Oct 2006 Country Trip (33)

Magical Dogs in My Life

Like many people, a few dogs in my life have taught, amazed, and inspired me. I have loved all of my own dogs and many dogs who were not mine, but these four stand out as special gifts. The approach of the holiday season seems like a good time to share their stories.

CINDY

My elderly cousin was about ready to move into an assisted living home, but he had recently brought in an “Irish Setter” off the street.  He asked if we could take her and find a home for her and we were happy to help. 

Irish Setter?

My husband and I stood at the screen door to meet the “Irish Setter”, focusing our eyes at a level about 24-30 inches from the floor in expectation of the dog’s approach.  When Cindy came to the door with my cousin, our gazes synchronously dropped about 2 feet.  You see, she was actually a small mutt, chocolate brown, with long hair, perky fringed ears, and a pointed nose!  Maybe she had some Shetland Sheepdog in her, maybe some kind of terrier?  No Irish Setter here, but we certainly took her home with us to find her forever home and help my cousin close out his household affairs.

Hearing Dog Career

This girl was friendly, funny, and cute, about a year to 18 months of age.  Whenever something new happened in the yard, Cindy ran and jumped up on an overturned bucket, settling her alert little body at a higher level in order to survey the situation.  Recognizing her consistent attention and interest toward sounds, we tested her for hearing dog capabilities; she had them in spades. 

I began Cindy’s foundation training and then sent her off to Texas Hearing & Service Dogs (now Service Dogs, Inc.) where she learned to be a partner for a woman in New Braunfels with a hearing loss.  She needed Cindy’s help to respond to the many auditory stimuli in her life.  If I remember correctly (this was over 20 years ago!) the woman was a teacher and Cindy accompanied her to school as well as listening for microwave, washer, dryer, oven, doorbell, and other daily noises at home that needed her partner’s response.  Just a little brown “Irish Setter”, but she learned to perform tasks that enriched someone’s life in an essential way. 

Cindy worked with her partner for many years, retired due to old age, and passed away of natural causes.  She left wonderful memories for a lot of people. For me, those memories are of a perky little brown dog who showed me what her perfect career would be.

CHESTER

A 6-month-old red dog showed up in our driveway on a Sunday, with bloody diarrhea and one leg shorter than the others.  He bounced playfully over to me to say hi, the happiest, friendliest dog imaginable. His is a story all its own, but the overview is here.  First, we helped him heal and began to put some weight on his boney body.  We fixed his leg – it was an old break that had healed in an incorrect position.  Chiropractic care, physical therapy, acupuncture, and more helped his body re-normalize after his surgeries.  One of our veterinarians, Dr. Wilson, named Chester after the character played by Dennis Weaver in the old Gunsmoke series; that Chester had one bad leg and walked with a bit of a limp.

Training is Essential

If you’ve read any of my blog posts or heard me speak, you’ll know that training begins as soon as I meet a dog.  Chester needed life skills and basic manners, along with activities to keep him busy while he had to lie still as he healed from surgeries. Training is an essential part of life for any dog, but because he had limited mobility for many months, it was imperative he learn things he could do while lying down. During the times he was more mobile, we practiced active skills.

“I Want to be a Service Dog!”

Chester was a red mutt, a Heinz-57 made up of a little Shar-pei, some retrieving breed that gave him a strong predisposition for retrieving, and who knows what else?  He effectively “told” me he wanted to be a service dog; that boy loved training!  He was eager to learn new things from the start and we had a good time together.  The Mannerly Dog’s YouTube channel includes tons of videos of Chester’s training.

I made sure I followed well-built protocols during Chester’s training and the result was a set of highly polished and effective public access and task skills.  As far as Chester was concerned, we played games throughout every day!  He quickly learned anything I wanted to teach him. 

“I Need a Partner!”

I began Chester’s task training with no idea of who he would partner with, so he learned a variety of skills.  After about a year and a half, just about when Chester was ready to start working, serendipity resulted in us finding his partner, Jack.  I became close friends with Jack and her family as we transitioned Chester into her life and home and helped him apply his behaviors to his new environment in Tacoma, Washington.  Chester became Jack’s mobility assistance dog, as she used a power wheelchair to get around. Jack was an officer in an active assistance dog club where members worked together to maintain their dogs’ trained skills along with advocating for partners of service dogs. This large non-profit was a great resource for Jack and Chester to continue their training after I set them up as partners.

A Highly Skilled Dog

Jack needed Chester to pick things up from the floor and other places she could not reach. She also needed him to help her with some doors, especially a specific door to her office at a university. This door was big and heavy. It was set against a narrow, raised porch so it was difficult for Jack to position her chair effectively to be able to operate it. From the outside, Jack could open the door, but was unable to close it when she left at the end of the workday. Chester had to learn some specific moves; we did the initial training at home but had to train with the real door when we got to Tacoma. Check out the video below to see Chester really get it after nearly getting his toes crushed in the door on his first try!

Chester developed cancer at the age of 10 years and passed away quietly soon after, with his family at his side.  The light he shared with the world dimmed but his memory lives on.

Lessons from Chester

In general, I don’t recommend a dog with an orthopedic problem like Chester’s for training as a service dog.  Some would say it was foolish and it was certainly inefficient and costly.  It just happened that I had the time and resources to take on the Chester project at that time in my life, so I did. It sure seems like something that was meant to happen! I learned a lot from training Chester while he learned from me. Developing Chester’s skills all the way through to his placement with Jack gave me indispensable experience in working with people and their dogs. 

One thing I learned is that a resilient dog with a stellar temperament is a rare gem.  I don’t know where he came from, but when Chester pranced over to me on the driveway that Sunday afternoon, the confluence of his genetic predispositions and his upbringing shined like the sun.  I wouldn’t change a thing about Chester’s story.

LEO

Leo was an 18-month-old Golden Retriever when I picked him up off the street.  He was just sitting there on the sidewalk in the rain.  This was in the neighborhood where I live and know all the dogs (and cats) that live here, so I knew he wasn’t a neighbor.  First, I passed him by.  (I don’t pick up every dog I see – that would be exhausting.)  Then, seeing him in my rearview mirror, still sitting in the same place, something told me to turn around.  He was happy to run to me and get in my truck.  Intending to get him to a rescue group or somewhere safe, I took him home. He became my boy within a couple of days. 

Pretty is as Pretty Does

Don’t get me wrong – Leo was beautiful and friendly but at that time, also an adolescent Golden with no manners.  He was very big and in his exuberance to greet people (including me!) he jumped up and raked downward with his nails, which could be painful.  Because of this bad habit, the first trick I taught him was “Touchdown!”  The criteria for the behavior were for him to stand on his rear legs and reach upward on cue at least 3 feet away from any human, without touching anyone with his front paws.  From there, he learned a plethora of tricks, became my partner in obedience competition, and was ultimately a perfect training accomplice and family dog.   

A Little Over the Top!

The first time Leo visited our weekend place in the country and saw the pond, he jumped in off of the pier, went completely under, and I thought I was going to have to go in after him!  Before I jumped in, he bobbed up, started swimming, and never stopped.  He loved swimming there throughout his life.  He traveled with us a bit and was a lovely companion for our whole family. Our son was an adolescent when we got Leo, and often had lots of friends over.  Leo greeted them all politely and was always ready to hang out with them.

Leo’s Special Behaviors

One morning, my husband woke up to find Leo on his fluffy dog bed with an unopened bag of chips safely protected between his paws and under his head.  Leo gently picked it up and brought it to me while I was still in bed.  Because of some tiny teeth and claw marks on the bag, we suspected that the cats had grabbed the chips off the kitchen counter with a plan to devour them as a midnight snack. It seemed likely that Leo had gently convinced them to give it up and protected it all night. This was in accordance with one of Leo’s special behavior sets.  He liked to keep an eye on everyone – humans, cats, other dogs – and it seemed like he really wanted everything to be in its place. 

Leo lived to be 14 and died of cancer, but was only really ill for a very couple of weeks. The rest of his life was spent in joyful exuberance. This is one of the best outcomes I can think of for the end of a wonderful dog’s life.   

HOWDY

Howdy was born January 3, 1980 and I got him at the age of 8 weeks. He was a yellow Labrador puppy, the first dog in my life as a fully grown “adult”. I was a typical young person with a small amount of knowledge accompanied by quite a “know-it-all” attitude.  After all, I was working as a veterinary technician and in college at this point in my life, so I must know everything! 

I Definitely Didn’t Know Everything

I had not yet started my journey into behaviorism/animal training. But I recognized my need to be able to have some control over my big, boisterous boy, so I signed up for a local “dog obedience” class.  Oh, the learning that began there!  Howdy was not much of an obedience competitor because of the inadequate training methods I was learning, but we did learn a lot about life.  We did OK in the ring, but I didn’t even know what I didn’t know back then. He typically showed high latency when I gave a cue, which is hesitance to start doing a behavior. I simply labelled him “stubborn”, when I was the one making the mistakes. Now I know my own role as a trainer much better. 

I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know

My boy was so creative in the games he came up with!  I didn’t think Howdy was a natural retriever, another incorrect label I slapped on him because of what I didn’t understand. I used some lame, force-based methods to teach him to retrieve for the obedience ring.  But if I bounced a tennis ball on a concrete surface, he would catch it and deliver it to me (or anyone!) so that it would bounce again.  This was a very specific game of bouncing, not throwing, the ball and the two of us enjoyed playing it together.

I didn’t know then what I know now – that this was retrieving and I could have easily built it into a formal retrieve. I do that all the time with dogs at this point in my life.  Oh, the things I needed to learn about science-based training; I was not even 20 years old yet. 

A Creative Dog

Another game Howdy made up for himself was rolling around in his well-loved blue blanket that was full of holes, until each leg each came through a different hole and the blanket was wrapped around him.  Then he would stroll over to someone, blanket and all, to “ask” them to untangle him. 

The most impactful game Howdy taught himself was to pull an inflatable raft to the shore of our pond in the country.  This behavior ended many people’s dreams of blissful afternoon fishing on that pond, as Howdy would retrieve the raft as soon as he saw it out on the water.  We all soon learned to keep him on a leash to avoid annoying family members who wanted to fish or just paddle the raft around, but I sometimes let him bring the raft in because he loved it so much.  Yet another way he was retrieving, while I insisted he needed force training to learn to do it.  It’s good that Howdy was taking care of his own training! I’m so much smarter now!

Volunteering to Save Lives

Howdy saved many lives during the beginning of the Parvo virus epidemic among dogs in the early 1980s by donating plasma after he survived a case of Parvo.  I was working as a veterinary technician and at that time, professionals were grabbing at straws to find ways to help dogs, especially young puppies, survive this new and devastating disease.  A journal article came out demonstrating promising results from plasma transfusions and we started using Howdy’s blood to provide them in some cases. The recoveries tended to be remarkable. Parvo remains a problem now, but at least we have vaccines to help prevent it.  

Genetics + Experiences = Temperament

To a great extent, Howdy was a dog of his own making.  Fortunately, his genetics and socialization were enough to allow him grow into a friendly, pleasant dog.  He accompanied me to college at Texas A&M, where we had many fun experiences and that would not have been possible if he were not the confident, well-mannered dog he was.

I was just beginning to learn to train dogs at that point in my life, but I soon got on the path toward science-based, effective, humane training, where I remain to this day.

Howdy died on October 29, 1994, at the age of nearly 15 years. He passed away on his own, at a time of his own choosing. This seemed fitting for an independent, yet loveable dog who accompanied me through some of the most important stages of my life.

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