Megan Minkiewicz

Megan Minkiewicz has raised six puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Over the next year and a half, she'll write about her adventures as a volunteer puppy raiser for The Bark blog. She lives in Bend, Ore., with her husband Alex, a Quarter Horse named Chip, and a one-eyed goldfish named Flobie and Caleb.

News: Guest Posts
Big Changes for Little Caleb
Neutering and operant conditioning training for future Guide Dog

It’s hard to believe little Caleb is already six-months-old. He’s become such a fixture in our routines that we all feel a bit off when that routine is interrupted. But it’s something we have to do in order to prepare Caleb for his future as a well-socialized canine ambassador. This month that interruption will be a big one—at least for little Caleb—he’s getting neutered.


Not all Guide Dog for the Blind puppies-in-training are altered during their puppy-raising year. But, Caleb being a male Labrador/Golden Retriever cross is not a candidate for breeding. All working Guide Dogs are altered before they enter formal training, however there is a percentage of puppies who are watched throughout their puppy-raising year as potential breeder candidates and there are a number of puppies, such as Caleb, who are altered during that time too.   As I mentioned in a previous post, Guide Dogs for the Blind supports and maintains its own breeding department and dogs. There are about 180 dogs in the breeding program. These dogs live with people who have been selected as “breeder custodians” and spend the majority of their time doing what most pet dogs do—playing and being part of a family. They are a mix of yellow and black Labradors, as well as Golden Retrievers and also female Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses (Caleb’s mom being one of them).   Eighty percent of the breeders are females and 20 percent are males, and they are the epitome of the Guide Dog ideal. Guide Dogs for the Blind also participates in an exchange program with other International Guide Dog Federation schools that promotes the sharing of litters and dogs. Puppies-in-training and breeders have come from Guide Dog schools in Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and The Netherlands and in return these schools have received dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind. This helps the global Guide Dog community to continue to add new genes into the lineage while maintaining the most important Guide Dog traits, health and temperament.   Speaking of temperament, Caleb is a rock solid star. For the most part, he’s mature enough to go where we go. He can handle an afternoon of errands, an evening of dinner and a movie, a high school basketball game, even a trip to barn to check up on my horse. As long as he can find a pair of feet to curl up between, he’s happy to be wherever we are.   In addition to the fun stuff we do, twice a month we meet with our puppy-raising club to work on obedience and learn from our advisor new and improved way of working with our puppies. All of Caleb’s obedience commands and puppy-handling exercises are rewarded with praise, lots and lots or praise! There are very few instances where we use food rewards for puppies-in-training—in teaching recall and “go to bed” exercise using operant conditioning.   In operant conditioning, puppies are rewarded for offering a desired behavior instead of being physically manipulated to respond to a command. Essentially, it’s a game, a fun and rewarding game for the pups. Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy-raising department uses operant conditioning in the “go to bed” exercise.    Using a mat or crate pad, I walk Caleb by the mat and if he offers the desired behavior of touching the mat I “mark” him with the word “nice” followed immediately with a piece of kibble. The timing is everything as the marker occurs immediately upon the behavior and the kibble reinforces the behavior. After a few rounds of touching the mat, I wait for Caleb to remain standing on the mat, where he again receives the verbal marker followed by kibble.   Next I wait for Caleb to offer a sit and eventually lay down on the mat, continuing to give him a verbal marker and kibble to reaffirm the behavior. I don’t name the behavior Caleb does this all on his own, knowing the verbal marker and food reward will follow. Once the behavior is consistent I add the “go to bed” name and from then on I cue him with the words to perform the behavior.   It’s amazing to see how quickly the puppies pick it up and how this technique becomes a cornerstone of training for dogs when puppies return to campus for formal Guide Dog training. Operant conditioning can be taught with a verbal marker or a clicker and was originally used in the lab and with marine mammals. It took me awhile to get in sync with the coordination of the marker and reward, but now that we have it Caleb rocks this training.   Another big training milestone is coming up next month, Caleb will take his first airplane ride as we head down to San Francisco for Caleb’s photo shoot with our dear friend and Bark photo contributor, Amanda Jones. Stay tuned.


News: Guest Posts
Guide Dog-in-Training Hits the Road
Caleb visits Washington and Idaho

As usual, we’ve had another busy month of adventures, activities and … first graders. Caleb is fast asleep in my office as I type this but don’t let that image fool you; he’s clearly coming out of his shell and has discovered being a puppy can be FUN!


Most people assume Guide Dog puppies are always working, which is sort of true. They are expected to maintain generally good house manners—no to running in the house and counter surfing; yes to listening, following directions and behaving with a level of self-control—not unlike those first graders (more on them in a second). But when we are home Caleb for the most part acts like a pet. He follows me from room to room and sleeps most of the time. We take breaks to play games of tug, work on his obedience skill, run around the backyard, walk to the mailbox and repeat.


Guide Dog puppies have a lot of routine to their days, however, it’s also important they are exposed to a number of people, places and things they might encounter as a working Guide Dog to help prepare them to deal with new and different situations calmly. This month was no exception for Caleb.


I travel frequently for work and Guide Dog puppies are not allowed to travel by plane until they’re 6 months old—even then it requires approval from Guide Dogs for the Blind. So for now Caleb stays home with my husband Alex when I travel. Alex works in healthcare, and a hospital can be a bit much for a young puppy so a few days a week Caleb has been attending first grade with one of the puppy raisers in our club.


This is a beneficial experience for Caleb and the children. They are all learning about self-control; the first graders are learning to ignore Caleb and Caleb is learning not to pick up paper off the floor! The kids are also learning about people with disabilities, service dogs and volunteering. It’s a win-win for everyone. Clearly, it takes a village to raise a Guide Dog puppy too.


In addition to my work travel, we had a few weekend road trips this month that afforded Caleb his first out-of-state adventures. Travel can be stressful for dogs so we try to ease the pups into being comfortable in different cars, relieving themselves in different places on various surfaces and staying in new places. With this in mind, we took a quick day trip to Washington that gave Caleb the opportunity to spend a few hours in the car and experience some new sights and smells.


The following weekend we made the trek to Boise, Idaho, to visit Alex’s parents and sister. Caleb had his first opportunity to stay in a hotel room, experience a bustling downtown area and visit some new and different places. Downtown Bend is relatively small and quiet so a visit to downtown Boise was a great introduction for Caleb to city streets, smells and noises. The happy-go-lucky swagger of his tail continues to reflect his easygoing personality and willingness to go with the flow.


My husband did not grow up with dogs and Caleb was the first puppy in training we’ve brought with us to visit his parents, everyone was impressed with how calm and well behaved Caleb was. Especially my father-in-law, who more than once was found camped out on the floor playing with Caleb.


We are clearly coming out of the baby puppy phase with Caleb as he’s tipping the scales at 40 pounds and has quite possibly lost every single one of his baby teeth. Now, we are ready for the next phase—“teenage puppy in all his glory.” 

News: Guest Posts
Caleb About Town
And the importance of “lap time” for future Guide Dogs

Happy New Year! As I sat down to write this I realized Caleb is 4-months-old today and time is already flying by. It has been a busy month around our house bringing home a new puppy during the cold winter months has its challenges. The days are shorter and colder and potty training takes time, sometimes lots of waiting time. Luckily, Caleb figured out that the quicker he did his business the faster he could resume his position in front of the fireplace.


Turns out Caleb’s a very fast learner all around, which I attribute to his Labrador genes and perhaps the food rewards. It goes without saying each and every dog has their own unique personality and we often compare the traits of our previous Guide Dog puppies. Solstice was our sassy girl, Laker was our mellow moose, and Caleb, he’s our lap dog. He’s sort of a diva—a very adorable and loveable diva, as we are coming to learn. He’s been especially great to have around this week as it marks the one-year anniversary of Noah’s passing. Caleb loves nothing more than to spend hours snuggled up on a lap, which is just what I’ve needed lately.   A few weeks ago, Caleb went to our amazing vet for his final set of puppy shots; he came through with a superb health report and won the off-the-chart cuteness award from the entire staff. Before he completed his vaccinations, we were careful to avoid interactions with unknown dogs. While it’s critical that young puppies begin socializing early, it’s more important to protect their immune systems from potentially dangerous infections. Luckily, we had a few Guide Dog puppy club meetings to get him acquainted with other dogs being raised in our club, and a meet-and-greet with Arden (now Artie) and a visit with Andera (now Andhi). He’s now well aware that the bigger dog always calls the shots and you need to respect your elders, important skills to learn early on. Now that he’s vaccinated we have been venturing out on more advanced socializations and outings.   We try to do at least one socialization or outing per day ranging from a trip to the post office or a restaurant to the movies. Our outdoor activities are limited by the cold Central Oregon winter and the attention span of a 16-week-old puppy, so we end up going to the movies, a lot. Caleb, of course, goes with us. He also makes a perfect chick-flick date when my husband Alex is not around.   Last weekend, we were leaving the theater and stopped by a family who mentioned they too were puppy raisers from Medford, Ore. After a few minutes of chatting, we learned they had raised Caleb’s mom Tulin! It was a great treat for them to meet one of Tulin’s puppies and also for me to learn a bit about his mom. Hopefully, we’ll get to see more of them as they have a vacation home in Central Oregon and visit often. As Caleb gets older we’ll do more outings per day but since he’s still such a pup we like to ease him into all the stimulation the world has to offer. Guide Dogs for the Blind provide raisers with some general guidelines for age appropriate outings for puppies.   In addition to outings and socializations, Caleb is subjected to daily puppy-handling exercises, in his mind this translates to lap time. It provides him with a certain level of comfort being handled and touched all over. Vision-impaired guide dog users rely on touch to maintain grooming, weight management and general health of their canine counterparts. So it’s very important that Caleb allow me to clip his nails, brush his teeth, clean his ears and manhandle him without squirming. He does not seem to mind it at all.   We are also beginning to work on some obedience commands, more to come on that topic. But suffice to say Caleb already walks calmly on a loose leash, responds to his name, sits when asked and waits for his kibble. Not too shabby for a baby pup!   I’d love to answer your questions in future blog posts; please feel free to ask me about puppy raising in the comments section below.


News: Guest Posts
Welcome Home Caleb!
New Guide Dog puppy settles in

[Editor’s note: Megan Minkiewicz has raised six puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Over the next year and a half, she’ll write about her adventures in puppy-raising for The Bark blog.]


I’ve been busy since my last post. I had a quick business trip to Colorado, which provided me the opportunity to visit Laker, a puppy we raised who is now a working guide in Boulder. Laker was my favorite puppy; I will admit giving him up was difficult. But, it’s always wonderful to see him and have the opportunity watch him work with his partner. He is where he’s meant to be and I find endless joy in knowing that.   A few weeks before his recall, Arden was career-changed. (See “Saying Goodbye to Arden.”) This is always a possibility and can happen even while a puppy is still in the puppy raiser’s home or at any point in formal training. Arden was too easily distracted. As you can imagine it takes quite a bit of restraint and self-control to ignore other dogs, and he just didn’t have it. But, I am so happy to report he is now the spoiled only-child of our friends across the street. He’s super happy, settling in well and enjoying life as a pet. Plus, I can see him from my office window!   So enough about the old guys, everyone is really here to learn about the new kid. On December 17, I made the trek over the mountains and through the woods, literally to Guide Dogs for the Blind Oregon campus where I was introduced to Caleb, our new puppy. He’s three-quarter Labrador and one-quarter Golden Retriever, and looks mostly like a Black Labrador. The only bit of Golden Retriever we can find is the extra soft fur atop his head and the slight wave to his coat.   Both of his parents are part of the Guide Dogs for the Blind breeder stock program. These specially selected dogs were chosen for their health and temperament. Many years and much research have been invested in the genetics and genes of these dogs with the hopes of passing both to their offspring. Let’s hope Caleb got the best of mom and dad. He is one of eight: three females and five males; five of them are yellow and three are black. All of their names start with the letter C.   All puppies are born on the San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind, where they are cared for by specially trained maternity ward staff for the first eight weeks. Puppies are handled from date of birth and begin socialization at seven days. They remain in the whelping kennel until six weeks with their mom and littermates. At six weeks, the pups are moved into the puppy kennel. Here they spend time twice a day with puppy-socializer volunteers (a coveted duty).   At this point, they are introduced to a leash and collar, walks, other animals and more. Caleb was part of a newly formed puppy trial where pups remain on campus for an extra week. They are taught polite food-taking and are introduced to wearing a mini version of a Guide Dog harness. From past experience, I can confirm Caleb better understands bite inhibition and takes food more gently than his predecessors. Knowing food is a great motivator for Labradors, it’s important they learn self-control when taking food from a hand. Considering Caleb can down a cup of kibble in under a minute this is a great start to his training.   For now, he is just settling in and getting used to all the new sights, smells and sounds. My husband, Alex, made a comment about two hours after Caleb’s arrival that he’s the best baby puppy we’ve had. I might have to agree. He snuggly, very happy-go-lucky, loves everything he tries, and he’s got a tail that wags all the time to a really slow beat.   Training a Guide Dog puppy starts as soon as we bring them home. First on our list of important “to do” items, potty training. Pups are taught to relieve themselves only on command; this is an important skill that allows raisers and graduates to confidently take their dogs in public and know they will not have accidents.   I can say Caleb is doing very well on this score, however it requires a lot of eagle eyes and anticipation from us. Our general rule of thumb is potty breaks are offered after eating, sleeping and playing. As he matures, we’ll begin to put more time between each opportunity.    Slowly we have started to take him out with us to walk the neighborhood, ride in the car and meet people. Today, we ventured out to our favorite coffee shop for his first official outing in his little green Guide Dog puppy vest. Caleb happily accepted his vest and enjoyed the adventure if only for a few minutes, wagging his tail and standing calmly next to me.    Two of the things we are careful to monitor and manage are stress level and stimulation. This is the reason we begin with small intervals of training and socialization. While the first few weeks of puppy raising isn’t all that exciting, we’re setting the stage for building Caleb’s trust in us and developing our own working partnership. For now, we’ll continue games of tug, puppy-handling exercises and napping, there is a lot of napping to do.


News: Guest Posts
Saying Goodbye to Arden
Adventures in puppy-raising for Guide Dogs for the Blind

[Editor’s note: Next month, Megan Minkiewicz brings home a new puppy, the sixth dog she and her husband will raise for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Over the next year and a half, she’ll write about her adventures in puppy-raising for The Bark blog.]


A lifetime ago, I met a yellow Labrador Retriever named Noah who forever changed my life. He was young and I was single, we made a good team. To say he stole my heart is an understatement, for nearly 14 years he was my shadow and constant companion. Noah chose a career path different than the one for which he was intended as a puppy-in-training for Guide Dogs for the Blind. He followed the career path I like to think he was meant for, to be mine. So began my induction into the folds of Guide Dogs for the Blind, raising puppies is my way of giving back to the organization that gave me my dog.   To date, my husband Alex and I have raised five puppies for Guide Dogs. Two female yellow Labs (Solstice and Lotus) and three male black Labs (Andera, Laker and Arden), I remember all of their birthdates, assigned tattoo numbers, nicknames and every quirk about them. Each was special and different and we learned something new from each of them. They were our dogs if just for a year and will forever remain part of our family. We have the good fortune of keeping in contact with our pups. They remember us no matter how long it’s been between reunions, the end result is Lab laps, licks and lots of love.    Our current puppy Arden is just about ready to return to Guide Dogs for his formal training, which means soon a new charge will join our family and have some big paws to fill. Arden has spent the last year as my sidekick; we practice basic obedience, good house manners and general socialization in any number of situations. Generally, where we go the puppy goes—restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, airplanes, grocery stores, trains and more—Arden’s done it all. He’s grown up to be a well-traveled, well-behaved and well-respected member of the community! Living in a small town, Arden is often recognized long before the person at the other end of the leash is even considered.    We volunteer as raisers and, like parenting, we are in it for the love. There are no guarantees. Each puppy comes with its own personality; our job to get them ready to choose their path. Whatever that path may be, it will be an adventure getting there.   We know little about our next puppy, although he will be another male, he may be a Labrador or a Labrador/Golden cross, black or yellow. It’s all unknown until we are handed that little tub of a puppy on December 17.   In the meantime, I am on the heartbreaking countdown to giving up Arden. It’s never easy, even though I know I will see him again—be it at his graduation or, if he’s a career change, back home as a pet. It’s like sending a child off to college. Will he get along with his roommate? Will the instructors like him? Will they know a Jolly Ball is his favorite toy and his favorite place to be scratched is the bridge of his nose? The reality is Arden will love formal training; there are friends, and games, and treats, and lots and lots of love. I will follow his progress through a weekly phase report as he climbs the ladder through ten phases of training—if he makes it that far!   So join me on this blogging adventure to follow the life and times of a Guide Dog puppy in training and I’ll keep you posted on Arden’s adventure too.