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.