Saturday, March 22, 2014

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

This weekend, I had the good fortune of experiencing two of my favorite things about raising puppies.

First, the puppy truck.

Puppy trucks are a blast. They come bearing tiny, fluffy, needy little balls of fur. These pups are around 8-weeks-old and are absolute blank slates. They are also a total mystery to the raisers that come to pick them up. All the raisers know is the breed, color and first letter of their new pup's name. It's all very exciting. The pups are presented one-by-one as their names are announced and immediate partnerships are formed. There is a photographer there to capture the first moments of meeting the new charge. There are cheers and a never-ending chorus of "ooos" and ahhs." There are lots of smiles all around.

There are also some tears. Puppies who have passed their evaluation and who are ready to go back to Guide Dog campus also attend the event. Oftentimes, the raisers who are meeting their brand new fluffikins are trading back their very loved, esteemed older pups who they are extremely attached to. It's not easy. Anyone who tells you that it is are lying through their teeth.

Regardless of the bittersweet feelings, attending a puppy truck is always a very positive experience. The new puppies always play on heartstrings, and the returning pups give their raisers a sense of pride, knowing that they have given the dog their best chance and have succeeded with their portion of the training.

Saturday, I attended our puppy truck in Phoenix. The Flagstaff group received two new babies, and transferred one pup to another raiser in California. Our two new puppies are a male yellow lab named Joust and a male black lab named Fernandez. They are unavoidably adorable, of course.

Welcome to CocoPups Joust and Fernandez. We promise you exciting adventures, positive challenges, and unconditional love.

Now for my second favorite element of the puppy raising life - breakthroughs.

Puppy raising is not all unicorns and rainbows. It has it's fair share of pulling-out-your-hair challenges and I-am-all-out-of-patience periods. Breakthroughs are those "ah-ha" moments for you and your puppy. When the dog just starts "getting it." It's when you both start having the most successful communication and every time you increase situational difficulty, the dog responds positively.

Kyra and I hit that this week. She's always been a good dog, but this Just wow. I am so excited at how much maturation I have seen in Kyra.

She has always been a somewhat easily distractible puppy. However, her 9/10 month adolescent phase had more than usual of those times when I wanted to pull my hair out. Birds, balls, leaves, name it and it's been able to break her focus at some point. Loose-leash walking? Not unless she feels like it. Excitability? You betcha.

But as she matures, things have been consistently improving. She is a smart, reliable pup and I've never had any doubts in her. And since we hit her major breakthrough this week, I am in heaven. She is amazing. We've been working extra hard on positive reinforcement using food rewards. This has helped immensely with everything she struggled with. There has been no pulling, very little distraction, and when she is greeted, everyone compliments on how gentle and calm she is and how they can't believe she is just a puppy.

I'm so proud.

Patience pays off profitably with these dogs. Kyra just needs to be treated with patience and encouragement, and she loves to work. We can walk right by screaming children without a reaction. We can sit in a coffee shop for 4 hours and she will lay at my feet and ignore everything else. We can go mini golfing and she won't attempt to chase the balls. An overexcited two-year-old can run straight up to her and she will sit still and calm and let him go crazy in her face. She doesn't relieve without her command.

Is there still work to be done?

Absolutely. There are always improvements, setbacks, mistakes and additional breakthroughs to accomplish. But as Kyra's recall date creeps remarkably closer, she continues to earn the confidence and pride that I continually have in her.

Puppy trucks and breakthroughs. This is what makes my world go round.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

My Original Hero

I've avoided writing about this for a few weeks now, but I think it's time, especially since writing is a major tool for therapy.

When a dog graduates, puppy raisers have the opportunity to attend graduation and meet the puppy's future partner. It's a really exciting moment when you find out who was matched up with your former little ball of fur. Personally, I'll always remember that first conversation I had with Lori, Hero's partner. There aren't words to describe how I felt when hearing stories about Lori and Hero's first steps, or his little personality quirks that he never grew out. It was life-changing to hear about how Hero gives her confidence, mobility and independence. Yet, all I could imagine was the first time I held Hero in my arms, and I could only picture him as that small, helpless pup.

As I continue to hear about Hero's progress as a guide, that's still all I can imagine. When I hear stories, I picture baby Hero in a big, grown-up harness traipsing along the sidewalk next to Lori. Although I've obviously seen him as an adult dog, that's not the Hero that initially comes to mind. Lori and Hero are a great match and I am so happy that they are together.

There is so much good. Not long ago, Lori shared a story with us in which Hero saved her from an overhead obstacle that probably would have caused a severe head injury. This kind of story is commonplace in the world of Guide Dogs, as they literally save and affect their partners' lives daily. Knowing that Hero is among these canine saviors make everything worth it. Every small issue we ever had raising him, every challenge I ran into with campus life, giving him up - everything.

However, there is also some bad. Developing a lifelong communication with your dog's partner means that you don't only get the stories with the happy endings. You also hear when something is going terribly wrong. In Hero's situation, this has recently been the case. He is in such a good, loving home with Lori, but he has become very sick. The vets are not sure why. He is currently being housed at the Oregon Campus for observation and future decision-making. I won't go into detail, but we're all very concerned.

Once again, all I can see is fluffy baby Hero. When he was just 8 weeks old, he had a spider bite, or some sort of poisonous encounter, and almost didn't make it. I think that this experience made him stronger, more alive, happier even. Hero is an anomaly. I strongly believe that he always will be. I believe he will come out of this and be an even better guide, with an unbeatable attitude.

Whatever happens, however, he will always be my hero and Lori's hero. We will always share that bond and connection. His time with me was short-lived, and although I hope and pray that his time with Lori is 10 times longer, the affect that a dog like Hero can have in such a short time is incredible. He has forever changed both of our lives and whatever is next for him, I believe that he will have an eternal purpose and be an immortal hero.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Meant To Be Together

Kyra was never supposed to be my puppy. 

This simple truth was something I was reminded of the other day as I logged on to fill out her monthly report. Actually, my co-raisers and I applied for a male puppy and were matched up with Kyra's brother, Keaton. Due to a very last minute bout with puppy tummy aches, Kyra was placed on the road to Phoenix in his place. 

Baby Kyra gives Hero a kiss on the nose before he gets on the puppy truck. 
She is so thoughtful.

Thinking about being a different puppy's raiser is rather unsettling. Although I am sure that Keaton is just as wonderful of a dog as Kyra is, life without Kyra is something I don't want to consider.

I feel like each puppy we are given to raise has it's own special duty. Although the puppy is OUR charge and OUR responsibility, I am pretty sure that the pup doesn't see it that way. I think that the puppies see us as their first human project. I know it sounds crazy, but these dogs know that they were born to change lives. And whose lives do they change first? Those of their puppy raisers.

My first puppy, Hero, taught me perseverance, selflessness and responsibility, and was always there for me emotionally. Kyra has shown me true patience, unconditional love and bravery. It's amazing what you can learn from a dog. Each have their own unique personality and their own special place in our lives.   

(Okay, so I know this is a little different than my usual blog, but bear with me here – this is going to get deep.)

I think that this whole principle has taught me a lot about human relationships, too. Just like each puppy has its own purpose in its raiser’s life, each human companion we come across has its time and place as well. The puppies that we raise form us into who we are, develop additional connections with those around us, and never fail to throw in a life lesson on the side.

Relationships do the exact same thing.

Long story short, there is a reason for everything.

When I got the call that I wouldn’t be receiving Keaton, I was very nervous. I wasn’t sure how I would do with a female puppy and overall I was just stressed that plans had changed so last minute. I didn’t know it at the time, but Kyra was the exact puppy I needed at this time in my life. Even though raising her is full of its ups and downs, without her I wouldn’t be the same, I wouldn’t have met the people I have this semester, I wouldn’t have taken the paths that I’ve gone down since last May.

Why would I choose to change a thing?

Well, I wouldn’t. I also wouldn’t change any of the relationships that have come and gone in my lifetime. Just like Kyra and Hero have left their own pawprints on my heart, those I’ve been surrounded by have left their own unique mark on my life.

Letting go of Hero broke my heart, but the little bit of pain I experienced giving him up didn’t even begin to touch the joy I continue to live remembering our partnership and the pride that I feel knowing that he is changing lives just like he knew he would. I’m overjoyed that he allowed me to be his practice human.  

Someday, when I meet Keaton, I will personally thank him for not being ready to get on that puppy truck. I love my Kyra-bear to death, and even though I know she is only with me a short while, I wouldn’t trade this time with her for the world.