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.

Maui Goes for A-Ride

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The tall white van was parked in front of an apartment several units over. I watched as the driver, searching for me, walked down the sidewalk in the wrong direction. I quickly shoved the last bite of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth and I started heading toward him, Maui trotting faithfully by my side.

Now closer behind him, I said loudly, "Hello, sir! Are you looking for me?"

The man turned around and smiled warmly. "Are you Ashley?" he asked.

I nodded. "My apartment is actually down that way," I explained, gesturing to the direction I had come from, "but we can load up here. No problem."

He laughed. "Okay, I knew I was close. I would have found you eventually!"

Paratransit van.

It was my first time using paratransit services (called the A-Ride in Ann Arbor), an alternative form of transportation for people with disabilities and senior citizens provided by all city public transportation programs in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is available for those who are unable to use the regular bus system, and clients are picked up and dropped off at locations of their choosing (so long as they are within the geographical limits of the regular bus system).

In most cases, I am able to use a regular bus. However, the closest bus stop to our apartment complex is located on a road that has no sidewalks. From a very scary, discouraging experience I had during my freshman year of college, I know that when the driver lowers the ramp for me when I am not on a sidewalk, it is often too steep for me to safely board. Furthermore, I anticipate major problems with snow if I were to use the regular bus system during the winter, because sidewalks are rarely sufficiently plowed, let alone the shoulders of roads.

So, I decided to use the A-Ride program. I can schedule my ride up to a week in advance, and a van that is equipped with a lift comes right to my door. It is quite convenient (although somewhat pricey at $3 each way!).

I watched as the driver lowered the lift from two side doors just behind the passenger door. "Now, what about your buddy there?" He motioned to Maui. "Other riders have asked me to hold on to their dog while they're on the lift. Would you like me to hold on to her?"

Maui is usually pretty good about getting into confined spaces so that she can stay next to me, but these lifts don't have a guard rail around them. I worried that even if she could fit, she might fall off if she tried to move the wrong way. I called her over so that I could slip her collar over her head.

"Well," I told the driver, "I don't have another leash with me, and this one is attached to my chair so that I don't have to hold it all the time, so I think I'm just going to have her lie down, and then once I'm up and inside the van, can I call her up the steps through the passenger door?"

"Sure, absolutely."

"Down," I told Maui, pointing to a spot on the sidewalk several feet away from the lift. She laid down slowly, her nose twitching as she became distracted with a world of outdoor scents that remain unknown to humans.

I parked on the lift, and the driver pushed a button. Maui watched with curiosity, her ears perked, as I ascended. The lift came to a halt, and I made my way into the van. When I turned around, Maui had stood and taken a few steps toward the vehicle. I told her to stay. She looked concerned.

The driver opened the passenger side door and I called her name. She bounded forward eagerly, dashing up the stairs and into the back of the van. She gave me a brief greeting before she entirely forgot how worried she had been that I would leave her behind and began exploring the rest of the van. I called her to me so that I could put her back on the leash.

"That is just amazing," our driver said admiringly as he latched the hooks used to secure my chair to the floor. "Whenever I get a client with a helper dog I just love to see them in action. They are so smart."

For the rest of the ride, we made pleasant small talk about how service dogs are raised and trained and other subjects. He told me how he loves his job because he gets to meet incredible people everyday. When we arrived at my destination, I had Maui wait in the van while I took the lift down to the sidewalk. Although she initially tried to follow me on to the lift (as she has every other time I've gone off the van since then), she quickly realized that she would only be alone for a few seconds and would soon be running toward me again.

So far, my experience with the A-Ride has been very positive. It is nice that I am able to schedule appointments and decide to go places without having to rely on someone to drive me. And I am glad that I have Maui, so smart and wonderful, to accompany me!

Dogsitting Lola: Maui Has a Sleepover

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Nick, can we get another dog?" I was sitting in bed, taking a break from the book I was reading, and he was on his computer.

"No," he told me.

I laughed. Of course, I knew we couldn't get another dog. Our apartment is not big enough, we can't afford it, and our second dog wouldn't be a well-trained service animal. But dogsitting for his family's dog, Lola, over the weekend has me imagining a life with two wagging tails. I began to like that when you call one, they both come, and you have two cute, furry faces in your lap.

On Friday evening, we took the babies to my parents' house for dinner. They got to run around in the backyard naked—no leashes!—and play Maui's favorite game, "Keepaway." This is when she takes a toy and runs away from Lola. Because she is much faster, her friend can do nothing but run after her, letting out high-pitched, frustrated barks. This continues until Maui gets tired and lies down.

Lola, who is far more playful, is constantly inviting Maui to a game of Rough-And-Tumble. Running up to that stick-in-the-mud Golden Retriever, she suddenly gets down on her elbows, her tail wagging in the air. Sometimes Maui accepts the invitation, especially at the beginning of the play date, but after a while she begins to lose interest. She simply stands and stares at Lola, who then stands up again, takes a few steps toward Maui, and bats her on the head with a paw, before bowing down on her elbows again. If Maui still refuses to engage, Lola dances back and forth before rolling onto her back and wiggling herself underneath Maui, causing her to lose her footing.

Inevitably, Maui is drawn into a wrestling match. It is very amusing.

After dinner, we took a boat ride. We took pictures of the babies enjoying the sunset cruise. The video below includes some of the photos as well as video footage of the hilarious game of Keepaway (SPOILER ALERT: Lola totally outsmarts Maui!).

We miss you already, Lola—you can come visit anytime!

Dog Burglar Snatches Cat Food

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Man, you licked your bowl clean!" Chelsi carried Xena's bowl into the kitchen to show us. The dish, which had recently contained wet cat food, looked as if it had just been taken from the cupboard—not a hint of Xena's dinner remained. "I guess she was really hungry!"

Several days later, after Chelsi had been away overnight, I heard her exclaim from her room, "Xena! You cow!" Poking her head into the hallway, she said, "She ate all the dry food I left her! I feel bad. She usually doesn't eat it all. Maybe she has just been really hungry lately…."

Several days later, we believe we solved the mystery.

Chatting in Chelsi's room with my back to Xena's food dish, I heard a crunching, munching, chowing sound that was much too loud and powerful to be a cat. I turned around to see my dog helping herself to Xena's lunch!

I zoomed toward her, shouting, "No! Bad dog!" She backed away from the food immediately, gulping down her last bite and licking her chops as I chased her (backwards!) into the living room.

"Down," I told her firmly. She laid down, keeping her eyes on mine and licking her lips guiltily. "Stay," I told her as I went back toward Chelsi's room. Her ears perked. "You're in timeout," I told her over my shoulder, the corners of my mouth twitching as I tried to suppress a smile at the look on her face.

Back in her bedroom, Chelsi was giggling silently into her hand. I started laughing, too. "Well, maybe Xena didn't lick her bowl clean after all," I said. I shook my head. "Maui is so busted."

"I guess I should just start keeping my door shut while I'm gone," Chelsi said.

"Well, let's try making your room off-limits, first, that way Xena isn't cooped up in the same room all day if we can help it." Until then, we had been letting Maui into Chelsi's room whenever I was in there, but clearly an open dish of cat food was too tempting for her, even while I was there. Plus, we had reason to suspect that she had been sneaking a snack even when no one else was in there!

Now, whenever I visit Chelsi, Maui has to wait in the hallway outside her door, and of course she doesn't like this very much at all. She lies in the hallway looking miserable, her ears perked, never taking her eyes off me, and letting out the occasional discontented groan. It's very amusing. And so far, Maui has not helped herself to any more of Xena's food.

The cat food incident aside, however, Maui and Xena have been making progress in their relationship. Last night, while Chelsi and I sat on the couch watching a TV show, Xena hopped up on the armrest next to me without knowing that I had Maui in my lap. Maui, who usually gets hissed at if she comes too close to Xena, didn't budge, and Xena, with no other option, courageously stepped across us to get to Chelsi. The night ended peacefully, with Xena curled up between me and Chelsi and Maui sleeping on my lap.

What a happy family!

We're Back, and Every Light in the House Is On!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

We're back! It has been four weeks since we last blogged. Sorry we had to leave you for so long, but finishing up school, moving into a new apartment, and searching for a job has made life very busy and somewhat chaotic.

But we made it! We are nestled into our new apartment with Nick, Chelsi, and her cat, Xena. I currently have a part-time job recruiting host families for high school exchange students and (pending funding) I will begin an AmeriCorps position in the fall. And last week, Maui and I crossed the stage, shook hands with the University's president, and received my diploma… well, we received a case with a lovely note explaining that the diploma will be mailed in the next few months, anyway. Exciting stuff.

Maui is settling into the apartment quite nicely. It is much larger than the dorm we were living in, so she has been enjoying the extra space. She has particularly been enjoying removing all of her toys and Nyla bones from the basket where I (unsuccessfully) try to keep them nice and organized. She then spreads them around the living room and our bedroom. She seems to think taking each thing out of the basket after someone has placed it in there is a splendid little game!

Getting used to Xena is going to be the biggest adjustment. Her new feline friend is rather skittish, and Maui's initial curiosity was rewarded with a firm swat on the nose. Fortunately for Maui, Xena doesn't have her front claws! So when Xena makes one of her rare appearances in the living room or the kitchen, for the most part Maui watches her from a distance, neck extended and ears perked. She only gets close if I start petting the cat, because evidently jealousy trumps her survival instinct. And if Xena happens to notice Maui, she usually freezes, crouches close to the ground, and waits for the moment when she feels safe enough to quietly stalk back to Chelsi's bedroom.

The most exciting development in our lives is that Maui has learned a new task! The switch that controls our dining room light is located in the middle of a short wall against which we have placed a chaise. After one week of running my wheelchair into the chaise to move it out of my way every time I wanted to turn the light on, I decided it was time to put Maui to work!

When Connie (our field trainer from Paws with a Cause) and I did some in-home training, she told me that one of the first tasks service dogs learn is "touch." The dog is given a target object and "touch" means to put your nose there. From here, the action can be paired with a different word. So for instance, when we taught Maui to help me with the brake levers on my manual wheelchair, we first taught her to target the levers. We used the "touch" command to get her to nose them. Of course, when she put her nose there and bumped the lever, the lever moved and we got the action we were looking for. Then we paired it with a new command: "lever."

Using this training technique, I have taught Maui to jump on the chaise and flick the light switch for me using her nose. Because Maui is so brilliant, it took us about an hour total of training (spread over the course of a day and a half), a couple Kraft cheese singles, and a few treats. First, Maui was rewarded for putting her nose in the right spot, on the light switch pad. Once she mastered that, she was only rewarded if she moved the light switch up or down. And once she mastered that, we began using the word "light" instead of "touch."

Getting her to turn on the switch was easy, because nudging her nose upward is a more natural motion then nudging it downward. In fact, in order to turn the switch off, she learned to use her teeth instead, and now she tends to do this for flicking the switch in either direction.

But if I need the dining room light on or off, I no longer need to move the furniture around!

We recorded Maui showing off her new task:

My dog is a genius!

Thank you to those of you who are still reading faithfully, even after a month-long vacation! We always love reading your e-mails and your comments on Facebook. :-)