How Can I Give Up My Dog? part 2

Note: If you haven’t already, read part 1 of this post here.

Taking Seva to training classes at Helping Paws each week has been a big part of my life for over 2 years. Besides classes at the training center, we train in public several times a week. While it would be an exaggeration to say Seva has been my constant companion, I do work from home and take her places, so we see a lot of each other.

A few weeks ago, Seva spent the weekend with S., a woman in need of a successor dog who used to be a vet tech.

I spent the weekend convinced S. was falling in love with Seva. How could she not?

I’ve gone on vacation and left Seva with other Helping Paws families. It’s a nice break, like when the kids have a sleepover and you get to go out or stay in, grown-up style. This weekend was different.

I must have told myself 50 times that S. would say “yes” to Seva, and I would soon be saying “good bye” to her.

Waiting for life-changing news is never easy. (Sure, on the spectrum of life-changing news, learning whether or not I’ll get to keep a dog is relatively low, not like getting test results from a doctor. I do have perspective, but this is a blog about the Wonder Dog so bear with me.) The thing is, most news you wait for is one of two things: good or bad. Whichever way Seva’s weekend with S. went, I would be torn.

I want her. I’ll miss her. I would never stand in her way. I love her. I don’t need her. She should be with someone who needs her. S. will love her as much as I do. What if Seva misses me? I might never see her again.

And around and around I went.

When I picked up Seva from Helping Paws, I let her out of a crate and she leapt on me, all tongue and paws and uncontained joy. She’s a kisser. Always has been. The moment she was first placed in my arms, I looked down and she lifted her chin and licked my face. She was barely 8 weeks old.


  • A tired puppy.


Turns out, S. didn’t love her.

Seva had done well during the pre-matching, but didn’t want to retrieve for S. at her house. And she was a little bit naughty. Seva found some duct tape serving a purpose she couldn’t see, so she gnawed at it till she got a corner lifted and pulled it off.

She does have a naughty streak. Her new thing is to bound over while I’m working at my desk and stare me down. If I tell her to go away, she runs off and finds something to shred, like a piece of mail. My next move is to leash her to furniture. Hers is to whine. It’s a dreadful, high-pitched sound. My final move is to capitulate. We take a walk.

Besides not retrieving, some barking, and tearing of duct tape, S. reported that Seva’s allergies are bad.

Bad as in pull-her-from-the-program bad.

I heard this from one of the trainers when I picked up Seva, so it was almost official, but not quite. E. has the final say. I went to the following Big Dog class as though everything was normal, except it wasn’t.

We went to Centennial Lakes in Edina. As I walked Seva around the lake, I started thinking, this is it. Toward the end of class, I had Seva in a Drop-Stay on the sidewalk and E. came over to talk.

E. told me they couldn’t place Seva due to her allergies, and I almost cried. I admit, that’s kind of weird. I knew it was coming and had been thinking about it for 2 days. Still, when you hear it from E., it’s final. It felt like the closing of a door.

All those great reasons I had for getting into the program, all the effort put into training this dog, the classes and field trips and other training teams…done.

We agreed that I’d go on the next couple of field trips as though nothing had happened, giving E. time to make an announcement to the class. We also agreed the news could go public after the Foster Family Recognition Ice Cream Social.


The Big Dogs at Union Depot--our last class.

The Big Dogs at Union Depot–our last class.


Last night, Seva and I made our final visit to Helping Paws as a training team. I received a certificate for the work we’ve done, and E. announced that Seva is having a career change.

That’s what it’s called, a career change. I’ve heard that only about 60% of dogs graduate. Problems with the training, personality, health, even odd quirks like a phobia of stairs can prevent a dog from graduating. Seva actually had 3 strikes against her: her hip sockets are only “fair,” she’s an indiscriminate eater, and she has allergies. The hip sockets concern is minor compared to the others. She is getting better about eating everything in sight, and I don’t expect this to be a problem for long. It’s the allergies that determined her fate–and mine.


Recognizing Seva's Career Change

Recognizing Seva’s Career Change


Seva is now my dog.

What’s more, we’re going to be a demo team for Helping Paws. That means she keeps the blue pack and we will answer calls to show the world what a service dog can do for a person. In a year or two, when she’s mellowed even more, I’ll probably look into a therapy dog program as well.







How Can I Give Up My Dog?

The number one question I’ve been asked since the beginning is, how can I give up my dog? Everyone wonders about the bond formed between trainer and dog and what happens when your time together comes to an end.

Seva is almost 2 1/2 years old. That means she’s in the Big Dog class at Helping Paws. We’ve already seen 2 groups of dogs go through placement and leave their trainers and fellow service dogs-in-training to begin their lives as full-fledged service dogs. The process is best described as bittersweet–even if that is a cliche. We’re so happy a dog has been placed with a person who has a real need, and we’re sad to see the dog leave our ranks. Our dogs form friendships in and out of class. Many of the trainers get to know each other. Dog class is no longer on that person’s weekly agenda. It’s kind of like becoming an empty nester, only your kid at college will probably call home once in a while. The dogs never call and they never write.

I’ve thought about that question more as Seva has aged. My public answer is always that I went into the program knowing I’d have to give her up. That is the why behind the last 2 1/2 years. I became a foster home and trainer for Helping Paws, because I wanted to help change somebody’s life in a meaningful way.

In fact, Scott and I had more than one conversation about how significant this would be. I mean, you can donate time or money to good causes, but how often do you make an investment this significant in terms of personal commitment? And we mused about the magnitude of the impact this dog would have on someone’s life: greater independence, greater social connections, constant companionship. It might sound like we were getting full of ourselves, but really we were weighing the value of this decision. It was a big one. We had to consider the impact a puppy would have on our lives, including our kids’, and what it would mean for all 5 of us to give up the dog one day.



My first time holding the Bear.

My first time holding the Bear.


My private answer is more complicated than “It’s what I signed up to do.”

We have all bonded with Seva to different degrees. I, naturally, am most bonded to her. I spend most of my waking hours in her presence (I work from home). I am her mama. Scott and I have a joke that Seva thinks he’s her littermate. I am the clear alpha, but during Seva’s adolescence her play with Scott looked like vying for beta!

Play time!

Play time!

Now the time is approaching, and I am asking myself, “How can I give up my dog?”

This is surprisingly complex. I love her like any pet I’ve ever had. And I know she doesn’t belong to me. I realize that while I have allowed myself to love this dog, I have not allowed myself to imagine her in my future beyond a certain point. It’s like there was a countdown timer on our relationship.

Seva has a destiny. She was born into this breeding program to bring her special Retriever gifts to a special person. I’m just an intermediary. I would never stand in the way of her destiny, which is why I haven’t let myself imagine her as mine.

A few weeks ago, E., the Director of Helping Paws, talked to me about Seva’s allergies. We’ve been watching them for a while. E. said she’d be sad to lose Seva, because she’s got some good skills and is a nice dog. The “but…” was implied. Nothing was decided that night.

I went home with that “but…” resounding in my mind. I thought Seva was about to be pulled from the program, which often means ownership of the dog is transferred to the trainer. I spent the next week imagining Seva in my future. I was careful to remind myself that nothing had actually changed, yet I couldn’t help picturing us on long walks, throwing balls in the park, and having cuddles in front of the fireplace.

After class the following week, E. took me aside again. She was going to tell me Seva was out of the program. I was going to leave the training center as Seva’s permanent mama.

E. asked me to bring Seva in for pre-matching. Pre-matching is when a dog meets applicants to see if the dogs will work with them.

Suddenly, my expectations were reversed. Again. I spent the weekend a little heart broken. And I blamed myself. I never should have started imagining her as my own dog. After a few days of mental gymnastics, I decided that Seva was again on her way to fulfilling her destiny and that after she graduated, I would get a cat. Cats don’t require long walks and love to cuddle by the fire. All would be well, and not only for me and Seva.



The happiest dog.


Seva did really well for both people she auditioned. Or did they audition her? It’s like speed dating, but instead of impressing your date with wit and charm, you pick things up off the floor and turn on the lights.

I was glad she did well. I also had the blues that night.

The following weekend, Seva went to visit S., one of her dates at pre-matching. She spent 3 days with S. and her cats. This trial run isn’t normal, but S. used to be a vet tech and needs a successor dog, so she knows the program.

I spent the weekend convinced S. was falling in love with Seva.

How could she not?


(To be continued.)




How to make your dog an awesome dog!

Seva is an awesome dog.

But do you know that as a puppy, we called her Dingo? And Bitey-McBite-Bite? And she didn’t let me sleep through the night for like six months. And she had something called puppy strangles that covered her snout in something that looked like chicken pox. And she got ear infections. And she chewed on her feet and I had to wash them with special antibacterial stuff from the vet. And she had a bunch of UTIs and then had to go through a heat cycle before being spayed. And….

The point is, she was a difficult puppy. There was a lot going on with her for the first 18 months, from being a high-energy chewing-biting little thing, to having a plethora of health issues. She tried my patience. A lot. And I am a very patient, very gentle person.

So, how did Bitey-McBite-Bite grow into the awesomest dog around? This is what I want to tell you about. The secret is training. The magic is in how Helping Paws teaches us to teach the dogs.

Seva has a sweet disposition, but I don’t think she’d be as sweet, mellow, gentle, and generally awesome if she’d been trained differently. And if we’d bought her somewhere as a pet, we would have trained her differently.

Why? Because of ignorance. Seva is actually my first dog, and Scott has commented many times that he can’t believe how good she is. He’s had dogs, dogs he raised, and none of them turned out as good as Seva.

Are you with me here? I’m saying that left to our own devices, the Dingo would probably still be a dingo. A more mature, calmer, better dingo, but a dingo nonetheless.


You don't get the food by watching the food. Watch me!

You don’t get the food by watching the food. Watch me!

The secret is in the training.

• Her training began at eight weeks of age and continued week after week. In other words, start as early as possible and don’t get lazy about your training goals.

• Training is done only through a system of rewards. Puppies are not punished for being puppies. We use the clicker method. The first thing Seva learned was to associate a click with a reward. Then I had to click good behavior any time I saw it.

• Bad behavior is redirected, not punished. Replace the sock with a chew toy. Move the puppy outside and clean up the accident. When the puppy goes berserk, exercise her, don’t stifle her energy.

•Training develops a set of skills that need to be practiced, and practice is guided by a patient, rewarding mom/dad/trainer. You wouldn’t toss a sneaker at a five year old kid and expect him to tie it on his own, and puppies don’t learn to walk nicely on a leash just by putting them on a leash. When Seva was learning to walk on a leash, I took her in the backyard and rewarded her for walking with me and for looking up to see what I was doing. That is how she learned to walk in step with her human.

• Every good behavior is shaped with rewards. It’s not about tolerating or not tolerating a behavior. Every day, from day one, when Seva ate, I put my hand in her bowl and stirred her food. I picked it up and put it back and fed her off my hand. I touched her legs while she ate. As a baby, she didn’t question my doing this. As a two-year-old dog, she never resource guards. Not even her best, favorite antler. She absolutely trusts us to give, take, give, and there is no fear that she won’t have enough. And, yes, I do still put my hand in her food from time to time.

• Never say “no.” This is probably the first thing we learned at Helping Paws. We do not say “no” to these dogs. I brought that home and put it at the top of the list of rules Scott and the kids had to learn before the puppy came home. I think that we don’t say “no,” because “no” can be used so harshly. People shout “no” at each other. People snarl “no.” People hurl “no” across the room. When you’re raising a puppy with rewards and patience, “no” gets in the way.


We say, “Ah-ah.”

You don’t sound half as frustrated when you say “ah-ah” as when you say “no.” I’ve been known to say “ah-ah” to Scott and the kids. They don’t really like that. I guess they’d rather I say “no” to them. I don’t know. I think “ah-ah” is kind of nice.


Fluffy baby bear.

Running at 8 weeks.


Running at 1 year.

The other day we had Seva on a flooded golf course. We let her sprint, because she loves to run. She’s the Black Stallion dog. Seriously. You should see her run. After a bunch of sprinting, she decided to check out the water and grab a drink. This water is full of blue-green algae that can kill a dog in minutes. I shouted, “Ah-ah!” like I’ve never shouted it before. I was scared to death for that moment when her head was bowed to the water. She obeyed. She left the water and she’s fine. If I had shouted “no,” she wouldn’t have understood.



Lack of training kills dogs.

Do you know that most dogs are given up to shelters between 9 and 18 months? That’s when a dog is in adolescence. Dog adolescence is worse than human adolescence, though much much shorter. With dogs, it’s like the terrible twos and the teenage years get rolled into one dreadful phase. The Dingo was a rotten teenager. All that energy needing some kind of channel, and she was finally big enough to counter-surf and get stuff off the table. Nothing was safe and, as a result, she needed constant supervision.

According to Cesar Millan’s website, the #1 reason dogs end up in shelters is lack of training:

1. Lack of training: Many people get a dog without realizing how much training is involved. Dogs do not come trained. They need diligent leaders who are willing to put in the hours setting rules, boundaries, and limitations, and spending time teaching them commands. Puppies do not come housebroken and must be taught to go to the bathroom outside. People fail to take this into account when bringing home a dog and ignore problems, which often lead to behavioral issues. Shelters are filled with dogs that have potty training, socialization, and obedience issues, all of which could have been prevented through proper training.

Read more:


Adolescents can be hell.

During this phase, I remember telling sympathetic friends that, because I was with Seva all day and in charge of her training, I saw the little milestones Seva passed. I could be frustrated and tired, but those glimmers of “good dog” kept me going. And I felt all alone in this. The kids didn’t like her anymore and Scott…let’s just say he wasn’t a fan of hers during those months.


There’s biting, and then there’s biting.

Now, I want to point out that while Seva was also known as Bitey-McBite-Bite, she only bit us when she was playing. It hurt because those baby teeth are pointy as all get out. But she was never aggressive. And she never bit when she was caught off-guard by someone or something. It was not a reaction to us or her environment. It was teething and playing. And she has outgrown all that.

We trust her completely.




What’s a growl for?

Seva does not have an aggressive bone. She doesn’t even know what a growl is for. I have only ever heard her growl on occasions when there is a gate between us. She doesn’t like being separated from us. If her usual stare, whine, bark tactics don’t get me to come move the gate, she will say, “Grrrrrrruff!” It’s the most adorable growl I’ve ever heard.


Nature vs. Nurture.

Seva is an awesome dog, no doubt about it. I can’t tell you how much of her awesomeness is nature and how much is training. But I am positive that her training helped her develop her nature in the best way possible.

She’s not perfect. Don’t kid yourself. I could list a whole bunch of personality quirks and flaws, but at the end of the day, she’s still awesome!


To quote the Panda, "There is no charge for awesomness."

To quote the Panda, “There is no charge for awesomeness.”

Get the Door Breakthrough!

This just happened. Like within the last hour, and I couldn’t wait to share it. Seva had her Get the Door breakthrough!

In the last post, I showed how she would use her handle if I was holding it, but suddenly couldn’t see it if it was attached to a door.

I attached a piece of fleece to the handle and she worked with that over the last few weeks. I kept shortening the fleece, until there was nothing hanging down. She would nibble at it and open the door with her teeth in the fleece, but not on the rubber handle. Not even a little bit. That will get our pantry door open, but it won’t do for out in the world. Public doors are heavy.

From time to time, I’d remove the fleece from the handle and she’d go right back to ignoring it. Suddenly Seva is deaf, dumb, and blind.

And then, tonight she opened the door with the fleece a few times. I unwrapped the fleece from her handle, showed her a cookie, put it inside the pantry, and said Get the Door.



This is a huge breakthrough! I love it when she has these moments, finally connecting a command to an action, or getting over some nebulous hurdle like the mysterious aversion to her door handle only when it’s attached to a door.

This time the cookie is not in the pantry. We’re working on actually holding a door open until she’s asked to release it. She will one day hold the door open for me while I walk through it. For now, I’m just excited she’s using the appropriate tool!



I’m so proud of her tonight!


Get the Door

Seva is working on a new skill called Get the Door. It’s an impressive skill, once it’s mastered.

Suppose I’m in a wheelchair. Holding a door open while going through it can be tough, so I hang a strap on the door, tell Seva to Get the Door, and she opens it and holds it while I get through the doorway.

Pretty cool, huh?

Only, Seva has a weird issue with the strap.

It shocked me, because she got the base skills immediately. I hold the strap out, she Takes it and Holds it until I say Release. No problem.

As soon as the strap is near a door, Seva won’t go near it. Not even for a COOKIE!

Our trainer, Eileen, gave me a fleece toy to get Seva excited about the door. So she had a breakthrough with the toy. She can open a door with the fleece toy. But…watch the video.



I think it’s funny when I put the strap on the door and Seva bows her head. It’s like, “I can’t see it. I don’t know what you’re talking about. What door?”

Even when she watches me put her cookies right inside the door, she won’t touch the strap.



Hmmm…I’m not sure how we’re going to get past this one.

Training: Command Chain

Seva is 19 months old now. Her graduation is going to come up sooner than we think (between 2 and 2 1/2 years). At this point, she’s learned most of the skills she needs to be a service dog. The focus now is on consistency, duration, reducing food rewards, and linking commands into chains so that she can do more complex things. Oh, and minding her manners in public. That’s going to be tough!

We’ve been working on new skills, Rise–standing up on a wall–and Put–dropping an object into a bin, instead of Giving it to me. These are tough skills for a puppy. Recent additions to our homework have been to put together commands in a chain.

Now, Seva can do all sorts of command chains, like Get It, Bring, Give. Get Dressed, Rest Your Head. Rise, Snuggle. Those command chains are natural and intuitive. I didn’t think she was ready for a chain with Rise or Put in it, until Sunday.

I had her Rise (we practice with a board to save our walls), and thought, “What the heck.” I grabbed her light switch and gave the next command in the chain: Light. She did it! Camera time:




And if she could do Rise-Light, why not Rise-Put? I tried. She succeeded. I grabbed my phone again. It was propped up on the counter, so forgive the framing. You’ll see in the second go that Seva tries to quit halfway. She puts her chin on her crate like, “Come on, Mom. That’s good enough.” Typical teenager!


Get It-Rise-Put


Method Training

Seva will go to someone with a physical disability. As we get into more advanced skills, I have to ask more of her and do less myself. This means, to help with Seva’s training, I have to imagine I have a disability. Like method acting, I think of this as method training.

I’ll give some examples.

A lot of graduates (that’s what Helping Paws calls the people who receive the dogs) don’t have very good manual dexterity. It’s hard to grasp and hold objects in their hands. So, if I’m pretending I don’t have good manual dexterity, when Seva retrieves an object and doesn’t quite get it in my hands, I let it fall and ask her to retrieve it again. Right now, she is learning to hold something in her mouth without chewing or dropping it while I pretend I can’t quite get hold of it and touch her muzzle before finally taking the object.

Some graduates are partially paralyzed. If I drop my keys between my feet, I pretend my feet are paralyzed and let Seva figure out how to get the keys without any help from me.

Some graduates are ambulatory, but need support. When we train on a staircase, I tell Seva to “Step,” and she places her front paws up (or down) one step, then waits while I use her as a brace to bring myself up (or down) that step. I don’t really need her for support, but I put some weight on her so she knows what it feels like to be used as a brace.


Me & Seva

Me & Seva


We use wheelchairs at the training center so the dogs get used to walking beside them. One day, we put tennis balls behind our backs. We had to hold the balls in place, which meant we couldn’t lean forward to hold out a hand to our dogs. They had to get each item they retrieved in our hands, even if our knees or the chair’s wheels were in the way.

The dog packs have a belly strap that buckles. Sometimes, I sit in a chair and make her bring me her pack. Then I hold it out and Seva has to walk through the chest strap without any help (like making the opening wider). Then she has to rise onto my lap so the buckle is easier for me to reach. When she gets dressed this way, I’m teaching her to adapt to my needs, instead of doing it the same way every time and establishing a pattern of how much—or how little—she has to do to get dressed.

As I train Seva and work through many of the ways her help could be needed, I’m reminded how fortunate I am to be able to take my mobility for granted.

Look: A Training Video

One of Seva’s recent commands is Look. It tells her there is something nearby I want her to find and retrieve.

In this video, Scott hid a set of keys in a store. Seva and I walked into the aisle and I gave her the command Look.

She looks for the keys and when she spots them, I say Get It.

She picks up the keys, and I say Give.

She puts them in my hand.

What if she didn’t know what to pick up? I would use the cues That’s It, Leave It, and/or Try Again to direct her to the right object. It’s kind of like playing Hotter/Colder and the tone of my voice does most of the work.



Training Video: Take/Hold

Today Seva had a breakthrough!

We have been working on a two-part skill called Take It and Hold for some months now. This one is tricky for the dogs because they have to take a PVC dowel in their mouths right behind the canine teeth, where there is a gap before the molars start, and hold it without biting or gnawing it.

Seva is a nibbler and getting her to take and hold the dowel was a process! Mainly, she didn’t do it. She’d nibble the pipe or she’d let it slide out of her mouth if I moved my hands even a little.

Last week, when Cash was here, we didn’t do much training. I felt badly about that, until today. I got out the dowel and the bag thinking we had to make up for lost time, but maybe the break was what she needed, because she took the dowel and held it on her own until I  clicked (the signal that she had accomplished the skill). After a few of these, I grabbed my camera.



Another of Seva’s newest skills is Snuggle. Here she is practicing it with Scott. Some of the recipients of these dogs don’t have feeling below the neck and Snuggle is an important way for them to connect with their dog.


Seva & Scott Snuggle

Seva & Scott Snuggle


That’s my girl!

Yesterday, Seva performed her very first service demo. We went to Minnetonka West Middle School and joined three other Helping Paws teams to show a group of 8th and 9th graders what we do. There were at least 60 kids in the large band room.

You know, Seva is the most sociable, excitable puppy, so I went into this expecting her to do well, but knowing that at any moment she could go berserk. We did have a little scene when she saw Chuda in the vestibule outside the front office. Seva stayed with Chuda a couple weeks ago when we went out of town, so they’re buddies. Seva was airborn with excitement. Fortunately, Chuda is older and set a more respectable tone (thanks to his trainer, Wendy!).

I recorded the demo, which took about an hour, and have edited out some short clips. The stars of the day (closest to the camera to farthest): Seva, 7 mos old, and Alida; Jed, 2 1/2 yrs old, and John; Chuda, 9 mos old, and Wendy; Aida, 1 1/2 yrs old, and Katy.

The dogs each do something amazing and we went in order of youngest to oldest, so you get a sense of the progression of skills.

Watch this if…

Intro: …you want to hear Katy talk a bit about Helping Paws and meet the trainer/dog teams. 


Seva: …you want to see what a 7 month old puppy can do. Something funny happens when they clap for Seva.


Chuda: …you want to see what a 9 month old puppy can do.


Aida: …you want to see what a 1 1/2 year old dog can do.


Jed: …you want to see what a 2 1/2 year old dog can do.


Kids + Puppy: …you want to see Seva receive the kids’ love. I’m giving her kibble for keeping her paws on the floor. You see by her tail that she was excited to meet so many kids, but once again kibble saves the day!