Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Little Jazz Time

Today, we scheduled a little private "Jazz time" for one of the boys at work. This boy has been in one or another of our programs for years, nearly as long as I've worked there. Unfortunately, his story hasn't changed much. He's a sweet boy, and he works hard to pretend that everything is OK, and most of the time, he's pretty convincing. But the truth is, it isn't OK. He has a lifetime of family problems that have resulted in multiple out-of-the-home placements. The one thing that has been consistent for him in all of these years is us. It saddens me that a treatment program is the one constant in his life, the one place that he feels secure and a success. And it saddens me that after all of these years of attempting to help him and his family so that they can be happy together, he was permanently removed from the home.

And, while he continues to present as a happy kid who is just rolling with the punches, we know differently. We know him.

Staff thought that it would be helpful for him to have some private Jazz time during this difficult transition, so his therapist brought him to my office this morning to visit.

Jazz was thrilled to have a visitor! He loves the kids, and loves it when someone will play with him (since mostly he just sleeps while I work - like a good Guide Dog). They played tug, and Jazz showed off all of his bones. He happily reared and gently planted his paws on the boy. I had to remind both of them that Jazz needed to keep his paws on the floor. But they were both so happy. Jazz pranced around and was as cute as can be, and the boy grinned from ear to ear as he played with the puppy.

If for only a few moments, Jazz helped him to truly forget his problems today, and to smile for real.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Jazz to the Rescue


Two hours after I had intended to leave the office, as I prepared to finish the last document I had to complete before I left for the day, a call came over the intercom: the hospital unit needed all the staff assistance they could get. This meant one thing: the kids were out of control.

As I headed to the unit, I saw kids running back and forth, one child bolt out of his bedroom in his underwear, and staff working hard to calm and separate the kids. Straight ahead, I saw one of the older girls sitting in a chair, clients and staff surrounding her, and she had that look in her eyes that told me she was barely holding it together. She's a big kid and, when she loses control, others get hurt. She's also one of my favorite kids.

Her story is one that makes me smile... When she arrived on our unit last year, she was so depressed and angry, that I litterally didn't see her face until weeks after her admission. She isolated a lot, and when she out and about, her head was always hung, her hair in her face, and the only time she lifted it was to swear at, threaten, or spit on you. Any attempts to speak to her instantly resulted in one, if not more, of these responses.

Because of her size and assaultiveness, staff were sincerely afraid of her. When she wanted something, her way of telling you was to start swinging her fists. She was assaultive towards other kids, and she was assaultive towards staff.

She was one of Ross' many success stories. She is the child who he sat and guarded, when everyone else was afraid to approach her. She was guarded and slow to warm up to him, but Ross taught her one thing that she didn't have with humans: trust.

Over the months, she has made incredible improvements in her treatment. She walks tall now, and I can always see her face, often smiling. She approaches me on her own, and always asks eagerly about the dogs. Her aggression and depression have decreased significantly, she has built positive relationships with family members, and she works hard to make good decisions.

Today, she transitioned to a lower level of care, a positive outcome of her treatment progress. Today was a landmark in her life. And I saw it getting ready to crumble as she was pulled in by the negativity around her.

I checked in with staff to see how she was doing, and upon hearing that she was doing pretty well not feeding into the chaos, I asked her if she wanted to go visit Jazz. She jumped up instantly, exclaiming "yes!" (Actually, I asked her if she wanted to go visit Ross (I accidentally call Jazz "Ross" all the time), and after exclaiming, she flatly told me that she can't go visit Ross because he's at his new home, but she wanted to visit Jazz. Did I mention that she has also developed a sense of humor?)

We headed back to my office, where Jazz was laying down. His ears perked as he heard us approaching, and he bounced up in excitement when he saw her. She spent the next half hour playing with him in my office, talking the entire time, and laughing at his antics. She had a million questions about the Guide Dog puppies. I couldn't get any work done, while answering all of her questions, but I was so proud of this child who hardly used to speak, and had no one who was excited to see her.

Monday, August 10, 2009



I received the call today, that after flying through all 10 phases of training in a mere 8 weeks, Ross was career changed for traffic sensitivity. I wasn't surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. I had actually expected the call weeks prior, and was relieved each week to see Ross climb on the phase report and not receive the dreaded call I know so well.

I knew that the decision had not been an easy one. I knew that the staff were putting every effort into helping Ross succeed as a Guide. Had they not, he would have been CC'd weeks prior, like I anticipated. I had no doubts that Ross would excel in training, but he had developed a fear reaction to traffic when he was about 9 months old, and he never quite fully recovered. I was grateful to the training staff for all of their hard work, but I also knew that whatever Ross' career would be, it would be the right one, guide dog or not.

I was honored by the kind training report they wrote about Ross:

"Ross" is an average sized well behaved dog that is affectionate and a willing worker. He adjusted well to the kennel environment and quickly bonded with his primary instructor. He also enjoyed community run and played well with roommates. During community run "Ross" frequently will "talk" with a bone in his mouth to the staff.

"Ross" is highly food motivated and especially enjoyed learning through our clicker training techniques. He appeared very well prepared for training and was a pleasure to work. He consistently required minimal handling around distractions and is eager to please. His guidework and obedience responses progressed at an above average rate and he seemed to thoroughly enjoy learning new behaviors.

Unfortunately, "Ross" has displayed sensitivity to traffic throughout training. This was identified at the beginning of training and "Ross" was put on a traffic socialization program using high value food reward. Despite seeing some improvements when loud or heavy traffic approach him from behind, he continued to startle and show significant sensitivity. "Ross" is being career changed due to his traffic sensitivity.
"Ross" has many exceptional qualities and has an extensive puppy history of working with special needs children. He would make a wonderful Canine Buddy candidate.

I think the most difficult part about the news was that I had to make a decision. If Ross graduated as a guide dog, I wouldn't have any say in his future. But, as a career change, his future was suddenly in my hands. I knew two things: 1) I couldn't adopt him myself. I would love to have Ross for the rest of his life, but he was born to do greater things in this world than keep me company; and 2) Ross needed a kid. Unfortunately, there weren't any Canine Buddy applicants waiting for dogs.

8/8/09: Fun Day

Today was Fun Day, an appreciation day of sorts that Guide Dogs hosts for puppy raisers. Fun Day is usually just that, but today I was preoccupied by Ross' career change.

After more difficult decisions for my club members, it seemed that this year we were at Not-So-Fun Day. I was lucky to have the opportunity to "spy" on Ross while there. He was out in community run with his friends, and his big ol' head and the way he followed his trainers around and eagerly demonstrated his tricks to earn a treat or two, were a dead giveaway that it was him. I hid where he couldn't spot me, and was careful to be very quiet. As much as I wanted to see him, I knew he would be distraught if he knew I was there and couldn't be with me. And so, I watched silently and soaked in the pride of how much he had bonded with his trainers, and how happy he was at Guide Dogs.

During the day, I was informed that there might be a placement option for him, and so I went to speak with the person who knew more information. She informed me that there was a boy, who had applied for a Canine Buddy, but who did not qualify for the program due to logistics regarding his visual impairment. With the exception of the official Canine Buddy title, the home was in every way a Canine Buddy placement - Ross would be the boy's beloved pet and companion, and show the boy how wonderful a guide dog can be to have in your life. I didn't hesitate. I knew that this is who Ross was destined to spend the rest of his life with! And so, I asked about the details of making it happen. It was simple: Ross would load on the puppy truck that afternoon and make the drive to San Rafael, where he would be transported to his new home. It was very sudden, and I was expecting more time before he left me forever, but I think this was for the best. I didn't have any time to second guess my decision, and Ross would get to his little boy that much faster!

I walked back to the kennel and informed his caretakers that they should say their goodbyes, as he was leaving that afternoon. As they informed their boss, I was given permission to visit with Ross. As the conversation ensued, Ross turned his attention towards us and looked at me. I asked, "Since he's looking right at me, can I go say hi now?" The caretakers kindly let me enter the kennel area, where they moved Ross from the group to a separate area where we could visit. Ross walked towards me without hesitation, and began to sniff the kibble bag hanging from the back of my waist. He must have caught my scent in his kibble sniffing, because all of a sudden he jumped on my back in excitement! He proceeded to turn and jump on my front, erupting into great WOOFs as he repeatedly slammed his body against mine with love. A greeting usually undesired, this is the reunion that every puppy raiser secretly hopes for.

Suddenly, everything was good again. My boy was happy, I got my unforgettable reunion and time to say goodbye, and he was going to spend his life with a child. I was truly happy.

I took some pictures of Ross, and my husband arrived to say hello to Ross and take more pictures. I smiled from ear to ear, and it was genuine.

We left temporarily to finish our Fun Day activities and to let Ross' trainer have some individual time to say goodbye as well. He had captured her heart just as much as he had captured mine, and I knew it would difficult for her to let him go as well. I put Ross back in the run with his friends, and as I walked out of the kennel, he jumped on the fence and let out another great WOOF!

At the end of the day, I went back for my final goodbye. I was able to take Ross out of the kennel for a while, and he got to visit with my puppy raisers and we took more pictures of him with nephew Jazz. Jazz was so happy to see uncle Ross again!

As I was getting ready to take Ross back to the kennel, his trainer arrived to let me know it was time. As we walked back to the kennel together, Ross pulled towards his trainer. I handed her the leash, and as we walked down the sidewalk together, Ross walked between us, turning his head from side to side to make sure both of his moms were still there. He was a happy boy.

I was fortunate to be able to stay with Ross until he boarded the puppy truck. As we sat and waited, he climbed into my lap, his hind legs still on the floor, and gave me a big kiss, just like he used to always do! He had grown in size and maturity, but he was still my big "Baby Woss."

I watched as he eagerly boarded the puppy truck, joined by many of his puppy club friends. As the truck was loaded, I learned more about the home Ross was going to. It turns out that the boy has a sister, and the sister is in dire need of a friend. Ross has two kids. And he will change their lives in ways they could never imagine.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Little Things (Continued)

Today I received a handful more of hand made thank you notes from the kids for our presentation last week. Some of the younger kids drew pictures for me. Jazz sitting near a fire hydrant appears to be a common theme ;)

The notes read:

Dear Whitney,

I loved Jazz.
He was so cute.
Thank you for bringing him.


To Whitney and Jazz

Thank you for comeing!

Made by

And the one that captures my heart the most:

(On the cover) Thanks for bringing light into our dark day.

(Inside) Dear Whitney,

Thank you for showing us the dog. I really appreciate it. I'll probably will see you around sometime. Bye!

(On the back) thanks! (with a smiley face)

The kids also made cards for Mei and Sarah & Wayne. I don't know what they say, but I don't need to.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Little Things

Today I received a hand made thank you card from two of the girls at work, for the Guide Dog presentation last week. The sincerity and gratitude for such a simple thing makes me choke up with tears of pride. The note reads:

Whitney & Jazz,

Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to visit us at the [agency name], Your information was interesting and educational. I hope you continue to visit us. You brightened alot of kids days. I am confident that Jazz will be a excellent guide dog. Thanks for show us Jazz's tricks. He's sooo cute.

Thanks again!

M & N

Growing Up Guide Dog


Today was a monumental day at work, in the Guide Dog world. Just over a year ago, the Guide Dog puppies weren't welcome on campus. Today, we had my Guide Dog puppy Jazz, a guide dog in formal training - Darcelle, and a working guide dog - Rosie, all on campus together, with the kids!

With school out, we hold a summer program for all of our residential and day treatment clients. The program is intended to be educational, therapeutic, and fun. We try to do as much hands-on learning as possible, and provide opportunities for activities that we might not be able to do during the school year.

To keep it interesting, we have educational themes each week, and complete the week with fun activities that coincide with the theme. This year, we had a therapy/service dog week, and I invited my friend Mei and her German Shepherd guide Rosie to join us. At the last minute, I thought to see if anyone from the Guide Dog campus could help us out, and was grateful to have GDB volunteers Sarah and Wayne bring yellow Lab Darcelle, who is currently in phase 10 of formal training (the same phase Ross is currently in). The mix of dogs provided the kids with an opportunity to see the evolution of a Guide Dog.

We provided an impromptu presentation to groups of 10-20 kids at a time, for a total of 3 groups. With kids ranging in chronological age from 6-17, and even a greater span of developmental levels, we adapted each presentation to fit our audience.

Mei spoke about her blindness, how she functions in the community and at home, and how her Guide Dogs help her. I spoke about how Jazz and Ross have very specific rules that they follow so that they can be prepared to grow up and be great guide dogs like Rosie. Sarah and Wayne provided additional information about the formal training process, and the life of a guide dog in training.

The kids made peanut butter treats for the dogs, which we used to show how we train the dogs to not take food other than their designated kibble or treats. One kid asked blatantly, "So, we wasted our time making the dog treats?" I assured him my pet dogs at home would enjoy them thoroughly and be very appreciative! We spent lots of time explaining why the dogs could not have the treats...

The experience was wonderful! It was so great to live the progression of acceptance and appreciation for the dogs that has occurred at my work. The dogs, of course, were extremely well behaved! Jazz even outsmarted me when I tried to demonstrate how he didn't know something that Rosie did! The kids had excellent questions and demonstrated great compassion for the dogs and for my friend Mei. And most of all, I was so proud of how the kids behaved! They all sat calmly and quietly, raised their hands, and waited patiently to be called on. They were polite and appropriate, and followed directions to ask to pet the dogs. It was incredible! Most of our kids have difficulties completing any one of those behaviors on a regular basis, and they ALL did it for 45 consecutive minutes! I cannot express in words how proud I am. Our staff worked hard to prepare the kids for a positive experience, and it paid off! The kids pulled out every skill they have and shown like stars. It may not sound like much, but for these kids, it was a moment of complete success, something they don't experience often. And what a better reward than dog kisses at the end :)

Today will be a moment in time I will never forget!