Today I'm joined by author Brenda Weeks to talk about what it's like living with a service dog and competing in dog sports from a wheelchair.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
For this episode I'm joined by Brenda Weeks. Brenda has been fully dependent on using a power wheelchair for mobility since the spring of 1995. She uses a service dog to assist her and enhance her independence —and competes in performance dog sports from her chair.
She's here to talk to us about her life, her recent book — Blogger Dog Buffy!: Service Dog — and share her experiences in the competition world.
Hi Brenda, welcome to the podcast!
Brenda Weeks: Hi Melissa, thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to chatting with you.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely! To start us out, would you be willing to share a little about how you ended up in your chair?
Brenda Weeks: Sure. I have Multiple Sclerosis, and 26 years ago this past Saturday were my very first symptoms. It was sudden onset. I didn't have anything prior to that day. The progression and the presentation were very unusual. During that first year I had many exacerbations and ongoing things almost continually. After a year, I was using a cane to walk.
One of the things they do to treat an exacerbation with MS is to do high-dose IV steroids known as Solu-Medrol. Six months after I started using the cane, I walked into the hospital to do three days of the Solu-Medrol. On the day that I was ready to come home, I was waiting for Don, my husband, to come get me, and I had to go to the bathroom. I called the nurse and I went to get up, and I couldn't move either of my legs or my right arm. They thought that it was just an acute exacerbation that was happening in addition to the other things that were going on.
I did two more days of the Solu-Medrol, and I went into the rehab facility at the hospital, and five weeks later came home in a power wheelchair and have been fully dependent for 24 years on the chair.
Two years after I was in the chair, the MS started affecting my respiratory system, and I've been fully vent-dependent on a ventilator to breathe for 20 years.
Over the years there's been many bumps in the road, and lots of things to adjust to, and a lot of different things with the MS and with other health issues. I've had breast cancer twice and many surgeries, and just climb over the bumps in the road and keep on going and try not to let too much slow me down for very long.
Melissa Breau: Wow. That's quite the story, Brenda. At what point did dogs come into that? Were you interested in dogs before you started getting sick, or was it that first service dog? Can you tell me a little about that?
Brenda Weeks: When I was 10 years old … my parents moved around a lot while I was growing up, and when I was 10, we had just recently moved to a new town. It was always in the middle of the school year, and I was incredibly shy, and I befriended a dog that belonged to our neighbor. He had been abused and was very fearful of men. The owner didn't really like him very much and offered him to me, and I begged my parents to let me have him. My dad said, "You have a month to see if you can get him to settle down," so that he wouldn't panic every time my dad said something or moved.
There was a local dog club that had obedience classes and they were on Sunday afternoons. The beginner was from 1 to 2, and from 2 to 3 they had an advanced class, and from 3 to 4 they had the open and utility class. My parents would drop me off at 1 and I would do the beginner class and then sit and watch the other classes and go home and teach him everything I saw there. So I did the beginner stuff and the advanced stuff right from the very beginning.
I loved the training. He was a fabulous first dog to do anything with because he was so fearful, and I had to really be creative with my training because back then it was very forceful-type methods and I couldn't use those at all with him, so I learned a tremendous amount.
I went to the advanced class for a few sessions, and then the club was having an obedience match, and I asked my obedience instructor what class to go in, because I had no idea. She said, "Go ahead and try Novice A." I went in Novice A and I got 199 ½ out of 200, highest-scoring dog, highest-scoring junior handler, and I was hooked. I loved it. I loved every minute of it.
Melissa Breau: You got addicted early.
Brenda Weeks: Yeah. I put an American-Canadian CD on him, and he was all ready for open. I went to a match on a Sunday and showed him in open and he got 198, highest-scoring dog, and the next day our house burned and we lost him in the fire.
I was offered many different dogs, and I chose a Golden Retriever puppy. She went on to get her utility and tracking degree here in the States and in Canada and in Bermuda. She was the first Golden to get her American-Canadian-Bermuda CD or UDT. So that was my start in dogs.
Melissa Breau: That's sad, but that's also quite a splash to make early on in a sports career.
Brenda Weeks: Yes. So I had that in my background, and then over the years I had done a lot of conformation showing. I had Golden Retrievers was my breed that I did. I had a champion, and she produced a champion, and very active in doing the dog sports and showing in conformation up until I got into the wheelchair and thought my dog show days were over, but they weren't.
Melissa Breau: Well, I'm certainly glad they're not.
Brenda Weeks: Yes, me too.
Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned recently on the blog that you knew pretty soon after the wheelchair came into the picture that a service dog was in your future. You just didn't know exactly when. What was that process like to find a service dog, and maybe you could just share a little about the impact that first dog had on your daily life.
Brenda Weeks: Back in the early '80s, I worked at a guide dog school in New York. I went to their apprenticeship program and was a certified trainer/instructor. We would train the dogs and then go into class with the blind students and match the dog with the person.
Over the years of giving that gift of independence to so many people, I saw the impact that a dog could have on a person's life and the independence that a dog could give a person with a disability.
Back then the service dogs were fairly early in the infancy of them being trained for people who had physical disabilities. I read a lot about it because I was interested in that whole area of dog world because of working at the guide dog school. So when I was in my rehab, I said to my husband, "I'm getting a service dog." There wasn't any question to it. I just knew I was going to, because I knew the independence that a dog would give me.
I had planned on applying at Canine Companions For Independence back then. It was one of the very few schools that were training dogs for people with physical disabilities.
At the time, my husband and I had been doing therapy dog work, and we had started the therapy dog program at the hospital. A lady that was doing it with us had a litter of Lab puppies. I had come home from the hospital and was home maybe a month or so, and she brought the litter over and they scattered in every direction, except for one puppy came over and laid under the edge of my wheelchair. She picked her up and said, "I would like to give her to you to train as your service dog." I said, "No, we're going to go through a school."
We were just overwhelmed by life in general at that point, and just knew that we couldn't give to a puppy what it would need to be raised to be a good working dog. So she took the puppy home and she said, "I'll just hold on to her for a while." I said, "If you have a home for her, don't, because I don't know what's going to happen."
A few months later I had another hospitalization. I came home from the hospital and I called her and said, "Do you still have Savannah?" She brought her over and she stayed, and Don and I trained her. She worked as my service dog for 11 years and was almost 15 when she died.
The impact she had on me in so many different areas of my life, the independence that she gave me, the companionship, the icebreaker connection to the community when you're out. People will come up and interact much quicker if you have a dog with you than just being in a wheelchair, so that connection to the community was huge. I felt included instead of excluded.
I did a little bit of training with her. People aren't going to come up and say, "Oh, what a nice wheelchair" very easily, but if there is a dog or something there as the icebreaker, then it starts the conversation and just leads to that feeling of being included or part of the community.
Melissa Breau: You were saying you did some training with her on what?
Brenda Weeks: I did some training with her and was hoping to try showing her in obedience, but early on in the MS I had a lot going on, and I would get so I thought I would be ready, and then something else health-wise would hit me and it would just set me back, so I never had the opportunity to show her. She was trained for all the novice stuff and some of the open stuff, but I never got to any shows with her, which was a little disappointing. But she did many other things in my life, so it wasn't meant to be right then to do that.
When she was getting ready to retire, I applied at Canine Companions to get a service dog, because I health-wise wasn't in a good spot where I thought that I would be able to train another, and to find a service dog prospect isn't always easy. I was right at the top of the list, just about ready for them to call, and a breeder friend who had a litter of Flat-Coated Retrievers offered me a puppy, and again I resisted. Don said, "Sure, we can do it. We did it before." So she came, Onyx, she came and lived with us.
She was 8 weeks old when I got her, and she learned all the service dog skills and was a tremendous help to Don, but she didn't have the right temperament to be a service dog. I tried for a long time, and she could do the work, but she didn't really enjoy it, and it wasn't fair to put her in that setting that she didn't really enjoy.
But what she did do, and the reason that I think she was in my life, was that I was able to show her in conformation. I finished her championship and showed her in ten shows, and she won in six out of the ten and got three majors. It was thrilling to be able to show again and to do it from the chair. The winning was fun, but just being back in the ring and showing was the best part. I put a Rally Novice title on her, and Canine Good Citizen, and she passed her temperament test, so that was fun. I got back into showing after being in the chair.
I again applied to Canine Companions and was on the waiting list for two-and-a-half years, and I got the call to go, and that was when Buffy came into my life.
Melissa Breau: The book and your blog share Buffy's story. Can you share a little bit of that story with us?
Brenda Weeks: The way that the organization works, this one — they're all somewhat different — the puppies are born out in California, and then they're flown to different parts of the country to their puppy raiser.
Buffy lived with her puppy raisers in New Jersey for 18 months. They taught her her foundation skills, and growing up and living in a house, and going out in public and learning all those beginning parts of what was going to lead her to be a service dog. And then she went to the school on Long Island — that's the closest campus to us — and she went through nine months of advanced training.
When I got the call to go down, my son Eric took me for the two-week team training. The first couple of days we worked with several different dogs, and on the third day they matched each of the students in the class that I was in with their dog that they thought would be the one that they would go home with. For the remainder of the team training we worked together, graduated, and came home two weeks later.
Melissa Breau: And she's been with you since.
Brenda Weeks: Yes, she has. It's been 6-and-a-half years.
Melissa Breau: Wow. What does a typical day in her life look like? What is that like for her?
Brenda Weeks: When we're home, I take her collar, leash, and vest off and she's just a regular dog. She's not on duty all the time, but she's always available if I need her. Anytime I go in the kitchen to do anything, she's right there to help, or if I go in the other room, or if I drop something, she hears it and rushes right there to pick it up. But mostly she just hangs out, fairly nearby. I don't tell her she has to stay in a certain spot. She has the run of the house. We have a couple of pet dogs and she can play with them, or interact, and just relax and be a regular dog.
Her biggest jobs that she does for me — with limited use of my hands and arms, I tend to drop things a lot, so she gets lots of practice picking up a variety of items off the floor. We have ropes or tugs attached to the doors and the cupboards and the refrigerator in the kitchen, and she'll open and close all of them for me as I need her to. When we're out places, she'll push automatic door buttons. A regular door, if it has a lever door handle, there's a rope that I can attach and she'll open those for me. She does a lot of different things.
Melissa Breau: How much work do you have to put in on maintaining those service-related behaviors? What does that look like?
Brenda Weeks: The ones that I use most often, like dropping things and opening and closing the doors and stuff, just the regular day-to-day things that happen, is practice enough for those. The ones that I don't use as often that I make an effort to practice them so that she's really sharp in knowing them, that would be like any type of training — if you don't maintain it, then they slip or get sloppy with it.
So if I'm at the microwave and waiting for water to boil in a teacup or something like that, the couple minutes that it's heating, then I'll have her go underneath the cutout area or put her feet up on the counter to deliver something up there, just different things that I don't normally use on a day-to-day basis. I try to find those little times, five minutes here and there to practice them. I try to make a list because it would be easy to just practice the things we know that are easy all the time and forget about those that are a little more challenging.
Melissa Breau: We were talking a little about how you got into performance dog sports. Can you share a little bit about what you're doing today and what sports you're currently training and competing in?
Brenda Weeks: I did the … I never can remember the name of it … the Cynosport, I think it is, the Rally. The first year after I was home, I showed her in Novice at one weekend of shows and we finished her Rally Novice title for that, and then didn't do much competing for a while until just recently.
In April I had the opportunity to go to an A.K.C. show, and it was kind of special. The town that I had first started with my first dog was where that show was held, and it was almost exactly 50 years from when I first started. I got to show Buffy at that show. I showed her in Rally Novice and Beginner Novice and she qualified in both, so she has one leg toward both of those. In September I have her entered in another show to try to see if we can qualify again for her second legs in both of those. That's what we're working on right now.
Melissa Breau: Congrats on the first couple of legs. That's awesome. And good luck in the upcoming trial.
Brenda Weeks: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: You have to let us know how it goes.
Brenda Weeks: I will.
Melissa Breau: You're kind of forced to be a pretty good problem-solver and a creative trainer when you're working on competition behaviors from a wheelchair. I'd imagine there are things you have to adapt or change. Can you talk about that a little bit? Are there examples of how you've had to adapt things or train maybe a little bit differently for your sport, and how that has impacted things with you and Buffy?
Brenda Weeks: The wheelchair that I have right now I've had for about a year. It's mid-wheel drive, and what that means is the turning radius is very small because the center wheel is what it turns on, and it has smaller wheels in the front and back.
That has solved a huge amount of problems that I had previously, because my turns in the Obedience ring, and doing some of the different signs for Rally, you have a much smaller turning rate, so it's made it much easier to do that.
With my previous chair, it was a front-wheel drive. It turned so differently, and I had to make sure I had plenty of room to get the turns in, and some were more challenging because they didn't look exactly like they should have looked because of the way the chair turned. So I'm much happier with this chair because I feel like I can do the signs and the turns the way that they should be done. That's been the biggest thing is the turning radius and to be able to perform.
Some of the Rally signs, Buffy's had to learn to adapt with the way she moves, like if I have to make a left turn in place — it's one of the ones in Rally that you do — I give her a little bit of a pre-cue, almost like a heads up that we're going to be going that way, because she has to step back and move out so that the chair doesn't hit her. So just finding ways to let her know what's going to be coming, so that she's prepared so that she's in the right spot and isn't getting hit.
Melissa Breau: It seems like that would have taken some forethought on your part to think about this is some extra behavior you have to train and maintain and keep performance-ready so you can do that.
Brenda Weeks: Yeah, I did a lot of practicing, and I still will go out by myself in the chair and practice how to make the turns, so that I have exactly in my mind when and how to turn so that it's fair to Buffy that she is consistent on the way that I move. So I practice without her, before anything new, I try to practice.
Very early on I said to myself, "The chair isn't going to be an excuse of why I can't do something. I'll find a way to make it work and do what everybody else is going to do." Because to me it was the only fair way to be able to compete was if I could do everything that I should be doing.
Melissa Breau: That's a good point to transition a little bit here, because I want to switch gears for a minute. I mentioned in the intro that you recently published a book, and we haven't even talked a whole lot about that yet. So can you share just a little bit about the book, when did it come out, and what it's about?
Brenda Weeks: It is a children's book. It's about service dogs and about Buffy and her growing up with the destiny of becoming a service dog, and our early years of being together as partners.
When I was first in the chair, I had been a teacher's aide at my son's school. Eric was 7 and he was in second grade, and I had been teacher's aide in first grade for two years. All of a sudden I went in the hospital and then I wasn't at the school. I think the kids were really unclear on what had happened and heard their parents talk, and they didn't know what was going on. The school wasn't accessible, so I couldn't get in right away so they could see me.
Kids being kids, they teased Eric terribly about his mom being in a wheelchair, and I think a lot of it was their fear of the unknown of what had happened and what it meant to be in a wheelchair. Probably some of them had never seen somebody use a wheelchair.
So when I went to finally get into the school, I talked to the kids and let them ask questions and find a way to feel comfortable. That was the beginning of many years of doing disability awareness in the school system. Very early on, my dream was to write a children's book about service dogs and people with disabilities to just help people learn, or help the kids learn, about people being different and that they were still the same person; they just did things differently. It was a longtime dream — one that I thought would never come true.
Melissa Breau: What led to it actually coming out now? How did it all come together and come to be?
Brenda Weeks: Back when Ferretpalooza happened, the very first Fenzi camp, I was able to go. Some friends took me, and that was just a life-changing experience.
One of the biggest highlights of the whole weekend was meeting Denise. We were talking, and she was in the process of writing Brito's book, and I jokingly said, "When you're finished with Brito's book, you can write Buffy's book," and never thought any more about it.
After Brito's book came out and I read it, I sent her a message, and I told her how much I loved it and that she had to write a sequel to it because I didn't want it to end. She said, "I'm not writing a sequel. What about Buffy's book?" That was how we started with that. She and I worked together on writing it, and the writing part was done very early on. There was a holdup with getting the illustrations done, a few bumps in the road with that, but that finally came together and it was published in the middle of July.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I want to end this the same way I usually end every episode with a new guest. I've got three questions I usually ask at the end. The first one here: What's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of? You told me in advance that you want to give me three, so that's fine.
Brenda Weeks: I tried really hard to just come up with one. Bouncer, my Golden that got the American-Canadian-Bermuda UDT — that was just very special. She had almost all of her obedience degrees completed before I was finished with high school, so I did almost all of it as a junior handler. She had several highest-scoring dog in all three countries and many, many highest-scoring junior handlers. That was the beginning start of a lifetime of being involved with dogs, just a very special dog, and a very special direction that my life went because of having Clancy first, the Sheltie, and then Bouncer. So that's one.
My next one is Onyx, just because of the courage that it took to step outside of my comfort zone to go into the ring in the wheelchair. Just being able to show her from my chair and do so well and the people that it touched while I was doing it. I had several people that came up to me and said, "Because you've done this, I'm going to go in the ring, despite my limitations." Just the fact that I was able to help some people was very special too.
The third is, when I got Onyx, that was my beginning introduction to clicker training through her breeder, and I kind of dabbled in it with her, but didn't really know what I was doing. When I came home with Buffy and started very early on with the Fenzi School and the classes, I have done everything with Buffy through positive reinforcement. The learning process and the ability to let go of some of my past training things and be able to do it all with her that way makes me feel like I worked really hard to get to that point.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. My second hard question here at the end: What's the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?
Brenda Weeks: This was very early on. I think it was probably my first or second Fenzi class. It was with Denise and it was in Heeling Games. I don't know if somebody had asked a question or she was making an observation with one of the dogs in the class, but she said, "Not all dogs are the bouncy, driven type. You cannot change a dog's basic drive structure. You can only maximize what is there."
Buffy is very laidback. She's got a real strong work ethic, but she's very methodical in what she does. Watching the other dogs in the class, I was thinking, Buffy's never going to be able to do any of this stuff because she's not doing the excitement and the bouncing and the jumping around, like a lot of the dogs were doing. When I read what Denise wrote, it made me stop and think, She's the dog she is, and I just work within what she has to give me and make the most of it.
And then I put it onto myself as well, that I have limitations and that's OK because that's me, and I can do anything I want to do, just work within what's there for me too. So it was a double … not really training advice, but it made an impact on my life and future for the training that Buffy and I were going to do together, that no matter what, we would be able to work together and do the best we could do.
Melissa Breau: I love that from both perspectives. That's a really nice takeaway to have from a class like that. My last question, Brenda, is who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?
Brenda Weeks: Denise. Just the impact that she's had on so many people's lives through creating the training school, and the impact that she's had on my life as far as the opportunities that have opened up through the training and being able to take the classes. The book never would have happened if it wasn't for her. I just admire her so much. She's such a special, special person that has done so much for so many people. She's so kind and generous and giving and just an awesome person.
Melissa Breau: I'm sure that she will be very honored to hear that. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Brenda! You have such an incredible story. I really appreciate you being willing to share it.
Brenda Weeks: Thank you so much for asking me. It was such an honor to talk with you and for you to ask me touched me deeply that you would even want me to come on and share my story, so thank you.
Melissa Breau: For folks who want to follow up and learn a little bit more about the book and read some of the awesome blog posts that Brenda is putting together, the website is BloggerDogBuffy.com. You can go check it out and see some of what they are up to.
We will be back next week with Michael Shikashio to talk about the Muzzle Up Project and his upcoming webinar for FDSA on close encounters of the unwanted kind.
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Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.
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