Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Wacky Women of Walmart

Piper is finally old enough to go into Walmart. Not that I make a point of frequenting the store, but if I have a list of odds and ends, like a watchband, hair conditioner and a birthday card, Walmart is the one-stop place to go. However, from my experience as a puppy raiser in southside Virginia, one cannot venture into the Danville Walmart anonymously. The Wacky Women of Walmart make sure of that.

First there is the Walmart Town Crier. I think the actual term for this lady's job is a Walmart greeter. The one who welcomes you to the store, maybe gets you a cart, etc. However at my Walmart, this greeter has added to her duties the public announcing, to all Walmart shoppers within earshot, that here comes a service dog.

Although this is not Walmart, it is a town crier.
"Well, look at this!" she announces. "Here comes a service dog doing his job. You are such a sweet little thing! I'm sorry, I wish I could rub you" (raising her voice to a falsetto), "but I know I can't. Yes, I bet you wish I could rub you, you poor baby, but no, I sure can't. Look at how good you're being, you are doin' a job...." and on and on and on. I hustle my puppy past her, making little eye contact. If I was a turtle my head would sink in. Deep into the store I can still hear her announcement, sometimes she even follows us a ways. The town crier effectively blows any attempt to keep a low PR profile, opening us up to further Walmart encounters. Although I have tried to nicely tell the Town Crier she needn't be so enthusiastic, she feels strongly she is doing a service.
She is indeed a bonafide Wacky Woman of Walmart.

One particular Wacky Woman of Walmart encounter will always stand out in my memory. It happened last summer, when my previous guide puppy, Dorian, was about 5 months old. Dorian, like all young puppies with service capes on, looked extremely cute and appealing. But...appealing was not the word for the wacky woman attack that ensued. After innocently inspecting the summer squash in the produce area, I turned around to find myself surrounded - front, back and sides by women with shopping carts.

Dorian and I were trapped. One woman had me distracted, locked in the age-old discussion of how could I ever give the puppy back because she certainly couldn't. That's when I looked down to check on Dorian. To my dismay I saw one of the ladies LYING ON HER STOMACH ON THE FLOOR, her face outstretched to Dorian's. I think she was doing a sort of Dog Whisperer move, explaining to the rest of the group how much dogs related to her.

Young Dorian at 5 months.
Maybe they do because Dorian could so easily have nipped her outstretched nose with his sharp little puppy teeth. Instead he was a young gentleman and watched her calmly but with great fascination. Seriously outnumbered, Dorian and I managed to break the puppy love fest off and graciously extricate ourselves from the circle of shopping carts. Shaken, I decided against summer squash, called it a PR day, and headed for the exit.

But wait, the nearest exit was the station of the Walmart Town Crier! No, we certainly did not need our exit from the store proclaimed, so Dorian and I headed for the yard and garden exit and made a clean getaway. Ha-ha, you Wacky Women of Walmart, we have dodged you once again!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Joe's Garage and Puppy Exposure Emporium

Joe's Garage on Main Street in Chatham, VA
You have your puppy exposures and then...you have your puppy exposures. Some are carefully planned and executed and some are purely accidental. It was really not my bright idea to take my service pup to a garage for an outing, but my car had a light on the dash panel that would not go out. So off we went to Joe's Garage early one summer morning.

Going to Joe's is like going back in time 30 years. Sitting on the corner of Main Street in the sleepy town of Chatham, Virginia, the garage is old and musty, with peeling paint. The weedy lot is small and crammed with cars, mostly older models. It has 4 full service gas pumps served by a young attendant. Over the years Frank and I have cultivated a trust with the owner and head mechanic, Joe. When you own older cars with high miles like we do, the relationship with your mechanic takes on a depth akin to what you might forge with a son-in-law. Joe's wife works at the shop off and on, and their boy comes in after school to do his homework at the front counter. They love dogs and at times have kept their St Bernard or Great Dane in the shop. Joe is always busy, yet always has time, and is always polite.

"So much junk there is!"

As Kevin the mechanic drives my car inside the shop, Piper and I walk around outside. Lots of mechanical stuff, lined up and stacked along the outside wall. Old motor oil scent hangs heavy in the air. Piper sniffs and inspects engine blocks, some metal tubing and other junk.

The arrangement of tires is interesting too. I try lifting Piper inside a stack of tires for a photo but he will have none of that and hops out quickly. Meanwhile the loud clattering of an impact wrench taking the wheel off a car makes us both turn around. Piper is intrigued and moves in for a closer look but I make him watch from a polite distance.

Checking out the changing of a tire.

When Kevin comes back he stops for a minute to ask about Piper, then they have a petting session. Caressed by rough, greasy hands, Piper is enjoying himself. Then the mechanic goes back to work while Piper and I cross Main Street over to Jesse Sours Garage to see the pigeons flapping and roosting in the rafters of the old, abandoned building.

Back at Joe's, it is time to sit on the bench outside and watch cars getting filled up. "Beep-beep-beep," the Pittsylvania County bookmobile bus is backing up to the diesel pump right next to us. The driver lets the air brakes out - "Whoosh!" Piper startles slightly at that, as do I, but we quickly recover. Across the street and down the sidewalk comes a man on an adult tricycle with a high red flag swaying back and forth. He smiles and waves. I wave back and Piper, from a prone position, eyes the flag-contraption thing. After that activity quiets down so Piper takes 40 winks under the bench.

Under a bench outside the shop.

Soon the work is done, the charge $10. "Are you sure?" I ask. "Oh yeah," Kevin shrugs. He hands me the little light from off the dash that has been a problem since our daughter sideswiped a tree several years ago and the door quit closing properly. This kept the dash light on, which drained the battery continuously, which meant having to jump-start the car at the most inopportune times. For instance in the drive-thru line at the bank. It was as if Kevin had extracted a bad tooth and put it in my hand. He is a genius. I load Piper in his crate where he settles in for a good long nap as I drive away from Joe's Garage. A fine outing, I say to myself.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Piper is transforming before my very eyes.
Piper loves helping me haul away grass in the wheelbarrow.
It is wonderful to watch. His once snubby snout is now elongate, with a surprisingly large black nose on the end. His legs are getting gangly, his back feet reminiscent of a long-legged hare's. His tail has become a whip almost the length of Wrangell's tail. When he runs he can really eat up the ground, albeit Piper's paws aren't quite in synch with each other and the resulting scramble is hilarious.

Inside he is transforming as well. To my great relief he is not so high maintenance. Honestly I am not that crazy about the tiny puppy stage. Cute as they are, they are SO, SO needy. It seems as if you never stop asking yourself  "Does Piper need a ....?" Fill in the blank with nap, food, water, toy or the ever-popular potty break. When you're not doing that, you're stopping Puppy from doing bodily harm to you, your stuff or themselves. It hearkens back to my young-mother-with-toddler days.

Now Piper is learning the rules. I no longer have to spray down walls, molding, cabinets, appliances, table and chair legs, tablecloths, and baby gates with Bitter Apple. Bouts of restlessness, whining, barking and contrary behavior (what I call the bear cub spells) are becoming less frequent. Instead he seems more grounded, happier, and in control of himself. He and I are becoming best buds and learning to read each other's cues.

Piper staying cool in the horse trough.

Maybe I am just on a cloud because Piper actually slept partway thru a church service today (believe me, there was some PR praise going on there)! Maybe it's because he didn't try to gnaw and chew at little fingers afterwards. Maybe I am on a coasting section of the Puppy Raiser Road. I know it won't last, but right now I am basking in the sun watching Piper transform.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

St Francis Service Dogs

Since several people have asked, I wanted to
St Francis logo on Piper's service vest.
explain a little about St Francis Service Dogs of Roanoke, VA. St Francis is the largest service dog organization in Virginia, established in 1996. As a non-profit school their mission is to partner professionally trained dogs with adults and children with many different types of disabilities. There are 3 main programs:  service dogs, veteran dogs and facility dogs. The school serves Virginia and areas within a 3 hour drive of their facility. Located on 18 acres of what was once part of a farm, they have 11 full-time staff and their kennel houses up to 24 dogs for advanced training. Of course, I am still learning about St Francis myself!

The St Francis logo features a monk and dog silhouette.
Currently St Francis has about 7 puppy raisers who come to the school weekly for classes. In addition they have a prison program at medium security Bland Correctional Center, with presently 18 puppies. The program has been very successful, with inmates living in the honors dorm having the chance to raise a service puppy. Once a week St Francis trainers give lessons and check on the puppies' progress at the prison. Periodically the Bland puppies are cycled out for "real world" exposures. This ends up being a win-win situation for both the school and the inmates.

For me it was not an easy decision to switch from Southeastern Guide Dogs to St Francis Service Dogs. Southeastern is a top-notch organization with absolutely awesome dogs and trainers. Over the seven-plus years and 6 puppies I have raised for SEGD, I have watched their campus and programs blossom and their relations with PR's become increasingly more personal and gratifying. You cannot help but build close friendships with your fellow PR's and Area Coordinator, and I have even gotten to know several of the staff in faraway Florida. Especially I have looked forward to my visits to the SEGD Palmetto, Florida campus to pick up a new puppy, drop my dog off for In For Training Day, attend an AC conference, visit their Discovery Center, and best of all, the four times I've been invited down for Puppy Raiser Day, when you meet your dog's forever partner! At the Southeastern campus I always feel welcomed and appreciated.

However, since I live in southern Virginia, getting together with my SEGD PR group, based in North Carolina, can involve some serious logistics and driving. With St Francis I can actually visit their campus on a regular basis and work my puppy, Piper, with a trainer. Also it has been challenging and interesting to train service dog foundational skills, which lead up to tasks such as retrieving objects, learning how to open doors, and other jobs a dog performs for their partner. Some behaviors you teach the puppies are the same for both schools, but the word you use is different. So you say Here instead of Come, Park vs. Busy, Release vs. Take a Break, Load vs. In, etc. A little confusing at times! My two personal dogs have had to switch to the new vocabulary as well - they are becoming bi-lingual!