Friday, August 27, 2010

Reba - a new life Part I

Over the next few days, I'm going to do a series of posts about Reba. On August 14, she successfully completed Team Training at CCI in Oceanside, CA, and is now at home with her new owner, Lyena, happily fetching water bottles and occasionally snoogling in bed.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let me start by saying that I only knew about Lyena from her web site and what I was able to find about her through Google. I'd never talked to her, even over the phone. And I wasn't sure she'd want to contact me - CCI leaves that up to the new owner. In addition, I wasn't able to attend graduation due to my sister-in-law's wedding, but Reba's weekend puppy raiser, ER, went in my stead. We put together a photo album of Reba puppy pictures, and I wrote a (very) long letter to her new mom, which we printed out and put in an envelope. ER delivered both on the morning of graduation.

Most of the puppy pictures that we included in the album are available on this blog entry, but I've pasted the letter I wrote to her new owner below, in its entirety. There will be more to come in the next few days - pictures of graduation, and Lyena's letter back to me - but we'll start with this.

A Letter to Reba's New Mom

More than anything, I wish I could join you for graduation this weekend, but I am attending my sister-in-law’s wedding across the country in New York. Please know that I am with you in spirit and understand that, as you begin your journey with Reba, graduation is the culmination of a journey I began more than two years ago.

In April 2008, my Ph.D. adviser, John S., passed away after a multi-year battle with leukemia. John was not only my adviser and a key part of my dissertation, he was also one of the most respected individuals in the field of accessibility, namely, Web accessibility for individuals with visual impairments. My dissertation explored ways in which blind individuals navigated web sites, and how modern-day web design practices could be improved to lessen the gap between user needs and web site design. Without John, I would not have had a dissertation!

An English professor at the University of Texas, John was himself blind, and had a wonderful guide dog named Dillon who had been with him for almost 10 years. Dillon was John’s key to freedom – with Dillon he walked to work nearly every morning, he navigated the very large campus at the University, he traveled internationally to lecture on web accessibility, and he even danced in a very creative production called “Sextet”. A two-part documentary on the production is available on Youtube, and it includes several interviews with John. You can also read more about the performace if you like. The dance was even performed at the Kennedy Center, where I believe you have performed as well.

John kept an online journal of the two weeks of training he went through when he got Dillon in 1998, called The Dillon Chronicles. Unfortunately, the university removed the web site after John passed away, but you can read about John’s experience walking in the neighborhood around his house, just north of campus. Perhaps it will provide some insight into how Dillon affected John’s life.

John was an inspiration to so many people, and Dillon helped him to be so. When John passed away, I felt that I wanted to give something back, as John had given to me. I decided that in John’s memory, and Dillon’s (who passed away shortly after John) as well, I would raise a dog in hopes that she, too, could be an integral part to someone’s life. I chose to raise a service dog for CCI, because there was already a support group in the Austin area. After a lengthy application process, Reba arrived as “unattended cargo” at the Austin airport on the Friday before Thanksgiving, 2008.

It’s hard not to fall in love with a puppy, and Reba was no exception. From the beginning, Reba was a very good girl. She didn’t whine or cry, although she did have a propensity for stealing my husband’s size 12 boots. I’d never had a puppy before, although I’d trained my other dog, Elias, who was a rescue. Leash training, toilet training, working with her on name recognition – I was so worried I wouldn’t get it right! We went to puppy classes, where she always shone, except during playtime, and then she was a terror!

One of the funniest things that happened during puppy class was during a demonstration of what to do if your dog got off leash and wouldn’t come back. The trainer fell to the ground and pretended that he was hurt, and all the dogs in the class tried to get to him to see if he was OK – all except Reba. She just sort of looked at me as if to say, “Mom, I think you should do something about that,” then heaved a sigh and put her head on her paws. It’s a good thing she’s not supposed to be a search-and-rescue dog!

My co-workers loved her, and occasionally I’d take off her jacket for playtime. Most of the time, though, she snoozed under my desk (upside-down, of course), and went with me to meetings, which she was allowed to sleep through. The best part of having her at the university was watching people’s faces when I walked by – they would, without exception, smile when they saw her. I loved that she could bring that bit of light to people’s days.

Outings with Reba were always entertaining. On the bus, she always turned heads and I was forever answering questions about her. One lady who rode my bus in the mornings was an artist who did watercolors on her 45-minute bus commute. She did a watercolor of Reba that she claims really got her business going! On campus, people I’d never met would stop me and ask me how Reba was doing (that was an odd experience, to have a complete stranger walk up to you and refer to your dog by name, but have no clue who you are!) We startled waiters at restaurants; they never knew she was there until we got up to leave. I would often overhear children at the grocery store ask their moms why I had a dog, and those children who were respectful occasionally got to shake her paw. Reba even went with her weekend mom, Ellen, to visit a Montessori school in town, and she was calm and gentle with even the smallest ones.

Of course, all was not perfect in puppy land. Raising a puppy is like having a two-year-old. When did she last toilet? Did she just try to lick the floor? Is she going to be good around that guide dog and not distract him? I should warn you that Reba will find every twist tie in your house and bring it to you. She also occasionally steals socks, but she always returns them, mostly undamaged. She has an uncanny sense of time and will remind you when it’s time to go home from work (mostly so you can feed her) or take her out. She loves to get out and RUN – but only for a few minutes. Then she’s ready to settle down and work again. As a puppy-raiser, we aren’t supposed to let them sleep with us, but she did sleep with me the last night I had her. She was a model puppy, staying at my feet until morning, at which point she wiggled her way up to lay her head on my shoulder and stare at me with those big brown eyes. Beware of her cute puppy wiles!

Reba has several names that she earned while she was with me. I’d often call her the “Lablet” when she was small, and “Munchkin”, which was later shortened to “Munch.” And of course, she was The Adorable Labrador, which ended up as “Labradorable,” and… well, I could go on, but I won’t.

As for me? I’m a technical writer/web designer/accessibility expert/project manager for the university’s central IT department. I finished my Ph.D. in May 2009. I’m married to a geology professor, and have two teenagers, J. who is a senior in high school and E. who is a junior. We have a Malamute mix (the rescue I mentioned) named Elias, and a Great Pyrenees Guardian Dog named Anie. We also have two cats, Freya and Bailey, and two horses, Saga and Red. We keep a flock of chickens as well, for eggs, but they are not named, although collectively we call them “The Ladies.” There’s currently a (harmless, though large) rat snake visiting our shed, and the husband has dubbed him Herbert, but that’s a story for another day.

We recently bought a house in south Austin on two acres, so we could keep our horses at home. However, the house was built in 1951 and hasn’t really been cared for, so it’s a major project. I keep a blog about the progress on the house, and another blog about the horses, if you are interested. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, riding the horses competitively, and traveling. And of course, working on the house!

I would be absolutely delighted to meet you and/or correspond, if that’s amenable to you. I do hope you will keep in touch – I am so proud and excited that Reba is going home with you, and I hope that she is as important in your life as Dillon was in John’s.

Very sincerely yours,

Reba’s puppy-raiser

P.S. Looking in my old emails on Reba, I found this story that I sent to CCI. She was about 5 months old when this happened:

Reba (III) came to me last night with a tag dangling from her mouth, looking for all the world as if it had been attached to her. I asked her to drop, which she promptly did. I picked up the tag, which had apparently been filched from (gnawed off of?) an old comforter that we now use as a dog bed. The instructions on the tag read:

Laundering Instructions
Machine wash warm separately, gentle cycle.
Tumble dry low, remove promptly.
Shake to restore fluffiness.
Do not dry clean.

Just in case you wanted to know how to launder a Lab... :)

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