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The alarm went off ten minutes ago and I’m still pinching my eyes closed b/c maybe, just the extra five minutes will be the difference in the headache I already have lessening, or not. That’s fantasy of course, but the chronically ill can dream. I hear my service dog groaning, literally groaning, from the other room. She is fine, just impatient for her morning out and her breakfast. I can’t blame her, and drag myself upright. Once I’m up, I confirm that yea, today is a headache day that will likely mutate to a nasty migraine before I’m through. I take the dogs all out to potty, prep their breakfast and get down my first round of meds for the day, adding in some tylenol for the headache with the usuals. One of my meds, a 4X a day liquid has to be consumed 30 minutes before I eat and taken in a full glass of water. I let the tap run for a few moments so the water is ice cold and I can avoid the bitter aftertaste.
The dogs are ready to be let out from breakfast in their crates, and I put coffee on. I have 110 text messages of varying degrees of actually needing to be read, 15 messages in FB, and a bunch of more social notifications. Over coffee I fire off answers to dog questions, mostly about poop, if I am honest. Usually those texts include photos which are both gross and useful. I am not a vet, but I am a person who reads dog biology books for fun. The thing about being a walking text book is that… you are a resource. My wife prods me to eat something. I continue to work on emails and messages until about 30 minutes before we are due in the shop. My stomach graciously allows me to eat one frozen waffle without flipping out or my esophagus swelling shut, so big win there. I live with mast cell activation syndrome, as well as eosinophilic esophagitis, which means that my body responds to food (at this point, all food) as though it is a foriegn body and has an allergic response. It’s a challenge and requires a pretty intensive management. I also take 4 other prescriptions on a daily basis to manage symptoms, and we are still working out how to help my body deal with this condition best.
We get into the shop, where the team of trainers is already hard at work running Muttessori Academy. I check the white board where we keep track of the day for who is at school, and who has not had their trainer session yet. Cara has been in since 7:30 a.m. so there is a plan laid out for a morning theme, and a rough plan for group activity in the afternoon. Michelle and George start group walks, so there are pups in varying states of their day, all working on handler engagement and dog neutrality as well as whatever the focus is on in their sessions. It’s a bustle, really noisy, and most of us on the team identify as nuerodivergent, and are pretty sound sensitive. We have coping strategies but it’s also not usual to see me with my ears plugged for just a minute, or for someone else to lose it and yell in no general direction. All is understood to be the best anyone has to give at the very moment, which in itself is something to be grateful for. I move right into service dog training, there are plenty of service dog candidates in the shop today along with our general training and behavior modification programs.
It’s about noon when I finish up my morning training sessions, and about twelve thirty when the walks are all done. It’s lunch break for the entire team. Next door in our expansion space where we have our staff break room, some of the trainers are gearing up their own dogs for a mid day walk, and some are making lunch and sitting down for a very well deserved rest. I have to wait for my next round of medication to kick in before I eat, which I just chugged down quickly before gearing up my own dogs for a quick walk. While out, Kim mentions to me that we need to get on a call right when we get back to talk with a client about their upcoming service puppy adoption. We hurry back, and chat with the new client for thirty or so minutes. Questions answered, I glance at my emails again and flag messages that still need replies from from the morning or since I’ve arrived at work. There are 8 messages in paragraph form that I copy/paste into my to-do list so I don’t forget that those probably need a longer email or a voice message.
Sitting down at the lunch table, I’m still too nauseous to eat, and I think I forgot to pee at all today, which happens. I get back up, take care of that misstep and step outside to light a small amount of my medical marijuana to deal with the waves of nausea rolling from my collar bone to my hips.
There’s about 20 minutes left before we need to kick it back into high gear for the afternoon training sessions. While finally getting some food in, I answer few more messages and we watch some stupid tiktoks for a brain break at the lunch table. Lunch is one of my favorite moments with my team. We all enjoy each other’s company, and it is equally likely to find us lively chatting as it is to see a table full of silence. Not the awkward kind, the kind that nuerospicy people live in between engagements to recoup their strength.
At 1:25, Sam puts the kettle on for her afternoon cup of tea. I get up, stretch and sigh dramatically. The afternoon plan is to work on agility stations with all of the dogs. Michelle had a lesson last night, so she is taking some office time to work on her lesson report card while we start afternoon training.
My headache is starting to make a resounding return, so I grab some excedrin and head downstairs to the training floor. Cara is already setting up 3 agility obstacles for the dogs, and setting out 3 place boards. One of the ways that we work with groups is to have a period where the dogs are working on an active activity, and then have them hold “place” while other dog’s take their turn. This balance between passive and active training isn’t just about time management- one of the best tenets of dog training is to teach your dog to settle, and this gives an opportunity to work around upper level distractions.
Each trainer will run the dog student through the agility obstacle for a timed amount of time, and then switch to the next station when the timer goes off. After all 3 stations, the dog will hold place while the next dog rotates through the 3 stations, and then return to their crate. I don’t know of any other training company that runs this way, but it really works for us and allows us to both give individualized attention to each dog, while balancing the entire shop. There is some really great research into the benefits of intensive, short sessions for dog training, and we certainly have found that this method works really well.
I’m looking at one of our regular Muttessori attendees, a young bernedoodle pup with plenty of spice and gangly limbs. We are working on him backing up onto a placeboard, and his legs are confused about how this math works. I bring the food lure into a different position, and he awkwardly lifts his back paw nearly onto the place board. We go through a strange dance of me helping him work through what the goal is, using food as an incentive as well as verbal praise. He gets distracted mid-way through by another young dog who is flouncing through the weave poles with exceptional enthusiasm. Towards the end of the station his focus has returned, and we get at least one decent repetition of the goal of the station. I pat his curly head and move on to teaching him about the very exciting weave poles, most of which end up on the ground because of the flourish with which he uses his tail. We will live to learn about body awareness another day, and as I set him in place after his session, he lays out fully stretched on his side- a clear indication he has hit his limit of physical activity.
The afternoon is a steady rhythm of marker words, a demonstration of patience peppered with the occasional exasperated (reasonable) sigh of a trainer combating teaching across language barriers and specie’s motivations. My phone alarm goes off at 3:15- I have a private lesson at 3:30, and luckily Michelle came down the stairs about 20 minutes earlier having finished her lesson report card. We switch out spots, and I get ready to launch into private lesson mode. I pass George in our tight stairwell, he is leading a dog who got an afternoon bath back down stairs for their training session, smelling fresh as a rose bush. His headphones and both of our masks are on so I squint my eyes in a smile and keep it moving.
The lesson of the afternoon is going to be with a service dog candidate who is struggling with prey drive, and tends to lose focus outside in situations where there are a lot of squirrels, bunnies, small dogs etc. Thankfully, we have just the thing to help work on this. I walk into our in-remodeling-process utility room, where the company guinea pigs are currently playing in their exercise pen. Several months ago, Kim and I adopted a pair of rescue guinea pigs and started working on conditioning them to dog stimulus. They have done absolutely phenomenally well, and help us in lessons on a weekly basis. They are very confident, and generally go about their guinea pig business regardless of what the dog’s response is. Of course, plenty of lettuce helps them stay calm and collected, but they really are an excellent conduit to these crucial skills. Kim has just freshened their home cages as well as their playpen, so they are ready to work. In the front lesson room she has lit a candle so it smells fabulous and tidied up the room in general so it feels welcoming and homey.
I go wash my hands from the afternoon training session, change my mask b/c I have sweat through the old one (a symptom and a side effect for me is that I can’t regulate temperature, and often sweat profusely). Gross, but like- bodies are wild and gross and you just have to deal with it on some level. I wash my face with cool water, pat it dry, and get that fresh mask in place. Then I hit my office because my left knee is absolutely throbbing and throw some THC gel on it to numb it up for the second half of the day. I have a genetic condition called Ehler-Danlos in which my body does not create collagen properly in my connective tissue. Your connective tissue is through your entire body (wild fact- your blood IS connective tissue) so this gene typo means I deal with system wide, full body health issues, including hyper flexible joints that slide out of place with regularity. My left knee is a particular culprit, and while it is still where it should be in terms of basic joint alignment, the grind of the day has it pretty agitated. I chug a glass of water with electrolytes to try and keep the headache and my hydration at bay.
My wonderful SD client is already waiting for me at the Muttessori entrance when I return. We launch right into the lesson and before I know it my phone is buzzing with my alert that I need to wrap up within 10 minutes because my next lesson is arriving. We finish up the last round of an exercise working on impulse control around the guinea pigs, who have been impossibly patient thanks to lettuce and lots of practice. We touch base about homework, and I jot down a few notes in my phone for writing the lesson report card. As we say goodbye, I can see my next client parking their car across the street. I jog to the restroom, Kim has already fed our dogs in their crates and Rio is begging me to take her out quick, the boys will get their own walk. I bring her out to potty and apologize for the long day before taking my next dose of meds and jumping into my next lesson.
The next session’s focus was on mobility tasks, and I am running on steam. I throw on my knee pads to cut down the pressure, and find some inner zen to crush the underlying discomfort. I really am ok, I am pretty self aware about pushing to the limit- this is increasing my pain but there is little way for me to exist that doesn’t increase my pain. Towards the end of my session my migraine is finally giving up the ghost of passing as a headache, and back to a louder growl, threatening to take over coherent thought though, so I end my session on time for once, exactly at an hour and fifteen minutes with a ten minute wrap up for questions. I wave goodbye and all semblance of my client care mask falls down with the shade as I shut it.
Kim is waiting in our office, she finished up check outs, clean up and set up for the following day and is watching some netflix from the recliner I use as my work “desk”. I can tell she only sat down a few minutes before I walked in, assuming I would run later than I said I would. We pack up our dogs, lock all the doors and pile into the car home.
Finally home, it is right about 7:30 pm, though you could tell me it was midnight and I probably would believe you. Our dogs need another potty break, we need shower and dinner. We are both thirsty. I still haven’t finished answering messages from today. After the dogs are tended I drag myself into the bathroom to a nightly shower.
I am on the autism spectrum, and my greatest battle of the wills daily is the shower. I like being clean of course, but the temperature changes are a sensory issue for me, and when I’m already in a higher state of pain, it’s really hard to want any additional unpleasant sensations. I have a very hard time with hot water, and generally only take luke warm showers. I use modified equipment like a shower bench to help ease into the temperature and help with the fatigue at the end of a very physical job. Along with our regular shower head I have a hand sprayer if I am too sick to stand at all in the shower. My second hardest task is eating, which I used to absolutely love but in recent years with the progression of EDS and related complications, I struggle. I drink my next dose of the meds I need to eat still in the shower so I can start the 30 minute wait time. After a pep talk I get through my shower and head to sit down. I play the last round of message catch up for the day, and Kim showers while dinner finishes. At 8:15 we sit down to eat.
My bed time is 9:00pm. I get for a lot of people that seems super early. But in general, I need at least ten hours of sleep to make it through my days, and I often will (even in the middle of a show) just decide I’m done and get ready for bed. I struggle with some insomnia related to my pain issues, and one of the only places I feel relaxed is in my adjustable bed. We saved for months to get a bed that adjusts on top and bottom with a remote, so that combined with a memory foam mattress I can get into a position that is actually able to allow me to sleep. It takes me about 30 minutes to eat, and of course I don’t love going to bed right after eating, but it is what it is today. Kim is in charge of the last dog potty break for the night, and I go brush my teeth, take my last round of meds for the day and get settled in the bed.
The lights are out, and my eyes are covered by the top of a hoodie I’m wearing (I love sleeping with my eyes covered, but not too tightly). My phone is plugged in on silent, though before setting that I hear a few more messages come in. Tonight my head is so painful it’s hard to actually fall asleep but I feel better in the quiet, not moving, and know it will come once my last round of medication eases my muscles into relaxing. I drift off.
Suddenly, I wake up in a fit of pain, disoriented. I’m having a MCAS or EOE flare and my chest and abdomen are extremely uncomfortable. I shuffle out of the bed and into the kitchen, blinking hard as I turn on the light. I try to stretch a little to ease the pain, which doesn’t help. I’m maxed out on those specific medications for the day. I’m so tired, and feeling sick without a way to stop it sends me into a panic attack. My hands are shaking and I can feel my rate starting to race. I go get my service dog who joins me in a huddle on the couch. Between her pressure on my lap and a heating blanket, I start to work through the panic and regain my senses. It’s 2:23 AM. I don’t want to take my emergency panic attack medication because it may make me sleep through my alarm for work the next day, and it’s my turn for the early (7:30 AM) shift. Instead, I again turn to cannabis. I’m not here to debate with anyone whether or not medical marijuana is actually medicinal. It is one of the only tools I have that allows me to continue to work and support my family, and get through the regular amount of pain I cope with. It’s best not to judge others when you can avoid it in my experience. Finally soothed and more comfortable around 3:30 AM, I spend the rest of the night on the couch with Rio.
A typical day for me, when I read it back sounds busy and hard. It is. It is also incredibly rewarding, and there are so many moments I wouldn’t trade for anything. I am extremely fortunate that my work is also a true passion, and I know how rare that is in our current climate. I don’t just love my work, I need it. Though I live with disabilities that daily impact my life, I am more than just cycles of pain and illness. I have dreams, I want to alter the way we think about service dogs, and build an incomparable training program. I want to be a model employer, the kind that folks spend their careers working for because it is a fulfilling choice and a safe place to work. I want to continue to foster the behavior modification program, and see the trainers who now run it primarily continue to develop it into something notable, effective, and accessible for clients. I’m not ready to give any of that up. But I also have real needs, and some days, it just isn’t possible for me to do the work I had planned. Today, it was possible and that's enough.
At 6:00 AM the alarm rings, and I start assessing the day, all over again. It won’t be like yesterday, but it is certain to bring new challenges. I cross my paws I can handle whatever comes next and open my eyes to start the day. Let's go.
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