work of dogs
News: Guest Posts
The miracle and mystery of service dogs
There was a wonderful story in The New York Times Magazine ("Wonder Dog," Feb. 2, 2012) this weekend about a Golden Retriever named Chancer and a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome named Iyal. The story focuses on a truly compelling frontier in service dog training and placement—where dogs work with people suffering from “invisible disabilities.”
Chancer was trained at 4 Paws Ability in Ohio, which has its own incredible story. Karen Shirk founded the organization in response to her need for a service dog, after a diagnosis of myasthenia gravis at 24 landed her on a ventilator. She has dedicated herself to providing service dogs to people, like her, who have traditionally been denied canine assistance.
It is inspiring to read about how Chancer has transformed Iyal’s life. The dog intercedes and comforts him during tantrums and even seems to anticipate and intervene in situations that might set him off. For the first time, Iyal can sleep through the night with Chancer at his side. He’s more articulate and able to think more logically than before.
Chancer’s ability to calm and comfort, to entertain and to act as an ambassador in the world are things all of us who share our lives with dogs—even those who aren’t specially trained—can recognize and appreciate.
News: JoAnna Lou
Lucky honored after five tours of duty and three battles with cancer
The nation lost an amazing war dog last September. Lucky served in five tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Even more incredible is the fact that the Belgian Malinois returned to work after successfully beating cancer not once, but twice. In 2010, Lucky received a Hometown Heroes award from the American Red Cross.
During Lucky’s fifth tour last summer, his handler discovered a new tumor on his rear left leg. The tumor grew quickly and, at age ten, Lucky finally succumbed to his third fight with cancer on September 30.
Earlier this month, the soldiers of the 92nd Security Forces Squadron gathered for a memorial service at Fairchild Air Force Base to honor Lucky.
According to squadron commander, Major Garon Shelton, Lucky had a reputation for being the hardest hitting dog at his station. He had a keen nose and kept cool under fire. Lucky was quick to identify explosives and take enemies down, saving countless service personnel over the years. He also provided protection for presidential visits.
Shelton noted that cancer was the “final and only battle he would lose.”
Hearing the members of the squadron talk about Lucky, you can tell that the soldiers have a special bond with their canine colleagues. Lucky was an inspirational dog with so much heart and courage. The other dogs based out of Fairchild will have some big shoes to fill!
Watch Lucky at work in a Spokesman-Review video from 2010:
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Dogs help game wardens work
When she’s excited, Iris wags her whole body. Even the nylon tunnel can’t contain her delight. The black Lab disappears into the tunnel, and her joy becomes sound: slap, slap, slap, tail on tube. You’d never know it’s dark in there. Rusty, a smiling yellow Lab, and Ruger, a German Shepherd whose smile is hidden by the large toy in his mouth, can’t wait for whatever comes next. That turns out to be the arrival of Falco and his owner, Jason Rogers.
It’s a sunny but cool morning in Upper Lake, Calif., gateway to Mendocino National Forest, where California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) K-9 program supervisor Lynette Shimek is hosting a monthly training session. Finding a mussel in a boat bilge takes practice, especially when daily work in the field has revolved around other tasks—say, deer poaching.
A warden’s work can be unpredictable. To keep the dogs on their toes, the group often switches locations, but Shimek’s rural property, complete with barn and fields, is the base camp. All around, mysterious props hint of hard work disguised as serious fun: tunnels, ramps and wooden pallets; jars, balls, tugs, pails and climbing rigs. “You want to first teach them that it’s fun,” Shimek says.
No need to tell the dogs they are here to save the planet. Let them enjoy the scents of nature, the breeze with its hints of bear and deer. Or was it elk? These dogs know the difference.
How It Works
“I think any dog can be taught anything,” Shimek says. “It’s a matter of communicating with them.” That’s no small task when it comes to scent detection. A dog’s brain is closely hitched to the 220 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses. Humans, on the other hand, have about 5 million receptors, and this can make it a challenge for a person to understand how strong a dog’s sense of smell actually is, and how to harness it.
Shimek explains it this way. “A person sheds 40,000 skin cells [groups of which are called rafts] per minute. On each raft are odors. Each is individual to the person, and everyone has different types of sweat glands that give different odors. Then, think of all the different things you put on your skin daily—shampoos, soaps, deodorants, creams. There are compounds within odors.” And the odors themselves have a life, influenced by wind speed, temperature, time of day and terrain.
Training doesn’t end with graduation. DFG’s certification standards require 16 hours of monthly maintenance training, and both agility and nose work are part of the practice session.
Hidden on Shimek’s property are animal scents encased in jars. For deer, hide material is often used, tucked into wooden pallets and a series of lockers. Odors travel, and working with lockers helps the dogs learn to pinpoint the source. More broadly, a search will entail what Shimek calls a “scent picture.” For example, one spent casing differs from 20 spent casings. A Seattle Police Department K-9 training document describes how a dog can decipher that hidden world. A person walking through an area, for example, leaves two types of evidence that make up the ground scent picture: airborne rafts and other debris that fall to the ground, and the disturbance of the earth from their steps. Each footfall alters the ground, prompting changes in soil chemistry and bacteria, which alerts the dog to a change from the surrounding area.
Once the dog locks onto a scent, he or she alerts the handler. In a passive alert, the dog remains quiet and indicates the find by sitting, standing or staring. An active alert, also called an aggressive alert, involves barking or scratching. If the odor is on ground, the dog lies down; if it’s somewhere above chest level, the dog sits. The dogs must discriminate among competing smells, and there are no rewards—treat, toy or a pat—for alerting on the wrong scent. “We don’t pay them for residual odors,” Shimek notes.
The teams also work on different kinds of footing to meet the challenges encountered in the field. Ramps and stairs teach them to be aware of their feet. People can see their feet and watch each step; dogs can’t. Obstacles—things the dogs go up, over, under and through—are also put to use. “Everything is in building blocks,” Shimek says. With tubes, for example, they start with straight ones and add culverts as the dog gains confidence. “When Iris goes in, we listen for the tail,” Shimek observes. Thump, thump, thump: she’s doing fine. As she exits, they watch her behavior. Smiling? Stressed?
Iris is also watching her handler, according to Shimek. “Dogs are masters of body language. They read the handler when the handler has no idea.” Her secret for turning out successful teams? Positive reinforcement, behavioral modification and building trust between handler and dog. She believes that when a dog fails to learn, it is always the handler’s fault. Even as the person is training the dog, “the dog is teaching the handler how they learn.”
DFG’s K-9 program has two types of trained dogs, both certified to detect specific odors. Dual-purpose teams locate people, apprehend suspects, and perform tracking or trailing duties. Detection teams focus on odors and evidence; illegally taken wildlife, invasive species, firearms, spent casings, and more. The dogs may be trained to track, but not contact suspects. Depending on their locations, teams are taught to detect bear, bear gallbladders, deer, fish, elk, abalone, waterfowl and squirrel. A minimum of five scents must be mastered to pass the academy.
An Urgent Problem
DFG’s K-9 program began in 2007. The agency estimates that one well-trained dog can save roughly 800 personnel hours per year. With 20 trained dogs on duty, they’re well on their way to meeting their 24-dog goal. Shimek’s current scent dog, a black Lab named Lance, certified with her in May, as did five other teams. Nearly 50 out of 58 counties in California have added K-9 support.
A shortage of wardens lends urgency to the K-9 program. In California, for example, there are 200 wardens for every 180,000 people, according to the HSUS. This is, they say, the lowest ratio “in any state or province in North America, and a number that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.” In the documentary Endangered Species: California Fish & Game Wardens, filmmakers James and Andrew Swan spotlight the result of that shortage: organized crime has become involved in poaching, and a wildlife black market that generates more than $100 million annually has been created.
Poachers—who hunt in the off-season; take more fish or game than allowed; or illegally sell abalone, sturgeon, bears and many other species—put enormous pressure on wildlife. So do pollution, habitat destruction and the insidious practice of introducing non-native fish like northern pike and white bass into California's lakes and rivers.
In April 2011, HSUS created the California Anti-Poaching Action Network. Their objective is to address the warden shortage by mobilizing groups of community-based volunteers to closely follow poaching cases in their counties and encourage prosecutors and judges to deal with poachers in a meaningful way.
Habitats Under Siege
Poaching is not the only problem, however. The West’s rich variety of environments creates endless opportunities for invasive plants and animals, “alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human health,” as defined by the National Invasive Species Council. The U.S. Geological Survey is also concerned about the effects of these interlopers, pointing out that exotic species “have altered physical processes related to fire and hydrology in a manner favoring their further expansion.”
Quagga and zebra mussels, hitchhikers that travel from the Baltic Sea to the U.S. in ships’ ballasts, are the top two offenders on the list of threats posed by invasive species. These rapidly reproducing mussels clog water-delivery pipes and devastate waterways. “Our department is the only state agency in the nation that is training dogs to detect mussels,” Shimek says. That training began in 2008, when Shimek took stock of the looming threat. So far, the state’s boat-inspection program has yet to put the dogs to work in any systematic way, relying instead on human inspectors. Still, the dogs are getting ready for deployment. In fact, K-9 invasive-species detection is a whole new arm of conservation.
The Friendly Factor
From the standpoint of agencies whose employees carry firearms, dogs are also helpful when it comes to public perception. Dogs’ popularity was among the justifications offered by Colonel Dabney Watts for adding a K-9 program to Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The idea had been kicked around over the years but never got going, and Watts believed he had solid evidence of its usefulness with everything from agency branding to reducing employee hours in the field. “We sent a survey to 18 states” with K-9 programs, he told colleagues in an April 2011 presentation, “and got 14 very positive responses.”
Today, 24 wildlife agencies in the U.S. have K-9 units, Watts said. Their time has come. “There will be other uses for these dogs, non-traditional ones,” in the future, he added.
The nation’s first wildlife K-9 program began in New York in 1978 with the Department of Environmental Conservation K-9 program, and soon caught on in other states. At first, additional police dogs were assigned to the wildlife beat; then in the 1980s, sporting breeds were introduced, which, according to Watts, “helped gain widespread public acceptance for the use of dogs by wildlife agencies.”
About 35 percent of the work is public relations, he estimates—one reason Virginia chose three Labs for its program. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, which started its K-9 program in 2002, also uses even-tempered Labrador Retrievers.
In 2011, Idaho joined California and Kansas when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game added Pepper to its workforce. The Lab will help track poachers, assist in search and rescue, and promote conservation efforts by visiting schools and other groups. The program, which consists of only one team, is considered a trial. After five years, it will be evaluated to see how well it worked. If it succeeds, more Scent Detection K9 teams will be authorized for use throughout the state.
How do you train a fish and wildlife dog when you’re launching the first such program in the state? Like Virginia and Kansas, Idaho sent their dog and handler to Indiana, where the state’s Department of Natural Resources hosted a free training academy. Merely attending, however, is no guarantee of success. Of the three dogs Virginia sent, two flunked out in the first 10 days. Luckily, Kansas, with its well-seasoned K-9 program, brought backup dogs.
Come One, Come All
Though the work may be similar from state to state, there are also regional differences. Florida is rich in biodiversity—and wildlife crime—but not every state crawls with alligators. In southern California, dogs help conduct surveys of desert tortoises. One thing all wildlife agencies share is the desire for people-oriented dogs, fully socialized with humans and animals alike. Hence, most are companion dogs, pets of wardens who later join the K-9 team. For example, Ruger was Warden Bob Pera’s wife’s dog until the Shepherd decided he needed a job. “He started going to work with me every day,” Pera says.
When it comes to breed, the field is wide open. Mixed breeds are welcome and “pre-owned” dogs of every sort can find a job if they’ve got the knack. When DFG is planning to offer a detection academy, a request is put out to see who’s interested. Shimek then travels to interview candidates, and find out if they have a dog. Once they graduate from the six-week academy, the department purchases the warden’s dog for a dollar.
Several recent graduates were rescue dogs. They need not be spayed or neutered, though Shimek advocates sterilization. A series of tests is used to check for suitability for the work. “We want endurance and hunting drive,” she says, along with sociability and trainability. One test involves throwing a ball in a field or hiding balls in trees and seeing how long the dog will search for it. Highly focused canines do best.
As every trainer knows, shelters are filled with dogs with such intense drive; in fact, that drive is one of the reasons people abandon or relinquish their dogs.
Rusty and Jin are perfect examples. Rusty, a neutered male Lab mix who works in California’s El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties, was once a shelter dog. When Warden Erick Elliot adopted him, he was uncontrollable. It’s hard to imagine that earlier dog in the energetic bounce of the happy animal with the toy in his mouth who circles Elliot, or fearlessly scales a set of metal stairs at Shimek’s canine playground. All he needed was someone to believe in and guide him. In the field, Rusty has located deer and bear carcasses, enabling Elliot to pinpoint exact kill sites.
When Shimek says, “It’s the dogs themselves who have taught me the most,” the first to come to mind is a female named Jin. “The worst dog I ever had the privilege of working with became one of the best detection dogs,” she says.
Jin had been through three homes in her first year of life, and wasn’t house trained. Plucked from a shelter by another warden, who brought her to Shimek, Jin taught Shimek valuable lessons. Such as: “dogs should never be punished for anything they do out of fear.” To rehabilitate her, Shimek had to essentially step back in time and begin working with her at the most basic level.
The first task was simply saving the emaciated creature. “When I got her, she was almost dead,” Shimek recalls. It took eight months to straighten out her digestive system. As gaunt as she was in 2008, Jin fought a leash (which she seemed to regard as a monster attached to her neck), jumped on everyone and barked constantly. One year and 15 pounds later, Jin passed her first detection test and now works in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties, with a handler who adores her.
As forces like climate change and habitat loss reshape the nation's wildlands, the job of Fish and Game dogs will continue to evolve. Scientists are exploring ways to tap their talents to meet the challenge, because each dog, regardless of their particular abilities or the obstacles they've overcome to pass the academy, comes equipped with a valuable natural resource. That is, a nose for nature.
News: Guest Posts
And tackles the downside of a “smart bump”
You’d think having a new guide dog memorize routes and anticipate turns at corners would be the goal.
But it’s not.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work: I have the route memorized. I know how many streets we have to go forward before we turn left, then how many streets until we turn right again to get to our destination. Whitney, my new two-year-old Labrador/Golden Retriever cross, guides me through our apartment lobby, we get ourselves situated on the sidewalk in the direction I want us to go, I command, “forward!” and my spunky sprite guides me safely to the curb. When she stops, I stop. That’s how I know we’re at the intersection. That, and the sound of cars. Whitney waits as I listen for traffic, and when I deem it is safe, I command her to lead me right, left or forward.
Whitney has a smart bump. It shows. In our first week home in Chicago she had already started memorizing my route to the pool where I swim laps, the cultural center where I teach memoir-writing classes, and my cubicle at my part-time job in the Willis (formerly known as Sears) Tower.
These routes became so familiar to Whitney that she knew to make the turns without bothering to go all the way to the curb first or waiting for my command.
A near-miss in traffic with my last Seeing Eye dog, Harper, left him so afraid of traffic that he had to retire early. Our brush with that car, the months of work to encourage Harper past his fear, and the subsequent decision to retire him from guide work—it all shook me up, too.
Whitney’s decision to keep us away from the edge of the intersections, to just go ahead and make turns on her own, well, it meant I didn’t have to face the rush of traffic in front of us. I felt safe.
Until Whitney started crossing intersections diagonally, that is. Dang that smart bump! The girl is so clever that when she knew we’d be turning right or left once we crossed the street, she figured hey, why not save time? We’ll just go kitty-corner.<
Whitney had also taken to veering right and left long before our approach to any and all intersections, leaving us discombobulated as she anticipated a turn. And if there is one place you especially don’t want to feel discombobulated with a Seeing Eye dog, it’s the approach to an intersection.
As it so often goes with dog training, the problem was consistency. I expected Whitney to take me right to the edge of a curb if I wanted to keep going straight (or if we were on our way somewhere new and I needed to know we were at an intersection). But on a familiar route? I’d let her decide for herself.
The Seeing Eye to the rescue! A trainer flew to Chicago to give me tips on which commands to use to drive Whitney all the way to the edge of the curb—the way she’d been taught at The Seeing Eye school. He showed me how to use the leash to encourage her to the edge. “Heap on the praise when you get there,” he urged. “Then stay right there a little while before giving her the command. Make sure she knows that you want her to stop right there and wait for your command at every single intersection.”
And you know what? It’s working. It’s comforting to know exactly where we are before we cross a street. Since The Seeing Eye tune-up, we don’t veer right and left before intersections anymore. Whitney knows what I expect of her, and she’s determined to get us to the curb!
Things are much clearer when I’m in charge. Whitney seems to appreciate the consistency, too. The more we work together, the more we trust each other.
And best of all? She doesn’t cross intersections diagonally anymore!
News: Guest Posts
A transition for our family
Well, I really did not anticipate I’d be using the words career change; in fact, I delayed writing this post just to avoid it. I take it very hard when one of my dogs is dropped; I feel for a second that I failed as a guide dog puppy raiser. For 13 months Caleb and I have been a team and to an outsider we look like we know what we’re doing. But truth be told, Caleb made the decision he does not want to be a working guide dog. Not all dogs are up to the task, and clearly Caleb has a different agenda and that’s okay too.
Over the last few months we have been working on and have made great improvements in his dog distractions; however, his nemesis continues to be small dogs. He just finds them too interesting and he wants to play with them. I get it: dogs are social animals and who doesn’t want to visit with every friendly face they meet? Caleb has not failed in my eyes; he’s made a conscious career decision.
No doubt, we have really enjoyed raising Caleb. He fit well into our lifestyle, enjoys all sorts of adventure and loves to snuggle—the most important quality of all. But we are not keeping him as a pet. I am just not there yet and I don’t know that I will ever be. I fall in love with every dog I meet and I think it would be amazing to have a ranch full of senior dogs that I could spoil into their golden years, but the loss of Noah still hurts too much to consider having a pet dog. I suppose that’s what makes me a good candidate to raise guide dog puppies: I can give up a puppy even after a year together.
Don’t get me wrong; there have already been lots of tears over the anticipated good-byes. I adore Caleb, and he’ll always hold a very special place in my heart. He proved to be such an accommodating and easygoing companion on road trips, vacations and business travel that I will really miss him tagging along. But he is going to be a very happy camper in his new digs, and for the next few days we are assisting in Caleb’s transition to being a pet.
He’s sleeping on the couch next to me now, a novel experience he’s grown very used to in just 48 hours. He is enjoying a whole new world of previously off-limits toys and treats! On the flip side, he’s no longer going to be available as my movie date and I had to go grocery shopping alone today. But if the trade-off is sleeping on the couch, I know what gets Caleb’s vote.
We have the great fortune of a long list of family and friends waiting to adopt a career-change dog and among them was a perfect family for Caleb. He will be living a lifestyle very similar to the one he’s grown up in and we will be able to visit him as often as possible.
The opportunity to share Caleb’s story with a new legion of fans has been wonderful and rewarding. For the first time in six puppies, I actually have a record of our time together and I thank The Bark for giving me that. Perhaps out of this someone will raise a guide dog puppy, become a breeder dog custodian, adopt a career-change dog, or visit one of the Guide Dogs for the Blind campuses and/or choose to support their work. While I will not have the opportunity to share with you stories of Caleb’s progress through formal training or his partnering with a vision-impaired person, there is always the next puppy in training! On January 27, we’ll meet our next puppy and begin all over again.
News: Karen B. London
Issue date is January 20, 2012
In recognition of the many ways that working dogs contribute to human society, the United States Postal Service is issuing stamps featuring working dogs. This new set of four stamps illustrates some of the many important jobs that dogs do. The individuals portrayed are a guide dog, a dog who is tracking, a search and rescue dog and a therapy dog.
The “Dogs at Work” stamps are the work of artist John M. Thompson who created the original paintings and art director Howard E. Paine, who designed them. They are 65 cent stamps, which is the postage required to send a piece of first class mail weighing between one and two ounces.
Dog stamps have historically sold well, with the “Adopt a Rescue Pet” set selling out quickly at many post office branches. A large number of the new stamps will likely be sold to collectors as well as to those of us who like dogs and appreciate being their friends, family members and coworkers.
Any dog-loving philatelists out there?
News: JoAnna Lou
N.Y. dog helps children safely get to school
Kids in Greenwich, N.Y. have something to look forward to each day. When the children approach Main Street, on the way to school, Sophy, a German Shepherd-black Labrador mix, is there to greet them, along with volunteer crossing guard Clifford Mealy. Sophy has her own dog-sized “Stop” sign and leads the way as kids cross the busy street.
It makes me a little nervous to see an off leash dog so close to traffic. Even the best trained dogs can get spooked.
However, there's no doubt that Sophy puts a lot of smiles on kids' faces every day and encourages them to use the crosswalk. I certainly wish there was a dog to greet me back in my grade school days!
News: Guest Posts
Thirteen months and countless miles later
As I type this, we’re waiting for our flight home after a good but long week traveling. Caleb’s fast asleep at my feet, having grown very used to the San Francisco International Airport, and I have no worries about traveling with him. In fact, I’ve got no concerns about his ability to become a guide dog if that’s his chosen path.
Recently, I re-read each of the blogs I’ve written for this series. What I found most interesting was how the tone evolved. In the beginning, I saw these as progress reports but as the year progressed and we came to know Caleb, the story has become much more personal. Caleb’s personality and our relationship with him has shaped this series to be a lot more than progress reports. He’s part of our family; we love him and it will be hard to see him leave us. So far, he does not have an official recall date to formal training, but it’s looming like a great big rain cloud. How quickly a year has come and gone but, at least, we’ll be spending the holidays with Caleb!
I am a big fan of the holidays, and we’ve already had quite a few highlights this year. The biggest so far was our participation in the Guide Dogs for the Blind Festive Holiday Luncheon in San Francisco. In its 35th year, it’s a pretty big event, drawing approximately 700 attendees. To me, it marked the official start of the holiday season, and this year, Caleb and I were part of the program.
I had the honor of speaking on behalf of the puppy-raising community and sharing some puppy-raising wisdom with the attendees. I brought along a crew of friends and family to support me, and Caleb, as always, was my trusty sidekick on stage. I am not an experienced public speaker, so the prospect of all those faces staring at me was a little daunting. I focused on two goals: not crying and making the audience laugh. I did both, so we’ll count it as a success.
Here’s a snippet from my speech:
In one year, we accomplished a lot. Caleb has grown from a chunky 16-pound puppy to handsome 62-pound dog. He’s learned how to walk on a leash, potty on command, maintain good manners, keep calm under pressure and, most importantly, to trust me.
We’ve traveled on planes, BART, buses and boats. We’ve visited California, Montana, Washington and Idaho, stayed in downtown hotels and fishing lodges. We’ve gone to plays, movies, meetings and appointments, stores, offices and black tie events—all of which prepare Caleb for life as a working guide dog. At home, we play games of tug, go hiking, practice our obedience commands, take naps and enjoy endless belly rubs—all of which prepare Caleb for being the best companion.
We happened to run into the breeder custodians of Caleb’s mom while there, they were so proud to see one of their grand-pups on stage. He has become a great ambassador for the organization and its mission. All in all, it was a wonderful day and just one more opportunity to test Caleb’s socialization and obedience skills among all those people—not to mention the puppies!
Caleb is really ready for his next adventure. I cannot think of a situation or distraction that he cannot handle. I am excited and sad as we prepare for his next career move and our next puppy. In the meantime, we’ll just curl up in front of the fireplace and relax this holiday season.
More dogs in war, more dogs suffering combat stress
Last March, several news stories reported on the mental and physical health costs U.S. military dogs were paying in the line of duty, including what behaviorists at the time mostly called “combat stress.” Now they're calling it canine PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and, according to a story in The New York Times, more than five percent of the approximately 650 military dogs deployed in combat are developing the condition.
The partnership between humans and dogs is a beautiful thing, but it’s upsetting to see our dedicated partners suffer in this way. If the Pentagon’s record on treating PTSD in veterans is any measure, I’m not hopeful for these poor pups.
News: Guest Posts
Plus, some serious off-leash challenges for Caleb
This is my favorite time of year; I love the changing of the season and how it changes our activities. The temperature drops, the leaves change colors and soup becomes a staple on the dinner table. The one negative I can find is the shorter day. It’s an adjustment for all of us. We go from weekends spent on the water to weekends hiking the amazing central Oregon wilderness, and as always Caleb partakes in the fun. While he gets plenty of exposure to the public and new experiences we try to balance all of this with fun activities. These not only build trust but make working more fun and rewarding.
With no shortage of places to explore, we’ve been spending a lot of time up in the mountains taking advantage of the less crowded trails before the snowpack arrives. Caleb clearly enjoys the change of pace and scenery. Some of the toughest challenges we face on our hikes are off-leash dogs. I will be the first to admit Noah, our pet dog never walked on a leash. He was trained to respond to verbal commands and could be counted on to listen no matter the circumstance. However, when we were approaching or approached by any dog we’d but him on a leash for the safety of everyone.
It’s a bit different with Caleb; he’s not allowed off leash in areas that are not fenced and more often than not we can count on an off-leash dog encounter no matter where we go. These provide us with two different challenges. The first being a good distraction exercise for Caleb to work through. Ignoring an off-leash dog can be tough even for the most reliable dog, so we work some training into our fun hikes.
The second and more concerning for all of us is the unknown and in some cases aggressive off-leash dogs. This can be particularly detrimental to a Guide Dog puppy and end a working career before it even starts. One negative experience can cause unrecoverable damage that stresses out a dog enough that he cannot regain the focus to work successfully. Dog attacks are the number one reason for early or sudden retirement of working Guide Dogs. Luckily, I can simply pick up Caleb and move away from any off-leash dog approaching us in a dominant or aggressive posture. Caleb still thinks he’s a lap dog and doesn’t mind a little pick-me-up now and again. As long as our adventure continues he’s a happy.
Playing and being a family member are just as important in Caleb’s training as socialization and public outings. At home, just like any pet dog, Caleb enjoys playing with toys, napping on any number of beds around the house and following our every move. He sleeps in our room and loves racing around the backyard with a toy in his mouth. It’s not all work for this Guide Dog puppy; we make sure to have plenty of fun. One of my favorite games to play with Caleb is tug. He loves it and when he does he gets quite animated and makes the strangest noises. We call him the Wookie because he sounds exactly like Chewbacca from Star Wars. It is one of the most hilarious traits about Caleb, and I hope his future partner finds it as funny as we do.
More and more we are preparing ourselves for Caleb’s recall. This week marked his final evaluation by our community field representative from Guide Dogs for the Blind. We spent time reviewing Caleb’s monthly reports and discussing all of the different things we’ve exposed him to. He’s right where he should be in training. His obedience is spot on, he’s been exposed to all sorts of people, places and things, all of which he takes in stride. He’s confident but cautious, at the end of the meeting it was determined Caleb’s got a few more months with us before his recall. Since he’s a little immature we’ll get to keep him for a bit longer than the average pup. Finally, I found the silver lining of those Golden Retriever genes, and am thankful for some extra time with this little pup of whom I’ve grown so fond.
Next month, Caleb and I will have the honor of speaking at the Guide Dogs for the Blind Festive Holiday Luncheon in San Francisco, stay tuned.
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