Tuesdays With Maui

Maui and I pose outside a shop with a sign in the window that says Service Dogs ONLY.
Maui is no ordinary Golden Retriever. She has VIP access to any public location, including restaurants and movie theaters. When she's caught sleeping in class, nobody minds.
Maui and I riding in a taxi.
As my Assistance Dog, Maui's job is to accompany me wherever I go. If I drop an object, she picks it up. If I need a door opened, she handles it. Because of her, I am able to lead a more independent life.
Maui in her geisha Halloween costume.
There are many rules Maui has to follow, and these rules can seem unfair to humans. But to Maui, the job is a game. She is rewarded for "tricks" and is allowed to be with her human all day long!
Maui sticking her head between the vertical blinds to see out our living room sliding glass door.
If there are no health or behavioral problems after the first year, the future service dog is moved to Paws with a Cause headquarters where it is matched with a client on the waiting list.
Maui getting her leash crossed with Lulu's while on a walk.
Maui is gentle and responds well to vocal commands, but she also has a lot of energy. This makes her a perfect match for me because I have limited upper body strength and I lead a very active life.
Maui with her front paws resting on the keys of a painted street piano in Denver.
Taking an adorable Golden Retriever everywhere with me has led to many interesting experiences. By sharing them with you, I hope to spread awareness of Service Dogs and issues affecting people with disabilities.

Dis No Pet Friendly Hotel

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Our budget hotel was situated on the corner right next to the entrance of Chinatown, San Francisco. The Amnesty International 50th anniversary conference was to be held at the beautiful but out-of-our-price-range Fairmont, so we opted for something a little cheaper.

When we entered the tiny lobby, I noticed that the signs were in English and Chinese, and the one taped to the elevator said "MAXIMUM 3 PEOPLE." Oh dear. Something tells me this is not going to be the most accessible hotel.

The unmistakable bark of a small dog was coming from behind the counter. We couldn't see it, but Maui's ears were perked and she began to pull on her leash in curiosity. Meanwhile I could tell something was wrong by the way the receptionist was looking at us.

"Uh oh. You make online reservation, didn't you?" she asked in heavily accented English.

"Yeah," my Aunt Claudia, who was joining me on this trip as a graduation present, responded. "Is that okay?"

"Aww, dis no pet friendly hotel," she explained, looking concerned. I found this to be ironic considering the sounds coming from behind her desk.

"This actually isn't a pet," I told her. "This is a service dog. She helps me, and by law she is allowed to go wherever I go."

The woman looked suspicious. On cue, a younger guy entered the room and she began speaking to him rapidly in Chinese. To my relief, he was nodding and saying, "Yeah, yeah." Then she turned to me with a renewed attitude.

"Okay! No problem! Dis dog obviously very well-trained. I have dog, too!" At this point she opened the gate to the counter and there stood a small, white dog, pulling so hard on its leash that its front feet were coming off the ground. It sounded very unfriendly, making small grumbling noises between short, high-pitched barks: grrrrr- BARK! grrrrrrrrrrrrr- BARK!

Maui sat down and looked at me, appearing far less interested now.

"Dis my baby," the woman continued. "Dis dog love udder dogs."

Um. Clearly. We'll take your word for it.

She put baby back behind the gate, and then handed us our keys, smiling warmly. "And this is an accessible room?" I asked. Her smile slowly disappeared and her concerned look was back.

"Accessible?" she asked. She looked to the young guy for guidance, but he looked confused this time as well.

"Yes, wheelchair accessible. As in, does it meet ADA standards?"

The young man shook his head. "We don't have accessible rooms, but we gave you a large room."

"Yes! Dis very big room!" the woman repeated emphatically. "Two queen beds."

I thought of the sign on the elevator. We're going to end up at the Fairmont, I thought to myself.

"Okay, well, let's check it out," I said cheerfully.

We rode the wobbly elevator up to the seventh floor, navigated narrow hallways, and found our room. We quickly learned that I could go straight in and back straight out, but any attempts at turning resulted in my wheels getting caught in the comforters and me pushing the furniture around.

Oh yeah, and there was a step into the bathroom.

Back downstairs, the owners apologized profusely and refunded our money. They tried to help us find an alternative hotel, but there was nothing similarly priced that was available and had accessible rooms. An hour later, after my poor aunt dragged our rolling suitcases up three of the steepest hills I've ever conquered, we stood in a luxurious room at the Fairmont. The closet was approximately equal to the size of the bathroom at our first choice.

Inside our room at the Fairmont showing the bed, dresser, and window. Lots of space. The closet. Again, plenty of space.

You get what you pay for, I guess. We wound up spending twice what we were planning on paying for lodging, but at least I didn't run over anyone or anything!

On Friday night, the party began. We made our way to the ballroom for the opening ceremony. This was on the terrace level, and to get there I had to ride a wheelchair lift down a flight of stairs, and Maui couldn't fit on it with me. Over the course of the weekend, I lost track of the number of times we went up and down those stairs. Each time, I would have to take Maui off of her leash and tell her to stay. Then I would make the painfully slow journey, traveling at a snail's pace, listening to passerby figure out what was going on: "

"Why is that dog there?"

"Oh, there! She must belong to the girl floating up the stairs!"

"Oh my goodness. That is adorable. Look at that dog! Just waiting there!"

"She loves her so much."

Once I had reached my destination, I would disembark from the lift and turn to face the staircase, searching for that beautiful Golden face waiting intently, eagerly for my signal. "Okay, Maui!" And she would come bounding toward me at full speed, jumping into my lap and licking my face, together at last. Passerby were quite impressed.

Maui waits at the bottom of the stairs as I ride the lift up. Maui ferociously attacks me after having been released from her 'stay.'

This year's conference achieved record attendance: over 1000 people came to celebrate 50 years of human rights activism. When we found the other members of our campus chapter of Amnesty International, I couldn't help but notice that they were seated directly below what looked like hundreds of yellow balloons suspended from the ceiling with netting.

Well, this should be interesting. Maui has… a bit of a phobia when it comes to balloons. Let's just say that when my young cousin was bouncing one around in the living room about a year ago, Maui actually tried to hide beneath my wheelchair.

Amnesty assembles under a sea of yellow balloons. Yellow balloons fill the aisle.

The speeches began, and the applause was thunderous. Maui looked confused, but she was hanging in there. Then the balloons came. The room was suddenly filled with yellow orbs, falling in slow motion, filling the aisles and rolling underneath peoples chairs. It was surreal. They were everywhere.

Suddenly, my aunt and Molly, president of our chapter, found themselves with a panicked Golden Retriever in their laps, sticking her nose between the backs of their seats as she tried to burrow to safety. In light of the situation, everyone scooted down one spot and Maui was given her own chair. Finally we coaxed her onto the floor, after those around us helped us create a balloon-free spot.

A few minutes later, every one was called upon to start popping balloons like maniacs. It was as if the Fourth of July had come early, and Maui was terrified once more. But it only lasted a minute, and then it was over. We were able to enjoy the rest of the ceremony, which included honoring Joan Baez with an award for her dedication to AI.

The rest of the conference went smoothly. As always, it left me feeling honored to be a part of such an important movement, and I feel even more motivated to do the important work after being around such amazing people. We even spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi on the phone!

Having our picture taken looking out over the water.

Before we left, we also got the opportunity to see some of the sights of San Francisco. We did a little shopping in Chinatown, and we went to Fisherman's Wharf. Here we saw Alcatraz and Pier 39, a place which local sea lions have decided is a pretty great hangout spot. I will post some video footage of these guys next week.

We really enjoyed ourselves. If you ever get the chance to go to San Francisco, do it. The hills will blow your mind.

Maui in Chicago

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Maui wouldn't stop licking the side of my wheelchair. We were waiting in the lobby of our hotel in Chicago for our taxi to arrive, having just come from an excellent meal at the upscale Harry Caray's restaurant.

An icon of the city, this restaurant holds a special place in our hearts because of my family's love of sports and because my aunt worked there for years. She called ahead and made sure we were well taken care of (i.e., we were seated at an accessible table). They even brought Maui a dish of water, much appreciated after hours of exploring Shedd Aquarium and shopping downtown.

Nice restaurants tend to have heavy silverware, a fact which often goes unnoticed by able-bodied people with their super strong fingers. Harry Caray's has nice, solid, heavy silverware. Plus, I had a half glass of wine, so my motor skills were… reduced. I may have dropped a few of my pesto-covered noodles. I may have even dropped a fork.

And Maui wouldn't stop licking the side of my wheelchair.

Figuring she was after a noodle which I really didn't want anyway, I encouraged her. "Get it, Maui." After a few seconds of ferocious licking, there was a clatter as a fork fell to the highly polished lobby floor.

Yup. We stole a fork from Harry Caray's. Sorry. I have it in my purse, if anyone wants it back. But I personally think it will make a nice addition to our new apartment.

Aside from engaging in some accidental thievery, we also saw the sights. We visited Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, Millennium Park, the Hancock building, the Chicago Institute of Art, and Shedd Aquarium. We all agreed that the aquarium was our favorite, and I think it was Maui's favorite, too.

I always love taking Maui to aquariums because she watches things as they swim around. She particularly enjoyed watching the penguins and the stingrays. One of the tanks with stingrays in it went all the way to the floor. With her ears perked, Maui stared with curiosity from underneath one of those table-like signs with information on the tank's occupants. She was so engrossed in watching the stingrays that she didn't even notice when a toddler waddled up to her, his tiny finger extended.

Chelsi and I giggled as we watched him repeatedly poke her on her hip, right next to her tail, while she continued to watch the stingrays. Perhaps the young boy was frustrated that she was not responding and poked harder, because suddenly Maui became startled. She whipped around to see what was going on, but in the process she bumped her head on the sign above. Well, that really shocked her, and she jolted before running out from underneath.

You hate to laugh at them when they do these things… but it's just so funny!

We took lots of pictures, so they should be on Traveling Puppy in the next few weeks. We are also going to San Francisco this weekend for the Amnesty International AGM. It will be our first plane ride traveling alone—we are meeting my aunt at the airport, because she is flying in from Florida. I am so excited!

Oh, and just in case you were worried: we finished our re-certification process, and we are still a legitimate team!

We Are (Almost!) Re-Certified

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

When people come to the door, I put Maui on her leash because she tends to forget herself. The excitement of a visitor is enough to cause selective hearing in dogs ("Maui, stay!"—Too late).

But when Connie arrived yesterday morning (our appointment was rescheduled and moved to my mom's house since I'm on spring break), Maui was surprisingly calm. Her tail wagging gently, she sniffed Connie's pants and shoes curiously, but her notorious grumbling and sneezing—she sneezes when she's excited—were kept in check. Maybe it was because we were both suffering from a severe lack of sleep after a night out with Chelsi, but I think there were deeper psychological reasons.

Maui knows Connie means business.

When Maui first came to live with me, it was a major transition for both of us. I had to learn the commands and which behaviors were permissible and which were not. And Maui had to bond with a new handler. Connie, our field trainer, visited my apartment weekly, and then every other week, for the first few months to guide us.

One of the first things I learned was that little things that we don't think twice about with family dogs have to be corrected with service dogs. For example, if I drop a treat on the floor, even when I'm intending to give it to Maui, she cannot just dive for it; rather, she needs to wait for me to say "okay." This encourages continued obedience, and it's for her own safety. If I were to drop medication and she ate it, I would have no way of wrestling it from her as would an able-bodied dog owner.

In the beginning, Maui quickly learned that I was not fast enough to prevent her from driving for treats that I dropped. I told Connie that we were having some problems with this, so we set up a practice session. When I purposefully dropped a treat on the floor, Maui moved like lightning to snatch it up. Connie was ready. She quickly straddled Maui from behind, pried open her mouth, removed that treat from Maui's tongue, threw it on the floor, and said, "No." Maui sat down slowly, respectfully, and waited. I laughed.

We rarely had problems with Maui diving for dropped food after that. And I think Maui has come to associate Connie with training sessions, which she enjoys and she tends to behave.

So the re-certification video went very successfully. We dropped kitchen utensils and a dish towel on the floor, which Maui retrieved for me. She also opened and closed doors around the house for me, helped me remove my jacket, and we did some obedience work. I told Maui to sit, lie down, stay. Then I moved away and released her by saying "okay." She eagerly stood and trotted toward me, slipping comically on our hardwood floors. Then we took a new picture for her ID card, and she turned her head toward the camera at the perfect moment like a celebrity.

Now we just have to schedule the public component, where we go into a busy public space to show how she can complete tasks in distracting atmospheres. That will be in the next couple weeks.

Until then, I am working hard to get through some homework because we are going to Chicago for a long weekend. One of my stepfather's relatives, Sara, is from Germany and is in the United States for a visit. She wanted to see a big city, so my step grandparents, Chelsi, and I are going to show her a good time! Hopefully we won't freeze out there—can someone tell me why they call it Spring Break when it falls in early March and there's still snow on the ground?

It's Re-Certification Time!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We're back. Sorry we were a no-show last week. I was extremely busy with schoolwork, and when I'm extremely busy life just isn't as… blogable.

This week, however, should be more interesting because Maui gets recertified! Every year and a half assistance dogs are recertified by showing that they and their clients still make successful, efficient teams. The dog is videotaped performing tasks for the client and the footage is reviewed by members of Paws with a Cause.

Of course, Maui will do fine. No concerns here. And she will look great on camera because she went to the groomer over the weekend! But as we look forward to our appointment, I can't help remembering that day she was first certified….

Our field representative, Connie, who had visited us in my apartment on a regular basis for the first few months of our training, videotaped Maui doing her job. She opened the refrigerator; opened and closed my bedroom door; helped me remove my jacket by tugging on the end of my sleeve; and picked up my keys for me.

Retrieving items from my bed is another important thing that Maui does. When I get in bed for the night, I bring a lot of stuff with me—my lap top, books for school, my cell phone, my keys (they have a button which opens the door to let in my personal assistant in the morning), etc. Sometimes I forget to have the person who works for me in the morning put all of these items near the edge of the bed, within my reach. So, Connie and I trained Maui to jump on my bed and bring me things that were too far away.

So, we re-created the situation for the certification video by placing my cell phone on the side of my bed that was against the wall, out of my reach. I patted the bed and told Maui, "Up!" Maui jumped up excitedly. I pointed to the phone and said "Maui, phone!"

Maui looked around, her tail wagging, and spotted my cell phone. She quickly picked it up between her teeth and wandered toward me. I was already praising her verbally, saying things like "Yes! Good girl!" and she knew that when she got to me I was going to pet her, as well.

Needless to say, she was one proud, excited pooch.

And when she got to the edge of the bed, instead of giving me my phone, she kept going, walking right onto my lap. That's right. All four paws. Then she sat down—on my lap—and looked at the camera triumphantly, the cell phone still in her mouth.

I am told this gave PAWS staff a good laugh. Who knows what we have in store for them this time!