Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lassie vs Sandy

Well. As Dempsey's parents, we like to think he is #1 dog, but every once in a very long while, we get evidence to the contrary.

This week's evidence comes from his retired colleague Kenya, who we learned will be playing the role of Sandy in a production of "Annie."

I joked to Kenya's mom that we weren't that impressed, since Dempsey was hard at work on a science project -- a little something extra for his application to Harvard.

That's when we learned that Kenya has already been to Harvard, where she "spoke" at graduation, winning kudos for giving the shortest speech: "Woof!"

Eh, big deal. As Dempsey's parents, we know logically this is not a fair comparison. Kenya is already retired, and Dempsey is still a puppy in training. He's just too young. Everybody knows Dempsey has the potential to go to Harvard. If someone takes him.

Harvard, schmarvard. That was just a joke! The real test is a canine skills test, and I think Dempsey can do better than be Sandy. He can be Lassie.

Sandy is cool and all, I guess, but really -- has she ever saved Timmy from a well? And Lassie, unlike Sandy, is "one of only three animals to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame," according to Wikipedia. Eat your heart out, Sandy!

We're teaching Dempsey now to "go get help," i.e., do a Lassie. The idea is that he would run off, find someone, paw at him till he got that person's attention, and then lead him or her back. It's a pretty advanced behavior chain, and Dempsey is only at step 3: getting attention.

The problem is that Dempsey isn't clear yet that pawing is the only acceptable way for him to get somoene's attention. He's tried play bowing and barking, bringing a favorite toy and squeaking it, bringing his food bowl, ringing the bathroom bell, and rolling over for a belly rub. Gee, I wonder why Dempsey thinks these things will get people's attention?

Tonight, we had a little breakthrough. Now Dempsey tries leaping. It's not exactly the behavior we want, but a leaping dog is very likely to get someone's attention. Naturally we think this is further proof that Dempsey is a genius.

Let's see if your little McKinsey can learn that skill at Harvard! :-P

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Sit-In

(Editor's note: I had meant to write this for 9/11, but what can I say? I was too busy goofing off. Anyway, here it is. I don't think I'm saying anything controversial, but standard disclaimer applies: The views and opinions expressed in this post are strictly those of the blog author. The contents of this blog have not been reviewed or approved by Helping Paws, Inc.)

When I was a child, my parents took my sister and me on a family vacation to Mt. Rushmore. It was a memorable vacation, but what I remember most vividly is not the Presidents’ faces carved in the mountain, but a little restaurant somewhere in Wyoming.

A hushed silence fell over the restaurant when we entered, as everyone turned to look at us. I could plainly see a number of open tables, but the manager informed my parents they were reserved. After waiting half an hour, we were finally seated at a table in the corner, by the kitchen, the four of us squeezing into a tiny table obviously meant for two. From our tiny table in the corner, we continued to watch the waitresses seat and serve people who had arrived after we did. We asked a number of times, but we were never given menus: "I'm busy; I'll get them later."

After half hour of the cold shoulder, we left.

We were the only family in that restaurant who did not look like the cast from “Ozzie and Harriet.” Was it discrimination? I don’t know. What I do know is that I felt we were treated differently, and that we didn't feel welcome.

I got this same feeling the other day, when I took Dempsey on a training trip to the auto parts store. The manager wasn't happy to see Dempsey.

"Hey -- no dogs allowed!" the manager warned us as we entered.

"He's allowed to be here," I replied. He's a service dog in training."

"Oh yeah?"


The manager didn't ask us to leave -- which would be clearly illegal -- so Dempsey and I started training in the store, while the manager continued to glare at us.

"Are you going to buy anything?" he asked.

"Not today, thank you. I'm here to train the dog."  By Minnesota law, we're allowed to train in stores without buying anything. I typically buy a little something as a courtesy, but the way the manager asked, I decided I'd get my wiper fluid somewhere else.

"So you're just in here to walk the dog?"

"No," I replied, trying not to sound too irritated. "We're here to train. Dempsey is a service dog in training."

"Oh yeah?"


The phone rang, and as the manager walked off to answer it, I talked to Dempsey.

"Dempsey, today you're representing all service dogs. You have to be extra good."

Dempsey stared back at me intently, and I really think he understood. Though he has a tacky fascination with fuzzy dice, he did a perfect sit-stay right next to them, and when I "dropped" my keys under them, he retrieved them perfectly, with nary a sniff.

The fuzzy dice exercise over, we were ready to leave, but I thought we needed to affirm our right to be in the store. So Dempsey and I decided to stage a sit-in protest.

We walked up to the door, and I had Dempsey do a nice long sit-stay right next to it. He ignored all the customers coming and going, and he never once barked, sniffed, or tried to steal anything. He was a perfect, perfect little dog. After about ten minutes, we finally left -- by our choice.

I won't even pretend to be as courageous as the soldiers, patriots, and Freedom Riders who risked, and often gave, their lives to defend our freedoms. Ask me to be shot at, burned, tortured, or run out of town by a mob of pitchfork-wielding yokels, and I'd probably go hide under my bed. But I believe passionately in civil rights, and I like to think Dempsey and I made our stand that day with our little sit-in protest.

The last few times we’ve taken Dempsey to church, he’s fallen asleep, but that smart little boy seems to be learning something anyway. Last night while we were watching the news, he said to me, “Man looks on the outside, but dog looks in the heart.”

How true. Dempsey is devoting his life to helping someone who, like me, may not look like a “normal” American. Dempsey doesn’t care what color a person’s skin is, or how they worship, or whether they need to use a mobility device. If you’re a kind-hearted person, Dempsey will love you and help you.

As we reflect on anniversaries from the past and religious controversies in the present, I think we would do well to consider Dempsey's values, and his commitment to love, liberty, and justice for all.

(Except for squirrels -- Dempsey.)

Golf dog

Helping Paws was honored this year to be selected to receive the proceeds of the UnitedHealth Group Charity Golf Tournament.

I know the good folks at UHG do not like to publicize the golf tournament -- I think they are truly, humbly doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, and not for the PR -- but Dempsey needs to say thanks to UnitedHealth and their vendors for supporting Helping Paws, as well as the other worthy groups they support each year: Thank you very much! I know most people aren't in the habit of thanking insurance companies, but the good people at UnitedHealth genuinely deserve appreciation. (Full disclosure: Doreen works there. However, she did not make me say she deserves appreciation. ;-)

I would say the folks at UHG have no idea of how their gift touches lives, but they do. One of the speakers at the tournament was Angela, and her Helping Paws dog Milo. This year, Milo won an honorable mention in the "service dog" category at the American Kennel Club's Awards for Canine Excellence, for his work getting help for Angela when she broke her leg.

It happened late one night last autumn, when Angela was trying to transfer from her wheelchair to her bed. It's a maneuver she's performed thousands of times, but that night, she had a little too much momentum going in and -- snap! -- she found herself on the floor, pinned between her wheelchair and bed, in excruciating pain. Milo is trained to retrieve a phone during an emergency, but as luck would have it, Milo couldn't reach the phone the way Angela and the wheelchair were lying. Angela asked Milo to bark, but no dice: None of the neighbors heard him.

It seemed like the best Angela could hope for was to lie in agony, praying there was no internal bleeding, till somebody the next morning noticed she was missing. But the great thing about service dogs is that they're trained to quickly learn new skills, and to do things they may have never done before. And that's what Milo did. As Angela held onto Milo's collar, she asked him to go "back," and Milo dutifully dragged Angela into a position where she could reach the phone and call for help.

Even before Milo became a hero that night, he was Angela's best friend: There's a video on YouTube where Angela speaks about how much Milo means to her. (The "My Precious" picture frame, I think, is particularly darling.) In the video, she talks about how graduating from "team training" was just as meaningful to her as graduating with her doctorate.

Hearing these stories, and thinking about how generous people in our community have been, I'm more determined than ever to train Dempsey well. Last year, Dempsey's grandfather became the first golden retriever in history to win "law enforcement dog of the year" at the American Kennel Club. (In addition to finding hidden drugs and missing persons, Robin volunteers in his spare time at hospitals as a therapy dog. Oh, and before he started his police job, he was a champion show dog, too. Overachiever!) And of course this year, Dempsey's colleague Milo wins honorable mention for his service dog work. If Dempsey fails, I won't be able to blame either nature (Robin's genes) or nurture (the Helping Paws program).

I think for me, Dempsey's graduation will be more meaningful than my own graduation from college. Having stereotypical Asian parents, I always just expected I would graduate. But training a service dog, one who will be somebody's faithful friend, and maybe hero? Now that would be an accomplishment.

Sadly, we still have a long way to go. Dempsey did pretty well working at the golf tournament, till the very end. I'm not normally into crafts, but a UnitedHealth employee put together some adorable golf-ball dogs, which were the centerpieces at the tables. We were lucky enough to bring one home, but somebody thought it was a toy for him, and he accidentally docked the dog's golf-tee tail.

Oy vey. Forget about being a hero and winning medals, Dempsey; you still have a lot of work to do on basic doggie manners!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Musical musing

So I was folding laundry tonight, Dempsey asleep at my feet, bopping along to the Beatles, when Pandora picked a song I probably hadn't played in thirty years: John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)."

Right on cue, Dempsey twitched his legs and woke up, startled: doggie nightmare. I swear I'd only had one beer, but I found myself giving Dempsey a big hug, teary-eyed and overwhelmed.

I was only about eight years old when Double Fantasy was released, and though my musical taste at that age was pretty atrocious -- I sang along to the Bee Gees, and thought that Crystal Gayle had the coolest hair ever -- I clearly remember being disappointed with the record. Yoko Ono sounded like a wailing banshee (a judgment with which I still agree), but more importantly, I thought Lennon had gone McCartney, full of silly love songs.

I guess I'm now about the age Lennon was when he recorded Double Fantasy, and it makes more sense to me now, though it's still a bit too blissful for me -- I also listen to Hank Williams, after all. As a boy myself, "Beautiful Boy" was pure schmaltz, but now, looking at Dempsey, it's intensely meaningful. Doreen and I don't have any kids, but with Dempsey, I think I now have some idea of how fiercely you can love a little ankle-biting, mess-making monster.

How can we ever "give him up"? I think John answers it: "I can hardly wait/to see you come of age." Nothing would make me prouder than to see Dempsey graduate, pick a partner, get a job, and move out.

Our beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, darling boy.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dempsey's IQ test

One of the things Doreen and I are doing to try to raise Dempsey's doggie IQ is to give him puzzles. For example, when he gets one of his toys stuck under the sofa, we never pull it out for him, even if he asks. Instead, we keep the toy under the sofa, but move it to a place Dempsey can reach it, and we encourage Dempsey to keep trying. The hope is that we're teaching Dempsey persistence and problem-solving skills.

Dempsey's gotten pretty good at getting his toys, so we've introduced a new puzzle for him: Find the food. We've only played this five times, but we're wondering how many times it will take before Dempsey figures out he can just pick up the bowl to get the food, instead of sliding it against a wall. Any bets?

The interesting thing is that at the end of the game, when there's no food left, Dempsey knows to pick up the bowl and bring it to me for a reward. I wonder why he doesn't pick up the bowl first thing. I wish I knew what he was thinking sometimes.

A Viking, an otter, and a tower

Dempsey recently discovered a giant Viking. Of course, he didn’t discover it any more than Columbus “discovered” America – the Ojibwe could tell you that Big Ole has been there for years.

The “Alexandria” on Big Ole’s shield does not refer to Alexandria, Virginia, where Mt Vernon is located, but to Alexandria, Minnesota, where in the late 1800’s, during a Norse craze that swept America, Swedish immigrant Olaf Öhman claimed to have discovered the Kensington Runestone, which he said proves that Viking explorers settled in Minnesota in 1362.

Most scholars think the Kensington Runestone is only slightly more historic than Zeppelin IV, but it’s nonetheless the source of civic pride in Alexandria. Everywhere you go in Alexandria, there are businesses named “Viking” this or “Viking” that. But it's not just Alexandria. Many businesses here have “Viking” names or Viking imagery: Viking Carpet Cleaning, Viking Embroidery, Viking Blinds and Window Coverings, NordicWare.

I’m all for pride in one’s heritage, but this strikes me as funny. The Vikings: famous for raping, pillaging… and baking cupcakes.

Big Ole is not the only discovery Dempsey made that day. He also found the world’s largest fiberglass otter in Fergus Falls, seat of Otter Tail County, and the hometown of O.J. Simpson’s (living) girlfriend, whose father, curiously, runs a mental health clinic. (Interesting world we live in, no?)

Here's Dempsey by the giant otter, striking a pose:

Dempsey got in some good training that day, too. On the Lake Wobegon Trail in Avon, we found an observation tower which offers sweeping views of the prairie, from 20 feet up. Not exactly the Sears Tower, but with Doreen guarding the bottom of the stairs and me at the top, it was a great place to practice a tricky recall with Dempsey.

Stay tuned for more adventures, as I try blogging furiously to catch up.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sick puppy

Dempsey has been sick before, but he's never seemed sick. Worms, eye infections, allergies -- nothing had ever been able to slow Dempsey down. Today was different. After spewing watery, bright-orange diarrhea all day yesterday, Dempsey woke up this morning and vomited. And instead of running downstairs to grab a toy from his toybox, he stayed listlessly by our bed upstairs, uninterested even in his most favoritest squeaky toy.

Dempsey sees better, smells better, and hears better than we do, but we've always prided ourselves on having more sensitive pain receptors than Dempsey, which makes us superior. (Right?)  So when we saw something was laying Dempsey low, we were naturally quite worried, and took him to the vet first thing this morning.

Even in the vet's waiting room, Dempsey was lethargic, showing no interest at all in the cute girl doggies on their way to their grooming appointments. And when it was time to go to the exam room, Dempsey stopped responding to my cues altogether. "Step," "heel," "go ahead," "let's go" -- Dempsey just laid on the floor, unwilling to step onto the scale like he usually does. I was flummoxed.

"I think I know how to do it," said the vet tech. I expected she had a special trick to cajole Dempsey into stepping onto the scale, but instead she just bent down and shoved Dempsey into place.

Duh. It's been so long that Dempsey has been doing whatever I asked him, I'd completely forgotten that with most dogs at the vet, you have to wrestle them into position. I didn't appreciate what a pleasure it is to have a well-trained dog.

Of course, when Dempsey wouldn't step onto the scale, or stand to have his temperature taken, or roll over for his tummy exam, or sit while the vet checked out his gums, I became convinced something was gravely wrong with our little boy: Had he become infected with something that caused brain damage??? (No, it's just gastroenteritis.)

Doreen was very worried, too. Though tonight was class night, Doreen stayed home with our boy, giving him massages and standing by in case he needed to run to the bathroom.

When I came home after class, the tables had been turned. It must have been something she ate, because Doreen was now the sick one, nauseous and vomiting. And Dempsey? He was right by her side, wagging his tail, giving her kisses and snuggles, and doing his doggie best to make her feel better.

I got into a "discussion" the other day with an "animal rights" activist who accused me of "enslaving" Dempsey. (Ha! As if!) I think she fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between a service dog and his person. A dog will only help you if he trusts you and knows that you really love him. It really is a service dog "team." Though we don't always know what to do to make each other feel better, Dempsey, Doreen, and I do our best.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

And now a word for our sponsors

In the last couple of weeks, Dempsey has participated in a couple of events that have helped raise money for Helping Paws. Dempsey would like to take a moment now for a word for our sponsors: Thanks!!!

The first event was a fun little demonstration for the Kiwanis Club of Edina. Dempsey got to show off his skills opening doors, flipping light switches, retrieving objects, and tugging off gloves and jackets. He also got to talk about Helping Paws, and how they will help him further the independence of someone with a physical disability.

Dempsey wasn't expecting anything except for some pets and snuggles, but the good folks of the Kiwanis Club presented him with a certificate, a special pen, and a check! Dempsey would like to thank the Kiwanis Club of Edina for their very generous support!

The other event Dempsey participated in was the annual Tail Waggin' Dinner, where Dempsey volunteered as a greeter, directing people to the registration table.

The theme of this year's dinner was "Paint the Town Blue," and one of the auction items was a painting made by the dogs of Helping Paws. Dempsey contributed to that, too, in his own way.

Most of the dogs were into Pollock-esque action painting, smearing paint onto the canvas with their tails, but Dempsey was more influenced by Rauschenberg: When it was his turn to paint, he decided to make a combine by knocking the canvas down onto the grass, and then rolling around in it, mixing in blades of grass with the paint. Oh well. At least he's not a conceptualist.

At the dinner, Dempsey pretended he was at a show opening, dressed up in black tie, and talking to potential collectors about his work. Alas, his sophisticated image was marred by the fact that he was wearing his black tie sideways.


When we saw the finished painting at the dinner, I have to admit I was pretty impressed. It's not exactly a Pollock, but it's not a bad piece of abstract expressionism. Dempsey persuaded Doreen to try to bid on the painting, but the bidding went up much faster than we anticipated, and we lost the bid.

We did, however, pick up a puppy! After hearing a speech by Angie, a Helping Paws client who spoke very movingly about how having a service dog has improved her life, we got teary-eyed, and wrote Helping Paws another check. We are now proud partial sponsors of Walter, Dempsey's little brother! (A full sponsorship is $5,000, which covers the hard costs of training a service dog.)

We babysat Walter a few weeks ago, and we fell head over heels in love with him. Though we get to see Walter pretty frequently, it still feels special to say that he's "our" dog, too.

Dempsey would like to thank all the generous sponsors that contributed to the success of the dinner. He sends kisses and snuggles to everyone!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"We are not pleased"

Dempsey has been tired from all his adventures, but he still finds ways to make mischief.

The other night, Buddy discovered Dempsey napping in his favorite spot on the bed. Buddy helped us show disapproval to Dempsey before we kicked him off.

A pooped pup

We haven't updated the blog lately, because Dempesy has been a very busy boy: the State Fair, two demos, the Helping Paws gala, sleepovers with his Helping Paws pals, learning new skills ("go get help" and "clean up"), day trips and hikes, and yet another haircut for Buddy the cat.

We'll be blogging all these adventures shortly, but meantime, here's some proof of what a popped pup we have.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Despite the fact that we're very nice to him, Buddy the cat is always trying to escape when I go in the backyard.

Luckily, we often have two doggies here, who act as Cerberus, guarding the gates. I tried getting a picture of Angel and Dempsey when they were wrestling by the door and looking a lot like a 2-headed Cerberus, but of course they moved by the time I got the camera: "We're good little doggies!"

I'm not sure the Greeks had Golden Retrievers in mind when they imagined the guard dogs of hell, but I found some goldens in New York that may have had a shot at the job.