I’ve been distracted lately by my housing estate’s executive committee and strata manager escalating their bullying and harassment into what I believe is defamation in meeting minutes sent to all owners. Plus a couple of owners threatened Silkie with their animals, one of whom told me repeatedly to “leave”. So I’m back to not sleeping and losing focus on DMZ.
However, I’m making inroads into THAT problem – more on that another time – and I’m focusing on my Nebula panel this coming Friday/Saturday (Friday 4pm 20 May Pacific time, Saturday 8am 21 May AEST time). As that panel is about representations of disability, it’s time to write my long-planned Next Step With Silkie, “Donkeys vs dogs”. (NB the panel is online as is the entire conference so it’s not too late to sign up and join this ride.)
My previous post in this series talks about Silkie’s arrival.
I grew up with donkeys. When I was about 7 years old, Mum got an RSPCA rescue donkey that – eventually – she named River. (Prior to settling on River, he had sufficient cause for much confusion.)
This walking skeleton in a dark chocolate coat with soft grey muzzle needed time to recover before, eventually, becoming part of the family. Or at least as much as Mum allowed any animal to be part of the family.
Like Silkie, River had a beautiful heart. I recall my twin brothers, aged about 2 years, riding their plastic tractors under River’s belly and around BEHIND him in circles repeatedly. River just stood there, patiently.
I’ll try not to eulogize River but I always thought of him as like a dog in personality – intelligent, mostly gentle, wanting to be part of the family – crossed with a horse because we rode him once he recovered from starvation.
Training with Silkie
Seeing Eye Dogs Australia (SEDA) trainers delivered Silkie on 14 January 2022 then spent nearly every day for the next few weeks training us to work together. Silkie’s training was a little rusty in places because she’d been in foster care for months due to the pandemic causing delays in delivering dogs and training handlers.
A “handler” in this context is a human who works with a service animal.
I won’t go into detail regarding most of the training but I’ll describe some of the interesting features in broad brushstrokes, hence using donkeys for contrast.
On the day she arrived, I learnt to blow a whistle three times before Silkie eats her dinner. I tried buying a new whistle because I’m bound to lose this one eventually – but it was the wrong pitch. She just sat there looking at me and not eating. This never ceases to amaze me.
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Two days after Silkie arrived, training began in earnest
The day began about 6am because it was going to be hot. Australia’s summer. And the three seeing eye dogs who were starting to work with their new handlers were all from Melbourne. None of them were used to Canberra’s weather. (Silkie shed half her coat in the first few weeks!!!)
SEDA’s trainers, Yoav and Mikaela, regularly started training me in new concepts by using empty Silkie’s harness as a pretend dog to walk me through maneuvers. This first day, Silkie was tethered inside and could hear us. SHE HOWLED. “I’m here, I’m here, COME TOOOOOOOO!!!”
After covering some of the most basic elements of working together, we walked for about a kilometer along the path next to Lake Tuggeranong then turned around and came home. Silkie was MOST unimpressed about turning around after such a short walk. Later she was exhausted after every training session. That didn’t last: these days she’s much fitter and I’m considering trying to walk her twice a day to cope with the energetic pupper!
Riding a donkey vs walking a dog
One of the strangest differences between riding a donkey or horse and walking a SEDA dog is that, to slow or stop a donkey, you pull on the reins. With a dog, if you pull on the harness IT TELLS THE DOG TO GO FASTER. I still haven’t worked out how to use this to my advantage, because when I want Silkie to go faster it’s awkward to pull like that. She’s either not moving or moving glacially so it’s a tricky to pull on the harness. It’s bizarre though.
And I’m still struggling not to allow myself to pull on Silkie’s harness when she’s going too fast. What I’m supposed to do when she pulls like that is to give her a “harness check”, which is a short sharp jerk on her harness. This doesn’t hurt the dog: it’s like a tap on the shoulder for a human. Obviously, you never do anything like that to a horse or donkey because the bit would injure their mouth. (For years we used a hackamore – a bridle without a bit – for River because his previous owners injured his mouth.)
I still feel really self-conscious about giving Silkie a harness check or lead check (similar but jerking the lead while holding it in my right hand). Subconsciously I worry I’m hurting her although – I confess – I never jerk as hard as my trainers instructed me to. At least, as my relationship with Silkie develops, she usually heeds my voice and my more gentle checks because she wants to please. Usually. Mostly. Heh heh.
Back when we’d had River for a few years and were starting to ride him, he was really naughty. He’d been abused and didn’t want to be ridden. Some of his tricks included walking over to a tree and rubbing his rider’s leg against the trunk in an attempt to scrape the rider off. Or he walked under a low-hanging branch and – something Silkie does at times – TURNED IN CIRCLES. Vivid memories haunt me of River turning in circles so tight he was practically dancing sideways while I tried to both stay on and pull one of the reins in the opposite direction to pull him out. I was only in primary school so lacked the strength to succeed, an adult had to intervene!
Here we are, decades later, and Silkie also turns in circles sometimes. However, first you need the backstory to understand why I find this SO HILARIOUS.
When Caitlin, Silkie’s instructor, phoned me to suggest Silkie as a match, we discussed Silkie’s strengths and weaknesses. Caitlin said escalators were one of Silkie’s weaknesses, so would require some trial. If successful, I would need to commit to ongoing training on escalators to enable us to use them. If unsuccessful, I’d need to look for elevators instead where stairs weren’t available.
(I don’t like elevators: what woman hasn’t had a bad experience? And, as a vision impaired person, some people relish the opportunity to abuse, knowing it would be difficult for me to identify them. Plus finding the damned things is a challenge in unfamiliar environments.)
Anyhoo, elevators and travelators featured as part of our training with Yoav and Mikaela. I suspect if they’d realized how much of an obstacle they would be, that they’d have started days earlier.
Silkie COWERED before them.
At first she was like “How DARE you do empty handle walks?! COME TOO” But then, when her turn came, she said “No, no, nope. A whole barrel of nopes.”
She cowered before them. Lying on the ground with her legs bracing her against being pulled on, with Yoav saying “you must pull her on. There is nothing else you can do”. It was AWFUL.
In the last few days, Yoav took Silkie for extra goes on the escalator before we worked together.
E’s and T’s
Then a few days after Yoav and Mikaela left, SILKIE COWERED IN FRONT OF AN ESCALATOR. AGAIN.
What made it worse than before was that the shopping center was busy and people were queuing behind us. I felt sure someone was going to accuse me of abusing my poor pupper.
So nearly every day I took Silkie up and/or down a travelator and escalator for practice. She didn’t want to approach them but I’d say “Find it” or “find the escalator” and, when she did, I said “Nice!” and gave her a kibble.
Once we were on and Silkie was positioned correctly (my legs must be in front to ensure I know when we approach the end so we’re both walking before Silkie’s claws get caught in the end of the escalator), then I gave Silkie more kibble. And pats. More kibble. And more pats. Then we’d get off the escalator, walk several meters forward so we didn’t impede anyone who might be behind, and I’d say “Nice!” and give Silkie more kibble. And more pats.
What about Silkie turning in circles?
How does all this relate to Silkie turning in circles? Well, after a while, the escalator and travelator became so firmly fixed in Silkie’s mind as a positive fun game with lots of rewards that she LOVES them. Seriously.
She started trying to pull me into South Point shopping center even when I was trying to walk past entrances, even one entrance that we’d only ever left by once and never entered by. Eventually I realized she was trying to get to the escalator and travelator for her favorite game.
Silkie went from cowering to… Well, we went on the escalator and reached the end. After rewarding her, I said “forward” but she turned a tight circle and tried to get back on the escalator. Sometimes she didn’t even wait for the kibble reward after getting off, she just turned circles to try to get back on. On the one hand, this was naughty behavior. But on the other hand, Silkie went from cowering to loving the escalator and travelator, so I found it difficult to discipline her.
And these days hubby and I don’t call them escalators and travelators unless we’re ready to go on them. They have become the “E’s and T’s” so Silkie doesn’t get excited or disappointed.
Pulling out of circles
With a donkey, I had to pull one rein in the opposite direction to the circle River was prancing in. With Silkie, regardless of direction of the circle, the best way to pull her out is to switch the leash to my right hand while the harness is still in my left, and give Silkie a check on one or the other. I tend to give a harness check with my left hand if she’s circling to the right, and a leash check with my right hand if she’s circling to the left. But the additional control provided by having a “handle” in both hands is invaluable.
Silkie and I have mostly compromised: I agree to go on the E’s and T’s even if we don’t need to. In exchange she doesn’t argue (much) once we’re done. If we’re upstairs, she’s much more likely to continue to our goal than if we’re downstairs, because she knows downstairs is where we leave.
A few other lessons
Mum’s friend Caroline used to go for hours’ long walks with us up in the forestry with our donkeys (River and her donkey). Caroline was a horsey person and an excellent teacher. One of the things she taught me before she left, (she moved to mainland NSW), was that, when River baulked at moving (once he’d recovered from being abused), to take heed. If he was taking a dump, let him. If he refused to enter the bush that was our property backing on to the forestry, there might be a snake.
It’s similar with Silkie although sometimes I have no clue why she baulks. I seriously wonder if there’s an offensive or fear-inducing scent at a particular spot on our walk. Other times, she likes to take a dump on our walk instead of at home, then it becomes a habit. And, even if she’s already “unloaded”, she wants to stop in this particular spot “because habit”. At least her favorite spot to unload on our walk is right next to a public toilet so there’s a bin and I can wash my hands.
Silkie does many things River never did, and for which I cannot draw a parallel. For example, Yoav and Mikaela taught me how to “chain link” train to help Silkie learn new targets. On the way through, we taught Silkie to “Find Coles” and “Find Woolies” (two supermarkets in South Point) and to find the pillar next to my post office box.
However, Silkie is incredibly smart. After a few weeks or a month of finding the pillar next to my post office box, she said “Screw this, this is stupid”. From that day onwards, she invariably takes me past the pillar while slowing down, pushes me to the right then cuts across my path completely, putting her front feet on the step below the post office box. This way she’s pointing at my box although it’s out of her reach.
When I take her out to toilet, she often takes me to the letterbox on the street too.
Also, she’s more or less learnt “find the bin” after she poops. One time we were at Woden shopping center, where she had never been before. Just before she went inside she pulled to the left to poop on the concrete because there was no grass. After I picked it up (in a biodegradable corn starch poop bag) I said “find the bin”. And she did, although she had never been there before! (I figure it was probably the smell.)
So, basically, Silkie is the smartest bestest doggo ever and I will fight and die on this hill. Although I will concede that other doggos may seem, to their humans, to also be the smartest bestest doggos ever.
Although I’m tempted to talk some more about River, I’ll resist eulogizing him and wrap up here.
To be continued
I wrote a list of points to cover when blogging about training but I have no idea where in my ipad that list exists – or if it didn’t save. However, I think I must blog about Mikaela driving AT me during training because that is humorous. Even if it was a bit stressful at the time. And Silkie’s OPINIONS on toileting are also worthy of some commentary. I hope you’ll find them as funny as I do.
Apart from that, I think most future instalments in this series will be current-ish mentions of life with a seeing eye dog and the hilarity of our three furbabies.
So, if you’re interested stay tuned.
Stay safe and have fun!
In April, the private company booked an appointment for my NDIS review in June. I suspect most NDIS applications are on hold or are automatically rejected at present (based on personal communications) due to the federal election. The NDIS is a federal program. But, because I have a seeing eye dog – a premium NDIS package – they’re being really supportive. So I’ll talk a little about that review when it happens.