A “Little Sponge” Indeed

White golden puppy Dotty jumps on big sister Orly, a blond golden retriever As I said in the little news story on Dotty’s service dog program, Dotty is a “little sponge” soaking up, well, everything. (That includes what Orly is teaching her …)

However, on the positive side, she:

  • Learned how to go down the 3 steps from the deck into the back yard
  • Learned how to go back up those 3 stairs
  • Discovered the wonders of string cheese as a training treat
  • Figured out how to get food out of multiple types of food toys
  • Encountered & conquered an ice cube
  • Mastered the snuffle mat
  • “Paddled” in her water dish
  • 10-week-old white golden puppy sniffs a snuffle mat made of strips of fleeceTaught Orly to snuggle with her
  • Helped me mow the lawn and pull dandelions
  • Had a bath and pawdicure
  • Stole the hearts of dozens of Missoulians and countless email and text friends

… All in her first two days.

She’s learning how to go up and down larger flights of stairs, brush her teeth, walk on a leash, and more. In between her many short training, learning, and exploring sessions, she sleeps. A lot. She settles down nicely in a large crate or pen, but prefers to lounge in the grass or on a huge dog bed. She loves toys, especially ducks and the small chirpy chick that was one of Orly’s baby toys. And anything that makes a crinkly sound.

Orly is teaching her to eat grass, try to break into the newly reinforced raspberry patch, stare down squirrels, chase her tail, wrestle, and collect her fair share of the egg tax.



WHAT Have I Gotten Myself Into?!

Golden retriever Orly, standing on grass, play bowsSeveral years ago, I trained service dog puppies. I also taught at a school for service dog trainers. I worked with dozens of volunteers, including many puppy raisers. But, until now, I had never been a puppy raiser.

Missoula used to have a mobility service dog program called Pawsibilities, run by Glenn Martyn. Glenn also was one of my teachers; he’s an outstanding dog trainer with deep and varied experience. And he’s working on re-establishing his service dog organization.

Through a series of events that could only happen in a place like Missoula, where all the dog people know each other, Orly’s dog hiker met Glenn because Glenn was training my friend/neighbor’s puppy (who hikes with her because I made the match …). They seemingly cooked up this idea during a training session. Orly was on board too.

So, by the time Glenn asked whether I would be interested in puppy raising … well … I am not sure that “no” was an option.

9-week-old golden pup Dotty runs with hears flying out to the sides
Photo by Christina Phelps

So here we are.

Dotty, named for my late grandmother, came home last night. Orly immediately invited her to play. Despite tumbling Dotty over a couple of times, Orly showed exceptional manners and is already a great big sister.

Dotty has learned to use the steps from the back deck to the grass — she went down last night and figured out “up” this morning. She’s also been introduced to food-filled chew toys, string cheese, and a water bowl (almost) big enough to swim in. She is learning to sit for meal prep. She already knows to ask to go outside and has not (yet) had an accident in the house. She seems to know about the magic sit, in fact, and takes treats very gently. She had a bath and had her very sharp little nails trimmed this morning, and behaved perfectly throughout.

We’ll follow her adventures over the next several months, as she learns all the skills she needs to be a great service dog!

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Orly LOVES Sleepovers

3 dogs sleep in dog beds, while golden Orly looks around to see if one wants to play
Wanna play?!

Orly loved her first sleepover.

Her human hostess, the Missoula Dog Mom who takes her hiking a few times a week, was ready. Some of Orly’s buddies were waiting.

When I left, Orly followed me to the gate. She looked a little worried when I left her inside after I went outside. Dog Mom called her over and cuddled her, and as I drove off, Orly’s tail was wagging.

A short time later a looonnnngggg video popped up on my phone. In it, Orly was racing madly around the huge fenced yard and trying hard to entice a doodle pup to chase her. The doodle chased, then wandered off. Orly resorted to more solo laps. She was prancing and leaping and dancing. Her tail never stopped wagging.

Orly loved sleepaway camp.

In the photo, she’s the one falling out of her bed, probably trying to get one of her sleeping pals to wake up and play some more.

She pretended to be happy to see me when I picked her up. She was pretty tired and went right to sleep after dinner.

By the next day, though, she was bored. In true teenager fashion, she sighed loudly as she slumped down, bored. Bored. BORED. The only thing missing was a phone for her to fiddle with.

She’ll be getting a surprise soon, though. One that (who?) will banish the boredom. You’ll all read about it in next week’s post.

Orly’s First Sleepover

Golden retriever puppy Orly lies in a muddy river, coated in mudWe’ve packed her food and put clean sheets on her dog bed. We’re taking Orly for her first sleepover as we head out to spend a long weekend at Yellowstone.

She watched the prep with interest. The only time she has slept away from home was last summer when we went camping, and she loved that. She’s also had fun aunties stay with her at home while I traveled for work.

This time, though, she’s going away, alone.

The dog sitter is the same amazing fun person who takes Orly hiking a few times a week, and who always has a carful of friends for Orly to run around with.

She has visited her dog sitter’s home, and she was delighted to find her buddy Henry there (he lives there) as well as some of friends from her hiking group.

I was with her, though, and we only stayed for about an hour. When I drop her off tomorrow, with bed and breakfasts (and dinners), she’ll be off on her first solo overnight adventure.

She’ll go on hikes with her buddies, play in the huge fenced yard, and have slumber parties with the other dogs. She’ll probably eat too much junk food and stay up too late.

I’m sure she’ll have a great time. And that I will miss her far more than she misses me.

Not All Dogs Are Career Dogs

Koala, a black Labrador, wears her guide harness.The post about Ida last week and some conversations with a local service dog trainer got me thinking about the many reasons that dogs don’t succeed in a career as a service or guide dog.

For Ida, the issue was anxiety; she was uncomfortable with unpredictable sounds, with airplane travel, and possibly with other unavoidable features of life as a working dog.

Why else might a dog bred or selected for training as a guide or service dog be released?

For many puppies, and even adults or working dogs, leaving the field is the result of a health issue. Alberta retired 7 years ago after losing an eye to a benign tumor.

For others, it’s temperament. They are too nervous to work safely in public spaces, for example. I’ve known dogs with top-notch skills who simply couldn’t function in a busy public place where pets aren’t expected to be, like a grocery store or a restaurant, or even a busy park.

They may be uncomfortable around unfamiliar dogs; Deni has encountered untrained “service” or “support” dogs in airports and other public spaces who growled or lunged at her working dog. These dogs are too scared and reactive to be safe working in public.

Some dogs have specific fears, like dogs who are afraid of thunder, that mean they cannot focus on their work.

Sometimes, the problem is behavioral: A dog who is so obsessed with food or distracted by squirrels or tennis balls, for example, that she cannot focus on her work will be released.

Working dogs need to be calm under all circumstances, keep working even when they are tired, and not react to other dogs, cats, small (or adult) humans who invade their space and touch them or repeatedly call their names. They need to be flexible and resilient and able to regroup, change direction, and keep their handlers safe.

Working as a guide or service dog asks a lot of a dog and exposes the dog to many things pet dogs never have to worry about. It’s not surprising that many dogs who begin the training don’t complete it. Or, like Ida, once they see what the job is like, they quickly realize that they are overwhelmed.

I am glad I met Ida. She’s a sweet, smart girl. I’m also happy for her that she will have the kind of life she needs and deserves.


Not Meant to Be

Black Lab Ida wades into the water to stand near Deni, dressed in shorts and tank top, holding a long blue leash.
Ida’s first visit to the dog beach

A guest post by Deni Elliott

The partnership that develops between a well-bred and trained guide dog and a visually impaired human looks and feels like magic. However, as was the case with Ida and me, sometimes things just don’t work out.

Alberta, my first Guiding Eyes dog, and her successor, Koala, matched me perfectly in very different ways. I wasn’t surprised that Ida was not like the others; I thought of her as my sensitive girl.

However, after three weeks with me, Ida made it clear to my Guiding Eyes home trainer and me that she really didn’t want to be a guide dog. I am grateful that Ida made her choice before we set out together on a trip in which she would have needed be comfortable at my side while I gave a professional presentation in Chicago, attended some meetings in Salt Lake City, and then got to know her golden retriever sister and life in Montana, with many hours in airports and flights on Delta in between.

Ida got the life that I suspect she wanted all along — being a pampered pet with the family who raised her from the age of 8 weeks to 16 months. My previous two guides are happy too: when Koala retired after more than 6 years of guiding, she happily returned to her puppy raiser. Alberta, who retired early due to an eye tumor,  is now 12 years old. She lovingly watches over my toddler grandniece, who has shared food with the dog since she was old enough to fling it from her high chair.

I will be fine, even though I miss having a dog at my side and am temporarily using a white cane to help with navigation. Guiding Eyes training staff and placement specialists have come to know me well over the past 10 years; They are working hard to find my next perfect match.

My first two Guiding Eyes partners taught me that dogs with different temperaments can be equally good guides:

  • Alberta exuded confidence. Give her a challenge, and she’d rise up on her toes to say, “Bring it on!” More than once she responded to my uncertainty by nuzzling me to say, “We can do this.”
  • Koala was my introvert, analytical and thoughtful about new environments, but five weeks into our relationship, she flew with Pam and me to Israel without complaint and happily worked trains and open air markets in Jerusalem, as well as guiding me safely up and down the centuries-old stairs that traverse Tzefat.

Ida was brisk, responsive, and responsible when in harness and loved being praised and rewarded for her good work. That’s why she was matched with me in the first place! But, when off duty, she increasingly startled at unexpected sounds and sights, including wind in the trees and birds flying overhead. Within a few weeks, she could no longer shake off whatever surprised her and became more intensely anxious more of the time. Ida taught me that a smart, creative dog can hide her true feelings in her eagerness to please — at least for a while.

A successful guide partnership is a tapestry of collaboration, cooperation, communication, and trust. My dog trusts me to know our ultimate destination and give her clear directions about where we are heading. I trust the dog to alert me so that I can navigate curbs and stairs and locate door handles and empty chairs. She steers us safely around obstacles that I would run into or trip over. Most importantly, she quickly gets us out of the way of vehicles that might run us down. The partnership works only when dog and person agree that the dog has final say in all guiding decisions. We live by the Guiding Eyes mantra: Trust your dog.

Sometimes puppies decide as early as 8 weeks that they are not cut out for the intensity of guide work; others make their reluctance clear as adolescents when learning guiding skills. Dogs past their prime slow down when they are in harness, signaling to their partners that they are ready to retire. Unfortunately, as with Ida, sometimes the dog’s decision comes at a sad time for all of the humans involved: When placed in a real life partnership, they decide that a guide dog’s life is not for them.







Introducing Ida: A New Thinking Dog!

Black lab Ida holds a green rubber toy with her right paw while chewing on a Nyladbone wedged inside it
Ida uses a toy to hold her chew bone steady.

The Thinking Dog Blog finally has some wonderful news to share: Deni recently welcomed Ida, a new guide dog, to the family!

Ida, who just turned 2, is a black Labrador retriever from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

She’s a great addition to the Thinking Dog clan: She’s smart, seems to be an adept problem-solver, and learns quickly. As a young Lab, she’s also high-energy and very playful.

Black Lab Ida wades into the water to stand near Deni, dressed in shorts and tank top, holding a long blue leash.Like Deni’s first Guiding Eyes dog, Alberta, Ida loves it when Deni — or anyone, really — notices her cleverness and comments on how well she’s doing her job. She’s super-friendly and feels entitled — obligated? — to greet people on walks, even starting to head up sidewalks or driveways if neighbors are outside when she’s on a (non-working) walk.

Like Koala, she’s a bit analytical and likes to think things over. During her first visit to the dog beach (on a long leash!) she needed to think about whether sand, surf, and starfish were good things.

Ida inspects two small starfish on Deni's handOnce she felt comfortable, though, she had a wonderful time. And, back in the fenced dog run area near the beach, she raced around joyfully with another young dog. And, on her second visit, she ran playful, joyful circles as she made friends with other dogs and stepped tentatively into the rough surf.

Black Lab Ida yawns as she rests near the huge bill of a flamingo sculpture, with Deni standing next to her
The Tampa-St. Petersburg airport features a gigantic (and possible scary) statue of a flamingo

Ida is a happy, bouncy, curious, very social dog who is eager to play. She is still settling in and learning what the life of a working grown-up dog is like, of course, and she might have found the giant flamingo sculpture at the Tampa airport a little unnerving … but who wouldn’t?

She’s also still learning Deni’s routines — and quickly picking up the “extra” skills that all of Deni’s dogs learn, like finding a trash can as soon as she’s done “parking” (a euphemism for pooping).

She caught on quickly to opening gifts on her 2nd birthday — and gleefully played with her new toys! She likes to use her paws, standing on one gift to keep it in place as she removed the tissue-paper wrapping. And she holds her toys while playing with or chewing on them.

Ida is young, and adjusting to a new dog — especially after several years with a precise, polished pro like Koala — is going to be a challenge for Deni. But the two seem to have forged a close connection already, with Ida responding quickly when called even while running happily with another dog.

Their next big adventure together will be a visit to Montana in May — including a few days at Yellowstone. I hope Ida isn’t afraid of bison!

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Pet First Aid

logo for Montana K9 Safety training organization, with paw print and first aid iconI recently took a pet first aid class. It’s a good idea for anyone with pets, especially if you hike or camp or live farther than a half-hour or so from an emergency vet.

The course I took, offered all over Montana by Montana K9 Safety, was an in-person, four-and-a-half hour class. I expected it to be more hands-on than it turned out to be, but it did provide a thorough introduction to first aid. We learned techniques for immobilizing potential fractures, stopping bleeding, and carrying pets out of a wilderness. We briefly covered trap release, too — an unfortunate necessity in Montana.

The organization also offers a full-day course for wilderness emergency care.

In addition to this first aid course, I’ve taken the trap-release workshop offered by Footloose Montana, an anti-trapping organization twice and highly recommend it to anyone in Montana who hikes with a dog. (Caution: You may never want to hike again …)

Unfortunately, my first aid class did not spend much time on CPR and choking, which, along with trap release, are the only parts that I felt needed to be in-person and hands-on. I hope I never need either, but I was hoping to get a better sense of how to help a dog who is choking or in heart failure.

Online pet first aid courses are offered by the Red Cross and possibly by local or state organizations near you. You can take an online pet CPR class, but I am not sure how helpful it would be. Having someone correct my hand position and help me get the pressure and pace correct was enormously helpful, even if I only got one brief practice opportunity.

We spent some time talking about what to include in a first aid kit that would work for pets as well as people, and which items to take along on a day hike and which to have available in your larger kit in the car or back at camp. That was helpful too, since the list of items is extensive, and obviously it’s not practical to carry it all with you as you hike.

The carry-with-you kit should include vet wrap, gauze pads and rolls, a triangle bandage, Quik Clot, a muzzle if you have one, an extra leash (not leather), and, in Montana, aviation-grade wire cutters, in case you encounter snare traps.

The larger kit should have more of all of those things as well as sterile saline to clean wounds, some basic meds like Benadryl, hydrogen peroxide, bandage scissors, a thermometer, and more.

Useful tips included getting a set of inexpensive mushing booties to cover paw wounds and keep them clean, using a triangle bandage or bandana to create a makeshift muzzle, (or two tied together for a larger dog), having Quik Clot and an instant cold compress in your kit, as well as a SAM splint, in case you need to stabilize a limb.

Again, I hope not to need any of this advice and equipment, but I feel a (little) better armed with basic knowledge and tools. Here’s to a long spring and summer of safe hiking!

End of an Era

Doar and Cali, both golden retrievers, mouth-wrestle on a blue and white rugThe sad news keeps coming.

Dora, Cali’s sister and playmate, passed away on March 23, likely of same hemangiosarcoma that claimed so many of their siblings and other relatives.

Dora had the even, sociable, sweet, and loving temperament so many of their family shared. She was more analytical than Cali, often more serious, and an excellent dog’s dog. By which I mean that she could connect with and understand any dog, whether excitable or calm, young or old, anxious or confident.

Goldens Dora and Cali cuddle with Dora's dadDora spent many years helping her mom walk a pack of dogs each day and made many dog and human friends through that dog pack and in her neighborhood. As her health declined, she more often chose to stay home, often hanging out with her adored dad (Cali adored him too … ).

From their first night away from their mom, which they spent snuggled together in a tiny crate, Cali and Dora shared a special sister bond. Until Cali and I moved to Montana, Cali and Dora had frequent play dates. Though both had many other friends and playmates, there was an intensity and intimacy about their play together that Cali never experienced with any other dog.

Goldens Dora and Cali play in a blur of golden furLooking through old photos of the girls, I found that many are just a blur of fur and motion; when they were together, Dora and Cali played and played (stopping for occasional snack breaks of course).

It’s the end of a wonderful era, and it came way too soon. I know it’s a silly, but I like to imagine them running together on an endless eternal dog beach.

Golden sisters Dora and Cali run on a wide beach with surf and a blue sky in the background