This blog post has been written for the 7th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival! Please visit this page to access the rest of the Carnival and read more blog posts about the effect of assistance dogs on those people around them.
My husband and I brought home Knightley as a fluffy and very inquisitive Golden Retriever bundle at the age of 8 weeks in September last year, with the express aim of training him to be my assistance dog. I'd scoured most of the eastern half of Australia looking for a suitable litter, and I rejected 10 other male puppies before finally finding our Knightley, the last puppy to be temperament tested in a second litter. While he's only 9 months old now, he has already had a massive effect upon my life and indeed, my health; well before I thought he would.
As for a little background, I've been sick for nearly four years, the first year of which was pretty hellish as no one had any idea what was going on and I spent months in hospital. My specialist still doesn't quite know what I have - at first it was thought I likely had Lupus, but now he thinks I could have an 'auto-inflammatory' disease, which is similar to autoimmune, but much much rarer, and hard to diagnose and treat. I have mobility problems that vary in severity from day to day. When it became fairly obvious that I wasn't getting better in a hurry, I started looking for ways to make my life easier. I had trained my previous dog to a reasonable level, so I consumed vast quantities of literature on assistance dog training, clicker training and just training in general before realising training my own dog was indeed feasible. I did research the option of seeking a dog from a training program, but for various reasons discounted it.
The effect of Knightley in those first couple of weeks in September last year was to cause me to almost rethink what I had done! Unfortunately, at first it was not exactly a positive effect. Previous to Knightley's arrival, if I felt too sick I would just stay in bed most of the day. However, an 8 week old puppy needs a lot of attention, and while I could manage a day or two like that... after a couple of weeks looking after a baby puppy I was just about falling asleep standing up and having to take a lot of medication to make it through every day. Raising a baby puppy is meant to be hard for people who are well, but for me, it was completely earth shatteringly exhausting. However, as I was so very tired, I didn't really notice that Knightley was effecting another change in me. When you have the luxury of lying around in bed feeling sick, that is what you do. With Knightley's arrival I gained structure. I simply *had* to get up and feed him, no matter how I felt. Then since I was already up, I had to play with him, I had to do that early training. I knew what was at stake in getting the right start for early puppy raising, so pushed myself despite my utter exhaustion and sickness.
Slowly Knightley's needs became less: the feedings went from four to three times a day and I didn't have to take him outside as often. As the exhaustion started slowly receding, I started realising what an effect he had already had on my life. Three or four weeks in he made me laugh and smile, stroking him distracted me from pain, the warmth of his little body eased cramps, and he gave me a reason to get up every day, no matter how awful I felt. We were doing a lot of training, just basic stuff that would one day be the basis for his assistance work for me. It was wonderful seeing him soak it all up, knowing that if everything worked out, he would truly be able to help me one day.
Things got better and better. His effect was felt in every facet of my life. Our training sessions gave me a real high when we worked well, and after he got all his shots, we took slow meandering walks together. He gave me a reason to get outside, whereas without him I would have just continued my pattern of not having been outside since I had got sick. I loved seeing his joy in discovering the world, and simply seeing him so happy always had a positive effect on my mood. The fact that I was his trainer, and would be his main trainer throughout all his learning, gave me a lot of inspiration to get going each day and get training. With every breakthrough we made, I got back self respect and self confidence that I had lost with the dramatic change in my life.
Around the time we got Knightley I started volunteering regularly at an arts organisation. I believe that if not for the structure having Knightley gave me, and the mental application I needed for his training, I would not have made a success of my volunteering like I did - especially somewhere where I actually had to use my brain. Having Knightley in my life had really helped prepare me for the workplace, and he wasn't even a working dog yet!
As we embarked on our training journey, writing my blog and participating in several forums and groups introduced me to an expansive network of dog owners and trainers. It has been great to share knowledge and learn new techniques from the many talented trainers out there in internet land. My blog has also got me writing again, which I used to enjoy a lot - both creative writing and nonfiction. The writing practice too has been good for going back to the workplace as I now do a lot of writing at the arts organisation. While actually owning and training Knightley has has its direct effect, having him around has meant refreshing other indirectly related skills that I haven't used for a while.
Anyway, about four weeks ago I decided the time had come to start some concentrated work on training the first steps of a formal assistance retrieve. Amazingly, within only five days, Knightley was able to pick up all sorts of objects on cue for me. I was absolutely thrilled, completely over the moon, because from that moment started the part of our journey in which Knightley starts truly affecting my life as a working dog - well before I was expecting it too. That won't just have an effect upon me, but also my husband and family as I get more and more independence. Knowing Knightley is with me already gives my husband peace of mind and he worries less. I too feel much more confident when Knightley is with me, and I have only begun to train him to do the assistance tasks I intend for him to do. Assuming we become a successful assistance dog team, we will be unstoppable!
Now at 9 months old, Knightley goes into a few shops briefly with the permission of shop owners, and has been to a couple of loud busy events for further socialisation and some early public access training. He's not afraid of anything, is very happy to be out in public with people around, and is a cheerful, intelligent teenager growing up very quickly. I am thrilled with the choice I made in selecting him last September, as so far things are looking good. Aside from all the things Knightley does to make my life better, and the help he is beginning to give me, his sheer presence seems to make me healthier. I have not been admitted to hospital once since I got Knightley, due no doubt to my more active, structured and generally happier lifestyle. That is a huge benefit.
'The Knightley effect' is something I am incredibly grateful for, and I look forward to exploring what our future together may be.
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