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Friday, February 27, 2009

Big Pawprints to Fill

Thursday bright and early we loaded Duck and Trix, Charissa & Katharine, and both us parents into the van for a trip to the Guide Dogs of Texas training center in San Antonio. You know there's gotta be something special going on to warrant this kind of large-scale migration!

Willie, our last guide dog puppy, has successfully completed his training and been matched with a client. Imagine my excitement when Michelle asked me if I'd be interested in coming down, seeing Willie, and doing a blindfold walk with him! After all the sleepless nights with him as a puppy, all our ups and downs in training, and countless walks together, it was an incredibly moving experience to work with him in harness, trusting that he would do his job and see me through!

Sarah, Willie's trainer, has done a fabulous job with him and I was so impressed. She came along with us the whole way -- for my sake, not Willie's! Willie knows exactly what his job is. I, on the other hand, am not very good at being blind! Here Sarah starts off showing me how to hold the handle and leash together.

"Wait, Sarah -- I can't see a thing!" I learned quickly that "blindfold" is a eupehemism for "total face mask." My eyes were open the whole time but I couldn't see at all, not even light. It became a challenge just to keep my balance, much less walk in a straight line! All of a sudden, I was thankful for Willie in a whole new way. But since he can't talk, I was pretty glad Sarah was there too to explain it all!

I may as well come clean and admit that I did fall down. In fact, it was the very first thing I did! Willie didn't steer me wrong or anything -- I just sort of lost my footing all on my own. I found the darkness disorienting and kept sticking my right hand out for balance. But I was fine and the rest of the walk went well.

Along this stretch Willie kept my head from hitting low branches, as well as steering me around the bushes that you can see hanging across the sidewalk a bit.

As we came to a curb, Willie sat and Sarah explained how to slide my foot forward while holding my arm back -- I think they call this "position two." There were so many things to think about at once!

In the insecurity of not being able to see, I constantly felt as if we were cruising along at breakneck pace. As you can see from this little clip, we were actually doing more of a geriatric stroll. I'm sure Willie wondered how I got to be such a slowpoke.

Here Willie stops at a step-up and waits for me to figure out how high it is. Good boy!

This next little maneuver may not look like much, but let me tell you, it was TERRIFYING! Leaving the sidewalk for a rougher and (to me) more unpredictable surface is hard to do. But as you can see, there was a reason. Willie carefully guided me off the sidewalk so I wouldn't scratch my face on the bushes, while keeping enough to the center so that I didn't hit any overhanging branches from the other side either.

Isn't this just the BIG-
GEST curb you have ever seen in your life?! Notice how Willie stops way far back and
stre-e-etches to reach the edge with his tippy toes. That gives me a whole dog length to stop safely so I don't trip on the edge and go flying. I could really feel in the handle how he was stretching up, which helped me know it would be a tall step.

Here we're making a turn...

...and crossing a street where the corners are rounded. Just everyday obstacles, but they take on a whole new significance when you can't see. Sarah took us on a pretty challenging course (at least for a beginner like me!) and we really got to encounter it all...crowds of kids, barking dogs, and all kinds of other situations. It was an amazing feeling to experience first-hand how all the pieces of our training have come together to produce this amazing dog who just loves his work and does it so well. He makes me so proud!

Meanwhile, Tim and the kids followed along in the training van so they could watch without distracting Willie from his work. It was a great experience for all of us.

And what, you may ask, did Dakota do while all this was going on? He and Trixie got to hang out with Sandy, the head trainer, in her office. I understand he escaped over the puppy gate...twice... but nevertheless managed to have a lovely time and even got some special doggie treats out of the bargain! Well, he certainly has something to live up to now! He is such a smart and confident little guy, and already does so well, that I know he'll make us proud too. Here's a doggy kiss -- see ya later!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Double Doodle

That's right, it's double trouble around the Lord household these days! That's because we're temporarily keeping Trixie, another GDTx puppy-in-training from Dixie's Doodles
( ). Don't be deceived by her small size -- Trixie is actually older than Dakota and is just making the transition from her puppy raising stage to advanced work at the training center in San Antonio. Like Dakota, she's smart as a tack and enjoys her work.

Look at that nice double "down!" These two are hilarious together because they're a lot alike. Very competitive. At first, Trixie wasn't so sure about doing "sit" and "down" in front of Dakota, probably because it seemed too submissive and she really wants to be top dog. But pretty soon she noticed that he was getting all the treats and praise and...well, that was totally unacceptable! So now they've started trying to outdo each other. It's like having two kids trying to be your favorite all the time!

The two of them play til they're tuckered out, take a long nap, and then hit it again. By the time I get around to taking them out for walks they're pretty mellow. Trixie lets Dakota win some games, but he has learned a couple of things: don't mess with her food, and don't mess with her kong! It may just be a piece of red rubber to us, but in Trixie's world the kong is sacred! She lives for the joy of kong-fetching and kong-chewing.

Since Trixie is starting her advanced training, she gets to wear a leather harness in place of the blue puppy jacket. Here we are at the Post Office...I think she's pretty proud of herself.

In the meantime, Dakota's thinking, "Hey, wasn't this blog supposed to be about me?" So I'll close with another picture of him just to keep the peace. We're proud of you, little Duckie!

Don't miss next week's edition -- I have something special to share with you!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stylin' for Success

Wednesday, we headed downtown to meet Michelle for a training walk. The great thing about downtown walks is that you never know what you're in for. At various times we've encountered protest marches, tour groups, heavy machinery, emergency vehicles, and of course other dogs. You can almost always count on running across a street musician. And then last week, while we were sitting nicely at a curb waiting for the walk signal, a man riding a bike leaned over and patted Duckie on the head as he whizzed by! Go figure.

Dakota adores Michelle and got a little too excited when we met up, as you can see! But we stopped in at Starbucks before heading out to walk and while the people got caffeine and sugar levels up, he worked on calming down. After that, things went pretty well.

One thing Dakota really needs to work on is his "overheads." It will be his job not only to guide safely around street-level obstacles, but also to avoid any overhanging obstacles (tree limbs, etc.) which would be a hazard to his blind partner. This is a pretty tall order for a dog currently only 18" at the shoulder! He's really going to have to watch ahead and develop the habit of looking up. We were talking about it with Michelle, and decided that he could use a haircut to help clear that peripheral vision a little. His cute bushy doodle fur hangs around his eyes so that he'd have to kind of crane his neck to see up. Here are a couple of "before" shots.

Getting a little shaggy there!

This isn't Dakota's first furcut, and he's learned to tolerate it, but it's not his favorite thing. I decided to be conservative with the trimmers at first, being kind of new at this dog clipping thing, and figuring it'll be easy to go back and cut off more if need be.

All done! It's not drastically different, but I can really see his eyes a lot better now. Hopefully that will make his work a little easier for him.

Time to go outside and play!

Saturday, February 7, 2009


There's a lot more to puppy raising than the training walks. A lot of Dakota's growing up happens right here at home. And he's been giving us an education of sorts, too -- in doodling.

doodle -- vb To live with a labradoodle.

Okay, so you might not find that one in your Webster's. But what else do you call it? There's sure a lot about Dakota that's new for us.

His attitude toward food, for example...Our last puppy, Willie, just lived to eat. I don't know, maybe most labradoodles do too, but this one just doesn't care very much about food one way or the other. In fact, it took him quite a while to take any treats at all on his training walks. At this age, the guide dog puppies are still supposed to be on two meals a day, but a while ago Dakota just up and decided he was done with breakfast. After some trial and error we figured out that we can still "trick" him into eating breakfast if, instead of giving it to him in his dish, we have him do some obedience work in the morning and give him his food as a "reward." Strange but true! At dinner time we feed him his meal; he leisurely eats about half of it; then he comes and tries to cuddle up to someone with his soggy beard before going and finishing the rest. He's perfectly healthy...I guess he'll just never have to worry about his weight!

Another interesting thing about Dakota is that he is much more touch-sensitive than our lab was. Maybe it has to do with his fleecy fur. We'll be walking along on a breezy day when the wind lifts a corner of his jacket and kind of flaps it up and he'll just whip around and nip at it. Or, more often, if I don't get the jacket adjusted just right before the walk, Mr. Sensitive starts kicking at the strap with one hind leg, all the while trying to keep up with me on the other three legs! I've tried to explain to him that this does not help people to take him seriously as a guide dog, but I think he actually enjoys it if people laugh at him! Let's hope he outgrows this little stunt.

Dakota's pretty sensitive to sounds, too. He wears a tag silencer over his dog tags (see right) or I think he actually might lose his mind. Come to think of it, I love the silencer myself so I'll have to agree with him on that one.

But his most dominant personality trait is that he just adores people. He lives to cuddle, love, snuggle and all that good stuff...and absolutely 100% wants to please you. Now if we can just channel that desire I think we could have a pretty good guide dog here! What do you think?