Tuesday, August 7, 2012

'Disabled' does not mean 'Unable'

Boomer, Deaf & Blind
Leaping over one of the 'jump' obstacles.
Boomer walked twelve stepped into the tunnel and stopped, waiting patiently for his next instructions. His handler softly touched his nose to let him know that he had done a great job and led him to the next agility obstacle. 

To many dogs, learning a new agility skill is a huge accomplishment. For Boomer and his amazing agility class, this is a step forward for all dogs with physical challenges and disabilities. Boomer is one of four dogs with a hearing and/or vision disability that is taking on the challenge of learning an agility course.  

Trainer, Tara Stermer (of Training by Tara) is stepping out of the usual mindset for dogs with disabilities and aims to show that despite their physical limitations, these dogs are just as capable as any other dog. The course may be set at a slower pace, but the obstacles are the same and each dog is learning (and loving) the course that Tara has set before them.

Lucy, Deaf & Blind
Weaving through the poles by following the mats and scents
laid out to lead her through the obstacle!
After learning about this class from a friend (owner of class members, Charlie and Lucy), I knew that I had to stop by to see this in action. My own pup (without any vision or hearing disabilities) and I have been doing agility for years, so naturally I was intrigued. 

So how does it work? 

You might be thinking that the handlers are simply leading these dogs blindly through the steps, but that is far from the reality of this training method. 

With a textured mat set just before each obstacle, the dogs are learning that this mat indicates a challenge is just ahead. Each obstacle is paired with a different scent. For example, the tunnel is lined with a lemon scent and the A-Frame a line of Vanilla up the center of the walk leads the way. 

I was not prepared to be as blown away by this class as I actually was. Sweet little Lucy took on the challenges like a charm! A few steps forward and she felt the textured mat under her feet. I could actually see her concentration as she sniffed (peppermint scent) and immediately took a step over the 'jump' obstacle in front of her. It happened again and again, all day long, touch, scent, step. Touch, scent, step.

Charlie, Deaf & Blind
Charlie is making his way carefully over the 'walk' obstacle.
The boards are lined with beads so the pups can feel the edges.
Each obstacle is set up just as any beginner agility class would be (minus a few added special touches), which makes it all that much more impressive. Tara may be changing the way in which the class is taught, but the dogs are learning a real course, that like all agility courses, changes slightly with each class, keeping the dogs in a working mindset. 

You can learn more about each obstacle by visiting my Basic Agility for Disabled Pets Slideshow.

Meet the pups: 
Charlie & Lucy: Deaf & Blind
Charlie& Lucy are both bull terrier mixes that were rescued just before they were scheduled to be killed at their local shelter. Knowing that there may be a few challenges and obstacles, owners Carol and John did not hesitate to take these two pups right home. 

Boomer: Deaf & Blind
Boomer was adopted after he was posted on Craigslist by an individual that had found him on the side of the road. He was listed as a Husky, which is the breed that his owners have owned and loved in the past. When they met Boomer, while everyone realized that he was not a Husky, it was impossible not to fall in love with him, so Boomer was quickly loaded up and on his way to his new life. Before getting involved in this agility course, Boomer had some difficulty adjusting to his new life. He would walk in circles and felt the need to be close to his owners at all times. Now, with his new-found agility confidence, Boomer has made remarkable changes and is becoming a bit more independent.

Flinn: Deaf
Flinn is an adorable boxer mix that is being adopted through Austin Boxer Rescue. Flinn will live happily with Tara once his adoption is finalized. Flinn loves to work with Savannah, one of the fantastic trainers on Tara's staff and will continue to be a role model and doggy advocate for disabled dogs!

Stephanie Conrad
The Pet Studio | Owner | Artist

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