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Monday, September 28, 2009

Busy Days

As we've been introducing Dakota to scent work lately, it's occurred to me that his guide dog experience is a terrific basis for the new work. Guide work, even just the basic work that we puppy raisers do, really teaches the dogs to think for themselves. Guide dogs know lots of commands, but what really sets them apart in my mind is that they do the bulk of their work "on their own" -- they must make appropriate decisions without commands from the human partner. Sitting at curbs, slowing down for changes in footing, avoiding overhead obstacles -- it's all up to the dog to negotiate using his own judgment.

In the same way, right now we're teaching Dakota to recognize the scent associated with "high" and "low" blood sugars, and linking a distinctive alert to each one. But the key is that eventually those scents will become their own cue for an alert -- he'll have to decide to give the alert with no command from his handler. Having seen his ability to handle basic guide work in this way, I know he's got it in will just take lots of work and practice. I'm really thrilled that we get to be involved in his basic training and we're extremely excited with his progress!

In the meantime, we're keeping up lots of obedience work and socialization, as usual. With October just around the corner, Halloween displays are everywhere. Dakota didn't know what to think of this sinister-looking character. He was so curious and wanted to sniff her, but...what a scary cackle!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Art Appreciation for Dogs

Dakota's scent training for diabetic alert work began this past Thursday, and we're thrilled with his response.  He's naturally curious and eager to please, and so far we're also impressed with his nose...keep up the good work, Duckie!

Switching gears a little...Dakota celebrated Austin's "free museum day" by going along with us Sunday to Austin's beautiful Blanton Museum of Art.  The folks at the Blanton were very welcoming of him as a service dog and radioed ahead so that none of the docents would be taken by surprise when we walked in.  We enjoyed the wide array of exhibits while Dakota sat politely and people-watched.  He pretty much ignored the two-dimensional art, but the sculptures fascinated him.  His favorite was a larger-than-life piece entitled, "Dying Gaul."  The subject had apparently gotten the worst of a skirmish with Roman forces and was kind of lying on one side, arm outstretched, on a platform that put him just above Duckie level.  Put yourself in Dakota's paws, though, and he was...obviously...trying to reach out and give a tummy rub!  Dakota got quite excited and wanted to sniff and lick his hand...I had to discreetly walk away into the adjoining room!  Overall, though, Dakota did just great, especially with all the crowds.  I was pretty pleased with him.

This particular piece of "art" was not featured at the Blanton, but it's so quirky-Austin that I just had to get a picture.  It's designed to encourage responsible dog ownership, as you can see!  Apparently the pile of dirt in the background represents the amount of waste generated daily by Austin

"Hey, I always have clean walks, it wasn't me!"

Have a good week, everyone, and wish Dakota luck as he continues his new training!

Dakota's a Winner!

Thank you to Erin & her crew ( ) for this fun award!  Took me quite a while to figure out how to post it, so I don't know how much of a blogger I really am.  If you like great pictures of adorable dogs, you've really got to check out Erin's blog featuring the escapades of two dachshunds and an ever-changing array of service-dog-in-training sidekicks.

Way to go, Duckie, we always knew you were a winner!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Career Change?

Yes, Dakota's had a change in his career path. Kind of like when you start college and switch majors midstream, it means some retooling and extra work, but it's all worth it in the end! The family he met last week thinks he's a great match so all systems are go. Now, instead of training to be a guide dog, he's training to be a diabetes alert dog.

I can hear it all the way through cyberspace..."A what?" Since I've been answering that question about Dakota all his life it just doesn't faze me any more. In fact it seems almost fitting! (Passerby: "He's a what?" Me, for the thousandth time: "A labradoodle...")

Dogs have this amazing sense of smell, as I'm sure you know. In fact, guide dogs use their sense of smell for some of their "finds" ("find the trash can, " "find the boys," "find the girls" -- for the men's and ladies' restrooms). I remember my surprise when I was working Willie at a new strip mall and he suddenly "lost" his ability to find me a trash can. Later I realized that since it was new construction, the trash cans had no trash in them yet and he just didn't recognize them without their characteristic scent!

At any rate, Duckie will soon be training for a new scent "find" -- only this time he'll be using his nose to detect a drop or spike in his partner's blood glucose levels. He'll then learn to give an "alert" to his person, who can do a quick test and take appropriate action to keep the levels in the target zone. To the uninitiated it might almost seems superfluous to have a service dog for this purpose. But what I've learned is that many type I diabetics can become unaware of the physical symptoms of their "highs" and "lows." These swings can be fast and dangerous. In these cases, specially trained service dogs can be a real life saver, as they can often learn to alert long before the situation reaches a critical point. Think Dakota's up to it?...Yeah, I do too!

So far, we've had to retrain him in two areas. The first one was teaching him to walk at heel (right by my side), rather than in guide position (a little ahead). That took...well...all of one walk. He really seems to get the idea. I'm the one having trouble remembering! Old habits die hard, and I guess I'm older than he is, so there you go!

The second (get ready to laugh): we had to teach him to sleep on the bed! Again, this is much harder for me than for him. We have never ever ever let him on the furniture...AT ALL! Guide dogs don't do that. However, one of the times he'll be needed most will be nighttime and we want him close to his new person, should a blood sugar drop occur in the middle of the night. SO...(and I can hardly believe I'm saying this)...he's been getting to sleep with Katharine. Of course they both love it! The first time we asked him to get on the bed he dashed around it 2 or 3 times, like, "You're kidding, right?!...Oh you aren't?...well, here goes!" ...and with one leap he was up. He's never looked back, and seems to feel it's only his proper place now. So all you puppy raisers out there, let this be a lesson to you. All those months of careful training can be undone in just about ten seconds! Thankfully he's smart enough to get the difference between a bed and the other furniture and has never attempted to get on the couch or anything else. And here's the funniest part: the very next time I told him to "Go to bed" (our normal command for him to go to his crate)...guess where he went? That's right, the people bed! He just looked at me like, "Well, this is my bed now!" Funny dog...perhaps a bit too smart for his own good...

We may call it a career change, but to Dakota it's nothing short of a promotion!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

It's All About the People...

Dakota's such a people-focused dog. While we're working, his eyes and ears are on me. If we go out to eat or something and he's under my chair, he always positions himself so he can people-watch. But when the jacket's off and he's actually allowed to socialize with people, he couldn't be happier. Well, the jacket came off and he got to meet some wonderful new people on Thursday!

It was what we call the matching visit, where a potential client and service dog meet for the first time, get to know one another, and get a feel for whether and how this whole thing is going to work out. Normally, puppy raisers don't get to be a part of this at all, so I was thrilled that Dakota's prospective new family wanted to visit him in his own home. We were so excited! I can't say much else yet, but things did seem to go well and for Duckie it was obviously love at first sight (first sniff?...first lick?)

And really, when all's said and done, that's what this whole puppy-raising thing is about: the people. At first, it seems like it's about the dogs. After all, that's the side of it that we work on -- transforming our adorable but totally uncivilized little puppies into well-mannered, highly skilled guide dogs. But seeing a guide dog at work with his partner (especially when that dog was once your puppy!) truly reminds you that it's about the people. There's a synergy, a bond between the two that is quite amazing. Any disability just seems to melt away and all you see is a confident person getting on with and enjoying her life...with the help of a very special dog. It's a great feeling to know you've been able to contribute toward that cause.

Although Dakota will be a different type of service dog, that's essentially what his life will be about too -- his person. And I don't think he could be any happier! We're excited to see what the future holds for him and his partner.