The Training of MY Service Dog

People always ask me how long it took to train my service dog. Before answering that question I always be sure to let them know that I was NOT the one to train him. Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) did all the hard work to get him ready for me and I am always sure to tell people that first.

Training of a service dog is tricky, how long it takes depends on the dog (their learning ability) and the person (the tasks required). From my understanding, FSD adopted my dog from New Mexico when he was about 8 months old. He was the only dog for one trainer so she worked with him every day, 5 days a week. He then went home with his foster mom on the weekends who reinforced his tasks before going back to work the next Monday.

Training requires consistency, really exciting treats and minimal distraction when learning a new task. Once the task is understood through action and command, distractions can be brought in to ensure commands can be followed under different circumstances.

My service dog came ready with a lot of commands, easy as sit or as complicated as helping me off of the floor. People are most excited when he picks his leash up off the floor and brings it to me, every dog should come with that one it’s very handy.

He practices all of his tasks every few weeks if they are not ones I use daily or frequently to make sure he practices them. He also has to learn one new task a year. This keeps him busy, learning and not bored. The new task he learns can be a useful command or a fun one, as long as it is something new.

I am the one that teaches him the new commands each year so it helps us both, connecting and using our brains. The first year I taught him “kisses” because his foster mom, whom I am now friends with, said he never gave kisses. I started teaching him this by using his “touch” command and touching my cheek so he would touch his nose to my cheek. Sometimes he still only gives kisses with his nose instead of a lick but I respect that, I would not want to be forced to give a kiss every time someone told me to. Once he touched his nose to my cheek I would press the button on the clicker and give him a treat. Once he had that down then I used the command “kisses” while pointing to my cheek and repeating that with the clicker and treats. Eventually the command alone was all that was needed and he knew what to do.

Some tasks are a bit more complicated to teach, for me anyhow. “Scooch” was something we say when we want him to move his butt a little but not actually get up and move his whole body (this is mostly used at bedtime because he sleeps next to me in case I need him). Since I am frequently asked if he can shake that was the task he learned this year. For us it was putting his paw in my palm, saying the command and pressing the clicker, followed by a treat. Eventually we both figured it out. He likes the easy tasks because it’s a quick way to get a treat.

For more complicated things, like some PTSD tasks, we get to work with a trainer at FSD who helps walk us through what it looks like. At the start, she took Oak and was working with him so I could just see, she was less stressed out about the situation then I was so he was able to focus completely on her. Since I live locally to Freedom it makes it really easy for me to get the extra help I need when it. (I am not getting anything from FSD for writing this blog.) I love Freedom Service Dogs, what they do and their ability and desire to help the service dog/client teams to succeed in life. They are amazing and I can never say enough good things about them.

Update on Stem Cells

My first post on this page was about the stem cells I got for my MS. It’s a very expensive process and a personal choice because as of right now it still is not approved in the US so insurance does not cover it.

Ideally you have this procedure, you see improvement and you don’t have to do it again. Looking back I realize that the stem cells probably gave me a boost in energy during the first few months in addition to the other pleasant changes.

15 months later though I am seeing decline in the changes I originally saw. Whether this is due to my MS re-damaging the areas or what I am not sure. I am not a scientist, though I do love my research.

Originally, before my stem cells I hadn’t been able to feel my feet for nearly three years and then less than a week after the stem cells my feet magically reappeared, at least that’s how it felt. I also had moderate back pain in my spine since 1999 or 1998, honestly it was 20 years ago so I am not sure anymore, that was gone as well.

I thought this back pain was from the first car accident I was in but now that the pain is coming back after being gone for almost a year I am wondering if it is actually from the lesion on my spinal cord in the same area. I know I have an old lesion there because they told me that’s probably the reason I had severe MS “hugs” for several months in 2011.

That’s the kicker, so much money spent, so much hope put in because the pain was gone for the first time in 20 years and now, after a little more than a year it’s coming back. The feeling in my feet is slowly going away too. There is still enough there at the moment that I can sense them, but enough lost that I know what’s coming.

Would I do it all over again knowing? Probably, if I had to do it all over, it was a nice break from pain while I had it. Though I feel terrible that support I received to pay for the procedure ended up not being long term.

Living with MS and Romantic Relationships

I have learned from the process of being diagnosed with MS and being married that communication is key.

Four years ago, I sobbed when the doctor called me with my MRI results and a recommendation to see a Neurologist. “The lesions could be from migraines, but it might be MS”. I knew something was wrong with me, I was just hoping I was wrong.

My husband came with me to the first appointment and it was like we were hearing different things. He was hopeful, there were medications, this was good. I was hearing, “this will kill you, it’s just a matter of how fast and how painful”. It was quite some time before I felt like he really accepted this was a disease of degeneration. I would not stay where I was at the time of diagnosis forever, and most likely, I would not get any better.

Here’s the thing though, I was reading and researching and not sharing feelings or thoughts because I didn’t want to scare my husband, my partner. I had read so many blogs that said a MS diagnosis is the beginning of the end for so many marriages. I didn’t want that, I did not want to lose my partner and I did not want to show weakness to the world.

Much like my decision to start this blog, sharing my feelings about my diagnosis was hard and I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I was finally convinced that sharing is better than not, my marriage would grow stronger with honesty and communication. Other people with MS may benefit from my experiences during my path. So I lay myself bare (figuratively) for all the world and hope it doesn’t cause me too much pain.

We were accepted to a Couples Workshop for MS couples about 2 years ago. We thought if nothing else, it would be a safe place for us to talk with other couples dealing with this drastic change. We learned a lot, we learned communication is so very important. Listening and spending time together outside of M.S. and our kids. Connecting to who we are as a couple now.

I have been in therapy since that workshop, working on myself, my trauma, my life as this person that is not who I used to be. I think that is the most important first step; how are you going to be able to build your relationship with your partner if you can’t deal with your own stuff? My husband came with me to therapy a few weeks ago because I feel like my MS is getting worse and it’s effecting my mood. He said to my therapist, two years ago, she would have never had this conversation. He was right, I learned to bottle up my shit when I was little and hold it down like a wet dog trying to get out of a bath tub.

If you are the partner, hang in there, it’s so hard to go from being a person who has a view of what their life will look like and then get kicked down and told good luck figuring out your new life now. Pain changes people, not usually for the better..

If you have MS, believe in something, science, faith, your partner. It’s so hard to adjust to who you can be now from who you were before, at least it was and still is some days for me. Therapy helps, mine puts everything into perspective but also lets me complain when stuff gets really rough. Then she pulls me back and we figure out a plan of action.  She helps me see things from my partner’s perspective because sometimes that’s really hard when I am wallowing in my sorrows.