Monday, June 9, 2014

The Love of an Akita

The first Akita who helped to heal my broken heart after being in a serious car accident was Angel. I had lots of pets in my life time and loved them all and had taken some training classes.  I had a basic understanding and mutual respect when it came to training an animal, large or canine.  But after the accident I was left with a Traumatic Brain Injury and I felt lost.  I couldn't trust my senses to navigate my way through the world anymore.  And I wandered through my days taking care of my three children and loving them and then going from one task to the next until weariness took hold of me and I had to rest.  For a few years I grieved for the person I used to be.  The person I would never be again. I lost most of my memories and would only occasionally have a memory triggered by a story some one shared. I felt helpless and yet with every day I grew more determined than the last to become empowered and get as much of my life back as I could.  This was always hard and some times, when it seemed that life was futile and all of my hopes and dreams for the future would never be realized I was seriously depressed. But of course, life surprised me.  I surprised myself.  And eventually my hopes and dreams were realized.  Not the way I imagined them.  But realized nonetheless.

There was a moment when this longing for the life I had lost became clear to me.  It was when I saw a movie called The Horse Whisperer.  I decided I was going to go to a movie all by myself.  It was during the day and I thought, I have my cane, I should be okay.  Fortunately, I think I was the only person in the theater because my reaction to it was so intense that I actually lost all sense of myself and did those huge gut wrenching cries, several times. I couldn't process why this happened. Or remember when it happened when I was watching the movie but I knew it had touched on something raw and I needed to face it. I had about a year or maybe a little more before the video came out so I made it a goal to read that very thick book the movie was based on. It was the first big book I'd read since the accident. I had to relearn everything which took, on the most basic level, about four years. During this time I got my first llama, dogs for each of the kids, and a mule and a donkey and as time goes by, more llamas and donkeys and dogs and cats too.

One of the dogs was an Akita. And some how she burrowed into my heart. I think because she was such an amazing observer. She took it upon herself to take care of me. She would do tight circles around me and I'd take a hold of her back and she would take me to a chair or my bed. She waited for me. She didn't look into many people's eyes but she looked deep into mine. And you know what happened? She reached into my heart and healed me. I didn't have to be strong. I wasn't inadequate. I was just me with Angel. And I swear to you, she knew I had been injured. 

Bear was my second Akita. He helped heal that terrible loss when Angel was gone. And he was the joy of my life until he died from cancer at eight years old. Bear rarely slept in the bed.  He preferred the floor.  He was a long coat Akita and I think it was cooler for him on the floor.  But every morning when I opened my eyes, he would be standing next to the bed, looking at me.  And when I gave him a hug?  He would press his big old head over my arm and hug me back.  He was a gentle giant.  This is a picture of the two of us playing the snow in your face game when we had the farm.  He was such a gentleman.

I grieved so much after Bear died that I could barely function.  A friend who had a dog rescue asked me if I would like to foster a dog.  A Chow Chow who had suffered terrible abuse.  And I said yes.  And it turned out to be the perfect thing to do.  I kept him until he passed away too.  That last year of his life he smiled.  He was at peace.  And we enjoyed everyday together.  I was on a waiting list for a service dog and doing a lot of research on training, service dog training and fostering and training all sorts of dogs with all sorts of problems.  And I got to thinking that I could train an Akita to be my service dog.  Everyone who provided service dogs said they didn't train Akitas.  But I knew what they were capable of because without training Angel or Bear, they took care of me.  And then an Akita breeder saw my artwork and we talk about how great Akitas were and they decided to donate an Akita to me to be my service dog. I could choose which one I wanted.  Two days before Christmas, 6 years ago, my son and I went to pick her out.  Seeing a puddle of exuberant Akita puppies is an amazing experience.  I met Mama and Papa and both were loving and sweet.  As I picked up each one I wondered how I could choose and then I picked up Coco.  She nuzzled her head into my neck and I knew, this was the one.  It turned out to be the one that I had picked out from the photos I'd seen about a month earlier.  And she has been my constant companion.  She is a great comfort to me. My love for the Akita and the Akitas I have been lucky to share this life with, runs deep. Survival deep. 

Here is some video of Coco and me.  We flew to Philadelphia in June this year.  She was, of course, perfect.  We went through security and the person who was going to check her out asked me if she was okay and I told her she was trained for this.  I said she could feel free to do whatever she needed to do to make her job easier.  When she was finished Coco gave her a kiss on the cheek.  I then told Coco to sit while I went through the metal detector.  And of course she did.  Then I called her to me (she was off leash and collar) and when she was in the detector I told her to stop and she did and then I called her and she came right to my side.  I put her collar and leash back on her and got my shoes on and we were ready to follow the person who was getting us to the plane.

We sat in the back of the plane and she was wonderful.  I had called the airlines to find out if they had any recommendations and they said to feed her four hours before takeoff.  Which I did.  Then I got ready and we walked for about an hour.  Then I gave Coco a Pepto Bismo and a Benedryl to make sure her stomach stayed settled and to help to relax., in case she got nervous.  

I had talked with our trainer from the Morris Service Dog Program and I did some intensive training with Coco to cue her when she heard a loud noise and then I told her I hear it, we're safe.  By the time it was  the day of our departure, we were in perfect sync.  These are some pictures of us traveling.  As we were getting ready to take off I started letting Coco chew on her favorite kind of bone.  By the time we were in the air about half of it was gone.  I put the rest away for when we landed.  She rested her head on my lap when we were flying and then she laid down on the floor and put her head on my foot.  She does this when we go into restaurants too.  She lays under the table and puts her front paws on my feet and rests her head there.  I think she does this because she wants to know what I'm going to do next and probably because it is comfortable too.  Visually I can see straight ahead just fine.  But my brain doesn't read what my eyes are seeing peripherally.  I used to live in fear because I didn't understand this and I would walk out in front of cars or bump into things and get woozy and fall into things.  Thanks to the Chicago Lighthouse, I got the help I needed to live without feeling dizzy all of the time.  And thanks to the RIC, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and a team of really great physical and speech therapists for helping me to let go of my fears and to use other approaches to walking and functioning well out in the public.  It is a huge testament to all of these people's hard work and dedication that I could travel with Coco and go to places I didn't know and do well.  

Coco and I are rarely more than a few inches away from each other.  Some times she'll go get in my bed and take a nap but most of the time we are in sight of each other.  Coco is also trained to take me to the basement when a tornado siren blares.  Everywhere we go she is welcome.  She greets people, young and old by sitting down and giving them a great big smile and doing this happy ears thing and if she wants to, some times she even gives them a little kiss.  Some times she even picks out a person she likes that she wants to meet and of course, I always listen to her.  Coco is always right.  Often people say that she has made their day.  Coco, as did all of my other Aktias, seems to know when I am feeling dizzy and out of focus before I do. She takes me to a seat or a bench until it passes.  If we are in a store she takes me to a wall and cups around me until I am okay and then she stands at heel and she lets me know we can go again.  When Coco hears an engine running she will stop me by cupping around me too.  She slows and looks up at my eyes and then looks at the car, electric car or even a moped and if I look at it and tell her I see it we're safe we keep on walking.  But if I don't say those words, she cups around me and stops me.  

People say I am a good trainer.  And because I have kept my mind open and read many books and watched many DVDs and I went through service dog training school; well, and because I trained our llamas and donkeys and all sorts of dogs using what is called now a positive training approach, I am a good trainer.  But I will tell you my real secret, every thing I learned about animal behavior I learned from my Akitas. They were the bridge to being able to read the behavior and understand that all of the animals we share our lives with are speaking silently all of the time.  Learning how to read their behavior and being consistent with our own, is the fundamental key to coexisting in harmony with all manner of animals.  Some people say Akitas are stubborn but I have not found this to be true at all.  They are reciprocal communicators and they have the ability to think for themselves.  That is what I admire about them and why, for me an Akita is a perfect Service Dog and companion.  When I am feeling out of focus I need Coco to be able to think for herself and figure out what we need to do next. Training had something to do with it too but this was an instinctual effort with all three of my Akitas.
 And this is Coco, my Akita Service Dog

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