Tuesday, October 13, 2009

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!

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