The Life and Adventures of Sergi the Service Pup

Saturday, April 5, 2008


A service dog never knows where it might be asked to go. Whether as a partner to an adult who uses a wheelchair or as a companion to a child with Downs, the pup must be at ease in any atmosphere in any location at any time. To this end, we puppy raisers try to expose our sweet little darlings to a variety of situations and experiences throughout the time we work with them. Generally speaking, we try to take them at the least anywhere a person in a wheelchair can go. Better to work through issues with us, than have an unpredictable reaction in a time of need.

It is not uncommon to hear about dogs being released from the program because of their fear of crossing over various surfaces. A friend's dog got bounced out of Advanced Training when she continually balked at a checkered tile floor, though she had never previously demonstrated that issue with her puppy raiser (and hasn't since). The first dog I raised was released when he absolutely, positively, categorically refused to walk on metal surfaces. He would go to the end of his leash to avoid manhole covers. He would not climb metal stairs. He was terrified of getting on the grooming table. Most unfortunately, he would not jump up into a handicap-equipped van because of the metal flooring. Bye-bye service career, hello petdom!

Sergi, on the other hand, has shown no reservations whatsoever about walking on any surface. Since he was just a couple of months old, I have been taking him out to toilet on the grate in the sidewalk in front of my office and he has walked on it without a concern. Indeed, he seems to have no fear of much of anything so far, which is encouraging for his future success.

We went for a long hike this week around Lake Calaveras and Sergi was his usual good-boy self. We walked mostly on dirt trails and saw lots of little critters: lizards, a couple of quail, several squirrels, a few jackrabbits, and accidentally flushed out some morning doves from their nest. Sergi's ears perked up at the movements and noises, but he never pulled on his leash or tried to go after anything. Considering how much he loves to chase and retrieve his toy ball at home, I'm always pleased and a little surprised at how relaxed he is on leash on the trail.

At one point we came to a stream with a fun little home-made bridge across it, kind of resembling a lengthwise ladder. I didn't know how Sergi would do with this brand new idea. I had no intention of forcing him to cross it, but was eager to see if he would do it willingly. It took less than a minute for him to decide that this would be something he could do! Once across, he went back and forth several times and nailed it each time easily and with tail wagging.

Although I removed his leash to work through this exercise, it didn't stay off for long. The first picture shows what was all around us in this shady area — poison oak. We leashed up quickly before getting any of it on dog fur and continued our hike with images of agility competitions dancing in our heads.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Easter and Kids

One thing that every pet owner hopes for is an animal that will be gentle with children. Part of our job as puppy raisers is to introduce our pups to kids and try to mold their behavior so that they aren't too rough or too assertive with little ones. It's always a little nerve-wracking watching an exuberant dog run alongside a child or jump up near one. It's so easy to knock a kid over and once they're hurt, some children will fear dogs forever.

I was delighted on Easter Sunday when Sergi got to spend some off leash time with my great-nephews in my brother's back yard. The two boys are 3 and 1 1/2 years old and wanted to run and play with the puppy after the egg hunt was done. The littler one dragged Sergi around everywhere. He fell on him, he pushed him, he lay on top of him. Sergi was the perfect gentleman.

Although I always kept a vigilant eye on the two of them throughout the morning, it was so relaxing to learn that Sergi was able to tone down his rowdiness to blend with the little boy. And what better sight than to see a little boy loving on a dog. It was a great day.

The Good, The Bad and The Irish

I have talked in previous posts about Sergi's tendency to whine. I've tried several different methods to try to stop the habit, from leash corrections to spritz of vinegar and water. When nothing worked, I talked to a friend in the Puppy Program office at CCI. She has raised a whiny pup and her advice was what I was coming to suspect: Do nothing. No reaction, no acknowledgement, no response at all. Occasionally we find that even negative feedback is still reinforcement of a behavior. The silent treatment does seem to be working — slowly — and the vocalizations seem to be tapering off.

A few days ago I was sitting in one of my back bedrooms at my computer when Sergi began loudly moaning/whining. I knew he had already been out and didn't have to toilet, so there was no good reason for it. I ignored it. He got louder. I remained deaf. He became insistent and louder yet until finally I threw up my hands and said, "Fine! Let's go out!"

I walked him out to the hallway and was almost to the living room when I smelled it. I turned the corner and saw my entire living room, dining room and kitchen filled with smoke. I had failed to properly turn off a frying pan on the stove and it was charred and scorched. I can't believe my parrots weren't screaming, the burner had probably been on for more than an hour. But Sergi knew. His incessant complaints had got me out of my chair to take care of the problem. Today, my whiny boy was my hero!
(And now I have to figure out why the smoke alarm didn't go off!)

The stalwart action of my tenacious pup was a nice balance to an otherwise difficult week. Sergi continues to surprise me with the amount of energy he has. He has such a difficult time being still. We walk, we hike, we play, we socialize. It never seems quite enough — he just always seems so restless. Because he is a vigorous chewer, I try to find appropriate toys to keep his jaws challenged. Most items he plows through in just days, even those "indestructible" ones. He'll find a weak spot and work and work and work away at it until he has shredded, disassembled or eroded the thing. Chew bones and toys that my previous four dogs have enjoyed and passed down from one to the next, Sergi has destroyed.

CCI always tells us that pups really don't need anything to lie on in their crates. Still, our human sensibilities reason that it's only fair to give them some kind of blanket or bed to take away the hardness of the plastic just a tad while we sleep nearby in our soft, warm beds. All of my pups have done fine with this, and until this week, so did Sergi.

I had to leave Sergi alone for almost four hours one morning. I made sure he had toileted properly and gave him a sterilized bone to gnaw on when I put him in his crate. Inside was the dog bed he sleeps on every night. I gave him a treat and left, confident that he would be fine. When I got home, here is what I saw. He now sleeps on the plastic.

One holiday that is always celebrated at my house is St. Patrick's Day. Coming from an Irish family (my father), we always have a family dinner and do the corned beef and cabbage thing. Of course, the pups don't know which day is which, only that here is another occasion when they get to put on a colorful scarf and are made to wear goofy head things.

Sergi is glad he'll be in Advanced Training the next time St. Paddy's Day rolls around.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Sergi's enthusiasm for activity was never more apparent than yesterday when we went for a long hike around the hills between San Marcos and Encinitas and then up to the top of Double Peak. Much of the way we walked was on a single track dirt trail with bushes of blooming California Lilac all around. On a clear day from the summit you can see the observatory on Mount Palomar to the north, Iron Mountain to the east, Cowles Mountain to the south and Catalina to the west. The view takes your breath away.

Sergi was great about staying right behind me on the trail. Several times we had to bushwhack to get where we were going or climb up and down a steep hillside of loose rocks. He was always ready for the challenge and went everywhere with only the occasional slight coaxing. He was excellent about never pulling away from the leash after any of the critters we saw, he didn't chase anything and pretty much ignored the skittering noises and the quick glimpses of small furry things.

We started out around 10:30 in the morning, took a lunch break around 2:00 and headed for home just after 5:00 PM. As we started down the hill, I thought Sergi must be as tired as I was and we had both slowed our pace down considerably. Instead, he found a rivulet of water going down the hill and the sight of the running water re-energized him like a brand new puppy! He went nuts! His tail went up, his ears perked forward and chasing the water became his obsession.

That is, until he found the stink bug. Sergi has always shown a keen interest in bugs, though he has never met a stink bug before. And this was a laaaaarge stink bug. He sniffed it and tried to lick it. It tried to crawl away. He ran to the front of it and stopped it and tried to paw it and reached down with his nose to push it around. The bug was not happy — he assumed the position. The next thing you know, Sergi was backing off quickly, shaking his head, licking and pawing at his nose. Back by my side, he tried rubbing it off on my leg. A new lesson learned.

Stink Bug — 1, Sergi – 0.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Kindergarten Graduate!

This is a quick entry to document that Sergi passed his final exam for Kindergarten tonight! His performance was rated on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best, for a variety of skills he had to demonstrate. He got a 9 or 10 on everything.

Walking on a loose leash: 10
Sit: 9 (a little slow)
Down: 9 (a little slow)
Wait: 9 (needed a slight correction the first pass, perfect the second pass)
Leave: 9 (slight hesitation)
Here: 10
Sit-Stay: 10
Down-Stay: 10

We will now move on to Basic class in a couple of weeks. He has actually already started learning several of the Basic skills like Heel and Under and Stand. We'll spend a lot more time working on positioning now, making sure that his ear flap lines up with my pant seam when we walk and that his sit and down are right next to me.

He's a great learner and still shows a lot of enthusiasm for working. Our journey is going well!

Thursday, March 6, 2008


As a new puppy raiser, I was always surprised when my "rock-solid" dog — who knew a command backwards and forwards — would fail to perform it in class in front of the trainer. "But he does this perfectly at home!" is the common lament. And so he may. But what a pup knows in a controlled home environment and what he knows in a noisy, scent-filled, action-packed venue are two completely different things. Our trainer constantly reminds us that until a dog can perform a command 100 times, without fault, in any kind of situation or location, he does not "know" the command and we are still in training mode.

The reality of that hit me yesterday when I took Sergi out geocaching with a friend and her dog. We started in San Clemente and followed PCH up the coast to Dana Point, stopping at several different parks and walking on a variety of bike/pedestrian paths, mostly along the ocean. Because it was a beautiful coastal day, everywhere we went there were people and kids and dogs.

I've always been very good about teaching the "Let's Go" command and my dogs usually shine at walking on a loose leash. In class and at home, this is one of Sergi's best skills. Yesterday, I was reminded that he doesn't know it and is still learning.

The woman who went with us lets her dog pull on her leash and walk in front of us. Sergi seemed to think that he should do that too and constantly tried to keep up with her. He strayed off the path frequently when he saw dogs walking the other way or repeatedly lagged behind with his nose on the ground sniffing every couple of feet. I had a pocketful of treats and lots of praise, but the distractions were more that he could handle.

As the "No" and "Don't" commands came more and more frequently, our walk became less and less enjoyable. I realized that all the previous trail hiking we had been doing had been relatively solitary and that we really had not been out with so many people and noises and animals over such a long period of time. By mid-afternoon, Sergi was exhausted and so was I.

In all fairness to Sergi, we cut off the hikes and I let him fall asleep in the back of the car. A fundamental rule when raising a pup is to know when to stop. Sergi was glad to get home and ran around his own yard like a cheetah, glad to be unleashed and free. He's so smart, I forget how young he is, but days like this remind me that for his sake I can't.

Luckily, I was able to get a couple of nice photos of him while we were out and about.

On Display

One of the fun things we get to do while raising a CCI puppy is presentations to school and civic organizations. It doesn't matter if you are good at speaking or bad, no one really cares what you're saying, they just want to see the dog. And speaking to children is the easiest of all.

Every year about this time, I go with my pup to Laurel Elementary School in Oceanside and read to one or more of the first, second or third grade classes. I usually choose a book that has something to do with dogs and the kids impatiently listen while they look at my puppy and dream about petting him. Today, Sergi and I went and read to a group of second graders.

I start by introducing Sergi and talking about the importance of never petting a strange dog without asking permission. I don't emphasize the working dog part of it as I want to discourage children from reaching out and petting any dog they don't know. I then explain what a halti is and that he is not a mean dog that might bite them. Having lived my entire life with one kind of a dog or another, I'm always surprised by how many kids are fearful of dogs. Once they realize they shouldn't be trying to touch Sergi and that he is calm and gentle, they settle in as best they can and listen to the story.

After the reading is done, I talk for a few minutes about "helper dogs" and what kinds of commands and tasks Sergi, or another dog like him, will learn and perform for a disabled partner. I then ask all the children to line up and come one at a time to ask if they may pet my dog or shake his paw. When they do it correctly, their teacher is standing by with a bookmark and a coloring book that I have brought to hand to each.

Sergi is just about as young as a dog can be to go to a presentation like this. I wasn't worried about his temperament or him misbehaving, but the distraction can be very stressful for a young pup being asked to perform. It was hard for him to pay a lot of attention to me, although with a treat in my hand he looked at me constantly. But I could see that his ears were elsewhere and I soon quit asking him to do anything but the very simple sit, down and shake (which in itself was tough enough). Still, the 8-year-olds were thrilled with him. He could have done everything wrong and they would have continued to applaud at his slightest movement. They loved him.

I was proud of him today for staying calm and quiet throughout our class time. He kept his licking to a minimum and was not excitable at any of the greetings. I'll take Sergi back in Fall for another visit. He'll be older and more mature, he'll have more commands under his belt and he'll be better able to handle the fidgety little boys and the squealing little girls with focus. I'm not sure any of those kids will really care, though, as far as they were concerned today he was the best dog in the world.