There are a lot of reasons why I love Puppy Day, but I think the biggest reason is that I love puppy raisers. I know how hard these people work, and they don't get paid! Their job is harder than ours, believe it or not. They get these puppies when they're seven or eight weeks old, and spend a year patiently teaching them all of the things they need to know to be good Leader Dogs -- obedience, house manners, exposure to new places, self-control… the list goes on and on. When I think of all the sleepless nights, the chewed furniture, the stained carpets, the household disruption that go along with new puppies, I am eternally grateful to puppy raisers for doing all that and then turning their dogs back in to Leader just when they start to turn into well-behaved dogs. I wish we could do more for them than just one day a year, but at least I will do everything in my power to make sure that day is a great one.
I also love Puppy Day because often I get to meet my dogs' raisers. Last year I met a whole bunch of raisers; this year I only got to meet one. I wish I could've met more, but it was great to talk to the one I did meet and get to hear all about this dog's puppyhood. This is a dog that came in to Leader extremely well-behaved and well-trained, and I was lucky to get to thank his raiser personally! I wish I was able to do the same for all of the raisers of my very well-behaved, well-trained dogs in my string.
Finally, I love Puppy Day because it reminds me of 4-H Fun Days at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, all those years ago. That also always took place in August, and I pretty much started looking forward to the next year's Fun Day as soon as the current year's was over. I remembered how exciting it was to hear actual instructors talking about what they did, and to see the kennels where our puppies would live when they went back for training, and to get to meet our puppies' litter mates and sometimes parents. It was seriously about the greatest day of my year (so I have ALWAYS been nerdy about this particular subject!) Every year I would leave Fun Day wishing time would hurry up and pass so I could finish high school and finish college and go be an instructor.
My job yesterday was to be the "tour guide" on the bus. We loaded up the class buses with puppy raisers and drove them into Rochester, where they got to watch instructors working dogs on the street outside our downtown training facility. The instructors had set up obstacles for the dogs to work around, and someone was driving traffic checks on them as well. There were about five instructors down there working dogs, and all the dogs they were working came from my team's group, so I got to watch my own dogs being worked by other people. Thankfully they all did well. I explained to the puppy raisers what the dogs were doing and why, for example, the instructor would correct the dog and repeat if the dog bumped into an obstacle or missed a curb or failed to stop for a traffic check. There were all kinds of good questions.
One question I almost always get from any group of puppy raisers is "What can I do to make my dog a better Leader Dog?" My answer is always pretty much the same. Besides exposure -- taking the dog as many different places as possible -- I think the two most important things a puppy raiser can work on are 1) instilling self-control in the puppies, and 2) teaching a good settle.
Self-control problems are certainly one of the biggest reasons we career change dogs. Dogs who can't control their desire to impulsively lunge at things that interest them -- other dogs, small animals, food on the ground, people talking to them -- just can't be Leader Dogs. We ask a lot of a dog when we ask it to ignore all the things a dog naturally finds interesting, and if the dog isn't in the habit of doing that -- redirecting their attention to their handlers after noticing something interesting in the environment -- it's really, really hard to teach an adult dog. "Settling" means resting patiently when the handler isn't walking around. Dogs that can't settle are a PAIN. They make it impossible to eat a meal in peace, or pay for a purchase in a store, or stop and talk to a friend. When a dog is always busy under a chair, licking the floor or looking for gum underneath chair seats or going to the end of its leash to try to visit people, that makes going places with the dog stressful. It also makes class very stressful. Learning how to work with a new dog is difficult. Lots of mistakes will be made out on the street. The last thing you want as a handler of a new dog is a dog that is up and down like a jack in the box under the table at mealtime. At the end of a stressful day, you just want the dog to lie down and to not make you worry about what it's doing when you eat.
I know that puppy raisers work relentlessly on those two things, and the progress they see is sometimes really, really slow. Teenage retrievers seem totally incapable of controlling themselves a lot of the time, and as a raiser you look at the puppy and shrug in despair and think it will never get any better and it will never make a Leader Dog despite all your hard work. I talked to one first time raiser who felt like her 9-month-old Lab was completely out of control. She wanted to know what she could do to make him better. I watched the two of them together and, yeah, her puppy was interested in everything going on around him -- it was a super interesting environment! -- but he checked back in with her probably every five or ten seconds. Instead of hitting the end of his leash when he saw something interesting, he would turn his head to her. The head turns were really quick but really obvious to me. I'm not sure the puppy raiser even noticed he was doing that. I was able to sincerely tell her that for a big, strong 9-month-old Lab, I thought he was doing pretty darn good! I hope she left feeling a little better about the good job she was doing with him.
My favorite thing that happened yesterday was talking to a little girl who wants to be a Leader Dog instructor. I don't know how old she was, maybe 9 or 10. Her family was raising their third puppy and I talked to all of them for quite a while. I told them some of the stuff she can do as she gets older if she wants to do this job. I also got to tell them that when I was just a little older than her, I was saying exactly the same thing, that I wanted to train guide dogs, and now I'm doing it! So it's totally possible, and I hope she does do it.
Is it too early to start looking forward to next year's Puppy Day? I don't think so.