It has been a little over two weeks since I first met Luka and one week since coming home to the US. The days have been full of many firsts and memorable experiences. I’ve decided to document my experience as a self-interview.
Dave: How is everything going?
Dave: Really well. Every day gets a little easier as we find our routine but everything has been great. Luka fits wonderfully into my life and I already feel like he is an old friend I’ve known for years.
Dave: How was Austria?
Dave: Spectacular! Visiting a foreign country always expands your worldview and this trip was no different. It is a beautiful country in many dimensions and Cathy and I have many fond memories of our time there. Anna and her husband, and Barbara our trainer really went out of their way to make us feel like family and we are deeply grateful for their kindness and hospitality.
Dave & Luka in Austria
Dave: How did you get by not knowing any German?
Dave: Funny you (I) should ask. We got to the Bed and Breakfast where we had arranged to stay and found they spoke very little English. I managed to convey that we had a reservation and they said that they had no record of it. Cathy and I were exhausted after a red-eye flight and in bad need of a shower and a nap. I found the reservation confirmation on my iPhone and showed it to them. The husband and wife proprietor argued a bit in German and apologized and were obviously trying to figure out where they would put us. I’m not sure exactly what happened next – either I randomly said something in Spanish or the hostess did because we both looked at each other with surprise and said, “¿Habla Espanol?” It was really a comedic moment as we proceeded to converse freely in Spanish. Cathy’s and my high-school Spanish held up remarkably well and we enjoyed conversing with her every day in a mix of English and Spanish with a German word thrown in for good measure.
Otherwise language wasn’t much of an issue. Anna and Barbara speak English as do most people in Graz, the major city about 25 minutes distant that we visited on several occasions. The big challenge for me was dinner. Often we were too tired to go into the city so we ate at smallish restaurants in villages where menus were entirely in German. In some cases we found friendly waiters who spoke English and were happy to help. In a few cases, not so much. We got by but since diabetes demands that I know what I am eating, every mealtime was a bit stressful and I ended up sticking with a small selection of menu items I could recognize or get translated. Cathy found it far less stressful and was much more adventurous.
We did have to learn a handful of German words and phrases because some of the commands Luka knows are in German and some are in English.
Dave: Are there any particular memories from training week that stand out for you?
Dave: There are many, and some of them I’ll be devoting entire blog posts to, such as Chicken Camp.
The first day we were there we walked from the B&B to Anna’s farm to meet Luka for the first time. It was uphill most of the way so by the time I got there I was low and I told Anna this before she let Luka out. Luka came out of the house, excited to meet new people, and quickly greeted me. Then he went right to Anna and started tugging on her bringsel. She redirected him to me, and he immediately came over and found the bringsel I was wearing and tugged it off. We had a big dog party and gave him a LOT of tasty canned dog food – our first meeting was probably as memorable for him as it was for me.
Luka’s first alert
One evening as we were getting ready to leave the farm, one of Anna’s dogs escaped and ran full-tilt towards a neighbor down the road who was outside gardening. The dog was very excited and wanted to visit his friend. Earlier that day we had been working on the “really reliable recall” which uses classical conditioning to associate two short blasts on a whistle with a very high value reward. Since it is classical conditioning (not operant) the dog practically has no choice but to turn around and race back to the trainer. I was the only one who had a whistle and Anna quickly urged me to blow it. I could not believe how effectively it worked. That dog was at full speed, only about 20 feet from the object of his desire – the neighbor. But upon hearing the whistle he immediately put on the brakes, turned around and ran back to Anna as fast as he had been running away. I was VERY impressed and Anna was VERY proud. Seriously – I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
On the first day after having Luka overnight, our assignment was to drive with Luka to a nearby village, take a walk through a park, and meet Barbara afterwards at a cafe. Being alone with him in public with potentially difficult distractions was pretty intimidating to me at first – it felt very much like when my flight instructor opened the door of the plane after landing and said, “Ok, Dave – you’re ready to solo. Have fun!” In both cases I tended to overcontrol the situation at first but soon muscle memory and training kicked in and I was able to relax and enjoy a unique sense of freedom. During our walk we came across a childcare facility with a fenced-in playground full of 3 and 4 year old children. Cathy’s background is in early childhood education and, having four kids, we both loved and miss this special age so we put Luka in a down near the fence as the children came to look and babble at us in German. One of their teachers came over who had good English skills and asked us about Luka. We told her the whole story about him being a service dog trained to detect hypoglycemia associated with diabetes. A look of recognition came over her as she told us about a friend who is diabetic and also wears an insulin pump. She thought it was amazing what Luka could do and translated what the children were saying about him. They were very adorable.
Dave: What about your family life? What do your kids think of Luka?
Dave: They are each developing their own special relationship with him. Some are more reserved, some are more demonstrative, and Luka meets each of them on their terms. When we get home each day he runs through the house to find each member of the family and greet them. We took our trainer’s suggestion and came up with a family name for Luka: “Fritzi.”
The reasoning for this makes good sense: Imagine Luka is a superhero. He has a special power that can protect people from harm (specifically, me) and when he is called into action by his superhero name, Luka, he knows it is his duty to take notice and respond. But Luka also has a life as a mild-mannered member of our family who pet him, talk about him, and call him into over to play with his squeeky toy. At these times we use his family name, Fritzi, so he knows that he has the option of responding to or ignoring us – basically that he is “off duty.” Cathy and I are currently the only ones authorized to call him Luka since we are the only ones who know how to properly issue and reinforce his super-hero commands.
Speaking of super-heroes, there’s this great picture that Frank Wisnesky made. I met Frank at the Wildrose conference this year. He is Dad to a type 1 diabetic daughter and is very involved in the DAD community.
Dave: How was it getting Luka home?
Dave: Cathy and I have differing memories of the experience. I remember Luka as being fairly anxious and stressed during the flight and having to spend a lot of time comforting him and preventing him from looking for a parachute and emergency exit. Cathy remembers that there were some periods of time like this but there were also periods when Luka seemed accepting of the situation and we were able to watch an entire movie and eat a meal while he lay by my feet. Her theory is that I was more stressed than Luka was, primarily out of compassion for his obvious preference to be anywhere but on that plane. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Dave: After all the trouble you had getting permissing to bring Luka to work, how has it been?
Dave: My co-workers have been incredibly supportive and considerate. Many people have politely let me know how cool they think Luka is and that they are glad he is there. People have been respectful and avoid interacting with him although I have introduced him selectively to some people who he will be around a lot. We’ve settled into a nice routine that includes a long walk at a wildlife refuge on the way to work, a short mid-morning walk in the woods near the parking lot, a longer walk through a park at lunch, a short mid-afternoon walk around the parking lot, and a long walk or bike ride on our street when we get home.
Dave: Bike ride?
Dave: Yes – Luka really likes to run so I bought an attachment for my bike that allows him to be safely tethered to my bike while I ride at a reasonable pace for short distances. Did I mention he likes to run? I often end up putting on the brakes because he is pulling the bike faster than I want him to go – I think in a former life he was on a sled-dog team. At first he tried to bolt after squirrels and rabbits while tethered to the bike but quickly discovered that I outweigh him and the momentum of the bike demands that he keep running in the same direction lest he get dragged. I’ve been practicing riding wide figure eights which forces him to focus on the bike or get run over and this has made our rides really easy – he completely ignores barking dogs that we ride past because he really can’t afford to be distracted.
Dave: Are there any aspects of living with a service dog that differ from your expectations before you had Luka?
Dave: There are many. The most profound is my experience with public access. All along I had fears about feeling self-conscious and out of place bringing a service dog into public places. I thought I would feel a loss of privacy since having a service dog is a pretty big advertisement that you have a medical “problem.” Those fears were mostly unfounded. I feel pretty confident and bold when Luka and I walk into a public place like the library, grocery store, or mall. I stand tall and walk like I have every right to be there. I do tend to avoid eye contact with people but I suspect that will change with time. Even my youngest boys notice that people stare and children point and ask questions – I’m aware of this in my periphery but I’m careful to leave it there.
Dave: Thanks for talking with yourself today. Would you be willing to let me interview you again in a few months to see how you progress?
Dave: I’d be happy to. You know where to find me!