Monday, December 19, 2011

Puppy Raiser Day December 17th

As most of you know, the last puppy I raised was a very light-colored male yellow Lab named "Dodger" (actually "The Artful Dodger," after the character in Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist, since artfully dodging obstacles seems like a prime trait for a guide dog to have). Since I raised his mama and was friends with her breeder host, I've known Dodger almost since the day he was born. After a year together, Dodger went in for training this past June, and just two weeks ago, I got word that he had been matched with a visually impaired handler and was going on to become a working guide dog.

On Saturday, I was fortunate to be able to participate in an event that all Southeastern puppy raisers long for and eagerly await: Puppy Raiser Day! I got to meet Dodger's new handler, see Dodger in harness working, and of course see and pet Dodger for the first time since he went in for training over six months ago. Puppy Raiser Day is such an incredible experience that I wanted to share it with everyone who has not been there yet.

It's a hard fact of life that not every puppy raiser gets to experience Puppy Raiser Day. My first two puppies became breeders, so I had to wait a while before it was my turn. This day of celebration and interaction is also something that not every school does, so we are lucky to have this opportunity when it arises. I sincerely hope that everyone in our group gets to have this experience at least once. It is such a wonderful feeling seeing the puppy that you molded and played with and loved for so long go on to give someone else the gifts of mobility, independence, and dignity.

The day began with new Puppy Raising Services Communications Coordinator Carol Cohen (aka PRS CC CC) reading bios of all the students. When she was done, there was not a dry eye in the house. It is amazing and inspiring to hear the life stories of these visually impaired men and women – some blind since birth, some only recently losing their vision to disease, some totally blind, some able to see some things but dealing with serious visual impairment, some tentatively taking the next step in their evolution by getting their first guide dog, some dealing with the passing of a trusted and reliable partner and wondering if they'll ever find another one as good. And each one is now bonding with a new dog at his or her side that someone in the room nurtured and loved just for this purpose.

After the bios were read, we went outside to watch each new team do a route, eagerly waiting to see for the first time "our" dog in harness actually guiding someone. It is an indescribably moving moment. Dodger's new handler, Marty, has had a Southeastern guide dog before. Dodger is his second, and as you can see, they are already a great team. (Marty graciously gave me his permission to post and share these photos.)

After all of the new guide dog teams had completed their routes, they came out to the gazebo area on campus to meet the not-so-patiently waiting raisers and their families. I certainly enjoyed meeting Marty for the first time and looked forward to getting to know him better, but of course at first your anticipation is centered where your heart is, and you want to be reunited with the puppy you've been missing. Luckily, when I asked Marty if I could pet his dog, he said yes! It was great being able to once again feel Dodger's soft fur and big ears, and to give him a big hug. He seemed to like it, too. They say that this is the happiest day in your pup's life, because all of the people he loves – his raiser, his trainer, and his new handler – are in the same place together. I'm sure that's true.

This picture was taken after we had been together a while and Dodger had settled down a bit. What a handsome guide dog!

We went back inside for brunch, where I had a chance to talk a lot more with Marty, each of us eager to learn about the other and to share stories about Dodger. Marty is a great guy, very easy to talk to, and it's obvious that he loves Dodger and that they are a perfect match. I know Dodger will have a terrific life together with Marty and his family.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. As we said our farewells, I got in my last Dodger hug of the day.

Now the 90-day countdown until the guide dog handler can contact the puppy raiser begins! (Well, starting from graduation on 12/21.) I have a feeling this will not be the last time I see Marty and Dodger.

Florida Botanical Gardens December 13th

Because of the holidays, we are only having one meeting this month, so I decided to do something different and make it a night meeting to see the holiday lights at the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

As we often do, we started off with some obedience in the parking lot – or more accurately, on a bridge that spans a marsh in the middle of the parking lot. As we also often do, we began obedience with a forward walk, though this time we varied the pace to sometimes go faster or slower than our normal gait. There is no command used to go faster or slower; the pup should match your gait, whatever it is, though as you slow down, you may have to tell the pup "easy" if she begins to pull. We also practiced coming to a stop (again, there's no command, but you want to take a few steps to slow down to a stop) and turning using "right about."

Then everyone lined up on the dark bridge doing down-stays while I brought out a series of distractions. I started weaving a flashlight around the pups – no reaction. (Yay!) Then I brought out a plastic milk jug that I dropped and kicked about. That got the attention of a couple of pups. Then I brought out a whole garbage bag full of plastic bottles and dragged and bounced it around. I followed that by waving an empty plastic bag around. Some of the dogs looked at me like I was nuts. (I swear sometimes I feel like Carrot Top, opening up my trunk of distractions, looking for the next bit. I just hope no one is laughing.) Finally, I pulled out the secret weapon of our two youngest pups, Bobby and Tommy, and had them walk in front of all the other pups. Bobby wanted to play with everyone, and even got a few takers. All in all, though, a job well done!

Then we moved to a lighted spot to have everyone introduce themselves, since we've had some new and returning raisers lately. Also new to the meeting was Tommy, being raised by Donna and Marv. Tommy is a yellow goldador male from Angel's litter with Max, so he's already family. Did I mention that he's my grandpuppy?

We also have a couple of pups leaving us to go on to the next stage in their training: Gabby, raised by Chris and Starr, and Dawson, raised first by Nancy and Karene and finished by David. I will miss Dawson for the simple reason that he is always more excited to see me than my own dogs! Good luck, Gabby and Dawson! I know you will both do great.

Finally, I announced to everyone that the last puppy I raised, Dodger, was matched. (Yay!)

I had a few other important announcements. First, Leslie Shepard is now the Puppy Raising Services Manager, with Tara Woodard becoming PRS Coordinator. New addition Carol Cohen is now PRS Communications Coordinator. Jen Gerrity is still the PRS Field Rep. Some new forms have been introduced for when you pick up a puppy and when you turn one in for training. And the current policy for females in heat is for the raiser to keep her throughout her heat cycle, since the school does not have available space for boarding. This may change as circumstances change. In the meantime, it is important to remember that if you have a female in heat, you should never leave her in a fenced-in yard unsupervised (something you should never do with your pup anyway); walks in the neighborhood should be brief and close to home. While your pup is in heat, do not take her out on outings. Please let me know if you have questions about this.

I also revealed that I was in the process of getting my landline number transferred to a cell phone. I had actually hoped to show off my arrival in the 21st century at the meeting, but AT&T and Verizon were battling for the title of Most Incompetent Customer Service and could not be interrupted. (For the record, Verizon went on to win the title, though in either case, this does not bode well.) Wouldn't you know, when I got home after the meeting, my cell phone had magically been activated. (Yay!) Now I can be reached 24/7 by puppy raisers everywhere (fees may apply). Oh, wait...

With that, everyone was free to enjoy Holiday Lights in the Gardens! This is a truly delightful and festive display that I and my camera cannot hope to capture, so I kept my lens pointed toward the pups. Here is Donna walking Tommy on the entrance boardwalk. (Did I mention that he's my grandpuppy? I'll try to take pictures of the other pups, too, I promise.)

Donna Thompson was caught on the path admiring the lights with Lizzy. (Sorry about cutting off your head there, Donna; I'm known for doing that.)

A bunch of us gathered in the main courtyard before and after (and during?) seeing the lights for some final holiday wishes.

Here's hoping everyone has a safe and joyous holiday season!

Breakfast with Santa December 10th

A few raisers from our group (Donna and Marv, Elizabeth, and Victoria with her two grandsons) joined me at this year's Breakfast with Santa, put on by the Lions Club for children in the Miracle and Challenger Leagues. The event took place at the Lions Club Beach House, and it gave us a chance to catch up with some friends from our old Pinellas County raiser group, of course including Chuck & Debbie Hietala, who are heavily involved in the Breakfast with Santa event and who made me aware of this annual event through their past meetings there.

This breakfast is a great way for these challenged kids and their families to have fun at a Christmas party just for them. There was nonstop entertainment, too, with music by Elvis, a juggler, breakdancing from the Leos at St. Pete High, and the guest of honor, Santa himself, with gifts for everyone. The pups were just an added bonus that was much appreciated by many of the children there, and we know the puppies enjoyed all the extra loving. A great time was truly had by all.

Here's my grandpuppy Tommy (being raised by Donna and Marv), who's not sure if it's appropriate for this huge furry lion to be petting him while in coat. (Honestly, this photo does not do justice to Tommy's confidence when confronted with big game.)

Here is Eckerd making sure Santa knows what a good girl she's been this year.

J.R. could stay here all day.

I hope next year that everyone can participate in this wonderful event.

Biff-Burger November 22nd

Marcy led our November Tuesday meeting at Biff-Burger, which was a night full of distractions both planned and serendipitous. I was handling Hunter for this meeting as part of a condensed puppy camp and completely forgot my duties as staff photographer, so I'm afraid there are no pictures. The good news is, it was dark, so they wouldn't have come out anyway.

This meeting was also special for being a night where we welcomed first-time raisers Bill and Amber with their new puppy, a male chocolate Lab named Bobby, and said farewell to Georgie, raised by Jen, Julianne, and Lincoln Nichter, and Hunter, raised by Eileen Mikals-Adachi.

Marcy started things off by tempting the puppies with treats in her hand, and then she had everyone's pup stand for inspection. After that, we walked through the parking lot, where Marcy had placed treats on her car, and we made note of obstacles in our path by tapping them as we went by with our pups. We're not formally teaching our pups to avoid obstacles – that's not our job or something the school wants us to do – but we do want to start making them aware of overhead obstacles as that is something they will be working on in their guide dog training.

Then we circled back to the front of the building, where a mean cornhole tournament was in progress. For anyone not aware, cornhole involves the tossing of beanbags toward a target. Whether your pup is watching the beanbags fly from the side or seeing them come straight at her as she sits behind the target, it's a great exposure – to say nothing of the half-filled beer bottles on the ground left by the cornhole players, blissfully unaware of the lightning-fast agility of a dog's tongue.

Since Biff-Burger is located on a busy six-lane road, we also took the opportunity to sit the pups on the sidewalk, both facing oncoming traffic and turned away from it. Then it was back to the parking lot for a few more distractions in the form of pine cones and socks. There's a world of distractions out there, and we need to get our pups used to as many of them as possible.

Marcy ended the meeting with a brief discussion of holiday hazards (such as turkey bones and Christmas tinsel) and how to keep your pup safe, reminding everyone that it's perfectly OK to just put your pup in his crate for a while, keeping him out of harm's way and allowing you to relax and enjoy the festivities.

A few of us continued the outing with our pups by having dinner at Biff-Burger, which included not only the usual restaurant distractions but also a walk through the noisy bar with live music.

Let me end by saying good luck to Georgie and Hunter as they continue on with their guide dog education!

Salvador Dalí Museum November 13th

We met on a Sunday in November for our group tour of what is probably St. Petersburg's most popular – and surely its most internationally famous – man-made attraction, the Salvador Dalí Museum, whose eye-catching new building opened earlier this year.

We started with a forward walk outside to let the pups burn off some energy before viewing the artwork, beginning by crossing the bridge at the entrance to the museum. Rick is learning that Eckerd is one art-motivated pup.

Then we walked past the museum to the crosswalk on Bay Shore Drive, crossing over to Albert Whitted Park, which is right next to Albert Whitted Airport. A few small planes took off and landed while we were beginning our journey, though I was hoping for more while we were right next to the runway. Still, it was enough to count as a check on the exposure checklist. (More is always better, though.)

We walked to the end of the park and came back along the water, where the pups had a chance to practice NOT going swimming. Here are Legion and John staying dry. Good job!

As we headed back toward the museum, we had a good view of its unusual design.

Back on the museum grounds, we visited the Wish Tree in the garden, where people tie their wishes on pieces of paper. Our job was to keep the pups focused as they passed the flowing paper. By all accounts, no wishes were eaten, as Tammy and Darlene can attest.

When we arrived back at the front door for our tour, we were enthusiastically welcomed by Pam Whiteaker, who had generously arranged our visit, and Pat Gorman, a former puppy raiser in our group and a docent at the museum who would be conducting our tour. They wanted to take some pictures of our group. With funding down for arts education, so few puppies are interested in art anymore, so when they show up, I guess it's news.

Once the photo shoot was over and we entered the museum, we took the picturesque spiral staircase up to the second floor galleries. Here's Dawson letting David know he's eager to see if the dog hidden in the painting of the toreador is a Lab. (Sorry, Dawson, it's a Dalmatian.)

We could not take pictures of the paintings, but after Pat had showed us several of Dalí's works and unlocked the hidden mysteries in them, we came out to the second-floor atrium for a nice view of the bay.

We ended our meeting in the courtyard outside with a few bits of Southeastern Guide Dogs trivia to help those of us participating in the Great American Teach-In on Thursday to hone our chops. The following picture comes courtesy of Trudy and was taken by her during the photo shoot. It makes a nice portrait of our group on a beautiful, art-filled, waterside day.

A big thank-you to Pam and Pat for making this meeting happen. And I managed to get through this whole post without making any lame Dalí jokes. Surreal.

Meeting with Jen Gerrity October 25th

For our Tuesday October meeting, we had a joint meeting with the Central Pinellas group at the Lions Club Beach House in Treasure Island. Puppy Raising Services Field Representative and Southeastern trainer Jen Gerrity led the meeting, starting with an obedience exercise outside at dusk on the sand behind the beach house. While the setting was pretty, I didn't get any good pictures outside or many inside, so this post will be a little light on visuals!

Jen offered us all a way to help deal with our pups when they are distracted by other dogs, suggesting that we get our pups to focus on something else, especially using the "come" command to bring the pup away from the distraction and get his attention back on us. She demonstrated the technique with one of the pups and then had us practice with our pups in small groups.

After we all had a chance to practice the distraction exercise, we came inside for a short break with refreshments (thanks, Judy!) before settling in for a question-and-answer period with Jen.

Here is Bill with a pup who really wants his question answered. (Bonus points to anyone who knows which pup this is. Maybe his question is, "I'm so cute, why don't you know my name?" Listen, bub, when you get to middle age and you can't remember where you put your favorite toy, you'll understand.) (Edit: When I wrote this post, I suspected that only one pup at that meeting would be looking at me that way, but I couldn't figure out why he was with Bill. Sure enough, that picture-perfect pup is Awesome Dawson.)

Unfortunately, just when things were getting good, I had to step outside with a puppy for an extended potty break, so I don't know and thus can't share the good information that I'm sure Jen gave out. Nonetheless, I think everyone was pleased to have access to a real live Southeastern trainer, and we look forward to Jen's return.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Southeastern Programs, People & More

We wrapped up our meeting at Carillon with some good information to know about Southeastern programs and people.

The first topic involves the many programs in place at Southeastern Guide Dogs, including any number of exciting careers for the puppies we raise that do not end up as working guides, such as:

- becoming breeders of future guide dog candidates;

- learning to be a Veteran's Assistance Dog (part of the Paws for Patriots program, which also includes guide dogs for veterans and facility therapy dogs), serving veterans suffering from anxiety and balance issues, thereby helping them readjust to civilian life;

- being companions in Canine Connections, which gives visually impaired children the chance to experience the responsibility and joy that comes from having a dog, preparing them for the day when they may have their own guide dog;

- being Ambassador Dogs for Southeastern Guide Dogs, appearing at public demonstrations and other events raising awareness of Southeastern and its mission as well as working as therapy dogs visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and schools, where children gain confidence in their reading skills by reading to a dog; and

- becoming a Public Service Dog who works with law enforcement in arson, bomb, narcotics, wildlife, or other detection, including search and rescue.

And, of course, a few go on to become cherished pets adopted by their puppy raisers or the general public.

An important note for puppy raisers: Puppy raisers need to apply before their pup goes in for training if they wish to be breeder hosts or ambassador dog handlers for the pups they raised.

Along with the programs at Southeastern, there are a couple of people whose names puppy raisers should know. Jennifer Bement (rhymes with "cement") handles public relations for Southeastern and is the person to contact if you are contacted by the media or if you think a particular event warrants media attention. Jennifer encourages everyone who posts about Southeastern on the Internet, be it on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or wherever, to avoid referring to Southeastern as "SEGD" or "SEGDI" and instead use "Southeastern Guide Dogs" or just "Southeastern." This will allow Google and other search engines to do a better job of collecting and displaying mentions of Southeastern on the Web – especially since "SEGD" is used by the Society for Environmental Graphic Design. The same applies if you are talking to someone in the media about the school.

McCall Kurland oversees Southeastern's Speaker's Bureau and coordinates presentations educating the public about Southeastern. The Speaker's Bureau Resources page has a lot of useful information to help you give a great talk about the school, whether you're speaking to 100 people or just one. You can also contact McCall directly if you need materials for a presentation or if you know of a group that would like to schedule a presentation, whether or not you would be the presenter. The Speaker's Bureau Resources page also has a link for a "Presentation Report Form," where you can log the hours you spend giving demos and presentations for the school. The school uses this form to help keep track of all volunteer hours given, so that accurate numbers can be entered in grant proposals. The more volunteer hours the school can verify, the better it looks on a proposal, as this displays a strong community commitment to the school and its mission, so please remember to fill out this form whenever you do a demo or make an appearance with your pup at an event outside of your normal meetings and outings. (Note: You only need to enter your name on the first page, as the school already has your contact info.)

I also mentioned that along with enhancements to the puppy early socialization program at Southeastern, where very young puppies still in Southeastern's care are exposed to a variety of sensory experiences (including collars and leashes, crates, multiple surfaces and sounds, rolling wagons, and more) before going home with their raisers, Southeastern is planning to do puppy temperament testing to better match puppies and raisers.

Finally, a note about the new look of Royal Canin Large Breed Puppy food, which now just says Royal Canin Maxi and is a mostly white-and-blue bag with a German shepherd on it. This is the food Southeastern wants us to feed our puppies from the time we pick them up until they are 15 months old (or until we transition them to adult food if IFT is sooner).

Whew! Are we done talking about the October 15th meeting yet?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How to Busy Your Puppy

At our October 15th meeting, I spoke for a bit about tips on busying your puppy, which I wanted to jot down here.

The first step when you are ready to busy your puppy is to take the puppy's coat off. (Eating, drinking, playing, and doing business are all activities where the coat should be off, as well as being petted in public once your pup is 10 months old.)

Next, choose a spot to stand with your puppy. The puppy doesn't choose, you do. Remember, you are training the puppy, not the other way around. If you have a male puppy, choose a spot away from any bushes, trees, poles, etc. to discourage the pup from getting in the habit of lifting his leg when he busies. Practice busying your puppy on a variety of surfaces (gravel, pine needles, cement, wood chips, sand, asphalt, pebbles, etc.), as there may not be a well-manicured lawn available when your pup's visually impaired partner needs to busy his guide dog. Practice in different places at night and on wet grass and other surfaces after it rains, too. If your pup doesn't like a certain surface, try again when you know she has to busy.

Stand in place, give the "busy busy" command, and let your puppy wander around you. If the puppy starts pulling, say "no" and give a gentle leash correction to bring the puppy back with a loose leash. Do not wander with the puppy to help him find the perfect spot. It is not safe for a visually impaired handler to wander all over the place while her dog looks for just the right place to busy, so we want our pups to get accustomed to busying in the spot we pick. If your pup does not busy in a reasonable amount of time (a couple of minutes should do) but you feel sure he needs to, walk for a little bit and choose another spot. Don't let your pup use busy time to forage for snacks, become obsessed with a smell, or sit or lie down for a spell. Gently tug on the leash to keep the pup moving, repeating "busy busy" to remind him why you're there.

What if you need to go in a building but you feel sure your pup needs to busy? Go in the building with the puppy for a short time, maybe a minute (sometimes more time is needed, sometimes less!) and then bring her back out and try again. Often the smells inside will trigger a desire to busy. Just make sure you don't go so far into the building that you can't get back outside when you need to. (If your pup does have an accident inside, tell him NO and get him to stop by gently knocking him off balance or getting him to stand or lifting him up.)

Once your puppy starts to busy, be sure to praise your puppy. You also want to gently place your hand on her lower back. Touching the dog while she busies helps the blind person to know what kind of busy it is and where to go to clean up after the dog, so we do this to get the pup accustomed to being touched while she busies. If there is cleanup involved, have your puppy sit-stay at your side while you clean up after him. Do not let your puppy wander while you clean up. Not only can it be inconvenient, it is potentially dangerous for both you and the puppy, with your attention focused elsewhere and your body in a vulnerable position.

One final note: Remember when busying at home that your pup should NOT use a doggie door and should NOT be left outside to busy in your fenced-in yard without supervision. Even with a fenced-in yard, your pup should be busying on-leash at least 50% of the time.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Carillon Park October 15th

For our Saturday meeting in October, we met at the Hilton parking lot located in the Carillon office park on a beautiful fall morning. We began with some sit-stays and down-stays as I weaved (wove?) through the pups, testing their ability to maintain their position with a new person passing nearby. I then did it again, this time lightly stepping on the pups' paws and tails. No, I do not enjoy tormenting puppies, but the reality is that they will get stepped up (lightly and not), so it is good to help prepare them for that. It wasn't always easy for the pups to stay, but they did pretty well.

Next, we practiced two people greeting each other with their pups calm at their sides. We divided into pairs standing facing each other with our pups sitting at our sides, maybe 10 feet apart. Then one person-dog team moved in one step, and the pup sat again. As long as the pups behaved, we got closer and closer, until finally the two people could shake hands and chat, with nicely sitting pups at their sides. Everyone did great!

Then I talked a bit about the proper way to busy your pup. Since there's a lot to say about this (really!), I will follow up with a separate post on the subject.

After our obedience session, we headed over to the sculpture garden in front of the Raymond James building. The sculpture garden is full of all kinds of statues of people and animals in various poses. These familiar but unmoving forms can be unnerving to dogs. Below you can see Julianne and Georgie checking out a sitting cowboy.

Like the other dogs at our meeting, Georgie didn't really have a problem with it. I complained that our group was kind of boring – everybody does everything so well! Really, great job, guys, for raising these confident puppies that can handle just about anything!

After our uneventful visit to the sculpture garden, we headed back to the Hilton for a walk around the entrance fountain. Here Heather is helping raiser applicant Räandi handle JR, who, of course, is happily unconcerned about the splashing water. Good work for such a little guy!

It was time to head over to the boardwalk that goes around Lake Carillon. Betty Jo and Dawson, along with several other raisers and pups, stopped to watch several turtles swimming next to the boardwalk.

We also crossed the bridge across the lake, with its noisy metal ramps at each end that we made sure to stomp on to see if we could get a rise out of the pups. No such luck. Here JR is leading Heather, no doubt eager to get to the next metal ramp. "Can we do it again?"

On the other side of the lake is a small park around the carillon tower that gives the area its name – a carillon which never seems to make a sound, alas. Pups Georgie (with Lincoln, Julianne, and Jennie) and Tammy (with sitter Lauren) are walking nicely and not lunging for a green, leafy snack – though Georgie does look tempted!

We finally ended up back in a shady spot of the Hilton parking lot, where the pups enjoyed a drink of water while I made some announcements, which I'll detail in a followup entry.

Sunrise Lanes September 27th

Marcy brought her bag of distraction tricks to our meeting at Sunrise Lanes, which she started off with some obedience in the parking lot. Step 1: Everybody swap dogs when the photographer isn't looking, so he won't know who's who! Actually, swapping dogs for obedience sessions is a great thing to do. It helps you appreciate where your pup is doing well while also giving you an idea of areas to work on. For the pups, it helps to teach them to obey whoever is holding the leash.

We began with a forward walk in a circle. Raiser applicant Amber assisted by walking around with a big red stuffed... something. Because you never know when you will run into one of those!

Then Amber was put to work sweeping the parking lot while Marcy raked. Not only do we raise guide dog puppies, we do beautification on the side. Ah, multitasking.

Next, Marcy went all Evel Knievel on us and put on a motorcycle helmet. You would think that would freak out some of the pups, but no, they were ready to go jump Snake River Canyon with her, as evidenced by the enthusiasm of Black Dogs #3 and #4.

Finally, Marcy lassoed some kids rolling by on bikes to take a few spins in front of the puppies.

Then it was time for all of the pups to head into the bowling alley to feel the ecstasy of strikes and spares and the agony of gutter balls – or at least to deal with the sounds those events make. There was some hesitancy at first, but ultimately everyone came out a winner (except the photographer, who couldn't figure out how to get his borrowed camera to take pictures in the dark).

We finished up on the sidewalk walking along the street at dusk and called it a night.

John's Pass September 10th

For our Saturday meeting in September, we revisited one of my favorite meeting places as a puppy raiser, John's Pass. Maybe it's the name... Actually, what I like about John's Pass is that there is so much to do there.

The meeting got off to an exciting start before most of us were even there when Marcy's new BLF finish dog Lizzy BROKE HER CHAIN COLLAR! Incredibly, Dave had a spare. (Really, who carries a spare chain collar, you know, in case one breaks? Guess we all should now.) Joining Lizzy as new pups in our group were littermates Eckerd (YLF, being raised by the Krisemans) and JR (BLM, being raised by Victoria Martin).

After Dave and Samuel stepped in a hurricane machine to see how the dogs would react (no chains broken, fortunately, or even strained), we got under way by walking under the bridge that goes over the pass, with its nice echoey sound and sea birds on nearby rocks tempting the dogs like sirens. Come to me, and crash your ships on these rocky shoals. (Gotta stop reading mythology before I post.) Regrettably, I was too mesmerized to take a photo. The dogs did well, though.

We then proceeded to go up the steps to cross the bridge, stopping halfway across to enjoy the view of the gulf from the observation platform. As if on cue, the drawbridge went up. BONUS! (Only cost me a hundred bucks.) As you can see, the dogs were unimpressed – which, of course, is a good thing.

Then we went back down to cross the boardwalk to the beach so the pups could have a chance to experience the tingle of sand between their toes and the thrill of sea foam rushing up to greet them. They took it in stride.

We came back across the boardwalk, with Rick and Eckerd leading the way, Eckerd looking like she was on a mission. Could it have something to do with those menacing black clouds looming overhead?

Before the storm rolled in, we did one more sea exposure along the rocky shore, just so everyone would have the opportunity to get drenched by a wave. I do believe Diane and Berniece were the soggy "winners," though nature gave me a bit of a comeuppance as well.

Nancy and Dawson go out as far as you can go. I swear I did not make anyone walk the plank at this meeting, it just looks that way.

Finally, we passed back under the bridge from nature to civilization and a boardwalk village full of interesting and fun things to spend money on. That's headless Heather (sorry about that) with Hunter and sister Danielle with Mitch bravely confronting the guard dog at the village pet store. Drawbridges and waves may be no big deal, but stuffed yellow Labs are another story!

The boardwalk provided plenty of open-slat stairs to practice on and all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore, but it didn't take long for the rain to come and wash us all away. As we huddled in our sheltered space, we said goodbye to Berniece, Bruce & Mitch, who would soon be going in for training to begin the next step in their path to become guide dogs.

St. Pete-Clearwater Airport August 23rd

Despite a torrential and gusty downpour that occurred just as yours truly was trying to get from the parking lot to the terminal with supplies and two dogs in tow, we had a memorable meeting at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport. We were joined by the Central Pinellas group, which made the otherwise quiet terminal building seem busier.

We started off in baggage claim, where the dogs were unfazed by the baggage belt warning buzzer and motion of the belt and bags. You can see several of the pups here wondering why we're waiting for bags when we haven't gone anywhere yet. Don't you guys know you're supposed to get on the plane first?

Next, we headed over to security to get some practice in the proper way to travel with our pups. The important lesson to remember here is that if you fly with your pup, you do not ever need to remove your dog's collar and leash or let go of the leash. The best way to go through the metal detector with your dog is to approach the detector, stop just before it, and have your dog sit and stay. You then walk through the detector by yourself and, when told to do so, turn and tell your dog to come. This way you each go through the detector separately while still maintaining complete control of your dog.

You may have heard or been told in the past that you had to let go of your leash to proceed through security. You may even be asked by a TSA agent to remove your dog's collar and leash. Whether or not this was a requirement before, it is definitely not the case now, so be sure to follow the procedure above for the safety of you, your puppy, and your fellow travelers.

(If you're like me and you want proof, here are a couple of links on this topic from the TSA site, about traveling with service animals and pets. Note that even for pets it says, "You may walk your animal through the metal detector with you," so insisting on maintaining leash control with your guide dog in training is simply following standard procedure.)

I believe this is Hunter showing us how it's done. (With several black Labs at this meeting being handled by people who are not their puppy raisers, I could be wrong. Corrections always welcome.)

Hunter does not seem to mind a patdown on the other side one bit.

Once everyone made it through security, we gathered in the waiting area to board our chartered jet to Cancún. Oh wait, that was just a dream. Nonetheless, Allegiant Air was kind enough to allow us to board one of their planes. Here is Victoria with (hm, I wonder if she remembers) Georgie, who prefers a window not too close to the wing.

Tammy relaxes by the bulkhead, which is where traveling guide dog puppies and working guides often find themselves. No barf bag for her!

Here are Melisa and Bruce deplaning down the jetway after our landing in Mexico. Er... Bruce is stylin' in his harness just a few weeks before he goes in for guide dog training.

A big thank-you to Michele at PIE (that's air traffic controller-speak for St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport, though really, why PIE?) for allowing us to have our meeting there and for arranging all the cool exposures. Everyone seemed to have a great time, with some commenting that we should do this every year. I still think for next year's meeting, we should actually go somewhere – though when you walk outside in the warm, humid air with palm trees everywhere, who's to say you're not in Mexico?

¿Tu AC es loco, no?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Puppy Graduates, Nature's Select & Versatile Tiedowns

After our journey through BayWalk, we ended the meeting with a few announcements.

First, two puppies raised in our area were matched in the current class: Isabella, raised by Darlene, and Isabella's sister Maggie, raised by Kim. Congratulations to both raisers and pups!

Second, everyone using Nature's Select food needs to know which one of their many types of food has been approved for feeding to our puppies. It's called "Chicken & Rice High Protein" and comes in a green-and-yellow bag. If you are feeding your puppy Nature's Select food, please make sure you are ordering this type, as only this Nature's Select food is approved for SEGD puppies.

Finally, a word about versatile tiedowns. If you use a small nylon buckle collar (perhaps an old one or one your puppy has outgrown) to help anchor your tiedown, you can create a tiedown virtually anywhere. You'll also need a chain training collar (20 or 22 inches, medium weight), your pup's own nylon buckle collar (which she will wear when tied down), and fasteners to connect each nylon collar to the chain collar. The fasteners pictured below are double-end bolt-snap hooks from Home Depot, but you can also use carabiners or something similar.

Just wrap the small buckle collar around anything sturdy – a heavy furniture leg, a fence post, or (as in my Camry) the metal bar under the passenger seat – and you've got a tiedown for wherever you might need it.

If you need to shorten up the tiedown, you can remove the chain and just hook the fasteners together (or use only one fastener, or three). This is handy in restaurants, especially with young pups, where you can wrap the "anchor" collar around your ankle and keep your pup close by without constant monitoring.

Be aware that a bored puppy could chew through the nylon collar that's tying him down, but with proper supervision and an awareness of your pup's behavior, you'll find you've got a handy solution for a lot of situations.

In a pinch, you can also use a standard leash to wrap around something to create a temporary tiedown, but since this is much more likely to be chewed through by a bored puppy, use with care. In an emergency, such as if your dog breaks its collar, you can also use a leash this way to make a temporary collar-leash combo out of the handle end of the leash.

And if, for whatever reason, you do find yourself with a leash that your puppy has gotten hold of and chewed through, take that lemon and make lemonade! You can use the fastener end of the broken leash to create a "house leash" that you attach to your puppy in the house so that if he engages in undesirable behaviors such as counter-surfing or food-stealing, you are able to grab the leash and give him a proper leash correction.

Up and Down at BayWalk August 13th

Saturday's meeting at BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg was an up-and-down affair providing plenty of practice for various commands.

We started at the garage with everyone parading in a "forward" line through the tunnel on the first floor, with different dogs getting turns to be the leader in the line and stopping (literally) to practice the "right" command when we got to the end of the tunnel and needed to take a couple of turns to come back. Just to review, when you stop with your puppy, you want to take three paces to slow down to a stop (1-2-3-stop). There's no command given to stop; your puppy is learning that when you slow down, he slows down. Do not have your puppy sit when you stop. Once you are stopped, use "left" or "right" to change direction. ("Left" and "right" are used when you are not moving; "left left" and "right right" are used when you are in motion and want to take the next available turn, as when you are approaching the end of a grocery aisle.)

After burning off a little of the pups' excited energy, it was time to "find the elevator" for a ride. As with all the "find" commands, you want to start using the command when you're about 10 feet away from the object being found. You can repeat the command until you arrive. For an elevator, your target is the buttons. Once you get to the buttons, tap that area with your hand to focus your pup on what she has found, and praise her! Then have the puppy sit. Enter the elevator with "forward in," walk to the back, do a "right about," and have your puppy sit again. When you're ready to exit, say "forward out" and go on your way. Do not have your pup stop and sit after you exit the elevator.

We rode up to the top floor in the garage's glass elevators, where a beautiful view of the bay awaited. (Sorry, no picture.) We then walked to a stairwell to practice "find the steps." Again, this command is used when the target is about 10 feet away and repeated until you get to the handrail. Tap the handrail when you arrive, and praise your pup! Then have your puppy sit at the top of the stairs, with the handrail on your right. When you go down the stairs, say "forward down" (or "forward up" for up). You should also shorten up on the leash, so the puppy is beside you, and slow down your pace. The puppy should walk down (or up) one step at a time and not hop to the bottom at the end. Once you reach the bottom (or top), have your puppy sit. Then use "forward" to go on your way. Here are Karenna and Dawson navigating the BayWalk garage stairs.

Tip: If you have a puppy who always wants to go up or down stairs as fast as possible, that puppy is nervous about being on the stairs, and a leash correction (which will feel like it's pulling the pup away from solid ground) will only add to his anxiety. You can help your pup get comfortable on stairs by standing in the middle of the stairway and letting him freely move up and down as he likes, so he gets a better idea of what stairs are and learns to feel comfortable walking up and down stairs with you at the appropriate pace. Keep in mind that, as with most puppy anxieties, you may need to practice this several times to resolve the issue. And don't forget your happy voice!

We continued our journey across the garage to practice "find the elevator" on the other side, rode down to the ground floor, and made our way over to BayWalk. Once there, we found another tunnel where all of us without puppies gave those with puppies a big round of applause. Not only did the raisers deserve it, but it gave them a chance to see how their puppies would react! Then we had one more elevator to practice with, this time without a glass wall. Here I managed to catch Jillian and Bob going up.

The second floor of BayWalk has open railings everywhere overlooking the street and courtyard, so we took the opportunity to have our pups walk along them. David's got his eye on Bruce (not pictured), while Diane walks Berniece, Heather has Mitch, Jennie handles Georgie, and Karenna follows with Dawson.

We had a different type of staircase to practice on in the main courtyard of BayWalk, with quite a few pups and some prospective new raisers coming down together. (That's Betty Jo leading the way with Gabby.)

Then it was off to the movies as we headed into the welcome air conditioning of the Muvico theater. I know everyone was thrilled when I pointed out another flight of stairs to practice on, this one carpeted! There were also arcade games and popcorn smells as we wandered around the concession area, but it was admittedly pretty quiet and clean at 11 in the morning. A couple of puppy accidents also helped remind everyone of the importance of always having busy supplies on hand. We headed into one of the theaters to let our puppies have the movie experience by watching a few previews. (Thanks, Muvico BayWalk!) Here's glow-in-the-dark Bob in eager anticipation for the show to start.

All of the pups did well; none showed an urge to bark at Alvin and the Chipmunks, chew a Muppet, or chase Puss in Boots. We met outside for a few closing announcements, which I'll put in a followup post.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lassing Park July 26th

We were in the Old Southeast neighborhood for our Tuesday meeting at Lassing Park, which featured several different experiences, including a walk along the mucky beach (here modeled by Gabby and guest handler Elizabeth, Georgie's tail and guest handler Stephanie, and Mitch with Heather and Danielle)

and back (with Trudy and John handling Legion, and David handling Bruce),

a trip to the torture cham– uh, I mean pedicurist Marcy (here doing her best to make Berniece look her best while handler Diane looks on),

and quirky distractions like musical chickens, balls, and bubbles (which Tammy and handler Darlene find hard to ignore).

Then it was time to "find the chair" (aka a park bench) and have Bruce practice his best down-under while David relaxes with Trudy and prospective raiser Bill.

I also discussed the importance of giving a good "pop" when doing a leash correction and offered my wrist to each raiser to practice on and to prove it didn't hurt. (Honest, it didn't. Just because it took me 12 days before I could type this meeting recap...)

A couple of other points made during the meeting and worth repeating:

- In the past, we have let our dogs loose at this very same park to romp in the bay, but SEGD policy is to NEVER allow our dogs off leash in an unfenced area, and that includes the beach. So if you take your dog to the beach, it should either be in coat and act like a working dog (as we did today) or out of coat but on leash to play in the water (though not with other dogs).

- The plastic Good Dog Collars that some of us have used are no longer permitted. SEGD experimented with these collars but found that they were prone to break and ineffective in the long run, so these collars are no longer approved for use on SEGD puppies.

- For our own safety, it is important for us to try to be on guard at all times with our puppies, as we never know when something might catch their eye and they will lunge. One way to do this is by keeping our eyes on our puppies when someone is speaking rather than looking at the speaker. Yes, this may seem counterintuitive to good manners, but it's better than getting hurt. Stepping on the leash near the collar can also help maintain control of a dog in a down-stay.

After the meeting, some of us headed over to Diane's house nearby for the pups (and people) to swim and have fun together. A wet time was had by all.

"In" and "Out"

One final bit of recapping to do from our last Saturday meeting (yes, I'm a bit behind here), and that's the use of the commands "in" and "out."

Whenever we go in a door, the command is "in," and when we go out, it is "out." (Crazy, I know.) The puppy should sit at the door and not go in or out until given the command to do so. This is something that should be practiced at home as well as out on exposures. Not only do we not want our puppies darting out of ANY doors on leash, this also teaches them not to dart out of a door even when off leash. In fact, it's a good idea to have your pup sit and wait for you to tell it "out" even when you are just letting it out into your fenced-in backyard – and have it sit again before it comes back "in."

The same basic philosophy applies when your pup gets in or out of a car. Have your puppy sit and wait until you say "in" to go in the car, and then have it sit once inside. (Before you start moving, you will also want to tell it "down-stay.") When you're ready to get out of the car, have the puppy sit when the door is opened and wait until you say "out" before exiting, then sit again.

If you consistently apply this sequence of "sit-in-sit" and "sit-out-sit" at home, in the car, and on exposures, you will soon have not only a safe, happy, and well-mannered puppy but a safe, happy, and well-mannered puppy raiser, too!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Puppy Sitting vs. Puppy Camp

At Saturday's meeting, I also briefly explained the difference between puppy sitting and puppy camp. Both of them involve your puppy going to stay with someone else, but they are not the same thing.

To most of us, "puppy camp" is a new concept. We may have heard the phrase, but we really don't know what it means. Here are the main features that make up puppy camp (as described in the puppy manual):

- the puppy stays with another raiser, usually but not necessarily from your group
- you may or may not get a puppy in return
- the camping period usually lasts from 2 to 4 weeks
- arrangements are made by your AC
- puppy camp is mandatory for all puppies at least once during the raising period, and it's possible a puppy could be in puppy camp up to 4 times
- puppies must be at least 6 months old
- the raiser camping the puppy fills out an evaluation when it is over, to be turned in to the AC.

Puppy camp is a chance for the puppy to experience life with a different handler in a different environment. Sometimes puppy camp can also be a way to assess a puppy with possible behavioral or medical issues, but all puppies should go through puppy camp at least once. While it's OK to ask the person with your puppy for updates, you should not pester them or attempt to see your puppy during the camping period. If a meeting falls during that time, you may greet your puppy briefly at the meeting but should ignore it thereafter.

Puppy camp is tentatively scheduled to occur in our group in October. I will have more to say about this as plans are firmed up.

"Puppy sitting" is a whole 'nother kettle o' fish. Here's a brief outline of puppy sitting:

- the puppy stays with an approved sitter, usually a current or past raiser; exceptions must be approved by your AC
- the time away can be less than a day to a week or more
- the puppy raiser is responsible for making the arrangements (which in our group you may do through Larry or direct contact with the sitter) and must inform the AC of any arrangements made
- a puppy sitting experience is not mandatory, but it can be good for the puppy to spend time in other living environments beyond what is offered via puppy camp
- there is no age limit on puppy sitting
- no evaluation needs to be filled out after puppy sitting.

It is possible that your AC may require a different sitter for a pup if the original sitter is not considered a good match for the puppy. If you need help finding a sitter outside of our approved sitters in Pinellas County, please contact me; raisers should not be contacting ACs of other groups directly for help finding a sitter. Please note that boarding your puppy at SEGD is generally not an option.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

New Training Reports

Our Saturday meeting ended with some info about changes at SEGD and changes in our group.

First, as previously announced, new monthly training reports are here. Since my last pup Dodger went IFT in June, I was in the first batch of raisers receiving the new training reports. They are definitely different, so I wanted to explain them.

Basically, the biggest change is that the training report is now less of a report card grading how your puppy is doing on each task and more of a status report of where your puppy is at in the training process. Near the top, the report states the puppy's name and the month of evaluation as well as confirming his or her breeder evaluate status. It also states what phase of training the pup is in, with a brief description of the tasks in that phase.

Something to remember about training phases is that the higher the phase, the less trainer involvement there is and the more the dog has to make choices. It's quite possible that a puppy in, say, phase 2 of training will demonstrate that it is not yet ready for that phase and will go back to phase 1 to build its confidence and better prepare it to move ahead. Again, the phases show what level the puppy is at, not how well or poorly it is doing. If your puppy spends more time in phase 1 than your neighbor's puppy, it is not a reflection of the job you did as a raiser. (Ditto if your puppy flies through training.) It's just a fact of life that some puppies adjust to the training process more quickly and easily than others.

After the training phase come two sections, for "Training/Commands in Progress" and "Behavior: Behaviors exhibited during training." Each section lists commands or behaviors, with checkboxes by each one. Boxes that are checked show specifically what tasks the puppy is learning in training. A checked box does not mean the puppy has completed that task but simply that the pup is working on it. Because Dodger is just beginning his training adventure, he has only 4 out of 25 boxes checked on his first training report.

The bottom of the report is a section for the trainer's general comments about the dog. Overall, the report is also more colorful.

Raisers might feel frustrated that they no longer see their dogs graded on a variety of tasks as with the old "report card" training reports, but this change came about because some raisers were inadvertently discussing training issues that their pups had had with the students who received those pups as their new guides. I think we all understand the importance of a visually impaired student learning to trust and bond with his or her new guide dog in their first few weeks together. Discussions of training issues listed on report cards had the potential to undermine that trust and make a delicate time for student and dog even more difficult, so the new training reports were devised as a way to continue giving raisers updates on the puppies they raised while ensuring the best possible outcome for SEGD students.

The more information raisers have, the more incumbent it is upon them to be discreet about sharing it. Many guide dog schools prefer to limit the information they share with raisers to avoid a lot of issues. We are fortunate that Southeastern shares as much with us as they do.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

PetSmart & Pinellas Trail Overpass July 9th

Our Saturday meeting in July was a twofer, with the PetSmart on Tyrone Boulevard sitting right next to a part of the Pinellas Trail where a bridge crosses a busy intersection.

As the puppies arrived, they were met by one of SEGD's life-size plastic yellow donation dogs, to see how they would react. None of the pups were particularly fazed by the immobile canine. They were more interested in the animated canines around them. We did a forward circle around the plastic pup and added a couple of live ones in the middle, then did a weave through them all. Everyone did very well.

Next, we got out some towels to wipe down the puppies' paws, just to make sure they were OK with having their paws deep-cleaned. Again, all did well, as Heather and Mitch demonstrate.

Now for the fun part! We split into two groups, with Marcy taking half the group to the Pinellas Trail overpass in the hot sun, and me taking the other half into the air-conditioned pet store. (There are perks to being AC.) As we did at Michaels, the PetSmart group went into PetSmart first out of coat, in case any pups hadn't yet experienced all the interesting things therein. Here is Hunter reflecting on the significance of his name as he encounters the guinea pigs. They don't seem to notice, but fortunately his raiser Eileen does.

Next, we put the coats on and went into working mode. Tammy makes it clear that she doesn't much care for fish, making puppy sitter Stephanie's handling job easier.

Georgie calmly thinks to himself, "Here kitty kitty kitty" as Jennie and family look on.

And Bob takes it all in with David, the only raiser lucky enough not to have his head chopped off by the photographer (that would be me).

Alas, I could not be in two places at one time, so I have no pictures from the Pinellas Trail, but I know our pups got to experience passing bicycles, walking along a bridge with an open view over the roar of traffic, and practicing on concrete stairs, while the raisers were reminded to walk at right angles as a visually impaired person would do rather than take shortcuts through open areas. Marcy also talked about the importance of having a first-aid kit for our pups and what should be in it.

Oh, and there was the experience of sun and rain! As the last puppy raisers were leaving PetSmart, there was a downpour, and I couldn't see Marcy's group anywhere in our covered meeting spot. I'm thinking, "Marcy's going to kill me." Luckily, they were just around the corner and had escaped the worst of the weather. We'll see if Marcy shows up at any more meetings...

With everyone back together again, all that remained was for me to make some announcements, which I'll detail in a followup post.