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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/24/11

Hobi, Service Dog In Training

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My guest today is Michelle Milne. Welcome to OpEdNews!  I've seen you at the pool many times but we never spoke before today. You always have a companion with you. Can you introduce him to our readers, please? 

taking a breather between laps

His name is Hobi Captain So So Happy. He is a Golden Retriever/Black Lab mix that came to our home a year and half ago as a rescue dog.  He just turned two in January.   

Hello, Hobi; so nice to meet you.  And how is it that you happen to have him with you poolside, Michelle?

Hobi is poolside with me because I have chronic pain. It comes in the form of neuropathy.  I have had it now for 16 years.

Hobi happens to have some very special skills that help me with my disability.  He is being trained by me to be my service dog.  The category of his service is "mobility and sensitivity".  This category is the same one that dogs trained to detect seizures falls under.

When we got him, he showed a special sensitivity to my pain.  He would lie on the part of my body that hurt - without my input. He is always by my side, watching me.  When I'm at physical therapy, if he sees my balance fail, he jumps to get under me.  When I'm in the pool, if I stop swimming and float in the middle for a time because of pain or a cramp, he will stand up and bark and not stop until I am out of the water and next to him or I start swimming again.

The pain cycle is something that I have had to learn to manage over the last 16 years.  When I find something that can interrupt the pain cycle from getting worse, it is worth doing and Hobi has that ability.   He can help me stay calm and refocus when my pain spikes.   

I have done everything under the sun to learn how to manage pain and have an entire slew of tools under my belt from meditation, exercise, physical therapy, medications, prayer, etc.  And now Hobi has been added to the tool belt.   

Usually, people in your situation contact a canine companion operation and order a dog. You went a different route that sounds much more complicated and time-consuming. Explain why, please.

Cost and time.  Cost being hugely prohibitive and the wait list was three to six years.  I figured I could start training him and still be ahead of the game.  But to start off with, I did not know there were service dogs available for people with chronic pain.  When we first got Hobi and he started exhibiting behaviors that meant he was detecting my pain levels, I started googling chronic pain and dogs.  It was there that I learned about the category that he falls into.  I also learned that his breed, a golden retriever/black lab mix, are the ones that most commonly have the sensitivity component.  Plus, you combine those two breeds and you have a dog that just loves to serve.

So, I started doing my research on how to go about training him. I combined a number of different modalities of everything I read and started training him.  He spent the first five weeks on a seven-foot lead attached to my waist.  If I moved, he moved.  He learned to always keep an eye on me.  My hands always smelled liked dog treats that I was using as his rewards.  The one thing that was different about Hobi, though, was he made it easy.  I trained other dogs in the past, and never had the luck I did with Hobi.  I think he was just meant to be my dog. He was heavily attached to me from the very beginning, even before I started the service training.

So, at least part of this was a fluke, complete chance.  Are you done training Hobi, Michelle? And how do you know when you're done?

As far as "complete chance" goes, I can't agree. Before we got Hobi, I told a friend we were thinking about getting a golden/lab mix.  We hadn't started anything, other than the thought.  Four hours later, she sent me the link to a dog on petfinders. The dog was rescued by a company called "dogs deserve life". His name was the name of my son, Aidan, and his brother shared one of my best friends' son's name "Anders".  I  emailed her and said "I think you have my dog, can we have him back?"  When she brought Aidan and Anders the next day,  Aidan (Hobi) walked in the door and crawled and in my lap and did not move.  His brother ran in the house and never even looked at me.  

All we could do was smile and know that our dog had found us. Yet, little did we know how valuable this dog was.

The idea that an animal can help an individual be more active, take less pain medication, sleep better, live better and live more is amazing.  Hobi does all those things for me.

His training is not done, though.  There is fine-tuning training that I need to work on.   To be a legal service animal, the animal must do six behaviors that specifically address your disability.   We are fine-tuning those.  His ability to help prevent panic attacks and help me stay calm in pain spikes is something I need to figure out how to document for testing purposes.

Much of what we spend time doing now involves public education. It's why I agreed to this article.  People are used to dogs for the blind, but not for disabilities that may be invisible.  With the influx of vets coming back with PTSD, there will be a lot more dogs in our community (I hope, anyway) that provide service for these people.

Wow! That's quite a story, Michelle.  Something I've always wondered about service dogs - are they meant to be pets too or strictly for service? I know that when I see them on the street, they often have a jacket on that says "Do not touch." Why is that?

They are meant to be service, but when you are in a family, the lines get a little blurred.  The kids all know, though, that Hobi is service first, pet second.  When we are home, he gets his time to be a pet.  We take off his vest and he gets play time.  But when I need him, he moves into service pretty quickly.  I think somehow he understands his two roles. 
Hobi [off-duty], group hug

The messages that you see on vests on many dogs are "do not touch" or "ask please before you pet me". They are meant to communicate to people that this dog has a job to do and interaction with the dog could be distracting to his job.  With a sight dog, distraction could be deadly.  With a dog that detects seizures, the same applies.  

I allow Hobi breaks after he has worked for a long time, like when he is on the pool deck watching me while I swim, I allow him to get some attention and loving from women in the locker room.  I just make sure that people know that he is taking a break and therefore can give him attention.   

You mentioned earlier that you've trained dogs in the past. For yourself? For others?

I have only trained dogs that I have had as pets.  Some trained well, some not so well. But none with the diligence, time and effort put in to educate myself and my family so we would do it right. I read everything I could find and watched a lot of videos on training. I still am; the process is ongoing.

Well, Hobi is a lovely dog and very popular at the Y. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

Just that dogs have enormous gifts to offer so many people. When trained correctly, what a benefit they are to our society and to each of us as individuals. I think my last comment is just about the need for people to understand that not all disability is plainly seen. Anything that can help someone get through the day on less medicine or help them demand less from those around them on bad days is a wonderful thing. It means better relationships and  longer life. What a gift that is!

Thank you so much for talking with me, Michelle. It was an eye-opener.  

Thank you.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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