Therapy Pup

I realized a new reason I love raising our new “guide-dog-in-training” Lila early this morning.  She’s a clean slate.  She doesn’t share the neuroses my wife and I have, and it’s soothing to be around her because she is so pure, so joyfully alive.

By the second day I solved the overnight whining issue.  It had been a matter of my ignorance.  We misunderstood the advice of a vet who told us not to allow her to sleep in the cat’s territory, the master bedroom.  What I did not know until researching the psychology of Labradors further, is that they are genetically programmed to seek sleep near the pack leader, for safety.  By whining all night she was merely expressing the way she was made.  Since repositioning her crate so she can see one of us, and sleeping in the same room with her, we have had two full nights virtually whine-free!

Lila is going to be a real athlete.  She’s 10 weeks old, but she has tackled going up and down stairs and steps without fear, even though she sometimes must go up or down them one at a time, and pause in-between.  It’s thrilling to watch.  She is still kind of floppy-legged and big-footed, because she’s young and growing so fast, but anywhere I have asked her to go she attempts, without hesitation.

She’s also quicker than I thought dogs were.  She has peed and pooped on command three times already, and we’ve only had her three days.  We circle her at the end of the leash, calmly say, “Do your business”, and she squats.  Amazing.  It’s her ability to imprint associations between consistent commands and physical routine.  From the first day, we took her out every two hours, and WHEN she squatted, we said the words, and praised her afterward.  Now she recognizes that phrase as the permission to release.

Because she is so energetic and enthusiastic, we have to do “collar corrections” all the time, but I can already see progress.  She still tries to jump up if she’s excited, or chew on non-permitted things.  I don’t blame her.  She’s a baby, and she’s teething.  Because we are doing the corrections right (a quick “pop” of the leash or collar), she doesn’t whine or react with fear when we do it.  It’s a re-direct.  When she ceases, she gets praised and petted.

This is a different way of shaping early behavior than either Mary or I had.  I was usually praised for my accomplishments, and punished for my mistakes.  The messages weren’t consistent though.  Sometimes my achievements were met with “Don’t bother me right now”, and penalties for the same misdeeds ranged anywhere from a shrug to being hit with an object.  I didn’t know what would happen, so I learned to cover up my mistakes and to lie with expertise.

Mary’s experience was in learning to deal with emotional neglect.  When Mary’s mother was still a child, her father died.  The man had acquiesced to his child’s insistent request to go swimming.  As children will do, she probably said, “Oh, I love you Daddy.” in response to his agreement.  He slipped on the cement, fractured a cervical vertebrae, and died.  Because of her own pain, his wife unwisely and explicitly told the little girl it was her fault.  To punish herself for this terrible tragedy she thought she had caused, Mary’s mother never again allowed herself to say, “I love you” out loud to anyone.

After she died, Mary cried to her father that her mother hadn’t ever told her she loved her.  Her father shocked her when he admitted, “She never said it to me, either.”  But he also said something wonderful.  He told her “I’m going to say it to you from now on.” And he did.

As long as you’re alive, it’s never too late for a re-direct.  But it’s also a lot easier if you are consistent from the beginning.

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28 Comments

Filed under animal communication, Emotions, photos, Self-Esteem

28 responses to “Therapy Pup

  1. Thanks for keeping us updated on Lila. I love reading it! Can’t get enough. The analogy to Mary’s experience is a wise and touching insight. Thank you for sharing. We can learn so much and heal our wounds, I think, through our interactions with animals.

  2. Cute puppy! I’ve always admired people who can raise guide dogs knowing that one day they will have to part with them (albeit for a good purpose). I think I would get too attached to try.

    • Thanks, Pn’C. We came to the decision for fairly practical reasons. We both like service-oriented activities, and my wife wanted a dog. She is also recovering from a spinal injury, and wasn’t sure she could make a long-term commitment. So, we get a “superdog”, specifically bred for high intelligence and calm demeanor – and our contract is for a year. If it works out, we’ll do it again. Lila will be working with many other trainers, and even have sleep-overs. She was born to belong to everyone. Her main attachment will be to her job, and to the owner whose activities she will assist with.

  3. I love how you’re able to take this story about Lila (sooo cute!) and evolve it into an important life lesson that we can all benefit from.

    ps. I have to say it one more time. She’s soooooo cute!

  4. This is heartbreak and hope in one – the learning that comes from teaching. Happy days to you, Mary and sweet Lila!

  5. sb

    So interesting the insights you can gather from a cute puppy. Enjoy!

  6. Hi Mikey
    Any person living with a disability would be incredibly blessed to end up with a service dog that has spent her first year growing up and learning with you and Mary. And to top it all, she is absolutely gorgeous.
    I remain one of your biggest fans from across the ocean.
    Much love to you, Mary and Lila.

  7. wordsfallfrommyeyes

    This is a lovely lovely post. It’s precious you raising that dog. She’s giving you some insights, too!

  8. Amazing situation for Mary’s mother, so sad. I am glad there was a re-direction.

    Mikey, are your commands determined by the Guide Dog people? One word commands are what we worked with where possible. “Do your business” is three words and I would have thought that unusual. I am interested in the process.

    Sounds like you are having a great time!

    • The commands are specifically determined by the organization. They are the same ones the blind clients will be using. I agree with you about single words being easier, however she learned “do your business” by the third day, and has been better at it than all other commands except maybe “come”. Glad you’ve liked the series.

  9. Hooray for you for training therapy dogs!

  10. A wonderful and beautifully interesting post, as always :)

  11. My current dog Sadie was the hardest puppy to train I’ve ever had. I finally resorted to taking her to puppy school, where the star was a guide dog in training. Sadie flunked out. But she eventually turned into a great dog, with manners good enough for me to take her to work with me.

    But back to Lila, I enjoyed your stories about her and who couldn’t love that photo?!

    • Perhaps like your Sadie, Lila is not easy, because she has a strong spirit and a sense of innate autonomy. She’s off to “First Grade” at the Puppy Club today, after her initial week with us. We’ll see how her report card looks. She’ll be returned in two days, after a sleepover with our mentor-trainer.

  12. Val

    I must catch up with your posts on this sweet dog. :) I’m so behind with reading since I took a blogging break. I didn’t know you were training a guide dog, what a great thing to do. You and Mary must have oodles of patience. :)

    • Thank you, Val, but I think our patience is probably average. The advantage to doing it through an organization (in this case Guide Dogs for the Blind) is there are a number of more experienced trainers and raisers there to encourage you and share their own knowledge. We meet as a club each week, and work with dogs of different ages.

      I think breaks are really important. They provide perspective. Most of my life I spent way too much time working, and I got out of balance time and time again. I think I’m finally over that. It’s more rewarding to be involved in service projects and volunteering.

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