Monday, April 26, 2010

Travels with Dempsey

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. ...Nothing has worked. I fear the disease is incurable.
-- John Steinbeck
Travels with Charley

Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck's memoir of his cross-country trip with his poodle Charley. It's been years since I've read it, but I thought of it this afternoon, as I was driving down U.S. 10 (the same road Steinbeck took 50 years before), with Dempsey snoozing in the back seat.

I was bored this morning, feeling the same restlessness Steinbeck described. So I whipped out my trusty road atlas, looked for a little pink square indicating a "point of interest," and drove there. Today's pick:  the "Paul Bunyan & Blue Ox Statue" in Bemidji, Minnesota.

It's not clear to me why Bemidji's Bunyan gets a pink square, but not the Brainerd Bunyan just down the road. Bemidji's Bunyan and Babe are rather crudely made, but since I'd driven four hours to experience a big Bunyan, I thought I should at least get a picture of it:

Across the street from Bemidji Bunyan is a Chippewa fellow, who appears to be waving at Bunyan and Babe (look near the car on the left). Though he's about the same size as the big Bunyan, the road atlas does not grant him a a pink square.

The most interesting thing we saw today was not in the road atlas. It was a Mahindra Pik-Up,  a small truck from India which apparently is going to be sold here in America. This one had Michigan plates, a big yellow bumper sticker saying "TEST VEHICLE," a broken badge reading "ahindra," and a dent in the front fender. In the automotive press, all I hear about is Nano, Nano, Nano, so it was a fun little surprise to see a Mahindra here.

I also tried a little experiment today on our trip: teaching Dempsey to clean up after himself. He already knows how to "put" his toys in his toybox, and he can "put" dropped silverware back on the table. Alas, his "put" is still more like a "drop it now," and his aim is pretty bad:

I wish I could write something about our trip that's as insightful as what Steinbeck wrote about his, but with my teeny little brain, I'll settle for common sense. Here are today's lessons learned:

1. Don't necessarily trust pink squares.
2. Poop bags will break open and spill their contents if you drop them more than 5 times in a row.
3. It is best to practice Dempsey's "puts" with something other than a poop bag.

I would say those are valuable lessons, don't you think?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bad to the bone

We now have proof that Dempsey is bad to the bone:

Actually, Dempsey is bad to all his toys, chewing and/or disemboweling them mercilessly. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Whenever we leave the house now, we're careful to leave his kennel door slightly ajar, and place his chewed-up Nylabones in prominent view by the windows. It's our way of telling would-be burglars that a creature with very strong jaws lives here.

This is particularly helpful because, as many dog experts have pointed out, Golden Retrievers are probably the world's worst watchdogs. True to his breed, Dempsey rarely barks, never bites, and is very apt to kiss someone the first time he meets them. We feel that having chewed-up toys lying around is much more effective than a "Beware of Golden Retriever" sign.

Here's what I mean. Check out this picture of the boys by the front door, after I told them to watch it while I went out back to get a garbage bag.

Buddy is intently focused on a harmless little bird, while Dempsey has his most fearsome face on. And though you can't tell from the picture, Dempsey was wagging his tail, too. Worthless watchpets!

The biggest problem with Dempsey's chewing isn't his toys, but his leash. Whenever he gets bored, he starts chewing his leash. At first we thought it might be teething, or stress, but I did a little experiment, and Dempsey chews his leash at home, too.

We've started trying to train out the leash chewing at home, which is probably the most boring thing I've tried to teach Dempsey. It's going ok, but unfortunately I've discovered Dempsey is not the only one who likes to chew his leash.

It looks like our little beasts might really be bad to the bone.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dog Spock

When I first got Dempsey, I never thought training a service dog would teach me anything about child-rearing. I changed my mind the other night, when Dempsey started barking in the dollar store.

It all started when we were waiting in line to buy some bubble gum. There was a little boy ahead of us, maybe about five years old, who started pleading with his mother for some gum: “P-l-e-e-e-a-s-e, I want gum! Just gum! Please Mom, please!”

Mom said no, but the line was long, and the little boy kept pleading. Finally, Mom relented and said yes.

As Nancy, our instructor, has often told us, “You get what you click.” The little boy wasn’t stupid. He’d just learned that persistent whining will get you a treat.

He applied this lesson immediately, by asking for some candy, too. Mom said no. The boy kept whining, louder and louder, and finally threw a temper tantrum.

“I want this one!” he screamed, grabbing a box of candy and throwing it on the floor. “And this one!” He threw that on the floor, too.

Dempsey, I’m proud to say, was a good little boy, staying dropped on the floor by my feet. He was curious, cocking his head, but he stayed put.

Mom wasn’t as patient. She reached down and hit her son.

It was at this point Dempsey jumped up and started barking. He’d never seen anyone get hit before, and he knew it wasn’t right.

Mom yelled at her wailing son. “Shut up! Put the candy back! And put the gum back, too!”

“No! My gum!” The little boy wasn’t about to give up his hard-earned prize. He held it tight.

Mom reached down again and wrestled with her son, finally prying the gum from his hands. The little boy cried: “My gum! My gum!” Mom hit him again. The boy wailed again.

Dempsey didn’t bark this time – I had gotten him to drop again, and was treating him for quietly staying put – but he kept watching as Mom picked up her son, flailing and wailing, and carried him out the store, leaving the boxes of candy and gum strewn on the floor.

Well. It was now our turn, so I asked Dempsey to step forward to the register, and he did, neatly sidestepping a box of candy.

“Your dog is better behaved than that kid,” said the woman behind me.

“I never hit my dog,” I replied.

Which is true, but there’s so much more than that. When Dempsey used to ask for rawhides at the pet store, I said no, and I meant no. It was exhausting the first few times, but Dempsey has learned that “no” means “no,” and that his best bet for earning prizes is to do what I ask him. I never give him something, and then try wrenching it back. And I’d never even taken him to a dollar store until he was over a year old, and had learned how to behave in public.

I’m trying hard not to be sanctimonious, but I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if everyone had the skills I’ve learned from Helping Paws.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dempsey's architecture tour: Part 1

Over the last few days, Dempsey has spent almost 8 hours at the most historic building in Minnesota: Southdale Mall.

Designed by Victor Gruen, whom Malcolm Gladwell argues may be "the most influential architect of the twentieth century," Southdale was the world's first shopping mall. It was built in 1954-5 by the Dayton Corporation, which is now better known as Target.

Gladwell said Southdale doesn't feel historic, but compared to South Coast Plaza, the only other Gruen-designed mall I've visited, it feels a bit past its prime.

Dempsey carried his little blue bag around the mall, but he couldn't find anything to buy. Of course, it doesn't help that he doesn't have any money, since he will only work for food.

Luckily, Dempsey didn't go to Southdale for the shopping. He was there on Saturday volunteering for the ADI Public Access test, which every Helping Paws team is required to pass. Dempsey was the "distracter dog," and it was his job to walk around outside, about six feet away from the dog being tested.

It was an easy day for Dempsey. Being a "civilian," he was out of uniform, which meant he had a lower standard for good behavior. It was a much bigger deal for the dogs being tested. Every one of them looked liked show dogs, having been bathed and brushed the day before. Dempsey, being a boy, forgot to bathe and brush himself that morning, and he looked a little unkempt by comparison.

His second trip to Southdale was last night, for a class field trip. The field trip ended with a visit to the food court, where all the dogs sat quietly under tables while we ate a snack. We tried taking a picture of the pack of dogs being good, but since they were all under the tables, it's hard to see anything. You'll just have to trust us that it looked really impressive!

Now that Dempsey is older and has been approved to go more places, we're planning to continue his architecture education by taking him to some of our favorite buildings in Minnesota. Stay tuned for more pics from Dempsey's architecture tour!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Buddy update

When Dempsey is out training in public, we're sometimes asked why Helping Paws has a breeding program, instead of rescuing dogs and training them. I don't know what the official reason is, but I have a good guess now: Buddy.

You'll notice Buddy boy is now sporting a "lion cut." This is not because we think it's cute -- it's actually quite ridiculous --  but because we had no choice.

Buddy's fur was pretty matted, and he doesn't like getting brushed. We called the patient and kind Ms. Megan, our favorite cat groomer, to make a grooming visit to our house. No dice: Buddy quite literally screamed and knocked over the portable grooming table. Megan suggested bringing Buddy to her regular salon, where she has a fixed grooming table, elbow-length welding gloves, the "cone of shame," and probably a chair and a whip.

Before the visit, we tried giving Buddy some Benadryl to calm him down. In fact, we started trying, unsuccessfully, several days before his appointment. We put the Benadryl in a Greenies pill pocket, tried mixing it with his favorite kitty gravy, mixed it with his favorite salmon treat, and -- worst of all -- made a slurry that I tried giving him orally with a syringe. Ouch.

Poor patient Megan had to work with an unsedated Buddy, who, stressed out, had three poop and pee accidents in the salon. Megan was pretty embarrassed by the uneven results, but we were happy she tried so hard to remove Buddy's painful mats.

Unlike Dempsey, who sits happily to have his ears and teeth cleaned, and who will even work for medicine, Buddy was not well socialized as a kitty. And since we don't know his history, we don't know exactly why he gets so freaked out when we try to handle him. It makes it challenging to take care of him.

Getting back to Helping Paws, I think the reason why they have a breeding program instead of using resuce dogs is that there's so much more control over how the dogs are raised and socialized. And since the trainers are all volunteers, it's much easier to have "standardized" puppies, rather than a bunch of individuals, each with unique issues that need to be addressed. In addition to the training challenges, there's the time issue. There's a waiting list for service dogs, and the less time is spent on improving basic socialization, the more time there is to train real skills and get the dogs graduated sooner.

Which brings us back to Buddy. When we first got him, I had dreams of clicker training him to do tricks. That is a dream deferred. We've spent most of his food trying to socialize him and build trust: getting his tummy brushed, walking calmly into his kennel, wearing his new harness and leash so he can go explore outside. We've made progress: I was able to clean his ears the other day, and he'll walk into his kennel now, though he still complains a bit if I carry the kennel to the car.

Buddy isn't a monster, but it'll take some time to train the basics with him. And since he's on a diet -- Buddy, like most cats in America, was overweight when we got him -- it'll take even longer with his limited calorie allotment.

He's pretty cute, though. When he wants to play, he'll bring his toys to me and drop them at my feet. He and Dempsey have started playing together, and Buddy even knows his name and comes when you call him. And, like Dempsey, he likes getting his picture taken.

Buddy is not a stupid cat, and I think he's trainable. It's just going to take us a while to get there.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Doing the dog petal

Spring (fever) is here! While the cherry blossoms are blooming in Washington, DC and 7 million tulips are blooming at Keukenhof, it's still bare here in Minnesota.

We really shouldn't complain. This March was the first since 1878 that no snow fell. About this time last year, our neighbors were putting up an Easter bunny... snowman. We're still trying to adjust to how cold it is in Minnesota.

But still: A lack of snow alone does not spring make. We need flowers!

Fortunately, there are places to see flowers in the spring. On Easter Sunday, we took Dempsey to the spring flower show at the Como Park Conservatory. It was packed, but Dempsey did beautifully. His best, though least interesting, skill was staying out of the way, and ignoring all the people who ignored the "Please Don't Pet" sign he has on his pack.

You can't tell from this picture, but Dempsey stayed close without me pulling on his leash:

And now that he's older, Dempsey can enjoy flowers without eating them.

We thought the temperature in the greenhouse was fabulous, but after about half an hour, Minnesota-born Dempsey disagreed.

The most fun skill we practiced was "switch": having Dempsey get up on his hind legs, and push a switch with his front paws to open a door. At the conservatory, there are two open-air elevators -- wheelchair lifts, really -- that take people down to the sunken garden.

Unfortunately, only one of them was working on Easter. Normally, this isn't too big a deal: When you finish walking around the garden, you can just turn around and go back. But not with the crowds on Easter Sunday -- going backwards, you'd be paddling hard upstream.

The really unfortunate thing is, we saw a woman in a wheelchair who had to do this. She didn't know that the "up" elevator wasn't working, so after she got to the end of the sunken garden, she had to turn her wheelchair around, and then go back, against the crowd, to the only working elevator. And because she had limited hand mobility, she was steering with her teeth.

I'm still stunned at how well she maneuvered a large, 500-pound wheelchair down a narrow path without hitting anyone. There's a good reason why the rehabilitation and resource center in Minnesota is called the Courage Center: It takes a lot of skill, determination, and courage to go places when you face so many barriers. Whenever I get selfish and think I'd like to keep Dempsey for myself, I'll think of that woman.

Though they're nothing like the challenges the woman in the wheelchair faced, Dempsey had his own challenge at the Macy's flower show: the door switched mounted on a glass wall.

The first time I asked Dempsey to rise and activate a switch on a glass wall, he just stared at the switch. Then he looked at me, smiled, and wagged his tail: This is a joke, right?

Apparently, the glass-mounted door switch is the doggie equivalent of the visual cliff. We had to practice a lot at home on the sliding glass door, with lots of treats, praise, and encouragement, but Dempsey can now activate a switch that's mounted above glass:

Dempsey seems to know that pushing the switch opens the door. Sometimes, when he hasn't pressed hard enough, he'll jump up again on his own, and, staring at the door, pound the switch with his paws until the door opens. We didn't get this on video, but it's really cute. He reminds me of Snoopy: BAM, BAM, BAM.

Dempsey was an angel at the Macy's flower show, and we were actually able to enjoy the flowers without watching Dempsey 100% of the time.

Happy spring everyone!

Monday, April 5, 2010

The final four

We're happy to report that Helping Paws has made it to the Final Four in Razoo's March Goodness giving campaign!

This means that Helping Paws was one of the top 4 charities in the country in the previous round, and is now competing to raise the most dollars, with a chance to win a $10,000 grant. The Final Four runs through 11:59pm EDT, April 6. We'd like to ask that you please consider making a donation to Helping Paws through the Razoo Website and help us win the $10,000 grant.

Here's a YouTube video (featuring some of Dempsey's new brothers and sisters!) that describes the good work Helping Paws does for people with physical disabilities.


Since there's a very good chance you're a dog lover like us, I'd like to add my own two cents to the "official" appeal. In their communications, Helping Paws focuses on how much service dogs help people. What isn't emphasized is how much Helping Paws does for the dogs.

Every Helping Paws dog comes with free, lifetime "tech support," 24/7. This is not something that can be easily outsourced overseas. Helping Paws has on staff two paid "client services coordinators," whose job
is to visit clients' homes and help with any dog-related issues.
  • Do you have a new, specialized skill you'd like to teach your service dog? Helping Paws will help!
  • Is your dog starting to do things he knows he's not supposed to do, like jumping on the bed? (Sound familiar, Dempsey?) Helping Paws will help!
  • Did you have a medical emergency, and are now in the hospital with no one to take care of your service dog? Helping Paws will help!
  • Were you illegally discriminated against by a business that denied entry to your service dog? Helping Paws will help!
In addition, Helping Paws maintains an emergency fund for service dogs. Many of the people who receive Helping Paws service dogs are on fixed incomes. In an emergency, it may be difficult for them to pay for proper veterinary care, or even essentials like dog food. Helping Paws will help!

Helping Paws really approaches their mission with a view to the whole life of the dogs. The client services coordinators evaluate the health of the dogs, and help decide when a service dog should retire. And when a dog retires, Helping Paws will find a good "retirement home." Helping Paws dogs do not work till they die, and they will never end up, old and unwanted, in an animal shelter. They will always, always have a good life.

Service dogs really do so much for the people who get them, and Helping Paws does a lot for these dogs. We really believe in the cause, and we hope you're able to make a contribution to the little helping paws at Helping Paws.

Thank you so much!!!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Happy Easter!

Now that Dempsey knows how to "carry" an object, he volunteered to deliver Easter baskets this year. Of course, we didn't tell him that the Easter bunny has to have rabbit ears. He wasn't too happy with the pink rabbit ears we got, which he says makes him look like a Playboy bunny.

Dempsey is an expert at carrying bags and buckets -- when they're empty. Before Dempsey starts his courier business, he needs to practice a bit more on carrying bags and buckets with stuff in them.

It's still a big improvement from last year, when all Dempsey could do was break eggs.

Dempsey's basket this year had some of his favorite treats, a new Nylabone, and a giant tennis ball.

We thought the giant tennis ball was too big for him to chew, but apparently not. We're hoping it will last at least a couple of days.

Happy Easter everyone!