January 31, 2010

Our Thoughts Are With Captain Phil Harris

We read today that Captain Phil Harris from The Discovery Channel's excellent Alaskan crab fishing reality show, Deadliest Catch, has suffered a stroke; our thoughts are with Captain Phil and his family. I had the very good fortune to meet Captain Phil at an event here this past summer, the Denver Summer BrewFest, where he was representing the Alaskan Brewing Company. We had just gotten Ruby and she was way too little to bring with us for an outing (couldn't have her all liquored up being underage and whatnot), but when I met Captain Phil, we talked a little bit about service dogs and I mentioned Ruby. He was autographing photos and I asked, if he wouldn't mind, if he could please sign one for Ruby which I would save as a special memento for the person with whom Ruby will be paired.

Captain Phil is a friendly man and a great sport. He happily autographed a photo for a dog (perhaps a first) and it's something I'll proudly present to Ruby's partner someday.

One other thing...with all due respect to my husband, let me tell you, the man knows how to give a hug. Swoon.

We don't know any more details on his condition at this time, other than that he has had surgery, but we are sending our hope and positive thoughts that Captain Phil is resting comfortably and will have a complete recovery.

Update: It is with great sadness that we have learned of the passing of Captain Phil Harris. Our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.

January 30, 2010


This dog manages to flop her ears in such interesting shapes! She came wandering in like this and we were amazed at how it looked different from every angle. She really should teach a Saturday class.

January 27, 2010

Puppy Raising Q&A

As any Service Puppy Raiser can tell you, we get tons of questions. I meet so many people who are curious about service puppies and the puppy raising experience, I thought I'd share a few of their questions here.

(Please remember, these are just my opinions and may not reflect the opinions of any other Service Puppy Raiser; each person's and dog's experience is unique. Also, my answers on training questions are based solely on the curriculum of our organization and may well differ from the training programs and requirements of other service dog organizations.)

OK, I'll start with the big one.

Q. How do you do it? I mean...how can you give her up?

A. Raising a service puppy is an amazing experience. But, it is also not for everyone. Clearly, there are significant time and financial commitments, but above all, you are making an enormous emotional investment. You are going to nurture, fall in love with, and eventually have to let go of a dog that is yours in so many ways, and yet not your own.

Ruby is a doll and an imp; I completely adore her and love fills me to the brim each time I look at her. But there is a small part of my heart that doesn't belong to her. I'm saving that for someone I don't yet know – the person with whom she will someday be paired – and it justly tempers the love I feel for her. When she begins her life with the person she was truly meant for, that piece will fall into place; it will always be something the three of us share.

I know it will be painful when it is time to give her up, but there will be so much joy and hope mixed in with my sadness. I want to give her all the tools she needs and then I want her to soar. To witness the love and trust of a team, the beauty and fluidity of a person and service dog who share life's challenges, is to understand how honored I feel to be part of the journey toward my dog's partnership.

Q. Would you do it again, raise another service puppy?

A. Absolutely!

Q. How come I can't pet a service puppy?

A. I completely empathize with how difficult it can be for people not to pet service puppies in training, trust me!

I remember seeing a very little service puppy many years ago – a baby Ruby clone, complete with tiny cape – in a pizza place. It was all I could do to stop myself from scooping her up, covering her with kisses, and pretty much just plopping her on top of my slice along with the pepperoni and eating her right up. People have good intentions – petting a service puppy is just a way of showing affection, right? Why would that interfere with her training?

The reason we don't allow anyone to pet a service puppy in training is because it's so important to teach the puppy not to solicit attention. When you refrain from petting Ruby, you are contributing to a very valuable part of her education. You are teaching her that there is no benefit to approaching other people when she is with her partner, unless her partner gives her a specific command to do so. The focus a service dog has on her partner, and their bond, is an absolute lifeline between them.

Q. It's not fair that a puppy has to work all the time. She never gets to have any fun.

A. Not really a question, but I've heard this fairly frequently, mostly when we're out shopping. Maybe it's from people who really dislike shopping and are just projecting it onto the dog!

Just like any puppy, Ruby's life is all about having fun. Zooming around the house and yard, playing with squeaky toys, enjoying ear scratches and belly rubs. And lots of treats and cuddling and snooze time.

When it comes to our "work," I can say without any hesitation that Ruby loves to train. I do too, it's always fun for both of us. Walks are also a very important part of training; we teach our pups not to pull on the leash (loose leash walking) as they grow accustomed to the world around them. I also like to train informally throughout the day, in ways that are out of the context of our sessions. While I'm cooking dinner, I might put her in a sit or down while I walk over to the stove for a bit, walk back, then release her. Or just out of the blue while we're watching TV, I'll ask her to "touch" (bop my hand with her nose – a building block for later skills she'll learn, such as pressing buttons or turning switches on and off); she thinks it's a fun game.

As far as outings, Ruby is naturally curious and she loves going into stores and other public places. She's never forced to do anything she's not capable of, she's rewarded frequently, and we always end on a special fun and upbeat note.

Q. What kinds of things do you teach her how to do?

A. During the approximate year and a half that Ruby is with me, we'll work on socialization and cues such as sit/stay and down/stay; stand; wait; here (come); lap; car; touch; under; fix (untangle herself from the leash); heel; etc.

Q. Can you train her to go get me a beer while I'm watching the game?

A. I get this one ALL THE TIME! Yes, service dogs can be trained to perform specialized tasks such as opening the refrigerator door, retrieving an item, closing the door, and bringing the item to their partner. But I've trained Ruby to reject light beer so the fridge will have to be stocked with a good double IPA.

Q. What happens to her after she leaves you?

A. At 18 months of age, Ruby will enter Advanced Training for approximately 4-6 months, where she'll learn the more specific skills she'll need when she is partnered with a person who has a mobility-related disability. If all goes well, at around two years of age, she'll be teamed up with a partner and I will proudly attend their graduation with a large supply of tissues!

Q. What happens if she doesn't make it?

A. That depends on why she doesn't make it. If it's a health-related issue, she will be released from the program, offered to me to keep, and I will adopt her. If she has a behavior or temperament issue that prevents her from attaining public access, her trainers will determine if there is another area in the realm of canine assistance for which she might be suited, and she'll be trained for that sort of job. If the behavior or temperament issue completely disqualifies her from service, she will be released and offered to me. If, for any reason, I am unable to adopt her, there is a waiting list to adopt released dogs so she would ultimately wind up as someone's well-loved pet.

January 26, 2010

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Wishing a very Happy Birthday – and it's a big one! – across the miles to Ruby's Grandma. On a recent visit, Grandma taught Ruby a very important service dog skill: how to make the Sunday Sauce! Ruby's gotten pretty good at it, but she keeps leaving snootprints in the meatballs.

January 22, 2010

Pupdate From Camp Ruby

Looks like our intrepid camper is doing really well! Thanks to her puppy sitter, she's had some great new experiences. She's gotten up close and personal with cats and she's met her first horses. During her time as a furry little exchange student in high school, she's been behaving (mostly!) and she even got a chance to hang out out at the mall with the cool kids.

Enjoy some excerpts of the emails and pix I received from her puppy sitter:

"She's been wonderful – just kind of ambles around the house and sleeps. Hasn't gotten into anything or eaten anything she shouldn't! She's been extremely loyal, never lets us out of her sight."

"She's done pretty well in school too! I took her with me today and yesterday – she now speaks Spanish and knows her statistics and government."

"...she's a bit of a wiggle worm in class! She wasn't a problem by any means and my teachers love the dogs, but she was sure entertaining. She entertained herself by wrapping herself up around my chair, playing with a toy, and rolling around on her back beneath the desk. Once she got her sillies out she settled just fine."

"She was also quite surprised by the horses! They were watching her at the fence and surprised her, so she jumped clear up in the air and started barking. I had her sit and she stopped barking, but boy was she perplexed!"

"And she loves tv! She was sitting in the living room all by herself this morning staring at a commercial for Beneful dog food."

"The first picture is her with my dog Riko. (Boy did they play!)"

"Ruby settling in quite comfortably on my friend's lap..."

"...her first reaction to Trinity (our cat) checking her out haha."

"...then her talking with one of our cats."

"In front of the Sephora, she liked the make up store..."
(Ha, that's my girl! -RR)

"...and then at my desk in Spanish. I tried to zoom out a little bit but the little wiggle worm blurred the other pictures haha."

January 20, 2010

I Love To Amuse My Dog

I wanted to thank you all for your cute and funny emails and comments on a shot I ran in the last post. For those who missed it, here's Ruby doing her best Snoopy as she howls with laughter over yet another unfortunate choice by Charlie Brown...er, me.

Once upon another lifetime, when I lived back east, I knew how to pull myself together pretty nicely – not that you'd believe it by this picture! But I've lived out west for a while now, and I just CANNOT get the hang of properly attiring myself for the unpredictable weather in Colorado. It can drop 30° in a couple of hours out here and I have, like, a ridiculous 3° window of comfort. So I keep a closet's worth of different-weight stuff in the car, because at any given moment, I might need to layer up like Ralphie's brother. All this car-wear is practical rather than pretty and of course none of it ever matches.

Should you run into me while I'm on an outing with Ruby this winter, please feel free to mock and giggle at my uniform: Michelin Man poofy down jacket (size eeny, which is still giant on me because I am a shrimp), my new kindergartener's stripey wool hat (yep, the source of puppy hilarity – I bought it!), three layers of various colored fleeces, the ubiquitous green or black fanny pack filled with a stash of poo-bags, anti-bac wipes, and treats, and my beloved brown Frankenstein Clodhoppers. Clearly, rather than buy appropriate footwear to walk through snowbanks, I am trying my best to just elevate myself above them.

In sum, if you want advice on raising a service puppy, come here. If you want fashion advice, by all means, do not come here. However, for excellent advice on all things fashionable, by someone whose taste level is second to none, the person to visit is Liberty London Girl (www.libertylondongirl.com). Some of you already know her, or have even arrived here via her blog, as she's been a very kind supporter of Raising Ruby. Her posts cover an intriguing range of topics, and her humor and style is as engaging as her photography of the English countryside. And you're likely to come across a few adorable doggies while you're there, too!

January 19, 2010

Shopping Surprise

Whenever we're on an outing, Ruby is very focused on me and has little interest in other people. She's a happy, good-natured dog who enjoys a wealth of affection from lots of friends, but when we're in a store, restaurant, museum, or the like, I am very diligent about not letting people pet her. The lack of excitement over strangers dissuades her from straying to solicit attention.

Learning not to solicit attention is a very important part of a service puppy's education. Someday, when Ruby is a service dog assisting a person with a disability, it will be critical that she focus intently on her partner. We've been practicing this in public since she was a wee pup and I'm very proud of her for understanding that when she's in a sea of strangers, I'm her one and only.

But while she finds the humans fairly boring, she is crazy about other dogs. She's a naturally confident puppy who just plain likes dogs. She was first-born in a litter of nine and from what I understand, she loved to get everyone going. My Ruby is a pot-stirrer!

So, we're working on learning how to appropriately react to other dogs who cross our path. In other words, To Not Do This:

That sweet little dog actually took Ruby and me both by surprise; I was unaware that this store allowed pet dogs until we turned the corner and Ruby, um, clued me in. I was all la-la-la what a pleasant outing, just strolling about looking at flannel shirts and thermal undies, and then there was lots of lunging and barking and explosions and fireworks and it was all at the other end of my leash. So when you're in the Ladies' Department and fate trades your quiet, well-behaved service puppy for a maniacal wolverine, just look at it as a great training opportunity!

And I have to say, she did very well, considering. It took a little while to get her to focus back on me, but once I had her attention, I put her in a sit and treated her as she sat calmly and let the other dog continue on in peace.

During the rest of the time we were in the store, she saw a few more dogs walking around. She still got very excited, but I was able to recapture her attention a lot more quickly than at first. We'll be working on getting her accustomed to seeing other dogs (especially in unexpected places) and responding in a calm manner.

Great training experience. And even better? This store was so much fun! It really was the coolest place, they had EVERYTHING.

Caps for proud participants in the Witness Protection Program!

Sauces! Lots of Sauces!

Big Huge Red Twisty Thingies!


Time Machines!



Funny Hats!

Camera Equipment! Ruby's very comfy around lenses. In fact, lens cap = chew toy. After the thousands of photos we've taken of her, I figured it was a fair trade.

And even though she can't be petted, she makes friends wherever she goes.

January 17, 2010

Guest Post: Hiking With Raven

(Our regular readers know that Raven is Ruby's brother, but do you recognize him? He's gotten so big! And more handsome than ever.

His awesome mom, puppy raiser Barb, has been sending me photos and updates on Raven's progress and I'm really happy to be able to share them with you. All photos and copy courtesy of Barb & Tom. Enjoy!)

Here are some photos of the hike Tom and I took with Raven New Year's Day. We had a great chance to check some of the large farm animals off Raven's socialization checklist and I thought that we would share the photographic evidence of how well he did. Actually it was all good until the horses started eating his high value treats – the cheesy poufs – and then Raven walked away. Guess we need to work with him more about sharing better.

Introductions –"Raven meet the horses, horses this is Raven"

Raven thinks horses are pretty cool, until they get some of his treats!

And then there was a cow...

but two were starting to get scary; hard to keep an eye on both of them.

So we sat and just watched – but look momma, I am being brave!

Camp Ruby Update

Looks like Ruby's first day went really well! Thank you to her puppy sitter, who sent us this thoughtful note:

Just wanted to let you know she's doing great for her first day -- ran a bit wild with my husky this afternoon, but at my dad's so far she's been ambling around and sleeping. (Sleeping at my feet now actually) totally mellow girl! She took turns walking around the room and laying by us. Also made friends with one of my cats -- I tried to snag a picture of them laying together but the cat jumped up on the couch!

Whew. Makes me feel so great to know that she's adjusting well and having a lot of fun!

January 15, 2010

Look Back, Look Ahead

This pic was taken when Ruby first arrived at our home. I thought it would be an appropriate post since tomorrow Ruby is leaving us. But don't worry, it's only for a week!

All the puppies in the program are packing up their bowls and bones and hitting the road to get some new experiences under their capes. Ruby will be staying at two different homes and from what we understand, she may be attending high school with one of her puppy sitters. They grow up so fast, don't they? Hmm, I remember high school. If she comes back with that cape hemmed up too short and the stale odor of one too many pig ears on her breath, she is going to be so grounded.

I'll be here next week, blogging as always, and if I receive any updates from her puppy sitters, I'll definitely be sharing them with all of you.

Good luck, Roo! We'll be missing you. But we're really proud of you and we'll see you next Saturday!

January 12, 2010

You Want A Toe?

I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don't wanna know about it, believe me.

Thank you Ruby, that was very Walter Sobchak of you. RIP, Rubber Chicken In A Bikini. Your time with us was way too short. Or more than long enough. Depends on which one of us you ask.

January 11, 2010

Practicing Recall

We're always searching for new and unfamiliar places where we can safely practice recall with Ruby. Not too long ago, we wandered a bit off a trail to unexpectedly find this spot which was an ideal mix of open space, large boulders, and tree cover. We progressed really nicely from short, easy back and forths to more complicated distances where one of us would hide and she'd fly toward the sound of our voices. Senior snow dog, Kiva, left the running up to Ruby that day, but did an admirable job helping with training by adding some woofs and distraction to the mix!

January 8, 2010

Wrong Kind...

but hey, she's only 8 months old. There's plenty of time to work on the reading comprehension.

January 6, 2010

Guest Post: Office Outing

I'm the husband of Ruby's raiser and I enjoy helping with Ruby's training, so last week I brought Ruby to visit my office. During these past few months it has been a real eye-opener for me to learn how important it is to expose service-dogs-in-training to new environments because there really is no way to create "virtual" environments to simulate the real thing. In other words, an office may not seem strange to most everyone, but when you think about it, the sights and sounds of a full-sized copy machine, the weird maze of cubicles, and the numerous offices filled with people moving here and there can be very odd if you've never experienced it. So, I got permission from my human resources manager to occasionally take Ruby to the office so that she could experience this strange environment first-hand, and so that it won't seem strange to her when she becomes a full-fledged service dog.

I loaded up with treats in my pockets, including the high-value ones, and with clicker in hand we headed in. Once in my office I made sure to settle in and start working, so that Ruby would get used to sitting near and under my desk.

Then we strolled around the office, practicing our loose-leash skills, and met a lot of people along the way. Even though it was a quiet pre-holiday week, a number of people were around and they asked me about Ruby. I made sure that they understood how important it was for them to allow her to do her work, and stay focused on me, but I had some nice conversations about how service dogs help people in the workplace.

When we returned to my office it struck me – I've been at my place of employment for 3 years and during this time I hadn't had the level of engagement with many of my co-workers that I just had on a stroll through the office with Ruby. My service-dog-in-training was doing something for me that I hadn't expected. I could see how much she will eventually help someone – not only with mobility concerns, but with so much more.

Back at the office Ruby really settled in under the desk (where she may eventually be expected to stay quietly as her partner works) and she didn't bother with people that walked by and stopped in to my office. Well...first she had a nice high value treat, that she thoroughly enjoyed:

And then she settled in...

It was truly a fun few hours at the office with Ruby. We both learned a lot, in an environment that may become very important for her some day, and we're looking forward to our next visit together at work.

January 4, 2010

The Most Precious Gift

I have a friend named Erika; I've known her for the better part of 11 years. We've only met in person once, in 1998, and since then we've kept up a somewhat infrequent correspondence, but she's made a sincere difference in my life.

This past weekend, I received a package from Erika containing a book. She knew I had wanted a copy of this special book, Dog Blessings: Poems, Prose, and Prayers Celebrating Our Relationship with Dogs, edited by June Cotner, because of the following selection. The author is Paulette Callen.

The Blessing

She was taken from a wild pack in Queens. Something indefinable about her kept the ASPCA officers from euthanizing her right away.* And then, realizing she was not vicious and that she was pregnant, they asked my friend Erika (who used to work at the ASPCA) if she would foster this shepherd-chow mix until the pups were born and weaned, warning her not to get attached; a dog with her history almost always has to be put down.

Erika named her Zoë, found homes for all of her puppies, and together, they went to class: obedience, advanced obedience, agility, and all the courses required for Zoë to be certified as a therapy dog.

They could now make regular visits to a retirement home for priests. The priests and the nurses were all happy to see this beautiful dog. Even the old fellow who, when she first started visiting, would dash into his room and slam the door, yelling, "I like cats!" was won over when Erika told him that Zoë liked cats, too – she lived with four of them.

One of the residents was confined to a wheelchair and, because of Alzheimer's, lost to the world around him. The nurses told Erika that he spent most days screaming. No one could reach him anymore – except Zoë.

When he saw her coming toward him down the corridor, he became quiet and recognition would light his eyes. When she rested her muzzle on his knee, he stroked her head and spoke her name. In her presence, he experienced a glimmer of lucidity, a moment of connection and peace.

This is a dog blessing a priest.

-Paulette Callen

*The packs must be culled periodically; if they get too large they become dangerous. Most of the dogs captured must be euthanized because they are diseased or too wild to be adopted (no facilities to care for feral dogs exist in New York).

I could not get past the first sentence of that selection before I started to cry and had to hand the book to my husband to read it aloud for me. As I told Erika in an email, the book is the second most precious gift she's ever given me. Zoë is the mother of my dog, Kiva.


Zoë and her puppy, Kiva

There are many reasons why I decided to raise a service puppy. One very significant reason has a lot to do with the choice Erika made to foster Zoë. By taking a chance on Zoë – giving her a safe, warm home in which to have her eight puppies and the kind of unconditional love that goes with that commitment – Erika's decision ultimately had a profound effect on my life; it brought me Kiva.

What Kiva gives to me is indescribable, although I could tell you a million stories about her. But the deepest, truest explanation of the love I have for her lies in the moments and stories I don't tell, rather than the ones I do. What Kiva has brought to my life ranges from the intensely minute to the extraordinary, so I can only imagine the levels of joy Ruby may one day be able to bring to her partner.

I know that I'm preparing Ruby as best I can for the day that she enters Advanced Training. And I hope with all of my heart that this little puppy will ultimately grow up with the right combination of skills, traits, and temperament to be a Service Dog for a person with a disability. As much as I will miss her, there would be no more precious gift than to see her placed with someone who will cherish her for all that she is, just as Erika cherishes Zoë, just as I cherish my Kiva.