Roses All the Time

Lest I paint too rosy a picture, let me assure you, it is not roses all the time around here.

The Wonder Dog is, by definition, wonderful. She is also a puppy. Seva is 3 in human years. I know this not because I googled a dog-human years calculator, but because I have raised a child.

Seva has been teething since we got her, and we were prepared with plenty of chew toys. Now, however, she is frequently overcome by the urge to leap and bite. My robe has been punctured and a pair of pajama pants torn. I am using Bitter Apple like it’s bug spray.

She has two speeds: berserk and crashed. We know she is about to crash because the berserker in her amps up. Sound like any toddlers you know?

Tearing around the yard at full speed is cute as can be. Trying to dig under the deck is not. We’ve had a whole slew of thunder storms this week, so it’s extra muddy.

This morning, I took her out to do her business and after roaming around for a while, biting low hanging branches and eating clover, I patted my thigh and announced “inside.” Seva plunked her fanny down and stared at me–a clear stand-off. I scooped her up and reminded her I am still bigger than she is. Again, sound like any toddlers you know?

And then there’s potty training. I take her out and she’s so distracted by the grass that it takes her 15 minutes to go. Or she doesn’t realize she has to go until it’s too late and we have a puddle on the floor.

I’m almost too embarrassed to mention this. We have a pair of mallards that we feed. Seva likes to eat duck shit.

Seva and Lola.

I am counting the days until Seva turns 4!


Cheesy Rice

Something amazing is happening in Seva’s brain, right now! Just like in humans, her synapses are firing constantly, forming the mental pathways that will shape her personality and worldview for the rest of her life.

Trainers take advantage of this developmental stage to shape desirable behaviors. Some of these shaped behaviors are contrary to natural, typical dog behavior. For example, if you’ve been around dogs, you’ve probably been warned not to bother the dog while it’s eating. This is because dogs “resource guard.” They instinctively signal ownership by growling or snapping at anyone who approaches them while eating or enjoying a prized treat, like a new found stick.

In this video, Seva is 9 1/2 weeks old. She illustrates several service dog behaviors.

Scott and one of our children have also put their hands in her food bowl while she is eating, and she is just as nonchalant. The ability to accept people other than her main handler is important, since ultimately she will belong to someone else.

Training Basics

Right now, Seva is working on two crucial skills, Watch and Sit. Service dogs need to pay constant attention to their handler so they are always ready to receive the next cue. The focus is amazing.

A Helping Paws dog at the Wag Walk & Run

You can see in the photo that while this person is watching the disc dog demo, the dog in the vest is facing and watching her with intense concentration. This readiness to work and the ability to watch a handler for cues is the foundation on which the other skills are built.

This always amazes me. This dog is surrounded by not only a crowd of people, but other dogs, and there’s activity all around him, and yet, he’s waiting for the next cue.

Seva is not there yet. In fact, a stick is far more interesting than I am. Sometimes I lose out to dirt. But she is on her way, which is beyond cool.

When we train, I have a clicker and treat bag on me. For Sit, every time her butt hits the floor, I click and give her a piece of kibble. Over and over. Between each click and treat, I move a little and she follows me. This resets the behavior. Pretty simple stuff.

For Watch, she has to make eye contact to get the click and treat. This is harder. Seva tracks the hand that feeds her–who wouldn’t? So I put my hands behind my back. She looks at the feed bag, she looks at my knees, my hips, finally my face and I click. She does catch on fast, and the eye contact comes more readily after a few minutes of practice.

A dog quirk, however, is that she likes to circle me between repetitions. She gets a treat, I step away, she follows, walks around me, then sits down. Sometimes she decides to sit behind me and watch my hands. Not so good for eye contact. I ignore this behavior and wait for her to reposition.

Today, Seva was sitting behind me, waiting a few seconds, then standing up and putting her paws on me: “Hey, I did it. Click me already!” This kind of behavior is neither rewarded nor punished. I help her get her paws back on the floor and we try again.

It’s important that the dog be able to perform anywhere, so we train in the kitchen, the hallway, and outside. As she can handle more distractions, I’ll increase the number of places we train. As I said, there are times when I still lose out to dirt.

She is a smart girl. Tonight when she was ready for dinner, she did not look for her bowl or whine. She parked her butt and stared at me.

Wag Walk & Run

Yesterday, Scott and I ran 5k at the Helping Paws Wag Walk & Run in Purgatory Park, Eden Prairie. The weather was cold and rainy, a complete turn around from the hot and humid day before. At least no one had to worry about overheating!

I’ve never seen so many dogs in one place, and plenty of retrievers in the blue vests. Something wonderful that sets this apart from other dog-centric events is that there is a clear community presence. Helping Paws has a mission and everyone involved in the organization shares that focus and drive. Several people have told us that “you come for the dogs, but you stay for the people.” That is already apparent.

Walk Walk & Run

Seva stayed at home, since she is too young to run. Actually, she is too young to handle this kind of crowd. She would have gone berserk with all those people and dogs around.

The starting gate.

There were signs for “Fast Runners,” “Casual Runners,” and “Walkers.” We put ourselves in the “Casual Runners” group. Most of the dogs were in this group and many of them passed us on the way. The thing about running with dogs, as we discovered, is that they have to stop and poop on the route, giving us a chance to pass them!

On the trail.

Scott began with an adrenaline surge, so we started fast. I kept up with him more or less and ran my fastest 5k ever. Now, this personal best is, well, a best, but I owe it all to Scott. Being sleep deprived by a puppy who gets me up several times a night for the last ten days and having a big day right before this–my graduation from an MFA program–I was really tired! All in all, it was a great run. I ran a little faster than I would have liked and Scott ran a little slower than he would have liked, and we finished together in under 31 minutes.

Scott & Alida post-run.

There were vendor booths, a fire truck, and demos. We saw a disc dog demo that was pretty cool. This dog’s concentration as it tracked the disc was amazing. It even ran up its human’s back and launched off him to catch a disc.

The dog is being spun around by the disc.

The big leap off the back.

We’ll definitely run again next year. Don’t tell the kids, but we’re planning to volunteer their services, as well! And by then, Seva will be able to join the fun.

Seva in her Wag Walk & Run 2012 bandana.

Seva’s First Week–so far

Life with a new puppy is a lot like life with a baby/toddler. She gets us up several times a night to go out to the yard. (Thank goodness this is a spring litter!) She cries for attention. We can’t leave the house until she has been fed and visited the little dog’s yard. We have to pack toys and treats if we take her somewhere. She is full speed or nothing. Everything goes in her mouth. The only time she isn’t carefully supervised is when she is sleeping or crated. Everyone who sees her wants to touch her. And of course, she’s beyond adorable, which pretty much makes up for the hassle factor.

What a sweet face.

Seriously. You’d go stumbling around the backyard in your bathrobe at 2:00, 3:00, 5:00, and 6:00 a.m. for this face, wouldn’t you?

And like a baby, there was a lot to prepare. Puppies need a layette, too. Here’s Seva’s.

Most of Seva's possessions.

Seva’s birth parents (and their human families) sent her home with some of those toys, and we have been happy to have them! I also bought baby gates and a new rug for the kitchen. The old one was apparently edible. Her favorite indoor toy is called Hide-a-Squirrel, though clearly those are chipmunks.

After just two days, I had to loosen her collar. It is amazing how quickly she is growing. She was only 1 pound at birth and 11 pounds when I got her, at 7 1/2 weeks old. She grew to over 10 times her size in only 7 weeks. A human baby could take 10 years to grow from 10 pounds to 100 pounds. Not only is her growth rate incredibly fast, relative to ours, but her learning rate is, too. This is why training begins immediately. As with humans, there are windows for optimal socializing and learning. Part of the trainer’s job is to take advantage of those windows and guide the puppy’s development.

And now, being completely sleep deprived after 4 days with the Seva puppy, I have run out of intelligible things to write. Here’s a video.

Bringing Baby Home

Today, May 11, 2012, we got to bring our puppy home. Helping Paws has its own breeding program–so the parents have gone through the training themselves and are very smart. Each litter is temporarily named with a theme. This was the superheroes litter: Aquaman, Raven, Storm, and Mystique.

Mom, Lola, was at Helping Paws, as were the human families. Here is the litter before they were given to their foster parents.

The puppies before going home with their foster families.

I applied to join the Helping Paws program back in early December, so this felt like a long time coming, and at last, a puppy! I was given Raven. Each foster family has the honor of giving the puppy his or her permanent name.

My first time holding our puppy. Lola is behind us.

And here is the proud Foster Dad, Scott.

Scott & puppy in the Helping Paws training center.

Our first task once we got home was to give her dinner, which was also our first training session. I clicked the clicker as I hand fed her, a technique called “loading the clicker.” It is a classic Pavlovian technique.

Loading the clicker.


She loves to be outside and to run–with her tiny bladder, we got to go outside quite a few times tonight!

Her first experience with a collar & leash.

And now, she is worn out after a big day. It’s time to slip her into her crate and hope the next potty-break doesn’t come too early.

Big day for a little puppy.


Her name is Seva (Say-vuh).

It is a Sanskrit word that means“giving without expectation.”

Wag Walk & Run

On May 20th, 2012 Scott and I will be running a 5k to support Helping Paws. You can make a tax deductible pledge to sponsor my run here. All pledges go directly to Helping Paws.

Scott and I after a training run.

Scott and I are excited to be foster parents of a bouncing Golden Retriever puppy this spring! Over the next 2 1/2 years, we’ll be responsible for training and socializing the dog. This is a truly life changing way to help someone, both for us and the recipient of the dog! We can’t wait to support Helping Paws by running the 5k on May 20th, and I hope you’ll support Helping Paws by making a tax deductible pledge.

What? Why? and How?

When I tell people I am going to be training a service dog, and that my family will be the dog’s foster family, that this will take two-and-a-half years of our lives, and then we’ll give the dog up, they have two questions.

Why do you want to do this?

I love animals. I mean, I adore animals. I always have and always will. I had a dog briefly as a kid. I’ve had several cats, rats, and a rabbit. I hand feed the squirrels and a pair of mallard ducks that come to our yard. For a long time when I was younger, my life ambition was to be an ethologist, a scientist who studies animal behavior in the wild.

Right after college, I worked in the Dean of Students office at The University of Texas. Services for Students with Disabilities was right across from my desk. I saw all the students come and go from that office. I saw the students in wheelchairs and some of the challenges they faced getting around. I saw the guide dogs working for the blind students.

I’ve been aware of Helping Paws for over a decade, and that whole time have been thinking this is an organization I’d like to get involved with some day.

Now, my partner, Scott, and I live near Helping Paws. We have a big fenced yard. We don’t have another pet at the moment. He loves retrievers. Most importantly, we share the same value system. Scott and I believe in the importance of doing good for society. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how this endeavor will probably change us and our children for the better.

We’ve volunteered before, some projects short term–an evening at a food shelf–some long term–mentoring a teen-mother. This is going to be two-and-a-half years with a puppy in our home, a member of our family. We, all five of us, are going to love this dog like crazy. This is also going to be following the rules and participating in an ongoing training program, so that at the end of our time together, this dog will be able to help a person with a physical disability lead a more independent life. The thousands of hours we put into this puppy will literally change one person’s life.


This is like nothing we’ve ever done before and we’re excited to be a part of the program.

How are you going to give up the dog?

Most people shake their heads and say, “I could never give up the dog.” I know I can. Scott can. The kids don’t have a choice. They weren’t too crazy about the idea of a temporary pet at first, but as we’ve been talking about the program and preparing for the day we bring the puppy home, they’ve come around.

We’re going into this knowing that the puppy is not ours. Not really. The dog will always belong to Helping Paws. That’s why we’re called a “foster family.” We also won’t ever forget the goal, because we’ll be following Helping Paws rules round the clock to make certain this dog is ready to work with and for another person.

Helping Paws publishes stories from their graduates in every newsletter. Read some of these stories. You’ll be moved and awed. You might still doubt that you could give up the dog, but you’ll understand what an amazing, life-changing event occurs when a graduate receives a service dog.

When the time comes, I’ll write about giving up the dog. I’m sure it will be hard. I’m sure I’ll cry. I’m sure I’ll be proud of our dog and happy for the graduate who gets to take her home.

Our puppy comes home on May 11th, just in time for Mother’s Day! We are receiving a girl. After I meet her, I’ll give her a name–it’s a privilege of the trainer’s, to name the puppy. And of course, there will be photos!