Saturday, December 26, 2009

Vacation Part 1

I'm not sure exactly what we were thinking, packing up the dog and the cat and driving across the country, but we've somehow made it to Phoenix. (It's been pretty busy, so my apologies for the shoddy writing below.) We're heading off to L.A. tomorrow, and between this trip and the last, Dempsey will have seen the U.S. of A. from California to New York, and from Minnesota to Texas. We showed Dempsey a map, and he has marked in yellow all the states he has visited.

Our first stop was Wichita, Kansas, mainly because we had free lodging at a friend's house. We went exploring a bit with Dempsey, and here's what we found.

Old Town
Doreen and I used to live in Alexandria, Virginia, where the Old Town is old, at least by American standards -- there are places with signs that say "George Washington slept here." Old Town Wichita is not quite as old. Most of the buildings are from the turn of the century, though the sign would indicate it's not even that old:

World's first Pizza Hut
The world's first Pizza Hut is now on the campus of Wichita State University. Alas, it is not in operation; I would've liked to have seen the inside, and how the operations differ from a modern Pizza Hut. The interesting thing I noticed is that there aren't that many Pizza Huts in Wichita, or even White Castle, which was also founded in Wichita. The most popular local chain seems to be a place called Spangles. I would say more, but it already looks like I'm way too interested in fast food, and I can see your eyes glazing over. Suffice it to say that Dempsey was not interested in the Pizza Hut, especially after I told him there were no pizzas inside.

Keeper of the Plains
Probably the coolest thing Dempsey saw in Wichita is the "Keeper of the Plains" memorial, which is surrounded by big flaming boulders that the groundskeeper lights every night at 7pm. We thought it would be a good socialization experience for Dempsey, I guess because we expect he'll be seeing a lot of flaming boulders in his work? Anyway, he did great, as usual, not afraid a bit.

From Wichita, we drove straight to Phoenix. This will take you about 18 hours, if you need to make frequent stops for the dog and the cat. Dempsey has had a blast, with lots of new and exciting experiences. Everything is so much more fun when you look at things through a puppy's eyes. Here are some of Dempsey's firsts:

  • His first cactus, which gave him a needle in the nose. He tried pawing it off, which just broke the needle in two: half on his nose, half on his paw. When I tried removing the needle, Dempsey squirmed so much he got them both on me. Luckily, he learned quickly to leave the cacti alone.
  • His first coyote. Scary! We didn't see the coyotes, but we heard them howling outside the house. Dempsey was so worried, we cancelled his walk and went back inside. I wanted to try exposing Dempsey to coyotes again, but alas the wily beasts did not return.
  • His first tumbleweed. At home, Dempsey has (thankfully) learned to ignore blowing leaves. Here in Phoenix, there aren't a lot of blowing leaves, but we did see some tumbleweeds when we went on a short hike. Suffice it to say, Dempsey does not generalize well from leaves to tumbleweeds -- he tried chasing them all over again.
  • His first echo. Very cute! He wasn't afraid, but he was very curious on our hike.
  • His first petroglyph. On our hike to Telegraph Pass at South Mountain, Dempsey found his very own petroglyph! Pics below.
  • His first eucalyptus tree. Apparently, these smell as good to dogs as they to people. I thought Dempsey was about to do an imitation of a koala, so intent was he on trying to eat the leaves.
  • His first pop-up sprinkler. When he was looking for a place to potty, Dempsey found his first pop-up sprinkler. He was very curious when it popped up, and as he approached to investigate, it started sprinkling water, getting Dempsey all wet. Dempsey jumped back about 6 feet and did a startled "shimmy." He went back to the sprinkler pretty quickly and started snapping at the water, trying to catch it. Very cute!
  • His first Spanish fountain. Dempsey saw his first Spanish fountain just after seeing his first pop-up sprinkler. With the spraying water fresh in his memory, he was a little hesitant about approaching the fountain. I really had to lower the criteria for the retrieves, clicking and treating for just touching the keys, instead of for picking them up and giving them to me. Alas, I clicked too soon on one occassion, when Dempsey nudged the keys into the water. When we tried it again, Dempsey enthusiastically pushed the keys back into the water. It took a few more reps before we got it right.

Dempsey loves staying at his grandparents' house. Even though he hasn't seen them since July, he still remembers them! He also got to meet loyal blog follower Cindy. (Dempsey says: "HI! HI! HI!") Dempsey loves that the house is not puppy-proofed; he's very curious, spending most of his free time wandering around and sniffing things. He's been very good about not chewing things, and except for some socks, he hasn't stolen anything, either.

Dempsey was a very good boy on his first Christmas. With the help of his Christmas present (some yummy peanut butter treats) and lots of practice on the previous days, Dempsey helped pick up wrapping paper. He even had a chance to hand out one gift, the only stocking stuffer that was waterproof and not breakable, edible, or fragile.

That's all folks! More later, after I get some sleep.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Snowbird Dempsey

It is now the tenth day of Christmas, and miracle of miracles, the Christmas tree is still standing. Doreen added ribbon last week, and we've even added a couple of (fake) wrapped presents under the tree. Dempsey has been such a good boy, not touching any of it.

Last Saturday, we took him to the pet store to meet Santa Claus. Dempsey was very suspicious at first, refusing to go near Santa. A few well-timed treats bribed him to get closer, but he was still leery. I think Dempsey knew this wasn't the real Santa, because underneath the beard and hat, it was a woman. He is such a smart little boy! At one point, Dempsey reached up to tug off Santa's beard, exposing "Santa" as the fraudulent look-alike she was, but luckily a well-timed "sit" prevented him for ruining it for all the other little dogs. In the end, Dempsey and "Santa" became friends, with Dempsey doing a nice "rest your head" on Santa's lap.

Last week's blizzard wasn't nearly as bad as we'd feared it would be. Dempsey loves the snow, and he always volunteers to help with the shovelling, though his "help" consists mostly of knocking down the piles of snow I had worked so hard to shovel. This is cute for about the first 20 times, after which he gets to rest in the kennel while I shovel the snow all over again.

This morning, however, was a little too cold even for Dempsey. With the temperature at about two below, we played Frisbee fetch a couple of times in the snow after his potty break. Dempsey was still wagging his tail and having fun, but I noticed there were two little drool icicles forming by his mouth. Yikes! We went inside and played hide and seek instead.

Luckily for Dempsey, he gets to be a snowbird this year. Doreen, Dempsey, Bailey, and I will all be piling into the Jeep for a trip to Phoenix and L.A. to visit Dempsey's puppy grandparents. Dempsey will miss the snow, but I think he'll enjoy going on long walks again. It's only December, but Dempsey is already a little stir crazy.

Stay tuned for vacation pics!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The third day of Christmas

It's now the third day of Christmas, and we've finally put all the ornaments up on the tree. This isn't a great picture, but I have to say that the dollar store ornaments don't look half bad. Tomorrow we'll add the pièce de résistance: a golden ribbon around the tree. A golden theme for a golden boy!

Dempsey has been very good so far with the ornaments, knock on wood. I think he's happy that his kennel is right between the fireplace and the Christmas tree: no chance of missing Santa!

What's been harder for him are the decorations outside. He had no problem at all with the ghosts and witches for Halloween, but he is very curious about Christmas decorations. In particular, he's fascinated by what I would describe as a giant inflatable snow globe that has two motorized penguins ice skating around the North pole. It says "Merry Christmas." I think Dempsey, like his father, is trying to figure out why penguins are at the North pole, and what exactly they have to do with Christmas.

Dempsey doesn't have much time to figure it out. The weather outside is frightful: two inches of snow tonight, followed by "blizzard-like" conditions on Wednesday, and then a high of 5 below (20 below with wind chill) on Thursday. We won't be going on any walks, needless to say. Dempsey is still so energetic, I hope the tree is still standing on Friday.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas is coming!

Dempsey's first Christmas is coming soon! We've told him how Santa Claus brings presents to good little boys, and Dempsey is very excited. Evidently, he thinks he's been a good little boy, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

We asked him what he's going to ask Santa for, and, perhaps not surprisingly, he said he only wants one thing: a puppy. A puppy! As Doreen and I have learned this year, it's a big responsibility and a lot of work to have a puppy. We tried explaining this to Dempsey, but he said he's 10 in dog years, and that he thinks he's old enough to take care of a puppy. Hmm. We've suggested that Dempsey ask Santa for something that would fit in one of his stockings.

In the meantime, we've started putting up a Christmas tree. We say "started," because we're doing this in stages. Yesterday we went to the dollar store to buy some cheap plastic ornaments, which we'll use this year instead of the nice glass ones. Today, we put up the tree. In a couple of days, we'll start decorating the tree, top to bottom, over a few days. Hopefully, by doing this gradually, we'll help Dempsey stay on Santa's "good" list.

As we've said, it's a lot of work having a puppy.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Dempsey's theme

As we've mentioned, our theme song for Dempsey is "Mama Tried."

Dempsey says his theme song for us is Paul McCartney's "Distractions":

The postman's at the door,
While the telephone rings on the kitchen wall.
Pretend we're not at home and they'll disappear.
I want to be with you, tell me what I can do,
Nothing is too small.
Away from all this jazz, we could do anything at all.

Distractions, like butterflies, are buzzing 'round my head.
When I'm alone, I think of you,
And the things we'd do if we could only be through
With these distractions.

Dempsey asked that I share these lyrics before posting this video of him practicing "rest your head."

Of course, we still think "Mama Tried" is Dempsey's most appropriate theme song. Here's the little evildoer stealing crutches, unlike his good sister Boston:

Monday, November 2, 2009


After spending most of October getting Dempsey ready for Halloween, the big day has come and gone.

We spent a lot of time on field trips going through the Halloween aisles at drug stores, putting on masks, playing the sample CDs of screams, and showing him inflatable pupmkins and dancing mummies. We like to think we did a great job of socializing him, but the fact is, he never seemed spooked by any of it. He probably thought that we were just being silly. Smart dog, he's usually right.

The biggest scare on Halloween was not for Dempsey, but for us. We only had about twenty kids come by, and since it was cold, practically all of them were wearing jackets, hats, and mittens over their costumes, which you could barely see. Dempsey didn't seem to notice. He did a fantastic job of staying in bed instead of running to the door every time the doorbell rang. (Eventually, we'll teach him to go to bed when the doorbell rings, but for now, we just put him in bed and treated him for staying there.)

No, the scariest thing was the vomit. Dempsey threw up twice the last couple of days, and he smelled awful, really bile. Which, it turns out, is what he had thrown up. Bailey the cat coughs up hairballs all the time, and though we had seen Dempsey regurgitate food a few times, we had never seen him heave and really vomit.

I took him to the vet, and while we were waiting, I worried about everything that could possibly be wrong with him: Giardia from goose poop? Bad mulch? Gall bladder obstruction?? Did he eat a poisoned dead rat??? And get liver failure???? Or maybe Dempsey has end-stage terminal stomach cancer?????? I had no idea I could worry this much.

Of course, Dempsey is fine. The vet gave him an antacid and told me to put him on a bland diet for a few days and see if he's better. Aside from the vomiting, he never seemed sick, and indeed he's on patrol again in kitchen, looking for drawers to shut.

What a bad dog, scaring his parents like that! I suppose at least he got the Halloween spirit.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Alternate careers

Dempsey hasn't had very many adventures lately, because we've been working on the "relaxation protocol." It sounds like an uptight scientist's definition of "vacation," but actually the "relaxation protocol" is a trainer geek's 12-step program for chillin' out.

You see, Dempsey needs a special program to relax. He's terrific at all his service dog skills, but like his parents, he has a hard time just kicking back with nothing to do. Without a cue or a toy, Dempsey gets very fidgety.

This is a problem because so much of a service dog's work entails waiting. Boring conference calls, long sermons, chick flicks -- Dempsey has to learn to sleep through these things, like the rest of us do.

Being Type-A parents, we're worried Dempsey will flunk out of service dog school because of his hyperactivity. We haven't told him (we like to set high expectations for our boy), but we've started thinking of alternate careers, in case the service dog gig doesn't work out.

Shoe shine boy
In Istanbul (which, by the way, is a wonderful city you should visit), there are dozens of shoe shine boys by every tourist attraction. It doesn't matter if you're an American wearing sneakers; they'll come up to you, tug your sleeve, and ask "Shoe shine? Shoe shine?" They're very persistent, and sometimes you'll give them a few lira just to leave you alone. This could be Dempsey!

Ever since he has learned "tug," he's been very eager to help you take off your glove, sock, or jacket. Now that it's colder, Doreen and I walk around with our socks on, and Dempsey follows us around everywhere, staring at our socks. If we sit down, Dempsey sits too, but after a few minutes, he'll nudge us and look at our socks. He is just dying to take them off. This is when we we give him an extraneous task (sit, drop, shake), and give him a little treat for that, just like tossing a lira to a shoe shine boy to leave you alone.

Of course, "sock tugger" would only work in a place where tourists walk around with socks and no shoes. We've heard there are places like this in California, though they tend to be run by cult leaders.

Supermarket mop boy
You know how sometimes you'll be grocery shopping, and you'll hear over the P.A., "Cleanup in aisle 6"? This could be Dempsey!

Dempsey has remarkable hearing. Verily, if a treat falls in the forest and no one hears it, Dempsey will. Dempsey isn't very interested in metaphysics, but he can refute Bishop Berkeley as well as Dr. Johnson can.

If Dempsey got this job, supermarkets could save money on mops and buckets, and there wouldn't be any announcements to interrupt the beautiful Muzak. Dempsey would just magically appear. On the negative side, Dempsey's cleanups invariably leave a pool of drool: "Cleanup in aisle 6!"

Fancy drawers these days have a self-closing mechanism, so that if you leave a drawer partially open, it shuts itself. We don't have fancy drawers, because we have Dempsey!

Because he's such an entrepreneurial little fellow, always looking for tasks that will earn him treats, he goes on regular patrol now through the kitchen, looking for drawers that need to be shut. When he spots one, he'll sit patiently by it, till we see him and tell him to "push" it shut.

We like to think this is because we have the cue on stimulus control, but in all honesty, Dempsey is a smart little guy, and he knows he'll only get credit for the work if we see him do it.

I suppose Dempsey could find a job as a replacement for self-closing drawers, but to be really honest, he's not as convenient.

Our homework the other week had a really cute picture of how a dishwasher really works. This could be Dempsey!

Ever since he's seen "An Irritating Truth," Al Gore's documentary (like we said, we're trying to get him to sleep through these things, like the rest of us), Dempsey has been trying to convince us to go green by unplugging the dishwasher and letting him clean the dishes. He is convinced there is a market for sustainable doggie dishwashing services. We haven't yet persuaded him that the health inspector has a different opinion.

Hmm. None of these alternate careers really works, does it? I guess we just need to work harder on relaxing.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Lessons in learning

One of the fun things about having puppies is that they're always learning. Unfortunately, they don't always learn what you're trying to teach them.

A case in point is freeloading Dempsey. I had been trying to teach teamwork, but what Dempsey learned is that it's enough just to look cute and show up. As Sarah Palin is (hopefully) learning, this will only get you so far. Eventually, you need to deliver, especially if you're a service dog.

Another example is "get your pack" and "get your leash." Individually, Dempsey does them brilliantly. Here's a video of Dempsey getting his pack from upstairs, (mostly) ignoring the distractions of Sawyer barking and Doreen roasting a chicken:

And this wasn't even his best effort! Without the distractions, Dempsey makes a beeline for his pack. I would think he has this down cold.

However, when I put the pack and the leash on the chair together, the behavior completely falls apart. Dempsey is not hearing "get your pack," or "get your leash." He's just hearing "get your blah blah blah," and he picks up the objects randomly.

With some tips from our instructor, I slapped together a lesson plan in discrimination: put the pack on my right, and the leash on my left; point as I say the cue; then gradually fade the point.

Our instructor said this would be very difficult for Dempsey, but within 10 minutes, he got it!!!

Or so I thought. When I switched the positions of the objects, Dempsey got them completely backwards. Apparently, I had taught him that "get your pack" means "step to your left and get the object there" and "get your leash" means "step to your right and get the object there." Dempsey got an extra big breakfast that day as I worked to untrain what I had just trained.

Now that I think about this, it makes sense. Everything I tell Dempsey is a verb: sit, drop, get, even Dempsey (which means, "look at me"). So naturally Dempsey would think "get your leash" and "get your pack" are verbs, too. It really is going to be quite the conceptual leap for him to understand that words can refer to things as well as actions.

This is interesting because, as a human, I rely more on nouns than verbs. For example, when I travel abroad, I can usually just say "train station?" or "bathroom?" and make my intentions clear. (The latter is especially effective when accompanied by an interpretive dance.) There's even a French novel -- God bless the French -- written without a single verb. But for dogs, verbs rule.

As our instructor said, this is hard for Dempsey. It's been about a week now, without much progress to show. But I think it will be very rewarding when he gets it. Once he knows nouns and verbs, I want to see if he understands grammar, the idea that you can form novel cues by combining previously learned nouns and verbs.

Dempsey's taking a nap now, and I'm just looking at him wondering what he's dreaming about in his cute little head. Puppies are such an endless source of joy and wonder.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A management challenge

One of the big challenges in managing people in corporate America is to foster teamwork while still rewarding individual performance. I am here to report that the same challenge exists with puppies.

Whenever I play fetch with Dempsey, I give him a little treat for giving the ball back to me nicely. (Otherwise, he'll just run off with it: Game over.) With two puppies, I want to avoid any kind of food aggression, so I decided to reward the team: Any time either puppy gives me the ball, they both get little treats.

Dempsey seems to have figured this out. The first few times we played fetch with Sawyer, they would both scamper after the ball. But after a few reps, hardworking Sawyer kept chasing the ball, while freeloading Dempsey just stuck around for the treat.

I'm torn between thinking Dempsey is smart and being appalled at what a bad team player he is. Time for a new game. I don't want Dempsey to be shunned at the doggie water cooler!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dempsey's doppelgänger

Dempsey has another visitor this week: His brother Sawyer. Sawyer, you may recall, looks like Dempsey's twin. Now that he's been here a few hours, we've learned that the similarity is more than skin deep.

For example, Sawyer packed his favorite toy: The Kong Squirrel. This is also Dempsey's favorite toy.

Sawyer has a green Gentle Leader and leash -- just like Dempsey. Sawyer has a large Pet Lodge kennel -- just like Dempsey.

And in class, when we had to develop our own lesson plan for a skill we picked, Sawyer learned "GI Joe." Dempsey learned "Semper Fido." They are both the same behavior: A belly crawl.

Whooo, spooky. Here are some pics of the two. Can you tell who is who?

Grad night and snow days

Dempsey went to his second graduation ceremony on Friday night. The last graduation we went to in May was nice, but this one was even nicer. Thanks to a generous donor, Helping Paws was able to rent the classier auditorium instead of the cafeteria at the high school, and the new "passing of the leash" ceremony made us a little teary eyed.

The best part, though, is that Doreen and I had volunteered for "team training," which allowed us to get to know the graduates a little. For those of you who are unfamiliar with "team training," it's an intensive 3-week course when the graduating dog is first placed with the person they'll be working with. Now, having seen it firsthand, we can report that it really is intense, which makes sense if you think about it. The dog has had 2 to 3 years working with the same trainer to learn almost 90 different cues. In team training, a person needs to learn all the cues, and the dog needs to learn how to work with a new handler. In 3 weeks.

We knew a couple of the dogs already from demos, and we knew they were superbly trained. But with a new handler, they seemed less confident, more easily distracted. It really brought home the fact that dogs are not robots, and it takes time to develop skills and trust. It really is teamwork.

The other big eye-opener for me was seeing how things can be "handicapped accessible" in theory, but not in practice. For example, there was a door at the mall which had a small switch mounted on the wall to open it. The door, unfortunately, is the kind that swings out, and when it does, it blocks the switch. One of the graduates I was working with had limited arm mobility, and it was impossible for her to hit the switch herself. To get into the mall, she needs a service dog. The dog, in turn, needs to very skilled. He needs to "rise" to get to the switch, then "switch" it on with his paws. Then he needs to go "back" to get out of the way of the opening door, and then quickly follow "behind" the wheelchair to go inside before it automatically slams shut, in about 15 seconds.

There's a very real chance that either the dog or the person in the wheelchair can be injured by the door that swings open and closed too quickly. What we're teaching the dogs are not cute pet tricks for a Bob Saget TV special, but real skills that have real safety consequences. A key dropped outside in the Minnesota winter can literally be a life-or-death situation, and the dog really needs to be able to retrieve it, quickly, every time. We knew all this before, but there's nothing like seeing it firsthand to really drive the point home.

Fortunately, we have some terrific team trainers at Helping Paws, and I saw a big improvement over just a couple of days. At graduation, we saw some of the dogs snuggling with their new people, as if they'd been friends for years. It really is very touching.

Graduation is a big occasion, and I wish I had been able to watch it. Not only were we teary eyed, we were accompanied by a very fidgety young puppy. I'm not sure how Dempsey did it, but in the sparkling clean auditorium, he managed to find, under my seat, a half-opened container of Wendy's Buttery Best Spread. Although "buttery spread" is not butter, it still drove Dempsey nuts; he spent most of the time trying to find another container, and I had to bribe him constantly to just sit still. Aargh.

But Dempsey redeemed himself the next day, by being both cute and good. It was the first snowfall of the season, and Dempsey loves snow! We took him to the park, where he played and played some more. When Doreen went behind a column, Dempsey dashed off to follow her. (He hates it when we're out someplace, but not together.) Mid-dash, I called him -- and he came! A textbook recall in a high-distraction environment from about 20 feet. We're so proud of him!

Of course, being a puppy, Dempsey is not yet consistently good. It snowed some more Sunday night, and when I took him out Monday morning, camcorder in hand, it did not occur to me that the snow might obscure his view of the bathroom. Here he is on the deck:

Just remember, folks: Don't eat the yellow snow!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Witch hunt

Now that it's early October, Dempsey and I have been on a witch hunt. We know there are going to be a lot of ghouls and goblins out on Halloween, and we want to introduce them to Dempsey early, so come All Hallows' Eve, he won't be scared.

Sadly, our witch hunt is not going well. On Saturday, we went to the home improvement store looking for Halloween decorations, but all we found were... Christmas trees. Dempsey did a double-take at the shiny ornaments, but yes, they were indeed Christmas ornaments. In October.

I know Bill O'Reilly thinks he has won the "war on Christmas," but I suspect the real reason why Christmas trees have been re-re-named from "family trees" or "holiday trees" is because there are so many holidays between October and Christmas. Calling a Christmas tree a Christmas tree would avoid any confusion, say, if you were thinking about lighting up a "holiday tree" for Guy Fawkes Day.

We haven't had much luck finding Halloween decorations at any of the other garden or home improvement stores we've visited -- do people really buy all this stuff in July? -- but at least Dempsey has been getting a lot of practice being a rain dog.

He's gotten better about being outside in the rain, though he still finds small ways to resist. The other day, I asked him to jump "over" a puddle, which he did beautifully. We hadn't practiced "over" over a puddle, so I made him do it again. Perfect! On the third "over," he landed short, splashing my jeans with water. Dempsey wanted a treat anyway. This is when I decided to call it quits and go home.

Dempsey was overjoyed. As soon as he leapt into the car, he did a "shimmy," drenching the inside of the car, including his chauffeur. Dempsey says this is what happens when you take a puppy in the rain. Next time, he said he wants his own umbrella -- or else. I told him he could have his own umbrella as soon as he learns to carry it himself without chewing it.

We've also had fun! Dempsey has had visits from two of his sisters, Nala and Angel, and he's also gone on a couple of trips up north to look for fall colors.

Here are Dempsey and Nala playing one of their favorite games, bobbing for ice cubes:

More pics of Dempsey and Nala:

And here is Dempsey at Jay Cooke State Park.

Dempsey's big adventure at Jay Cooke was crossing the creaky swinging bridge over the St. Louis River. He was afraid at first, but as soon as he crossed it the first time, he turned around and wanted to cross it again.

We crossed the bridge six times altogether, and by the last trip, Dempsey was comfortable enough to sit, drop, shake, and bow on the bridge -- though only in the middle. We caused a minor "dogjam" when we met an English bulldog on the bridge, who also only wanted to walk in the middle of the bridge.

Fortunately, we were near the end, so it was easy enough to back up and let the bulldog pass. Brave and polite! Dempsey is such a good little dog.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Our dog is an awesome dog!

We've been trying really hard not to be too gushy about Dempsey, but sometimes we can't help it. Our dog is an awesome dog!!!

On Wednesday, Dempsey went to a corporate demo at OptumHealth. We were there for about two and half hours, sitting at a booth right next to the cafeteria entrance during lunch. And Dempsey was a perfect puppy the whole time! Never once tried stealing food, never once jumped up during a greeting. For the whole time, he sat politely, looking cute, until we'd attracted a small crowd. Then he went to work demonstrating his skills in retrieving objects, tugging gloves off, pushing drawers shut, and flipping the light switch. Then, when he was done, he would take a bow for the audience.

We couldn't have asked for a better performance! We were there with Dempsey's teacher, but if Dempsey was nervous at all, he never showed it. We had packed high-value and ultra-high-value treats in case of emergencies, but Dempsey worked practically the whole time for plain kibble. We think he did remarkably well for his age!

Of course, being a puppy, he wasn't quite as perfect as big dogs Claire and Maisie were. About two hours in, he got bored waiting in drop-stays, and starting chewing his leash. (Though a few peanut butter treats were enough to get his attention back.) And on his bows, he was sometimes facing me and not the audience, so it looked like he was mooning them. Fortunately, everybody we met was very nice and told us what a cute butt Dempsey has.

Dempsey gives a big thank you to the good folks at OptumHealth for inviting Helping Paws to be part of their United Giving Campaign Showcase! For any of you thinking of making charitable contributions through payroll deductions, we really encourage it: It's so easy and painless! When you make a contribution to United Way, simply designate Helping Paws as your charity of choice by using Helping Paws' donor choice designation number: 315127.

We are soooooooo proud of our little boy!!! Dempsey is the greatest, best puppy God has ever given man on the face of the earth. (Of course, as his parents, we'll admit we may not be fair and balanced.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Dempsey and Bailey aren't exactly friends yet, but at least they no longer fight like cats and dogs.

Dempsey has learned to respect Bailey, and Bailey really, really likes it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Speaking in tongue

Dempsey and I just came back from a great field trip to the pharmacy. We met a nice man from Honduras who had never seen a service dog before, and who was astounded at everything Dempsey was doing -- picking up keys and credit cards, pulling my glove off and handing it to me, sitting quietly in the prescription pickup waiting area.

How do I know this? I was eavesdropping on his conversation in Spanish while Dempsey was practicing his drop-stay. I felt like joining in, but I was afraid my Spanish was not quite up to par.

Person with a physical disability?

Service dog?

Service dog in training?


Male? Female?

¡Ay ay ay!

But when I heard the Honduran man say of Mr. D, "She is such a pretty dog," my machismo kicked in, and I let loose my Spanish:

"Thank you! You all are very kind, but the dog is a young man. He calls himself Dempsey. He has seven months. He will practice with me until he has two or three years. Then he will go away. He will work and to help a person that sits in the chair with wheels and it is difficult to use the feet and the hands. He picks up the things. He opens and closes the light and the door. He takes the sock and gives him to me. He helps a person to be more independent."

Ick. I sounded more like a robotic online translation than a suave Latino. Dempsey, as usual, saved the day with his gift of speaking in tongue: He started giving everyone kisses. He knows puppy love requires no translation.

Cleaning service dog

This morning, while I was vacuuming and Dempsey was sitting around chewing a Nylabone, I had a bright idea. We've already taught Dempsey to "push" drawers and doors, and he's supposed to be generalizing that skill to other objects. Instead of just pushing boxes around, why not something useful? Like a vacuum? Now we're talking!

Dempsey's best skill remains cleaning up spilled food, a task he performs, unasked, with remarkable speed and thoroughness. Unfortunately, this is not a service dog skill.

Retrieve, however, is a service dog skill, and Dempsey is getting much better, though he also tends to do it unasked. The other night, Dempsey was lying at my feet while I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen. He got bored, trotted off, and returned to give me -- a shoe.

"Dempsey," I asked, "what am I supposed to do with a shoe? That's not very useful now, is it?"

He looked very sad and disappointed, probably because I didn't give him a carrot. He trotted off again, and came back, tail wagging, with a sandal. He was sitting holding the sandal, waiting to "give" it to me nicely. "Hi! A left shoe and a right sandal! That's more useful, isn't it?"

That was just too cute! Even though I didn't ask for either, I gave him a carrot anyway.

Eventually, we'll be teaching Dempsey to help people get dressed. I haven't seen the lesson plan yet, but I sure hope it doesn't include fashion advice.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dempsey vs Godzilla

We've mentioned how quickly Dempsey is growing, but we now have photographic proof: Just look at how he towers over the motel and truck! Dempsey is clearly ready to lick Godzilla, both literally and figuratively.

All this growth is making Dempsey a little clumsy. He sometimes doesn't realize where his tail or paws are one day to the next, and he bumps into things, or knocks things over.

At one small hardware store, we were turning a corner when Dempsey stepped on some thoughtfully placed rakes near the end cap. Predictably, this sent the handle of one of the rakes flying, cartoon-like, towards my face. In a rare instance of coordination, I was able to block the rake, though by doing so I knocked Dempsey off balance and onto another rake, whose handle also went flying, cartoon-like, towards my face. I wasn't as coordinated this time, but at least I can say that no animal other than myself was harmed in the production of this blog post.

Needless to say, we've been focusing a lot these last few weeks on coordination. For one thing, we've been going to a lot of small stores, practicing our loose leash walk through tight spaces. At home, we give Dempsey massages after every nap, and we've continued to practice "semper fido," his belly crawl. Sadly, Dempsey's belly crawl on the hardwood floor still looks more like "Call the lifeguard!" than "Call the Marines!" Dempsey says he'll get better if we give him more massages. We'll see.

P.S. You English lit majors may recognize "Gopher Prairie" as the thinly disguised hometown of Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis in Main Street. We stopped by his boyhood home in Sauk Center, and then visited Little Falls, the childhood home of Charles Lindbergh and Boston's mom.

Given Dempsey's coordination issues, we didn't visit any museums; we want him as far away from fragile, irreplaceable historical artifacts as possible. Instead, we spent most of the trip driving by things and stopping at small country hardware stores, where Dempsey could train with the nuts.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Grand Night Out

Last night was Helping Paws' Tail Waggin' Dinner, the biggest fundraiser of the year, held at the Marriott in one of the nicest suburbs of Minneapolis. Dempsey spent a couple of days getting ready, starting with easily digestible, chicken-and-rice meals to make sure he wouldn't get diarrhea. Saturday was a "day of beauty," with a bath, brush, pedicure/pedicure, ear cleaning, and tooth brushing. And finally, since this would be Dempsey's first gala, a fancy but tasteful bow tie:

The dinner was a lot of fun! Dempsey says thank you to the Helping Paws staff, donors, supporters, and volunteers who made it all possible. There were over 400 people attending, but despite all the hubbub, Dempsey (and every dog) was calm and well-behaved.

It helped that there was a special "puppy room" for the pups to hang out during the plated "Big Dog Dinner." Dempsey was very good during the "Puppy Chow Reception," not once trying to steal appetizers from the waiters, but we didn't quite trust him during the formal dinner. As good as he is, he's not a big dog yet!

For us, the best part of the evening was seeing Dempsey's extended family. He clearly recognizes his brothers and sisters, wagging his tail more vigorously with them than with the other Helping Paws dogs. And he also very clearly remembered Team Cheers, the family who raised him till he was 8 weeks old and came to live with us. Dempsey hadn't seen them in months -- most of his life, from his perspective -- but we thought his tail would fly off, he was wagging so hard. Being worriers, we used to worry that once he graduates, Dempsey will forget us, or be sad and miss us, but he showed us last night that he has enough love for everyone.

During the dinner, we were seated with a woman who had had a service dog, now retired. Although Jordan no longer lives with her, she clearly loves and misses him. We traded cute Dempsey and Jordan stories all through dinner. It was so nice! Our friends, we suspect, are getting tired of hearing about Dempsey all the time, and it was wonderful to have dinner with a fellow dog-lover who can really appreciate what a dog can do for you. I imagine it will still be hard to see Dempsey graduate, but it's so nice to know that when he graduates, Dempsey will live with someone who loves him (almost) as much as we do. He is such a lucky dog to have such a big family, from Team Cheers to us to whoever is lucky enough to get him.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Local color: Red

There are a lot of advantages to shopping at the big national chains -- consistency, generally high standards, sometimes lower prices -- but I like going to small, local stores that have quirky personalities and local color.

I wanted to take Dempsey to a local video store, where he might meet a future Tarantino, but having not rented a movie from a store since about 1998 (thanks, Netflix!), I had no idea where to go. A friend recommended a place not too far away.

"You'll love it!" she said. "They have thousands of movies that the major chains don't carry."

When Dempsey and I got there, we believed it. The aisles were narrower than at the chains, and the shelves taller. The movies, instead of being displayed with the covers facing out, were shelved with the spines out, as in a bookstore or library. This would definitely be a new experience for Dempsey!

It was a busy night, but Dempsey and I somehow managed to find a quiet corner to train. It was perfect. This aisle was deserted, and though there were a couple of curious kids, they were polite enough to stay out of the aisle and watch us from the front of the store. Only one customer came by, a man wearing sunglasses and a hooded sweatshirt. Perfect! Dempsey had been afraid of hooded sweatshirts when he was younger, so this would be good practice.

I thought the man seemed afraid of Dempsey, so as he approached, I increased Dempsey's reinforcement rate: Click. Click. Click, click. Clickclickclick. And it worked! Dempsey politely maintained his drop, showing not the least fear of hooded sweatshirt man. In fact, I thought the man seemed more afraid of Dempsey than Dempsey was afraid of him.

At this point, I decided to test Dempsey's drop as I pretended to browse through the shelves. With Dempsey lying at my feet, I started reading the spines of the DVDs on the shelf in front of me: I Am Curious, Rochelle Rochelle, Steam: The Turkish Bath.

Hey, wait a minute... we're in the "adult" aisle! I had a Joycean epiphany, where I saw everything again in a completely different light.

The "thousands of movies the major chains don't carry"? This wasn't the complete works of Fassbinder, but the "mature" videos, like Bikini Team Bloopers. I didn't know people still went out and rented videos like that. I mean, isn't that what they invented the Internet for?

The man in sunglasses and hooded sweatshirt? That wasn't a fashion statement. He was trying to be incognito.

The fear I thought he had of the dog? That was his fear of being seen. And my clicking, instead of reassuring him that I had control of my dog, probably only exacerbated his anxiety. He already felt radioactive, and the clicks sounded like a Geiger counter: "Yes, yes, that's him! He is the one who is icky and contaminated!"

The kids staying politely out of the aisle? Their parents probably made them.

Their curiosity about their dog? Probably curiosity about me: "Hey mister, why did you take that sweet innocent little puppy into the adult aisle? Don't you know he's not old enough, even in dog years?"

I could feel myself blushing as I realized where I was. I thought of following hooded sweatshirt man's lead and putting on sunglasses, but the only pair I had were Dempsey's retrieve pair, which are a woman's style we got at the dollar store, bright pink and big. This, I thought, would make me more conspicuous coming out of the adult aisle, not less.

Oh, well. Nothing to do but a brisk walk out of there. "Dempsey, let's go!"

Luckily, everything turned out fine. For the kids in front, Dempsey demonstrated his skill at retrieving credit cards, and outside the store, hooded sweatshirt man -- his name is "Steve" -- stopped to say hello to Dempsey. Nobody asked why we were where we were.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fair fare

For those of you outside Minnesota, let me tell you: This is huge. Last year, nearly 1.7 million people attended the State Fair, in a state with a population of 5 million.

Being from L.A. originally, I can't say that tusked boy cows do much for me, but we're always on the lookout for new experiences for Dempsey. So when Helping Paws asked for volunteers to do a demonstration at the Fair, we signed Dempsey up.

Doreen and I had been to the fair a couple of years ago, and what we remembered most vividly, beyond the butter bust and the deep-fried Twinkie on a stick, was the traffic. Good Lord, the traffic.

Since I wanted to get to the big show on time, I left an hour early. But, as usual, I outsmarted myself, and arrived... an hour early. We were parked near where skateboarders and BMX bikers were doing stunts to Five Finger Death Punch. Hmm, not exactly soothing warm up music. With plenty of time to spare, we decided to relax with a little Patsy Cline in the air conditioned car.

We left twenty minutes to walk about 500 feet; it wasn't enough. We had just entered the fair when we saw a woman in a wheelchair waving at us. She wanted to meet Dempsey, who obliged, even doing an impromptu demonstration of his retrieving skills. Turns out everyone wanted to meet Dempsey.

Dempsey was looking up at me almost constantly for direction. Here was my little puppy, looking up to me (literally) for direction and reassurance. Not once did he jump up or back away -- such a brave little puppy! He even ignored all the people who -- despite Dempsey's bright blue pack, stating very clearly "Please don't pet" -- kept petting him as we walked, without asking.

Aargh. I was feeling very protective of Dempsey, and all the groping and unsolicited advances felt like... harassment. Well intentioned, but still. We'd heard this from graduates, but never experienced this ourselves. It was definitely an eye opener.

We finally made it to the demo area at 5:59. Just in the nick of time. Dempsey was so busy demonstrating his skills, he didn't have time to enjoy his tasty treat created in honor of the "Great Minnesota Get-Together," Peanut Butter Kong on a Stick. We let him share it with his sister Izzo when he got home. He's such a good brother!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

We have graduated!

Puppy parties, play dates, riding golf carts -- it might seem like all fun and games for Dempsey, but we're doing real work, too.
As proof: Dempsey has graduated!!! Not from the entire program, of course, but from the "Perfect Puppies" class. He is now in "Awesome Adolescents." This means that the focus of our training will be less on good manners, and more on service dog skills.
Dempsey has already learned a few service dog skills, though they still need a lot of polishing (and not with doggie slobber, thank you very much). Here's a sneak peek at some of the skills we're working on.
Dempsey will use "tug" to help people take off socks, gloves, mittens, etc. Since Dempsey loves chewing on socks, we thought this would be a hard one for him, but he's mastering it quite well.

Light switch

Dempsey is learning to turn lights on and off. Well, not lights just yet, just the switch. (He still slobbers a lot, which is not a good thing with a live circuit.)


Dempsey is learning to retrieve a bunch of different objects: a bicycle lock, a can of tuna fish, keys, plastic salad tongs, medicine bottles, shoes, sunglasses, wallet, anything that you can possibly drop. (And believe me, I can drop a lot of things.) We're also adding complications, such as fishing things out from under the sofa, since it's a law of the universe that when you drop something, it will roll someplace not easily accessible. At this point, we're proudest of the credit card. It's hard to pick up, but Dempsey gets it!

On top of all this, we're still taking Dempsey someplace almost every day to train. We put more thought into this than might be obvious. For example, for pet stores, we don't just take Dempsey to the big national chains. To make sure Dempsey is comfortable in any setting, we also look for quirky little local stores, from hipster joints like Urbanimal ("Can I give your dog a hemp cookie?") to fancy-schmancy stores like Lulu & Luigi ("Would Dempsey like a jewel-studded collar?")

It's a big world out there, and we want Dempsey to grow up to be a cosmopolitan dog, at home in the world.

Puppy party!

Dempsey went to a puppy party Monday night, his first, since he missed Boston's party earlier this summer.

I have to say, I was quite impressed, not just at the sight of 10 puppies zooming around the yard, but at how polite and well behaved all the pups were. When you think about it, we had a quarter ton of dogs running around, and yet no one got knocked over, no food was stolen, nothing got trashed, and there were no fights. This is more than I can say for some of the parties that I used to, um, hear about.

The picture above is an example. Marie baked up some special doggie treats and was passing them out to the puppies. Everybody stood and waited patiently (more or less) for their turn. (That's Dempsey, BTW, sitting alone to the right.) It looked like feeding pigeons, though the puppies were much better behaved. And cuter.

Here's a picture of Angel getting the rope to play tug:

And here are Angel and Dempsey playing tug, without tugging. (Did I mention how polite everyone was?)

A pile of puppies. I've given up trying to ID everyone.

Dempsey taking a break by his favorite toy:

Angel (top) and Sawyer (bottom) taking a break:

Ooh, new arrivals!

After the picnic, we all headed down to the St Croix River for a swimming lesson. Dempsey, you may recall, was quite the aquaphobe, but I thought seeing his siblings swimming would help him get over his fear of water. It did not.

I finally had to "baptize" him by taking him into the river and dunking him. Dempsey did swim at that point -- straight back to shore.

I tried enticing him back in the water with a tennis ball, but no dice:

I told Dempsey he'll miss a lot of fun in the Land of 10,000 Lakes if he doesn't swim, but he disagreed. I think he likes being a fancy, city dog.

Thanks to Rugby for hosting the party! Except for the swimming, Dempsey had a lot of fun.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lonesome dog blues

Dempsey had a ball last week when her sister Nala was visiting. Now that she's gone, Dempsey seems a little sad and lonesome. Here are some "before" and "after" pics.

Nala and Dempsey were incapable of walking anywhere. Even for bathroom breaks, they would run out and leap down the steps. Since their bones are still developing, we didn't let them leap very often, but we figured a few times would help build their bone density. Below is a rare shot of the leaping dogs. Just make sure you look closely -- they fly by pretty fast.

Towards the end of the week, the kids got a lot better at sharing their toys. Here they are calmly chewing their own toys, instead of fighting for the toy the other one has.

Of course, the detente was temporary. Here they realize that they could be wrestling instead of playing quietly by themselves. They started chasing each other around the house again, till they pooped each other out and took a nap.

After Nala left, we tried cheering Dempsey up with some of the (hopefully) durable new toys we bought for him. It worked -- for a while. It's just not the same without a little friend to chase around and play with!