thank them for their service to the country and walk away. Some look skeptically at them and ask, so where's your injury? I can't see anything wrong with you.

We have only had one challenge about bringing a service dog into a business. A young greeter at Wal-Mart was certain that service dogs were not allowed entry. It was a challenge to Isaiah and he responded with certainty that it is federal law. Pat was with him and asked the young man if he had ever heard of The American with Disabilities Act? He had not, but he was educated today.

The public kindness has also been as generous as it has been uneducated. People have respected the men and their partners. They have thanked the men. They have let the dogs work and in Home Depot they went out of their way to help with the ongoing training these dogs need in unexpected situations. They allowed us to drop lumber, large metal clasps, and anything else that would cause an unexpected and loud sound. They ran saws for us and drove the loader back and forth. The whole experience bonded the men and dogs closer. The dogs and the men protected each other in a sense.

As these men heal enough to handle the day to day living that has been so difficult for them to continue, they will begin to educate those around them. Family, friends and perfect strangers will be exposed to a world that may be foreign to them. These men will pass along the kindness that started in the whelping box with inmates who got a second chance to change a life for the good. It continued with Golden Kimba Service Dogs and the dedication of Pat Schwartz to train the veterans on the way to handle their service dogs. Friends along the way who have provided situational training and playdates for the dogs. Lives will be saved from this program. Generations will be changed for the better. The darkness will begin to lift and the light will most assurdly mark the path for these teams.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Can You Imagine?

John Lennon's song Imagine has that sing song take on imagining all the obstacles in life that he believes keep us from living in a state of nirvana. I heard it in the car while we drove around today. Pat warned us about Day 3 and she was right. Day 3 was grueling.

Can you imagine that everytime you think about doing a simple task like grocery shopping, enjoying a meal in a restaurant or just sitting outside enjoying the warm breezes are enough to make your heart pound. Enough to make you sweat and shake. Turn your insides to greasy jello. That the very joy of escorting your wife or girlfriend out of the four walls of your house could make you want to cower in fear. Well today, I saw two brave men do their very best to take new skills and attempt to redefine their shrunken world.

The confidence they feel inside the walls of Pat's house is real. So real, in fact, that they believe they will make this work in the outside world. They have visions of returning to their old life of carefree and thoughtless excursions. But once inside the door of the grocery store, the fear turns to anger or paralysis. The task of shopping from a grocery list takes ten times longer than it should and more backtracking than necessary. This new life with a tethered partner requires forethought and planning. Observing the path in front of them and looking for obstacles, distractions, and dangers both imagined and real. All of this while dealing with the lie their brain is telling them about possible attack. Knowing that at any moment a panic attack may set in or a flashback may occur that will hurtle them into the dark. Then it is time to apply the new skills they have learned over the past three days. It's not just about commands, it is about trust. It's about trusting their dogs.

At one point, I watched anger turn into confusion and the inabiity to perform the task at hand. Pat immediately saw what was happening and gently reminded him to stop the task and turn to his partner. And that is where the fear dropped away and the paralysis turned to movement. He dropped to his knees and held his service dog. He rubbed her and loved her and she took his nervousness and panic. She took it onto herself and then shook it off; thus releasing them both from a burden neither has to carry.

There would be more obstacles today beyond that one. More hurdles to go over, around or through. Each day ends though and a new one waits on the other side of the dawn. Another day of putting one foot forward outside of the four walls PTSD builds around these men. But they are no longer going through this alone. They have a willing partner that wants to walk beside them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day

"Today was a good day." Both vets said this today on their way home with their partners seated at their feet. A good day. You've got to wonder what that is to them. A good day to me? Getting in exercise. Scrapbooking or reading a bit. Talking to my husband. Shopping. Easy things. Every day things. So what is a good day to them? I didn't ask but I was with them all day. From waking to sleeping. Today's day involved learning the simple things again. These dogs are smarter than these men. These men will catch up eventually, but the dogs know 90 commands and these men are 70 commands behind them. But they are willing to learn. They are fighting for their lives and their freedom. They have taken the step forward that required them to admit their inability to cope and request help. A hard thing for most people, especially warriors who have braved the worst life has to offer and survived.

Class today consisted of commands and getting their dogs to trust them as well them learning to trust their dogs. The picture above is Isaiah standing on a box while Meghan is inside. She cannot see him. He marched on top and she couldn't see him and kept coming out to find out what was going on. Her command was to stay, and he had to put her back without coming off the box. We also had field trips to a restaurant, drug store and Petco. The guys and the dogs did wonderful. All this was done with our trainer and prompts and encouragement from her. Then when the day was done and everyone was exhausted, she sent us home ....... with the dogs, alone. No trainer to look to for cues if things were being done right. Just the guys and their instincts. Dinner proved interesting for Isaiah. He had commanded Meghan over and over to go under the table, lay down and stay. But she would not do it. Would not. She would just stare at Isaiah. We couldn't figure out if she was challenging him or if something else was going on. Eventually she went in and laid down and stayed. But she was not in the position he wanted which was facing his back (which was against the wall) but she turned and faced forward where she could see what was going on. Then she was happy. We ended the night at Wal-Mart where Isaiah was on his own. He wanted to be independent. After all isn't that what this is about; his independence? So I shopped for fruit and such and he trained with his partner.

The lights are now out in the hotel room, except for the glow of my PC's screen. Isaiah and Meghan are in bed together. Both so exhausted they are sleeping. Touching. Always touching. And I am releasing him to her. Letting him depend on her and her on him. The mantra of the class is........If you take care of her, she'll take care of you. This bond of mutual dependency may very well save his life. A month ago she was being trained in a prison and had been for 18 months. And tonight she is sleeping in a very comfortable bed with a man who will treat her right the rest of their life together.

Today was a good day!!!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Challenges - Who's really in charge here?

In this life there is always going to be challenges. Many times we wonder who is in control. God, nature, our children, our mother? And today, it was the question that Isaiah and Meghan asked themselves. Who's the boss of me? Meghan threw out some definite body signals. Some said, " I will listen if you'll feed me" and some said, "Food or no food I'll do my own thing. Thank you very much." This was to be expected for sure. Sometimes it was comical. So much information thrown to Isaiah and a fellow wounded warrior that it was hard to remember all the right words. The dogs were patient through it all. Listening to several commands at once from two different men. I'm sure their minds were buzzing with confusion. But when they listened, they were a team.

The study time around the table inevitably brought about conversation and sharing. The stories that went back and forth from the Marine to the soldier were funny and sad. The stories brought animation to their faces and a shake to their hands and legs. And sometimes the vacancy in their eyes showed that they had left their current post at the training table and had ventured into the past. Looking backward with a rawness reserved only for those who had seen, firsthand, the horrors of war. If you were quiet enough during the retelling of their journey, you could feel the hunger from too many days with no food. You could feel the walls of the underground tunnels close in too tightly. And you could see the light in their friends eyes dim as they left the battleground. Then before you knew it, they returned to this world. Shaken and drymouthed. Ready to refocus on the task at hand and the life that now lay before them.

Bonding with their new working partners will require patience, a firm voice, lots of love and tons of food. These dogs will never know what their new owners have seen or felt. But with an uncanny ability to sense the damage it has caused, these helpful canines will give their bodies in service to those who have served.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The beginning of a journey

There are so many privileges to having children. In the beginning we watch them enter the world with blinking eyes that try so hard to focus on their new surroundings. Then we watch the first smiles, first steps and the wonderful experience of them sleeping through the night for the first time. Tonight I got the opportunity to watch my son experience true hope for the first time in a long time. A very long time. And hope came in the form of a chocolate lab service dog. Her name is Meghan and she is beautiful. She bounded through the door of the hotel lobby as if she knew someone who already fully loved her and needed her was waiting. She gave kisses and hugs. They have alot to learn over the next two weeks, but the bond is already there.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to touch her for two weeks. The whole two weeks we are here. Isaiah must be the one she looks to for everything. EVERYTHING. Playing, eating, walking, commands, love and affection. She will become dependent on him for her life and he will become dependent on her for his life and his sanity.

So far this will prove to be an interesting journey. Two whole weeks in a hotel room with Isaiah and Meghan. We get her Tuesday night for the rest of their life together.