[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.