Next week our latest service dog trainee Finnegan will be returned for his final phase of intensive instructions. We will be finishing up the socialization of another dog for about five months. This puppy was raised with a very different regimen than Spice, our guide dog for the blind trainee. Spice, the yellow Lab, was strong and steady, with muscles like a gladiator. She’s been navigating for her new owner over a year now, and they are both doing extremely well. Having Spice made it possible for Jeremy to go to college, to fulfill his ambition of becoming a music professor.
Finnegan is strong too, but he’s a bundle of potential energy, like a coiled spring. He’s highly reactive, curious about any kind of novel stimulus, and whip-smart. Finn was originally considered to become a mobility assistance dog for a wounded veteran, but he didn’t grow big enough for that job. Now he’s going to be trained to be a therapeutic companion for a young autistic boy.
I can see how much better an alternative this will be for the dog and the boy. Finnegan has an expressive face and a wide array of verbalizations. It can help model correct behavioral responses for an autistic child. Though this pup is cheerful by default, you can tell right away if he isn’t. For the most part, the only thing that gives him the blues is not getting a new challenge every day. Autism provides new challenges. Finnegan is hypoallergenic, and his soft, curly coat makes petting him more inviting for a hypersensitive child. Having him will be a social advantage for the boy, because others want to approach if you have a cute dog. It can also make walking easier.
Finn loves to solve puzzles to get food, play with any toy that makes noise, and he will retrieve anything you care to throw. It took him a few months to understand our old lady cat is NOT a toy that makes noise, and that she’s not interested in playing tag, even though she will greet him nose-to-nose. He has taken that lesson (go gently with little beings) and applied it to infants and toddlers, with hardly any encouragement from us. He accepts kisses, hugs and petting from small children very well, and doesn’t jump on them.
Ever since we took him to Seattle and gave him a successful big city experience, Finn has been more confident, calmer and easier to work with. His biggest challenge is a tendency to pull ahead if he gets excited, but using a “gentle leader”, which fits over his nose, prevents this behavior. If you put a kibble inside your hand, he stays glued to your hip, matching your speed even without a leash. He relieves easily on grass, gravel or dirt using the command “hurry”. In the year we’ve been raising him, he never once had an accident inside the house. Don’t you wish your child was that easy to toilet train?
Last week’s big activity was a visit to the local Rotary Club’s “Mutt Strut”. It’s an annual fundraiser to support their charitable projects, with products, lectures and assorted activities available for dogs and owners. There are many breeds I have no direct experience with, and I want to keep learning. They offered a long walk and informal contests including “cutest dog”, “most obedient” and “most unusual trick”.
The Rotarians provided water in buckets, and policed the area keeping the encounters positive and well controlled. Though dozens of dogs were present, I heard very little in the way of distressed or confrontational barking. Finnegan was there to practice self-control, and he enjoyed observing the contests. We made sure he had as many experiences with small children as possible.
I’ve become attuned to a different balance in the four years since we moved from El Lay, vortex of cinematic fabulosity, to this picturesque Victorian seaport of 9,000. Where we used to live, animals (aside from humans) were perceived as lesser beings, as property, or as a food source. But deer roam the streets and yards here, eagles swoop above the trees, and songbirds, squirrels and rabbits share our grounds. In this town, there is less of a hard boundary between domesticated animals, wild animals, and people. And residents are advocating to make more places pet-friendly. It comes from a motivation to live harmoniously in nature, instead of competing and trying to control it.
Seeing the different dogs and owners made me remember why we raise these dogs. It’s part of our “fix what you can” philosophy. I can’t solve the wars of the world, or make politics more civil. I can’t control humankind wasting Earth’s bounty, or find a vaccine for Ebola. But I can take good radiographs, making it easier for the doctors to diagnose and treat. And Mary and I can help train the right kind of dog to assist others in need. Our next pup in training will be a little Havanese, like this one.