Training My Own Guide Dog

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.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 16 Months 1 Week

Sagan got his one-year booster vaccine last week. It did not go as I had planned and now I need to release my pressure valve. Let me say up front that I am not against vaccines so please grant me the opportunity to be angry without judging me.

The picture above shows Sagan sitting happily on Mel's bed.

I do believe that dogs are over-vaccinated if the standard protocol prescribed by a conventional vet is followed. Puppy bodies are not meant to be bombarded with so many vaccines at one time. Most vets push giving many vaccines in one injection. I suppose the idea is that it makes it easier and cheaper to have one office visit instead of splitting them up. Well, this makes me livid because I know too many dogs who have developed cancers at the vaccination sights and have died too early as a result. You may know of dogs yourself who have had tumors form on the shoulder or hip. Often these cancers can’t be treated with any kind of real success. Vets will tell you that there is no correlation but I do not believe it.

I had a discussion early on with our “Integrative” vet and I felt that he heard my concerns and actually agreed with my vaccination plan for Sagan. Guide dogs are required to have certain vaccines in order to be allowed in public places. I don’t have a problem with that. I just want to split them up with plenty of time in between for the body to adjust and also to be able to observe if there is an adverse reaction. If 5 vaccines are given in one injection, there is no way to know which one is causing a problem. To me, this is common sense. So many dogs now have all kinds of skin and food sensitivities which arrive after having their vaccinations. 

Why am I so upset? I thought I had an agreement to only give the Distemper vaccine and then Rabies in a couple of months. I called the office three times to make sure that he was going to get only Distemper. They assured me that this would happen. I trusted them to keep their word. I even asked again when the nurse came to give him the vaccines that it was only Distemper. She assured me that it was. Well, when I got home and looked at the paperwork it said that he got 5 vaccines in one. There was nothing I could do after the fact. I feel violated. I called them and they gave me a song and dance about the Distemper vaccination always being given that way and the separate vaccines can’t be split up. I know that they can be split up even if they have to be ordered special. I thought it was understood that I wanted them split up even if I had to jump through hoops to have it that way. Did they think I wouldn’t notice? 

Sagan had no immediate problems with the injection for which I am grateful. I have no way now to control the potential outcome as he grows older. From now on he will be getting blood titers done to find out if he still has antibodies. I will not be giving any more vaccinations for as long as I can stay away from them legally. He is due for the Rabies vaccine also. You can be sure that I will pester the vet a million times to make sure something isn’t being slipped in without my knowledge.

My hope is that pet guardians will start requesting that the vaccines be split up over time so that pharmaceutical companies will decide to offer them one at a time. Vaccine plans should be made according to geography and the lifestyle of the dog. Not all dogs need all vaccines available. Do your research and find a vet who can think for themselves and are not too arrogant to listen. We need to stand up for our pets so they can live long and healthy lives.

The picture above shows Sagan laying on Mel's bed as she folds laundry behind him.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 16 Months Old

Today is my boy’s birthday. It is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that he has been with us for over a year. We have been through puppy shark teeth, house training, fear periods, crate training, and so so much more. The time has flown and I can’t imagine my life without him in it. Sagan has graduated to Good Dog status in my mind. He still gets into trouble and his house manners need more work and that is up to me to make that happen. It is me who needs more training now so that we can grow together as a team.

The picture shows Mel walking Sagan in front of the clubhouse.

Every two weeks I get on a Zoom call with other owner trainers. There are all levels of experience from people getting their puppy to people who have trained several dogs themselves. The wisdom of this group helps me immensely. I am so grateful for this group because sometimes I really don’t know how to move through a situation. I can ask any question or just vent my fears and frustrations. Last night I did just that. Sagan is ready for the next big steps in his training like learning about overhead obstacles and traffic. It is me who is holding up the show now. My fear of the big wide world is slowing us down. I spoke about this fear on the group call and I received so much support and good ideas on how to move through my fear. Now it is up to me to implement them.

The pictures show Sagan first stopping at a crosswalk and then waiting for a car to pass through the crosswalk.

Two people on the group call suggested that I use my cane in conjunction with Sagan in harness. This makes so much sense to me and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. I confess I resist having my hands full and trying to treat him with a cane in my hand. I prefer not to carry so much stuff with me when we go out but I guess I just need to get over it. I WILL get through this fear period. I was able to be compassionate when Sagan was afraid of everything so now it is my turn to be easy but not too easy on myself.

The picture shows Mel and Sagan entering the crosswalk. Sagan is clearly looking left for traffic.

It was also suggested to me to leave Sagan at home and walk our mapped-out routes alone with my cane. Once again, I really resist this idea but I see the sense of it. It is time for me to buck up now and act on the wisdom I have asked for and received. I will pull out my breathing techniques and allow myself to stop and breathe when I feel my adrenalin flooding my body. I think I am just going to allow myself to stop at every bench and take a breath or two before going further. I will not allow perfection paralysis to keep me from reaching my goals.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 15 3/4 Months Old

This was a big week for us. Sagan got to play with his friend Blue, a big Golden Retriever. Sagan had a blast and it thoroughly exhausted him until the next day. I love seeing Blue too because he reminds me of Jingles. Goldens really do smile and it makes me happy to see that again. I have just enough vision to be able to see the contrast on Blue’s face. Sagan is black and I can’t differentiate his facial features. Stu and I really enjoy hanging out with Blue’s people too.

The picture above shows Sagan on his bed playing with his shark toy. 

We began taking regular walks with me handling. We have mapped out our routes. Sagan is doing great but honestly, I am feeling underwhelmed with my ability to take directions from Stu and my ability to stay calm. Sagan is a real trooper though because if I confuse him, he shakes it off and keeps going. My fear of walking is our biggest challenge now. It is easy for me to say “I need to build my confidence” or for the physical therapist to tell me “It just takes time.” I wish somebody would tell my adrenals to stop acting like I am being attacked every time I take a step. I practice breathing techniques and it really does help. I am doing what I am supposed to do to heal. The hardest part is to accept that it is more than my body that needs healing. Fear and my own lack of enthusiasm are the trouble right now. I have been through these phases before and I know for sure that it will pass. I am sure that most if not all owner trainers go through some variation of this during the training phases. I am so grateful that I have a great dog.

The best session we had this week was a trip to both a busy grocery store and to Costco which was also super busy. All I required of Sagan was to walk by my side with a relatively loose leash and stay calm. There was so much going on with carts coming from all different directions. Stu pulled our cart and I held on to the back with Sagan on my left side. We were a little jerky at first until I decided to stop and do some basic obedience commands so he could get his head in the game. That worked and off we went. We got into a nice rhythm after that. We made stops so Stu could run around and get stuff during which I either had Sagan standing in front of me between me and the cart or I had him sit beside me while we waited. We navigated both stores and he was fabulous. I am so so proud of him these days for his ability to stay calm. He is such a good boy.

The picture above shows Sagan napping on Mel's lap on the couch.

We have also begun taking him to restaurants. We started with outside places and now graduated to inside. He is not perfect at staying down and under the whole time. Sagan prefers movement so he finds being still for so long an affront to his nature. I am sure he will learn to cooperate the more we insist. The best part was when he took me to the restroom and he found the toilet, sink, and door out with no problem. I am generally very pleased with his behavior in public places. He is still very much a work in progress but aren’t we all?

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 15 1/2 Months Old

I must say, I could not be happier with the progress we are making with Sagan’s training. The majority of the credit goes to my husband who takes him on long walks in harness now most every day. I take him first for a shorter preplanned route and then we change handles to a longer one for Stu and they go out again. I am creating a short, moderate, and longer route for myself which will remain the same for some time. This allows for both Sagan and me to get into a rhythm with each other and to build our confidence. Stu walks behind us and gives commands in a code so I can issue them myself when needed. We are still perfecting our method but it is going well.

Last week Sagan had a play date with his best friend Blue, a big golden Retriever. They are perfectly matched in their play style and we enjoy the owners. Susie, our trainer, matched us up with Blue and it is working great. Sagan comes home a slobbery mess but I don’t mind one bit because the joy is palpable.

The two pictures above show Sagan with his friend, Blue. In the first picture Sagan greets Blue with a big hug and in the second picture Sagan's ears are spread out horizontally similar to Sally's Field's hat in The Flying Nun.

We took Sagan to Marshall’s, a huge everything store for practice inside. The idea was to learn more about moving obstacles like shopping carts and moving people. For the first time in harness with me handling, it went well. The store was busier than expected and the isles were narrower than we thought they would be. Susie took charge of him for a few rounds around the store and then I took him. He took me around obstacles and moving people. His work needs improvement but this is expected. Next, I will go grocery shopping with Stu with Sagan heeling at my side as I hold on to the cart. Sagan likes a lot of action so this may be challenging for him to be slow and calm.

The biggest challenge we face now is me. Due to knee surgery, I am a bit shaky and my balance needs improving. My walking gait is not smooth yet and I get very anxious on narrow paths which we have in our housing complex. They are ankle turners so Sagan needs to pay attention so as to keep me in the center whether or not his friend the squirrel is taunting him. So far, I can tell that he is paying attention to the squirrels but he has maintained his work. I get giddy when I realize how far we have come on this journey. I am so proud of Sagan and all of my support people.

Sagan is still resisting the harness even though I have pulled out all the stops for desensitizing him. Once the harness is on, he seems just fine but Stu and I have to tag team to get it on him. I am not happy about this. I will continue to work with him and hopefully, he will surrender more easily to the process. My hope is that over time he will be more joyful about it all. I am so grateful though that when the harness goes on, his pace and pull are delightful.

I am contemplating getting him boots to protect him from hot pavement. It seems like such a hassle to put them on. I was told that Musher’s Secret which is a wax formulation will work so I think I will experiment with that first. I will test it on myself first. If anyone has any suggestions about how to deal with hot pavement, I am all ears.

The picture aboves shows Sagan laying on Mel's bed surrounded by pillows.

Our last batch of toys have not passed the Sagan shred test. We are off again to the store this afternoon in search of the perfect toy. I will let you know what we find.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 15 Months 1 Week Old

My patience was tried this week. The East Coast was blanketed with heavy pollution created by fires in Canada. I have never experienced anything like it. As a result, Sagan did not get his daily walks. I am sure if you have ever had a puppy or a high-energy dog, you can imagine what happens when the dog has pent-up energy. It means exercising your own creative mind to devise diversions inside the house.

Sagan was pretty seriously resisting putting on his harness. I was worried but after consulting other poodle handlers, I discovered this is a “poodle thing”. Since we could not go out, I used the time to entice him to put his head in the harness with very high-value treats. For days I just held the treat in such a way that he had to put his nose through to get the treat. I did this many many times without moving the treat in any way. Over time I began pulling my hand a little further back so he had to put his head further through to get the reward. I also put the harness without the handle on the floor and put treats all around it and inside the head hole while it rested on the floor. We made it a fun game. Sagan, being the genius that he is, knew exactly what I was trying to do so he was very watchful. He knew that eventually, I was going to try to put it over his head so he would put his head through super fast and back out. By the end of the week, he was accepting the harness over his head while I fed him treats. He probably gained weight this week. I have a feeling that Sagan will not ever jump for joy to have it put over his head but thankfully, he does not seem to mind wearing it and working. I will keep playing these types of games with him in hopes of making it easier for him.

The two pictures above show Mel training Sagan. Mel is enticing Sagan to put his head through the harness with a kong full of treats. 

I confess that I am guilty of using marrow bones and Bully Sticks to keep him busy. I did more of this than I like to do but sometimes I just needed a break. Stu and I did do recalls up and down the stairs with us hiding in different places. I also had Sagan stay while I hid a toy or treats in the house. He is great at this. I would sometimes tell him exactly where to look by saying, “Find it, toilet”. I used different words that he knows. It was so fun to watch him go directly to the place I put the treat. Other times, I tried to hide them in sneakier spots without telling him. He quickly found everything.

Mentally challenging a dog tires them out faster than physical exercise so I began asking him for more before allowing him to eat his food. At some meals, I would make it very challenging by having him go to his bed after I had put down his food. Then, I called him to me in the opposite direction from his bowl. This was very hard at first but he got it quickly. I changed his commands from meal to meal so he really had to think. By the end of the week, he was a pro at moving away from his food and performing his basic obedience commands in whatever order I gave them. He is such a good dog.

Sagan’s favorite activity is destroying boxes. I save big and little boxes that have little or no adhesives on them. I put a couple of treats in all the boxes and put the little ones inside the bigger ones. I put all kinds of things in the different boxes in hopes of keeping him engaged. Fortunately, he does not eat the boxes and just goes for the treats. My house looks like a dump yard now but it’s okay.

The picture above shows Sagan on his bed ripping apart a box that Mel put together for him. 

The last big change this week is that I started letting him sleep with me all night on my bed. I know this is a controversial subject. Some trainers say that this is a horrible idea and others say it is just fine. I have never let a dog sleep with me before because of the shedding of other breeds. Sagan is super clean. My intuition tells me that it is good for bonding. It may be my imagination, but I do think he is more attentive to me now. He seems to want to be near me more than before when he was crated all night. He does have a tendency to want to sleep on top of me so we have some work to do on his allowed space. He now comes into the bathroom with me when I shower. I leave the shower doors cracked so he can look in which he does almost all the time. Running water fascinates him. He usually ends up with his head wet. We are having fun together now in different ways. Raising and training a puppy is not for everyone but I am thoroughly enjoying the process especially since I have such a great support team.

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