Staycation memories bring smiles

Family photo

The summer staycation ended way too fast, and my sister, Catherine, and my niece, Abbie, are back home in Missouri.

Goodbyes are tough, but the memories made during the visit will have me smiling for weeks to come.

The all-important Great Doughnut Survey was completed, and a quorum determined The Donut King is king in Central Florida, but Go For Donuts’ chocolate pretzel doughnut did get an honorable mention.

Paige's giant salad bowl

Paige’s salad bowl at Cask & Larder.

When it comes to restaurants, Abbie picked Yellow Dog Eats and 4 Rivers Smokehouse as favorite meals during the stay.

I won’t quickly forget the meal I had at the Cask and Larder. It was the best food I’ve had for some time.

But food aside, what was so great about the visit was simply time to enjoy the company of family, and I think family enjoyed the time with J.P. and his new dog.

Catherine got a quick lesson in service dog commands and was able to take Karina out to “hurry” while Paige and I attended to J.P.

Abbie and Catherine quickly learned how to get J.P. loaded in our wheelchair-accessible van for trips all over Central Florida.

Abbie makes breakfast

Abbie makes pancakes.

With family, you don’t need to ask for help doing these kinds of things, Paige and I are lucky to have family that simply sees a need and fills it.

Catherine and Abbie even watched J.P. for a couple hours so Paige and I could enjoy a couple’s massage at Hand and Stone. What a nice treat!

Abbie will be a sophomore in high school this year, but acts much more like a college senior. At one point while trying to figure out how we would spend our week, she said she would be fine with skipping the theme parks so all of us could be together.

J.P. doesn’t do well in the summer heat for long periods, so Paige and J.P. would have stayed home if we had gone.

We spent time together watching “The Last Ship” and saw the movie, “The Heat.” That was really funny.

I guess it didn’t matter what we did because what was important was simply being together, laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

Vacations don’t get better than that.

J.P.’s staycation adventure

Dessert with J.P.

It’s been a busy few weeks with schedule changes at work and numerous special appointments — both personal and business.

Through it all, I’ve been looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s when my sister and niece arrived for a one-week stay.

Donut King

A very important taste test is conducted with doughnuts from The Donut King.

J.P. has enjoyed having some additional people around, and Karina also loves spending time with Catherine and Abbie.

We’ve enjoyed several adventures already. As I mentioned in my last diary entry, Abbie and I made an early-morning doughnut run at the new Donut King in Winter Park. They were a major hit.

We also took our yellow dog (Karina) to Yellow Dog Eats in Gotha and thoroughly enjoyed a lunch there.

Celebrity Mascot Games

The Celebrity Mascot Games are held at Amway Center.

The only hiccup in the visit so far was a visit to the Mascot Games at Amway Center. We got there early and had great seats on the mezzanine for J.P., Karina and the family.

But when things got started, it was simply too loud for J.P. He was frightened, and Karina had to go to work to try to calm him down. He recovered, but was startled again a few minutes later, so we decided to head out.

J.P. enjoyed our visit to the Orlando Museum of Art, but I think Karina thought it strange that we kept walking around looking at the walls. Paige and I got to swing at one exhibit that let you see your shadows against a wall filled with clouds.

Swingin' at the museum

Paige and I try out the museum’s swings.

J.P. was giggling while we were swinging. Who knows what he thought was going on.

We also visited the World of Chocolate Museum and Cafe by SeaWorld and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and soda fountain in College Park. I’ll have to run a marathon to get rid of all these calories.

But the visit has been incredible so far. Having family around can be so comforting and relaxing. We understand each other at a deep level and don’t always need to explain ourselves.

My sister seems to have great faith in me as a tour guide and said she loves coming to Florida because she doesn’t have to make decisions about where to go or what to eat. It’s just all done for her.

After working Saturday and Sunday, the vacation resumes. I’m looking forward to completing that very scientific doughnut study with my niece and enjoying the camaraderie with everyone.

As everyone knows, it will be over way too fast.

Vacation all I ever wanted …

J.P. and Karina snuggle

J.P. just completed extended school year, and the start of fifth grade for him is less than a month away.

Most would be thinking about summer vacation, but with much of my vacation time used for training at Canine Companions, it’s time to get resourceful.

The budget for a vacation has dried up with a spate of unexpected household emergencies, including a broken pipe repair in the middle of the night, a broken air conditioner and a new refrigerator.

We’re lucky to call Florida home, so there are plenty of things close by to enjoy, and now we’ve just got to find the time.

Paige has strategically planned J.P.’s ongoing therapy appointments so Mondays have been free days recently.

Jeff and Catherine

My sister, Catherine Brandt and I on a visit in 2013.

We’ve enjoyed some of our favorite restaurants and got together with family and friends over the past few weeks.

I’m also really excited that my sister, Catherine, and my niece, Abbie, will be flying to Orlando for a week, and I was able to switch some work days to maximize time with them.

Abbie likes the fact we plan our days around where we want to eat, and Paige and I are already planning some great places to dine while she’s here.

Our list includes my new favorite place, Red Robin. We also want to take her to Hawkers, and the list is growing each day.

We’ll also be comparing the competing doughnut shops in town — Donuts to Go and Donut King. Watch for the results of our very scientific study.

There will also be time by the pool, and plenty of pancakes on the griddle with lots of chocolate chips. That’s just a tradition.

So despite a lack of time or money, I think we’re gearing up for a fine vacation, and I know Catherine and Abbie are both anxious to see the newest member of the family, Karina.

Lots of good times ahead!

Time for correction

Karina on couch

Every once in a while, we all need to be corrected, right?

As well behaved as Karina has been, the trainers at Canine Companions told us early on that she was food-driven.

At the time, I thought to myself, “Well, aren’t we all? I know I am.”

It became a problem this week.

We’ve been trying to only put the food bowls down for the cats when they come looking for them, but one thing will lead to another, and Paige and I will become involved in another matter and forget they’re down.

For a while, we would find Karina staring intently at them, but one day, the bowl was clean.

When I say clean, I mean clean. No food. No hint of food — licked clean to the point you might think it just came from the dishwasher.

It has become the telltale sign that the cat food has been eaten by the dog.

After the first time it happened, I told myself it was something we need to be diligent about, but I know cat food isn’t good for the health of dogs.

I tried to carefully watch Karina and the bowls, and I did the Canine Companions correction technique when I saw her sniffing them.

I swear Karina knows she’s not supposed to do it, and she gives a very pitiful look when she’s caught, but she still continued to misbehave.

Karina got into the cat food again Tuesday while I was talking to an air-conditioner repairman, and Paige and I decided it was time to fix this problem for good.

We learned another valuable lesson at Canine Companions about just avoiding the problem altogether. Yes, we can correct the dog, but I know we weren’t setting her up for success by continuing to handle the matter by trying to pick up and put down cat bowls.

We put Karina in her kennel and met Paige’s parents and our niece, Hannah, for dinner at Red Robin before Hannah heads off to college.

I needed time to think about the best course of action and what better place to do that than Red Robin?

After the meal, Paige, J.P. and I went to Petco to survey our options.

Cat privacy den

The cats get a safe place to eat and keep Karina out of their bowls.

We looked at several gates that had doors for smaller pets, and we found a planter that can be used to double as a litter box. We thought for a few minutes that the cats go inside of it to eat instead of do their business.

Finally, we decided on what looks like an end table or cabinet with a cut out for the cats to get in and out of. It’s called a Pet Privacy Den, and we can open the door and put the food inside.

It wasn’t cheap, but I believe it’s going to solve the problem.

It was pretty easy to put together, but I don’t think Karina is happy about the plan. The cats seem to be OK with it.

Friday Fun: Karina assists in therapy

J.P. hugs Karina

Hi everyone, it’s Karina.

My facilitator, Jeff, told me he’s been getting many questions about how things are going as I’ve settled into life with the Cousins family.

I thought I would try to fill people in on how a Canine Companion goes about helping out a child with special needs like my recipient, J.P.

The day typically begins about 8 a.m. when I begin hearing things happening in the kitchen. I anxiously wait for someone to come let me out of my kennel in J.P.’s room where I spend the night.

It’s an exciting moment for me. I’m hungry and ready to get outside. I mean, really, what’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Once that business is taken care of, it’s time for breakfast. I have no problem taking the command for that and usually beat my facilitator to the “sit” command. I just want them to tell me, “OK,” which means I can chow down.

The schedule for each day is different. It depends on what appointments J.P. has and if Jeff has to work.

Karina with J.P.

Karina cuddles with J.P. in his bed

Sometimes I jump in J.P.’s bed and keep him company once he wakes up. Jeff and Paige have to get him changed and other stuff before he heads out to watch his morning cartoons.

I like to jump up on the couch with him sometimes while he takes his medicines and gets his formula running.

I enjoy getting my walk each day with Jeff. We usually go more than a mile, and on same days, we’ve walked 5K. That was kind of long, and I was ready for a nap after that.

Usually, after our walk, I get brushed, my ears get cleaned, and my eyes are wiped out. At least every other day, my teeth get brushed. (I’m not a big fan of that!) I also get my nails trimmed weekly.

Once a month, I get a bath. We just did that about a week ago, and I was very good while I got all sudsy in the tub.

I’m still getting to know J.P., and I’ve been used several times in occupational therapy. I’ve been brushed by J.P., and he’s helped with brushing my teeth, too. He’s also given me some kibble when I get up on the couch with him. Talk about incentive!

J.P.'s therapy assistant

Karina assists J.P. during physical therapy.

On Friday, I played a big role in physical therapy, and J.P. was able to give me a hug. He really liked that. I was put in several positions while J.P. was stretched and worked on rolling over.

I enjoy accompanying J.P. on trips out of the house. I can help J.P. get ready by picking up his shoes and even clean diapers and hold them while Jeff and Paige get him ready to go.

I’ve been to several restaurants and doctor appointments with J.P. recently. I’m trained to open doors when they have those buttons for people who are in wheelchairs. I’m given the command to “push,” and I hit the button with my nose.

I stay pretty busy, but some of my favorite moments are just being loved — like any other pet. That’s something I really enjoy with Paige. After J.P. is in bed, I sometimes jump right in the recliner with her and snuggle.

It’s all been fun, and I’m enjoying my life with my new family, and look forward to what’s ahead. Thanks for the support everyone!

Karina gets clean

Karina gets clean

It was a big week for J.P. and Karina as we passed the one-month mark after graduating from Canine Companions for Independence.

One month later meant Karina got her first bath, and we had to file our first report with CCI.

The report asked basic questions about how the team is doing, and how the team has progressed during the month away from the support of the CCI staff.

Karina has done well and integrated into our home routine with hardly any issues. We’re still working toward having her recognize J.P. as her recipient and not Paige and I.

The first bath went very smoothly. I was surprised when Karina went into the bathtub and sat down while I got her all sudsy and smelling sweet again.

She jumped out of the tub and instantly did her shake, which made a bit of a mess, but nothing that didn’t clean up fast.

After that, Karina went and laid in the sun to get dry. I think she thought it was her spa day.

In July, Karina will visit the veterinarian for her vaccinations and to get a refill on her flea and heartworm medication.

The week also brought an unexpected visit to the vet for Ariel, who has a knack for vomiting, but was even worse than normal.

About $175 later, we learned she wasn’t spending enough time in the litter box.

We do these things for our pets because their love for us is so unconditional.

While we may not want to be inconvenienced by a sick pet or a bath, we provide it to show we love them.

In Canine Companions, our trainers told us that when the pets know they’re cared for, they’re more likely to respect you as their pack leader.

I try my best to make sure Karina is groomed each day and gets a good walk. It gives us time to bond and makes me feel better, too.

Moving forward, I think it’s important to remember to have the same spirit of loving and caring with our children and spouses. It can make for a happier household for both people and pets.

Fatherly thoughts

J.P. goes horseback riding

When I was young and thought about what it would be like to be a father, I always dreamed of the chance to have conversations with my children that would guide them through their younger years and into adulthood.

J.P.'s Magical Night

J.P. goes court side at an Orlando Magic game.

I thought about teaching them to ride a bike, chatting with them before their first dates and helping them find their first part-time jobs.

I’m not naive enough to believe they would have always listened, but the interaction was always something I believe I would have treasured.

As anyone who knows my family or follows this blog knows, that is not what fatherhood has brought to me.

While J.P. can communicate in his own special way, there is no sharing of wisdom, bike rides or dates now or in his future.

But that doesn’t mean I feel any less like a father nor am I any less proud of what J.P. has accomplished.

As the parent of a child with special needs, I’ve simply come to appreciate the little things that are major accomplishments for my boy.

The fact that J.P. is 11 years old is huge. His performance on the Florida Alternate Assessment Test is incredible, and his ability to follow directions and write letters on paper have brought tears to my eyes.

Spending time at the hospital

Jeff and J.P. cuddle during a hospital stay in early 2014.

He’s much more aware of things going on around him then I would have ever believed, and his personality is precious.

Where I may have once thought I would be active as a parent on the sidelines at a game, I am instead active at a hospital with other parents who want to make a difference.

When I was a boy, my father spent his time as a coach for our high school’s cross country and track teams. I remember spending time with him watching as he took the athletes under his wing and taught them to work hard, not to give up and cross the finish line.

It took me longer than most to remember those things, but when he was here earlier this year. I finally saw the purpose in what he was doing back then as I took up jogging and participating in road races.

The things he taught these kids weren’t just about winning a race, but using that mentality throughout life in everything they planned to do.

J.P.'s first visit to beach

J.P. visits the beach for the first time.

My father-in-law is a lot different than my dad. He is a longtime broadcast engineer who worked at the same station where I now work. He worked long hours to keep the station on the air, and he took great pride in what he did. He always would strive to make sure the equipment at the station was top-notch.

I guess being a father isn’t about doing stereotypical things that you might find on a weeknight sitcom. It’s about doing anything and whatever it takes to know your child can be proud of you.

While J.P. will probably never look at me and say, “Thanks, Dad.” I know him well enough to see the appreciation in his eyes, and that’s something I can definitely feel good about on a daily basis.

Happy Father’s Day, everyone!