Friday, December 18, 2009

Golden Trader

Golden Trader

Golden Trader. This is NIKKI’s breed according to Sam, a sweet 2nd grader that NIKKI visited this week. Sam has a pretty significant medical history that causes some balance problems with gross motor skills. Sam loves NIKKI’s visits and NIKKI loves her visits with Sam. What is different about these visits is that NIKKI and Sam spend time together by walking around the school. NIKKI loves to walk and Sam loves to walk with NIKKI. Sam’s physical therapist tells me that Sam has difficulty walking in line with his class, becomes anxious on steps and curbs and needs assistance when playing on the playground equipment. On our first visit a few weeks ago, Sam held onto NIKKI’s leash and walked down the hall. To me there was nothing unusual about this walk. We walked at NIKKI’s pace and Sam walked happily beside her. When we stopped to ask which way to go, Nancy, Sam’s PT stood shaking her head. Apparently Sam had never walked that fast during their sessions. She had never seen him walk without distraction, in a straight line and at that pace. Nancy suggested that we go outside to try the curbs. Sam and NIKKI happily stepped up and down the curb without hesitation and to the surprise of Nancy. Nancy said he always needs the help of an adult when stepping down and hesitates when stepping up. The same scene occurred on the bus steps….up and down.…no problem. (NIKKI had never been on a school bus!)

This activity went so well we decided to try using NIKKI on another obstacle for Sam – the playground. The playground not only provides the uneven terrain, the variety of steps, the ladders, slides and bridges but lots of kids. Crowds pose another obstacle for Sam. He often stops and hesitates when walking among his peers. We knew that having NIKKI on the playground would draw crowds of inquisitive kids wanting to pet the dog. The session started with Sam walking in line with his class to the playground. Sam happily walked beside NIKKI and, to the surprise of his teacher, kept up with his class. On the playground, NIKKI climbed some of the steps of the playground equipment with him and watched as he slid down the lower slides. Nancy wanted to challenge Sam so we went to the ladder and the larger slide. Sam climbed the ladder under the watchful eye of NIKKI and stepped over to the platform better than he had done before. NIKKI waited at the bottom of the slide. When it became evident that Sam wanted assistance to come down the slide I handed him NIKKI’s leash and NIKKI stood with her front paws on the slide waiting for Sam. Sam slid down by himself for the first time! Nancy says he only will slide down the slide with 2 hands held. He repeated the ladder and slide several times – which is also unusual for Sam. Nancy said once is typically enough. We also walked around the playground, stepping up 6 – 12 inch steps with just a leash and close supervision. Nancy and Sam’s teacher were excited by what Sam and NIKKI did on the playground. NIKKI is his motivator to try new things and for some reason gives him confidence he did not have without her. After recess NIKKI walked Sam to his class. NIKKI gives him the confidence to walk among his peers easily and without stopping. Once we got back to his classroom, Sam leaned over, hugged NIKKI and told her “Happy holidays NIKKI.” Sweet Sam has melted my heart. Witnessing his success is a wonderful feeling. I hope that NIKKI gives Sam as much as Sam gives me. I don’t care what the AKC calls NIKKI, to me she will always be a “Golden Trader”.

Hugs to all of you and Happy Holidays!


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Say your prayers...

Drum roll please....Nikki has mastered her newest trick "Say your prayers"! It took a couple of weeks but she can do it with just a little luring to put her head down. But in this picture to the left Nikki is saying a prayer of thanksgiving for all of the wonderful people we got to see last weekend at the graduation of the second class of assistance dogs in Hazelton West Virgina. Nikki and I traveled with Candace and Ashley on Friday to Alderson for the first of 3 graduation ceremonies for 3 of the 8 dogs. Nikki - as anticipated was very excited to see all the dogs and showed her enthusiasum by barking. She finally settled down when 4 of the inmates came over, greeted Nikki and said that they remembered Nikki from Hazelton. It was so awesome to see these ladies again and to share with them the wonderful things that Nikki has been doing. I hope that I expressed to them how thankful I am for all the work they are doing with the dogs. It means so much to so many people... their gift keeps on giving. From there Terry took us on the scenic tour of West Virginia. I felt every turn as did Nikki who climbed over the back seat to sit on top of me and pant continuously. At the hotel I did a little hair/fur removal and we were off to dinner with everyone who was in for the graduation. That is where I met Paul and Brandon, veterans recieving service dogs. Words cannot express how important this meeting was for me. War, for the first time was not in the newspaper or the nightly news but sitting next to me. Meeting these young men who sacrificed so much meant so much to me. I am so grateful for them , their service to this great country and can only hope that our paths cross again. I truly believe that their dogs will be their most loyal companion and help them in the next leg of their journey.

Saturday, we got up at the crack of dawn to get ready for the big graduation at Hazelton. Four women getting ready at once went off really well except for when we blew the fuse for our room ...I don't know why we couldn't run 2 hair dryers, 2 straightners, 2 phone chargers and an iron all at the same time. Gathering at the prison is a little unnerving for those of us who are rule followers. The barbed wire, the guards, the metal detectors, the questions, the invisible hand stamp and mysterious knocking of the window..... living in a place like this seems a little surreal to me. But once beyond all this you realize that you are really not that different then these ladies behind bars. They are sisters, mothers, daughters, wives and friends. They made some wrong choices but they still human beings with wishes, desires and feelings. I am so grateful that I could share this day with them. These ladies put their heart and soul into training these dogs and it truly shows. It is so obvious that these dogs are helping these ladies believe in themselves again. This program is such a win win for everyone. The inmates, the veterans, the 3 children recieving service dogs and Candace and her class have and will gain so much from these dogs.

From the ladies prison we went to a minimum security men's camp. Here we met 9 men who are also working with the dogs. Again, the reality that these men are fathers, husbands, brothers and friends hit me hard. It is obvious that these dogs are also making an impact on these men and helping them endure prison. Several of the dogs were very excited to see them and it was really neat to see the bond between the inmates and the dogs.

What an incredible weekend. I loved meeting the inmates, the families recieving dogs and most of all the Brandon, Paul and Ryan - 3 of the 4 veterans recieving dogs. I am reminded how much work and effort that goes into this program and am very thankful that I have been a very lucky recipent of a dog from p4p. I silently (because this day was not about me and Nikki) renewed my vow to work hard to make sure that Nikki fulfills her destiny to be the one of the best rehabilitative dog ever! Nikki ....take a bow!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Trick and Treat

Nikki and I have been taking an advanced dog obedience class since mid summer. It has been a really fun and good for Nikki and I as a team. I have learned a lot about positive dog training and the instructor has given me names of several “trick” books to add to Nikki’s repertoire of tricks. Tricks are good – they impress anyone from 3 to 103! We use them in every classroom and during every therapy session. They can motivate a child better than anything else I have tried!

One of the first things we have had to learn was to use a “clicker”. Clicker training is a proven method of dog training. You use a clicker with a “treat” when training a new trick. The click of the clicker marks the exact moment the dog does something right. When the dog hears the click they know they get a treat. Sounds simple, right? Well I am sure it is for some that are less sound sensitive and more coordinated. First I had to find a clicker that I wasn’t offended by the sound. The metal clickers make (in my opinion) an obnoxious sound. I tried to tell my instructor that it was Nikki who didn’t like the sound – “she seems nervous around the sound and leaves the room.” And the metal clicker, you hit this piece of metal with your thumb – how was I suppose to hold the clicker with one hand, the leash in the other, click at the exact moment and give her a treat all at the same time? It wasn’t happening. So the instructor gave me a different kind of clicker. This one has a softer sound and a raised button. I can hold treats and the clicker in one hand and the leash in the other. Oh and Nikki – she likes this clicker much better.

So we have found the right clicker. Now were starting to train with it. The book says play the “attention” game. Every time Nikki looks at me, click and treat. This is easy. Nikki has it in 3 tries. Next we try the “touch” cue. Each time she touches my hand she gets a click and treat. That is really simple too. I can put my hand any where and say touch and she touches it. Eventually I will use this to train more complicated tricks. The book also reviews the commands Nikki already knows. Since I can’t follow the training sequence – I attempt to make up my own. We work on her new commands from class – “front”, “finish”, “around”, “heel”, “side” and review many of her old commands. She is smart, smart, smart! Nikki does anything for food.

I think I am ready to step it up a bit. I am getting a little cocky with my training and think I have Nikki and this clicker all figured out. I think I am ready to teach her the trick I think the kids will love…”Say your prayers”. All she has to do is put her paws up on a chair (in sitting) and put her head through her arms and touch my hand. She bows her head to say her prayers. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. We have been working on the putting the paws on the chair for a week. It says start with one paw, click and treat. Once she has that get her to put two paws up, click and treat. Well this is where we are stuck. She’s got the one paw up but puts it down to put the other paw up. It is this constant paw up paw down routine. She is trying hard but we are just not getting it. It is almost comical to watch….she tries so hard to please. I believe I have totally confused her! I think I will try it from a stand. Maybe it will be easier since she already has an “up” command. Stay tuned….I will let you know how it goes. And if we get this trick – I will take a picture for this blog!

Nikki has also been working hard in the classrooms, the PT clinic and the Hospital. She has resumed many of the classrooms we were in last year. We have been reestablishing relationships and working on new student goals. Nikki facilitated something last week that was a total surprise to all of us involved. We went into a preschool classroom with Lindsey one of the physical therapists that I work with. Lindsey wanted to use Nikki with a 3 year old girl that had just started preschool. The girl was a little frightened of Nikki and relied on the teacher and eventually Lindsey to help her warm up to Nikki. Eventually, the little girl took Nikki for a walk and when we returned she sat next to Nikki on the floor and hugged her and even posed for pictures with her. But the neatest thing was when we were about to leave, the little girl went over to Lindsey and hugged and kissed her. Both the teacher and Lindsey were very happy about this little show of affection. I hadn’t realized it but up until Nikki’s visit, this little girl was a little afraid of Lindsey! Nikki facilitated the bond between the little girl and her PT!

Thanks Kyria for my new blog layout. It looks great!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Nikki your my hero"

I know, I know - I get the award for the world's worst blogger! I certainly don't want to bore you with the details of my life but I got to tell you that Nikki is one amazing dog. As she sleeps at my feet....let me tell you about what happened today. This was our first day back in some of the classrooms we visited regularly last year. Nikki remembered which classrooms and even dragged me into our preschool classroom with the students with physical and cognitive disabilities. I am not sure what is the draw for this classroom as she often gets her hair pulled and kicked by the kids excited to see her. Brushing usually consists of tapping the brush on her side instead of strokes. But Nikki wants to be in this classroom and she will lay very still as the kids open and close their hands on her fur, pull her tail and look under those large flaps on her head. Today, she quietly laid beside a little guy who is having a lot of difficulty moving anything. It is really hard to gage his responses because they might be just a shift of his eyes or a slight squeeze of his hand. But today - today he turned his head toward Nikki as she laid there beside him! It was amazing. He also got visibly agitated once he turned his head. Now I am not saying agitated as in mad but agitated in we saw (and it wasn't just me!) facial movements, eye movements and arm movements. (Yes-Terry we took pictures!)It was amazing. Such little movements meant so much. We will definitely try that again.
Later in the day we went to another school. We visit two classrooms with students with autism. With me today - in addition to the teaching staff was the assistive technology specialist and the speech therapist. They help me since these students are not physically disabled but do have communication issues. The speech therapist is looking for improvements in the use of language when Nikki is around. In the one classroom we introduced Nikki to the students. Several of the kids were new so we talked and acted out the things that Nikki likes to do. They all gave her treats and several gave her verbal commands to sit, speak and turn. It is very cool to see how excited the kids get when she responds to their commands! (Thank goodness Nikki and I learning hand signals!) The other class has 4 or 5 boys. One of the boys has regressed in his spoken language this year. He has had a difficult first few weeks of school. Apparently he has been barely audible, not using full sentences and rarely smiling. Almost immediately when Nikki came in he approached her and started smiling and verbalizing. Last year he had to use full sentences when asking to give Nikki a treat so I prompted him to do this again today. Immediately he said "I want to give Nikki a Fruit Loop". He repeated this over and over and over. All were amazed as his verbalizations this year have been so different. He then began to throw Nikki the ball - over and over. Nikki loves retrieving (for a treat!) so she ran back and forth for this student. Several of the other boys got into the fun of throwing the ball and watching her retrieve - taking turns and sharing the ball. Finally one of the boys hugged her and said "Nikki you are my hero". That says it all. Sometimes dogs can reach where humans can't. Nikki made a difference today and I feel good about that.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reflections of our summer job

Friday was Nikki’s last regular weekly visit to the hospital. I go back to work this week and Nikki will start back too once the kids start back to school. Hopefully, we will still go to the hospital once a month on Saturdays. I have to say that volunteering at the hospital with Nikki was one of the best experiences of my life. I don’t think the people we encountered at the hospital have any idea how much our interactions meant to me. I thought I would take some time today to reflect back on some of the more memorable moments of our summer job….

First let me start with expressing my gratitude to the folks in the volunteer office. They believe wholeheartedly in the dog visitation program and the power of dogs on the wellbeing of the patients. I know there are probably many hoops they have to jump through to get dogs into the hospital environment but they willingly do this for the benefit of others. Thanks so much Katherine and Beth.

Walking down the corridors of the hospital was never dull. A dog walking down the hallway is an unusual site in the hospital and it usually evoked smiles and double takes. Nikki could draw a crowd in a minute. Once she was showing off some of her tricks to some young children who were visiting the hospital and when I turned around there was a group of at least 6 adults watching the happiness of the kids around this amazing dog! There were the hospital administrators that stopped to inquire and the medical supply sales woman that “can’t walk by a dog without petting it”. And I will never forget the look on that baby’s face when his mother thrust him into Nikki’s face. That, I must admit, made me a bit nervous! But mostly I will remember the patients. Like the lady who cried when she saw Nikki. She hadn’t seen her dog in 2 weeks and said she just needed to be around a dog. She brushed Nikki for 20 minutes. By the time we were done she was smiling. How about the man who asked “Can Nikki just sit with me for awhile?” He just wanted to pet her – and Nikki loves being petted so it worked out well. There was the lady who loved how Nikki put her paw on her lap while she petted her. Each time we saw that lovely lady she told her friend who was sitting with her that day about Nikki and how she put her paw up. On our last day we had a request to visit a very sick man. He seemed to be sleeping when we tip toed in so I whispered his name. He opened his eyes but sat up immediately and smiled when she saw Nikki at my side. He was in awe of how much she reminded him of his own dog and he couldn’t wait to tell his wife about his visitor. He asked for her to get up on the bed so he could talk and pet her some more. He was so appreciative of the few minutes he shared with Nikki.

But what I realized over the last few months is that everyone has a dog story. Everyone. Many times I heard about how their dog would make a good therapy dog too. Even the sweet lady who told me that her Rottweiler would make a great therapy dog even though she keeps him chained outside because he doesn’t like strangers! I guess our dogs – no matter what they do – are our therapy dogs. But what I recognized is that when people shared their stories with me they got a smile on their face. Talking about their beloved dog brought a flood of emotion – always happiness. It was this happiness that really was the “therapy”. Nikki just was the instigator of a few brief moments of distraction from the real reason they were at the hospital. So yes, Nikki is a “certified” therapy dog – but in reality – all our beloved dogs provide us with that unconditional love and acceptance. That’s therapy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

My first blog!

So ...I am not too sure what to do here. This is a first for me. Never blogged nor read too many blogs...and not too sure who wants to read my blog! But I will give it a try because I will tell anyone who is willing to listen about my dog Nikki!

Nikki is a 2 year old golden retriever. She was raised and trained by the inmates of a Federal Penitentiary in Hazelton, WV with the paws4people organization. (Thank goodness - because I could never have done what they did!) Nikki is a certified Rehabilitative Assistance dog as well as a certified Educational Assistance dog. Basically that means she can work with me (a physical therapist) in the public school setting! Nikki has been with me a little over a year. We work in the schools with students with multiple disabilities from age 3-21. We also work in an outpatient pediatric physical therapy clinic with kids with cerebral palsy. Recently we started to work at the local hospital visiting the the outpatient chemotherapy patients and the patients on the adult psychiatric unit. Hopefully over time I will share with you our stories. But today, I just want to say that what I do with Nikki is a life long dream come true for me. I have loved dogs all of my life (I know Mom and Dad -I do remember that one time I wouldn't go to school because that dog was barking at me from his house - I didn't like that dog). I have always been intrigued by service dogs and what they could do for people. I always wanted my dogs to be so well behaved that I could take them anywhere. For those of you who know me know that my other dog (poor Watson) - well - isn't exactly anywhere near that well behaved dog. A good dog but not necessarily well behaved...maybe stubborn would describe him. Anyway, Nikki is that well behaved dog (thanks to all the p4p folks!). I love taking her places not only because she is a beautiful dog but because she always seems to know just what to do. Like recently one of the patients said to her "Nikki, you have made one cancer patient happy today". Thats what it is all about isn't to others? Nikki just does that naturally. I want to be like my dog.