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Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Maremma Sheepdogs keep watch over Little Penguins
On Guard

Dogs and birds are not always good companions. Dogs and wild seabirds? You must be joking! Whose dog hasn’t bounded around at the beach, sending up flurries of panicked gulls? However, in Australia, a dog/bird experiment with potentially global significance for conservation is taking place. On a tiny island near the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool, Maremma Sheepdogs (livestock guardian dogs) are hard at work protecting Little Penguins, the smallest of the penguin species. And not only are the birds thriving and breeding, predation losses from foxes — their chief killers — have ceased.

Maremmas have been traced back 2,000 years to the Italian region of Abruzzo, where they defended herd animals from thieves and wild predators, notably wolves. Prized for their protective skills, they were successfully introduced to the U.S. in the 1970s and later, Canada, South Africa and South America. Australia first imported them in 1982.

With their floppy ears, shaggy, white coats and placid demeanor, Maremmas look unthreatening and act calmly around sheep, goats and poultry. Unlike herding breeds that nip and chase, Maremmas do not confront livestock but integrate with them, forming social bonds.

Some of this is heredity; the dogs are bred to be docile. They also bond to the animals they’re to look after so they identify them as members of their pack. This bonding takes place through the critical period of socialization — eight to 16 weeks — until the dogs are about 12 months old. During this time, they are monitored closely for harmful play behavior. The dogs scent-mark their territory, indicating their boundaries to potential predators, and disrupt hunters by vigorous barking. They defend rather than act as aggressors.

As Sydney, Australia, Maremma breeder Cecilia McDonald says, “The dogs work by instinct. But they need to be introduced to the stock they’re looking after so they can differentiate the predators from what is to be protected.”

In 2005, the Little Penguins of Middle Island were in desperate need of protection. One of the world’s most loved animals, this penguin species lives only in New Zealand and southern Australia. With their cute waddle and fascinating life cycle, they’re incredibly popular: the colony at Phillip Island, south of Melbourne, attracts a halfmillion visitors annually.

Middle Island, just beyond the Warrnambool breakwater in Stingray Bay, is a very different place. Uninhabited, forbiddingly steepsided and only 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres), its south face backs onto the wild Southern Ocean, into which the penguins dive up to 60 meters (roughly 197 feet) for fish and squid. Little Penguins had raised chicks in burrows near the island’s sandy summit for decades, the colony peaking at around 1,500 individuals. In the 1990s, when volunteers began record keeping, 700 penguins lived there.

At low tide, when the channel separating it from land is less than six inches deep, Middle Island becomes accessible to an introduced species, the European red fox, with disastrous consequences. For several years, the foxes wreaked havoc, killing dozens of penguins in unpredictable, nocturnal sprees. At the same time, human use of the fragile island increased, and burrows were trampled, crushing penguin eggs and chicks. In response, the Warrnambool City Council tried various predator-control methods (which failed) and built a 280-meter (919-foot) boardwalk to keep people off the rookery area. Even so, from 2000 to 2005, penguin numbers plummeted to fewer than 10. The colony was at the point of no return.

Enter Dave Williams. The environmental science student was working part-time on an organic egg farm, where Allan Marsh, his employer, used Maremmas for fox control. Hearing of the penguin massacres, Marsh made a perceptive remark: “All they need is a couple of [Maremma] dogs on that island.”

Williams agreed. He approached the Warrnambool City Council in 2005, asking to test the idea. After lengthy discussion, the council decided to give the dogs a four-week trial. Oddball, an experienced chicken guardian, was the first chosen for penguin duty. Six years — and six dogs — later, the experiment continues.

Initially, Williams camped on the island and supervised Oddball to determine her level of affinity with the seabirds. Things went so well that after a week, he left the dog alone at night to do her work.

“There were chicks in burrows already,” he explains. “We needed to know how they’d interact. Would the penguins accept the dog? Some birds were bolder than others. While some walked straight past the dog, others waited until the dog moved away before coming out of the sea.”

With only two breeding pairs, it was easy to gauge the success of the experiment. Chick weights were monitored to determine how the dogs affected the penguins. “If the chicks were healthy and gaining weight, that showed the parents were coming back to feed them. Weights showed they were progressing normally.”

Williams visited once a day to bring food and water for Oddball and to check on her health. Oddball got along with the penguins, but after three weeks, she ran away — back to Marsh’s farm. Another experienced chickenguardian dog, Missy, replaced her, but it wasn’t long before she also left the island for her farm home. By the time the trial ended after four weeks, the penguin chicks had fledged (grown up) and no penguins had died from fox predation. Another trial was planned for the following year.

In anticipation, puppies Electra and Neve were acquired at eight weeks of age and spent six months bonding to chickens at Marsh’s farm. Human contact was minimized and the young dogs settled in well. Williams, now a council employee, brought his dog Esta to demonstrate her calm demeanor around the penguins, and he was able to reduce the time he spent with the dogs. Then, disaster struck.

Some 10 penguins were found dead from internal bleeding. Almost certainly, they were killed in play by Electra and Neve. “It’s common with juvenile Maremmas,” says Williams. “With a sheep or a goat, the dog doesn’t really hurt the animal. When it’s a onekilogram penguin, they can’t stand up to that sort of puppy stuff.” Under public pressure, the council relieved them of their duties and Williams’ dog Esta took over patrols.

These problems were part of the learning process. As Williams reflects, “No one had done anything vaguely like it before. It’s an evolving project. We were constantly having discussions about how we could do things better.”

The fol lowing year, two new pups — dubbed Eudy and Tula (after the penguin species’ Latin name, Eudyptula minor) — joined the guarding effort. They’re now almost two years old and proving their worth. As with the first group of dogs, no penguins have been lost to fox attacks on their watch. Middle Island’s colony of Little Penguins now numbers 205.

Little Penguins have a sharply defined routine. In summer, the breeding season, they spend their days at sea, hunting fish. Returning at sunset to feed their chicks, they noisily socialize until dawn the next day. After breeding, they go into a molt for three weeks, replacing all their feathers. Particularly vulnerable at this time, they can starve as they cannot swim to hunt for food. In winter, they may stay at sea several days before building nests prior to mating in the early spring, when the cycle starts again.

Teaching a dog to guard birds who are not there all day — or all week — was always going to be hard. And as Oddball and Missy demonstrated, teaching a dog to stay on an island when she can trot off it at low tide proved even harder. The dogs’ training involved gradual exposure to the penguins at different times of day, for longer and longer periods. Esta, who was trustworthy with the birds, guided Eudy and Tula’s interactions.

“Esta’s reaction to the penguins showed the puppies that they were not to be feared. There are Short-tailed Shearwaters breeding out there too, so we exposed the puppies to all those phases and the different seasons. They got a picture of what’s normal on the island,” Williams says.

Dave Williams left Warrnambool for a wildlife officer job in nearby Portland, where he supervises another Maremma program for guarding Australasian Gannets, a large seabird. His successor is Paul Hartrick, who now heads a three-person team with responsibility for the Middle Island Maremmas.

The dogs aren’t obedience trained. For one thing, according to Williams, “the more obedient they are, the less they think for themselves.” This independence is vital, as the dogs are alone for long periods. For another, obedience could be harmful. Says Hartrick, “[Unfortunately] people are going over there. The last thing we want is for the dogs to respond to ‘sit,’ ‘stay’ or ‘come’ — to people trying to get them to come off the island. If they show undesirable behaviors, we use loud, abrupt vocal noises. It distracts them and they switch off from what they were thinking about.”

Another problem was evident from the start: Eudy and Tula occasionally left the island, possibly chasing foxes. An electric fence with solar-powered perimeter wire is now in place, and the dogs wear collars that emit warning beeps.

During the summer months, Eudy and Tula have two days off per week, which they spend at a bush block (a plot of undeveloped land covered with native vegetation) stocked with chickens. They’ve been there full-time since the end of summer and will go back to work on the island when penguin breeding commences. In the future, “the girls” will work year-round, and after six to eight years of guardian duty, will then help train their replacements. Hartrick believes the project could have benefits for other animals as well. “Dogs like this can be used for other native fauna that could use a helping hand.”

When I met Hartrick in February 2011, we visited Stingray Bay, from which Middle Island rises, sheer, stark and rocky. The tide was low and we took off our shoes and sloshed across the shallow channel. Together, we ascended the access stairway. Aware of a presence above us, I looked up: there were Eudy and Tula, doing their job, not letting me out of their sight.

News: Guest Posts
What’s a Seeing Eye Dog Do When his Human Breaks her Foot?
Harper’s backup plan

What happens to a Seeing Eye dog if their human companion gets hurt, or sick? Do they lose their skills while waiting for the person to recover? That’s one question I hoped I’d never have to answer. But then last month I broke my foot.

I swim laps two or three times each week. Tapping the lane marker with every other stroke keeps me swimming straight, and limiting myself to the crawl stroke means I always have one arm in front of me, so my head never bangs the end of the pool. Swimming has always been a safe form of exercise for me. Until that ill-fated night in June, that is.

I finished my laps and was heading back to the desk to fetch Harper when I slipped and fell back into the pool. My left foot must have gotten caught in the gutter as I took the plunge. It broke. In three places.

*

The first call we made once we returned from the orthopedic clinic was to the Seeing Eye. The doctor had told me I ought to be able to avoid surgery if I stay off my foot as much as possible. We needed to talk with Seeing Eye trainers about what my husband Mike, who can see, could do to help keep Harper on track during my recovery.

Doug Bohl from the Seeing Eye encouraged Mike to take Harper on long walks for exercise. “But really, you all should focus on getting Beth’s foot back to normal rather than worry about how Harper will perform once she’s better,” he said, describing one Seeing Eye dog who had to quit working for four months when the person he guided got hurt. “That dog did fine after that. These dogs don't forget their jobs.”

*

Mike uses a leash on walks, and the two of them stop at each curb, just like I do when Harper is on harness. Mike follows other Seeing Eye rules, too: Dog lovers can’t pet Harper, and Mike doesn’t let Harper lunge or sniff at other dogs during walks, either.

Before the accident, I had agreed to sit on a panel for the Writer’s Division at the National Federation of the Blind convention in Orlando. “You can still go,” my doctor said. “Just promise me you’ll use a wheelchair in the airport.” I promised. Harper stayed at home with Mike.

*

My sister Marilee lives in Orlando. She got a special pass to meet me at the gate, and before you knew it, we were in a swarm of waving white wands and wagging tails at the convention hall. More than 3,000 people with visual impairments showed up for the convention this year: That’s a lot of white canes and guide dogs.

My panel went well, and we had time to check out the exhibit hall before heading back to the airport. Marilee took a deep breath before we headed in, readying herself to maneuver me through a sea of conventioneers. Considering my oversized cast, this was, ahem, no small feat.

We were heading for the exit when a man suddenly approached and grabbed me by both arms, “Are you an imposter?” he asked. “Where’s your dog?” I’d know that voice anywhere. It was Lukas Franck from the Seeing Eye. I lifted my pant leg to show him my cast. “Harper’s at home with Mike,” I told him, explaining how Mike was following all the Seeing Eye rules, insisting Harper stop at each curb, going on longer walks with Harper when possible.

*

Harper is two years old, and he’s only been in Chicago with me for seven months. He’d had some trouble adjusting to the snow at first, and a trainer from the Seeing Eye had come out when the snow melted in April to help us get back on track. Lukas asked if Harper’s work had improved any before I got hurt. “Yes,” I said. “It had.”

“Good,” he said. “We can send someone out to give you another refresher course once your foot is healed.” Lukas also suggested I consider sending Harper back to Morristown now, while I continue to heal. “We could have people here work him every day.” In that scenario, I might return to Morristown after my foot heals, meet up with Harper and work with him there for a while before hitting the streets of Chicago again. “Think about it,”

Lukas said. “You know, Mike could use a break.”

And so, we are. Thinking about it, I mean. Mike assures me that taking Harper out to empty all the time, and then doing the long walks, too, isn’t taking a toll on him. And while getting regular workouts with Seeing Eye trainers in Morristown would be great for Harper’s work ethic, we worry what a temporary move back to Seeing Eye School might do to Harper’s mental health. Not to mention … mine.

News: Guest Posts
Guide Dog Puppy-in-Training’s “Teenage Rebellion”
And loving up first graders

Caleb has officially reached the halfway-point of his puppy-raising year; today he’s 9 months old! We took another plane ride this month; in fact, we took a few. Caleb even bravely managed an early morning flight, which sets back mealtime by an hour—a lifetime to a Labrador.

I left the Alex in charge for a week, while I rode my bike 545 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles as a participant in AIDS LifeCycle, a fundraising event support the programs of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and when I returned there was a dog where Caleb should have been. He had filled out and looked more like an adult; he had developed this wide ribcage and must have grown an inch in my absence.

Also, while I was gone, someone forgot what his day job was, no doubt a result of being home alone with the “easy” parent. A day after returning, I was working in my office with Caleb and after it was too quiet for a little too long I turned around to find him on his bed with a pack of Post It notes in his mouth. He was just holding them gingerly, not chewing on them but appearing not to know what to do or how he ended up with them in his mouth. He’s never picked up anything other than his own toys so I’ll chalk it up to teenage rebellion.

Speaking of kids, one of Caleb’s earliest socializations was a visit to the first grade classroom of another puppy raiser Mrs. M, who has graciously allowed all my pups to visit her class. Since he’s been visiting on a regular basis, we made a special trip back to say goodbye to the kids and give them a chance to ask me some questions about Caleb before summer break. Quite a list of questions had been compiled in anticipation. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “Why does he wear a jacket?”
  • “How does Caleb know when to cross the street?”
  • “How come Caleb never had accidents or goes to the bathroom at school?”
  • “Does Caleb get to play with other dogs?”

In turn, I asked the students what they liked most about having Caleb in class. The responses were hands down some of the best ever. First graders are awesome!

  • “He’s the best pillow and his ears are soft,”
  • “He’s funny and makes us happier.”
  • “I read to him and it helps me be a better reader.”
  • “He loves on us.”
  • “Class is cleaner because he’s here.”

While the learning experience for Caleb is phenomenal, it’s clear his impact on the students has been tremendous. I received a note from Mrs. M after one of Caleb’s visits describing the incident of Caleb and the new kid.

“When a new student arrived scared and unsure, he was greeted by Caleb’s wagging body and bright happy smile. Immediately, he relaxed and melted into Caleb’s fur, petting him and loving him up so carefully. It was an amazing way to get him to open up, tell me about his dog and what he likes about them. I think having Caleb there yesterday made a huge difference in the life of one little guy with a lot of baggage. School was warm, wiggly and happy! Caleb was there for him whenever he needed to be loved up.”

I certainly will not be the first person to tout the power of the pooch when it comes to the human emotion spectrum. But you can’t tell me it’s not there!

Now that summer has finally arrived in Central Oregon, we are looking forward to being outside, and we’re cleaning up the canoe, kayaks and paddleboards in anticipation. Caleb is going to learn all about water sports. Stay tuned.

News: Guest Posts
Guide Dog-in-Training Works the Red Carpet
Caleb’s first fundraiser

Our little dude is growing up so fast; we’ve completely lost all semblance of a puppy around our house except during playtime. He’s come to be known by one of his many nicknames, “Little Goat,” as he loves to jump straight in the air and race around the track he’s created in the yard, kicking up his heels and burning off steam.

Caleb is almost eight months old now, which means he’s about halfway through his puppy year. My best estimate is he’ll be recalled for formal training sometime next winter. But for now we are continuing to work on obedience, manners and socializing, all of which Caleb excels at. I had a light travel month for work so Caleb and I are proud to report we’ve made it to the gym every morning for the last two weeks and have been able to do some more daily outings and routines. Now that we’ve built a strong foundation of training, we’ve started to challenge Caleb with more complex outings and socializations. This month was no exception. 

Twice a year, Guide Dogs for the Blind hosts annual wine gala fundraisers in Napa and Portland to raise funds for veterinary care. Guide Dogs for the Blind is unique from other schools in that it commits to the healthcare of working dogs for the lifetime of the dog, well beyond their guiding career. Everything from routine vet visits, cancer treatments, orthopedic surgeries, flea, tick and heartworm prevention to kibble—it is all free of charge to Guide Dog graduates. Knowing the dogs I raise will receive the best care for their lifetime is extremely important to me. We make a point to attend the events and contribute financially to support this cause, so Caleb went with us to Portland for the weekend.

Now remember, we live in the country, so visiting the city is a big change; there are more noises, more distractions and more smells! Since we made a weekend out of it Caleb also got to experience another hotel stay. His first hotel stay was quite controlled; we were in a ground floor room with easy access to an exit for potty breaks. This time we stayed in a downtown high-rise hotel, where leaving for a potty break involved walking down a hallway, riding in an elevator, crossing the lobby, out the door and around the corner. Luckily, all of the practice and consistency of teaching Caleb to relieve on command came in handy. He was perfect. Saturday we spent the day walking and shopping throughout Portland, a more urban ‘hood than Caleb’s used to so it proved to be a good training experience for him.

After an afternoon nap for Caleb and spa treatment for me, we headed over to the Portland Art Museum for the main event, Pinot and Pups. The evening consisted of a reception and silent auction followed by a sit-down dinner, keynote speakers and a live auction. This was Caleb’s first large event, and there was a lot going on from the moment we stepped out of the elevator. There were people, servers, working guide dogs, musicians, puppies-in-training and even some tiny little eight-week-old pups.

Those first few minutes were a little overwhelming for Caleb, so I took his cue and gave him some time to stand in one place and take it all in. Once settled, we spent some time navigating the silent auction tables, placing our bids and talking to attendees. As expected, the question I’m asked most often is how can I give up a puppy; don’t I get attached? Yes, I absolutely do. But to see what these dogs are capable of, I have to be capable of letting go.

Puppies are, of course, the highlight of the event, which was perfect for my little social butterfly. By the time we sat down for dinner, Caleb was more than ready for a nap and was asleep before the first course plates were set. After so much activity and stimulation, Caleb was more than happy to sleep in the next morning until almost 7 am!

All in all the experience proved to be a new one with a slew of new challenges for the little rock star to navigate. Up next on Caleb’s calendar: back-to-back weeks of airplane travel, plus the end of the school year party and interview with his first grade fans. Tune in next month.

News: Guest Posts
Is Your Dog a Hero?
Nominate a deserving pup

Every day you tell us stories about the generosity, courage and loyalty of your canine companions, so I know there are more than a few Hero Dogs out there in the Bark community. Well, heads up: There are only eight days left to nominate a deserving pup for the American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards.

The idea of the contest is to celebrate the canine-human bond and to acknowledge dogs’ manifold contributions to our lives. In addition, 17 participating charities will have a chance to receive a share of $50,000 in grant prizes awarded by the Hero Dog Awards, including Canine Companions for Independence, United States War Dog Association and the National Association for Search and Rescue.

It's Me or the Dog star and Bark columnist Victoria Stillwell will lead the judging panel that will select heroes in eight categories: Law Enforcement and Arson Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Military Dogs, Guide Dogs, Search and Rescue Dogs, Hearing Dogs and Emerging Hero Dogs, this last category is a tribute to ordinary dogs who do extraordinary things. (Unfortunately for my dog, this probably doesn’t mean swiping a rack of ribs off an unguarded platter. I suppose a few seconds with the ribs was its own reward.)

Nominations will be accepted through May 31. If you don’t have a dog in mind, stop by the site anyway and read up on the deserving and inspiring nominee profiles. I’m glad I don’t have to select one in each category.

Finalists will be announced at a celebrity gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in L.A. on October 1.

News: Guest Posts
Paradigm Shift for Seeing Eye Dogs
Deploying a clicker and treats to help a hesitant guide dog

Five months ago (has it been that long already?) I returned with my new dog from the Seeing Eye School in Morristown to piles of snow here in Chicago.

Poor Harper had never trained in snow. Was that why he was cowering on our walks to the Loop now? Does he miss the snow? Or maybe it’s a delayed reaction to the van that turned right in front of us. The driver didn’t see us crossing, she said. Her van brushed Harper’s face, and he pulled me back from harm so strongly that I fell. My head crashed on the concrete. Maybe that near-miss still has him scared.

Harper’s cowering started one day when I had a meeting downtown at Willis Tower. Halfway there, along a normal length of sidewalk, Harper crouched to the ground. Wouldn’t budge. Not forward, not backward. After trying everything I could come up with to get Harper to move, I finally accepted help from a stranger. The man walked Harper and me to Franklin Avenue, and when Harper caught sight of the Willis Tower he took off like old times.

On the way home, though, he cowered again. Four different times. Then he cowered on the way to and from the memoir-writing class I teach, on the way to and from the pool where I swim, on the way to and from the train station to visit my mom in the suburbs. We eventually got to all these places, but it was like driving a car that stalls all the time. It was miserable—both for Harper and for me.

“It really doesn’t matter why he’s acting this way,” the instructor from the Seeing Eye said when I called the training department for help. “He just can’t act like this.” They arranged to send an instructor out for a home visit.

Nicole spent her first afternoon with us just observing. Harper did not hold back. In one short walk, he refused to go all the way to the corner at an intersection, he veered right when we crossed, and then wouldn’t follow my command to turn right so we could take a walk to the park. He did get me home, though, and over a cup of tea Nicole assured me I hadn’t done anything wrong to cause Harper’s behavior. “We’ve just gotta work on how you react when he behaves like this,” she said.

Nicole suggested we try clicker training. Award-winning Seeing Eye instructor Lukas Franck had taught us clicker training while we were in Morristown last December, and I’d used it at home to teach Harper to find the elevator button in our hallway.

Clicking and giving Harper a treat to reward him for getting to the curb went counter to everything I’d learned when training with my previous Seeing Eye dogs Pandora and Hanni. Back then we were strongly discouraged from rewarding our dogs with food. Heap on the praise instead, they told us. Guide Dogs are allowed in restaurants, amusement parks, receptions, food courts, you name it. They have to be able to keep on task without being distracted by food.

Lukas—and then Nicole—assured me that the Seeing Eye had tested the clicker-training method extensively. I could use treats as rewards and still expect Harper to ignore food distractions in restaurants and the like. I was skeptical, but desperate. I decided to give it a try.

And you know what? It’s working! For the past couple weeks, I’ve been clicking the clicker every time Harper gets me to the end of a block. He understands that the click means “you got it!” and he knows that the sound of the click means he gets a small treat. Harper hardly ever cowers anymore; he’s in such a rush to get to the end of the block to collect his reward!

Harper’s work is not perfect—well, not yet, at least—but it has really, really improved. This week I’ve started weaning him off the clicker—in other words, I don’t click at each and every curb anymore. So far he’s still getting me to the end of each block without cowering, and his tail wags with pride when he does. Atta boy, Harper!

News: Guest Posts
So You Think You Want to Train Guide Dogs?
A challenging and rewarding career

Earlier this month, my Seeing Eye dog Harper and I gave a guest lecture to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. I told the students what it’s been like transitioning to a new Seeing Eye dog, and I went over some of the qualifications necessary to become a Seeing Eye trainer/instructor.

Trainers at the Seeing Eye need to have a college degree, and then they can apply for an apprenticeship. While some instructors go right from college into a Seeing Eye apprenticeship, most of the instructors I’ve talked to worked at other jobs before deciding to train dogs.   From the Seeing Eye website: “Staff instructors are full-time employees who hold college degrees from various fields of study and have successfully completed three years of specialized on-the-job training. They relate well to dogs and people and are physically fit, since their jobs are physically demanding and involve working outdoors in all weather. Some of our current instructors came from teaching, business consulting and rehabilitation fields. Some were in the military and worked with dogs before, and many started out as kennel assistants here at The Seeing Eye.”   Steve Newman—the very handsome (from what he told us) man who trained Harper and me—earned his college degree in accounting. He has his CPA, too, and worked as an accountant until he realized he likes working with people more than numbers. He found a job as a headhunter, but when the economy went sour, so did that career. After that, he spent a lot of time at a Starbucks, using his laptop to apply for other jobs.   Turns out that Steve’s Starbucks of choice was the very one Seeing Eye trainers use to teach dogs to navigate tight places. He was so taken by the string of beautiful dogs coming in and out of the coffee shop that he asked one of the trainers what it took to become an instructor.   “I knew I loved dogs,” he says. “And I like working with people, too, so I decided to apply.” During his interview, Steve was warned about the long hours (including some overnights when the students are first matched with their new dogs). “I’d worked as an accountant,” he says with a laugh. “Long hours didn't scare me.”   Steve got the job, passed the three-year apprenticeship, and has been training Seeing Eye dogs ever since. It was my great fortune, and Harper’s, too, that Steve was the one assigned to my group of four last December. He’s a smart man, loves the dogs, is good with all sorts of people and is easy to laugh.   During my lecture at the University of Illinois, I reminded the college students that guide dog instructors don’t just work with dogs. They work with people, too. We blind folks are all different ages, and we have all sorts of different backgrounds and experiences behind us. Some of us are newly blind and still adjusting, others have been blind our entire lives. Although some of us might be easy to work with, a lot of us are brats. We test our teacher’s patience. God knows I tested Steve’s, and he passed!   The Puppy Place (a website created by a group of volunteers who raise puppies for guide dog schools) says it well:   “Guide Dog trainers must work with a variety of dogs within a given size range. A great deal of walking and upper body strength is required to mold hyper young dogs into responsible workers. In the beginning, when working with dogs alone, this may not seem bad, but soon the apprentice must team dog training with people training. You can’t leash correct your blind student, or give him/her a dirty look and expect the undesired behavior or wrong actions to stop. You must verbally communicate while physically managing to keep up with the dog. Coming out of yourself to work with both dogs and people is a special skill and not one to be taken lightly.”   Schools receive hundreds of applications every year from people who want to train guide dogs, so even opportunities to become an apprentice are rare. Most guide dog schools do require instructors to do an apprenticeship, and some apprenticeships last as long as four years. From my observation, apprentices work very hard. And from what I hear, salaries are quite low.   I have no idea what people are paid once they pass the apprenticeship and become full-fledged instructors. Considering that guide dog schools are nonprofit organizations, I would guess the pay is far below what a lot of today’s college-educated people expect to earn. If you’re looking for job satisfaction, though, this kind of work must be pretty dang rewarding.   For general information about working as a dog guide trainer or instructor, check out the various dog guide school websites. That, or just start hanging out at the Starbucks closest to the school you want to work for!

 

News: Guest Posts
The Whirlwind Life of a Guide Dog Puppy—with Video
Caleb’s first plane trip, photo shoot and evaluation

Last week was a big development week for Caleb. He took his first plane trip, met our delightful friend and photographer Amanda Jones (video below), explored San Francisco, and had his six-month evaluation with our field representative from Guide Dogs for the Blind. 

While in theory it would be great to have our dogs always travel with us, I can tell you from years of experience it’s not as easy as it looks! Guide Dogs for the Blind puppies under six-month-of-age are not permitted to fly and approval is required to ensure the experience is a positive one for all involved.   Travel can be very stressful for dogs, and pets in general, so I take into account as many of these factors as possible. I gauge if my puppy can handle not relieving himself for a number of hours. Can my puppy navigate crowds and airport security? Will I be staying in a location where my puppy will be comfortable? Will I have access to a fenced yard for him? And, finally, is it a worthwhile training experience?   When I travel with a dog I change my schedule to accommodate his, I fly at non-peak times on slow travel days, not during meal times and always on direct flights. In this case, I had to be in San Francisco on a Sunday so Caleb and I took a Saturday afternoon flight.   Clearly all of the other socialization activities Caleb’s been exposed to up to now parlay into his ability to accept the stress of traveling on a plane. If you plan to travel with you dog on a plane please consider if it’s the right thing for your pet; how much travel your dog been previously exposed to, noise sensitivity, stress triggers, age and most importantly be sure you are willing to drive home if air travel proved to be too much for your dog to handle.   Flying out of a small regional airport means I know the staff by name and they know I often show up with a dog in tow. Security is relatively easy to navigate, but we also have to walk directly onto the tarmac where the noise and planes can be daunting for a puppy. Caleb handled it all like a champ.   The flight was only about half-full, which gave Caleb some extra room and the flight crew was accommodating as always. Once on the plane, I brought out a new toy for Caleb and he settled right down under the seat. At not quite seven-months-old, Caleb’s the youngest pup I’ve taken on a plane. He’s also the only one to sleep from before take-off to after landing. Neither the noise nor the motion bothered him at all, as I’ve said throughout this series as long as he’s got a pair of feet to curl up on he’s fine.   Once in San Francisco, we had to make our way out of the airport to the pet rest area and then rode the tram to the rental car center—all of which were very new experiences for the little man. The week provided the opportunity to give Caleb many new experiences: We stayed in two different places both with resident dogs of their own, took the ferry from Marin to San Francisco, and enjoyed dinner in quaint downtown bistros.   But my favorite experience I shared with Caleb was having a photo session with Amanda Jones, a frequent Bark photo contributor. Now, Amanda’s not only the most talented, photographer but also a dear friend who always finds the time to fit my pups into her busy schedule. These photos are my keepsake of my short time with these amazing creatures. I see it as a present to myself for the love, hard work and heartache that comes with each puppy. Here’s a video snippet from the shoot.  

  By mid-week we were ready to head home, which proved again to be a walk in the park for my little travel companion. Even the busier San Francisco International Airport security process could not shake Caleb’s confidence. We followed the same rules of travel for our return home: off-hours flight, slow travel day and new toy for the flight home. Although he was asleep before we hit the runway. All in all, it was a perfect introduction to air travel for Caleb and a great training opportunity.   Caleb also had his six-month evaluation with our field representative from Guide Dogs for the Blind. Each month puppy-raisers complete a report that helps provide development and socialization feedback for the staff. In addition, puppies have two annual evaluations, at six and twelve months. This provides raisers with the opportunity to ask questions and gives field reps time to assess any problems or concerns and also to implement any new training techniques.   Caleb and I met with our rep at the local library where we reviewed paperwork and then set off on a walk to see how Caleb behaved out in public with other dogs and environmental distractions. He was nearly perfect—I was told he already acts like a Guide Dog! Caleb only has one slight issue with some dog distractions, so he was put on a food protocol to help change the behavior and its already working. It never fails; food is the great motivator.

 

News: Guest Posts
We Love Our Puppy Raisers
Rutgers students volunteer with future Seeing Eye dogs

I’ve been home three months with my new Seeing Eye dog Harper. He’s a two-year-old yellow bundle of Labrador energy, and not a day goes by where I don’t think of—and thank—the wonderful volunteer who raised him as a puppy. Harper and I trained for three weeks at the Seeing Eye last December. Before we left for home, our instructor read me Harper’s “puppy profile.” Each person who volunteers to raise a puppy for the Seeing Eye is asked to write up a little report. You know, to let us in on what our dogs lives were like before we met them.

  Here’s an excerpt: Harper was attending classes at my university (including attending the graduation!), going on buses and trains, attending other club meetings, university equestrian team shows with 20-plus horses, a trip to the airport, going on a plane but not taking off, emergency vehicles, malls, stores, fairs, the beach (his favorite), on a boat, in pools, overnight charity events, elementary school presentations, a retirement/recovery home, soccer, football and hockey games.   Whew! Harper is one well-traveled dog, and he did all that even before he was a year-and-a-half-old! And yes, you read that right: He was raised on a college campus; he’s a Rutgers grad. An article on the Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club website describes these generous students who volunteer their time to raise puppies for us.   “To truly stop and spend a few moments observing the volunteers of the Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club, you’re struck too by their obvious affection for and commitment to their charges—cute, adorable puppies with names like Elroy, Yankee, Harper and Oz.”   Did you read that? The article mentions Harper! What a sweet little puppy he must have been; imagine the attention he got on campus. College students at Rutgers have been providing a welcoming home for Seeing Eye puppies since the year 2000, when the Rutgers chapter of the puppy-raising program began.   After leaving the Seeing Eye breeding station, seven- or eight-week old German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and crosses of these breeds are placed with puppy raisers until they are 16- to 18-months-old. Raisers train the puppies in basic obedience, house manners, how to walk on a leash, and expose the dogs to real-life situations they might encounter once placed with a blind person like me.   But back to Harper’s puppy profile: His puppy raiser said Harper loves squeaky toys, so we knew to give him some of those when he came home with me to Chicago. She also said that he loves being talked to in a singsong voice, so just imagine how much I sing to him now. My favorite part of Harper’s puppy profile: “He is the coolest dog I’ve ever had. His personality is a great combination of independence and affection.”   Amen to that. THANK YOU, Harper’s puppy raiser. And thanks to all the other wonderful, generous volunteer puppy raisers out there. You are our heroes.

 

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Service Dogs Named After Fallen Soldiers
They honor and assist those in the military

Fleet bears the name of one soldier and serves as the legs for another. He is a 15-week old Golden Retriever who is being trained as a service dog for Josh Craven. Craven lost one leg while serving as a soldier in Iraq and has had six surgeries on the other leg. When he returns home from Walter Reed Medical Hospital in a few months, he will be joined by Fleet who by then will be a fully trained service dog. Fleet’s jobs will include opening doors, turning on lights, getting food from the fridge and giving Craven his keys.

  Fleet was named after James Fleet McClamrock, a soldier who was killed in Iraq last September. McClamrock’s parents feel that every time Craven says his dog’s name, it’s a tribute to their son, and that he will be remembered.   Fleet is one of many dogs who owes his training to the Carolina Patriot Rovers, an organization dedicated to providing service dogs to veterans in need of one, and therapy dogs to those veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.   Carolina Patriot Rovers rely on donations since they do not charge the servicemen and servicewomen for the dogs or the dogs’ training, which costs thousands of dollars. The dogs are named after either soldiers who have lost their lives in service to the country or after military groups. The names of some of the dogs trained recently are Ryan (after Christopher Ryan Barton), Noah (after Noah M. Pier), Wyatt (after Christopher Wyatt McCullough), Ivy (named for the 4th Infantry Division), and Deuce (named for the 22nd Infantry.)   “One of the things in losing a child is you never want them to be forgotten,” says Susan McClamrock, whose son’s middle name was Fleet.” These dogs help veterans as both service dogs and therapy dogs and honor fallen soldiers, too, which is a comfort to the families who have lost a loved one.

 

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