Saturday, March 29, 2014

Of Puppies and Prisons

Yes, it has been almost 2 months since I last wrote a post. Shameful. But there was quite a bit going on dog-wise in my life, even as Winter refused to let go its grey, icy grip and let Spring soften the land.

In early March there was Graduation Day at St Francis Service Dogs where 13 dogs were matched. Well over half were matched with children and youth: several with autism, one with Downe's, one a facility dog at a school for children with autism, one a seizure alert dog for a college student, a teenager with CP, one a child with severe and chronic medical problems who actually had PTSD and the dog calms her fears. One a judge with MS where the dog goes to court every day; another went to a lady Episcopalian pastor. Several of the people, or the parents of children, spoke about how their lives have been transformed with a service dog. Needless to say, I ran out of Kleenex about halfway through!

Piper is doing well, but he has some energy and does need exercise, so I hope that works out for who he is matched with (assuming he gets matched). One year old this Sunday, Piper is a big beautiful Lab teen now. However I will not be there to celebrate Piper's birthday with him. We have had a puppy swap, or puppy camp as it is sometimes called. Piper is at the kennels at St Francis Service Dogs over the weekend and from there he goes to Bland medium security prison to spend about 2.5 weeks with one of their advanced inmate-trainers.

On my end, I have Skyler, an endearing black female Lab from the puppy prison program at Bland. She is about 13 months old and her hormones are going berserk-o right now. From mid-February thru March she was in heat, then the day I got her, she was found to be having a false pregnancy, as evidenced by her swollen nipples. Wrangell, my handsome yellow male therapy dog of 9 years, is entranced with Skyler. He basically told me, "I have a great idea. Let's keep her for good and Piper can stay wherever he went. Deal?" The old gentleman tried mounting her a few times, but Skyler had that one figured out. She simply sat down...and that was that. Smart girl!

Since Skyler was raised in the prison system, there are many things that are unfamiliar for her. Like loading into a car. Because prisoners can't drive, of course. Once I got her to put her front paws up, and then tried to help her from the back, she resisted and dropped to the ground. Eventually, she got the idea and settled in her car crate nicely. I find myself trying to imagine what must be going thru her head as she takes in my world, which is so different from her world in the prison.

Yesterday we went to Gretna Health and Rehab where my plan was just to sit in the lobby a few minutes and watch the comings and goings of visitors and patients, letting Skyler take it all in. She was quite excited but not the way some dogs exhibit excitement with panting and pulling and general restlessness. Instead she sat quite still, with her head straight up, brows and ears up, neck tense, swiveling her head, watching all the people, wheelchairs and canes, with great intensity. Once she got used to the lobby, I decided to take her to the first nurses' station, where the plan was to turn around and head for the exit. Well, we got cornered by dog-loving staff and residents within seconds. Skyler circled away from outstretched hands and stationed herself between my legs and the wall, where she peeked out, as if to say, "Not now, thanks." I explained to her admirers that this was her first time here and she wasn't ready for petting. They were understanding. Total time in the facility was about 15 minutes and it was a good session for her.

She loves the fun walks with my two dogs. She is a sniffer so her nose naturally spends a lot of time on the ground exploring. I can imagine the smells in rural Virginia fields, woods and country roads must be very different than those within a prison compound. So she is having an olfactory fiesta.

My therapy dog group is really growing. We are now involved in visiting 8 nursing/rehab/assisted living homes, 3 libraries, a school for children with autism, a day facility for mentally handicapped, and starting this month, a regional hospital. As the acting liaison between the therapy dog teams and the facilities this is all very exciting and challenging for me. There are a wide range of needs and a wide range of dogs (about 15 teams) to meet those needs. Trying to keep abreast of who goes where and when keeps me on my toes!

I hope this helps explain why I've been a delinquent blogger. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dorian on Youtube

The three month probationary period is up and I am now free to try to contact guide dog Dorian's new furever partner, Carlene. In preparation for this I have been fashioning a video of Dorian's early life with me the puppy raiser, a span of time which lasted exactly one year. One year that went by too too quickly!

Every time one of my pups is matched, I try to give their new partner a CD video, in a slide show format set to music. Also I give them a little story book of their dog as a puppy. What with all the weather days, I have had more time to spend on Dorian's video than normal. And, for the first time ever, I have put something on Youtube (with Sam's help of course).

Here is the link to Dorian's Early Life as a Southeastern Guide Dog in Training:

Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Farewell Marcella and Max

Marcella and Max were a team. Marcella was a strikingly tall, slender black lady, Max a gentlemanly, long-legged blue standard poodle. They appeared made to order for each other. Marcella made it clear that Max's coat was blue. In his early years Max had been black, then turned to a gun metal shade of grey, in poodle circles known as "blue".

They were a team, yet last weekend, family and friends were shocked to discover Marcella and Max had perished in a house fire. Together. I imagine if Max had been given the opportunity to escape, he would have chosen to stay to the end with Marcella.

Two and a half years ago, someone gave me Marcella's number. "She heads up a therapy dog group that visits nursing homes around Danville on Tuesday mornings. Maybe you could take Emmy on an outing with them." Emmy was my Southeastern guide pup in training and almost one year old. As a puppy raiser, I was always looking around for interesting, educational places to work her. A nursing home and some exposures with other dogs might be a good thing.

So I gave Marcella a call. After introducing myself, giving a little background, we launched into a dialogue sharing and swapping favorite dog stories for almost an hour. It was quite delightful. Although not face to face, I felt relaxed and at ease with her. She told me I was most welcome to join the group at next week's visit, and I did.

So began my adventure into the world of therapy dogs. Within a year I had registered as a therapy dog team with my career-changed yellow Lab, Wrangell. As the official Tester/Observer for Therapy Dogs Inc, Marcella and Max were the ones to put us through our paces. Observing us on three different occasions, Marcella signed off our paperwork, and with congratulations, passed us as a team. I was so proud the day Wrangell wore his orange vest with patches stating "Therapy Dog" and "I'm Friendly - Please Pet Me" and his official TDInc tag. Wrangell took to therapy dog work with the same heart that he takes to a Wubba in water. He can intuitively handle people of all ages, shapes and sizes, temperaments and dispositions. Nothing phases him.

Emmy, CeCe and Dorian, my consecutive guide dogs in training, all fell under Marcella and Max's tutelage and guidance, as we winded our way down halls and carefully navigated our way under hands bent with age and voices dry as the wind. Marcella and I liked to take our time as we visited. We let the residents set the pace. When we entered the facilities, time slowed to another dimension.

I loved Marcella's ever-present chuckle-laugh and yet she had a strength. She had not merely traveled but actually lived in several foreign countries. As her father was an ambassador, she grew up in Africa. At present she spent her summers in Arizona, where she kept a horse and rode in the desert. You felt this lady had seen a lot, good and bad, yet loved life, her family and Max.

And so it was unsettling when, week by week, the group noticed her pace become slow and labored. She became unsteady and started using Max for support. When Marcella and I now walked the halls we didn't go as fast, or as far, but we still enjoyed ourselves, our dogs, the residents. Sometimes Marcella seemed confused, or overly forgetful. The group worried about her. She went to doctors who could not conclusively say what was the cause.

Sometimes Marcella would turn to me and say in a serious voice that I needed to become a TDInc. Tester/Observer. I would laugh her off, but somehow I knew she meant it, that she was handing it off to me. Last summer I finally applied and was accepted as T/O. I was thrilled. Around the same time Marcella went on vacation. When fall arrived the therapy dog group looked for the tall black lady with the tall blue poodle, but Marcella and Max never joined us again. I talked with her on the phone and her condition, she said with a laugh, was no better. "Those doctors only prescribe me aspirin. They haven't a clue."

Then last Saturday night, the news about Marcella and Max and the house fire. It is still under investigation. Her husband was on a trip and there was no one home with her except their two dogs. What happened that night may never come to light. I pray she and Max fell asleep, and the fire's fumes kept them under. More than a friend, Marcella was a mentor, a kindred spirit. Between us, running strong and true, was this common thread - our deep love of dogs.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Head Halter: A Love/Hate Relationship

Piper in Hobby Lobby picking out dog bed material.

 Although I've raised puppies for guide dog organizations for several years, it wasn't until I switched to raising for St Francis Service Dogs that I started using the Gentle Leader, generically known as the head halter. To date I'd had plenty of experience walking dogs with flat collars, martingale-type collars, chain collars and Easy-Walk harnesses. Each one has its pros and cons. But the head halter was something new altogether.

 A dog's head halter reminds me of a horse hackamore. The hackamore is a type of training equipment often used to transition a young horse from halter to bridle. Briefly, it allows you to guide the horse not by a bit in his mouth, but by pulling reins attached to a noseband. The noseband exerts pressure on the horse's nose, chin and face.

For a dog the Gentle Leader works on a similar principle. The leash is attached to the nose loop, and when the dog pulls away from the handler, pressure on the dog's nose redirects his forward momentum, causing the dog to slow down or turn towards the handler instead. In that sense it makes walking a strong, active young dog much easier and less strenuous, which is great for the handler.

Piper at 4 months having lunch, wearing the Gentle Leader.
However from the first time Piper wore a Gentle Leader, at about 10 weeks old, he disliked it. He rubbed his head on the floor, on my legs and shoes, on the furniture, he tried to peel it off with his paws. Not being blessed with opposable thumbs, this was not possible. When I mentioned Piper's distaste for the halter, the trainer suggested I put the GL on whenever he was about to do something pleasant, like at mealtimes, chew time, fun walks, etc. This I religiously did but Piper wasn't buying into the Gentle Leader = Good association. You know the saying, "To call a spade a spade?" If Piper could talk he would have his own name for the Gentle Leader and I don't think he'd use either the word "Gentle" or "Leader". Maybe it's good dogs can't talk.

Piper at the Lynx train station, Charlotte, NC

Piper is nine months old now, and wears the Gentle Leader most times we work together. When it's first put on, what follows is intermittent head rubbing, snuffling and snorting along with some comments from the audience present such as, "Is that a muzzle?" and "Oh, has he been bad?" and "He really doesn't like that, does he?" You learn to gracefully shrug off these comments. Eventually Piper settles down in his GL and walks reasonably well. And the GL does give me great leash control. But somehow I can't help feeling it changes his personality. Piper seems a different dog with the GL on, not as happy and bright as he would be otherwise. However, Rules is Rules, and Piper, just like all the other service dogs in training at St Francis, must learn to use the Gentle Leader. It's a fact of life.

There is an important reason the school trains their dogs in the use of head halters. While a puppy raiser or a trainer can be capable of managing a young dog on a leash, when the dog is matched with a disabled person, loose-leash walking may start to fall apart. And dogs can quickly sense when to take advantage of a person. So their new partner needs to have tools to fall back on, one being that the dog can be easily walked on a Gentle Leader.

St Francis PR outing to downtown Roanoke.  Dogs L to R:  Newton, Shasta, Bijou (hidden), Lexi, Joli, Piper, Jeter.

This makes sense I suppose. It is encouraging when I notice Piper forgets he has the GL on for long stretches and life is good. Maybe it's my imagination, but these episodes seem on the increase. Head halter or no, Piper does LOVE working. Wearing his Gentle Leader may be a little daunting, but as one dog aficionado told me, "It's kinda like getting used to wearing a bra." Ha! Glad there's no leash attached to one of those!

Piper and I join a Southeastern Guide Dog outing to downtown Charlotte. Piper is seated between Patti (L) and Beverly (R). The guide dogs in training are wearing martingale collars.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Meeting Sam and Self-Control

Sam and young Piper last June

Sam and Piper in December
Piper is head-over-heels in puppy love. However, the object of his ardent affection and undying love is not some canine cutie, but my son, Sam. Sam has been a key player in Piper's young life since the little pup was seven weeks old. Together Sam and I have taken Piper on local expeditions and excursions, and he has witnessed Piper's growth through many awkward, laughable stages. Often at the house, Piper and Sam just hang together on the floor, Piper sprawled on his back, sparkling brown eyes fixed on Sam. When Sam is absent any length of time, Piper sits on the front porch with his head resting on a low rail and eyes dreamily fixed on the driveway, for all the world as if he's waiting for his special man to drive up.

Although Piper is my close partner and we have amazing times together, Sam is something special - the absolute light of his life. As Piper's raiser, handler and teacher, I don't see anything wrong with this. On the contrary, I think it is wonderful Piper can forge strong attachments with other people since close relationships are an important facet of a service dog's life. In fact, I am rather relieved. As a small puppy Piper tended to be rather aloof and independent and I used to worry about him giving people the cold shoulder.

Piper loves the cold and ice.
Not the problem anymore. More recently, when Sam's visited our house or we've visited the library, where Sam does IT work, Piper is beyond ecstatic - he is a whirling dervish of dog blissfulness. These meet and greet sessions used to be overwhelming, noisy and even painful. "Shush, Piper! You're in the library!" and "Oh, sorry, did Piper get you in the face again?" So, it came about that I turned Piper's infatuation into a training opportunity to teach my teenage dog the fine art of self-control.

One day when I heard Sam drive up, instead of letting Piper hurl himself at the back door, I quickly snapped on the leash. As Sam walked in, I positioned myself with Piper on the far side of the room and told Sam to stay by the door and wait quietly. With Piper weighing in at 65 pounds of solid muscle, our slick floors gave me a big advantage. He couldn't get a solid purchase to claw and haul himself over like a lassoed bull. Because I stayed rooted in one spot, Piper finally decided to pay attention and cooperate. Reaching Sam was his big reward.

The aim was for Piper to sit on a loose leash and check in with me, though it was fine if he watched Sam as well. When Piper was ready for permission, I'd softly say, "Piper, you want to Go Visit? Let's Go." We'd take a step or two forward. This is when Piper would try to launch himself again, at which point I would anchor myself again and we'd started the calming-down, checking-in-with-me process all over again. Whenever he completely ignored me, we'd play Monopoly:  Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, meaning we'd retreat to the far corner and start all over. "Hmm," thought Piper, "that didn't work like I wanted."

To move forward, he had to exercise self-control by walking at my pace and not surging ahead. Reminding him with "Eee-asy" helped. In fits of starts and stops, we slowly advanced across the room toward the prize - Sam. Finally, finally he calmly reached Sam. I released him with a "Go Visit", and they had a glorious reunion, where Piper lifted his muzzle, laid back his ears and molded his body around Sam's legs. He let out a little groan of pleasure. It was too cute. I gave Sam and Piper a minute of howjadoo-time, then called Piper away with a treat and lots of praise. Over to the far side of the room we retreated and did the whole exercise again.

By the third repeat, Piper got it, loose-leash heeling nicely across the room with only minor stops and reminders to walk easy. Success! At the start of this exercise I had to exert quite a bit of control over Piper, but it progressively switched to Piper understanding he needed to control himself. The big payoff was after the third repeat Sam and Piper got a nice, long visit. Sweet!

Piper last Tuesday at Riverside nursing home. Starting to figure it out!
After doing this exercise with the ultimate challenge (Sam), Piper shows way more self-control when visiting strange or familiar people in all types of settings. I ask the person to stay put while I bring Piper calmly to them and he visits with my permission. Usually the greet is short and sweet, and Piper is called away with a treat and praise. Now Piper has clear-cut guidelines for greeting people, and he's not confused about what's expected of him. And I don't have a rowdy, possibly unsafe situation with a 65-pound teen dog dervish. Teaching high drive Piper self-control during the puppy/teen stage makes him a joy to be around:  for me, Sam and those future loves of his life.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Peter Piper....

A few of the Danville Therapy Dog group (Therapy Dogs Inc) dressed in their Christmas regalia. L to R:  Piper, Megan, Bonnie, Maggie and Bolt. Piper is not a registered therapy dog, he just tags along for outings.

As well as raising a puppy for St. Francis Service Dogs, I am also heavily involved in therapy dog work. It started about two years ago when I heard about a nearby therapy dog group that met on Tuesday mornings at nursing/assisted living homes for a hour. Each Tuesday of the month the group, consisting of between 6 and 10 therapy dog teams, went to a different facility. At that time I took my guide puppy, Emmy, and discovered that I enjoyed this work very much, besides its providing a great opportunity for my puppy to train around a variety of well-behaved, "working" dogs, including Irish Setters, dachshunds, Belgian sheepdogs and Pomeranians.

Since then I have taken each of my guide/service pups on therapy dog outings and find that some are natural-born therapy dogs - and some are not. My sweet, loveable guide pup, Emmy, enjoyed the excursions down rabbit-warren hallways and into rooms, but seemed to just be humoring me when it came to interacting with the residents. She would obediently sit, stiffly set her head in their lap in an obligatory fashion, then give me a sideways look as if to say, "Ok, I put my head here. She petted me. Now...can we go?"

In contrast, my over-the-top guide puppy, CeCe, who had such a difficult time with self-control when I took over her raising at the age of 9 months, turned out to be a natural at therapy dog work. Excited about everything, she seemed to intrinsically empathize with the nursing home and rehab residents resting in wheelchairs and beds. Her body would calm and her head sink with a sigh into their laps. Lifting her eyes to gaze up softly, she seemed to be saying "As long as you want me to stay, I will." What! My jaw dropped the first time I saw her do this. Dogs will amaze you.

Piper's "Good Meter" is in the green zone!
Since Piper was a little smidge he has been coming with me, off and on, to Tuesday therapy dogs. Initially his visits consisted of just five minutes of greeting a few therapy dog teams in the lobby. Later as Piper grew, we would walk partway down the main hall, say hello once or twice, then leave. As he got older I had to keep a close eye on what I call his Good Meter. I imagine a meter sticking out of Piper, with a needle and gauge that goes from green (Good Boy) to red (Caution:  Time to Go Now). When he was younger the green area was very narrow indeed, and the needle could quickly rise into the red "Time to Go Now" zone. We would take our cue and head for the exit. Now at 8.5 months, Piper stays in the green Good Boy zone the full 50 minutes or so, walking many halls, navigating tight spaces between tables, beds and chairs in rooms, and passing other therapy dog teams in close quarters. He really enjoys these times in the facilities. However when our visit is done and we gather at a lunch place, an exhausted Piper is happy to sack out under the table.

Now I need to qualify that Piper is NOT a perfect gentleman when he first comes in the facility door. He is Happy! Excited! Ready for Action! Yeah! It is my job to get all that good enthusiasm under control, so we can safely and comfortably interact with the residents and staff alike. So the first few people-visits we hang back. If a person wants to see Piper, then Piper sits politely a few feet away and does some obedience. Amid exclamations of awe and wonder he gets a cookie (he likes that part). When I feel the edge is being worn off his excitement, he moves in closer to a person's side, while I make sure to have my hand under his collar. Thus steadying Piper, the person can then pet for a minute or so. Several greeting sessions later, mixed with obedience, and hall and room navigation, Piper is now at the point where I can relax control a little. He is getting the idea this is all about "easy does it" for which you get lots of attention and treats.

I enjoy therapy dog work on many levels. It is fun and
challenging to work Piper safely in a facility where we are there for the express purpose of brightening someone's day. Also occasionally I find myself caught in a Kodak moment that can oscillate between poignancy and hilarity, as I observe the unique chemical magic between my dog and a strange person. One such moment was this Tuesday.

Piper and I were making the rounds through the home's large exercise room, when I noticed a lady slumped over in her wheelchair. Having just finished her workout, she was waiting to be wheeled back to her room. The woman looked completely done in, her body askew, head down on her chest, eyes closed. Her therapist stepped behind her and straightened her up in her chair. When she opened her eyes, I asked if she'd like to say hello to the dog. She weakly nodded, yes.

Piper came over and sat next to her, his head on a level with her resting arm. She slowly slid her hand over and stroked the top of his head and weakly asked, "What's his name?" I told her his name was Piper, as in Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. She kept stroking him, and then she started the tongue twister:  "Peter Piper..." Yes, I said, that's right, so you know it too. She kept going, very slowly, "...picked a peck of pickled peppers."

As we talked she told me she had a stroke three months ago, back in September. She said it happened in her yard and there was nobody there but the neighbor's dog, whom she often fed biscuits. The dog then alerted people to her plight, which she thinks may have saved her life. As she says this in a low voice she keeps stroking Piper's head and fingering his ears. Piper stayed very still. Before saying goodbye, together we finish the tongue twister:  "Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?" As she showed me her name on her bracelet, asking Piper and I to visit again, I noticed her voice was much stronger, her eyes were bright, she smiled.

First Christmas!
The therapist wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, winked at Piper and I, and wheeled her away. A moment in time. Mr. Piper, I hope you have many, many more of these moments where you charge the batteries of someone who needs you. At 8 months old, you haven't even had your first Christmas or birthday. You have no idea how important someday you could be to someone. You are just beginning your lifelong work. Yet, Peter Piper, Tuesday was an auspicious beginning.

Piper with his dog family:  Hazel (L) and Wrangell (R)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Twas the Eve of Thanksgiving

Twas the Eve of Thanksgiving

Twas the Eve of Thanksgiving
when I saw with much dread,
I had no more pie filling
and was all out of bread.

So I called to my pup
and we sprang to the car,
Heading off to Food Lion.
It was not very far.

Why this won't take long,
with my service pup...but
the day before Thanksgiving?
Was I crazy or what?

Dash away, with pup Dorian
My stocks to supply.
Back home we will be
In the wink of an eye. 

First stop is the bread aisle.
Stocking shelves by the way,
was a man - would you know,
he had something to say?

"Your dog looks so spoiled!"
"Just look at him lay
Sprawled there on the floor.
What a silly display."

As I'm mulling this over 
My mind in a fog,
He asks if I brought in
My own personal guard dog.

"Of course," I think dryly,
"grocer stores scare me silly.
All shoppers should bring one!"
(Ah no - not really).

Dash away, dash away
come Dorian, away!
Escape from this madness,
Almost Thanksgiving Day!

Over by produce,
Hover two ladies who spy
my approach with the puppy
And one gives a cold eye.

"Dogs should not be
in this store," she pronounces.
As a cat on a bird
she stalks and she pounces.

"These pups have a purpose."
I attempt to explain.
Yet to her the best dog
is staked out on a chain.

Dash away, dash away,
To the aisle with the cream,
If we don't escape soon,
I surely will scream.

"Mommy, a dog!"
Shrieks a toddler in tow. 
"Hush, baby!" says Mom. 
In a voice not too low.

"The poor lady can't see
 And the dog is to help."
"Can't she see me read labels?"
I am wanting to yelp.

Dash away, my young Dorian,
I say with a croon,
Our time at Food Lion
Will end very soon.

Yes, soon we'll be home,
and tomorrow we'll pray,
and thank God for His blessings,
this Thanksgiving Day.

For so much we are thankful,
Raising puppies is one.
Interesting, challenging,
NEVER dull...mostly fun!

***This poem is based on an actual experience I had last Thanksgiving Eve with my guide pup in training, Dorian, 10.5 months old at the time, when we did some last-minute grocery shopping. Of course as a puppy raiser, encounters like these can happen often, especially when you least expect them. It happened last Thanksgiving Eve we had all these encounters in a 20-minute period. Now, a year later, I can still vividly remember, and laugh about it!

P.S. I also make sure not to shop that day.

Current service pup in training Piper at 7 months.