Gypsy Ridge-Face – a life story

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May 5th, 2004 is the day I estimate that Gypsy was born.  It was an easy date to remember about 9 weeks before she came to me.  She came to me in the afternoon of July 12th, 2004 as part of a larger transport of dogs coming north through VA.  I was living in Manassas, VA at the time and I agreed to look after her for a few days while her new family sorted themselves out.

That new family fell through and little Gypsy with her knowing looks and sassy ways forced her way into my heart and into my life.  By the time 2005 had rolled around with the loss of my Grandmother and my first service dog Toby, Gypsy had made it clear that she was here to stay and that she was very much in charge of everything.  She would force me to take her out and train her. She would NOT take no for an answer.

She went everywhere with me after Toby died, as I had gotten used to always having a dog with me.  One day on my way home from work, I had an accident and flipped my car over.  Gypsy, Boogie, and Dundee were all in the car.  Everyone was okay, but the windows busted open so Gypsy and Boogie were able to get out of the car and run away.  I managed to follow them and called out for Gypsy to ‘place’ which is her emergency stop/down cue.  Gypsy laid right down on the double yellow line and looked back at me.  She then recalled and let me put her on a leash.  I was able to move her and Dundee off to the side of the road, and we did recover Boogie safely later that same night.  Gypsy was completely unflappable.  It took two days for her to recover from the fright of the car flipping and be okay with riding in the car again, but ever since they she insists on ridding in the car on the floorboards behind the drivers seat.  I think because it kept her from sliding around.

She came along to work with me at the pet resort and spent her first several months playing in daycare while I worked.  Everyone at work adored her, but sadly that wasn’t enough for me to keep my job there.  Due to my general depression and my struggle with my mental health my work deteriorated and they were forced to let me go.  I am endlessly lucky because I had Gypsy by my side, and my parents agreed to let me move back home.

I moved back to CT and Gypsy kept an eye on me.  She forced me up to take her out several times a day, and she continually encouraged me to wait for the next dawn.  I can honestly say if I did not have her in that time, there is no way in hell I would still be here today.  She saw me at my darkest, and loved me with every fiber of her being.  Never once did she ask me for explanations or excuses.  She just kept loving me and encouraging me to put one foot in front of another.

In that time I kept working at her training and eventually I convinced my family to understand what she was to me.  My parents took me on a few family vacations and Gypsy was by my side as a service dog the whole time.  It took some work on my part to help them understand and to for myself to understand just what that meant.  When my father came to understand, he told me in his own way just how proud he was of us for what we had accomplished. My mom, as always, was mildly baffled that her girl child acted as I do, but loved and supported and did her best to understand me all the same.  She really is the best mother a girl could have, and the best Grandmother a dog could have, too.

Gypsy was her loving unflappable self the entire time.

A few years later Gypsy was found to have some arthritic changes to her knees that were concerning.  We started her on Adequan and glucosamine and that made a big difference.  Her vet (and orthopedic specialist) recommended that I reduce her workload, but continue to work her part time as long as she was willing and seemed to be pain free.

I talked with my family about what that would mean for Gypsy and for myself and they agreed that I could get a second dog with the stipulation that the second dog would be a service dog who could take some of the load off of Gypsy.  I got a little aussie pup named Dusty who proved to be a lover and so super sensitive to my needs that he began plucking the fur from his front paws. Gypsy tolerated him and would sometimes bite him when he was being a jerk.

Next I found Billy, a 3 year old smooth collie who Gypsy told me was perfect.  She met him and instead of snapping at him and being a grumpy old herding dog female (ahem no swearing) she flirted with him and gave him kisses.  I’m not sure she ever really snapped at him, even when he took bones from her.

Gypsy settled into a wonderful life of only having to work when she wanted to and being treated like the queen she knew she always would be.

As Billy and Gypsy aged, I began to look for a successor dog and found Charlie who’s tale is told in these pages.  Then it became clear that Billy no longer wanted to work.  I couldn’t have two retired dogs kicking around in a house I’m still a guest in, so I reached out to his breeder who was so happy to have him come back after he did so much for me.  So it was just Gypsy and me when I heard from Becky’s breeder and it was Gypsy that escorted me to go pick her up.

That was her last real working trip.  Gypsy got to go on a few more trips without having to work after that, of course and she had a grand old time being fussed over by all of her fans. She was grudgingly coming to like Becky too and only put two small bite holes into her when she was being a bit too obnoxious for Gypsy’s tastes.

But now. Now Gypsy is 13 years old and her kidneys are failing and she’s slowly slipping away from me day by day.  I am writing this story about her past so others can come to know what an amazing, wonderful, magical, perfect companion she has been to me over the years.  Gypsy has touched many, many people in her long life.  I want to invite all those who have loved her as I have loved her to come and say their last goodbyes now, while she can still enjoy them.  Gypsy loves her fans and it would bring her joy to see those she has connected with again.

I will not let Gypsy suffer.  I want her last weeks on this planet to be full of sunshine, love and all the treats she can eat.  Please respect the pain her family is in knowing that she is not going to be around much longer.  I have consulted with multiple vets and she is on pain meds and a special diet to help keep her as comfortable as possible.  We have done all there is to do and we will continue to consult with her vets about her ongoing health to ensure that she is as comfortable as possible.

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Dog as Copilot’s Gipsy Danger

A little over a week ago I flew out to Wabasha, MN where, with some help, I selected a dog who will hopefully grow up to be my next service dog.

It was amazing getting to finally meet the breeder I have been talking with for almost a year, and to see and meet her dogs.  I can honestly say that if my puppy is anything like her father, I will be totally blessed.

We spent hours getting to know each of the five girls in the litter using CARAT to score each dog so we could get an idea of each of their strengths and weaknesses.  At some point soon I will get more into CARAT and what an awesome tool it is.  Once we evaluated the pups, it was clear I had two choices.

You can click on each one to look closer.  The cream poodle on the left is light blue collar, and the brindle on the right is yellow collar.  The cool thing about the CARAT scoring system is that each score is neither good nor bad.  A dog that is suitable for sporting has a very different profile than a dog that is suitable for police work, who has a very different profile than a dog who is suitable for service work.

“In CARAT, the components are rated on a 9 point scale ranging from -4 to +4 with the center point of 0. Each point on the scale has an operational definition.The scale is laid out on a left-to-right basis. We talk about dogs being “left shift” (-) or “right shift” (+) in terms of which way they are moving off the balanced, functional midpoint.

“The left shift (-) is a tendency towards inhibition, passive, suppression and/or avoidant behavior.

“The right shift (+)is a tendency toward activation, irritation, excitability and/or aggression.

“The midpoint – 0 – is functional, highly adaptable to a multitude of situations, has greater tolerance to a wide range of influences and stimuli.” (CARAT Intro)

So a dog who is blind would score -4, while a dog who is hyper aware of visual input to the point of being unable to process other information would score +4.  It is very rare for a dog to score on the extremes of behavior, but most dogs have some left or right shifts across the board.

The last three points on the bottom of the score sheet are scored 1 through 5 with 1 being weak and 5 being strong.

While either of these pups could be suitable for service work, one of them has better structure, and is a better match to my training style.   We let the pups all come out and play after testing and during that time I was able to hold and handle yellow collar and light blue collar. I knew as soon as I held her, that light blue collar was Becky.  She’s everything I was looking for in a puppy, and she’s a total snuggle bug to boot!

So welcome to the family Dog as Copilot’s Gipsy Danger, known to her friends as Becky.

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So why the fancy name?  Two things.  One, Gypsy has been my partner, my friend, my copilot, and my heart for many many years, and while I hope she will be with me for years to come, she absolutely MUST retire soon.  I hope that giving Becky a little bit of Gypsy to carry with her, she would find the strength and heart to step into her pawprints.

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The second thing has to do with what Gipsy Danger is.  Have you seen the movie Pacific Rim? In that movie there are large monster killing machines called Jaegers.  Jaegers require two pilots, joined mind to mind, to drive them.  One of the Jaegers, Gipsy Danger, was driven by two brothers with the last name Becket, hence Becky.

Becky has been home with me for a full week, and I am so in love with this beautiful girl.  I hope that she will be my partner for a very long time to come.

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The Cost of Owner Training

So often I hear from people that they are making the choice to owner train because they simply cannot afford to purchase a fully trained dog from a professional trainer or service dog organization.  Granted most of these groups charge between $3,000 and $15,000 which is a steep payout for anyone on a limited income, but they are not really charging anything more than the amount they had to cover to purchase or breed a dog, raise it, feed it, house it, and train it.  If you choose to owner train, you will be soaking that cost yourself, and you may or may not end up at the end with a dog that can be called a service dog.

I’ve had a run of really really bad luck when it comes to my owner training journey.  I selected a number of dog who I thought I was picking out well, but really I selected dogs who did not prove out.

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Dusty was a wonderful puppy but he was too intense for service work.  He would pluck the fur from his paws due to stress caused not only by public access training, but also by his inability to always fix what was wrong with me.  He would alert to anything that even mildly stressed me, and couldn’t seem to handle it that I couldn’t always end the stressor.  According to his adoptive family, the only time they see this behavior is when one of them is sick or recovering from surgery for more than a few days at a time.

BIlly in the LIbrary

Billy is an amazing dog, in his own way, but he cannot work in some important places like shopping centers.  I rarely go grocery shopping now and I haven’t been out to the mall in more than two years.  He simply cannot handle that environment.

 

And then there is Charlie.  Charlie was so perfect it hurts.  He is built well, bred well, has the perfect temperament, and he loves learning. One accident, and $20,000 later, he didn’t pass his medical evaluation and had to be washed out.

10wksVet5Cost for Dusty: $2,665
Purchase Price: $900
Total Vet Fees for 2 years: $740
Equipment: $420
Puppy Social Class: $125
Food for 2 years: $480

Cost for Billy: $1,140
Purchase Price: FREE
Total Vet Fees for first year: $120
Clearance X-Rays: FREE
Equipment: $780
Food for 1 year: $240

Cost for Charlie: $2,960
Purchase Price: $900
Shipping: $225
Total Vet Fees (not including the accident): $545
Clearance X-Rays: $650
Equipment: $600
Food (foster home mostly paid for his food): $40

The average cost for each of these examples is $2,255 and all I’m looking at is the out of pocket cost at this point. Your costs may vary depending on where you live and local veterinary costs as well as what kind of food you are feeding. I have been lucky with my local vets and they have offered me a discount for my service dogs and prospects.

For each of these dogs I spent far more than the 120 recommend hours training them.  Based on my training journals I estimate I spent 250 hours of formal training time on Dusty and Charlie and about 175 on Billy.  If I were to pay myself $10.00 an hour for training that would ‘cost’ me $2,500 for each of the puppies and $1,750 for the adult dog.  Realistically a service dog trainer earns on average $17.50 an hour. Which ups that price tag to $4,375 for the puppies and $3,062.50 for the adult dog.

But what if I wasn’t a skilled dog trainer already, or what if I come up against a problem I can’t solve because I’m in the middle of it and not an impartial observer?  Then I will need to hire a skilled trainer to help me. Consultation fees are usually between $75 and $200 for an hour.  I can expect to pay between $300 and $1,000 to an outside trainer for each dog I work with that comes up against a problem.

Each year I attend at least two conferences related to dog training or service dogs. Should I include this cost in my expense chart? How about the hours and hours I have spent learning about dog training and practicing my trade?

So this really is an expensive proposition.  And the thing that is the hardest to swallow, is that of the three examples I listed, ONE became a PART TIME working dog, the other two both washed out.

So how much will Becky cost? So far: $4,102
Purchase price: $1,500
Travel to evaluate the litter and pick out my pup: $1,677
CARAT testing: $750 (discounted due to my involvement with the program)
Shipping to bring Becky home: $125 (she’s riding as a carry on pet)
Vet fee for Shipping clearance: $50

Costs going forward: $4,745 for the approximate time of training.
Initial Vet Visit: $175
Follow up Vaccines x4: $200
1 year old Vet Visit: $175
2 year old Vet Visit: $175
Genetic testing: $400
Clearance X-Rays: $650
Flea/Tick Prevention (Seresto): $45/year
Heart Worm Prevention (Sentinel): $75/year
Puppy Social Class: $125
Food: $50/month ($1,200 for 2 years)
Insurance: $45/month ($1,080 for 2 years)
Equipment: $325 balance harness purchased when she’s 2 years old

Of course all this is not one big pay out.  This is all over time.  I’ve been saving for quite some time for the initial costs of getting Becky, and the future costs are factored into my budget so it’s a pay as I go situation.

If you are paying attention, my budget for Becky is four times what I’ve spent in the past for service dog candidates during their training period.  Why? Because I have better access to better care and knowledge now.  I am hoping that by using such care in picking out my puppy, one of four, that I’ll get the best puppy possible and have a better chance of succeeding with Becky and finally having a full time working dog that I can rely on.

The bottom line to this post is that, quite frankly, you are not saving any money and taking on more risk by owner training your service dog.  Unless you are super skilled, super lucky, or supported by a very skilled and knowledgeable service dog trainer, plan to have to wash out, or early retire at least one of your service dog prospects. Why then would you want to put yourself through this?

I am going to quote myself:

“My dog came to me with no skills or abilities.  I taught her how to behave around people, in public, in stores and malls and play parks.  I taught her valuable skills to help me cope with my disabilities.  I MADE my cute little pup into a skilled, willing, able, loving, supportive, friendly service dog.  She is my independence, my hope to take back my life and to LIVE.  She is my PRIDE.

Nothing is more valuable to me then that, NOTHING.”

 

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The Next Copilot

One week from today I will be flying out to Minnesota to make one of the most important decisions I have ever made for Dog as Copilot.  I have to pick between these four beautiful poodle puppies and decide which one will be my service dog candidate.

This little girl will hopefully grow up to be my service dog, and, if she proves out, may become the foundation bitch for Dog as Copilot. That’s a whole lot of pressure for one tiny puppy.

To make sure I’m making the best decision possible (and that I’m not just falling in love with a pile of fluff, which, to be honest is super easy to do when you are presented with four adorable poodle puppies) I am taking along an expert in observing and identifying traits in dogs.  She uses a method that I am a mere student of called CARAT.  Learn More Here She has worked for a guide dog school and used CARAT there in both puppies and in-for-training adolescent dogs.  I trust her to have a light hand with these puppies and help me identify a puppy that has the right temperament for me and what I want to accomplish with her.

This little girl already has a name.  Becky.  I’ll wait to reveal her registered name until after I know which of the four she is.

I owe it to Becky to make a few promises to her now:

  • Becky, I promise to support you as you learn about this big scary world.
  • Becky, I promise to ensure you always have the best medical care full stop.
  • Becky, I promise to let you enjoy your time as a puppy.
  • Becky, I promise to celebrate each accomplishment with you.
  • Becky, I promise to let perceived failures pass without criticism.
  • Becky, I promise to love you always.
  • Becky, I promise to always consider your welfare first in all my decisions about you.
  • Becky, I promise to never put my own need for a service dog before your welfare.
  • Becky, I promise to never push you beyond your ability to cope and learn.
  • Becky, I promise to provide you with the opportunity to grow into the best dog you can be.
  • Becky, I promise to always always honor your dogness.
  • Becky, I promise to see you as the beautiful gift you are.
  • Becky, I promise to value you as yourself, and not in comparison to others.

I hope that I can keep all these promises to that tiny little bit of fluff.  I can’t wait to see her grow.

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Looking for a Home for Charlie

10568953_337774719714987_2128938712178387134_nThank you for your interest in Charlie.  We have received well over 30 applications and we are slowly processing them.  We want to ensure that Charlie gets the best home possible so we will be calling for phone interviews and home visits soon.  We will no longer be accepting applications. 

Charlie is a 16 month old neutered male Standard Poodle.  He was in training to become a service dog, but due to an injury received, he has to be removed from the program for medical reasons. I would like to keep Charlie local to CT, but I will send him further for the right situation.

Charlie would be suitable  for most homes, but he would especially thrive with children and other dogs.  We do not know how he would be with a cat, but he has shown curiosity without malice in his brief interaction with felines. Because of Charlie’s hips he is not a good candidate for high impact sports or jogging.  Charlie can handle normal dog exercise like walks, running around in a fenced area, or low impact sports like Obedience and Rally-O.

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Charlie has had substantial training as a service dog, and could work for someone as an in-home only service dog.  I would prefer to find placement for him where he can use his training, like working as a facility dog, or a therapy dog.  I will be careful here because I want to ensure that he will be physically capable of doing the job his new owner has in mind.

Long term care for Charlie will be fairly simple.  He has some simple physical therapy exercises that should continue in his new home and his vet recommends that we start him on a glucosamine supplement when he gets a bit older.  He should always be kept on the lighter side of his weight range to reduce stress on his hip joints.  We have had the pins removed so he should not require any more surgeries.

Charlie knows all his basic commands and loose leash walking, has started retrieval work and off leash training.

Thank you for your interest in Charlie.  We have received well over 30 applications and we are slowly processing them.  We want to ensure that Charlie gets the best home possible so we will be calling for phone interviews and home visits soon.  We will no longer be accepting applications. 

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Charlie

I’ve been having a very hard time writing this post.  On Tuesday March 3rd, I brought Charlie to his vet for his final set of x-rays that would show us how well he healed up and give us a good idea of what level of work he would be able to do.  The results where not at all what I hoped for.

CaptureYou can see that his right hip (the one with the pins in it) healed very well.  The pins have moved a little and at least one has passed from the bone into the cartilage.  This can be causing him pain and may cause trouble in the future so those pins have to be removed.  It’s a good tight hip that will work well in the future.  The problem is with his left hip (the good hip).  Because Charlie was mostly weight bearing on the left side while he recovered, it caused the socket of his hip joint to flatten and created more laxity in the joint. Basically there isn’t a lot of bone keeping his hip joint stable.  If you are an experienced orthopedist and you look really closely you can already see signs of bilateral osteoarthritis.

I’ve had several vets and other people who know hips look at these x-rays and everyone sees the problem almost immediately. There are differing opinions about Charlie’s ability to do the jobs that I need.  His surgeon told me that he’s probably not feeling anything painful at the moment beyond twinges from the pins, but if he was pushed, we would start seeing signs of pain by the time he turns three.  He would probably have to retire before he was six.

Based on everything I know and what I feel is right and best for my working dogs, I have made the decision not to work Charlie as a service dog, and find him a placement where he could work in home with someone, or be a very well trained, and very loved pet.

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My heart is breaking, but I know this will be the right choice for Charlie.  He will be able to live a long life as free from pain as possible.  He goes in for his surgery to remove the pins on Monday. I’m going to get him through recovery and finish up some training with him, and when he’s ready I’ll start looking for a home for him.

I haven’t given up on a service dog for myself, and I’m certainly not giving up on Dog as Copilot. I’m already starting to talk to breeders about getting another puppy.  I am looking for another standard poodle.

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Physical Therapy

IMG_5094Today Charlie started his physical therapy for his leg. During his physical exam it was discovered that his right thigh is three inches smaller in circumference than his left, which is not surprising, considering he has been heavily favoring it for the better part of three weeks.  He also has some stiffness in his upper back, from having to move differently.  We have some exercises to do at home every day to help with this.  IMG_0091

They did his first treatment today, of three different therapies, and he will get the same each time he goes, twice a week for five weeks to start with.  After that we will see if he needs more.  The three therapies were Laser Treatments, Balance Work, and Underwater Treadmill walking. 

The laser was used on his lower back and both legs, as well as his upper back, where he was showing stiffness during the physical exam.  Laser therapy has been proven to work well to loosen scar tissue, relax muscles, and promote healing.  

After the laser, Charlie got to try out some balance work on a balance board. He did really was and was completely fearless about the whole thing.  He was more interested in looking at himself in the mirror than in anything else. 

IMG_0092Next he got to try out the underwater treadmill.  He only went at a slow walking pace, but he did very well and caught on really quickly.  Mostly he was annoyed that his paws were wet. 

One of the best parts about today is that Charlie did all these new things willingly, and with good spirit, without a single treat!  Charlie has a bad belly and is on a restricted diet for the next 24 hours, so I couldn’t give him anything special, just pets and praise.  I am so impressed with this puppy. He’s fearless, smart, and willing, and that’s half of being an excellent service dog. 

Starting tomorrow, Charlie will have at home physical therapy every day he doesn’t go to Wizard of Paws.  For now it’s easy stuff like puppy squats (sit to stand), weight shifting, and walking backwards.  These are also things that will help him learn back end awareness and fits nicely with some of the things he will have to learn for his future as a working dog. 

In other good news, and for those of you who are curious, Charlie still enjoys going for car rides.  He happily jumps in, stays very relaxed, and quite frequently falls asleep in the car. IMG_0107

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