Category Archives: puppy socialization

Opal Wants to Join AA

That’s right.  I would like to join AA today. Nah, not the club for humans who drink too much and get silly, sick and sad….No, I would like to join AA, the GIRL, for a birthday celebration. She is the not-so-little girl who raised me as a puppy for Guiding Eyes For the Blind’s puppy raisers program in North Carolina. They traded me to Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind in Ontario (like a pro baseball player) and I ended up with my mum in Halifax.

We had such a great time together when I was a puppy. You slept on the floor next to my crate, played the violin for me with your brother, took me to church (I was a Mormon then, but mum says we are UU’s now…I don’t care ’cause church is fun). There is confusion about whether I am the puppy who barked while you sang in church, or if it was Lacy, the dog you also raised, the one who grew up to become a famous arson detective dog in Ohio. I don’t remember, but somehow, I think it was probably Lacy…I was the one who ate the cushions on the couch and pooped at the mall once (I don’t EVER do that anymore), remember AA?  They say that I was the one that made you come out of your shell. I don’t remember you having a shell…some sweatshirts and other normal clothes yeah, but no shell. I just remember that we were very happy together, and that after I showed up at your house, you weren’t shy at all anymore about talking to people, especially about dogs.  Dogs, dogs, dogs! That’s all you still talk about. I approve! Happy Birthday, my friend.

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Stuff They Don’t Teach At Guide Dog School

Guide dogs receive extensive training that includes many aspects and exposure to many situations. Ideally, these dogs are raised with people who consistently expose them to ‘stuff’ as pups: all types of walking surfaces such as gravel, pavement, grates, escalators, wood, grass…, all kinds of noises; example: traffic, bangs, shouting, music, clapping, machines…, all kinds of people (kids playing, people in wheel chairs, runners, people performing….), many different types of venues like restaurants, malls, churches, office buildings…., numerous modes of transportation such as cars, trains, subways, buses, airplanes, boats…, and other animals, including cats, dogs, cattle, birds…. and so on. Then they leave the puppy walker and go off to a guide dog training center to practice the skills they will need to help the  blind person with whom they will eventually be matched. Trainers and apprentices harness them up and spend months teaching  them to walk around obstacles, to stop at the top and bottom of staircases, to ignore other people and animals, to respond to verbal commands, arm signals, and foot positions. They learn to disobey or over ride a  command in any situation that would put the handler in danger (Intelligent Disobedience). They practice and practice and are exposed increasingly to more types of routes (busy downtown streets, country roads, suburban areas…) and situations to which they must respond appropriately (stopping when cars back out of driveways, walking through construction zones, ignoring food on the ground, ducking around shopping carts, remaining calm when fire alarms are sounded, ignoring off leash dogs that come up to them….). Trainers try everything they can think of to season these dogs. Umbrellas are popped open, stacks of books are dropped, fans blown and more, all to prepare them for the numerous situations they will face as guide dogs.  They train in hot and cold weather, in the pouring rain and driving snow. All training centers have a resident cat or two because it is likely that some of the dogs will go home with handlers who own a pussycat, or at the very least, will occasionally visit someone who has one.  Once the guide dog school has selected or “matched” their blind client with a dog, they train the dogs some more with the client’s specific size, gait, walking speed, home environment, activity level and lifestyle in mind. The residential (and usually final) part of formal training involves multiple daily training ‘walks’ with the handler, the school trainer and the dog. This month-long period of mind and body-numbing activity concludes (hopefully, but not always) with ‘qualification’ and the blind handler returning home with their guide dog.

But there is ALWAYS stuff that Guide dog schools don’t teach you or your dog. It’s impossible to cover everything. For example, Opal and I once encountered a woman walking a pet rabbit on a long leash. A sighted observer explained to me why Opal was so eager to pause; she was watching a bunny going for a stroll. Then there were the beaded curtains in the hallway of  a local restaurant (I thought  those went out in  the 70’s). It WAS an obstacle, albeit one that she could see through…we figured it out. There was a Halloween costume contest last year at the local supermarket that really grabbed her attention. In fact, she went nutty the first time I put on my balaclava (the woolly thing worn for heists, not the Greek pastry). Then, there was the time a kid vomited on the bus,  and the OTHER kid who dumped a chocolate milkshake over her when we were on the ferry to Dartmouth, a horse on the sidewalk (don’t ask), and the time we wandered into the annual pride parade by mistake and were pelted with silly string. We nearly got pepper sprayed as we innocently tried to get to the library…where a political demonstration was in progress nearby. Opal knew something was wrong when a fist fight broke out between two kids as we walked by them (I yelled at them to stop, or I would command my dog to attack—grin). I discovered that Opal also has a tap dancing  fascination (we saw ‘White Christmas’ on stage and I put on my own tap shoes now and then). One day, a couple of cars crashed as we walked by and left us showered in broken glass. I tore my quad muscle last year and had to walk at a snail’s pace WITH A SUPPORT CANE FOR THREE DAYS (and Opal), because I had no one to care for her. Fortunately, I managed to keep moving at least enough to get her outside to relieve. I’ve heard about one handler who was IN HOSPITAL WITH his guide dog for several days. Totally unfair to staff, the patients, and the dog. Other things?  You discover how to cope with them as they come up. Guide dog schools don’t tell you how to work out the strategy required for intimate times at home with that  new ‘significant other’ without one or the other (dog or partner) getting their nose put out of joint (physically, but more often, emotionally).  Opal put herself to bed at 6 PM the first time my sweetie and I… There might be any number of unusual or unique situations that a handler will face and need to figure out during their guide dog’s working life. Life with a guide dog is ever-changing and a relationship with a working dog is an endless ‘work in progress’.hen t

Puppy Walker’s Tea

Guide dogs begin to train when they are approximately 14 months old. So, where have they been knocking around all through puppyhood? Answer: With their ‘puppy walker’ or ‘puppy raiser’ (depending on which Guide dog school they are bred for). These are the families or individuals who take a little 8 week-old ball of canine energy for a year or more, love it, feed it, groom it, play with it, expose it to all types of things, people and places…and then say goodbye to it.  That must be a sad and and very difficult time for the puppy walkers.  But look what these dogs become! They are part of that awesome, elite corp of ‘dog guides’ for people who are blind. When Opal and I ‘qualified’ in our final days of training at Canadian Guide dogs for the Blind in Manotick, Ontario, there was a minor fanfare that included a ‘graduation’ party, and a ‘Puppy Walker’s Tea’.  The Puppy Walker’s Tea is a get-together  where the newly-qualified CGDB Guide  dog and handler has an opportunity to meet the person or family that raised the dog. Other guide dog schools have a different policy whereby the handler and puppy raiser do not ever meet or access each others contact information.   I was ‘on course’ with three other individuals. None of our puppy walkers (the people who had raised our dogs) could attend because of the distance involved in traveling to Manotick (some from BC, Opal’s from North Carolina).  We did, however have an opportunity to speak on the telephone with the puppy walkers at a pre-scheduled time.

I wonder what it would have been like for all involved if all the puppy walkers COULD have attended. I think a Puppy Walkers Tea  could be a valuable and enjoyable opportunity for some people, but potentially awkward for others. I have yet to meet A.A. ( a then-15 year old) who raised Opal, though I have spoken to her many times, exchanged letters and gifts, and e-mailed her mum (a writer) hundreds of times.  I now have an arsenal of Opal stories that could curl your hair…well, that’s for another blog… Sure, WE would have gotten along swimmingly at a Puppy Walkers Tea, but I have heard stories (maybe that’s all they are) about such encounters that did not turn out quite so well. It is a tense time…gotta be. The new handler is stressed after a rigorous month of training and wants to get home and settled, the dog is transitioning from trainer to the new handler so it is probably  a little stressed too, and the puppy walker walks into the midst of it all?  I think that it would all go well, provided that everyone understands their roles; the puppy walker is no longer ‘top dog’ in the relationship. That dog is now in a special relationship with its blind handler. The handler must remain cool and know that their dog will recognize the puppy walker and want to express its emotion.  The trainers and staff have an obligation to keep everyone clear on the ground rules for the meeting. For example, it is no longer the puppy walker’s role to give any type of command to the dog…not even ‘sit’.

I am so pleased and grateful to hear from all the puppy walkers and puppy raisers who have written to me through this blog. Please realise that those pups are treasured after you ‘let them go’.  Do not think for a moment that your role is not as important as that of the professional trainers who actually train the dog to do all the fancy stuff, like stop at curbs and go around obstacles.  These formative months in a dog’s life (before it trains), are critical. If you take that dog everywhere and expose it to social situations, surfaces, noises and so on, then you will have done the grunt work from which will emerge a potentially fearless Guide dog.

“Puppy’s Rule of Twelve”

I have often wondered how my guide dog, Opal, got accustomed to some of the things she faces in our travels. She doesn’t mind a bus whizzing round a corner near her head.  Working her around a construction zone is no problem. Hospitals, grocery stores, malls are taken in stride.  She LOVES escalators.  My girl is a busybody…fascinated by trucks, people, animals, airplanes overhead etc. She spends as much time looking out the window, as our cat does!  Guide dogs start out as puppies too. They are raised by generous and caring families who are willing to take in a little bundle for a set period of time. Then they part with them, hopefully sending  them on their way for training as guide dogs.  Some dogs make it, some don’t.    Guide dogs schools (and there are many in Canada and the United States) usually have a ‘puppy raising’ or ‘puppy walking’ program.    I found this on the Guiding Eyes for the Blind  web site, on the puppy raising program information page.     Margaret Hughes is credited.  She created a wonderful set of guidelines about what puppies should experience before 20 weeks of age, in her book, Positive Puppy Training.   She says that puppies are most willing to try new things before they are 20 weeks old.  To socialize puppies, she suggests exposing them to a variety of experiences.  Be sure the experiences are safe and positive, she adds.  Accompany with praise.  Here are the Puppy’s Rule of Twelve:   By the time your puppy is 20 weeks old, it should have:

  •  Experienced 12 different surfaces: wood, woodchips, dirt, mud, puddles, deep pea gravel, grates, uneven surfaces, a table (ie. Vet.) etc.
  • Introduced to 12 different objects: toys, big and small balls, hard toys, funny sounding toys, metal items, statues, balloons, etc.
  • Experienced 12 different locations: front yard (daily), other peoples homes, school yard, shopping plazas, lakes, pond, river, boat, basement, elevator, car, moving car, garage, laundry room, kennel, etc.
  • Met and played with 12 new people (outside of the family): include children, adults, elderly adults, people in wheelchairs, walkers, people with canes, crutches, hats,sunglasses, etc.
  • Exposed to 12 different noises (ALWAYS keep fun and watch puppy’s comfort level-don’t want it to be scared): garage door opening, doorbell, children playing, babies screaming, big trucks, Harley motorcycles, skateboards, washing machine, power boat, clapping, loud singing, pan dropping, horses neighing, vacuums, lawnmowers, birthday party, etc.
  • Exposed to 12 fast moving objects (don’t allow to chase): skateboards, roller skates, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, people running, cats running, scooters, vacuums not on, children running, children playing soccer, squirrels, cats, horses running, cows running, shopping carts rolling, etc.
  • Experienced 12 different challenges: climb on, in, off and around a box, go through a cardboard tunnel, climb up and down steps, climb over obstacles, play hide and seek, go in and out of a doorway with a step up or down, exposed to an electric sliding door, jump over a broom, climb over a log, bathtub (and bath), etc.
  • Handled by owner (& family) 12 times a week: hold under arm (like a football), hold to chest, hold on floor near owner, hold in-between owner’s legs, hold head, look in ears, mouth, in-between toes, hold and take temperature, hold like a baby, trim toe nails, hold in lap
  • Formal GEB Body Massage done in 12 different locations
  • Eaten from twelve different shaped containers: wobbly bowl, metal, paper, plastic, Kong, paper bag, from your hand, etc.
  • Eaten in 12 different locations: back yard, front yard, crate, kitchen basement, laundry room, bathroom, friend’s house, car, school yard, bathtub, up high (on a cardboard solid box no more than 1 foot off the ground) etc.
  • Played with 12 different puppies (or safe adult dogs) under supervision.
  • Left alone safely (in crate) away from family and other animals (5-45 minutes) 12 times a week.
  • Left alone safely (in crate) near family members (5-45 minutes) 12 times a week.