Category Archives: animal communication

Three Dogs at a Graduation

(Click on photos for full size.)


I’m very, very busy, and full of fresh emotions. In what feels like a very short span of time we sent Finnegan (Goldendoodle superstar) off to college, accepted a unique, tiny Havanese female (Fresca) at the end of her training, and began work with the youngest pup so far, an energetic yellow Labradoodle I named Chili.


Finnegan’s path to find a perfect partner was not straight. You might remember from earlier articles that he was first expected to be a mobility assistant for a vet who had chosen and bonded with him as a puppy. Once Finn was grown, they weren’t properly compatible in size. The last time I wrote about him, it looked as if he would be the companion for an autistic boy. (  But that family had another established dog, and Finnegan and the other dog were competing for hierarchy in their home. The best match for both dog and handler came on his third attempt.

As our mentor-trainer put it, “When it’s really right, it’s magic.” Finnegan and Kaylen chose each other, and connected profoundly from their first meeting. Kaylen’s got Cerebral Palsy. It impacts her voluntary muscle control enough that she was unable to get around without using a wheelchair, or leaning on an adult. She’s 16, a sophomore in high school. Every teenager I know is intent on achieving independence, on becoming an adult. Kaylen is no exception. Having a canine assistant for walking stability and small tasks who she commands, who depends on her for his care, was the right solution. She’s excited to be the only student who gets to bring her dog to class.  They need each other, and together they can achieve more. It’s already an epic tale of love and persistence.

Kaylen’s parents both work in service professions. Dad’s a policeman; Mom’s a Nurse Manager. Her twin brother, Ryan, is into math and science. She has a good friend her own age who was at the ceremony. They became pals when Maddie organized fundraising to help the family afford the dog. Her dedicated Physical Therapist was at graduation too. Everyone has a role in this process, and all the parts matter. I could see exactly how all good intentions and efforts connect in a system. It’s the kind of lucid moment that confirms I have truly lived, that my life gains value when I do something to help.


In the few months we had her, Fresca taught us a lot. We had never trained (or owned) a small breed, and I was unsure most days that I was doing it right. But she had a personality so much larger than her 6-pound size. She was physically fearless, and it got her into serious trouble once. She dove off the couch in pursuit of our alpha cat, slid partway under a table at full speed, and broke both bones of her forearm. Her Orthopedic Surgeon had worked previously repairing dogs from combat units in the Middle East. She gained a plate and screws, and called a truce with the cat. After the incident, they slept side by side for the rest of the time we had her.

Fresca’s the most gung-ho dog I’ve met yet, enthusiastic and cheerful about everything from eating to affection to training. Even a leg cast and having to wear “the cone of shame” around her neck didn’t get her down. It’s a kind of irrepressible positivity useful in her life with Luis, a charming vet who has an anxiety disorder and diabetes. Before he had Fresca, Luis had more difficulty managing stress, and it was sometimes a problem in his marriage. He told me it’s so much better with her in their lives. Fresca was always able to sense when I was in a bad mood or had a cold. She had a way of being solicitous, while simultaneously communicating, “Snap out of it, man. La vida esta buena!” (In my mind, she speaks with a Cuban accent.)


The third version of how things can work out in unexpected ways is happening right now with Chili. Regular readers might remember how our first service dog trainee was a spectacular failure at 19 weeks, and how upset I was over it. (  I have a different perspective now. That dog (Lilah) was just expressing her own personality, and we didn’t have enough experience to help train her using her own strengths. Now we’ve got one with a very similar personality, and the same set of challenges.


Chili’s whip smart, but extremely “mouthy”. She can be affectionate, but during play she sometimes goes wild, almost as if she’s attacking us. We’ve got a LOT of little puncture wounds on our arms and hands from those pin teeth, and there are dozens of new bite marks on furniture and the deck, divots in the lawn, and destroyed plants. The problem is that Chili is an infant with muscles and weapons. She craves love and interaction, doesn’t know how to focus her enormous energy, and doesn’t understand her destructive capability. It’s a bit like having a miniature professional wrestler in the house, one that doubles in size every few weeks.

On the very day we were considering giving up and having Chili sent back for “reeducation”, we got a card from Kaylen telling us we had helped change her life. Everything good connects to every other good thing. We rededicated to the task, found a new Puppy Kindergarten, took some private lessons with another trainer, and Chili’s behavior has improved vastly in the past two weeks. She’s been to church, and to the grocery store. She was able to make an appearance at graduation too, with sensible “time outs” in her crate. Next weekend we’re going to introduce her to the Port Townsend Film Festival.


Filed under animal communication, Emotions, Ethics and Morality, photos

Goodbye, Puppy Boy

Finn in grass

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.

Finn big smile

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.

soft curly

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.

Gentle Leader

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?

Lab and WheatonLongshot Mutt StrutMary at Table

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”.

Dogs greetingFinn watching

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.

Hairy and AlanGrand Marshall Hairy Putter, and his dad, Alan Ahtow.


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.



Filed under animal communication, Communications, Ethics and Morality, photos

Finnegan’s First Weeks

Finn1Finnegan, our new service dog trainee, has different virtues than Spice, our certified guide dog.  He’s a “designer dog” cross between a Goldendoodle and Standard Poodle. Continue reading


Filed under animal communication, photos

Coexisting With the Deer

FenceFawnIn my back yard Continue reading


Filed under animal communication, Ethics and Morality, photos

Cleaning, Feeding, Preparation

BenchSpotForget about the wars, revolutions and the gubmint listening in on your cell phone calls!  You’ve found a peaceful spot where you can sit and listen to birds sing, where gentle waters flow as you read.

I am fixing some problems I have procrastinated about, and feeling dumb because I didn’t address them before.  We didn’t cook much until I began dieting.  We didn’t know how to clean the oven.  We are now entering our third day in the process of cleaning the oven Continue reading


Filed under animal communication, Technology, Thinking about thinking

Welcoming Change

TwoFauns-001How would you like having to nurse your twins in a stranger’s yard?

People love habit.  Having the feeling of knowing what comes next is comforting.  But you can’t fix problems or grow from a place of complete safety.  You have to take risks, spend resources, embrace the insecurity of undetermined outcomes, and dream of better things that might be. Continue reading


Filed under animal communication, Music, photos, Thinking about thinking

Graduation Day

GDB OregonThe Visitors Center @2010 

Our second guide dog puppy, Spice, was the first one to complete her work to become fully certified.  Guide Dogs for the Blind operates two campuses on the West coast, one in Oregon where we were going, and one in California.  Mary and I (the puppy raisers) and the Brodys (former playmates) drove down the night before.  We had the same kind of joy and anticipation parents get when their children graduate from college, ready to enter the working world. Continue reading


Filed under animal communication, photos, Self-Esteem