Feedback is always let me know whatchya' think. Leave a comment!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

FLD Scout. On Assignment Again.

Intrepid reporter for the Ogemaw County Voice (aka "puppy-raiser patti") on assignment in Rose City, with her sidekick, FLD Scout.

1st Annual Fall Wine Festival. Free hayrides between two wineries, wine-tasting, and food.


Saturday, October 29, 2011. (This was the second Saturday of the event.)

To get the inside scoop on this inaugural event with the added bonus of self-control exercises for FLD Scout with people, food, and animal distractions. (There's my two-birds-with-one-stone thing again--see my post from July 27, 2011,  "FLD Gus Goes Loony".)

(and sometimes HOW)
It was a misty fall afternoon at the wineries, but FLD Scout didn't seem to mind. Inside the tasting rooms were crowds of engaging people and scraps of food on the floor to keep her me  busy.

Even the sight of "witch" Elaine (proprietress of Valley Mist Vineyards) with her witch's brew had no adverse effect on FLD Scout.

What caught Scout's attention was outside. Horses. The winery was old-hat, but horses...this was a first!

As we approached the staging area for the hayrides, FLD Scout didn't notice the two blanket-clad Percheron teams tied up to the semi-trailer. She had her eyes on Matthew and Nathan, who were waiting for the word to harness up the beasts to the wagons. Puppy-tail-waggle going full-force for the two young men, FLD Scout suddenly saw the horses.

"Rrrrruuuffff," Scout muffled, not so sure what to think. Her waggle paused.

Scout, sit, I commanded, but she needed a finger-tap on her rump to follow through. She peered at the horses, glanced back at me, and went back to studying. I kept her in position until she settled.

FLD Scout catches site of the horses.
Her nose gets busy as we get a bit closer.

Scout, heel, I said and we took a few steps forward. I didn't want to frighten Scout, or the horses! (Matthew assured me that Scout would not spook them.)

FLD Scout walks on a loose leash toward the Percheron teams.

Scout, sit, I said. This time she sat without a tap. Good girl, Scout! I said and slipped her a treat.

We inched our way closer as I observed Scout's demeanor change from a tightly gathered "I'm not so sure" cautiousness to a waggle-returning "hey, what IS that?" curiousity.

You can see the change in her body as she takes an eager interest.

Soon FLD Scout was almost nose-to-nose with one of the horses, which quickly decided that the little black ball of fur wasn't so interesting after all.

Two creatures, almost nose-to-nose.
The big longer interested. FLD Scout sits back as if dejected.

The hayride part? Not a problem. FLD Scout negotiated the metal grated steps into the wagon with just a bit of coaxing, and seemed to enjoy the rock-along pace of the heavy horse team.

Matthew and Nathan prepare to harness the team.
Our driver, Paul, and Nathan guide the team.
FLD Scout would like to climb on my lap during the ride, but soon curls into a ball on the floor when I don't pick her up.

Two wineries and two hayrides later, I had my story.

And a very tired puppy. 

FLD Scout found an open corner in the busy winery to rest.

Oh. And two bottles of wine to take home.


Monday, October 24, 2011

A Puppy-Raiser's Achievement

The 5th Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ABDC) is hosted this quarter by Cindy Otty on her blog, Gentle Wit.

The topic is ACHIEVMENT. This post is my submission.

To learn more about the ABDC and find links to all past Carnivals, check out Sharon Wachsler's post about it on her blog, After Gadget. Sharon got this Carnival rolling over a year ago!


What can I achieve as a volunteer puppy-raiser for Leader Dogs for the Blind?

The obvious end-result goal is to raise a puppy that graduates from Leader Dogs and is partnered with a handler. But how can I realistically take credit for that? It is the dog's achievement, not mine.

I did not achieve this with my first puppy, Rosie. Rosie made her way through four phases of progressively challenging training levels. She had a "fast" working pace, and when it came time to be paired with a handler, a suitable person could not be found. Not the first time when Rosie was ready. Not the second. Not the third. By then, Rosie had had it--enough was enough and she made the decision to be career-changed.

Did I fail as a puppy-raiser?

ACHIEVEMENT, according to the dictionary, means succeeding in doing something that takes effort. With effort, I was successful in raising a well-behaved, socialized puppy that went through the Leader Dog training program.

But why did that not feel like an achievement? Rosie did not graduate.

And yet. It is impossible for a puppy-raiser to achieve the goal of raising a puppy that will DEFINITELY become a working guide dog. Too many factors can influence that outcome--the dog's core personality and potential; medical issues; the ability of the dog to handle kennel stress while living through the training; the experience of the training team that works with the dog; and even the person at the end-game, anxious to be paired with the dog.

It is a miracle. Really. That suitable teams end up working in the world, that dogs can be trained to assist blind and visually impaired people gain enhanced mobility and independence.

Perhaps I should reevaluate the goal. Instead of raising a puppy to "become a Leader Dog," what if I set my goal to raise a puppy that is READY TO TAKE ON THE NEXT STEP, training at Leader Dogs for the Blind?

But what does "being ready" really mean?

Leader Dogs for the Blind describes three traits that are important in a working guide dog.
  1. Soundness
  2. Friendliness
  3. Happiness
(To read more about these traits, visit my post from March 11, 2011, or Leader Dogs' on-line puppy-raiser application.)

Raising a puppy that exhibits these traits is an achievable goal.

Goal setting, however, is a tricky-thing--achieving one goal often leads to setting another, higher goal. Istn't it just as important (and no small achievement), to raise a puppy that is housebroken, socialized, and able to perform basic obedience commands?

Where does it end?

Fortunately, Leader Dogs for the Blind is establishing "in-for-training" standards to define what "being ready" really means. A work-in-progress, these standards attempt to pinpoint self-control behaviors, obedience skills, and behavioral traits that, if achieved, will prepare a puppy to succeed at the next level.

These standards, then, will be the goal I will shoot for with my puppy. Attaining these standards will be my achievement.

After that, it's up to the puppy.

Hear that, Scout? (FLD Scout, peaking around my leg at a hockey game at Lake Superior State Univserity.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Energizer Puppy

You know a friendship is special when someone with severe dog allergies comes to visit our house. It is not too difficult to keep the old dog away. Gypy's next-to-favorite thing lately is taking a nap.

But a puppy? That is a whole different thing. Last weekend presented opportunities for FLD Scout to work on self-control and people distractions. My secret strategy was simple. A tired puppy is a good puppy.

In the morning, I told our guests, Come on, let us show you our woods. (The puppy went too.)

In the afternoon, I said, Have you ever seen the Au Sable River? (The puppy went too.)

The Au Sable River from the lookout at Iargo Springs.

If you've never seen the magnificent Au Sable River in northeastern Michigan, it is worth a trip. High bank overlooks present a panoramic view; hundreds of wooden steps lead the strong of heart to water's edge.

Iargo Springs.

Here, at Iargo Springs, FLD Scout got her first taste of the open stairs down to the river. Multiple landings meant we stopped to SIT frequently as we re-gathered attention to the task at hand. By the time we were two-thirds of the way BACK UP, Scout was stepping like a well-seasoned trooper.
FLD Scout, still full of energy, at river-level at Iargo Springs.
Andy and our friends, Pete and Nancy, tackle the stairs UP from Iargo Springs.

I smiled to myself later when our non-dog-person guest remarked, "Boy, puppies have SO much energy!"

FLD Scout, looking a little bit "pooped out" after climbing all the stairs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday's Training TIP: Whoa, What is THAT?

A recent Monday morning at the Bicegos. Sleepy girls zip their backpacks and munch on toasted bagels before school. 

Nat in the am.

I take FLD Scout out to "park" and decide to help by taking the trash to the curb. Anne has these nice cans that roll, so it's easier than dragging. I grab the trashcan handle and tip it onto its wheels.

FLD Scout balks. As I turn to look at her, the trashcan rumbles forward a few inches. Scout is now writhing at the end of her leash, trying to get away from that GREAT-BIG-SCARY-BEIGE-MONSTER.

Ah-ha! My perfect little puppy is afraid of something. The five-minute job of taking out the trash turns into a 20-minute training session.

What did I do?  I took advantage of the situation. Here's how.

  • I did NOT try to console Scout by saying things in a baby-voice like, "It's ok puppy! I won't let that big bad garbage can hurt you."
  • I did NOT let Scout run away.
  • I did NOT pick her up and coddle her.

  • I stayed calm and confident.  I tipped the trashcan back into place and squatted next to it.
  • I re-directed Scout's attention.  I used name recognition to get Scout to look at me. I praised her when she did. I told her to SIT and because I always have puppy food in my pocket, I rewarded her after she sat.
  • I gradually re-introduced her to what frightened her.  I touched the trashcan and encouraged Scout to come closer. When she did, I rewarded her with another treat. I touched the trashcan again to get Scout to sniff it. When she did, she got alot of praise and more treats. I stood up and praised Scout when she stayed where she was near the trashcan. I gently tipped the trashcan and moved it slightly. When Scout then backed away, I set the can back and repeated everything. Again. Eventually, Scout stayed close when I tipped the trashcan. I re-directed her again by telling her to SIT. Then I rolled the can back and forth. If she got up, I set the can down and put her back into a SIT. When Scout finally stayed in her SIT when I gently rolled the trashcan, I had a party and she got more treats!
  • I rewarded the behavior that I wanted.  Every step of the way, if Scout acted curious, I treated her. If she acted confident, I treated her. If she sat when I commanded her, I treated her.

OKAY! Now you should have the idea. I took BABY STEPS to get Scout used to the trashcan, to learn that it would not hurt her. I GRADUALLY re-introduced her to the can and PRAISED and REWARDED the behavior I wanted. I stayed CALM and CONFIDENT.

YOUR reaction is key! I like to compare this to when a child falls and skins a knee and the startled youngster looks to his or her parent. If the parent freaks out and rushes over, no doubt the child will erupt into tears. If the parent takes a more matter-of-fact approach, or even jokingly yells something like "Safe!" the child might brush him or her self off and not be a drama-star. It is the same thing with your puppy--she will look to you for guidance in how to react. Make it a "no-big-deal" and that is what it will be!

HINTS for taking advantage of a training session.
  1. Have puppy-food morsels in your pocket at all times!
  2. Learn to recognize a training opportunity. This means paying attention to your puppy and your own reactions.
  3. Be calm, patient, and consistent.

Eventually, FLD Scout walked at my side as I rolled the not-so-scary-anymore trashcan down the driveway and out to the curb. In fact, she happily accepted two more rolling trashcans!

Cc'd Rosie next to a tired-out-from-learning FLD Scout.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"But how can you give them up?"

In answer to one of my most-heard questions, I say, Yes, it IS hard. But...

Read this letter from Alicia, the handler of Leader Dog Vera.

This is why, even though it is a sad day when my puppy returns to Leader Dogs for the Blind for her formal training to become a guide dog, this is why I CAN.

Good morning All.

Today is a very special day for a very special friend. On September 29, 2004, I met this very special friend. Who would know those 7 years later, she would be the light in my step, the inspiration behind my future, and the one who gave me strength to face my fears and reach high for my dreams. If it wasn't for my very special friend, I wouldn't have the college degree I have, I wouldn't have had the strength to reach for my dreams and achieve goals, and most importantly I wouldn't have a heart that is full of love. 

My special friend turns 9 years old today, and she truly is one of my very best friends. She is black, her loving warm eyes have made many bad days better, her wiggly black tail has been the center of countless conversations, and boy is it not funny when the "black bullet" bolts the door and is running down the street like a maggot in hot ashes. 

Yep, you guessed it! Today is Vera's 9th birthday. Happy birthday to one of the best friends I have and the first four legged partner I had that compelled me to put one foot in front of the other and walk those college halls.  

My black bullet isn't much a black bullet any more. She is slowing down and really showing her age, but the love in my heart for her will never, ever slow down. She is the foot prints, and will always be the foot prints, in the sand walking next to me on a rainy day, she will be walking next to me on the proudest days of my life, and she will be waiting for me on the other side of the rainbow bridge after I grow old and it is my turn to go. 

Thank you Leader Dog for putting Vera in my life and thank you for the independence she has given me. Vera, as well as Baci, truly is the most precious gifts I have ever had and it is my pleasure to honor her on her very special day.

Vera has already gotten an extra cup of dog food in her bowl and will be getting a frosty paw treat and new toy this afternoon. It is not enough for the joy she has given me over the past 7 years, but I know those warm, loving , brown eyes won't look at me with puppy dog eyes today. They will be looking at me with gratitude for the extra pets, the extra love, if that is possible, and the new toy she will receive. 

If you have read this far, thank you for reading my tribute to the finest black labby every born, Vera. She is the step in my step and the motivation behind every new milestone I successfully complete. 

Alicia, LD Baci and Vera, CGC, The birthday girl.

Thank YOU, Alicia, for sharing your story!

FLD Scout, my 4th Future Leader Dog puppy. She has a long way to go!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

FLD Scout. On Assignment.

Photo-story assignment for the Ogemaw County Voice: 
harvesting grapes for the Rose Valley Winery.

Luscious grapes awaiting the pick.

FLD Scout comes along to supervise.
It was a gorgeous day, if a little warm.

FLD Scout watches from the shade.

FLD Scout oversees the take.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Not a Black Cat

FLD Scout is eager and tries to jump up into the passenger-side floorboard of my Chevy S10 pickup. She's still a bit small to make the leap, so I scoop her up by the belly and plop her in.

Every other Future Leader Dog puppy I've raised gave me a battle about staying put when they first learned to ride alone with me, but not Scout. It's like she knows just what to do. She sniffs out the Nylabone left from our last assignment and settles in for a chew.

We're off to take pictures for an article I'm writing about a medically-discharged Army veteran of 21 years and the woman who sent him handmade cards and letters during his tour in Iraq. I interviewed the vet last week, but I wanted to photograph the two together. Theirs is a touching story, even if there doesn't seem to be a resolution.

Writing letters to soldiers-in-war is Sonja's mission. In her words, "Every one I've written to has come home safe." When she started writing to Charlie, she had no idea who he was or where he was from, but they were almost neighbors. Charlie figured it out, and when he returned from war, he came knocking on Sonja's door.

Charlie is now like a son to Sonja, and she wants me to tell Charlie's story, not hers.

According to the Army, a back injury makes him 100% disabled and unable to work. Charlie doesn't want to be retired, he misses being in the Army and serving his country. He is frustrated with the VA, not only for himself, but also for other war vets who don't get the help they desperately need.

Charlie suffers from PTSD. The little bits of northern Michigan from Sonja helped bring Charlie home safe, if damaged.

Charlie looks at the letters he saved from Sonja.

It is an Indian-summer afternoon when FLD Scout and I arrive. We sit on Sonja's porch in the shade and Charlie shows me the letters. I take pictures and get a few quotes from Sonja.

FLD Scout is a perfect puppy. She greets them, and Sonja's old mutt who wants nothing to do with her, so Scout leaves her alone and settles at my feet.

At some point, Scout gets up to quietly explore, sniffing at yellow leaves stuck to the doormat. Just inside the screen door a fat cat crouches as if she's about to pounce. Scout doesn't notice her at first and ventures closer to the door.

The cat bares her teeth and hisses. Scout freezes, her nose still on the mat. Her eyes roll up, she spots the cat.

The cat growls.

Without lifting her head, Scout tiptoes backwards in wary slow motion, one paw at a time. Off the mat, she stops and stretches to cautiously catch a whiff of this new thing. Should she be scared?

Guess not.

A puppy-breath later, Scout loses interest and bounces over to Charlie. He reaches to pet her. Her tail threatens to lift her like a helicopter. Charlie bends to embrace her and now his face is fair game to her licky-Lab tongue.

I can only match his smile as Charlie starts goo-ing over her and says, "Do you want to go home with me Scout?"

FLD Scout makes friends with Charlie.

Sonja and Charlie on a beautiful October afteroon in Ogemaw County.

Thank you, to all who serve our country!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tuesday's Training TIP: LEAVE IT (again)

The LEAVE IT command can be extremely useful as we negotiate our way through stores and restaurants with our Future Leader Dog puppies.  But ideally, we want our puppies to learn to make their own decision to "leave" something.  When they eventually work with their handler, they need to be able to walk anywhere without being tempted away from their job.  After all, their blind handler won't be able to see that wayward bit of French-fry on the sidewalk in front of McDonalds and tell their guide dog to "leave it."

But how do we help our puppies learn to make the decision on their own?
  • First they need to learn the LEAVE IT command.
  • Finally we need the patience to give them the opportunity to figure it out for themselves.


The following video demonstrates how easily you can start teaching this to a puppy.  FLD Scout was less than eight weeks old in this video; in fact, we only had her five days and we worked on the LEAVE IT command twice before filming this session.


The first time I worked with Scout, I held some food in one hand so she could see it.  When she attacked my hand I closed it so she couldn't get at the food.  Eventually she lost interest.  AT THAT EXACT MOMENT I praised her and gave her a treat from my other hand.  I showed her the food again, but again kept her from getting it.  When she lost interest, I praised her and treated her from my other hand.  We repeated this for four or five minutes.

At the second session, Scout started to look at me after she couldn't get the food.  I REALLY praised her and again, treated her from my other hand.  And repeated the process for a few minutes, not very long at all.

You can see from the video that by the third session with Scout, I started to introduce the command LEAVE IT.  Subsequently, I use the command with other things (like a dropped napkin in the kitchen) and in other settings (like walking down the sidewalk or in a restaurant).  Because Scout is still young and learning to "generalize," I've been treating her generously.  As time goes on I will wean here off the treats and just use praise.

For more details and hints for teaching LEAVE IT, check out my previous blog posts "LEAVE IT" (June 22, 2010) and "ADVANCED LEAVE IT" (September 7, 2010).

Don't be afraid to try this with your puppy.  You should be able to notice in my video that I sometimes "missed" an opportunity to reward Scout when she looked at me.  That's when she added her "sit"--evidence that this little puppy is starting to think on her own!  "If looking at her doesn't get me a treat, what else can I do? Oh, yea, I can SIT!"


Take a walk with your puppy.  When you spot a temptation ahead, keep the leash snug enough so your puppy can't reach whatever it is, and WAIT to see what your puppy will do before saying "leave it."  Chances are, once your puppy has a few "leave its" under her collar, she'll give up trying to get it and will look to you for reinforcement.

THAT'S when you need to push the praise volto-meter off the charts!  Your puppy just left it along without being told!


(FLD Scout and I took a short walk while the video was loading. From the other room she whined because she had to "park." Yay, progress on that front!  Anyway, we worked on loose-leash walking, standing when we stop, sits and downs.  And yes, there were lots of acorns, sticks, and stones on our country-road that she oh-so-wanted to snatch!  Some she left on her own when I held her leash so she couldn't reach it (and then she was praised and treated), others I said "leave it," and yet sometimes she still managed to grab this or that.  Time to sweep my finger and clean out her baby mouth! Training doesn't happen overnight, you need patience and persistence.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

FLD Scout, a Rose Valley Winery Regular?

FLD Scout has been with us just over four weeks.

In this time we've had overnight houseguests three times, friends for dinner, and a busy trip downstate visiting family and friends.

Can I help it that when we enter the Rose Vally Winery we're greeted with, "Awwww...the puppy is here. Wow, she's grown in a week!"

BEFORE:  FLD Scout at the Rose Valley Winery tasting bar...

...while Andy and our friends (me too) enjoy a round of tastes.

AFTER:  FLD Scout snoozes, tired of waiting while we sip.

"Disclaimer: no puppies imbibed any wine during or after our visit to the winery."