Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Farm, Firehouse, and important decisions

Part of the requirements to raising a guide dog puppy is regular attendance at two puppy meetings per month. Many times these meetings involve outings- the mall, grocery stores, hardware stores, etc. The puppy clubs go as a group to work on exposures, positive practices, and so the leaders can see how all the puppies react to certain environments. Following Dierdre’s surgery, and subsequent month off of training, exposures, and general guide dog puppy life, she was slowly eased back into the world outside. And something troubling began to emerge. Following her surgery, Dierdre started to develop fear issues. It started out small, Dierdre jumped at a few noises that normally wouldn’t have bothered her. She quickly developed an irrational fear of the fly swatter, and if we got a mosquito in the house, I’d have to crate her in another room before following the insect around the house swatting at it, otherwise Dierdre would be a trembling mess. She started avoiding the stove when I was cooking, and when the oven door shut and made a *thud* she’d pee all over the floor and run out of the kitchen as far as her little labrador legs could carry  her.

I kept the guide dog school and our puppy club leader appraised of her new issues, and they  began to talk to the roving guide dog trainer who is in charge of all the puppies. She said to keep on eye on it. I got permission to do some LAT and BAT training with her, as well as simple low-impact agility for confidence-building.

Her next meeting was a horse farm, filled with all sorts of smells and distractions. She was nervous at first when we arrived, but buoyed by the happy confidence of her puppy friends, she settled down.

Dierdre practices stay with her classmates

Dierdre practices stay with her classmates

She did well focusing around the horses, even when one stuck his head through the fence to sniff at her. The chickens proved  to be a bit more challenging, and Dierdre completely forgot that there was anything at all to be afraid of at the horse farm.

CHICKENS!!!!!

CHICKENS!!!!!

 

Dierdre calmly walked next to a horse, and by the end of the meeting she appeared to have recovered her confidence and happily sat for a group picture.

IMG_2368Back at home, her fears continued, and she was placed on restricted outings, meaning she wasn’t to go out unless it was to a quiet, familiar area for outings. For nearly 2 weeks she stayed mostly at home, and we worked on her traffic noise sensitivity. Living on a busy road in a semi-rural area meant she had heard traffic from the first day I brought her home, including loud dump trucks and speeding motorcycles. Noises that never bothered her before suddenly made her run behind me in fear.

Two weeks later we all met at the firehouse for our second monthly meeting. The puppies were exposed to sirens, strange noises, firemen in fire suits, and the loud, echoing firehouse bay. Knowing Dierdre’s sensitivities, we went into the building when they turned on the sirens, and she didn’t seem particularly bothered by the noises. But entering the large cavernous garage, Dierdre suddenly tucked her tail and tried to climb into my arms. We sat by the door until she was feeling bit calm, and then she hesitantly walked into the garage. She was unsure of the firefighter dressed in the outfits,  but her biggest concern were the echoes inside, and after a bit of time in the garage, I took her outside.

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Dierdre's not sure about the firefighter

Dierdre’s not sure about the firefighter

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It was arranged that the guide dog trainer would drive over from Tampa for the next meeting, to further evaluate Dierdre. The group leader talked about transferring her to another puppy raiser, in the hopes of changing up her routine and environment, but that idea was nixed by the trainer for fear it would make things worse.

We worked on Dierdre’s fear issues for the next two weeks, but the morning of the meeting, which was held at the local mall, Dierdre refused to get out of my truck. The wind in the tall palm trees was making the palm fronds rustle, and Dierdre flat out refused to get out of the truck as long as the wind was blowing. After a few minutes of coaxing her out with food, we made our way to the front of the mall, where Dierdre was busy looking every which way. Upon entering the building her tail clamped down between her legs and she started shaking, licking her lips and trying to hide between my legs. The guide dog trainer didn’t bother to torture her anymore; she said she was recommending a career-change for Dierdre due to fear, and she excused us from the meeting early. By the end of the week the official notice came that Dierdre was career changed, and I made arrangements to bring her back to the Tampa campus and pick up a new puppy. I asked about keeping her, but our leader said if I chose to keep her, because of her fear issues, I wouldn’t be allowed to raise another puppy. I made the decision not to keep her, and the night before I turned her in, I printed an envelope full of puppy pictures and a letter to her new family.

I cried most of the 4 hour drive to turn her in, and even more when we got to the campus. Luckily, the kennel workers are used to sobbing puppy raisers turning in puppies, so I didn’t get any strange looks. I took one last picture of Dierdre before handing her over. They assured me they would find the perfect home for her from their long list of waiting families looking to adopt.

Dierdre, 13 months old

Dierdre, 13 months old

 

We headed over to the puppy kennel to pick up our next charge, a 12-week old female black lab named Francie. I hoped that puppy breath and snuggles would be a band-aid to the hurt of losing Dierdre. The puppy kennel staff took one look at my red puffy eyes and knew we had just turned in a dog. They’re used to it, too. The quickly got us a bag of goodies and plucked little Francie out of her kennel. She was a porker, nothing like petite, fine-boned Dierdre. Francie quickly earned the nickname ‘chubs’ and I learned that her father was from a different guide dog school, and she was a collaborative breeding. Two of her brothers, Patriot and Flounder, had been delivered to other raisers in our club when the trainer had come for Dierdre’s evaluation.

Francie!

Francie!

 

Francie was adorable, and I hugged her tight the entire way home. It quickly became apparent that Francie was completely uninterested in toys of any kind. They sat on the floor, unplayed with. France wanted nothing more than to cuddle beside you and be snuggled. Baby “chubsy-wubsy” as we came to call her, was an ace student. Her first week home, she had already mastered sit, down and stay. I felt pretty confident that this puppy would become a guide, but I couldn’t stop mourning Dierdre.

There was something different about Dierdre, and despite raising 5 other puppies, I had not wanted to keep any of them even a fraction of how much I wanted to keep Dierdre. After a week and a half of moping about, we put a call in to the guide dog school. I wanted Dierdre back, and if it meant giving up raising and having to turn Francie in, so be it. It was a nerve-wracking two days while they contacted the career change department and made sure Dierdre hadn’t been offered to an adoptive family yet. The director of puppy raising asked the same trainer that came to do her evaluation to take Dierdre and a puppy home for the night and decide if I could continue to raise. The news came back positive: Dierdre wasn’t a puddle of jello, she wouldn’t teach Francie to be fearful. That very next weekend, just 2 weeks after I had given her back, she was back in my arms. As it was an “In For Training” weekend, when puppy raisers bring their puppies to the campus to be formally turned in for guide dog training, another raiser in our club brought Dierdre back for me. I happily signed her adoption papers and took her to the pet store to buy all manner of ‘contraband’ toys she wasn’t allowed to have before. Stuffed things, things with squeakies, things that bounced and rolled. We got her a new collar and harness, took her to play off-leash at the dog beach for the first time, and that night she slept plastered to my side on the bed.

Full of dubachery- playing with stuffed squeaky toys, off-leash at the beach, and sleeping on the furniture. Career changed life is great.

Full of debauchery- playing with stuffed squeaky toys, off-leash at the beach, and sleeping on the furniture. Career changed life is great.

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Dierdre Goes to the Fair!

This month in puppy land, Dierdre goes with the puppy club to the South Florida fair (they hold those in the winter here because of the heat). But first, you can check out what I got in the mail from the guide dog school:

Baby Dierdre at about 5 weeks of age

Baby Dierdre at about 5 weeks of age

Right around when your puppy turns 4 or 5 months old, and you’ve gone through the worst of the housebreaking, crate training, whining, crying and nighttime potty trips- the guide dog school sends you a baby photo of your puppy with a guide dog harness and a thank you card. It comes in this nice card stock photo card, with a space on the opposite side ‘reserved for the puppy’s in for training picture.’

 

Picture Frame Card

Picture Frame Card

It’s quite a nice gesture to receive after the most trying stage of puppy raising, and who doesn’t love puppy pictures?

And now, onto the fair. Every year at the South Florida fair, the puppy club does a puppy demonstration to educate the public and expose the puppies. This year the ‘show’ was in one of the livestock pens, with tons of amazing smells to tempt the puppies!

We were allowed some time to go into the ring and let the pups smell before putting on vests to signal it’s ‘time to work.’ We did some practice obedience to focus the puppies.

Dierdre ignores the smells

Dierdre ignores the smells

When it was time to present, all the puppies were lined up in age order and our group leader gave a talk to the public about what puppy raising is, what puppy raisers do, and reviewed etiquette with the audience. After she was done speaking, the puppies demonstrated some of their obedience skills.

Obedience

Club pups in age order! Dierdre is the second puppy from the left, all the way at the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see from the picture, we are a club of mostly black labs! Besides Dierdre, there is one other yellow lab and a golden retriever. Dierdre was nervous of the audience applauding at first, but with some treats and redirection, she forgot all about them.

Puppies!

Puppy lineup after being given the “break!” command- signaling break time. Dierdre receives praise for being such a good puppy.

After the puppy raising portion, an obstacle course is set up and a friend of the puppy club- a man named Allen, works his guide dog, Jolly, though the course as a demonstration. He gives a presentation about Jolly and what guide dogs do in their everyday lives, and shows off Jolly’s impressive guide skills.

Guide Dog Handler Allan and his guide dog, Jolly, navigate an obstacle course

Guide Dog Handler Allan and his guide dog, Jolly, navigate an obstacle course

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the presentation, the puppies make their way through the fair to explore the sights and sounds. Dierdre navigated the exhibits well, and even ventured into the midway. She met some large stuffed animals, as well as visited the Farris wheel and stood next to the kiddie roller coaster to experience the loud noises. With each pass of the roller coaster, Dierdre was offered kibble, and she quickly began to look to me with each pass of the car.

Walking through the food aisle proved to be the largest challenge, and not for the reason you’d think! While many of puppies were very interested in the delicious smells, most of the food was being cooked in the open, on smokers and over open flame. While passing the BBQ vendor Dierdre slammed on the breaks, tucked her tail, and tried to flee, hitting the end of her leash unexpectedly, before doubling back and fleeing straight into my knee caps. While Dierdre had the most extreme reaction, two of the other puppies reacted negative to the smoke, so we retreated o a further area to allow Dierdre to regain her wits, and then slowly reintroduced her to the smoke in a most positive way. After working the area for a few minutes with lots of praise and kibble treats, Dierdre was able to comfortably sit several feet from the smoke without showing any signs of stress. Not wanting to push her any further, I counted that a success and we went on our way. When a puppy has a severe reaction, a puppy raiser makes a note of the conditions and reports the problem to the area coordinator, who will offer suggestions, or help design a training plan to slowly and positively expose a puppy to the scary thing. Often video of the reaction is taken for the puppy’s file, and if it’s severe enough the video and write ups will be sent to the guide dog trainers, who will offer input or make the decision to career change a dog.

Such a case happened recently with a club puppy who showed fear of riding in cars. After attempting a few weeks of counter conditioning, the puppy was still urinating when approaching vehicles and would often tuck his tail, so the decision was made to release him from the program. The trainers at the guide dog school will work a bit more, even on career changed puppies, to help a puppy that’s been dropped for such a reason before they adopt them out. While many dogs, with this extra trianing, may get over their fear enough to make a good family pet, the trainers don’t want to push a dog, especially when it’s something that dog will be exposed to quite a lot as a guide dog. They want all guide dogs to naturally love their job, so no puppy is forced into the role if they don’t exhibit positive body language and appropriate reactions to the big, wide, scary world.

After the scary smoke, the meeting was over, and the puppies were allowed time to relieve, drink water, and socialize a bit (with vests off, of course!) before taking a group photo and heading home. Someone spelled Dierdre’s name wrong, but she won’t hold it against them ;)

Group photo!

Group photo!

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Dierdre Has Surgery

Despite rounds of antibiotics, prescription food, and drinking only reverse osmosis water, Dierdre continued to have accidents in the house. It was determined that she had a minor defect in her vulva- something every female puppy in her litter had been born with, and her vulva was tucked too far up and was retaining liquid every time she pottied, resulting in a constant source of infection. Commonly known as a recessed vulva. In the dog world, she was an “innie” when she should have been an “outtie!” (The opposite of those pesky belly buttons).

After some consultations between Dierdre’s regular vet and the head vet at the guide dog school in Tampa, it was determined that Dierdre would have a bit of nip/tuck plastic surgery on her girlie bits to try and eliminate this problem. All of her sisters were also scheduled for the same procedure.

Due to this defect, the breeding and genetics department at the guide dog school also determined that none of the puppies would be considered for the breeding colony, and the orders came to spay/neuter the entire litter. Because the surgery- an inverted vulva procedure- was a tricky and complicated one, my vet was uncomfortable doing it himself, so they made arrangements for Dierdre to spend a week in Tampa at the guide dog school, where the head vet would perform the surgery himself. Another puppy raiser in our club drove Dierdre to the other coast for me the same weekend she was taking her own puppy for his In-For-Training time to be returned to the guide dog school. That Monday, Dierdre was spayed at the same time as they performed her procedure, and when I came on Friday to retrieve her, she was practically right as rain.

Despite having had some major work done, Dierdre was her usual wiggly self when she saw me, and I had to restrain her enthusiasm so she wouldn’t jump up and potentially tear her stitches.

Dierdre was placed on house arrest and crate rest while she healed, and she was Not Amused. Dierdre, of course, thought she felt fine and needed no such special treatment. She was also not a big fan of the Cone of Shame.

The Cone of Shame

The Cone of Shame

The effort seems to have paid off, as most of Dierdre’s accidents have stopped, she is able to hold her bladder for normal amounts of time, and her latest urinalysis came back clean. Yipee!!

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Vet Partners

Part of being a puppy raiser includes taking your puppy in for routine exams, vaccines and of course, any health related issues that crop up. Luckily for prospective puppy raisers, you’ll be happy to know that the guide dog school covers all the veterinary expenses for their puppies in training.  Southeastern Guide Dogs has an extensive network of vets that are involved in their “Vet Partners” program. When you raise a puppy, your puppy comes assigned to one of these vets. The vets often give the school discounts on care, and bill the school directly for all expenses, rather than making the puppy raisers pay out of pocket and be reimbursed.

Because I live out in the sticks a bit, I see the one and only vet that is in our area. They, unfortunately, were not part of the vet partners program, but rather than sending me to the closest program vet (a 30+ minute drive) I talked to them about the program and gave Southeastern their name and phone number. They contacted them directly and got them enrolled in the vet partners program, which was fantastic for me on a number of levels. The vet knows me, and my dogs, and recognizes my voice on the phone. On top of that, they’re a family owned business- the vet and his tech are a husband and wife team, and they’re the sort of vets who give you their personal cell phone numbers with directions to call them at any hour of the night if you’re having a veterinary emergency, rather than making you high tail it 45 minutes to the nearest emergency vet.

Benefits to living in the sticks- huge yards!

Benefits to living in the sticks- huge yards!

Southeastern gives you a vaccine schedule you are to follow for your puppies, and if anything out of the ordinary occurs, you contact your puppy raising area coordinator, who gives you authorization for a vet visit or contacts the school for authorization. (Of course, for serious emergencies, you’re to seek care first, *then* contact your area coordinator). When Dierdre, at 5 months old, was still having difficulties being housebroken and couldn’t ‘hold it’ for more than 30 minutes at a time, I requested permission to take her to the vet. With permission granted, we had a urinalysis done which revealed crystals in Dierdre’s bladder. Antibiotics were given, and she was placed on a prescription low-ash diet with instructions to re-test in 30 days.

After 30 days, with little improvement in Dierdre’s housebreaking, we went back for a recheck. Dierdre’s crystals had doubled, from a +2 to a +4. I was devastated. My area coordinator was nearly positive Dierdre would be medically career changed, and started talking about dates for me to bring her back and pick up a new puppy to raise. I scanned and emailed her test results and waited for the head vet at Southeastern to review her results.

Luckily things were in our favor, and after some back and forth emailing with the vet, he decided to go ahead and keep working on Dierdre rather than career change her. Because I live in the sticks, I get my water from a well system sunk in my front yard. Very high in sulfur and iron, the water passes through a filtration system and particulate filter, sulfur reduction system, and finally a water softener to remove impurities before entering the house. For drinking water, we have a low-output reverse osmosis system under the kitchen sink with a separate faucet next to the sink faucet for that water. When we first moved out here, I felt like I needed a degree in water chemistry to understand it all, especially as there was *no* filter system on the house and the water smelled like dirty pennies and rotten eggs! Researching and trying to figure out what sort of water treatment system we needed was a full time job for several weeks.

Did I mention the benefits of living out here were the huge yards? Trust me- the water fiasco was worth the headache.

Did I mention the benefits of living out here were the huge yards? Trust me- the water fiasco was worth the headache.

Because the reverse osmosis is a low output system, I don’t typically fill the dog’s water buckets with it. The vet at Southeastern wanted me to put Dierdre on distilled filtered water for 30 days, but after some back and forth talk about our water system and water quality, I suggested the reverse osmosis water, since it’s the most pure water available with all minerals and other impurities stripped out of it. It took 10 minutes to fill a dog bucket (we use horse buckets here for water) so I tried to keep Dierdre’s water in the orange bucket and the regular water for the other 3 dogs in the green bucket, but after a week of trying this, it wasn’t working, and Dierdre would get into the green bucket either when we forgot to pick it up and switch the buckets when she was out in the house, or her orange bucket would be empty, so she would drink out of the green bucket sitting on the table. We gave up and despite the painfully slow filling process, put all the dogs on reverse osmosis water.

Keeping Diredre from trying to drink out of the pond on a daily basis has been an adventure, as well. Pretty sure that's not nice, clean, pure water!

Keeping Diredre from trying to drink out of the pond on a daily basis has been an adventure, as well. Pretty sure that’s not nice, clean, pure water!

Another 3 weeks went by and we scheduled a recheck, with a cystocentesis done (sticking a needle directly into her bladder) rather than a free catch, to eliminate the possibility of contamination. 2 days later her results came back, her crystals had reduced from +4 down to +2 again! A small victory, but still not enough to completely take career changing her out of the equation. I bought another bag of prescription food and sent her results to the head vet at the guide dog school. Keep trying with the prescription food and the reverse osmosis water was the verdict, with more rechecks at a later date.

For now we’ll keep plugging along on this course, hoping that Dierdre’s crystals clear up and she’ll still become a guide dog!

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Puppy Meetings and New Vests!

Part of the requirement of raising a guide dog puppy, is attendance at the bi-monthly puppy raising meetings. This is so that you can practice skills and training, get help where needed from other experienced raisers, and allow the area coordinator for your county to monitor your puppy’s progress. Meetings can take place anywhere: parks, the mall, Costco, anywhere! A few times a year our meetings are joined by Southeastern’s roving guide dog trainer, who teaches new skills, works with problem dogs, and oversees all aspects of training the puppies.

At Dierdre’s first meeting, a calm hour spent at the park learning just that- how to be calm, the roving guide dog trainer announced two big changes for the puppies. No longer would training with a ‘choke’ chain/correction chain be part of puppy raising (yay!), instead, older puppies will wear a martingale collar and strong pullers will wear either an easy-walk or a freedom harness. As Dierdre was neither, she would still wear her flat collar.

The other announcement was the change in puppy coat. No longer would the puppies wear ‘cape’ style jackets. The new, improved, puppy fashion would be vests! Durable, with pockets.

Old Jackets

Old Jackets

New vests! (The opposite side says "Guide Dog Puppy in Training")

New vests! (The opposite side says “Guide Dog Puppy in Training”)

I had been raising for Guide Dogs for the Blind when they, also, made the switch from capes to vests, and I knew of one big problem I always had with vests. When someone is facing the dog head-on, or they are on your right side, the vest is not visible, either hidden by your leg, or because there’s only a single black strap across the chest to see from a head-on position. When going from a cape to a vest, I got a lot more “hey! you can’t take dogs in here!” than I ever had with a more visible cape. To combat the head-on problem, I employed an idea that had been wildly successful with the Guide Dogs for the Blind groups- a velcro sleeve over the front strap that proclaims Guide Dog Puppy. With some blue fabric, velcro, heat transfer material, and a sewing machine, I fastened a blue version of the green guide dog sleeves that raisers sold for Guide Dogs when the vest transition happened.

There, much better!

There, much better!

While I couldn’t do much about making the cape longer, at least now, when walking head-on into a store, it’s much easier to ascertain that Dierdre is coming into the store for a reason, and not that I’m just some crazy that tries to drag her puppy into public shopping spaces. It also makes I.D.’ing her a little easier for others, as the side of the vest that faces out has Southeastern’s logo on it, while the side that is typically against your left leg is the side that actually says “Guide Dog Puppy In Training.” Slight design flaw, but we overcame it. Dierdre’s vest sleeve was popular with our club, so I made a couple more to give to other raisers that asked for them.

One big change that would come along with the vests, were that no ‘extra small’ sizes were made. From now on, only puppies that are 4+ months that are reliably housebroken and can prove they have the beginnings of obedience are to be granted a vest. Younger puppies are now instructed to stay home and be puppies, no more early outings for the baby puppies. The school’s hope is that they will lessen the dogs that come back for training with fears of things such as traffic and people in funny hats from being exposed to them too early.

For meetings that are deemed ‘exposure’ outings, only puppies of the appropriate age come to the meetings. When our club had their bi-annual Tri-Rail train ride, Deirdre and one other puppy were excused from the meeting, as they were a bit on the young side to tackle something as Big and Scary as a train.

During any exposure, it’s important to pay attention to your pup’s body language, so you can avoid creating a fear of something early on. Nervous lip licking, half-moon eyes, and ears back, tail not wagging, are all signs to look out for when exposing puppies to new things. As you can see in this picture, Dierdre was a bit nervous of the hustle and bustle of a public area.

Dierdre was removed from the area for a break shortly after this was taken

Dierdre was removed from the area for a break shortly after this was taken.

After a short break in a quiet area for her to re-group we slowly returned to the area, giving lots of praise and treats for confidently going forward, and pairing the scary area with lots of treats.

Much more relaxed and focused after a break from Scary Area

Much more relaxed and focused after a break from Scary Area

Comfortable enough now to investigate some leaves on the ground for potential eating.

Comfortable enough now to investigate some leaves on the ground for potential eating. Investigation reveals leaves are excellent for eating and have a nice crunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting topics can be anything from grooming, to obedience, to exposure to different things, how to teach calm behavior, or how to ignore distractions.

Time to brush some puppy teeth!

Time to brush some puppy teeth!

Dierdre at Gander Mountain

Dierdre at Gander Mountain

 

Leave-it is a most necessary command for a curious guide dog puppy to practice. Constantly.

Must... Not... Touch....

Must… Not… Touch….

 

 

 

Strange smells are always an adventure. You never know how your puppy will react. Dierdre was nervous of the meat section of the grocery store the first two times, but with enough pairing of the area with copious amount of treats, she was eventually no longer nervous, but intently interested in what was behind that glass!

I'll take 15 pounds of steak. Raw, please!

I’ll take 15 pounds of steak. Raw, please!

 

You never know where a guide dog will encounter something unusual!

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Mom! Mom, there’s a turtle in the store! Mom!!!!**

So it’s good to always be prepared to reward or to remove from the situation, depending on the puppy’s needs, and tailor the appropriateness of the outing to the age and ability level of your puppy. Puppies will grow and learn at different rates, and while one puppy in a club might be ready for a new exposure, you can’t be afraid to take a step out of the group, even at puppy meetings, and give your pup the space they need to be successful.

 

 

** No turtles were harmed in the making of this post. (Yes, that’s a real turtle crawling through Gander Mountain. Hazards of living in south Florida! He was quickly relocated back outside, where he belonged.)

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: House Manners!

As our area coordinator tells us constantly, if you teach nothing else to your puppy, teach it to have good house manners. Obedience can be worked on and refined at the guide dog school, but with a string for 35 dogs to train, with 4-5 strings being housed in the school’s kennel at a time, no trainer will have time to take each individual puppy home repeatedly to work on house manners. If house manners is a problem by the time they go for training, the puppy will be dropped from the program.

Dierdre’s early days will be spent doing just that- learning good house manners. Among the many lessons she is learning in her daily ‘course load,’ included is- Socks: Not For Eating.

But Mom!!! They smell so GOOD!!!

But Mom!!! They smell so GOOD!!!

 

Rather than waiting for the opportunity to come up in the natural environment, learning house manners often takes place in short lessons throughout the day. I will ‘set up’ the situation, before allowing Dierdre to enter the room. Socks on the floor, dirty laundry in the basket, a blanket hanging haphazardly off the sofa, a random shoe on the floor, a leftover bit of apple on the counter. Initially, Dierdre is rewarded with kibble for keeping attention on me in the vicinity of the distraction. Slowly we move closer, rewarding for her looking to me and ignoring the object. Eventually we work up, over the course of days and weeks, to walking past, walking over, stepping on or sitting on/near the object of her desire, and rewarding her for ignoring it.

Of course, no human is perfect, and Dierdre will inevitably get what she wants and be automatically reinforced by it at least once in her puppy raising career. On the off chance that she manages to get ahold of a sock I dropped, I calmly walk up to her, make no eye contact, take the sock, and stuff a nylabone in her mouth instead. This is followed by immediate praise for her having such an Appropriate Thing in her mouth.

Do I get double treats for having *two* toys in my mouth?

Do I get double treats for having *two* toys in my mouth?

Of course, this has its disadvantages too, as now Dierdre thinks it is her sworn mission to find a bone upon any release from her crate, x-pen or tie down, and come show me that she has this in her mouth- followed by her immediate dropping it on my bare foot so she can accept whatever treat she has been conditioned to believe is coming. Nylabones don’t hurt as much as the natural hollow bones we keep around also, and I’m fairly certain my toes will continue to be a mosaic of bruises in various stages of healing for as long as I’m raising puppies. This of course, begs the obvious question- why don’t you wear shoes around your house? And the short answer is that- I live in South Florida where it’s eleventy million degrees for 51 of 52 weeks out of the year. Our old A/C unit is ineffective at removing the humidity from the house, which means that bare feet on the cool tile is the most effective way not to spend $500/month on the power bill, overwhelming the A/C by constantly trying to lower the temperature. Plus, who wants to wear shoes in their house, anyway? Bruised toes are a small price to pay for a puppy with good repertoires of house behavior!

Look Mom, I'm chewing my nyla-keys instead of those socks, aren't you proud!?

Look Mom, I’m chewing my nyla-keys instead of those socks, aren’t you proud!?

 

Another of Dierdre’s kindergarten courses is titled: What Happens on the Table, Stays on the Table.  While not as difficult for Dierdre as the socks, she is always quite interested in what is going on above her head (good for a guide dog puppy to be concerned with Up, as she’ll have to look up for things her handler will whack his/her head on later). I start by placing things I know she won’t be more than marginally interested in on tables. A book, a cardboard box, a piece of paper (this varies with each puppy, as I’ve had some puppies that think paper is Great Fun).When she sniffs it then turns to walk way I quickly reward her for her lack of interest. If she tries to grab it, I pick it up, and walk into the other room with it. No treats, no attention. She quickly learns the game, and once she understands, I up the stakes by only rewarding when she only looks at the item, and doesn’t approach or sniff it.

I'm not touching it, I'm not touching it!

I’m not touching it, I’m not touching it! (My guinea pig ornament that Dierdre just couldn’t leave alone on the tree, but wouldn’t touch it on the table. No generalization going on there!)

In a restaurant, this can be a much more difficult lesson to learn, with amazing food smells suddenly coming from the table, and my inability to control the waiter and ask them to repeatedly bring/take away the food each time she shows interest. After we’ve ordered and Dierdre is settled comfortably under the table, I step on her leash, close to the buckle, so that the leash is nice and loose when she is lying down. As soon as the food comes, if she tries to stand, she’ll find herself prevented from coming up all the way. Often a short struggle ensues, and very quickly she gives up and lays back down. The instant her elbows hit the floor she is rewarded, and I continue to reward in variable intervals as long as she stays on the floor.

Under my chair at a quick service restaurant, with the leash under my foot.

Under my chair at a quick service restaurant, with the leash under my foot.

 

A very important class Dierdre had to master (which is still ongoing) is: Leave The Other Dogs Alone, For Pete’s Sake!

The other dogs in the house range in age from ‘older’ to ‘senior.’ Raiden, being a Dog-In-Need-Of-Space/Yellow Ribbon dog, doesn’t want anything to do with the puppy. As long as she ignores him, he’s perfectly fine to coexist next to her. But the moment she shows any attention toward him (and Dierdre’s interaction meter only has two settings, Ignore, and In-Your-Face), he makes sure to let her know what he thinks of that.

Tiki, the youngest of my personal dogs at 7 years old, will tolerate puppies, but doesn’t particularly like them inside the house. She will ignore Dierdre’s attempts to dance on her head for only so far, then she has no choice but to give a motherly snark and put Dierdre in place. As some things are best learned from others, I allow Tiki to shape Dierdre’s behavior in this way. If Tiki and Dierdre go into the yard, they are more than happy to play chase and run all around, and Dierdre is slowly coming to learn that outside ‘break time’ is for play. Inside, you leave others alone.

The oldest of the house is senior, 13 year old, retired guide dog Hawkins, whom Dierdre has knocked over once or twice. When she gets too rambunctious around Hawkins, she goes into her crate for a time-out/cool off period, and she’s slowly learned that Hawkins is fragile and being bouncy around him will result in crate time. (Because the crate is more frequently the source of dinner and not time-out, we avoid giving the crate a negative connotation).

Using Hawkins as a pillow is more acceptable inside behavior.

Using Hawkins as a pillow is more acceptable inside behavior.

 

And, of course, when I can’t watch Dierdre every single moment, she’s in her ex-pen, crate, or on a tie down, with some appropriate toys for her to entertain herself with. Although sometimes, she makes her own fun.

Mom's busy working, so I'll just roll around on the floor and chew on my cable tie-down.

Mom’s busy working, so I’ll just roll around on the floor and chew on my cable tie-down.

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: The Early Days- Housebreaking, Crate Training, and Not Too Much Freedom

The early days of a guide dog puppy’s life in a new raiser home is usually the roughest (on the raiser) and the most glee-filled (for the puppy). A snapshot in any given moment can find puppy, racing through the house with a stray sock in her mouth, while the raiser is probably halfway through slipping in a puddle of pee. This was me and my first puppy (oh yeah, that was Hawkins… I mean… he was an angel.. *looks around to see if anyone heard*)

By Dierdre- puppy #5- I’ve pretty much got puppy days down pat. Or so I thought. Apparently I’ve been out of practice, since my youngest dog, Tiki, just turned 7. After first coming home, I let Dierdre potty in the front yard. I was fairly confident she would go, she’d just made a 3/5 hour car ride home while sleeping the entire time. As soon as she started to squat, I instantly told her “Go busy, busy!!” the Southeastern Guide Dog command to go to the bathroom. I said it once more as she finished, then pulled out my high pitched squeaky puppy voice and make such a big deal about her going potty. She wiggled all over and got belly rubs, got excited because I was excited, and that was that. Over the next few days I’d set a timer every hour on the hour, and take her out, sometimes on the concrete driveway, sometimes on the grass, and tell her to busy, busy! I’d give her a piece of kibble for going and it didn’t take long for her to associate “Busy, Busy” with going tinkle.

But Dierdre started to take a backwards slide in the potty training department. She’d have an accident 10 minutes after coming inside. Then, when I raced her back outside, she’d go again, only to have another accident in the house, 5 minutes after THAT. Luckily I have ceramic tile floors, but I was doing a load of laundry a day, washing all the towels and steam mop pads I was essentially chasing her around with. Finally I asked my puppy club leader for permission to take her to the vet. She readily agreed and the vet found a UTI and crystals in her urine. A round of antibiotics and a bag of prescription food later… and she’s down to peeing every 30 minutes. It’s hard to convince an unwilling dog to drink more water, so I’ve started to ‘float’ her kibble in water to force her to drink water with her meals, hoping to keep her hydrated.

Hand in hand with ease of housebreaking is, of course, crate training. A lot of people have trouble with this because they just can’t stand to hear their dog cry. Or, at some point, they just can’t take it anymore (usually somewhere around 2 or 3am on a work night for me!). I always make sure to have some fun crate-only toys available. Some of the chicken flavored gummy puppy nylabones or a kong stuffed with frozen kibble that’s been previously soaked in water. I also feed every meal in a crate for at least the first few weeks. If puppy won’t go in, I toss in a few kibbles to encourage them to enter, then as soon as they get in, I plop the whole bowl right down, leaving the door open so they can come out as they please when they are done. Since one of my dogs is a resource guarder when it comes to food, he always eats in his crate, with the door latched. He’s so used to his crate now after nearly 9 years of living with it, that when he thinks its dinner time (which is usually an hour before it’s actually dinnertime) he’ll go and lie in there and wait for food to appear. If I don’t serve him in a timely manner, he will go find me, do his best Lassie “Timmy’s in the well! Quick! Follow me!” impression and try and lead me to his crate so that I can see that he’s ready for dinner. I want my dogs to love the crate like this and associate it with everything positive in the world.

At night with a puppy I shut the door, cover it with a blanket, and turn on a white noise/rain/seashore waves noise app (or I had a cassette tape before my fancy smartphone). A puppy crate is always next to my side of the bed for the first month or two- so that I can hear at night if they wake up and become restless and need to go potty, and so they can hear my breathing and not feel so alone and scared after their first few nights without their littermates. The other 3 dogs usually sleep spread around the bedroom on the soft carpet, but sometimes I will put everyone in crates side by side with the puppy somewhere in the middle, so even though they’re in separate crates, the puppy still feels surrounded by other dogs.

Crates should be fun places to go for relaxation. I think Dierdre's getting the hang of it!

Crates should be fun places to go for relaxation. I think Dierdre’s getting the hang of it!

During the day, once I notice a playing puppy is getting tired and looking for a good place to curl up and take a nap, I take them over to their crate, toss a few kibbles in, pull the blanket down over the crate, and let them nap in their crate (or wail themselves to sleep, which sadly, I’ve had to do with some puppies). Some puppies take to it easily- my male German shepherd, Raiden, slept through the night in his crate the first night home and never made a peep in there. Other dogs… like my female shepherd, Tiki… scream bloody murder for hours. And hours. For the first year of their life. Luckily the townhouse next to me at the time was vacant, because I’m pretty sure I’d have been evicted… but persistence pays off. Tiki will now stay quietly in her crate for as long as I need her to, and I can often find her taking a nap in there of her own free will.

I never, never, never let a puppy out of its crate while he’s crying. Doing so just reinforces the connection that crying = getting out of the crate. I usually try to learn how long my puppy naps for, then let them out 10-15 minutes or so before they’re due to wake up, with lots of happy praise and a few pieces of kibble. If I hear a couple tiny whimpers at night or after a significant time in the crate, I assume the puppy needs to potty and I jump up to let them out before it can turn into any sort of wailing uproar which I have to ignore yet at the same time, can’t, because puppy probably has to pee.

These two training priorities are generally the only things I work on the first week or two with a new puppy. To prevent a puppy from getting into mischief, I utilize tie downs and ex-pens around the house. If I’m in the kitchen, puppies are on a tie down attached to the dining room table. If I’m watching TV, the tie down is attached to the couch leg. Reading in bed? Tie down at the foot of the bed. Working in my office? I have a tie down next to my desk. I have an ex-pen I often set up in the dining or living room, full of some puppy toys that a young puppy can play with while I’m not able to watch them 100%. Slowly, as they become more reliable with housebreaking, I let them off the tie down for short spurts- 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there, maybe while I’m dusting the house, or folding laundry- something that doesn’t take my total attention and lets me keep an eye on a puppy with new found freedom.

Chillin' in the ex-pen in the living room

Chillin’ in the ex-pen in the living room. Not sure she knows what the dog bed is actually for…

Because I have 3 other dogs who don’t particularly like puppies jumping on their heads, one of them being a senior who gets knocked down easily- keeping a puppy on a tie down or in an ex-pen lets the other dogs have their peace and not be hounded constantly by a puppy who hasn’t’ learned proper manners yet. As her manners slowly improve, I’ll let Dierdre slowly have more freedom.

Look! No tie-down!

Look Mom! No tie-down!

When I have time to get down on the floor and play some tug or chase the nylabone, I will often take the time to set up a thunderstorm or firework noisemaker app on my phone, turn it down low, and let the noise play while we’re having fun. I want thunderstorm and firework noises to be paired with good, fun things, and using my phone lets me turn the noise down to barely audible and play it while the puppy is distracted with other things.

If only I could just chew through this plastic coated steel cable...

If only I could just chew through this plastic coated steel cable…

 

As soon as the potty training and housebreaking is going well, we can move on to bigger and better things… house manners and outings in a puppy coat! Stay tuned…

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Introducing Dierdre

Christmas morning loses its allure when you become an adult; no longer do you wake up before the sun and jump on your parents heads trying to get them up and out of bed before the morning commute starts…in China. Despite attempting to sleep at least past brunch most Christmas mornings these days, nothing will get me that feeling of anticipation and giddiness again like Puppy Day. The morning that I was due to pick up Guide Dog Puppy #5, my alarm was set to go off at 5:30. I was dressed by 5:15. I packed up a puppy bag full of extra towels, clean up materials, collar, leash, puppy coat, some toys, water, collapsible bowl, and eagerly set off for the 3.5 hour drive over to the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus in Palmetto, Florida.

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Naturally, it was pouring rain when I arrived (this is Florida, afterall), but that didn’t stop me from taking pictures of the campus. I made a few purchases at the gift shop while waiting for the worst of the rain to pass, adding a southeastern pin and stuffed puppy in puppy coat to my guide dog memorabilia collection.

Stuffed Puppy in coat

Stuffed Puppy in coat

 

My collection of guide dog puppies

My collection of guide dog puppies

(The yellow lab has Guide Dogs for the Blind's original logo from the 1940s on it)

(The yellow lab has Guide Dogs for the Blind’s original logo from the 1940′s on it)

The campus over a Southeastern is very beautiful, and one of the largest in the country in terms of acreage. I had signed up for the campus tour to get a better look at everything, since I had never been to this guide dog campus before. Because there was a brand new class just in for training, we were unable to see the dormitories, but I got a glimpse of the new veterinary center, and saw the construction site for the brand new dog assessment center currently being built.

Map of the Campus

Map of the Campus

New Barpal Veterinary Center

New Barpal Veterinary Center

The campus was very lush and tropical, with beautiful landscaping, palm trees, tropical flowers and plants, several large ponds, and a wide open grassy field at the back. And of course, all tours at Southeastern feature… puppy hugging!! For this particular tour, the lucky puppies were Golden Retrievers.

This cutie ended up coming to a raiser in my club a week later

This cutie ended up coming to a raiser in my club a week later

Tug!

Tug!

One important feature about Southereastern’s puppy kennels is that the back areas have screened-in windows with no glass, to expose the puppies to the Florida heat and humidity. Many dogs from other schools that come to the tropical southern climate have a hard time acclimatizing, so Southeastern takes special care to ensure the puppies grow up used to the heat. In the winter and spring, the kennel workers also pipe thunder noises into the kennels, to desensitize the pups to the sounds of a good storm. Of course, in the summer and fall, the natural Florida weather means no recorded thunder is necessary, it comes in its all-natural form then!

Puppy Kennels with their screened-in windows overlooking the puppy field

Puppy Kennels with their screened-in windows overlooking the puppy field

The puppy playground

The puppy playground

Puppy Kennels

Puppy Kennels

In the back of the puppy kennels was the whelping and newborn unit, with glass windows to see in.

Brand new puppies!

Brand new puppies!

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After the tour we took a walk through the gardens and ‘Freedom Square,’ walkways with butterfly gardens, railroad tracks, bridges, and other obstacles used to train the guide dogs or for people to just come and enjoy.

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Statue in the gardens

Statue in the gardens

After ending the tour by going by the training kennel and petting some dogs in training, we returned to the puppy kennel to pick up the new puppy that would be coming home me.

BB & SEGD Open House Dec. 3, 2011 118

I had been told prior to my arrival that I would be picking up a female yellow lab by the name of Dierdre. Because Southeastern had been blessed by 100% conception rates and some very large litters, there was a shortage of puppy raisers, and some of the puppies that would normally have gone home at 8 weeks, had been waiting in the puppy kennel for an available puppy raiser. Dierdre was one of those puppies, so rather than being 8 or 9 weeks old, she was already 16 weeks. She also had a giant goose egg on her head, from whacking her head on the puppy kennel door (repeatedly. I would come to learn over the next few weeks that’s she’s a bit of a klutz).

I clipped her new collar around her neck and happily signed her out of the puppy kennel. I decided to follow the same tradition that i had for all of my other puppies, and take her picture in front of the campus sign, but since it had rained all morning and the cars driving by were making the puddles splash, I opted for the admin building sign instead:

Introducing Dierdre!!

Introducing Dierdre!!

After taking her picture, we hopped into the car, with Dierdre riding in the customary location for a guide dog traveling by car: right between my front feet.

That's one heck of a knot!!

That’s one heck of a knot!!

It didn’t take long for her to fall fast asleep. While I don’t generally like to take baby puppies into too many places with their little coats on; I prefer them to be reliably housebroken, and you never want to do too much, too fast with the baby puppies and risk creating a fear that will wash them out of guide dog school. But it had been a long day and we decided to stop for lunch at a low-key restaurant, which meant taking Dierdre into the restaurant with us. I put her little coat on, and she happily followed me into the restaurant. For the first 30 minutes she sat by my feet and calmly watched the restaurant commotion going on around her, before chewing on her nylabone a bit and finally falling asleep right as the food arrived.

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When we finally arrived home, it was time for Dierdre to meet her new roommates: Hawkins, Tiki and Raiden.

Hi Tiki!!

Hi Tiki!!

Hawkins has a minion

Hawkins has a minion

 I attempted to get a family shot… but with 3 unwilling dogs (only Hawkins was up for this game) this was the best I could do

Dogs are like potato chips- you can't have just one!

Dogs are like potato chips- you can’t have just one!

Because  puppies are… well, puppies, I prevent bad habits by giving puppies a limited range of movement if I am not able to watch them 100% of the time. This means we have cable tie-downs all over the house, baby gates to block off rooms I will be in, and I even have a ‘house leash’ that I can tie to my belt loop to keep a puppy by my side wherever I go.

Tied to the dining room table

Tied to the dining room table

Plenty of toys keep a puppy busy!

Plenty of toys keep a puppy busy!

Stuck in my office

Stuck in my office

Tied to my bed

Tied to my bed

 

For now, Dierdre’s days are filled with learning to go potty *outside* (and, on command!), to be quiet in a crate, and that she can’t put her mouth on everything that she sees. Difficult lessons for a curious puppy! Tune in next time for Dierdre’s first puppy meeting.

 

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: The Application Process

After several years (8, to be exact. Not that I’ve been counting) of being out of the guide dog puppy raising loop, I have found myself once again in the position to raise again! Most of the guide dog schools in the United States have “raising territories” in which you need to live in, in order to raise for that school. Since I had moved about the country several times, living in various states for college, grad school, and other reasons, I haven’t been in a raising territory since I moved out of California- Guide Dogs for the Blind’s (GDB) puppy raising area.

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Guide Dogs for the Blind, the first school I raised for

I had made one unfruitful attempt to raise for Canine Companions for Independence, a service dog organization, but they prefer their puppy raisers to be stay-at-home, or take their puppies to work with them 100% of the time. Since I was in graduate school at the time, I was working 20 hours a week with special needs children in order to accrue my clinical hours for board certification- not an appropriate place for a puppy, and since I wasn’t at home all day, my application was denied.

After moving to West Palm Beach, I found myself once again within a school’s territory and, as I had purchased a home, without a landlord to tell me I had too many dogs (as if that’s a bad thing? Foreign concept to me…). After unpacking all the boxes, and making a few needed repairs to the house, the first order of business… apply to raise a puppy. I pulled up the website for Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc. (SEGDI), headquartered just 3.5 hours away outside of Tampa, Fl, and found my way to the puppy raising page. The application said no more than two personal dogs, and I had three, but I figured I would try anyway. Hawkins was a retired guide, and I was hoping they’d either count him as a good influence, or at the very least, grant us an exception.

southeastern-guide-dogs-logo
Southeastern Guide Dogs- the school I hoped to be raising for next!

Many people are confused by all the different guide dog schools out there. Guide Dog? Seeing Eye dog? Aren’t they all the same thing? Well, yes, and no. While seeing eye dog and guide dog have been used interchangeably to refer to dogs that lead the blind, there are many different schools that train these dogs. Seeing Eye dogs generally refer to dogs that come from the very first guide dog school in the world: The Seeing Eye, in Morristown, New Jersey. Guides dogs may be from Guide Dogs for the Blind, Guide Dogs of America, Southeastern Guide Dogs, or any number of other schools. A Fidelco guide dog would be a guide dog from the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, while a leader dog or pilot dog would be from Leader Dogs for the Blind, or Pilot Dogs, Inc. While it may confuse you now, think of it like the difference between a Mercedes, and BMW, and a Lexus. All 3 are luxury cars, with seats, engines, seatbelts, windshields, etc. that drive and get you from one place to another. The only major difference is the company the car comes from. Just like cars come from different companies, so do guide dogs come from different schools. Some schools train dogs to fetch dropped items, some don’t. Some schools train guide dogs for people with multiple disabilities, some don’t. Some schools encourage puppy raisers and handlers to stay in touch, some have a waiting period, some don’t allow contact at all. So it’s up to the handler to research and decide which school most fits in with what they are looking for in a guide dog. While most guide dog schools take students from anywhere in the US and Canada (with a few exceptions- a few schools take international students, one or two only take students from their particular state), puppy raisers usually don’t have as much choice; they raise for the school that allows puppy raising in the area they live in. If they’re lucky they live in an overlapping territory between multiple schools and can choose which school is the best fit for them to raise with.

Often, a person can tell which school a puppy is being raised for by just looking at their puppy coats!

Cactus Sitting with Coat Cropped                         Invest1
Guide Dogs for the Blind- Green Vest         Freedom Dogs- Red Vest

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Guide Dogs of America- Yellow Cape         Fidelco Guide Dogs- Red Cape

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Southeastern Guide Dogs – blue cape            Leader Dogs- White Cape

A few days after sending off my initial application to Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGDI), I received an invitation to attend a puppy raising meeting by the “Area Coordinator” of my county. She would be the one handling all the paperwork and deciding if I was a suitable fit for a puppy raiser, then overseeing my puppy’s progress over the coming months through my attendance at these twice monthly meetings. Before I could raise my own puppy, I would have to attend two of these meetings, then have a home interview/inspection by the area coordinator. At the puppy meeting, I meet the 8 other raisers for Palm Beach County, got to handle one of the puppies, was asked lots of questions about my experience, and gathered just as much information about puppy raising. Some things were similar to Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) and some things were new to me. At GDB, we had weekly meetings that were usually held at the fairgrounds or in the gym of a local school. Same time and place every week, with optional ‘outings’ scheduled here and there for group trips into San Francisco, on public transportation, on the Oakland ferry, or whatever raisers could think up and organize. Southeastern meetings would be a different location every time, every other weekend, and always at a park for obedience, or a place of business, for an ‘exposure’ outing. Some of the commands were similar (sit, down, stay, Let’s Go), some were different (“Get busy” for going potty, versus “Do your business” for GDB). At GDB, all puppies are raised and trained wearing only a flat buckle collar, or a gentle leader. SEGDI puts all puppies in a chain training collar at 6 months. As a positive reinforcement proponent, I don’t ‘train with a chain,’ but I wouldn’t have a choice in the matter. Because guide dogs must be taught to ignore food on a daily basis in restaurants, food courts, and in public places means only ‘come’ and a select few other commands are trained with kibble only, except in certain circumstances. My first 3 guide dog puppies were raised with no food training whatsoever, so I’ve become very proficient at delivering high rates of quality praise!

After having attended the required 2 meetings, I was scheduled for a home interview. The area coordinator came to my house, with a club puppy in tow, to look things over, check out my yard, fence, and home for hazards, dangers or unsuitable environments, and to meet my personal dogs to ensure they were friendly and not going to eat any puppy faces or be unsuitable naughty. Naturally, it was Hawkins, my senior retired guide dog, who was the most naughty and just couldn’t ignore the 6 month old puppy the area coordinator had brought over to play with him (and when he wasn’t antagonizing the puppy, he was stealing the little guy’s kong toy!) I tried to explain to the area coordinator that he did have manners once upon a time, before he became a spoiled, retired senior that I cater to on a daily basis.

As soon as the home interview was complete, I had a background check done, to ensure I wasn’t a psycho, homicidal, puppy killer, and then I got the official e-mail. I had been approved to raise a puppy!! The area coordinator gave me a puppy raising handbook, a blue, nylon puppy collar and leash, a nylabone, and an itty-bitty puppy jacket.

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When I first raised for GDB, I was given a leather service dog leash, and since I prefer that type of leash, I ordered a new one from them as well as a cable tie down.

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I also went shopping for a few new puppy toys. Guide dog puppies can only have certain toys, nothing stuffed or squeaky, and none of my personal dog’s toys met that requirement. GDB was a little more strict, only nylabones, rubber rings and kongs for their puppies. I was happy for the relaxed toy policy, and I also found out I would be allowed to teach the puppy to fetch, something that’s a big No-No for GDB puppies. At GDB, puppies go home with a puppy collar, an adult dog collar, a puppy leash, two ID tags, some flea and heartworm prevention, a small bag of food, and if it’s your very first puppy, a new leather service dog leash and a cable tie down. With SEGDI, the puppy raisers are responsible for everything but the heartworm prevention.

I was also assigned a vet in my area, who would bill SEGDI directly for all veterinary expenses. Although I couldn’t choose my own vet, I could ask my personal vet to join the SEGDI vet partners program so I could continue to use them. I liked this better than GDB’s method of reimbursement forms for veterinary expenses. Hawkins, as a retired guide, still has his medical expenses (outside of routine vaccinations) paid by GDB, and this eliminated having to keep track of different reimbursement forms and procedures for two different guide dog schools.

I didn’t yet know what type of dog I would be getting. Like GDB, SEGDI only uses Labradors, Golden Retrievers and mixes of the two, so I knew it would fall into one of those breed categories. At GDB you can request breed and sex, and I once applied to raise a set of siblings with a friend. At SEGDI you can’t request type, but you can request sex or a personality type. I told my area coordinator I was fine with either sex, but that a less headstrong puppy would do better in our house, as I own a giant German Shepherd with some fear and reactivity issues around headstrong dogs. Because I had raised before and I had a background in behavior analysis, the area coordinator asked if I would be up for a challenging puppy, and when I replied with “sure!” she passed along that info to the school.

Because of specific raising methods, GDB puppies don’t attend outside obedience classes, but SEGDI puppies are encouraged, and sometimes even required, to attend a regular obedience class for ‘strange dog exposure.’ As all 8 puppies currently in my new puppy club were in need of taking an obedience class, I offered to teach one for the club, have it open to outside pet dogs, and have the proceeds from the class fee for pet dogs go toward fundraising for a club outing with the puppies. The area coordinator seemed to like this idea, and said she would check with SEGDI to make sure it was allowed.

All I had left to do was wait the agonizingly long week until I could pick up my puppy, all the while wondering what would it be? A black lab? Golden retriever? Boy? Girl? I knew that, because they had large litters born over the summer, there was a shortage of puppy raisers, and some puppies had been waiting in the kennel for their raiser homes. So most likely I wouldn’t be getting an 8 week old puppy like I was used to, but rather a 4+ month old puppy that was still waiting for a raiser. I was anxious to learn the breed and sex, but I would have to wait find out…

img-guidedogMaybe a cute yellow lab?

Hawkins: The Life of a Guide Dog

Hawkins

Most people recognize a guide dog when they see one. A dog, most often a Labrador, Golden Retriever, or German Shepherd, but occasionally  a different breed, wearing a leather harness with a rigid handle, leading a visually-impaired person down the sidewalk or through a building. They avoid obstacles, watch for cars and are the eyes of the person on the other end of that handle. Or, you may even see them while they’re growing up, small puppies, wearing a colored vest or cape that proudly states “Guide Dog Puppy in Training.” Most people stop to comment on the cute puppy, some are even allowed to pet (if they’re lucky!) but the general consensus from the public is that “I could never give it up.” Puppy raisers generally just smile and nod. They know they’re not really giving that puppy up- they’re sending it on. Much like a parent raises a child to grow up, go to college, leave the house, and live their own life, so puppy raisers do the same for the puppies in their care.

This is the story of Hawkins, one most exceptional guide dog, if I do say so myself.  Hawkins was born in the breeding/whelping kennels of Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. on their sprawling California campus, located in San Rafael, California. The only male in a litter of 7 yellow lab puppies, born to carefully selected and bred parents, dogs from the private breeding colony kept by Guide Dogs for the Blind. Generations of careful, selective breeding have produced dogs with exceptional traits that are highly valued in guide dogs.

At Guide Dogs for the Blind, no two active dogs within the breeding, guide dog or puppy raising programs, have the same name. Their names are unique to set them apart from the other thousands of active dogs in Guide Dog’s programs. If a dog retires or is dropped from the program (‘career changed’ as we call it when they fail guide dog training), the names are recycled for use. Every litter born to Guide Dogs is given a letter, and every puppy in that litter will have a name that starts with that letter. So Hawkins’ litter consisted of Hawkins himself, and his sisters, Harriet, Hashana, Hatari, Hibiscus, Hickory, and Hula. Their early puppy days consisted of eating, playing with soft puppy toys, hearing gentle music within the kennel, and being carefully handled by a dedicated kennel staff. As they grew, they were weaned and moved to the puppy kennel, where they got daily romps in the toy-filled puppy play yard, an area with grass, concrete and rubber flooring (to expose the puppies early to different types of floors), plastic toddler jungle gym equipment to encourage curiosity and exposure to strange looking objects, small flags that flap in the wind, whirligigs, colorful mobiles above their heads (to encourage the future guides to look up!) and even their very own cat. Volunteers wait months for the opportunity to come play with the puppies inside the yard, giving valued interaction and play time to growing puppy minds.

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Baby puppies!

At roughly 8 weeks old the puppies are placed throughout the western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and in the Dallas or Austin areas of Texas. Some puppy raisers have raised dogs for decades and some, like me at the time, are first time raisers. To be able to raise a puppy, I first had to attend several puppy raiser meetings. For my puppy club, the Alameda County Puppy Raisers in Alameda County, California, our meetings were weekly on Tuesday nights. I attended several of these meetings, handling other people’s puppies, learning how to handle a dog, how guide dogs expects their puppies to be raised and trained, learning the commands Guide Dog’s uses, and letting the club leaders evaluate me as a potential puppy raiser. Some commands were universal, sit and down, but some were a little different- “Let’s Go!” for heel, “Go to bed” to go lay on a mat, and “Do your business” to tell a puppy it’s the time and place to use the bathroom.

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After a few of these meetings came the scary in-home interview and home inspection. The club leaders came over to make sure my home was fit to raise a puppy, and because I had a personal dog- my Dalmatian, Chili Pepper- to make sure that Pepper was friendly with other dogs. They check things like secure fencing for a backyard, or to ensure that a pool is fenced off from where the puppy will be using the backyard. They make sure there’s nothing lying around that a puppy could get into, and have a home interview to make sure the entire family is on board and really wants to raise a puppy. As I was in high school at the time, and 17 years old, my mom had to agree to co-raise the puppy with me as my guardian. Since we lived in a 2 bedroom apartment, we had no yard to be inspected, and our home visit went well. From there, I had to puppy-sit a younger puppy and an older puppy for two different weekends, to get a feel for what it was like and how much work would be involved. As soon as that was done I was cleared to raise my own puppy!

When you are told that there is a puppy ready for you, you only get the sex of the puppy and the letter of the puppy’s litter. You don’t find out the name until you actually pick your puppy up. So I was told my puppy would be an “H” puppy, and we spent the rest of the week thinking up all kinds of H names that the puppy could be named. We weren’t even close. That Saturday we drove to the campus and picked up Hawkins from the weaning kennel at Guide Dogs. They provided us a puppy collar with a tag on it, and an adult sized collar with a tag on it. Since this was my first puppy, I also got a small nylon puppy leash, a larger leather leash, a cable ‘tie-down’, a nylabone toy, and a tiny green puppy cape. As my puppy grew, I would exchange this puppy cape for large ones from my guide dog raising leaders.

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Picking Hawkins up at the Guide Dog campus

We stopped for lunch on the way home, and Hawkins got a chance to wear his little green cape for the first time in public. Because he was so small and not yet potty trained, I carried him into the restaurant. After a few moments of sniffing the floor under the table, he plopped right down.

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Baby Hawkins

Now it’s important to understand that guide dog puppies have no access rights. While they wear a little cape to identify them as puppies in training, they are not guaranteed access into public areas by law like a working guide dog (except in the state of Oregon, where the law makes no distinction between a puppy and a working guide). While most businesses are understanding about letting us take puppies inside, if we are asked to leave, we cannot push the issue. Luckily that only happened once the whole time I was raising. Most places are happy to see the puppies come and go and in many restaurants, no one knew there was a puppy in there until we stood up to leave and the puppy came out from under the table! Most people don’t realize that it’s not the dog that has the access rights, it’s the person with a disability that has the right to be accompanied by a dog that helps mitigate their disability. An important distinction. If you were to hand over a fully trained guide dog to a fully sighted person, that fully sighted person would have no protected rights to take that guide dog into any public building.

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Hawkins in my high school physics lab

Nonetheless, Hawkins was my constant sidekick from day one. In California, just 90 minutes from the main campus of one of the world’s largest guide dog schools, most people know what these puppies are, and welcome them into places of business with open arms. Hawkins came to high school with me, including marching band practice in the morning, to all my classes during the day, and to track and field practice in the afternoons. He accompanied me to my evening job as an obedience trainer at PetsMart, and to weekend hangouts at the movies with my friends. He went into grocery stores, shopping malls, on the buses and subway trains into San Francisco, the closest large city to where I grew up in the East Bay of California. As a puppy club we took group outings to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Jack London Square in Oakland, Wednesday night street festivals in my hometown, even to the PacBell stadium to watch a game of baseball with the San Francisco Giants. Hawkins learned to be well behaved in public, ignore distractions, not eat food off the ground, ignore other animals and people, and how to interact with things like automatic sliding doors, shiny floors, statues of scary animals, metal grates on the sidewalk, loud noises, honking cars- things that Hawkins might encounter on a daily basis as a guide dog.

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Me and Hawkins (far left) with my Dalmatian and some puppy raiser friends

Puppy raisers are given a manual with training tips, guidelines, problem solving strategies, and a list of appropriate outings based on a puppy’s age. It’s important not to do too much, too fast with a young puppy. A busy shopping mall at Christmas or a baseball stadium might be too much for a 4 month old puppy, but a 10 month old puppy should be able to handle it just fine. Slow and steady wins the race for puppy socialization. Every month puppy raisers submit training reports on their puppies, listing outings they’ve taken and writing up reports of any problems the puppy is showing. These are compiled and placed in a file to be given to the trainer when the puppies come back to ‘college’ so the trainer can see what’s been going on in the puppy’s training since day one.

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Hawkins, getting bigger!

After about 16 months in their puppy raiser’s care, the dreaded letter comes in the mail. “The time has come for your puppy to return to our San Rafael, California school to begin training to become a Guide Dog.” The letter gives details on the weekend that your puppy needs to be returned, as well as the kennel’s hours. Including Hawkins, 7 puppies from our club were scheduled to go back for training that weekend.

That Saturday I put Hawkins in my truck and drove him the 90 minutes up to the guide dog school. I took some pictures, and with tear-filled eyes, I was lead to his kennel. The trainer told me to take my time, and to leave Hawkins in the kennel when I was ready to leave. I tried to explain to Hawkins how much I loved him and that I wasn’t abandoning him, but that he was going to be an amazing guide dog for someone. I also whispered to him that if he decided not to become a guide dog, he was always welcome home, but I knew as long as he didn’t chase his tail too much (something he loved to do) that he’d be a guide dog.

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Hawkins, all grown up and ready for college

Monthly recall weekends can bring in several dozen dogs at each of the two training campuses, San Rafael, California and Boring, Oregon. Puppies that have been raised in far-off locations often return on Guide Dog’s puppy trucks, small buses that have been converted with veterinary kennels on either side of the aisle. Puppy staff drive these buses out to the remote raising states, dropping off new baby puppies and picking up adult puppies ready to come back to college. In this way, raisers in places like Utah are saved the expensive of a very long drive or even a flight back to pick up and return puppies. Everybody loves to see the puppy trucks!

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Many people opt to raise again, and many people choose to pick up a new puppy that same day in order to heal the heartbreak of  leaving your adult puppy in the ‘puppy dorms.’ While I had applied to raise another puppy, which I was supposed to pick up the same day I was dropping off Hawkins, my second puppy  (who would end up being a black lab named Narci) had come down with a puppy tummy bug, and the kennel staff had decided it would be best to wait another week before I took him home. So I left the kennel with an empty leash, climbed into my truck and cried the whole way home.

After the first two weeks of initial health checks, hip and elbow x-rays, eye exams, blood work, complete physicals, and finally being neutered, Hawkins was placed into a training string with about 30 other dogs and roughly 4-5 trainers. The best of the best of the puppies that come in, who have the best physicals and certain personality traits that the breeding department would like to pass on to future guide dogs, are selected as breeders and are placed with ‘breeder custodian’ families, who keep the breeder as a family pet and bring it back to be bred when Guide Dogs requests. Since Hawkins was not selected as a breeder, he entered guide dog training. The training is broken down into 10 ‘phases’ and every week on Friday, the puppy raisers would get a ‘phase report’ which would tell us what phase of training our puppy is in.  I waited on pins and needles every Friday to see if Hawkins would move up a phase. Over the next 5 months I watched Hawkins progress through the 10 phases until he was deemed ‘class ready.’

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The dogs learn how to find and stop at down curbs and up curbs, how to find doorways and go around obstacles. The dogs are trained to look up to make sure there are no low lying branches or other things that might whack their handler in the head. They check for cars before crossing the street, and are trained to drag the handler backward to safety if a car unexpectedly pulls out. It is the handlers responsibility to know where they are going and to give directions to the guide dog. Although most guide dogs memorize familiar routes, the dogs themselves can’t read street signs or stop lights, so the handler must know how many blocks before turning right, and must pay attention to the sounds of traffic patterns to determine when it is most likely safe to cross the street. A guide dog’s final test is to escort a blindfolded trainer through one of the busiest areas around the campuses, downtown San Francisco or Portland.

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When Hawkins finally mastered all of this he was placed with a visually impaired person. I received a letter inviting me to his graduation, just a week after my own high school graduation. When a visually-impaired person receives a guide dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., they come to one of the two campuses and stay for 28 days (if it’s their first guide dog) or a 2, 3 or 4-week refresher course if it’s their 2nd or subsequent guide dog. The first week is spent learning how to handle a dog and what commands the dogs use, and practice guide dog work is done with a trainer holding a harness and pretending to be a dog, or a rolled up rug with a collar on it, affectionately called “Juno. ” The trainers know the dogs they trained, and after a week of working with the students, they carefully match dog personality to people personality, and assign the class ready dogs to the visually-impaired students based on these factors to ensure a good match. In this way they make sure a heavy handed handler doesn’t get a soft dog, or a soft handler doesn’t get a headstrong dog. They also match pace, to ensure a slow walking dog doesn’t get placed with someone who prefers to walk fast.

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Walkway on the California campus

Guide dogs pays for a student’s flight, as well as room and board costs, and of course, there is no charge for the dogs or their equipment. Students live in the on-campus dormitory, and meals are served restaurant-style in the dorm’s dining room. The dorms also have an exercise room, laundry rooms, a pool, and dog park areas where a student can walk their new dogs or let their dog off leash for time to romp and play. Student rooms are private, like a hotel room, with private baths and direct access to the outside courtyard for relieving dogs.

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Students learn to use their new guide dogs first in the smaller city streets of San Rafael and Boring, working their way up to more complicated and difficult areas of San Francisco and Portland.

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The final day of class is graduation day, and the puppy raisers get to come see their puppy again, and meet the handler that received their puppy. A graduation ceremony takes place, where puppy raisers present the puppies they raised to the handlers that will be their new best friends. On the graduation letter is the name and address of the new handler of the puppy you raised. So when I arrived on Saturday morning, I already knew the name of Hawkins’ new handler, and I knew Hawkins would be going to live in the great state of Texas. I brought along my current guide dog puppy, black lab Narci, as well as a scrapbook of pictures of Hawkins’ puppy days, along with captions in braille, done by the lovely receptionist at Guide Dogs. Very few visually-impaired people are totally blind, a majority have some sight, ranging from light perception to tunnel vision to peripheral vision, or spotted/blurred vision, and some can even make out some of the pictures included. Although people laugh, even today, when I tell them I gave a scrapbook of pictures to each of my graduating guide dog puppy’s handlers, the truth is, even if they can’t see the pictures themselves, they have friends and family members who can, and who doesn’t love to show off puppy pictures? For each scrapbook I gave out, I found out the graduate’s preferred method of reading, and transcribed the scrapbook in that way. Some scrapbooks were done in Grade 1 Braille, some in Grade 2 (shorthand) and some I recoded on cassette tape, describing each picture on a voice recorder.

When Hawkins saw me at the end of the hallway, he took a flying leap at me, and I dropped everything I was holding, including Narci’s leash. Luckily my friend was with me and she quickly grabbed Narci before he could scamper off like the mischievous puppy he still was, and picked up my things as Hawkins turned himself inside out in excitement. We were all able to visit for a short while before the ceremony, some pictures were taken by the photographer, then Hawkins was left with me while the graduates lined up on stage. One at a time the puppy raisers came out and presented the new guide dogs to their new owners. After the ceremony we went out to lunch, and I was able to see Hawkins in action as a real guide dog for the first time. After lunch I said my goodbyes to Hawkins and his new handler, and left the guide dog school, happy that Hawkins was now a working guide dog.

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Hawkins in harness, now a fully-fledged guide dog!

I went on to raise three more puppies and co-raised a fourth for guide dogs, before moving out of state and out of the puppy raising territory. When I moved to Texas several years later, I thought of Hawkins, living just 4 hours away, but decided against writing or calling. I was busy with work, graduate school, competing with my own dogs in schutzhund, and working with a search and rescue team, and I figured his handler was probably equally as busy. I missed raising, and while I lived there, Guide Dogs started a brand new puppy raising club in Dallas, the same city that Hawkins was working in (I would find out years later that they actually moved out of Texas, but I didn’t know this at the time), but at 4 hours away, it was too far for me to become a puppy raiser again. Shortly after I left Texas, having graduated from my graduate program, a puppy club would open in Austin where I was living, ironically.

I moved temporarily to Tennessee and it was in December of 2012, nearly 10 years after I’d last seen Hawkins, that Guide Dogs gave me a call. Hawkins had been retired due to his advancing age (he was approaching 12 years old) and some arthritis. His handler couldn’t keep him in his old age, and he’d been returned to the guide dog school for placement. Did I want him back?

Did I want him back?! Yes!! Of course! I jumped at the chance to bring home my Hawky-Wockie with the cute pink nose. The ‘corndog’ puppy (so nicknamed because he was yellow on the outside, pink on the inside, and a total goofball).  But I was in the middle of getting ready to move to West Palm Beach for a job offer, and couldn’t get him. Even if Guide Dogs brought him to me, I had no where to put him. So I called my mom, who still lived in California, who owned one of my puppies, and my co-raised puppy, that had both failed guide dog school. She was happy to keep Hawkins for me for a few months, and made the drive to the California campus to collect him.

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Picking Hawkins up

Guide dogs takes care of their dogs, even into old age. When a dog retires, the handlers, of course, can keep them as pets themselves, but for many handlers, that’s not an option. Especially if they live in a no-pets apartment, when the dog retires and is not being used a guide dog, their access rights expire, too. Some handlers travel extensively for work, and can’t leave their retired guide at home, and some are nervous about caring for an elderly dog with no way to get to the emergency vet quickly if their dog were to go downhill fast. Guide dogs always asks the dog’s puppy raisers first if they would like the dog back. If the puppyraiser can’t, then there is a long waiting list of people who love to adopt these elderly dogs, and Guide Dogs spares no expense finding the perfect homes for any of their dogs being released from the program.

When I finally picked Hawkins up I was excited to see him again. Other than a white face now, he looked much the same, same blocky head, same cute pink nose. Same happy labby smile. I’m not sure he remembered me, but followed me about the house nonetheless. I drove him back to Florida, stopping for a pit stop in northern Florida, where his handler now lived. He hadn’t seen Hawkins since the previous December, and when I found out he was right along the drive home, I offered to stop for a visit. Hawkins was happy to see the family he’d spent the last 10 years with, and the afternoon seemed to fly by before I realized we’d have to head out in order to make it home before 3am.

Hawkins is now happily enjoying his guide dog retirement, lounging in the sun on the grass, chewing bones, and eating cookies. He’ll live out his final days here (of which he has many left- he’s in great shape for a 12 year old dude), and it seems most fitting that, while he started life with me in California, he’s come down here to south Florida, like so many other retirees, to enjoy the warmth and sunshine in his retirement. And pretty soon, he’ll be helping me start the process all over again with a brand new guide dog puppy…

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Epilogue: Shortly before Christmas of his 13th year, Hawkins was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, a.k.a. spleen cancer. Sadly it had already spread to his heart and lungs by the time we detected it. The Guide Dog school spared no expense, paying for all his veterinary needs. We kept him comfortable, had an enjoyable last Christmas with him, and then made THE appointment at the vet in late January when he started to go downhill quickly. Hawkins didn’t make it all the way to the vet that day- he died in the backseat of the car with me holding his head, while we were waiting for the vet techs to bring a stretcher. Luckily, through the miracle of technology, Hwakins had a long FaceTime call with his former handler the night before he died, and perked up quite a bit, waging his tail and looking around for the source of his handler’s voice. It was a privilege to spend his first year and a half and his last year and a half with such an amazing dog.