The village puppy-sitters

It’s been said (most famously by Hillary Clinton) that it takes a village to raise a child. Whether or not it’s true, the saying always makes me think of the enterprise of raising a CCI puppy. One of the lovely things about it is the way puppy-raisers get helped by others within the larger community. The foremost example of this is the army of CCI puppy-sitters. Steve and I travel a lot. If we had to pledge never to hit the road during the 18 or so months in which we’re raising each puppy, we wouldn’t be able to raise any. But thanks to the puppy-sitters, both we and our pups get welcome breaks.

Kyndall got her first such experience when she wasn’t yet 3 months old, and John and Diana Vines took her for a long afternoon when we wanted to join friends for an extended hike. (She was way to little to join us on it.) A month ago we were off again on a national park excursion, and she stayed with our venerable puppy mentor, LeAnn Buchanan and her husband Kevin for four and a half days. This past weekend, while we attended a documentary film festival in Palm Springs, Susan Miller and Frank Novick welcomed Kyndall into their home. Susan and Frank have taken at least two of our previous puppies for short visits, but this was their first introduction to Kyndall.

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Frank, Susan, and Kyndall

Along with the films, part of the pleasure of the weekend for us was getting Susan’s enthusiastic texts. “Just wanted to tell you that puppy slept well, ate well, pooped well and we taught her how to retrieve and drop on command if you give her a treat. Hope you are having fun,” she wrote us Saturday morning. A bit later she sent a photo of Kyndall lording over a gigantic stick that she found in their yard.

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Later still she reported that Kyndall had been “perfect” during a movie outing. (“We brought a nice soft blanket and put it on the floor for her. Best of all the puppies we have ever taken. She hardly ever even moved.”)

More good reports followed about Kyndall’s exemplary behavior: at Seaport Village, during dinner at Anthony’s, while grocery shopping. When we collected her on Sunday afternoon, Susan and Frank told us there had been not one single toileting error or other instance of bad behavior.

Kyndall seemed happy to see Tucker and arrive back at our house. But then she flopped down and slept for the rest of the evening, exhausted from her many adventures. As nice as it was to get her back, we too were tired but happy. We think the puppies gain maturity and flexibility from being exposed to lots of people and different experiences. It’s so nice when all the villagers win.


Kyndall has a celebrity doppelgänger!

My good friend Megan emailed me the other day to describe her surprising findings when she googled “A Pup with a Purpose” (the name of this blog). She said the blog only appeared on the second page of Google's results. I was surprised to hear it came up that high. But I was even more startled to learn that the first page was dominated by news of the Today show's current project of raising a service-dog puppy (“a puppy with a purpose” is their tag line).

Not being a regular Today show viewer, I knew nothing about this. But I've spent some time exploring the various links, and it's almost creepy to compare Wrangler's life with Kyndall's. He's a boy, introduced to the show's viewers January 14, when he was 10 weeks old. That would make him only 2-3 weeks younger than Kyndall. They look enough alike that they could be twins.

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Compare Kyndall...
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...and Wrangler!
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...and Kyndall.










He doesn't belong to CCI, but rather Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based organization that places dogs with puppy raisers on the Eastern Seaboard and trains them to help folks with visual impairments. From what I can tell, some aspects of the two organization's training regimes are very similar. For example, pups are with their puppy raisers for about a year and a half before going on to work with professional trainers.

In other ways, Kyndall's and Wrangler's lives are astoundingly dissimilar.

— Although the Today cast is boasting that, “We're raising him for a good cause,” Wrangler actually lives with a Guiding Eyes for the Blind staff member who previously raised two other puppies. She apparently has to get up hours before dawn every weekday and drive the puppy to the Today show studios in Manhattan, where he's been spending his days in a plushy enclosure so filled with dog toys that it reminds me a bit of the ball pit at SeaWorld. Wrangler has been doing this since he was barely 2 months old. In comparison, Kyndall (like all CCI dogs) wasn't supposed to go out in public until she was fully immunized at about 4 months.

— Although Wrangler mostly is in the studio, on Wednesdays he makes an appearance before his adoring fans in Rockefeller Plaza, where the HGTV “Property Brothers” built him the sort of doggy playground one might expect to find in a Manhattan billionaire's digs.

032715 wrangler1In contrast, here's what Kyndall was doing last Wednesday:

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No custom playground. Only 2 adoring fans (Tucker and me). Only one toy. Kyndall says,


— Wrangler gets regular cuddle sessions with celebrities who are even more famous than Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie. Kyndall hasn't had one yet.

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Wrangler with Anne Hathaway

— According to Today's website, Wrangler has more than 120,000 Twitter followers. Kyndall has 0.

Perhaps what intrigues me most is that I haven't heard even a hint that Wrangler might not make it as a guide dog. Everything I've seen on the Today website suggests his success is a fait accompli. In contrast, from our long and painful experience, I know that only about 25% or so of the CCI puppies actually graduate to careers in service. And we've long understood that the road to being a seeing-eye dog is the most challenging of all, since those dogs have to learn not only to obey commands flawlessly, but also to selectively understand when to disobey them (to keep their masters from unwittingly moving into the path of danger.)

In fact, the Guiding Eyes for the Blind website states explicitly that some of their candidates wind up being released, adding that the most common reason for that is, “we find them too sensitive to withstand the pressures of decision-making.” So TV hypesterism probably explains the cockiness of Wrangler's publicists. I can hardly blame them. (I considered entitling my own blog “Service Dog Wannabe” but decided that lacked a certain zest.)

I guess I'll have to follow Wrangler's career to see if he actually makes it. What with raising Kyndall and blogging about our adventures and trying to keep up with the rest of my life, I'm not sure I have the time to keep up with the flood of video and other Wrangler on Today's airwaves and website.

But at least I can follow him on Twitter.





Garden gnome

Saturday was the first day of spring. The local master gardeners held their annual seminar and plant sale, and I bought several specimens to fill in some of our bare patches. The weather was beautiful, and Steve toiled long and hard Sunday and into Monday on some complex irrigation problem-solving. We also planted the young banana plants I gave him for Christmas.

Throughout some of this activity, we let Kyndall off-leash. I think these rare hours of relative freedom must feel like paradise to our CCI puppies. They wander around in a kind of delirious daze, smelling the myriad smells. Kyndall still loves to chew on sticks, and there were times when she simply stared, enthralled, by Steve’s activity, and times when she basked in the sun.

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Why aren’t all days like this day?


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The baby banana tree, protected from puppy ravishment.

But alas, she also couldn’t resist digging. (Few puppies can.) The breaking point for Steve came when she leapt up into the bed where he had just planted the fragile baby banana plant. She lunged at it.

Fortunately, he stopped her before she could murder it. He kenneled her. Then he kenneled the banana plant.

Maybe some months down the road, the time will come when she’ll be able to enjoy extended time in the garden. She’d love that.  I would too.

Public humiliation

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Seen here shortly before we were able to make our escape.

Several weeks ago I slipped Kyndall (wearing her cape) into Costco for a quick visit. But she looked pretty overwhelmed by the experience, and I worried about her having a toileting accident, so I put her in my cart, on top of the cozy dog bed I was buying. I was so nervous I forgot to take a picture, which is a shame, as the Cuteness Level was off the chart.

Today we tried again. I had to make a quick run that I knew would only take us in the warehouse for a few minutes. We arrived at 10, when it had just opened. We found a good parking space, and before entering, we stopped at a planter where I could order her to Hurry. She squatted, obediently, and peed. Then we strode inside. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

Mistake! Halfway up the main aisle leading to the back of the store, she put on the brakes, and her back arched into that unmistakable (to any dog owner) shape. Then she deposited a large pile of puppy poop.

It wasn’t the first time this has happened to me with a CCI puppy. But it certainly hasn’t happened with every one, and I had nursed high hopes Kyndall would get a gold star (instead of a place on the list of shame). I feel awful when it happens, a bit like I do in those nightmares where you discover you’re caught out in public naked.

Certainly it could have been worse, though. I had clean-up bags with me (on her leash). The poop was firm and easy to bag. I even had a kleenex right at hand, to mop of the minimal amount of residual. If the tainted spot wasn’t exactly sanitary when we moved on (to find a trashcan in which to dump the bag), it didn’t look THAT much dirtier than the rest of the warehouse floor.

It’s traumas like this that make raisers of aspiring service dogs obsessed with things that normal humans ignore (e.g. the detailed workings of their animal companions’ digestive systems.) Once again, I failed to get a photo of the key moment. Once again it was off the Cuteness Level chart (though off the BAD end this time). For the rest of our visit, Kyndall was the model puppy.


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One thing about raising puppies to be service dogs: the surprises keep coming. We got one Thursday night, when we settled in to watch one of the few remaining episodes of Season Four of Game of Thrones. (We’re racing to get caught up before Season Five starts next month.) Steve and I don’t spend a lot of time in front of the TV set, but whenever we do, he seizes the opportunity to do some dog grooming. He brushes teeth, cleans ears, files nails. He started introducing Kyndall to this routine within days after we brought her home from Oceanside. She was doing fine until Thursday night.

Among Kyndall’s 5 predecessors that we’ve raised for CCI, we’ve seen some pretty terrible behavior: plant murder, rug destruction, poop eating, serial vomiting, and more. But all 5 pups learned to be angelic while being groomed. Some may have been a tad nervous initially, but all eventually acted as if having their molars scrubbed or their nails trimmed was as relaxing as getting a deep-tissue massage.

Kyndall seemed to be trotting down that same path, tail wagging. But Thursday night we sensed something was amiss when she shrank from accompanying us into the TV room. When Steve was ready to minister to her, she cringed; we had to haul her bodily into the cradle position. She didn’t seem to mind having her ears swabbed. But as soon as he reached for the toothbrush, it looked a bit like this:

She seemed terror-stricken. But why?

I have a half-baked theory: Behavior experts say that dogs tend to be more susceptible to fear at certain times during the first year and a half of their lives. The first such fear period is supposedly around the 2-month mark, and then another comes when they’re 4- to 6-months old. During these periods, the pup can get scared of “items, situations or people with whom they formerly felt safe,” one website advises. “They may start barking at people entering a house or become fearful and startle at benign items like trash cans, drainpipes or even yard gnomes….” Kyndall is smack in the middle of that 4- to 6-month segment, so maybe her little brain has become convinced that the toothbrush and dremel (nail file) are evil — likely to hurt her.

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Must escape! It might KILL ME!!!!

The experts advise being patient and trying not to make a big deal of the fearful object. So Steve backed off the brushing. I’m thinking of putting some peanut butter on it next time, to see if she’ll relax and lick it off. Steve didn’t even turn the dremel on; he merely touched it to her nails. Still… it seems so weird.

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One of my scars

Frankly, I’m feeling desperate for her to get some major work done on those nails. She’s inadvertently scratched me several times in the last few days. Once again, I look like I’M the one being tortured.

Some additional thoughts on the expressiveness of blondies

Last Saturday, Kyndall, Tucker, and I attended another of the twice-monthly puppy play sessions hosted by another local puppy-raiser. As usual, Kyndall appeared to enjoy it immensely, devoting most of her energy to chewing on a much smaller (but feisty) yellow girl named Flower.

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A rare moment when Flower was on top, pinning Kyndall.

Most of the dogs were yellow, and watching them frolic, I reflected that my recent post linking yellow fur with more expressive faces may have missed the mark. While I still think it’s true that yellow dogs are much more likely than black ones to have expressive faces, the degree of expressiveness exhibited by all those yellow dogs on Saturday varied a lot.

As we’ve pondered this, Steve has come to think another significant variable is how much Golden Retriever versus Labrador is in the dog’s heritage. He points out that the Labs tend to have heads that are much more dome-shaped. “Tucker has a real forehead,” Steve declares. “He almost looks like a monkey.” Stretched across such a broad expanse of dome, the skin doesn’t have as much play. It can’t wrinkle and furrow as much.

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The great domed brow of Tucker, who’s pure Labrador, is less inclined (and less able?) to wrinkle.

Goldens, in contrast, tend to have flatter, more narrow faces that slope more gradually from the top of their heads to their noses. In that more confined space, the skin can move more, expressing more emotion. (“I don’t know,” Steve continued when I pressed him to elaborate on this theory. “Look it up on the Internet.” Yeah, right.)

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Does the fact that it’s flatter mean there’s more compressible skin?

Kyndall’s mother was pure Golden; her father pure Lab. That makes her a 50-50 mix. But what does it all mean? I guess we’ll have to raise more CCI puppies to further develop  these theories.



Five months old!

We brought Kyndall home precisely three months ago today; she’ll celebrate her 5-month birthday tomorrow. It’s gratifying to reflect on the ground we’ve covered since embarking on this adventure together.

For one thing, she’s tripled in size — ballooning from 12.5 pounds up to 37.5 today.

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She’s gone from this…

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…to this!

It’s still obvious she’s a puppy. But in another month or two, she’ll just look like a dog. That’s a little sad. But Kyndall has also left many of the more obnoxious features of puppyhood in her wake. She seems fully, reliably housebroken and routinely makes it clear to us when she wants to go out. She’s never once eaten something inappropriate and thrown up. She’s often content to lay quietly near us while we work or eat dinner.

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A common sight around the house these days.

Like a photographic image forming in the developer tray, her personality has emerged. She’s a happy, affectionate girl but more deferential (to Tucker) and more cautious (confronted with new things) than most of the CCI puppies we’ve raised. She studies our faces and wants to be wherever we are. She’s easy to live with.

If I have one concern about her prospects for making it as a service dog, it stems from her continuing aversion to getting dressed in her cape and halter. We’re trying to erase this reaction — rewarding her with special treats and lavish praise whenever she Dresses. But it makes us wonder: does she dislike the very idea of working? On the other hand, once dressed, she’s performing well in public.

We take heart from the long juicy expanse of time stretching in front of us: more than 13 months before she turns in. Lots of time to work on getting ready, to fine-tune nuances.