Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reba - A new life Part III

This is the third, and final, in a series of posts about Reba's new life as a service dog. Part II is here if you haven't read it.

This is Lyena's email to me - the first time I'd heard from her. We now have a bit of a correspondence going on, which is awesome. It will be wonderful to get periodic updates about my little Lablet!

A Letter from Reba's New Mom

First, thank you so much for the wonderful letter you sent with ER. I was so disappointed not to meet you at graduation, but the letter, the terrific album and, of course, ER's stories, gave me so much more than I was expecting. I hope the wedding you attended was joyous. Graduation certainly was.

Up until a couple of years ago, I was independent with paralysis. In fact, my husband, D, tried for a long time to convince me to get a service dog (mostly because HE wanted a dog and we can't have pet dogs in our apartment!) but I couldn't justify it. The waiting list is so long and there are so many people truly in need of help, I just didn't think my circumstance warranted taking a dog from someone who wasn't independent. But a couple of years ago, things started to change. I developed moderate osteoporosis in my lower body (a common effect of chronic paralysis) and started fracturing bones with alarming ease. Though alternative treatments have made my bones a bit stronger now, it became clear that some of the things I'm able to do, I shouldn't do, as they create extra risk. The most pervasive example is picking things up off the floor. I drop things constantly, either from my hands or, more frequently, from my lap, and despite the risk, I was continuing to retrieve those items myself just for ease of living. But the truth is that I really shouldn't do it and given that, D's efforts started to gain traction.

I laughed when you mentioned in your letter the lengthy application process for getting Reba. Ours too was incredibly extensive and the various stages all took time. We had to fill out a super detailed application that covered everything from our lifestyle, our experience with dogs, and my dis/abilities, to our image of a "perfect" dog for us. Then I had to get my doctor to fill out paperwork certifying my need, and then yet another health care professional to speak to my ability to handle a dog. Then there was an extensive phone interview, then an all day orientation where I learned the basic command structure and had another extensive interview, at which point, FINALLY, we were placed on the waiting list. All that just to begin waiting! But we were lucky. I happened to get on the list at a time when it was short and six months later, we were at Team Training.

I have to admit, when I got the call inviting us to Team Training, I had mixed feelings. By then, I was almost 5 months pregnant and I'd been near totally incapacitated for most of that time. I wasn't sure I could handle the intensive schedule of Team Training. But I regained a tiny bit of energy in the following weeks, and we knew we wouldn't be able to attend another Team Training for at least a year, so we decided to give it a shot.

The first two days, the trainers had me rotate through five dogs. Reba was the only dog I worked with twice, and she was the first dog they gave me. I found out later they had been thinking about her as a match for me but, at the time, I didn't know that. That first session, the only thing I knew how to do was the sit command. I told Reba to sit, which she instantly did, and then from next to my wheelchair, she looked up at me, as if to say. "Is that what you wanted?" I looked down at her and that was that. I was hooked. The next time I worked with her, she stepped onto my footplate the moment I was given the leash, trying to get closer to me. I didn't expect it so my chair wasn't locked. Her weight pushed me back a little and we had a sweet little chat about what happens when you step on my chair without warning. In both encounters, I just felt like we were having a conversation. Though the other dogs I worked with were all responsive and obedient, I didn't feel a sense of connection with any of them. And I'm a total dog person. Connecting with dogs is not a difficult thing for me. Still, and most maddening, the staff at CCI is adamant that recipients not get attached to any particular dog before pre-matches are made on the third day. They ask that we really work hard to keep an open mind and heart. So much goes into the decision of where each dog gets placed, so much that we recipients can't even know. So, like a good girl, I spent the next two days trying to release my attachment to Reba. The night before pre-matches were supposed to be made, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep. I was so anxious about their decision. I wanted Reba so badly, was so worried they'd give me another dog. I tried to reassure myself that they knew what they were doing, that they knew the dogs infinitely better than I did, that all the dogs were great, but it was really hard. The next morning, first thing, they started handing out dogs. I forced myself not to watch Reba's kennel. I was determined to make every effort to welcome and accept whatever dog they gave me. Dean didn't have nearly the willpower I did, though. He was riveted to her kennel, reporting from time to time that she was still in it. We were the eleventh family out of 12 to be given a dog. It was sheer torture. And when they brought Reba to me, I burst into tears. She climbed onto my lap, buried her nose between my body and the chair, and wagged her tail fiercely.

From that point on, she was with us 24/7. I did all the rest of my training with her, she stayed in our dorm at night, I fed her, took her out to toilet, played with her. And she was unbelievably perfect. Not only was she the perfect dog for us, fitting exactly the description we'd given in our application, but she was perfect in her responsiveness. I even started to worry a little that I wouldn't know how to handle problems if they came up because I hadn't had a chance to practice while trainers were around! So many of the other recipients commented how well-suited we seemed to each other. She is, simply, the perfect dog for me.

She's been doing really well since we got home. I thought there might be some stress behavior but I haven't seen any of that really. She has managed to find several escape routes from her travel kennel which has caused us to devise creative solutions, virtually one for every evening she's been here! And sometimes when she retrieves my water bottle, it's more fun to push it around with her nose. But all in all, she's doing really great. The hardest part is just being consistent with her. She's such a sweetie and we adore her so much, we just want to schmoozle her all the time. It's those puppy wiles you mentioned. Tough to remember who's in charge!

Favorite moments so far -- On the drive home from CCI (about 2 hours), our car was stuffed to the brim, so Reba only had the space on the floor in front of one backseat. It took her awhile to figure out that she could comfortably curl up in that space, so for the first 30 minutes or more, she laid on her side with her head cranked back. And promptly FELL ASLEEP. I was sure she'd need puppy chiropractic when we got home, but she was fine. The family nap: She's allowed on the bed if invited (which is frequent) and likes to nap lying in between Dean and I, usually leaning on one of us with a paw stretched out to be touching the other. Doing training exercises with her: We take a few minutes everyday to work on skills, sometimes something knew I'm building and sometimes to fine tune something she's a bit lazy about and she LOVES it. Her tail is always wagging, she's always looking for more, and when I throw a little party for her when she does something right, she can barely contain her joy and excitement. It thrills me that working is so much fun for her. I also love the way she cuddles. She loves to bury her nose against some part of my body, or press her head against mine. And sometimes, she'll sniff my ear wildly. She's just too much fun.

She's been out a lot this week, too. Two doctor's appointments, the Apple store, a restaurant, the dog licensing place. She's the consummate professional. I hope I don't ruin her!!

OK, I better sign off and get to some other things today. I'm very happy to stay in touch and hope to meet sometime in the future. I warn you I'm a terrible correspondent, not very consistent, but always know it's nothing personal. I just get distracted by my life. And I'll do my best to give you news of Miss Reba from time to time. My husband is better at that sort of thing than I, so maybe he can help out.

And finally, I just want to say THANK YOU for being Reba's first mom. She means the world to me, and I know that her time with you has played a big part in who she is today. I couldn't be more grateful. You did a wonderful job, I know she'll be so happy to see you when she gets to again, and I will always be thankful that you were inspired to raise her. She's a lucky girl. And so am I.

All best to you. Write whenever you feel like it. I'll always be happy to hear from you. And send more puppy pictures!!! :) Here are some photos for you. I'll send more when I've downloaded them from camera and phone.

Isn't she just perfect?

I'll continue to share pictures and updates about Reba as I receive them. Hopefully, one day I'll be able to visit her and meet Lyena and her husband in person! Until then, make me proud, little Lablet!


  1. Reba certainly does know how to connect with people! What a wonderful letter. I'm glad to know she's with someone who loves her so much.

  2. Hey Jen:

    This story of Reba's new life is wonderful. You did a wonderful job and I'm happy I got to meet her.


  3. What an incredibly sweet story. You're amazing - I'd love to raise a service puppy, but I honestly don't know if I could let her go at 2 years.

    I also call Cersei my Labradorable. :)

  4. Thank you all for your kind words. Raising Reba was a wonderful experience, and having her go to someone who will love her as much as Lyena is more than I could have possibly asked for.

    @ Funder - I am sooooo glad I'm not the only one who calls them Labradorable! Now maybe my family will stop making fun of me ;)