Team Training February 2002

Closeup of Gaynor's face, wet after a bath, with big brown intelligent eyes and shining black fur, looking noble.
Gaynor came into our lives during the second week of February 2002 and died this past Sunday, May 18, 2014. She was fourteen years old. Gaynor met us during a Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) team training in Oceanside, California. Team training is where they match up dogs with recipients and train the humans about doggie ways. The teams stay in the dorms at the CCI facilities for two weeks and have classes all day and written tests at night. The trainers size up the recipients and match them to the right dog. At first Siobhan was matched to the wrong dog. It was when he growled aggressively in front of a trainer, Allison, that he washed out of the program. Gaynor had been selected as one of the possible dogs but her principle trainer, Todd, thought she might wash out because she couldn’t stand up to the early part of team training where teams were rotating through dogs and many beginner handlers were working the dogs. This made Gaynor nervous. If you’re reading this Todd, we will never forget the gift you gave of your time training Gaynor. Thank you CCI, an amazing organization, and thank you Todd, a great trainer.

Puppy Raisers

Gaynor was nervous, but Siobhan needed a dog, so Gaynor was pressed into service. By this time we were more certain in our commands, and Gaynor responded well to working with one team. When we were matched with Gaynor we learned about her puppy raisers. Puppy raisers play a big part in the CCI service community taking in puppies and raising them until they are ready for training. Gaynor’s puppy raisers came to the CCI graduation ceremony. We’ve visited them a few times with Gaynor in Flagstaff, Arizona, and owe them a big debt of gratitude. Here’s to all the puppy raisers everywhere, you are amazing! If you are reading this Cecile, Claire, Brett, and Dave, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the gift of your time and love in raising Gaynor.

Love Heels

Gaynor looking calm lying on bed next to Siobhan who is smiling broadly and clapping her hands.
The first night Gaynor stayed in a kennel in our room we made some time for Gaynor and Siobhan on the bed together. Siobhan laughed and clapped her hands and had a great time. Gaynor proved to be a rock of calm good sense. I often noted over the years that Gaynor was not a real dog, she was actually more like Nana, a dog employed as a nanny by the Darling family in Peter Pan. Gaynor bonded well with Siobhan and they went everywhere together. Siobhan and Gaynor were featured in a book, “Love Heels: Tales from Canine Companions for Independence” by Dean Koontz. We have given away a good number of copies as gifts. It’s amazing to read the stories of people who are helped by working dogs.

Canine Companions for Independence

Gaynor was a skilled companion dog. CCI also trains service dogs, facility dogs, and hearing dogs. Thanks to all the hard-working staff, the puppy raisers and other volunteers, the fund raisers, the donors, and everyone else who is part of the CCI community making it possible to give dogs to qualified recipients. CCI does a remarkable job and is also a remarkably healthy organization. Thank you CCI!


Gaynor in back seat of car with gray muzzle looking very distinguished in her old age.

After many years of great service Gaynor started to tell us that she couldn’t work much longer. Finally she failed to climb some steps when out with Linda and Siobhan leaving Siobhan stranded at the top and Linda very worried. We attended a CCI graduate seminar where one of the topics was retirement and talked with CCI staff extensively before we settled on re-homing Gaynor. This was a very hard decision to make, but it was made easier when we found that a family who worked with Linda would take Gaynor. This way we could stay in touch with Gaynor and visit since she’d be living locally. The other options were to keep her or give her back to CCI. Keeping an older dog would add stress to a family already stressed to the max by caring for one family member with severe disabilities. Giving her back might mean she would live far away. We made the decision to re-home Gaynor. Thank you Cindy, David, Melanie, and Sam for giving Gaynor a place in your hearts and your home.

The Transition

We were worried about Siobhan’s reaction to life without Gaynor so we left Gaynor with Cindy, David, Melanie, and Sam on February 4, 2012, and the next day we were in team training where we met Harriet and that’s a story for another post. Where Gaynor hit her marks with ease and regularity, Harriet is a blithe spirit and part wild-live-monkey dog. Gaynor made quick work of packing up with her new family. When we went to visit a few weeks later Gaynor was not impressed with Harriet and was leaning up against Cindy like I didn’t exist. Gaynor was a leaner, when she wanted a rub she’d come lean against me. Some dogs are like that. Harriet is a leaner too.

Wagging Her Tail

Gaynor died this past Sunday. She was still eating but couldn’t get up very well on Saturday night. Her adopted family took her to emergency care Sunday and found out that she had cancer of the spleen and that a tumor had burst. They had her euthanized. She was still wagging her tail up to the end. I’ll finish this post with a photo taken on August 18, 2002, of Siobhan about to pet Gaynor. This is before Siobhan developed orthopedic problems which led to her wearing braces and big orthopedic shoes. In the photo Siobhan is in shorts and she’s wearing a Long Beach Island t-shirt sent specially by her aunt, Una, in New Jersey. Gaynor has just a bit of a resigned look in her eyes. She’d do anything for Siobhan but Siobhan’s idea of a gentle pet is a few sharp whacks. I like to think that in this picture Siobhan was very gentle with such a noble dog. Goodbye Gaynor, everyone loved you and we’ll always miss you.

Siobhan in shorts and t-shirt reaching out to pet Gaynor who looks at the camera with a calm but slightly resigned gaze.
Please join the conversation on Twitter at @blacktelephone

Before The Prom

I Bought My Prom Dress

We’ve updated and upgraded the voices, from child to adult, over the years since Siobhan first started using voice output devices in 2002. Siobhan’s DynaVox Xpress uses the Susan voice by Loquendo. Susan has a bit of an attitude, as Siobhan does. Siobhan has been going around saying, with a saucy attitude, “I bought my prom dress” and showing everyone the picture of her dress that comes up on the Xpress. She’s been talking up a storm about how she and her friends went shopping and about the dress and it’s a wonderful thing to see her so excited about the prom.

The Shoes

Siobhan's big orthopedic shoes painted iridescent blue with applied crystals and bangles and a miniature crystal bow on the very front Siobhan wears Dafo above-the-ankle braces to keep her feet straight and flat and over the braces she wears her five times wide shoes. She can’t walk safely without the braces and shoes, but the shoes are not exactly prom quality. I said that if we can’t hide the shoes, that we should emphasize them by blinging them out with crystals and doo-dads. Linda’s friend, Robin, is a powerful attorney. She is also a wonderful designer of miniatures and other constructions that evoke moods or celebrate occasions. Robin painted the shoes blue to match the dress and applied crystals and bangles. Bling!

The Legs

Yesterday, Friday May 16, in the afternoon Linda started getting text messages from Siobhan’s teacher, Ms. Keith, and from Juliana about Siobhan’s legs. Did they want us to use the Nair at school or did we want them to send it home. Linda made a quick appointment to get Siobhan’s legs waxed so at 5:30 pm we were at Queen Bee in Brentwood on trendy San Vincente Avenue. Siobhan was not happy with the waxing, not happy indeed.

The Nails

Siobhan's hand in Juliana's hand showing cobalt blue nail polish with silver glitter tips. Siobhan’s friend Juliana came over and she did Siobhan’s nails. First a coat of clear, then a coat of cobalt blue, then another coat of cobalt blue, then the coup de grâce, the silver glitter tips! Next comes the hair.

The Hair

Eileen, Juliana, and Kelly triple teaming a bedraggled SiobhanThis was quite a challenge. Siobhan’s hair is very thick and it took a while to whack it into place. At least that is the viewpoint of this humble dad. Grin.

The Prom Dress

Siobhan in a purple old-lady dress with racks of clothes and a guy talking on the phone in the background.
Siobhan in purple, not the right dress

A Sparkly Dress

Siobhan’s friends Aoife, Lauren, and Juliana decided that she is going to the prom. They announced this to us several weeks ago. This past Saturday, Lauren and Juliana came to take Siobhan to downtown Los Angeles to find a dress. A sparkly dress. This is a quintessentially LA thing to do. Those in the know would never think of going to a mall for something as important as a quinceañera or prom dress. For serious shopping you have to “go downtown LA” to the shops on Los Angeles Street or Santee Alley, the fashion district. Juliana said: “We have a bit of a shopping addiction.” Lauren agreed. These are exactly the friends you want leading the way when you buy your prom dress!

Siobhan and Lauren, Siobhan in a pale green dress with a sparkly waist and sheer netting straps with lots of sparkles.
Siobhan and Lauren, dress with more sparkles, not quite right yet

The Mom

Before they left, Linda brought out a dress for Juliana and Lauren to look at to see if it would do as a prom dress. They were very diplomatic, but said “Siobhan needs something a bit more sparkly.” Linda proposed tagging along, but from a distance. Linda was thinking that downtown meant downtown Santa Monica, and that she could easily follow a distance behind them on the Third Street Promenade or the Santa Monica mall and swoop in to help make the final decision. Again, Juliana and Lauren were very diplomatic, but they didn’t think that was necessary. Lauren and Juliana said they would gladly send text messages with pictures. Off they went, three friends out for a day of shopping.

Juliana, Siobhan, and Lauren eating M&M ice cream sandwiches
Juliana, Siobhan, and Lauren with dessert

Shopping, Lunch, Success!

Some time elapsed and Linda got the first pictures from the search. They were making progress, trying on dresses and rejecting them, but texting pictures of some of them. During this process I heard cries of delight as Linda got another picture and I was called on to witness it. Finally, late in the afternoon, they found the dress, a cobalt blue sparkly dress, the skirt all puffed out with crinoline. Then they came home very excited to show it to us. The trip lasted about seven hours. Siobhan was so tired she was lobbying to go to bed early that night and even went to bed early the next night too, just for good measure. Now that’s a shopping trip! There’s more excitement ahead. We have to arrange for a limo or rent a classic car or something. Corsages, OMG! Do they wear corsages on their wrists? Will Siobhan tolerate a corsage on her wrist? There’s more to this story! Oh, and by-the-way, disablism? No disablism here!

Siobhan in a cobalt blue sparkly dress in front of a mirror showing straps at one shoulder
Siobhan in her sparkly prom dress!

New Year’s Eve 2006

Tragic Shooting

Before midnight this New Year’s Eve, 2013, I posted a Tweet on my @AccessibleJoe account: “Want me to tell a sad and spooky New Year’s Eve story?” The writing is disjointed because I’m copying Tweets. This is the story I told:

In 2006 there was a tragic shooting at the park a half a block from our house. One young man, Miguel Martin, was killed. As so often happens, a shrine was built on the spot with candles and balloons. The memorial persisted. People came to stand in small groups and light more candles. That New Year’s Eve there was a light fog. The air was heavy. Fog horns were blowing on the pier. Tonight we rang in the New Year by banging pots and lids on the front porch. Others were also making noise, setting off fireworks. The New Year’s Eve of 2006 our street was silent when we opened the door just before midnight.

Remember, there was a light fog. Just before midnight New Year’s Eve 2006, light fog, heavy air, silent street, we were ready to bang our pots and pans when we saw it. Coming down the street, indistinct in the fog, in the dead center of the street, the first thing I noticed was a floating ribbon. Looking up I saw a Mylar balloon with a long bit of ribbon tied to it. The ribbon end was just off the ground. That night there was no traffic. No cars were moving. Now, even at 1 am, there are two or three cars a minute. The balloon tied to the ribbon was floating our way very slowly in the dead center of the street.

We were astonished.


The first thing I thought of was psychopomp: Greek mythology, a guide of souls to the place of the dead. We just stood there, rooted to the spot, in the silent street, watching the balloon make it’s way toward us very slowly, in perfect balance. I began to talk to the balloon. Go back, I said. For we had made the connection between the memorial for the young man and this balloon with a black ribbon. It seemed to hesitate, then it was apparent that it was still moving very slowly ahead.

We watched the balloon for a while, discussing what we should do. It was a symbol of disconnection, of searching. As a symbol of the spirit of the young man who was killed it was haunting to see this. I did not want to stop it. We watched until the balloon was past our house. We didn’t interfere. A symbol like that does not appear every day. Why stop it? The next morning I went out to find the balloon moored to our next door neighbor’s hedge.

Life Is Uncertain

I freed it and took it in hand. I said: you have to go back. Then I walked it up to the park, to the memorial, and anchored it well. I stood there for a while, looking at the unlit candles and the sagging balloons and the ragged stuffed animals. We sometimes talk about the floating balloon appearing like an apparition out of the fog. I think of it from time to time.

I think of the young man who was gunned down by gangsters at a park where Siobhan goes all the time and realize I can’t save her. I won’t always be here for her, but while I am I’ll do my best to shelter her, to protect her. That’s all a dad can do.

Detective Work

Siobhan Turns 21

Dog wearing nor'wester rain suit at the wheel of a boat with wild waves crashing against the rail

The Sailor Dog

Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog. Scuppers was his name.Margaret Wise Brown, Garth Williams, Golden Press, 1953

During a fearsome thunderstorm, after a 49 hour labor, Siobhan was born on the evening of July 17, 1992 in Montour Falls, New York. We finally had our baby. After an incredibly draining ordeal like that we were ready to order up a steak dinner, but the kitchen was closed. Order a pizza? The town was shut up tight, no pizza. They scrounged around and found us one tuna-stuffed tomato. Linda got the tuna, I got the inedible tomato. Expectations were in free-fall already.


At the appropriate time during the pregnancy we had amniocentesis, a process where fetal cells are examined for chromosomal abnormalities. Of the list of abnormalities checked for during the test, none were found. Before the test, the doctor talked with us about our chances for having a child with abnormalities. She also asked us if we wanted to know the sex of the child. Linda said no. I said yes. When the time came, I was told, and Linda was not. Thus began a period of time during which I had every conversation and made every plan as if I didn’t know the sex. Circumcision was discussed. At length. LOL. Used baby clothes were offered, should we accept very nice clothes for a girl? I said, why not? we can always pass them on if not appropriate. Names were discussed, and two names were picked. I never revealed what I knew, even to the point of waiting until the nurse announced it to Linda after the birth. This level of fortitude on my part was to prove vital for the next stage of events.

Hatching My Egg

The Emperor Penguin female lays one egg and the male spends the winter incubating the egg in his brood pouch, balancing it on the tops of his feet in indescribably harsh conditions for 64 consecutive days until hatching. I am hatching my egg, but the incubation period has lasted longer than 21 years. I’ll be hatching my egg forever. Well, not actually forever, but that is a future phase of life and another story to tell when it comes.

It Takes A Village

Indeed, it does take a village to raise a child, but the village Siobhan requires is vast and very complicated. Many of the villagers do not live in our home. In fact, there are only two villagers here, Linda and me. Well, there’s Harriet, Siobhan’s Canine Companions for Independence skilled companion dog. And there’s Achoo! the Tonkinese cat. Dog and cat notwithstanding, Linda and I are it. Living with Siobhan means seemingly endless labor and minute details, it really is quite intense for two people. Constant observation and interpretation are especially required.

Detective Work

Interacting with a non-vocal person requires detective work. This story is one that I think will illustrate our methods. Siobhan went out with some friends last weekend. They went to Downtown Disney, a never-never land between Disneyland and California Adventure in Anaheim, California. I could tell before Siobhan went that there would be trouble. Being within sight of the hallowed gates of Disneyland and not going in? How was that going to play?


During her stay in Downtown Disney Siobhan was yawning a lot. She’s very cute when she yawns, patting her mouth with her hand. Her companion concluded that Siobhan was tired during the outing. Siobhan has not taken a nap since she was two. She is never tired. I took the yawning as a sign of disaffection and I said as much. Siobhan went rummaging looking for something while I was talking with Linda and the person who accompanied Siobhan. She didn’t find what she wanted so she used her talker. I want train, she said, using the generic train icon, and I immediately made the connection. Of course, she wanted the Disneyland train, she wanted to be in the park, and on the train. Then Siobhan pouted. She almost never pouts, but there was the lip, her eyes misty. It was out in the open. She was disappointed that she was so close and yet so far away from her love object. Linda dug out what Siobhan was looking for, her Disneyland PECS page and Siobhan said “I want train” with the Disneyland train icon. Mystery solved. We found Disneyland train videos on YouTube on Siobhan’s iPad, and she sat there entranced for a long time and she found more ride videos on her own and played them over and over.

Birthday Present

Siobhan does not love things. Stuffed toys? Games? Never has interacted with them. She does not read, so although I believe she gets something out of birthday cards, they are inaccessible to her. What Siobhan loves is experiences. One Christmas we got her a suitcase, something she really needed, but the suitcase came with an immediate, that morning, instant trip to San Diego on the Amtrak Surfliner. We have been discussing a trip to Las Vegas for her 21st birthday. She loves car trips with Linda and Harriet and me. She loves the Bellagio. But after determining that she was disappointed about not going to Disneyland, we knew what her birthday present should be. This Sunday I will take Siobhan and Harriet to Disneyland. We’ve already added a whole page of ride icons to her talker, and she immediately began using all of them. This is a big win for teaching vocabulary. PECS is a reinforcer based system, and powerful reinforcers make learning easy. To quote Mary Poppins: “And snap! the job’s a game!” It’ll be a real pleasure to experience her joy at being back at Disneyland (we used to be regulars) and it is a pleasure to be hatching my egg.

Please join the discussion @blacktelephone.