Too much holiday fun

Too much holiday fun

I haven’t been able to post to the blog because we’ve all been having too much holiday fun.

First there was Thanksgiving, which we hosted. In our experience, dogs love Thanksgiving. Even if they don’t get a seat at the actual table, turkeys produce many edible scraps. And the whole feasting business generates a Macy’s Parade of wonderful smells.

Because Dionne is an unusually curious pup, we thought she’d be spellbound by the turkey. But something about it made her uneasy; she had to be aggressively coached to come near the roasting pan before it went into the oven.

And once it began to brown, her nervousness and suspicion only seemed to intensify.

“It seems to be…. dog-sized!?! That’s scary.”

The next day (Friday), Steve, Tucker, Dionne, and I set out on an adventure that offers dogs more unalloyed bliss — our annual excursion to a little Christmas tree farm not far from the Mexican border. It’s one of the few places left in San Diego County where you can still pick out a tree to cut down. More important for visiting dogs, the owners don’t mind if they run free.

Sooooo many fascinating smells!

There’s little trouble dogs can get into. I noted with pride that Dionne invariably returned when I called her — even from a long distance. (My strategy of ALWAYS rewarding such returns with excellent treats appears to be paying off.)

Tucker was the one who got in trouble, disappearing altogether at one point. I discovered him inside the owners’ house, where he was making himself at home.

This morning we set up the tree without incident. Tomorrow we’ll decorate it.

Dionne’s never seen that before. But she says she’s sure she’ll approve.


My friend Howie passed along a link to comic photos of dogs caught in mid-lick by photographer Ty Foster. They certainly amused me, and I can imagine that Foster’s upcoming book project will find a ready audience among fans of silly dog photos.

They also made me reflect on Steve’s and my experience with dogs and licking. We recall that only one of our dogs has ever been a compulsive licker, but to our shame, we can’t remember if it was Pearl, our fourth Personal Dog, or Yuli, our second CCI puppy. (In our defense, both of them were stubborn black labs — easy to mix up in retrospect.)
I’ve known people who like their dogs to lick them, equating the licking with “kisses.” It’s a pretty obnoxious behavior, to my mind (and the dog pros seem to see them more as a sign of submission than affection.) Happily, Dionne licks us only occasionally and is easily discouraged.
The tongue weirdo in our current pack is Tucker. Occasionally, he’ll sit and draw his own tongue in and out.  To us, it looks like he’s savoring whatever food molecules continue to cling to it. Once he starts, we’ve seen him keep this up for minutes on end.
I wanted to see if I could capture any images comparable to Foster’s.  So I wiped a glob of almond butter on Tucker’s tongue and got him going:
Clearly, I’m not as good a photographer as Foster is. But Tuck thought it was a fun experiment.

Dionne meets Max

Dionne meets Max

I’m allergic to cats. Prolonged contact with them makes my eyes water and starts me sneezing. That’s probably why we haven’t picked up one or two over the years. But the fact that we can’t have one means our CCI puppies have no preparation for Close Encounters of the Kitty Kind.

We’ve never been told that any of the dogs we raised were released because of going berserk in the presence of a feline, but we worry it could happen. The Oceanside campus reportedly is home to a surly cat named Bob who delights in tormenting the puppy trainees. We suppose that one day Bob will move on to the Land of Unlimited Catnip, but as far as we know, he’s still alive and snarling. So this time, raising Dionne, we’ve decided to be proactive about preparing her for any run-ins with him.

Our good friend Christy has two cats. One’s so shy she only emerges for Christy. But the other is a sturdy hunter who’s unfazed by canines. The other day we took Dionne over for an introduction to Max.

We found him relaxing next to an armchair. He didn’t bat at eye, as Steve led Dionne, on-leash to a few feet away from him, and it took a minute or so for her to realize that the gray smelly object in front of her was AN ANIMAL!!! 
An ALIEN ANIMAL!!!!!!!!!!!!

Still, she kept it together reasonably well, even when Steve reached out to pet Max. We could tell she wanted to tackle him.  For fun!!!!  But we decided not to push things by letting her off the leash.
She really wanted to play….

With Christy’s encouragement, we plan to return for additional desensitization sessions. We’re confident that dogs raised in cat-free environments can acquire feline friends. Our one great success story, Brando, who now lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wonderful family, is living proof of this:

Brando with one of the Zmysly family cats.  (Photo courtesy of Aimee Pierog-Zmysly.)

A shadow approaches

A shadow approaches

My stomach lurched just a bit when I opened the envelope from CCI and saw that the subject was Dionne’s upcoming turn-in to the Oceanside center. For a moment, I feared that the start of her Advanced Training had been moved up three months sooner than the date we were given when we received her last December. I’ve heard of this happening to puppy-raisers, on rare occasions, and it’s brutal.

But no. The date of her turn-in remains Friday, May 16. That’s six months off.

Yet somehow, creepily, it feels like it’s right around the corner.

Trouble aloft for service dogs?

CCI encourages puppy-raisers to fly with their pups, once they’re old and mature enough. This is in line with our mission of preparing the dogs for lives of service, where they need to be able to comport themselves well, even in cramped and distracting spaces. Nonetheless, Steve and I have never flown with one of our puppies. That’s partly because for short flights, we almost always fly on Southwest

Airlines, which does not welcome puppies in training. (The law requires them, like all airlines, to let actual working dogs come aboard.)  I understand that American Airlines, our most frequent choice when flying longer distances, does allow canine trainers in its cabins. But frankly, we both shudder at the thought of flying with any puppy for more than an hour or so. It feels like it would add stress to any pleasure trip and push any working trip into the red zone.

Still even though flying with a puppy is not on my personal to-do list, I felt uneasy reading the New York Times article about “emotional support” dogs and the growing (according to the Times) backlash confronting them. I had no idea that the federal Air Carrier Access Act allows you to take your dog with you, even on planes, for free (!), if you can get a mental health professional to write a letter saying that you need the animal’s comforting presence. Astoundingly, the emotionally supportive animal can even be a cat, a monkey, a miniature horse, of a potbellied pig, the article says.

One thing that’s clear is that discussions about animal access generate some very strong emotions in humans. By this afternoon, the article was topping the Times’s “most-emailed” list, and more than 400 readers had chimed in with comments (everything from, “Anyone who complains about a support dog should be beaten with a rolled-up newspaper,” to “My daughter will die of an asthma attack if she sits on a seat that once was occupied by an animal. If she has an asthma attack on a plane I will sue the airlines.”)

It’s enough to make me want to head for the hills — on a train.

Dionne learns to read!

Dionne learns to read!

She must have learned to read… and somehow gotten access to this blog. She must have read my glowing assessment of her progress yesterday and decided to show me a thing or two. The  open cream-cheese container that was on the island in our kitchen when Steve called me outside to talk to the stucco contractor this morning…

… was on the floor, clean as the cliched whistle, when I returned a few minutes later.

Happily for me (not so for her), there wasn’t much cream cheese left in it.  Dionne loves cream cheese, with which we often fill her Kong and give her as a treat and form of amusement.

She says just because she’s maturing doesn’t mean she’s stupid. (She hasn’t yet learned to talk. I’m using my dog-mind-reading skills here.)

Puppy’s progress

Puppy’s progress
Last month, around the time of Dionne’s first birthday, I received an email telling me it was time again to fill out the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Health Questionnaire (CBARQ). This is an ongoing project of CCI’s, in collaboration with a couple of guide-dog-for-the-blind programs.

The idea is to refine the assessment and quantification of doggy behavioral traits. A professor at U Penn is conducting the research. What we puppy-raisers do is to fill out questionnaires when the pup is 6 months and one year old. I did it for Brando and Darby and, now, Dionne. It’s a little tedious — pages of questions and never any feedback about what the data is showing (unlike the Dognition project that we participated in last summer). But I comply, partly because I’m a reasonably dutiful puppy-raiser, and partly because I hope there’s a scientific pay-off for all of us answering all those pesky questions — somewhere down the road.

A sample of the CBARQ questions

There was one small but immediate benefit of filling out the questionnaire this time: it made me reflect on how much Dionne has changed over the past few months. Her relentless quest for trouble has throttled back — dramatically. She still has her mischievous moments. She still springs up — as if jolted by an electrical current — to participate in anything that’s going on. But if nothing’s going on, this is her new calling in life:

It makes me think: if she continues at this rate to grow calmer and ever more focused, six months from now she’ll be a superstar! And in the meantime, she’s a LOT easier to live with.

An increasingly sophisticated movie-goer

An increasingly sophisticated movie-goer

Dionne gets a lot of exposure to movies. We almost always take her to our friend Alberto’s home on Friday evenings, for our weekly potluck/filmic gatherings. When the place is jammed, we banish her to the balcony, but other nights she curls up at my feet. Recently Steve and I also made it out to see Ender’s Game and Gravity in the theaters, and Dionne came along on those outings too.

Steve thought all the explosions in both films made it hard for her to sleep. He thinks she’d be happier if we went to quieter movies or, better still, dog movies. (The all-time best for that was Eight Below, to which we took Tucker when he was in training. We wound up spending much of that movie watching him stare, enraptured, at the big screen.)

Dionne doesn’t do that, but she’s getting better about staying Down and staying Quiet. She’s less inclined to snorfle around for stray popcorn kernels (though she did dart out and grab a nice one while executing a Side command for Steve Saturday night.)

Dionne says dogs don’t need no stinkin’ 3D glasses.
Just beyond this spot, on the tiled area near the snack counters, is where one CCI pup in our care casually threw up.  Taking puppies to the movies creates so many more movie-going memories than ordinary folks get.

Fun with the one who flunked out

Fun with the one who flunked out

I know we shouldn’t say that Tucker “flunked out” of CCI. Sometimes we do use more politically correct language. We say he was “released” from the program, or we call him a COC (Change of Career) dog. We don’t mean him any disrespect. He’s a wonderful guy, and we love him dearly.

But like all CCI dogs who don’t graduate but instead return to their puppy-raisers’ home to become members of the family, Tucker routinely gets left behind; he receives way less attention than the current young one in training. We feel bad about it, but that’s his lot in life. Usually.

This morning was a glorious exception. Steve was taking Dionne to a morning of grocery-shopping. I, in turn, wanted to check out the annual pottery show in Balboa Park (something I’d never done before). It occurred to me Tucker could accompany me, as the show was all outside, in Spanish Village. Afterward, I could take him to Nate’s Point, the city’s showcase leash-free area on the west side of Cabrillo Bridget.

He and I were in the park for about an hour an a half, and he was smiling and wagging his tail almost every minute of that time. At the pottery show, several people complimented him and reached out to pet him. (Usually it’s our pup du jour who receives such attention.) They commented on how good he was; how handsome. Of course, his behavior was impeccable.

After a while he and I strolled down the Prado and through the plaza and westward, over the bridge.  As we neared the dog park, he began to look around in excitement. (He could smell the other dogs but couldn’t yet see them.) I led him to the gate, he was all but trembling with happiness. Once inside he greeted some of his fellow canines, then galloped off to smell the myriad peeing spots.

He also ran up to almost every other human in the place — barking at a few to throw their balls for him, or just saying hello and receiving more pats on the head. He paid virtually no attention to me.

A rare moment when he circled back in my general direction.

When we got home, I told Steve that he hadn’t been that happy since the day he was released from Advanced Training. I had a lovely time too.

The death of toys

The death of toys

I’ve lamented recently about the dearth of acceptable toys for CCI puppies. Soft plush toys can be shredded (and eaten) in minutes. Ditto anything made of squishy rubber. Rawhide is verboten, as are deer antlers (the latter because they might harbor bacteria or “unapproved chemicals”).

Hard rubber “Kongs” are still okay, and we regularly fill Dionne’s with cream cheese or peanut butter. We freeze the whole thing, and give it to her (and one to Tucker) when we’re leaving them for longer than usual. They love them — but they don’t play with them around the house.

What has been a staple toy of early puppyhood in our house is the empty container. An empty plastic half-gallon milk bottle makes a lot of noise and slips away easily, provoking chase. Tucker and the pup sometimes play keep-away with them. But the other day, I decided to time just how long Dionne can now play with a bottle like this one:

It was discouraging. Within five minutes, the plastic around the opening was so badly shredded, it was beginning to cut her gums.
A chunk was missing entirely (and in fact, we now suspect it was that that provoked her stomach upset last week — since it clearly was NOT swallowing the thread and needle.)
Next I gave her an empty water bottle, but it fared no better.  Within 5 minutes, its neck was trashed.
So sadly, we’ve resigned ourselves to discontinuing use of the bottles as dog toys. I feel much more understanding when Dionne brings in sticks from the garden to gnaw on — but then I take THEM away from her. I also draw some inspiration from the annual Hambone Awards, which I read about the other day upon the announcement of this year’s winners. Sponsored by a pet insurance company and given in honor of the year’s most unusual insurance claims, the awards supposedly were named for a dog who devoured an entire Thanksgiving ham after being accidentally shut in the refrigerator. Some of my favorites from this year include the following. (I have highlighted the most mind-boggling bits.)
First place: Winnie the mixed-breed dog who munched on a two-pound bag of frozen onion rings, which led to a turbulent tummy and potential onion poisoning.
Dingo the 48-pound mixed-breed who dined on two dozen uncooked bread dough rolls, causing yeast-related alcohol poisoning. And…
Luke the Labrador (Emerald Isle, N.C.), taken to the emergency animal hospital for surgery to remove a golf ball accidentally swallowed while ‘retrieving’ it in his backyard.
 The runner-up was Natasha the Siberian Forest cat  from Oakland who was treated for shock and hypothermia after the cat’s owner’s roommate accidentally completed a wash cycle with the curious feline inside the machine.
That last one would never happen to a CCI puppy.