There are some days you don't drink enough. Today was one. How I managed to get from dawn to bedtime without a drop of medicinal nectar was the most amazing part, though in fairness, only intravenous wine would have worked as a relaxant, so probably tea was the best tonic.
I woke up at 7am in a hotel in Sheffield all raring to go for our big day, the qualification test which would make Lucie, Alex and I a fully qualified assistance partnership. From the moment I met Lucie, she was a pro, and over the last six months, I have merely been trying to catch up with her standards. She has been a pleasure to work with, and guided by our fantastic trainer Michelle, we have made great progress. So the test was not so daunting, in fact I woke up thoroughly looking forward to it. I took her for a walk first thing. I wanted her to shake off any excess energy before the work began. She was running around happily and freely. The plan was to take her to Meadowhall Shopping Centre to have breakfast and a walk round, just to settle down, before we met the assessor and Michelle for the test at 10am.
I arrived and started walking around, noticing only that Lucie was hesitating more than usual when asked to sit, like at a lift. I walked round a little more and sat on a bench, asked her to settle, and she outwardly refused. Not like her at all. She would automatically sit when we stop. I did not push it, but was getting very worried. I decided breakfast was not a priority and tried to gather my thoughts. I tried to call Michelle to see if we could meet earlier to look at her, but it was so close to test time, and she was on her way, so I decided to walk to the meeting point, and work it out from there.
As I approached a lady walked up to me (holding a large plastic paddling pool). We soon established she was the examiner, and asked if I could return the paddling pool to Support Dogs after the test, as she had borrowed it from them. We decided to put it in my car. This meant pre test, I would be walking around with the assessor. A bit unnerving. We got to a pelican crossing and again Lucie, having walked perfectly fine, refused to sit at the kerb. The lady said she was ignoring my commands and aware of my stress. STRESS!! You have no idea, to coin a phrase, I was having kittens. She told me to calm down, and on the way back told me there was nothing to worry about as I was only to walk past a dog and I wasn't being tested anyway. Confused, we went to sit down and wait for Michelle. Again Lucie refused to sit.
During our chat I told her how much Lucie had helped Alex, to which the penny dropped. She had confused me as a member of staff from Support Dogs, and had no idea it was me she was testing. For each test, another dog is brought along to do a part of the test called a 'walk by' whereby you check the dogs can remain focussed even when other dogs pass by. I confirmed I was not that dog handler, and we were the ones doing the test, hence the stress.
As Michelle arrived I couldn't hold back the tears. 6 months of work, and a lot depending on us passing, all hung in the balance. Michelle was shocked at my expression, and I just said, 'Please ask Lucie to sit'. Michelle can get Lucie to do anything, this would confirm it was not to do with me, my commands or stress. No response from Lucie.
We had a chat, and looked her over as best we all could in a shopping centre. General consensus was we thought she must have pulled a muscle on her walk, which made it uncomfortable to sit, but was walking fine and wagging tail etc. So we decided to watch her walk, and see if we could see any issue. Showing no discomfort we agreed to go ahead with the test, but not to ask her to sit at all. The test is a public access to ensure Lucie's behaviour is right, and I am in total control. It is not testing all her commands, or individual skills. The examiner needs to know Lucie will never do anything like bark, jump up, steal food, run off etc. So with sitting not imperative and easily checked later we proceeded.
I was beyond a wreck. This should have been fun and straight forward, but now I am concerned and tense. Lucie however was wonderful. We were tested on a variety of skills such as;
- general obedience to listen to my commands walking her,
- her attentiveness and focus,
- reaction to a loud sudden noise to ensure she is not scared,
- dropped lead whereby I let her lead go and keep walking, ensuring she stands still waiting
- recall in a busy area, put in wait, and come when called with distractions around
- greetings by strangers, adults and children, all calm and controlled (her favourite bit!)
- taken away for a walk by examiner to test response to a stranger
- a dog walk by, very funny, as on the day we passed 3 guide dogs by chance, before the planned dog, so we had lots of testing there!
- dropped food, ensuring she leaves any food lying around
- walking through supermarket aisles to make sure no sniffing of food
- and so on....not even sure I know everything on the list!
At the end, I was a nervous wreck, but you could not meet a nicer lady than the assessor, and she was very reassuring. Whilst we had to note the issues with sitting, Lucie was wonderful at her tasks, so we passed the test. It wasn't the 'flying colours' I had hoped for, but I know she deserved it. I think the lady was surprised when I gave her a big hug when it was all over. I liked her recommendation to go get a Gin & Tonic....my expression must have said it all.
Michelle and I returned to the office and decided to examine Lucie more closely. We also had a few admin formalities to get through. Lucie increasingly slowed down, and though we could still not see anything definite, we knew something was not right. We decided the best course of action was to make an appointment for the vet for the same day, and just have any concerns checked out. I was presented with Lucie's gorgeous new jacket, and after our goodbye's we set off back to Lancashire.
And so off to the vet. Lucie, seemed more herself, still not sitting comfortably, but moving well and good natured. I was very relaxed taking her in, thinking this would all be procedural, and at most, a little first aid if needed. I honestly expected the vet to tell me I was overreacting and it was something or nothing. He immediately was very surprised, and said she had a skin infection which was coming on suddenly and aggressively. He did not recognise it but was very concerned and wanted to take swabs for lab testing.......What?!?! Not what I was expecting. He did say there was no way we would have known what it was to look at it, but that did not make me feel better. More concerning was the level of medication he administered. So I did was I was told, and he told me he needed to see her within 24 hours, and again twice more over the weeks....
I drove home very stressed and in tears that something more was wrong. I went to pick up Tom from school. He was in total meltdown and before I could get him or Lucie out the car he had gone into a rage, started hitting me and screaming uncontrollably. He had grazed his knees and elbows again playing football, a dyspraxic hazard, and somehow it was all my fault. I lost the plot trying to get him and Lucie inside. I phoned Dave on the point I couldn't take anymore and asked him to speak to Tom. Dave worked his magic and negotiated with him, so I could get him calmer for a while.
In one quiet moment with Tom sitting on the floor, I don't know why but I suddenly decided to tell him he had Dyspraxia. Tom has never known he has a diagnosis, but it seemed as good a time as any to try and share. Not something I had ever thought about when and how. A bit like when do you tell a child they are adopted, there is is no right way, sometimes you just have to go with your gut. So after asking him if he had heard the word Dyspraxia, I explained it can make people more clumsy, fall over more, and make it harder to write etc. He was so calm, and just added, it hurts when he writes. He then told me he gets headaches every day. On discussion, I asked if he wanted a little book to write down every time he hurt, so we could look for a pattern, and find out what was causing it. He was very positive about this and also asked if he could also write down his emotions. Just 5 minutes chat but what a result. So I jumped in with both feet and asked him if he had heard of Aspergers. He said no, so I explained he had it, and that was why he struggled with his emotions, and understanding some things. He took it all very pragmatically, and so I left it at that for now. Not sure it really sunk in but that was fine, it was just a start. And sometimes the start is the hardest part. So in a really mad day, maybe something very important happened in those few minutes.
I barely had time to think before Dave was home having collected Alex from Barnardos, and he had endured another very stressful day at work. Following more issues, Tom descended into a second spectacular meltdown. I also opened Alex's home/school diary to see they had more problems with his aggressive behaviour hitting and biting other kids at school. Not something I could deal with in that ten minutes, so closed it before I had to think about that problem.
Oh this day just keeps getting better! I had previously arranged to go with a friend to see Skyfall, the new James Bond film. Despite being desperate to cancel, I knew if I stayed home something would crack, so said to Dave I would rather go. I thought kids were ready for bed when I left, so felt okay about leaving Dave. I swanned off to have a much needed great time out at the cinema, totally relaxed and returned buzzed and refreshed. I then find out Dave had a really tough time with both boys fighting and an hour trying to separate them and calm Tom down. Part of me was glad I wasn't there, as I doubt I would have been of any help. But poor Dave, I think he needs some time out. So we stayed up an hour or two just chatting, before crashing out.
The day should have been fun and a celebration, and one I had been looking forward to for a while. Well. Some days just don't play ball. I chatted with Tom on the way to school this morning, and said today would be better, today we would all have a much better day. He agreed. I will do my best to keep my part of the deal. Lucie is bouncing around right now like a puppy, looking like nothing is wrong, and begging for a walk (probably loving the drugs!). I keep telling her the vet said no, but this girl doesn't take no for an answer. So today is already looking better. We meet our new social worker this afternoon, and right now I don't care what she makes of us!! And in time, I will forget the stress, and remember how proud I am of Lucie for qualifying. Job (well) done. :)