Training My Own Guide Dog

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 18 1/2 Months Old

Sagan seems to be revisiting his rebellious teens this week. He has learned that in the middle of the night he can move to take up the exact center of the bed when I get up to go to the bathroom. This would not be so challenging if he would just move back to he spot, but naturally he is too smart to just give up his preferred position. Instead, he goes completely limp like a rag doll. I can’t move him. I pull and cajole and he does nothing. The other problem is that he is way too funny and cute so I am laughing and cursing at the same time. Talk about mixed messages! He will most likely need therapy to heal the scars.


The other less than perfect moment this week was he ate a half pint of the best tomatoes in the world. I may have created a tomato monster. I suppose this was mostly my fault but I did not realize I was shaping a behavior I do not want. This is my speculation on what happened. When he was younger it was suggested to me to give him cartons like you might get at the farm markets so he can shred them. I did this and he had a great time. Well, he generalized that all cartons like that are free for the taking. We learned not to leave those cartons empty on the counter. Then a few days ago I started putting these lovely tomatoes in his food bowl and there you have it; A dog who likes tomatoes and cartons. It only makes sense that together on the counter should be fair game. He saw me get the tomatoes out of the carton so when I was not in the kitchen, he devoured the tomatoes and brought me the carton to shred with him. Anyway, they did not bother his digestive system for more than a few hours the next morning. The moral of the story is be careful about what your dog is noticing because they might be learning something you did not mean to teach. You can’t unteach an unwanted behavior so now you must rely on teaching him impulse control. The other option is to not put tomatoes in cartons within his reach. I will most likely keep the cartons of tomatoes off the counter.

The two pictures above show Mel and Susie training sagan. The first shows Sagan firmly planted at State and Hamilton curb in Doylestown. The second shows Sagan checking oncoming traffic while guiding Mel across state street with Susie attached. 


We did do some actual guide dog training most days. We are refining his pace and pull and correcting our alignment when walking. Susie, the trainer attached another lead to his collar so when she noticed him wrapping in front of me, she was able to correct him quickly and effectively. He learns very fast so we were much better by the end of our walk. I am so grateful to have an excellent support team. Sagan takes his work seriously while in harness so I can forgive some teenage silliness in the house.


The first picture above shows Sagan guiding down Clinton Street sidewalk with Susie attached and traffic/cars in the background. The second picture shows Sagan taking an affection break at a bench on Court Street. 

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 18 Months 1 Week Old

I did what I set out to do this week and I am proud. Sagan is taking his work seriously and I am pushing both of us to be more adventurous. We went to a mall twice to work because of the heat which was fun even though malls are not my favorite place. I don’t think I have been to a mall since I trained with my last guide dog at a school. We also took our first train ride and then out to eat. Getting on the train was scary because I did not think it through before trying to get up the stairs. Sagan lost track of his back legs and he faltered. Stu saved us and then he took Sagan to rework the steps up. I need some advice on how to do this better. Over all I feel good about this week though I am emotionally tender.

The goals for working in the mall were to work on pace and pull in a place that feels safer for me. The mall was almost empty which made it perfect for learning to get into a smooth rhythm with each other. There is nothing like the feeling of walking with confidence while avoiding people and other obstacles. He handled moving obstacles like people and carts gracefully. He found seats and even the bathroom when asked. I am very proud of his bathroom skills. I think one of the best things about having a guide dog is going into a huge public bathroom and navigating them with ease. He was a super star today.

The picture above shows Mel working with Sagan at the Montgmomeryville Mall.

The train adventure was not as fun as the mall. Sagan stayed down and under the seat very well and he did not seem to be ruffled by the train noises at all. I am so grateful that he seems to take things in stride. If he is stressed out by something, he shakes it off and gets back to work. The hardest part about the train trip was that we were going to a place I had never been before and it was noisy with cars and strange intersections. Stu and I had trouble communicating because it was loud. I became very frightened and disoriented. Sagan was great the whole time but I was a nervous wreck. We only had to walk two blocks to a restaurant so it was short lived. Sagan settled under the table like a good boy while I relaxed with a beer and good food. The trip home was easier. I think the next time will be more familiar and more confidence building for me.

The picture above shows Sagan suavely crossing his legs while relaxing on the bed. 

We accomplished so much this week. My plan is to continue to gradually put both of us into situations that challenge our teamwork and that will provide more opportunities for more focus on his part. My work is to learn to stay calm and to shake it off like he does. We have much to teach each other. I could not ask for a better dog. Stu and Suzy have been such amazing supports for this grand project. I feel certain Sagan and I will be the kind of team that works for my lifestyle.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 18 Months Old

Is it age, prednisone, or training that has enhanced an already delightful puppy? We will get to find out soon. We went to the ophthalmologist yesterday and she said his eyes look really good. This means that we will continue to taper the prednisone. He is now down to 10 mg every other day. I am grateful that the prednisone did not make him a wild man. He has gained some weight in weird places, but hopefully that will resolve now. It is extremely difficult not to feed a dog when they act like they are starving. I think I did a pretty good job limiting his food but I was not perfect. I am going to let go of the subject of the vaccine reaction now. I am going to assume that he's going to be just fine and I won't ever have to write about it again.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan sitting on the bed. Sagan is facing the camera with his tongue hanging out.

Now that Sagan is more mature and we are past the vaccine reaction, I am ready to step up his training. I am setting new goals and beginning to make plans as to how to achieve them. I am writing this list here to hold myself accountable and maybe to give you some idea of what it takes to graduate an owner trained dog.

•Polishing house manners: Counter surfing resurfaced when he was so hungry so that needs to be addressed. 

*Barking at outside noises is getting better but it is a work in progress.

•Teaching him to show me things I have dropped and not running off with them. Most of my hair clips have less prongs on them than they should. He always manages to find them like he does with ball point pens. I have not figured out how to get him to pick something up gently and put it in my hand or at least touch it with his nose.

•We continue to refine his response to overhead obstacles and ground obstacles or dangers.

•We will take a short train ride and maybe a bus.

•The next big thing is traffic. We will begin by calling his attention more to natural moving vehicles in a way that does not frighten him but lets him know that he needs to think before crossing an intersection. I am not quite sure how we will manage this part but I have support. I hope to begin this in October.

•Pace and pull needs attention also. This is something that is confusing for me because I want to walk faster as is my nature but I am scared. I did fall last week while walking with him. I was not hurt badly but I feel vulnerable. My self protection response is something I have not tamed yet. I don’t enjoy falling or getting hit in the head so it is a challenge to move through. Many people who are blind say I need to get over my fear and I am practicing my self soothing techniques to the best of my ability. He is quite good at adjusting his pace for me but his pull is still a little strong for me. It is a delicate balance.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan in the living room. Sagan just returned from a walk and is recieving some love from Mel. 

I think pushing myself out of my own comfort zone is our biggest obstacle now. Sagan is a dream to work with; it is me that holds us back now. Fear of the unknown which is constant for me as a person who is blind is not a trivial wall to climb. It takes a great deal of slow breathing and being willing to push myself toward the breaking point without actually breaking. This is necessary for progress. Emotional stamina and physical stamina are my main projects now. This is all character building or so I am told. I should have a great character by the time this is all over.

I am open to suggestions or good resources to learn good traffic training methods. I have a pretty good idea, but more knowledge is always good.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 17 1/2 Months Old

For the last two weeks training has slowed down due to heat, prednisone, and lethargy both his and mine. His eyes are better but they are not back to normal. We are down to 10 milligrams a day. He takes it in the morning so he takes a nice long morning nap. When evening comes he is back to playing. I am glad to have him back to his old tricks. The prednisone makes him extra hungry so counter surfing has become an issue. He keeps bringing his Tug a Jug to me to fill it with food. It is so hard not to give it to him because he is so cute and intent on his goal of getting more food. I do not want an overweight dog so I am restraining myself. 

We have by no means stopped his training even though the intensity has changed. For the last two weeks we have worked on overhead obstacles. We are doing this by setting up a tripod with a light wooden rod which is adjustable in height. Susie, our trainer came up with this system and it works great. Sagan is learning to anticipate the obstacle and then to either take me around it or to stop to allow me to probe for information. We can put the rod all the way across the sidewalk or pull it back so he must decide whether there is room to go around or to stop. It is a lot to grasp for him since he can walk right under the rod himself. We are having fun changing the positions and now we are adding distractions to the mix. Sagan and I will be walking at a nice clip while Stu walks across the street or Susie and I are talking to each other while she is located on the other side of the obstacle. Fortunately, I don’t get hurt if he runs me into it because it will swing away from me. I make myself close my eyes to make sure I don’t cue him unconsciously. He has only run me into the obstacle a few times. He learns it very fast. The distraction part of the training still needs some work. We are also using natural overhead obstacles like branches and pipes sticking out the back of trucks. Our plan is to work on this for the next few weeks increasing the difficulty then, we will begin traffic training hopefully in October. By then his prednisone dose should be very low or finished. It would be so grand if he heals completely from this rare vaccine reaction and the fear can go away.

The 2 pictures above show Mel with Sagan doing obstacle work.

Our HOA is spraying pesticides on the property today so Sagan and I will be inside for the next few days with windows closed and air condition on. I plan to get back to house manners and basic obedience which I can do indoors. We may take him on his first train ride if all the stars line up correctly maybe next week.

Overall, I feel good about his progress even though we have had to take it easier for the last few weeks. Now I need to recommit to teaching him new things and returning to daily obedience. I have done some back sliding due to general malaise. Training dogs to do anything is not a linear path and I am doing my best to accept that we have just taken a detour from the path we set in the beginning. I have had much anger and grief to work through and it set me back. We are coming out the other side now so all is well. 

Training my Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 17 Months 1 week old

My boy is starting to look like an old man. So far the side effects of the prednisone have not been too harsh. He lets me sleep all night for the most part. He does wake me up a little earlier than before but I don’t mind. He is definitely hungrier but his weight remains the same. The drug looks to be shrinking his muscles so his head looks rather skeletal and his legs are thin. My hope is that this will all resolve when this is over. He sleeps pretty much all day so he is easy to have around. I am looking forward to getting my rambunctious boy back.

The picture shows Sagan standing in the living room looking at the camera.

We are taking him for short walks and introducing some new concepts. We started teaching him about overhead obstacles last week. This is not an easy concept and I think he might have a little brain fog going on. He doesn’t quite get what is being asked of him. I also think we do not know the best way to teach it to him. We are figuring it out. Sagan is not super sensitive so a few mistakes on our part don’t seem to be too detrimental. I am confident that we will succeed over time. I am not rushing him now. We have time. This week we are going to set up some lower obstacles to help him get the idea.

The picture above shows Sagan taking a nap on the couch.

I have done a huge amount of research on autoimmune-mediated Extraocular Polymyositis over the last week. It is super rare but there is a correlation with vaccines. It appears that most dogs get over it after treatment but may have another episode if vaccinated again. This will be a tricky business as time goes on. I am doing my best to keep my equanimity as time passes. All I can say is please ask your vet to split out the vaccinations. Maybe if enough people ask, change will occur. 

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 17 Months Old

Sagan’s eyes are looking so much better. We began tapering his Prednisone last week to half of what we were doing at first. He is still lethargic and his head looks strange. The vet calls it “pred head”. His head is looking skeletal. I hope it returns to normal when we are over all this. I am concerned about long term effects of the drug but there is nothing I can do except and hope that it will all be over soon.

The 2 pictures above show Sagan sitting on the couch. He has a very serious expression as he stares at the camera.

We have begun taking him for shorter walks when the weather is cool. His guiding is quite precise and that thrills me no end. Today I tried teaching him about overhead obstacles and he seemed to get it. It was a low branch which was not a perfect training setup for us. I do think he realized that he was supposed to do something. It is up to me to be more clear with my directions. He guided me perfectly right up to a huge truck that was parked across the sidewalk and he took me around it with perfect guide dog form and grace. I was elated! We are careful not to stress him out or allow him to get too hot. Susie, the trainer comes back this week and I think we will start working seriously on overheads.

Stu and I needed to go to an appliance store to look at models of stoves and other appliances for our new home at Rachel Carson EcoVillage. Finding appliances that work for people who are blind is no easy task. Anyway, we took Sagan in harness with me in control the whole time. He followed Stu perfectly except for a few bumps. I showed him that he needs to stop before we bump into Stu and he understood after two mistakes. I am so so glad to know that his brain is working well. He took me all over the store turning in whatever direction I asked him to whether Stu was in front of me or not. The sales person was so impressed and so was I.

That is it for this week. I continue to work with my sadness and anger around the whole vaccine issue but I will get over it with time. I am holding the vision of Sagan being a perfectly healthy dog who lives a long and vibrant life. Maybe you will do that too for us.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 16 3/4 Months Old

I have calmed down only a little since my last post about Sagan’s reaction to the DA2PP vaccine given almost 3 weeks ago. His eyes are going down but are not yet normal. We have begun tapering down the steroids which is helping his energy level somewhat. He has an appointment with the ophthalmologist this week. My hope is that she says he is healing nicely. I am most grateful that his vision does not seem to be affected.

Due to his lethargy, his training has been suspended. I am not trying to teach him anything new. I am drilling him on things he knows well around the house. We have gone on some short walks and he is doing very well with that. His pace and pull have slowed down just a bit which is actually nice for me.

What have I learned from this episode? I have learned to ask over and over again for what I want and demand that I get answers. What I am struggling with is the answers are not satisfying, so I find others to ask. I have also learned that pet insurance is a good idea even though we resisted it when he was a young puppy. The hardest thing for me to relax into is that I can’t suck this vaccine out of his body and return him back to my perfectly healthy dog. I have no idea if this is going to affect him for the rest of his life and that feels absolutely awful! I am very much struggling with letting these strong emotions move through my body and not stick to me like glue. I must move through this and do what is best for my dog in every way I can. I am doing my best not to do “what if” scenarios in my mind. I know that helps nothing.

My request of you is to please do your research before you follow the vaccination standard protocols that most vets will tell you your dog must have. Your lifestyle and geography should be the main factor in the vaccines you choose for your dog and your vet should be aware of what is needed for your specific situation. Vaccine reactions are often more prevalent in certain breeds. Find out about your dog and the risks. Push hard on your vet to split out vaccines and separate them out as far between as you can do safely. If you have the choice, ask more than one vet. Chances are you will get different answers. Pick the one you like.

Now I am going to write an email to the manufacturer of this vaccine in hopes of calling their attention to the problem of multiple vaccines in one injection and maybe even play on their emotions just a bit.


The 2 pictures above show Sagan's eyes 2 weeks ago on July 13th. The vaccine was administered on July 5th. 


Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 16 1/2 Months Old

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 16 1/2 Months Old

Well, you better gird your loins because I am mad as fire! I reported last week that Sagan got his DA2PP vaccine. I thought it was just Distemper but later found out that there were 5 vaccines in a single injection.  I thought everything was going to be okay and that he would have no acute reaction. Saturday night I started noticing that his eyes didn’t feel quite the same to my touch but I thought it was my imagination. On Sunday, Stu remarked that Sagan’s eyes did not look quite right. They were bulging out of their normal position. By Monday they were definitely not right. We got him into the vet that morning. She prescribed some drops and we took him home with a recheck scheduled for Wednesday. There was no improvement by Wednesday. The vet called a canine ophthalmologist and we saw her the next day. Fortunately, Sagan did not seem to be in distress and his vision was just fine. I was grateful for that.

The first picture is of Sagan's eyes on Saturday 6/24, 10 days before the vaccination. They are his normal little dark beady eyes that you could barely see. The second picture is of Sagan's eyes on Thursday 7/13 right before his Ophthalmology appointment. This picture doesn't really capture the severity of the bulge. 

Sagan took it all in stride. The vet was shining all kinds of lights and putting drops in his eyes. He was a very good boy. I liked the vet. The diagnosis was auto-immune mediated Extraocular polymyositis. She said it is rare. She would not say that it was the vaccine that caused it but nothing else makes any kind of sense to me. He was perfectly healthy before and nothing had changed in his lifestyle. Anyway, she said that most likely a long course of prednisone will clear it up and it will not come back. She did say it could become chronic but I am not allowing my mind to go there.

He has been on medication for a few days now and his eyes are almost back to normal. We are fortunate that the prednisone is not giving him the side effects often seen with the drug. He seems slow and a little more sluggish than usual but other than that, he seems good.

The picture above shows Sagan on Tuesday, July 18th, 6 days on prednisone. The whites of his right eye are visible. 

The fury rises up in me because I was misinformed as to exactly what the vaccine included. After doing more research, I have discovered that I could have done a titer for this vaccine and chances are good that he did not need it at all at this time. I can’t suck it out of his body so now we will live with the consequences. Hopefully, there will be no other complications over his life. I insisted that the vet report it to the Center for Veterinary Biologics (CVB). The office manager assured me that they reported it to the manufacturer. I doubt that this will make one ounce of difference but I feel like that is all I can do. I am going to call the manufacturer myself to raise some Hell. I am also going to begin educating people about the importance of splitting up vaccines and the option of doing titers. Dogs and cats are over-vaccinated just like our human children are but I will keep my mouth shut about that. I believe that vaccines have their place but the decision should not be dictated by the manufacturers or uneducated veterinarians. Most vets like most people physicians are heavily influenced by pharmaceutical companies. I believe that it has happened slowly over time and it is not completely their fault. Because of our current system of animal and people care, it is extremely important to do your own research or find a doctor that truly has the curiosity to think for themselves. Do your best to learn all you can about vaccines and any other procedures your vet might suggest. Ask a lot of questions and trust your own intuition before just going along with everything they say. Get a second opinion when you can.

Needless to say, Sagan’s training has been interrupted. My greatest wish is that this is the end of this episode. I can assure you that I will be getting titers from now on with the hope that he will never need another vaccination. I will cross that bridge when I get there. Please be aware that the side effects of vaccinations are not only acute. They can cause cancers at injection sites as well as skin and digestive allergies. I confess to being a crazy dog person and I hope you are too.

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