Friday, May 18, 2007
Foster Training "Bevo's Colt" (aka/ "The Red Angel")
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