Sunday, November 11, 2007
Thanks to Roger Beasley Volvo's invitation to join them in their 2007 car giveaway, I had one of the highpoints in my nearly 20 years with Texas Hearing & Service Dogs.
Between the first and second quarters, I, along with Pearl, the Wonder Dog (demo dog for THSD), got to walk out onto the field at DKR Memorial Stadium and receive a giant check for a $2,500 donation from Roger Beasley Volvo. The best part was that Roger Beasley Volvo had produced a 60 second video from some videos THSD provided, and they played it on the Jumbotron.
I almost started crying, it was so beautiful. RB Volvo captured our essence perfectly. Scene after scene of our amazing teams working together, with the wonderful voiceover and music adding even more emotion. And a giant THSD logo flying through the screen towards the audience when the voice says "And wouldn't you like to be a part of it!"
The UT and Texas Tech fans actually started APPLAUDING when it was over!
Throughout the rest of the game and after, people recognized me and Pearl and told us how great they thought THSD and the video were. The Director of Women's Athletics told me that was the best presentation they've ever had. When I took Pearl on a grass break, people would say, "There's that Hearing Aid Dog" (well, they were in the ballpark). When I was walking to the car after the game, people would stop us and compliment us on THSD's work. They actually asked me for my card because they wanted to volunteer. Some families who were already in their cars actually rolled down their windows to compliment us!
Working with Texas Hearing & Service Dogs has always been rewarding and fulfilling. But this was truly a moment of glory!
Behind the scenes - training talk
If you like to read about animal training, read on:
Getting Pearl, the Wonder Dog onto the field was a very interesting challenge. Why? Two things:
Bevo and cannon fire.
The correct way to work with an animal in a new environment and around new, and possibly frightening stimuli, is to desensitize it ahead of time. You gradually expose the animal to the stimuli at very small levels and reward it for being calm or for ignoring the stimuli and doing something else, like looking at you or performing behaviors you ask for. For example, with a longhorn steer, or other animal, you would have your dog with you and the other animal WAY far away to a point where your dog isn't really bothered by it. You work with your dog, asking for eye contact, rewarding it for calmness and asking it for typical behaviors it already knows how to do so it can be successful.
Gradually, you bring the other animal closer, but so gradually that your dog can continue to be calm and engage in the desirable behaviors mentioned above. If you proceed too quickly, you will know because your dog will exhibit fear instead of focusing its attention on you.
Well, in this case, gee whiz, we didn't have any longhorn steers, thousands of screaming fans and a cannon firing every five minutes to practice with ahead of time. I suppose I could have looked for a CD with cannon fire and started off by playing it very quietly but you still don't get that lovely vibration like the world is going to end.
So they're leading us to the field about 10 minutes ahead of time. Pearl sees Bevo and Bevo sees Pearl. (For those of you who may not know, Bevo, a longhorn steer, is the University of Texas mascot and stands on the sidelines during the football games.) We had to walk right by him and initially, they wanted us to wait just across the sidewalk from him. Well, a longhorn steer is not lacking in confidence. Bevo makes eye contact with Pearl and she displays some very apparent characteristics of fear. Freezing alternating with with attempts to flee the area for a nice Starbucks where the only essence of bovine is that which is poured into the cups.
This was NOT fun for me; however, knowing training principles, I set to work with the limited time I had. I asked the UT folks escorting us if we could move a little past Bevo along the sidelines. They were extremely gracious in agreeing. We edged along to the actual sidelines where the sports photographers, State Troopers, Sheriff's deputies, UT Police and various other personnel stood. Pretty near whatever that thing is where the football players warm up their arms by throwing a ball into a PVC pipe and net contraption. (So, I'm a roller derby girl at heart - that's a sport, too!)
Throughout the next 10 minutes of Bevo stil glaring at Pearl from his domain and intermittent cannon fire, Pearl and I worked on calm behavior on the field. At first, I got a little eye contact from her - big accomplishment - yay! Then, finally, I started getting some sits, downs and even a few handshakes. Everytime the cannon went off, I gave her a jackpot of treats if she was calm. After a few minutes of this, she even started looking at me in anticipation of treats when the cannon fired.
By the time we walked out onto the field, I had a dog that was relatively under control, instead of a panicked animal that refused to walk or was bent on fleeing the scene.
When it was time to leave the field, she still refused to walk past Bevo. We couldn't stay on the sidelines for the next three quarters so I improvisded and just picked her up until we got around the corner from Bevo. After that, she trotted happily by my side as we made our way along the goal line and out the other end of the field past the now quiet cannon. Folks, there's nothing like carrying a 45 lb Border Collie in a dress and high heels (me, not the Border Collie), but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.
So that was several weeks of desense training crammed into 8 minutes. Happily, the training principles held true as they always do. Knowing them helped me just proceed along with the training instead of panicking or becoming frustrated. It's just a matter of - let's find a starting point, work from there and we'll get some progress.
I hope to have some photos here for you soon. Until then,
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
So for those of you who just want good old words, here are
2. Once you get to Dripping Springs, you will cross RR 12. Keep going on Hwy 290 West.
3. After you pass the middle school and high school, you will turn right onto
4. Go 0.9 miles on Bell Springs and turn right at
b. Look for the stone THSD sign on the right. You will turn right into the driveway and follow it up the hill.
a. If you need wheelchair access, park in front of the main building with the glass double doors.
b. General Parking: Along the driveway on the right as you are arriving OR across from the garage building to the left of the house and flag pole (as you are arriving).
8. The drive takes 25 minutes from the Oak Hill area of
The terrain is a little rocky and uneven. We are raising funds to smooth this out.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Our webmaster is out of town this week, and the "substitute webmaster" has not returned our calls to update the website with this information.
We apologize for the inconvenience.
We do look forward to welcoming you to the upscale version of Polo for Puppies next Spring, complete with catering and live music.
If you have questions, please email Melinda@servicedogs.org
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Well, working in TV certainly gets your blood flowing. Although sometimes it's out your ears!
Last minute changes and technical difficulties aside, Cafe Woof debuted in its new format this morning. Live. It is now a segment on Fox's new "Good Day Austin", a more informal talk show format for the last two hours of Fox's 4 hour morning news program.
This episode, called "Home Alone" discusses how to keep your dog from destroying things in your home while you're gone.
Scooby and Shaggy were there - they are our special guest hosts of Scooby's Haunted Carnival on Oct. 27th. Although I emailed the script repeatedly to my contacts at FOX, the producer this morning told me in my earphone she didn't know anything about it, so we didn't get them on the way I had intended.
Never fear! I am shooting for an in-studio interview closer to the party with Scooby and Shaggy. Never count me out!
Here's the spot: http://www.myfoxaustin.com/myfox/pages/InsideFox/Detail?contentId=4542776&version=1&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=VSTY&pageId=5.2.1
More on all things soon,
Friday, September 28, 2007
This nice profile on Texas Hearing & Service Dogs is airing on News 8 Austin for a 24 hour cycle, which started Thursday at 4:00 pm.
Click here to watch it.
Thanks to our Board Member Paul Brown who wrote and interviewed everyone for the story.
Enjoy your weekend everyone.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
A promotional segment highlighting THSD aired September 13th on the evening news (KHOU-TV , CBS) in Houston. Watch it here.
The premise is that we adopted Zorro, a male black lab, from BARC – Houston’s city shelter. So the story shows Zorro working, THSD video showing Service Dogs working and also shows the shelter.
Big kudos to Melinda Biggs on our staff – she set it up. Thanks to everyone involved!
Friday, September 7, 2007
Thursday, August 30, 2007
It should air next Tuesday, Sept. 4th at 7:20 am on FOX-TV (KTBC) in Austin. After that, we'll get it up on our website.
This one showcases Texas Hearing & Service Dogs' training facility. We filmed it all at our new Training Building & Visitors Center. Best of all it shows recipients learning to work with their new dogs!
We even did interviews with both Melinda Doell, who is getting a new Hearing Dog "Chula", and Leigh Ann Shingler, who is getting a new Service Dog "Candy". Both did a fantastic job on camera and you'll enjoy hearing what they have to say, and watching them work with their new dogs.
We've added a feature at the end of each Cafe Woof. A spotlight on a Career Change Dog up for pet adoption. This time, it's our superstar Mr. Hollywood.
Check us out next Tuesday morning. It will give you something to look forward to after Labor Day!
Friday, August 24, 2007
Volvo is giving away a new car at the last UT home game. They will have a display at the stadium entrance at each home game for people to sign up to win the car. They also will appear on the Jumbo-tron during the games.
We get to be part of the display and also appear on the Jumbo-tron at every game! That means we can bring our dogs, hand out flyers, do our Heavy Petting booth and meet thousands of new people. Plus show the whole stadium our wonderful program.
Roger Beasley Volvo wil present us with a check at the final home game. They also will produce and show a video about Volvo and THSD.
We will be part of a half million dollar advertising campaign throughout the UT football season.
This is the most exciting thing ever! A big thank you to David Stein, VP/Managing Partner and Jenny Kerwick, Financial Director of Roger Beasley Volvo for choosing Texas Hearing & Service Dogs. I promise we will make you proud.
See you at the game, parder! And our dogs already wear orange!
Thursday, August 16, 2007
I have a home office with windows to the front yard. I had put some cat food and water out for this really tough looking tomcat I've seen in my neighborhood after I noticed he had a huge injury to his jaw and throat area. Like a big raw scrape the size of a silver dollar.
Everyone knows who this cat is because he looks so raw and tough. He is black and grey striped. Huge head with wide jaws, large frame but scrawny.
There is another little cat, probably just an adolescent that wanders around. His front right leg must have been injured because it hangs at a funny angle from the ankle and he usually doesn't put any weight on it. He is thin, too, but still has the gentle vulnerable look of a kitten.
Well, sitting at my desk this past Monday, I see the big tough tomcat come up and start eating the cat food I set out. I'm really happy because he's still alive even with that huge injury. As he's eating, the small grey kitty comes up and starts eating, too. Right under him. He just sticks his head in under the big tom's head and starts eating!
I figured the tom would angrily run him off. Before I could even finish that thought, the tom did something that brought me to tears. He started licking the little cat while he was eating!
This big tough cat, who everyone thinks is mean and a bully is grooming this little injured male cat and letting him eat first.
How is THAT for compassion from an animal! I was floored.
I am going to dedicate myself to getting those two cats to my vet and getting them whatever care they need. They really taught me a lesson about not judging, and about putting someone else before you, even when you're hurt and hungry.
Okay, here is my other story.
Last night, after dinner with a friend, I was shopping at Fiesta for groceries.
Going down the produce and dairy aisle, I noticed this young girl - like 19 or so - in a pretty white summer dress. That stands out b/c everyone there is in jeans and t-shirts or sweats.
So she's standing there looking sort of lost. She doesn't have a grocery cart. But then I noticed she was looking down at a cookbook she'd brought with her.
Wow! That just flooded me with emotion (maybe most of it in my head but it seemed so true.) To me, this girl was looking for ingredients for this recipe that she wasn't sure how to make. I bet she was making it for a new boy in her life.
I sure know how that feels. You're all excited about the new relationship. You've gotten up the nerve to invite him to dinner. You're thrilled he said yes, but now you're scrambling to choose a dinner he'll like, get your home cleaned up, figure out what to wear and cook the darn thing right.
It was so touching, It made me smile.
Does any of this have to to with Texas Hearing & Service Dogs? Not directly. But it does in that it shows the nature of someone who is very involved with THSD to say the least. The same person who felt the things described here, is the one who started THSD and who tries every day to make it better.
How 'bout that?
from a rainy morning in Austin, Texas,
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Wow, the Training Building & Visitors Center is finally finished. We held our first Guest Speaker Training Seminar last weekend - Kathy Sdao's Advanced Clicker Training. (see photo)
I hope each of you gets to come out and see us. Whether you're volunteering, attending a special event like our upcoming Haunted House or coming to a dog training seminar, it's a beautiful, fabulous building. We all love it!
As you walk in, the first thing you see is the huge mosaic Cafe Woof sign in the hospitality area. Ann Paclik, our Volunteer Coordinator made this sign. There is fresh coffee brewing and cookies, muffins, granola bars and even on some occasions donuts to welcome visitors.
As soon as we get some shelves, we'll have our gift shop loaded with t-shirts, plush dog toys modeled after 8 of our graduate dogs and other knick knacks to add some cheer to your or your dog's life.
Through the window and the lovely French doors, you can see trainers in the main training area working dogs. Several dogs watch on, tethered to posts and enjoying the air conditioning and sometimes a chew treat, while their buddies engage in a lively training session. They're all waiting their turn to have fun, but still being observed and rewarded for being calm and quiet. Yes, watching politely can be a trained behavior, too and worthy of reinforcement by an astute Trainer!
What you'll notice at you walk through those French doors is the care taken with the interior design. The walls are painted a soothing sage green from the floor halfway up the wall to a stained wooden panel that runs around the whole room. The top half of the walls are painted a relaxing soft white with a green undertone from the same harmonious color palette. The floor is a beautiful burnished copper and green pattern created by staining the concrete. It makes a great impression.
What is most striking are the six mosaic columns. Inspired by the architecture of Antoni Gaudi of Barcelona, Spain, where some of our staff has taught, these columns feature colorful, fanciful mosaics that delight the eye and tickle the imagination. Wow, is that a sea theme? Is that one a big tail or a question mark? Look at that one - it's got every color of the rainbow and even some tiny butterflies and hearts in it! That other one looks like the forest - rich greens and earth colors.
Who was the artist, or artists you ask? We did it! The staff of Texas Hearing & Service Dogs. When we had some time, we sat down on the floor, composed a design, slathered some goop on the column and started applying tiles. Sometimes one person would start a section and one or two more would finish it another day. Sometimes we drew out a design and sometimes we improvised based on what tiles we still had in the box. We found it to be relaxing and often on Friday afternoons, you'd find a few staff members intently creating their works of art on the columns. Shy about getting started at first, everyone pronounced it therapeutic and enjoyed getting creative - especially the ones who started out wanting everything to be symetrical and to match. How much fun to see them embrace letting that go and just putting up things that defied definition.
It's not your everyday industrial dog training warehouse. This is a piece of our hearts built with attention to individuality and warmth in addition to dimensions, air conditioning capacity and plumbing.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Our morning show producer at FOX-TV in Austin let me know that episode #2 of Cafe Woof will air Tuesday, July 10th at 7:20 am.
Those of you who tuned in this week expecting to see me and getting Joe Montana instead - surprise! I was surprised, too.
This segment is worth the wait. "Looking for Love 101" is about how to adopt a new dog from a shelter. As you know, Texas Hearing & Service Dogs adopts 100% of our dogs from shelters and rescue groups. This episode profiles 4 people and what they want in a dog. Then, it talks about what kinds of dogs go with each of their lifestyles and takes you on a visit to Town Lake Animal Center, Austin's city shelter.
I must admit, at the shelter, I was smitten with kitten fever and took two home. If you notice any typos, blame it on the patter of little feet across my keyboard!
As with each episode of Cafe Woof, the segment opens and closes at Texas Hearing & Service Dogs' Training Center. We will soon be setting up an online archive of Cafe Woof so people who missed it, or who live outside of Austin, can see every episode.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Is it allergies? Is it malaria? I just know my throat is achy, I can't sleep and I'm going through tissues like sandbags during a monsoon.
You know what's been the best medicine? My pets. Pearl, the Wonder Dog and my two cats, Kona, who is a black cat and Leo, who is a squirrel cat (see photo).
Through a totally restless night of tossing and turning, punching pillows, moving from the bed to the couch and back, these three furry therapists stayed by my side. They comforted me. Just having them next to me, soothed me more than any anti-allergy capsule or milkshake (I tried both w/ poor results.) When I was in pain, I could reach out a hand and touch soft fur. When I felt sad and alone, I could see sympathetic brown eyes looking at me with love and compassion.
This morning, the worst is over. I am still weak and I shouldn't push it today. (um, too late, I fear). But through all that misery - and it was miserable - the animals by my side were the best medicine.
This has got to be even stronger when your best animal friend is your Hearing or Service Dog. Some of our graduates suffer from chronic pain. You can't understand that - really understand it - unless you've been there. That is part of the blessing of being sick - it gives you great empathy for people in pain. I'm sure it fades w/ the symptoms leaving you, but it's good to have the insight of feeling weak, hurt and vulnerable.
So, I'm glad to have experienced the lifesaving comfort of a long legged border collie mix, a timid black cat and his Royal Highness Prince Leo, for helping me make it through the night and for the insight it gave me into an important way our Hearing and Service Dogs touch their partners.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Wow, the show turned out great. Cafe Woof is born!
FOX ended up showing it at 7:22 am instead of later when I thought it was going to be on. Complain? Not me! I'm happy they're interested and I got it on tape. Hopefully, it will be on their website soon and I link it to ours so everyone can see it.
Actually, I think more people watch it earlier. I've already gotten 2 calls - one from a woman whose daughter wants to volunteer and another from a man who wants to buy THSD t-shirts. How 'bout that!
I would have completely missed it, but thanks to "my fiance" Dennis Antolik who called to tell me it was about to air, I was seated on the couch w/ my co-star Pearl the Wonder Dog, ready to take it all in. In the spot, Dennis proposes to me, only to be ignored while I reward Pearl for a lovely down. He mentioned he noticed I wasn't wearing his ring in the following shots. It was a lovely $20 emerald cut solitaire, discounted to $12. No - I didn't ask what he spent on it! I bought it myself for the scene. It's about 3 sizes too big, but I needed a ring box and that was the only way I could get one.
ANYway, the spot looked great. I'm very happy with it. It got the information across in a lively, organized way that made sense.
I can't wait to do the next one!
Btw, I'm also in the June issue of Austin Woman, a free magazine you can find at Half Price Books and lots of other places around town. It's a nice profile written by Tonyia Cone. Page 78.
Okay - today we have a staff meeting at the training center. Then tomorrow is our airport tour for the Austin Animal Attraction photography exhibit there. It's displayed across from the restrooms near the foodcourt across from the escalator down to baggage claim. Got that? ;)
Then, later that day, I pick up a woman from another Assistance Dog group who is doing our inspection for accreditation for Assistance Dogs International. It's an all day inspection of paperwork, procedures, the buildings, etc. to give us the "OKAY Seal of Approval" from ADI, our association of training organizations. We're ready for it. Bring it on!
Zippity Doo Dah, I'm ready for the weekend already. Hmmm, half a cup of coffee left - that's what's missing.
Talk to you soon!
Sunday, June 3, 2007
We filmed our first Cafe Woof segment this morning with FOX-TV. Gosh, everyone was so nice. It should air Tuesday, June 5th at 8:45 AM.
Btw, Cafe Woof is a segment I created to teach the public about dog training and other pet dog issues. It's named after our own Cafe Woof at the Texas Hearing & Service Dogs training center.
I had all the props and costume changes ready to go. A lot of what I talked about today is "catching your dog doing it right" and rewarding her. So there are examples of different times around the house when you can notice your dog doing what you want and rewarding her for it.
Dave, the photographer from FOX was wonderful. He added the technical know how to my dog training and and communication knowledge. He got almost everything in one take and really put me at ease on my first time. I have worked with him before and I was very happy to see him again. We even had time to shoot the opening and closing segments at the THSD Training Center - yay!
Also wonderful was Dennis Antolik, owner of the Austin Polo Club. Dennis was kind enough to play a pivotal role in the segment - his part is my favorite and when you see it, you'll understand. He was a great sport and extremely dashing - even without his polo pony!
Susan Ramsbottom, our Senior Trainer did an excellent job working with Service Dog "Doc" in the background during the Training Center segments. She always comes through and it's nice to get her on TV so everyone can see what an accomplished trainer she is.
This first episode should air on FOX in Austin, Tuesday, June 5th at 8:45 am.
I am reminding myself - it's not about how smooth I was or whether if I looked like a beginner. It's about teaching people how to get along with their dogs. The point of that is to a) have better relationships with your dog; b) solve dog problems so people don't dump their dogs at shelters; and c) encourage adoption of adult dogs, of mix dogs, of any pets from shelters and rescue groups.
Also, it's about showing the public how much we at THSD know about training and getting our name out there, which will hopefully lead to more support.
I really think this show will do that. And it's just going to get better.
Well, it's Sunday and I am going to force myself away from my home office and get out there!
I'm taking Pearl the Wonder Dog with me to the free Austin Symphony concert tonight in the park. Nice socialization - and it's strings, so it should be relatively peaceful. When they do percussion, we may sit a little farther from the instruments.
My good friend Lisa Starr with the Austin Humane Society wrote me that I'm profiled in the June issue of Austin Woman. I completely forgot about the article that Tonyia Cone was writing. I'm going to swing by a Half Price Books and pick a couple up. (One for my parents, naturally.)
I'm excited about Cafe Woof's debut this Tuesday on FOX at 8:45 am. If I can wrangle my new space age cable, I can tape it with just a few pushes of a button. I hope they'll end up showing it online. I wrote about the taping in my May 29th blog, but then, I wasn't adept at getting it online, so it's somewhere in blog-land on some super blogging website. I think our webmaster will be able to skew it and drag it to our website so y'all can read it. It's fun to read about these things behind the scenes.
Next month (it's a monthly segment...at this point - world domination, here we come!) I want to show people how to adopt a dog from a shelter. I would REALLY like to do this with someone who will actually go through the process and take the dog home - truly adopt it. Any volunteers? If so, contact me at email@example.com.
A good deal of it takes place BEFORE you even get to the shelter. This is the part where we look at your lifestyle and think about the kind of dog that fits it. Jogger? Small kids? Gone a lot? (If the last, get a teddy bear - Whew, I'm sassy! Must be the just one tiny piece of chocolate I found on my desk and made home for.)
Anyway, you know what I mean. Adopting a dog is a commitment. You and the dog will be much happier when you spend time with it. Just like a marriage, that's kind of the point, right?
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Today I caught up on lots of paperwork and sent out two more grant applications. Fundraising has three main parts: individual donations, special events and grants. The individual donations are the backbone of it all, but you have to supplement those with special events like the Mighty Texas Dog Walk and Polo 4 Puppies plus the term papers of fundraising - grants.
With the new building almost up and new trainers about to be interviewed for two job openinngs, my Spidy Sense is saying, "More donations NOW!" So foundations, here we come.
It's actually feeling good to write these because I can brag about how awesome our staff and grads are and include the latest pictures of trainers working with new recipients and dogs. That always makes me feel fantastic.
People wonder why I run and do other fitness things - belly dancing is the latest. It's to help me calm down and stay strong as I take on this enormous responsibility. The responsibility of steering and fueling this wonderful organization. Lots of outstanding people put their lives in our hands. You gotta stay strong, motivated, optimistic and healthy to do this right.
It's been nearly 20 years, so I know I'm doing a lot of things right. The challenge now is to surpass everything I've ever done. Piece of cake! Mmmm, cake! Gotta go - frosted Mini Wheats are almost as good. Anything with frosting is a winner in my book.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Friday, May 18, 2007
May 18, 2007:
My name is Mary Carolyn Carmichael. My full-time foster training adventure with Colt, a beautiful reddish Golden Retriever, began six months ago and will soon end in less than three weeks. As I reflect back over the past months Colt has been in my care and foster training, I am amazed to realize how far we both have come on our shared journey.
I first met Colt at the Texas Hearing and Service Dog, Inc. (THSD) Training Center on November 18, 2006. He was gangly one year-old pup who had been picked out of the San Antonio Animal Shelter on September 25, 2006, by Golden Ribbon Rescue and subsequently evaluated by THSD. By November 18, 2006, Colt's ribs still showed beneath his quivering wiggling body as he squirmed in his crate on our first meeting. He made a stark contrast to his two classmates, Karma and Rain, two elegant yellow labs that calmly wagged their tails and sat obediently when their crate doors were opened. Instead, when lead trainer Becky McClintok got this leggy pup out and handed him to me on a leash, he scampered about with boundless enthusiasm -- and apparently with little to no comprehension of how not to pull on his lead or that "sit" required non-movement. This dog had been correctly dubbed for his "coltish" ways, I thought. And what was I doing? Had I undertaken more than I could handle even with the capable guidance of the THSD professional trainers? If I had been asked at the time to guess which one of these three dogs would not progress further in training, it certainly would have been Colt that came to mind.
Who, Me? Multi-task?
After all, while I have loved dogs and horses my entire life, I have never trained a service animal. I am a practicing attorney who serves in the capacity of an administrative law judge as a special education hearing officer and mediator for the State of Texas. I well know the seriousness of making sure students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education in Texas schools, have familiarity with disability law, and render decisions that impact these important citizens, their parents, and their school districts. But could I possibly add foster training such a pup to my daily routine? I suddenly had a flood of doubts that I would be an adequate foster trainer as I loaded Colt into my vehicle and headed back to northwest Austin. Although I have the flexibility of officing out of my home, I frequently juggle my calendar to accommodate the changing needs of my docket and the attorneys and parties that appear before me. I'm a Mom of three daughters (Katie, Kirstie, and Carrie) in their twenties who attend three different universities. Add to this mix a menagerie of three pet dogs, two large water turtles, a bunny, a resident toad, and a very picky Chocolate Point Siamese cat appropriately named "Princess." Oh my... how could I juggle all this with a dog like Colt instead of a calm yellow lab like Karma? And just in time for the holiday season?!
I headed for Austin with my head swimming with information busy thinking over all the information I had previously been learning to prepare for this moment -- the basics of positive reinforcement training, reading several books on the topic, and studying the method to be sure I understood exactly how the training would evolve. As I drove, the handsome red-headed Colt panted in my ear while he road in the back seat of my vehicle. I am certain Colt's anxiety quickly exacerbated when we arrived at my home to be greeted by Princess (my cat) with undisguised disdain, hissing with a menacing low moan. Predictably, the red pup immediately tried to chase the rapidly fleeing feline up the stairs while I held onto his lead with all my strength. I reminded myself that at least only the cat lived inside my house -- we would certainly wait on introductions to the other canines and critters.
The first days and hours were busy ones as Colt remained tethered to my side as he explored both floors of my house. I had a crate set up in my bedroom in advance of his homecoming, but soon found that this youngster needed a larger crate to accommodate his frequent stretches. I carefully took Colt out the side door of my house out to the dog yard area to avoid meeting the other dogs for the first days, reinforcing each sporadic effort to sit and wait for me to open each of four wrought iron garden gates in the process. What if he never got along with the other dogs? Would I be sentenced to dealing with four gates the entire time I fostered him? Good incentive to face the canine introductions to come, I mused.
Setting Down the Rules
My granddaughters, Gwyneth (age 6) and Natalie (age 3) were ecstatic to meet "Gram's New Doggie" and I had to patiently repeat the rules to girls. ("No, he is not 'my' dog, he is a special visiting dog that Gram is trying to help train to help a person who has walking challenges (My actual unvoiced thought: This jumping dog ever calm down enough to help someone with mobility challenges? )" -- "Please remember not to touch him until I get him to sit (My actual unvoiced thought: Yeah, right -- get him to sit?). I know my eldest daughter, Katie, viewed this entire project with skepticism, watching carefully to see that Colt did not jump on her little girls. I don't think she believed it would be possible to shape this energy-enthused canine without a few "no" rebukes. I tried to explain what I had learned from THSD about clicker training, the principles of positive training and shaping behaviors. No one seemed convinced that this would be possible to accomplish in our household. Yet, as a family of unabashed dog lovers, we all agreed that this was one beautiful dog, his coat was indeed well-matched in hue to my hair, he was very gentle with the girls, and he absolutely had an undying passion for squeaky toys. In short, Colt quickly began to weave his magic on our entire family.
Click and Treat
And then there was the added dilemma of how to work effectively in my law office with this pup at my side? After all, Princess ruled the residence with cat beds strategically placed throughout the house, especially in my office. Before Colt, Princess spent each day at my side in peace during office hours moving between her three beds at will. Now that the "red intruder" had arrived, Princess made mad dashes for the safest spot by my computer -- with Colt eagerly trying to jump up and investigate. The first challenge was easy to solve with a tether of Colt to a massive armoire that is just far enough away from my computer and the preferred throne of the Princess to ensure we did not have a literal computer crash.
I began the positive reinforcement techniques with my clicker while I worked in my office to get Colt to respond to his name, punctuated by a steady stream of special dog treats when he responded correctly. Colt amazed me with how fast he mastered each training goal and before I knew it, the "click and treat" rhythm became an established routine. I soon found that I could talk on the phone, type on my computer, and click and treat Colt at the same time. Oh yeah -- multi-tasking is my name! Yet I always sensed that it was Colt's special nature that held the key to training ease.
I faced the inevitable introductions to resident dogs -- our large lab mix and former stray, Bryley, is the self-proclaimed alpha male of dogs at our house. Then there is the mini-Dachshund, Annie Sue, beloved dog of my youngest daughter, Carrie. Finally, little CoCo Chanel, a "purse size dog" of Silky Terrier/Papillion heritage, resided with us until February 2007 when she found a more suitable home without small children with the wife of a deployed Fort Hood soldier. But in the beginning, there were three resident canines to convince that Colt was not an alien intruder.
Transformation into the Red Angel
When I brought Colt into our three dogs' Nature Room and backyard for the grand introduction, the canine cacophony of outrage at the red intruder surely reverberated throughout the neighborhood. By contrast, Colt calmly sat down, without prompting from me, allowing each barking dog to come and investigate. I watched as Colt's amazing personality calmed even the excitable Coco Chanel down simply by his quiet "be-ing" and personality. Was this the same excitable pup? And so began the transformation from the wild colt into the gentle "Red Angel."
In no time all four dogs were great friends as Colt began to have "playtime" in the "dog yard" with Bryley with the smaller dogs joining in the fun. Bryley and Colt became best buds, playing tug o' war with whatever toy they could find in the yard. I began to take Colt outside through the Nature Room. No more gates to go through! The doggie door made life much easier for the entire household but especially for me. Around this time, Colt earned another nickname as "The Excavator" when he gleefully dug various holes in the dog yard. Colt convinced, much to my consternation, Bryley to try this thrilling new pastime. Fortunately, the "dog yard" is exclusively for the dogs, designed to handle canine transgressions without disturbing the "sacred" garden space in other areas adjacent to the dog yard; I ignored Colt's overhaul of the dog yard into a moonscape complete with "craters." We note that he frequently buries "treasures" in his craters with a flourish of flying dirt, the zeal of a mad scientist, all the while wearing his perpetual Golden Retriever smile.
Squeaky Toy Collection
Colt gratefully received each new squeaky toy we gave him, revealing his passion for retrieving and gleefully squeaking his new toys. As his collection grew week after week, we discovered that the heavy rubber type was best as he could quickly "devour" the cheaper plastic dog toys. I discovered that a good training session followed by a great game of "fetch the squeaky football" managed the Red Angel's energy level. Without specific shaping, soon Colt knew each squeaky toy by name, carefully distinguishing among his toys until he retrieved the correct toy.
Weekly Classes with THSD Professional Trainers
Much of the challenge and fun of foster training a "service dog-in-training" for THSD is the weekly session Colt's classmates and their foster trainers have with the professional trainers at THSD. We worked on each behavior during the week and then received the observation and direct input of the professional trainers at our weekly group session. To begin with, our weekly sessions were in the Dripping Springs Center. As we mastered leash behavior, down, touch, and sit, we got important pointers on what we needed to improve upon as the professionals checked on our training progress. Initially, we were not authorized to take our dogs out in public -- great incentive to work hard to get "certification" to take your service dog in training out and about!
Out and About at Last
Colt's class did not get their official service dog vests and THSD approval to take our dogs out into the community until January 2007. By this point, Rain had not continued in the program and had been released, leaving Colt and Karma in the class. At last we could begin to take our dogs out in public for limited training trips armed with our foster trainer certification documentation. We began to have "field trips" for our sessions to gradually acclimate our dogs to the community with the close guidance of the professional trainers as we worked through any "reluctance" our noble canines might experience from the new stressors. Our training class visited a garden store, a grocery store, several trips to the mall, and the airport, to name a few outing sites. We learned how to guide our dogs in all the public places that they would need to master with their future partner including getting in and out of parking lots safely, how to enter and exit elevators, and appropriate behavior for meeting and greeting interested citizens. And for special rewards for our dogs, we learned to save "the best treats" for these outings. I quickly discovered that Colt's very favorite treat was broiled chicken livers, so I dutifully broiled, cut up, and froze baggies of chicken livers to take to training sessions.
In-between sessions, we continued to polish our dogs' "stay" command as well as "off" and "touch," important behaviors to help shape future behavior strings when our dogs returned to the THSD Center for approximately six months of intensive training. Colt especially loves "touch" and I learned that this command would help center him when introducing him to new situations.
Spring Break Times Four
Colt and I went everywhere together as the spring season arrived. We kept our good friends' English Bulldog, Emma, over Spring Break to add to the household fun. In retrospect, I see that I should have figured out another "don't" of dog training during rainy spring weather in advance of the aftermath: Never Garden with Four Dogs In the Mud! We had a muddy mess of 16 paws during the rainy days of early Spring 2007, but the fun of the dogs playing the yard was priceless.
School Board Meetings and Mass
Colt now accompanied me to St. Theresa's Catholic School Board Meetings while I fulfill my duties during my second year on the school board. And as the Lenten season and came went, Colt became a regular at Mass and special Lenten services, especially enjoying the outside Stations of the Cross on Good Friday in our rustic setting off of 2222 and Mt. Bonnell Drive. Colt seemed to make friends with persons he identified as needing a special friend, including a new "Mass Buddy" he made of a lovely elderly disabled woman in our parish and many of the St. Theresa's school children. Colt knows when we pull into the parking lot and wags his tail eagerly to get out and going. He quickly mastered how to quietly accompany me down the aisle for Communion, how to wait patiently before the Blessed Sacrament for prayers (specifically including his future partner), and I know he senses the love and support this community have offered us during this training stage. Amusingly, Colt seems to know when our priest gives the final blessing and we began singing the last hymn, as he stretches, stands up, and is ready to depart just as we finish the last verse. He reminds me of just how my three daughters did the same thing as young children after being "very good" until Mass was over!
Colt and I made the rounds of our favorite Austin restaurants, including seeing the Manager, Christine, and Colt's favorite Server, Mary, at Mangia's on North Duvall. We made frequent trips to my favorite haunt, the Brick Oven on Jollyville where Colt agreed that the preferred booth will always be "6-1." We enjoyed a visit from my cousin and his wife, Ann and Tom Maccabe, that included a visit to the Brick Oven where Colt tried to head to table "6-1" automatically as "his" table. And when Colt and I got to take my granddaughters along, we headed to Waterloo's on 360 and 2222. On each dining occasion, Colt practiced his "under" skills to sit patiently under the table during meals to become "quietly invisible" -- the desired behavior for a service dog at a restaurant. I especially thank these three restaurants for making us so welcome, with added special thanks from Colt to "his" Mary at Mangia's for the fresh water bowl and "treats to go."
It was not until March that Colt showed unexpected reluctance while on a weekly training field trip to a grocery store. Colt noticed the low buzzing noise of open refrigerated areas and decided he did not want any part of going WILLINGLY down those aisles. Rather than force him, the wonderful shaping methods of clicker/positive reinforcement training dictates reshaping these behaviors to help Colt "overcome" this understandable reluctance to these areas. With the help of the lead trainer, Becky McClintok, I began implementing a training plan with Colt that reminded me of a "behavior improvement plan" commonly referred to as "BIP" in the world of special education law. With the help of my neighborhood HEB store, I followed Becky's steps to treat Colt when he successfully approached these "hot spots" in the grocery store. For almost three weeks, almost all of Colt's meals were fed to him at the HEB on Jollyville at Great Hills in front of the "noisy" refrigerated sections. I also bought and prepared quite a few containers of chicken livers during this period to help coax Colt down the refrigerated HEB aisles.
Getting Past the Buzz
I especially want to thank all the friendly HEB employees of the Great Hills HEB in Austin for their enthusiastic support of Colt's training needs. While this phase of training did take a lot of time and preparation, Colt proved his "mastery" of these areas less than three weeks ago when we made it through the entire store with all the various "hot spots" of noisy refrigerated cabinets and even through the check out -- without dispersing a single treat for positive reinforcement. I learned the important lesson that positive reinforcement, whether it is applied to shape behaviors for a special needs student with a workable "BIP" or to help a service dog "overcome" reluctance, will work with a clear plan broken down into goals and objectives -- with CONSISTENT implementation. It absolutely works!
9th Annual Mighty Texas Dog Walk
I decided to take Colt to the 9th Annual Mighty Texas Dog Walk on April 14th after watching Colt become more and more sure of himself in each setting we entered. What a surprise to find that Colt not only would respond to my cues on that windy day, he behaved with the 3,000+ dogs all around him without ever straining on his leash. Even I was amazed that this young pup had come so, so far. Colt and I had the pleasure of being interviewed during the event that included television coverage by News 8. He really was a star now -- and in more than just my own eyes.
Speaking at The University of Texas
When Dr. Carolyn Denton of the School of Education faculty at The University of Texas asked me to come speak to her advanced students regarding special education due process hearings and mediations, I received her enthusiastic permission to bring Colt along. Dr. Denton's class consists of future teachers and administrators who have an impressive basic understanding of special education instruction with on-going practical experience within a variety of special education settings, including my close personal friend Maryleigh Hutcheson. I welcomed the opportunity to familiarize these bright students with the differences between due process and mediation in the school setting, as well as introduce Colt and the application of a service dog for the disabled (I prefer "other abled") individual. I certainly enjoyed meeting these future educators accompanied by the beautiful Red Angel. Once again Colt added another setting in which he was attentive and at peace -- a university classroom.
Attending a Special Education Legal Conference
The month of April 2007 also included our first "road trip" to San Antonio, Texas, to attend the 21st Annual TCASE -Legal Digest Conference on April 20th. This adventure included navigating the crowded downtown San Antonio area, visiting with folks, and allowing Colt to "perform his magic" of great service dog manners meshed with the Golden smile. We made new friends in the open air "La Villita" Historic Arts Village where Colt gratefully downed a bottled water refresher. Over the lunch hour, Colt proved his mastery of the "off" command when I took him to eat lunch on the Riverwalk at Casa Rio. Our kind server, Teresa, observed Colt "refrain" from investigating the ducks on the river when I spoke the "off" command. After asking my permission, she gave Colt a special treat for his great behavior. Colt behaved beautifully throughout the entire day-long conference, lying down on command at my feet. During refreshment breaks, we visited with numerous special educators who were interested in the application of service dogs into the school setting. Although THSD does not place hearing and service dogs with individuals under age 18, the issue of service animals trained by other organizations to serve special education students attending public schools is of increasing interest to special educators. I realized that Colt was indeed ready for our next important shared event -- actually attending a due process hearing while I perform my duties as a special education hearing officer.
Work Trip with Colt
My job responsibilities include holding due process hearings for special education students that involve the student, their parents or guardians, and one of the approximately 1,100 Texas public school districts in which the student receives special education services. This necessitates travel to that school district so I can conduct the hearing, take the evidence, rule on the myriad of evidentiary objections, and ultimately review the hearing record and write my written decision. I have presided at several due process hearings while foster training Colt, but previously allowed Colt to return to the Dripping Springs Center while I traveled. But now I was convinced that Colt could handle travel and had mastered his service dog in training behaviors to a point that he could attend a hearing with me.
Another First - Colt Attends a Due Process Hearing
After notifying the parties of my intention to bring Colt, we attended a day-long hearing in the North Texas area on May 15, 2007. This, to my knowledge, is the first time that a Texas Special Education Hearing Officer has brought a service dog, let alone one in training, to a special education due process hearing -- another first for Colt and THSD! We stayed at the Extended Stay America in Lewisville, Texas, just off of I-35 North, where we were warmly and enthusiastically welcomed by Jennifer and one of the managers, Clay. The dog-friendly atmosphere of this hotel chain allowed Colt to "relax and refresh" both before and after our one-day hearing. As I had hoped, Colt behaved well throughout the hearing, allowing me to focus completely on my duties without unnecessary distraction from the Red Angel. The fine attorneys representing the parties, the parents, and the witnesses seemed to enjoy his presence and Colt was comfortable and welcomed by all participants. The parties allowed my good friend, Barry Phillips, to come join the confidential proceedings late in the afternoon to permit Colt to go on a brief walk and return to the hearing room so we could conclude the hearing into the 7:00 p.m. hour. After a lovely dinner with Barry and the welcoming staff at Johnny Carino's in the Lewisville area, Colt and I relaxed and enjoyed talking to the pleasant staff at our hotel before our return the following day to Austin.
Heading Home and Two Very Different Dining Out Experiences on May 16th
Breakfast: After goodbyes to our new friends at Extended Stay America, we received a pleasant welcome for breakfast at the International House of Pancakes in Lewisville. Our friendly server, Carolyn, made certain that Colt had a fresh bowl of water. Once again, Colt and I had pleasant interactions with interested diners and the management staff about the THSD transformation process for shelter and rescue dogs into wonderfully-behaved companions. We especially enjoyed an inquisitive five year-old young gentleman and his parent who wanted to know more about Colt and wanted to tell me about his challenges with Asthma. I used this moment as a "teaching moment" to describe what Colt would do after placement with his future partner and reinforced this young boy's excellent behavior when approaching a service dog. As always, Colt greeted him with his bright Golden Retriever smile and even shook this young gentleman's hand to the precious boy's delight.
Lunch: By stark contrast to the pleasant welcome at the International House of Pancakes, we were not warmly welcomed at Dock's Riverfront Restaurant in Waco, Texas, at approximately 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16, 2007. Instead, the floor manager on duty immediately asserted that I could not come in with the dog "due to the Health Code." I had to assert the authority granted under Chapter 121 of the Texas Human Resources Code in order to gain access with Colt into the public restaurant and overcome the floor manager's presumptive conclusion that we could not enter the restaurant. Fortunately once we gained access to the dining room, I did find our server to live up to the long-standing tradition of Doc's restaurant for polite service and good food. Colt behaved perfectly throughout the entire experience, as observed by a law professor from Baylor School of Law who sat in a neighboring booth. The law professor excitedly told me of a current law student with mobility impairment at Baylor who has a service dog that attends his class and will graduate in Spring 2008. The entire faculty enjoys that partnership between the law student and her dog and anticipates honoring the service dog at the graduation. The professor gave me, a UT School of Law grad, an open invitation to come to the Baylor Law School for a visit. I have no doubt that the Red Angel would feel very welcome at Baylor as well.
Reflections on Access and Politeness
Over the past ten years I have consistently visited this Waco restaurant during my frequent travels up and down I-35, experiencing the polite greeting on each visit boldly asserted on their web site. Yet, as I drove home to Austin, I could not help but wonder what uncomfortable moments service dog recipients undergo in similar situations when management personnel are "less than" gracious. How very different the experience would have been -- and should have been -- had the manager simply politely inquired as to my credentials, the status of the animal ("service dog" rather than "pet"), etc. before loudly making a mistaken pronoucement that we could "not" come in." As Colt and I had no further interaction with the floor manager as we left the restaurant, I attempted to contact the general manger about our unfortunate experience by telephone on May 17, 2007. My efforts to even obtain the general manager's name were less than politely rebuffed, necessitating further inquiry to the Better Business Bureau of Waco for the public information. Upon reflection, this experience drove home to me the continued need for education of the public about how to address a service dog or the proper way to inquire about a person's "right" to bring a service dog into an establishment. As a result, I am more convinced than ever that I will strive to model politeness while firmly asserting the right I have as a certified foster trainer to bring my service dog in training into public places such as restaurants and hotels. My thanks as always to THSD President and founder Sheri Soltes (also a UT School of Law grad, I might add) for her successful effort to change Texas law for this important access right.
The Busy Month of May Continued
As I reflect on this busy month, I realize that each event Colt attends with me builds on his skill set. We had fun being professionally photographed by Stephen Martin of Raige Studios (Photos 1 and 5) in preparation for the "Polo 4 Puppies" event tomorrow, May 19, 2007, in Manor, Texas. Colt will receive a new name tomorrow when participants vote to rename him. Of course, Colt has no idea that this is about to happen, but it promises to be a fun day of food, wine, and polo events to benefit THSD.
May 21, 2007:
My entire family enjoyed Polo for Puppies at the Austin Polo Club. We enjoyed meeting new people with Colt, seeing a polo match, and sharing the fun with all participants. My granddaughters loved riding the polo ponies and helping publicize the "Name that Service Dog" contest for a new name for Colt. They were thrilled when Colt's new name, by popular vote, officially became "Bevo's Colt." From the delicious food and beverage to the fun of the silent auction, the entire event was a great success and we all hope to attend the next Polo event in Fall 2007. Colt seemed to enjoy all aspects of the day -- except being "overruled" by me on his plan to chase a polo pony across the f!ield. I sincerely thank Melinda and THSD for the lovely framed portrait of the new "Bevo's Colt" captured perfectly by Stephen Martin -- the Red Angel (photo 5).
The Future Partner of Bevo's Colt
How very appropriate that his call name ("Colt") evokes thoughts of a particular UT quarterback since Colt adores catching a squeaky football pass at a run. And, Colt already has a proven record of classroom attendance at UT in Dr. Denton's class. He even has a small white patch on his chest in the shape of a "T." Perhaps I have mistaken the "red" and it is actually a "burnt orange" color in Colt's coat after all! As a proud graduate of The University of Texas School of Law, I hold out the possibility that perhaps "Bevo's Colt" will be partnered with a UT student, a UT sports fan, or maybe a veteran who is a UT fan or graduate. I enjoy musing about these possibilities and look forward to meeting Colt's future partner.
Icing on the Cake
Today marks another training class with "Bevo's Colt" and Karma with her foster trainer, Janet Duke. It is always fun for the four of us to see each other, with Karma and Colt greeting each other with wagging tails and excitement. I believe we are heading downtown today to meet with Becky McClintok. I know that the Red Angel is more than ready for downtown Austin after mastering busy San Antonio last month, so it promises to be a fun and beneficial training session. The days are passing rapidly toward the June return date, reminding me of how it felt when my three daughters each prepared to leave for college with numbered days to "polish off" what my daughter knew as she left my nest for college adventures. I feel similar excitement mixed with nostalgia as I prepare for him to return to the Dripping Springs Center for his intensive training. Although I am frequently asked how I am going to "give him up" at that time, I have always held in my heart the reality that as much as I of course always "want" him, someone continues to "need" him, patiently waiting for two years (even before he was born), for this incredible dog. He is needed elsewhere and has many untapped talents that will be refined through the intensive training phase of his year of training at the THSD Dripping Springs Center. My gift to this amazing process has been to help polish the pup into the shining student he has become.
I highly recommend the experience of foster training to others and as June 4th approaches, I realize that "Bevo's Colt" is ready to go forward with confidence into Phase II of his training. I am indeed "hooked" as a foster trainer. And although I hope to foster train many other fine service dogs in training for THSD in the years ahead, there will only be one "Red Angel" in my experience. What fun it is to have helped him on his journey to greatness!
Photos 1 and 5: Credit & copyright to RaigeStudios; Photos 2 & 3: Credit & copyright to Carrie Carmichael; Photo 4: Credit & copyright to Ken Hackfield
Monday, April 23, 2007
Looking around, there were dogs of every size and breed represented, with an equally diverse group of people who brought them. However, all were there to enjoy a 3-mile stroll, while also helping to financially support Texas Hearing and Service Dogs with donations and sponsorships totaling over $80,000. Happily, there were quite a few Hearing and Service Dog graduates, who participated along with their trained canine alumni.
Texas Hearing & Service Dogs extends are heartfelt thanks to all of the wonderful dog lovers who brought their best friends to the Mighty Texas Dog Walk! Also, huge thanks to our sponsors, staff and volunteers, and to the generous people of Sunset Valley who welcomed us as guests in their lovely city.