Old Dog, New Trick

Old Dog, New Trick

In this blog, I concentrate on reporting on the experience of raising a puppy to be a service dog, so normally Dionne commands the spotlight. But Tucker was the first CCI puppy we ever raised. It’s hard to believe, but on November 30, he’ll be 9. He was released for distractibility, and though we were devastated when we got the call, we also were happy to welcome his sweet and easy-going personality back as a permanent member of our household. He’s gotten along well with all our subsequent CCI pups (though he’s liked some more than others.) But it’s also interesting to observe his reaction on those occasions when he becomes an Only Dog.

That’s the situation at the moment, since Dionne is confined up in Oceanside for the duration of her heat cycle (another week or so). At first, Tucker seemed to be looking for her. He likes her a lot, and I’m sure he missed her.

But he does get extra attention when it’s just him. And recently, he’s been behaving in one way that astounds us.

Unlike some of his housemates (Pearl, Yuli, Darby), he’s always seemed downright indifferent to balls, yet he’s begun acting like he LOVES them. He brings them to me and stares imploringly. If I raise the ball to throw it, he quivers with excitement. If I make a feint to throw it, his body becomes rigid with excitement. Often he’ll bark at me. He chases balls that are thrown and brings them back, eager for more.  It’s unnerving, as if he’s been taken over by some canine body-snatcher!

Quick and dirty update

Now that Steve and Tucker and I are all back home, most of us are missing Dionne. So I couldn’t resist shooting an e-mail to the puppy program coordinator at CCI, to see if she could confirm that Dionne was indeed in heat. She responded: 

In the words of our vet tech Melissa, “Oh yes, she’s in heat!”.  =)

Becca says we should get a call around October 4 to schedule a time to pick her up.  In the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to get used to all the quiet. 

A huge milestone!

A huge milestone!

Dionne not only has a unique sense of humor but also a theatrical sense of timing. Steve and I are about to embark on a trip to the East Coast for about a week, and this morning I was all set to deliver Dionne to Cynthia, the gracious puppy-sitter who helped to take care of her in June. But this weekend, a couple of things became noticeable:
1) Increased levels of Dionne licking her private parts, which look swollen
2) Suspicious rust-colored spots on the floor

Flaunting it

By last night, we were all but certain that she was starting her first heat. (At eleven-plus months, her age is right for it.)

When Darby, our last puppy, went into heat, I called Becca Gordon, the puppy program coordinator. She asked me to come in and have Dionne swabbed to make sure the heat indeed was starting. When I did this, Becca reported that it hadn’t quite started, but the cells indicated it was just about to begin. So I left Darby for the mandatory incarceration that some puppyraisers irreverently dub “Sex Jail,” and others call “Girl Camp.”

This morning Becca was out, so I talked to Stu, the program manager. He said it was a busy morning, with two other girls coming in for their confinement.  He made no mention of testing Dionne. “Bring her in and we’ll just keep her here,” he said.

Upon our arrival at the Oceanside center, Dionne was all but exploding with excitement. At the sight of the life-size yellow labrador retriever statue that’s chained up in the reception area, she barked. Several times.  (Something about it clearly creeped her out.)

“My, so excitable!” Stu commented as he took her leash. This is not a great thing to hear. (All three of our previous CCI puppies who were released had excitability issues.)

I must admit, that fake dog DOES look awfully real.

In response to a question from me, Stu confirmed that part of the reason CCI requires the girls to spend their cycles in the kennels is because the organization doesn’t want to run any risk of the puppies getting accidentally impregnated by some determined canine Lothario. But Stu added that another reason was the acknowledgment that dogs in heat are messy. Since CCI requires that most female puppies be kept intact (unspayed) until a determination can be made as to whether they might be good candidates for breeding, the organization doesn’t want to impose that messiness on the puppy-raisers.

Frankly, it IS nice not to have to deal with the blood and spotting.  On the other hand, I’ve missed Dionne all afternoon.  We’re not likely to see her again for at least three weeks.  So this milestone is a mixed blessing.

Snappy dresser

Snappy dresser

When you’ve raised several CCI puppies, it’s hard to resist comparing them. Here’s another thing about Dionne that stands out: she’s been quite good about Dressing.

Dress is the command you give when you want your pup to come and stand so that its cape, halter, and leash can be put on. It signals that you’re going out together.

You’d think any dog would like that.  But at least a couple of our pups in training (Darby and Brando for sure) have slunk away when called to Dress. So far, in contrast, Dionne trots right up to get outfitted. She raises her snout to receive the halter.

We like that. It makes us feel she’s happy to work. Recently — maybe once in the past week — I did see her veer off when I called. I’m hoping that was an aberration.

A trip to the mall

A trip to the mall

Steve and I have long said that one reason we’ve continued to raise CCI puppies is because it’s such a great community. I was reminded of that yesterday.

Bob Smith, our teacher is on vacation this month, so the normal puppy classes in San Diego have been cancelled. Nonetheless, one puppyraiser announced that she was organizing an outing to Fashion Valley Mall on Monday, September 9th.

I was sad to be unable to join it, because of a schedule conflict. But another pair of puppy-raisers, Janice and Dan Flynn, put out word of a separate mall outing last night. This one I could make, so at 7 p.m. Dionne and I met up with four other CCI trainees on the west side of Bloomingdales.

Just being in any shopping mall is rather stimulating for a puppy. Finding four OTHER puppies there is exceedingly so. So getting practice at staying under control was a challenging and worthwhile experience in itself. 
But we also worked on other tasks. We walked up and down a big flight of steps.
Since these stairs didn’t have open treads, Dionne scaled them without hesitation. There are lots of benches in Fashion Valley, so that gave us all good opportunities to practice the Under command. 
Dan and Janice are masterful puppy-raisers. They’ve had well over a dozen of their dogs graduate over the course of their puppy-raising careers (an incredible success rate). I asked Dan if he would mind walking Dionne a bit, to let me observe how he handled her. That went well. 
I also explained that besides distractibility, another problem we were dealing with was her terror of open-tread steps. On Sunday, Steve and I had made another effort to overcome this. With our friend Alberto recording everything (for possible inclusion in his documentary about raising a service dog), we returned to the playground near our home.  Dionne once again scaled the play structure with ease. 
But then we took her to the open-tread steps that Steve had discovered at a nearby apartment building, and even big chunks of ham would not entice to ascend them. She cried, frozen in fear. 
Hearing about this, Dan seemed to regard it as a challenge. He found some open-tread steps leading to a parking structure, and our little pack walked to them.  Some of the youngest pups hesitated, but they all went up. Only Dionne balked. 
Dan and Janice coached me on where to position myself.  Everyone encouraged Dionne, and she finally got emboldened to walk up and down the lowest treads — a huge accomplishment for her.
I would have stopped there, but Dan took the leash. I think he may have even picked her up for a moment or two. It’s a blur in my memory. But suddenly, the two of them were climbing.  They made it all the way to the landing. We all cheered. 
Now the question is: is she over her fear? Will she repeat that feat? Will she be able to climb up the steps to Alberto’s condo when we go to the movies there a week from Friday? 
Stay tuned. But one thing is unquestionable: it takes a village to raise a puppy, and help from the other villagers goes a long way to making it easier. 

A pup with a fetish (or two)

A pup with a fetish (or two)

Steve thinks Dionne is fetishistic. He reminded me that, besides having a sexual connotation, a fetish means an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it’s considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

We both thought of what Dionne has done to one of his notebooks. Steve takes notes often. A week ago, Dionne got up at his desk when our heads were turned and snatched his current notebook from it.  Then she curled up on Tucker’s bed and began ripping into it. I chastised her and returned the battered but still readable book to Steve’s desk. But over the course of the next several days (when Steve was traveling on business), Dionne found two or three opportunities to streak into his office, snatch the notebook, and rip it apart some more. It  looked like this….

… when I gathered up the fragments, dumped them in a bowl, and stored it high on a shelf, for Steve’s return. It didn’t contain anything essential (or so we hope), but it got him to wondering whether her obsessive fixation on one thing or another doesn’t constitute some weird form of fetishism. (Did she see the notebook as an embodiment of Steve, whom she missed?)

In the late spring, she began going after the fireplace stones in a similar manner (which I commented on in a post.) We finally had to remove them all and store them on another high shelf. But in advance of a crop of August houseguests, I reassembled the fireplace, and Dionne didn’t give it a glance — until after she had reduced the notebook to fragments.

Now she’s back to targeting fireplace stones again.

Note the telltale fireplace sand on her nose, and the stone on the carpet behind her to her left.  

The fireplace after a Dionne attack
When I decided to try to blog as often as possible about raising Dionne, I wondered if I wouldn’t run out of material. So far that hasn’t been a problem. 

Chunky season

Chunky season
Our second crop of figs began ripening a few weeks ago, and we are overwhelmed with them, as we are every summer. Steve picks them and eats them with his cereal every morning. We give them away to friends and neighbors by the bagful. Still our beautiful old tree is so heavily laden that the figs rain down. We rake them up and discard them the way folks in other parts of the country rake of autumn leaves. More fall almost immediately.
This is Tucker’s favorite time of the year. He sits by the closed door and whines to be let out, so that he can go harvesting. We’re pretty sure he’s eaten so many figs on one or two occasions that he has thrown up — like a toddler overdoing it on candy. He’s nonetheless looking notably chunkier. We think he’s gained at least five pounds.

Digesting his fig supplements
So that Dionne won’t follow his lead, and to discourage her from getting in the habit of eating anything and everything on the ground, we have kept up our program of extremely limited time for her outside off-leash. Still, she’s getting wise to these restrictions. She’s learned that these strange objects on the ground are SWEET! They fill your tummy. True, they get a little dusty, but when they dry in the sun, they taste like FIG NEWTONS! (Actually, she has no idea what a Fig Newton is. She just knows what she likes.)

She tells us daily that she has absolutely no interest in watching her figure.  She’d love to get chunky.

Also starring Mr. Brando!

Also starring Mr. Brando!

As I mentioned in a recent post, our good friends Alberto Lau and Bob Schneider have taken on the challenge of creating a documentary about the process of raising a service dog. They’ve been recording Dionne attending puppy class, working with the CCI drill team, and doing things in other settings. This past weekend, they had an opportunity to meet Steve’s and my one great puppy success, Brando.

Brando graduated in August of 2011 (I also wrote about that momentous event in this blog.) Since then he has lived in a southwestern suburb of Chicago with Yuriy and Aimee Zmysly. As Bob and Albie were travelling to Chicago to interview someone for another documentary they’re working on, they decided to ask the Zmyslys if they would talk about their experience of living with a skilled canine companion. Ever generous, Aimee welcomed them.

I talked to Albie today, and he sounded delighted by the way things went. He and Bob spent several hours talking to Aimee and Yuriy about their story. Then they returned two days later to meet Aimee’s mother Debbie (who also came to California to be trained in handling Brando) and to watch Brando in action out in public.

Albie echoed what Steve and I had heard from Aimee before, namely that Brando helps the most when Yuriy is overcome with anxiety. Brando appears to sense this, cuddling up to Yuriy and making him feel better. Because of the level of Yuriy’s disability, Yuriy can’t handle Brando by himself. But Brando still remembers the amazing skills he acquired in advanced training up in Oceanside, things like turning on light switches, picking up objects, and so on. And he still responded to chasing balls the way I remembered him doing — obsessively.  “He would go after them all day long!” Albie marveled.

Bob passed along some of the photos from their sessions:

Albie, capturing some still shots

Brando out grocery shopping

I love this one — Mr. B keeping an eye on his buddy.

Dionne and we have such a long road ahead of us. She won’t even begin her advanced training for more than eight months, and then, if she’s successful, she’ll spend another six months in Oceanside. I’m blown away by Albie and Bob’s patience.

But then again, that’s the stuff of great documentarists.

Copycat or creative mind?

Copycat or creative mind?

Up to now, Tucker is the only dog we’ve had who likes to sit on one step and put his feet on the next one down. We refer to this as the Tuckersit, and Steve thinks Tucker finds it restful.

The Tuckersit, in practice

But now Dionne has come up with her own version. She maintains this pose in my office for minutes at a time. 
Is she copying Tucker?  Is this a creative innovation? I have no idea, but it is eye-catching!

Sleep training

Sleep training

While Steve and I wound up being happy we had signed up for the four-day Libertopia festival this past weekend, three days was enough for us. I’m sure it was enough for Dionne too. But I’m thrilled to report that she accompanied us everywhere at the festival, and her conduct throughout was impeccable. This included a full seven hours of having to lie quietly in lecture halls.

To behave well under such circumstances, a dog needs to be able to settle down and sleep. Sleeping is almost never Dionne’s default mode when she could be doing anything else. But clearly, she’s learning to do it when she has to.

As Dionne’s capacity to zonk out has grown, Steve also has grown increasingly confident about her ability to go 9-10 hours at night without needing to toilet. I can’t remember the last time she had an accident in her kennel (once we got through the first week or two). But for many months, we were ever so careful to take her out for one last toileting opportunity at the last moment possible — typically when Steve leaves his office around 10-10:30 to go to bed. But he says now if he takes the dogs out at 9, as he did last night, and tries to take them out again at 10 or 10:30, they have to be dragged out and then they just stand and stare at him sleepily.

Small reminders that we are all continuing to progress.

This was last night, when then canine crew was down for the count.