International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners
CHOICES OF THE HEART by Joan Froling
Nikki was my first service dog. I didn’t know what to expect of one, so it was only in retrospect I could see the forest for the trees and recognize this particular Samoyed was much too willful and independent to be an ideal service dog. He made up his own rules. Talked back to me and other people. Wasn’t even affectionate. No doggy kisses. Didn’t like hugs or cuddling. Rarely solicited petting. Preferred to sleep on the cool tiles in a hotel bathroom or stretch out in the front hallway at home, rather than next to my bed. The only times he lay at my feet and looked up at me with an adoring gaze were on the nights I had a pizza delivered.
I suspect most people are like my sister, preferring dogs that are demonstrative, wiggling with joy if praised, eager to give sloppy kisses or to climb into a lap if invited.
Nikki suited me just fine. He was a service dog, not a lap dog. As long as he did his job, his free time was his own time. The way I saw it, his love wasn’t something to be measured by the number of doggy kisses he doled out per week but by every service dog task he performed. He had a choice in whether or not he would cooperate. He let me know it too.
I’ll never forget the very first time I asked him to demonstrate a service dog task in front of somebody else. Our first audience was an old friend who dropped by. I had practiced with Nikki earlier that day and he was letter perfect. Whenever I said the word “Basket,” he’d rush into the kitchen, open a cupboard door and bring me a straw basket containing prescription medication and a can of Diet Coke so I could wash the pills down. I figured this would be a very useful task on the days when I couldn’t get up from the couch for six hours because I was receiving IV medication for my neuromuscular disease, Myasthenia Gravis. It also would be a wonderful convenience whenever I was in pain from the orthopedic complications that had taken quite a toll over the last fifteen years. My friend was very impressed when I told her what I had trained Nikki to do, especially after so many stories of his puppy-from-hell escapades during the first fourteen months of his life.
They say “pride goeth before Fall.” I confidently gave Nikki the command that afternoon, expecting him to dazzle my friend with his mastery of this complex new task.
Can you imagine how impressed my friend was when Nikki left the room and instead of returning with the basket, he came sauntering back in with a rawhide bone? He plopped himself down at my feet and began chewing on the rawhide bone with great relish. So much for Nikki, the Samoyed Wonder-dog. She thought it was hilarious. She tried not to giggle but couldn’t help herself.
I was shocked speechless. I knew this was not a case of forgetfulness. Especially when Nikki reacted to her giggle by lifting his head, grinning that Samoyed grin of his, then returned to earnestly chomping on the bone, making as much noise as possible.
Nikki had already taught me that he could not be guilt tripped like most dogs into complying with a command. You could try shaming him till hell froze over and the scolding would merely sail in one ear and out the other, not troubling his conscience the least little bit.
Nikki also knew he was much stronger than I. Physically dragging him into the kitchen to the cupboard where the basket awaited him was out of the question.
Repeating the command when he was pretending to have amnesia as to its meaning did not make much sense. I was not dealing with a confused dog. He was deliberately being a wise guy.
After giving it some thought, I decided to see if I could re-direct his attention by putting on an act myself. I held out a milkbone. I pretended I was going to eat it. I made sounds indicating this was the most delicious yummy milkbone I’d ever seen. A feast!
Nikki stopped gnawing with exaggerated fervor on the rawhide bone. His head swiveled in my direction. His smug amusement at my expense began to wane. The sight of the milkbone was his undoing. He began salivating. He couldn’t help it.
I continued to let him know this was the most delectable exquisite tidbit on the planet and if a certain youngster didn’t hustle his bustle, the trainer was gonna eat the prize herself.
He looked down at the rawhide bone, then up at the milkbone, then stared at me as if to say, “oh, you’re gonna fight dirty, huh?”
Our duel of wits ended when he abruptly decided to carry out the command without further ado. Whether it was hunger pangs or he merely wearied of the stunt he was pulling with the rawhide bone, I shall never know for sure.
Well, that was the beginning. Nobody said it would be easy to transform a Samoyed into Sir Galahad.
Two years later, in July 1993, Nikki and I gave another demonstration of service dog work, one I won’t soon forget.
Before I go into the details, perhaps a few words about what led up to it would be in order. In 1991, I asked the United Way agency, Paws With A Cause, for some “how to” information on teaching a certain skill. Two staff members, Lynn Hoekstra and Linda Brady, came to my home, did a “needs assessment” and suggested additional ways Nikki and I could learn to work together as a team to reduce my dependency on family members, conserve energy and enhance my safety. I decided to formally apply to their program for advanced task training. I will always be grateful for this help I received with Nikki’s education. We became a certified team after six months of hard work. Some of the tasks Nikki and I learned from the field trainer, Linda Brady, like wheelchair pulling, opening heavy commercial doors, bringing in the groceries and fetching a portable phone in an emergency has made it feasible for me to live alone and to travel on my own. Thrilled by the results, I naturally wanted to help other disabled persons experience the dramatic improvement in quality of life that is possible through assistance dog partnership. One of the ways I went about it back then was to put on educational demonstrations with Nikki about the benefits of working with a service dog whenever invited to by Paws With A Cause or the United Way or the Oakland/Macomb Center for Independent Living.
The average audience is pretty unsophisticated but the one Nikki and I faced in July 1993 was at the opposite end of the scale. We had been asked to appear at the World Series of Dog Obedience, a prestigious annual tournament which attracts top obedience teams from across the USA. The PAWS field trainer who helped Nikki and I to reach our full potential as a team wanted to demo the most unusual, difficult and interesting of the fifty tasks Nikki had mastered to date. She hoped it would inspire some of the top obedience trainers in the country at that event to consider taking on the challenges and rewards of becoming a service dog trainer.
The potential downside was that if Nikki screwed up in front of this audience, it would reflect badly on the program’s reputation in the obedience world, not just embarrass his owner into becoming a hermit. It was one of the few times I was nervous going into a demo.
Have you ever had one of those horrible days when nothing seems to go right? Nikki vomited that morning. I was in a quandary over whether or not to cancel. When we arrived at the arena, PAWS volunteers were waiting in the parking lot to rush me inside, no time to let Nikki “visit a bush” on the way in. No time to confer with Linda Brady about him possibly being sick. Instead of being able to give Nikki at least an hour to adjust to the strange building, barking dogs, multiple odors and crackling PA System, we were suddenly “on.” Unexpectedly, the judging had finished way ahead of schedule.
I needn’t have worried. Nikki sailed through this showcase of tasks with flying colors. His laid back, amiable mood didn’t waver till the very end.
To illustrate to the audience how Nikki can fetch the Medicine Basket out of my kitchen cupboard, on days when I get my IV medication, Linda had suggested we put his yellow Basket inside a dog crate, the plastic kind that airlines use. I sent him to open the crate door with a tug on a string and to retrieve the heavy basket that held two cans of Diet Coke and several prescription bottles. His delivery couldn’t have been more courteous. Unfortunately, when I asked Nikki to demo the task “Shut the Cupboard Door,” by having him shut the crate door, I discovered there’s a price to pay for complacency. I never thought to ask Nikki to practice on a crate door before. We were about to learn that a kitchen cupboard door stays closed when Nikki butts it with his nose. A crate door bounces right back open.
I still remember the puzzlement in Nikki’s eyes as he headed back to me, for he did not hear the familiar words of praise he was expecting. I didn’t know if I should take a big chance, ask him to do the task over, or shrug off this failure. I decided to gamble. Taking a deep breath, I pointed to the wire mesh crate door and asked him to shut it.
Nikki was surprised. He put on the brakes. He obediently returned and espying the problem, this time he gave the crate door a super hard butt with his nose, determined to slam it shut for good. He confidently wheeled around and came trotting back to me, certain he’d taken care of the dumb thing. When he heard the ripple of laughter go through the crowd, he didn’t need me to tell him something was wrong.
Nikki hated being laughed at. He looked over his shoulder and let out a cry of pure frustration. The crate door was wide open again!
The crowd thought this was very funny. I could feel him seething inside as he returned to confront the problem. Then they fell silent, watching something they don’t get to see too often with obedience competition dogs. They got to watch a working dog do problem solving on his own initiative.
Nikki studied the crate door for about five seconds. He experimentally gave the crate door a nose butt from the wrong side of the mesh to see what would happen. It swung in the wrong direction, came rebounding back to almost shut itself, then bounced back open.
Calmly, deliberately, Nikki walked around the crate door till he stood on the correct side. He gently nudged the mesh as if it were as fragile as an eggshell. The door advanced only an inch or two. He took a step, again gently nudging the door. He took a third step. He cautiously waited to see if the door would jump back at him, then nudged it once more. He continued to move the crate door at this carefully controlled pace till he finally had it shut.
Interestingly, for about seven seconds, Nikki didn’t move. He prudently waited, ready to react if the crate door began to swing open. When he was finally satisfied he had completed the task I sent him to perform, he came for his praise. He was beaming from ear to ear. His proud step and the jaunty wave of his plumy tail signaled “Mission Accomplished.”
Nikki received a standing ovation from the audience. He stood quietly at my side, ready for the next command, a striking portrait of canine dignity and devotion to duty. It is a moment I have held in my heart for many years. It is one thing to persuade a dog to mind you in your own living room where there are no distractions. It was quite another to put him into this kind of a public pressure cooker and demand he perform fifteen to twenty tasks in a row with nary a break in between. What a joy it was to have a Samoyed like this one for a partner!
However, Nikki never let me take his cooperation entirely for granted. From time to time, he would indulge in a bit of deviltry that was absolutely fascinating. It began about a year and a half into our partnership. Significantly, it only occurred on dull boring evenings when we were alone and there was no particular urgency to the command I gave. He never goofed off if I wasn’t feeling well. But just to make sure I didn’t forget his cooperation was purely voluntary, that he still had a choice in the matter, on a quiet evening when I had my nose buried in a book or my writing, he would occasionally respond to my request in a way that couldn’t be interpreted as confusion.
I would tell him to fetch a Diet Coke, a familiar task he carried out three or four times a day, week in and week out, without fail. Normally he’d be back in a jiff, a cold beverage from the refrigerator in his jaws, eager to turn it over. Once in a while though, I’d be startled to find Nikki delivering the Emergency phone to me. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’d repeat the request for the soda pop, using a hand signal in addition to the verbal cue. Nikki would dash over to the corner of the living room, grab my cane and drag it back, dropping it at my feet. I’d tell him to cut out the clowning and get me that pop! At that point he typically went in the opposite direction. He’d race to the front door, snag the tug strap attached to the lever handle and pull it open, letting in a swirl of cold air or the heat of a summer night, ignoring my protest. He’d pick up something on the way back.....a slipper or a shoe. He’d quite deliberately saunter up to the wastebasket, dark eyes agleam with mischief. No matter what I said or didn’t say, he’d dump the object into the wastebasket and stand there grinning that insolent Samoyed grin of his.’
I admit I loved it! Intelligent disobedience - Samoyed style.
Sometimes people would ask how I could stand living with such a pushy dog? When Nikki wanted to go outside or wanted you to get up and let him back into the house, he’d make a vocal request. If you didn’t pay attention, he’d get louder. If you continued to ignore him, he’d march up to you and tell you exactly what he thought of your attitude, his nose a mere six inches from your own. If outside, he’d bark. If you didn’t hurry, he’d begin howling. He would not be ignored! Of course every time I gave in to him, it just reinforced his belief that this was an effective way to communicate his need. I thought his persistence was amusing, but people who occasionally babysat with him did not find it to be an endearing trait. I would defend him by pointing out he only asked two things of me each day - a bowl of food and a bathroom break now and then. Think of how many times a day I demanded “immediate service” from Nikki! He just wanted a little quid pro quo.
But they still grumbled, cutting him no slack. I found such pettiness hard to fathom. To be fair, they had no firsthand experience with Nikki’s “good side.” How he pulled my wheelchair through snow and slush, drenching rains and hot muggy weather with impeccable teamwork, heedless of his own discomfort. How he assisted me to the best of his ability when various medical problems occurred in public or at home. They hadn’t toured museums full of art treasures, served on boards and commissions or participated in four international conferences in the assistance dog field thanks to his cooperation. They didn’t appreciate that I’d been housebound for all practical purposes, unable to go anyplace alone before this partnership of our’s. I guess it is all a matter of perspective.
I’ve heard it said your first service dog seems magical. Because of my background as a professional dog trainer and lifelong study of dog psychology, I could find a rational explanation for just about everything that occurred with Nikki and other dogs I’ve known or heard about. I have a fairly good grasp of a dog’s capabilities and what you can realistically expect in any given situation. But admittedly there was one aspect of the relationship between Nikki and I that remains a mystery. It taught me to keep an open mind when I listen to others recount their experiences with an assistance dog.
Whenever I was in pain and needed something out of reach, something I’d never asked for before or something I asked for so seldom, there was no command for it, I’d send Nikki to do what might be called “a blind retrieve.” I’d indicate the general whereabouts of something, then with verbal cues and hand signals, play a game of “You’re getting hotter.....you’re getting cold,” to help the dog to zero in on the right object. Usually it involved getting something off the hotel room dresser or desk or my living room couch or the television, fireplace, stereo cabinet or another piece of furniture rather than the floor.
With my successor dog, Dakota, it can take up to ten minutes before he hits on the right item. There are times when I just have to give up and call off the quest. With Nikki, though, the results were uncanny. He’d almost always locate the item on the first or second try. If this had happened only once or twice, I would have chalked it up to sheer coincidence but it happened so often over the years, it defied logic.
One example that comes to mind is the time I needed a business card off the hotel dresser so I could cancel a dinner appointment due to being under the weather. The dresser was cluttered with milkbones, lifesavers, a dog leash, grooming utensils, toiletries, books, papers, pens, hotel literature and assorted other items. Nikki found the business card within three seconds. He ignored the milkbones, ignored all the more familiar objects I may have been seeking. It was an incredible thrill to experience this level of successful communication with a dog. It was not something I ever counted on, nor did I ever get upset if it didn’t happen. I certainly don’t expect it from future dogs. While scientists may explain it away as nothing more than a super acute reading of body language or a lucky guess, to me it will always be part of the special magic of that first partnership.
In 1993, my Samoyed became the first working service dog to earn the title of AKC Champion. Actually, the one who earned that title was his long suffering volunteer handler, Linda Brady, who refused to give up on his dog show career. Nikki didn’t see why he should passively permit some stranger with a badge labeled “Judge,” to pull back his lips and examine his teeth, squeeze his body parts and rumple his coat. What kind of dumb game was that? Nor did he like playing “statue,” being forbidden to move one paw out of place for minutes at a stretch. His Samoyed sense of humor led him to experiment with ways to spice this game up, keep it interesting......
In 1994, I had the pleasure of watching Nikki compete at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. It was to be the last of our glory days. He turned out to be one of those rare unfortunate dogs who x-ray free of hip dysplasia when under 18 months of age, but go onto develop it later. By age four and a half, he began to show signs of occasional bouts of arthritic pain in one hip. I battled it with Adequan shots and herbal remedies, achieving temporary relief but not a remission. By his sixth birthday, he needed a costly operation or a merciful shot to put him out of his misery.
Some decisions you make with your head, not your heart. Training a successor dog was an absolute necessity if I was to continue a life of public service. When the first one did not work out, I put him in a career change home and grimly started over from scratch.
With Nikki, my heart made the choices. I gave him the very expensive surgery. It bought him two pain free years and a fairly good quality of life in his final year. He received the best of care and special treats and extra attention. Since “retirement” was NOT a word in his vocabulary, I promoted him to the rank of “Professor.” The first six months were rough sailing, but eventually we were able to work things out so he still felt useful and cherished, without putting Dakota’s nose too far out of joint.
One way of putting Nikki’s intelligence to good use was by introducing a laser pointer and other experimental devices to Nikki first, which helped me figure out the best way to teach something new to my successor dog or to a service dog candidate who would visit or board with us from time to time. I also utilized Nikki’s skills by having him demonstrate a particular task before allowing the others to have a go at it. Professor Nikki soon learned he must allow other dogs, especially Junior [aka Dakota] to respond to my task commands, only intervening if it became clear the dog was too confused to figure out what I needed. Nikki became a tremendous asset in that respect.
On the last night of his life, Nikki lay in his favorite spot by the front door listening to me work with Dakota in the other room. I had asked Dakota to fetch the TV remote control off the top of the television set. Dakota lacks Nikki’s terrific memory for word association. He may not have understood exactly what he was supposed to be looking for. He didn’t think to look on top of the TV cabinet for the item, as it was over his head, above his line of sight. He kept passing right by the object I needed, again and again.
Hearing the exasperation in my voice, Nikki dragged his weak hindquarters across the tiled floor. When he reached the living room carpeting, which gave him some traction, he pulled himself to his feet in spite of the sharp pain this effort surely cost him. I was very surprised when he came into view. His health had deteriorated over the last several months to the point where he seemed to be too feeble to get up on his own. For the last four days, the only times he would get up were the times when I went in to physically aid him and to verbally insist he make the effort. Yet here he was!
It took Nikki all of five seconds to figure out the location of the TV remote control. He plucked it off the top of the television cabinet.
Dakota rushed up, snatched the remote control out of Nikki’s jaws and came hustling over to me, insisting as usual that HE was the service dog in the family.
Nikki just looked at me, a tired smile in his eyes, bemused by Junior’s rude behavior. He never took offence. He had been patiently showing Junior where to find things for nearly four years.
I’ll never forget Nikki getting up like that to come to the rescue on our last evening together.
Some might say, it was only a TV remote control. What’s the big deal? A Hollywood scriptwriter would insist on changing the ending, wanting the dog to do something the public would recognize as heroic. Save me from a fire, an intruder, something melodramatic.
But that would not accurately reflect the real extent of Nikki’s devotion to duty.
His courageous effort to overcome his painful infirmities so he could assist me that night sprang from the heart of a true service dog. No job too small. No letting me down because a task is boring or mundane. He couldn’t grasp the difference between a remote control or an emergency telephone or some other object in terms of it’s importance, he only knew that I needed his help. He was there for me right up to the very end.
I was there for him, too. His quality of life had gone downhill to the point where it would not have been a kindness to keep him earthbound. I had promised him that afternoon, while comforting him after a fall, that “enough was enough” and I would let him go, even though the thought of saying goodbye to him was excruciating. I couldn’t ask my best friend to keep working for me, even though he loved it and I loved having him here. There comes a day when the biological effects of the aging process or disease are irreversible and life no longer holds a promise of a better tomorrow. So I kept my word. The next morning, in the shade of an old fruit tree, with the help of a veterinarian, I released his magnificent spirit.
It was not an easy thing to do.
I held him for a long time afterwards, the warm sun on my face, the breeze ruffling his fur. I remembered the highlights of our journey together, a journey that had spanned nearly a decade. Along with the grief there was much gratitude to the Powers-that-be, for Nikki’s presence in my life, for all the new friends and opportunities that this partnership has brought my way.
It has taken me most of the summer to reach the point where I could finally write about the dog with the spectacular white coat and beautiful dark eyes who taught me about assistance dog partnership.
He may not have been everyone’s idea of an ideal service dog. But when I think back on my partnership with Nikki, it is the humor, the gallantry and the magic that lives on in my memory. As willful and mischievous as he could be at times, whenever it really counted, he was my Sir Galahad. There will never be another like him.
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