First, a bit of backstory with minimal relevance to the subject of this actual post... my mom and her family escaped from Estonia when the country was invaded by Russia (creepily similar to what's going on now in Ukraine?). The story is full of exciting adventures and devastating loss and should be a book and a movie. The important part is that my mom, my kids, my sister, and her daughter... are all currently traveling in Estonia. It's the first time my mom has returned home in 79 years!
I... am NOT on that trip. My mom kindly suggested that this would be a scouting trip and she would take me with her next year. When she goes back again. And I'm able to travel. OK. Let's go with that.
It's been a really long time since I left the country (the Middle East in 2010). It's been almost 10 years since I've been on an airplane or train (Grand Canyon trip for mom's 75th birthday). And other than driving my mom back to Bar Harbor in January, a few day trips to the Studios in Lowell, MA, and visiting Montshire (science museum) and White River Junction, VT... I haven't left New Hampshire in a few years. And, other than doctor appointments, I hadn't really left my house... I miss the adventures. And I regret not being with my kids right now.
I do have a plan though! It involves Elsa Bear and a stroller.
Having a puppy that needs training to be my service dog is quite a challenge in itself - but it also gives me the motivation to do the THINGS - like... leave the house. Talk to people. Ask for help. Problem solve. Stick up for myself. All tough things!
The symbol of all these things is the Puppy Stroller. I have received a lot of flack from folks who think (and say out loud, to my face) that a "stroller is a sign of laziness". My puppy is "spoiled". "A puppy needs to walk and get excercise". "She won't be able to use it once she gets big". Etc. Possibly all true. But Elsa Bear is not just any dog. She's training to be MY service dog and the services I need from her are not anyone else's business to decide.
What I need: • a polite, happy, confident, adventurous, curious, well-behaved dog. • A Social Bridge - ie: an easy way to interact with people, make conversation, but also take the spotlight off of me. • A way to ground me during anxiety and panic attacks • Someone soft, soothing, and always available for hugs to calm me down. • A dog who can do all these things in hospital, school, grocery store settings - places in which I have a very difficult time. • Routines and positive motivation that work with my goals and lifestyle.
So, we have a stroller. Don't worry. Elsa Bear gets plenty of exercise and zooms all over her fenced in play spaces! We also take a few daily walks around the yard. And I have a large house with lots of stairs and hallways in which to chase the cat. Puppies get tired a lot faster than dogs and lots of walking can be bad for their developing joints. Also, puppies don't really like to walk on leash, in a straight line, at a human's pace. They go in all directions, sniffing everything, getting really distracted, startling easily, and pulling their human's torn rotator cuffs. Ow.
In Training, I learned that long walks with your dog are NOT the best way to tire them out. Letting them listen to and observe their surroundings is actually better. Elsa Bear and I got in the habit of sitting in the garden every morning and just listening to the birds, the cars, lawn mowers, crickets... and watching butterflies, joggers, other dogs, clouds... When she is in the stroller, she takes this meditative-observation with her. She can get used to sounds and places from within her own comfort zone. She is not lost amongst feet and wheels. Children are on the same level as her. She can stand and participate, or curl up and nap. People are (a little) less likely to reach in and pet her when she is "training". Stores, hospitals etc. aren't as nervous about her training since she is contained and won't leave any messes on the floor. Her feet aren't burned in hot asphalt parking lots. She isn't distracted (and terrified of) sewer grates, wooden bridges - anything where the ground is perforated, elevators, machinery... she doesn't have to deal with all five senses on overload at once!
In the pictures above, and below, we are on a wooden railroad bridge on the rail trail. I DID take her... TRY to take her... for a walk with her leash. Not only was she distracted by the scents of all the other dogs that walked there, but she was on high alert, then very agitated, by the smells of other animals - like bears, raccoons, etc. She refused to walk on the trail. So we went back to the car, grabbed the stroller (which is very lightweight, I love that) and proceeded to walk the trail at a lovely brisk pace - Elsa Bear sniffing the breeze and listening to all the sounds.
The stroller offers many benefits to me as well. Walking briskly is a good one. I have a bunch of weird medical issues and bone problems and have had years where I couldn't walk without a cane. So when I CAN walk, I like to walk quickly, and straight! Slow walking, aka "museum walking" is excruciatingly painful. And as I mentioned, a puppy pulling on her leash, for any reason, is to be avoided.
Last week, Elsa Bear and I went to the League of Craftsmans Fair on Mt. Sunapee. Not only would I have not been able to handle a puppy on a leash... dogs are not allowed on the grounds. But as a service dog in training (she had her training vest as well as the stroller), we were welcomed in. We BOTH practiced our social skills, and Elsa practiced "being bored". She is learning to wait patiently when I'm talking to other humans. She got to sniff new smells, accept attention without being touched, and eat lots of yummy snacks during breaks.
The stroller not only holds the pup, but all her "stuff", and my stuff. It gives me a sense of control and a boundary between myself and other humans. Even if a person leans in to pet Elsa Bear, I can still keep the stroller between us, and step back. It gives me something to hold on to, like a walker or cane, so I can keep my balance. It allows me to interact with Elsa Bear without having to bend over or crouch (painful). I love seeing someone smile when they realize it's a puppy, not a baby, in the stroller. I actually enjoy answering peoples' questions - "What kind of dog is that?" "What is it training for?" etc. I know the answers to THOSE questions! And I feel good helping to educate people about service dogs.
On Saturday, we went to the Warnerpalooza event at the Kearsarge Indian Museum. Much calmer than Sunapee, but with lots of other animals! Little horses, a big rabbit, other dogs. So much to observe and musicians to listen to.
Elsa Bear is 6 months old. She still has a lot of growing up and training to do before she is a "real service dog". For now, the stroller gives me a way to introduce her to lots of sights, sounds, and experiences that would be impossible for me to do otherwise. And in the process, she is reintroducing ME back into the world.