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!