The new puppy is eight weeks old today and has been temperament tested, confirming all the great observations his breeder has made in the past few weeks. If the weather and airlines cooperate, he will be arriving this Saturday!
Here he is. Isn’t he the cutest thing since . . . um . . . since puppies?
(A short, low-quality video of him play with his siblings, and additional pictures, is available at the breeder’s website when you click on “New Arrivals.”)
Knowing he’ll be my puppy in just a few days, I’ve been preparing. I’ve been drawing up schedules and lesson plans. I’ve been getting concrete.
I mean that literally: I’ve spent a month searching for slabs of pavement and concrete to put in my yard. I’ve posted on four local Freecycle lists, “WANTED: Assorted Yard and Street Debris,” and then asked for bricks, pavers, blacktop, cement, or the like. If you are like everyone else I’ve talked with about this, you think this is entertainingly weird and unfathomable. I can explain, but first you must understand that there are two key points that underlie this whole adventure.
Point One: Assistance dogs need to be able to eliminate on command.
This is so that your dog can eliminate at a time that is convenient and comfortable for both of you. In other words, if your dog is working (e.g., guiding you or helping you balance or closely monitoring your health condition in case she needs to alert), it’s bad for both team members if she has to do this while really needing to relieve herself. It is also so that, if you are at work or in the mall or at the hospital for several hours, your dog isn’t “holding it” the whole time.
This can be such a crucial skill that inability to eliminate on cue is one of the top reasons otherwise-promising candidates wash out of guide dog school. (I’ll write a post on The Great Fear of Washing Out in the future.)
In my experience, teaching a dog to eliminate on cue, in itself, is not the hard part. The hard part is getting them to do it under any condition.
For example, I trained Jersey, my first service dog, to pee on command very well. She would go immediately, and it didn’t matter where I was in relation to her, as long as it was grass (or in winter, snow). The grass issue is key; I’ll get to that further down.
Pooping was another story. Jersey was a shy pooper. She was, in every respect, a lady — sweet, gentle, excellent manners, not an aggressive bone in her body. Unfortunately, Jersey’s Southern Belle tendencies extended to toileting. Once her recall was solid, I made the mistake of allowing her to eliminate off-leash. I lived on 50 acres of fields and forest at the time. Of course, this lady wanted her privacy! Jersey would go waaaay out into the field to poop. If she was on leash, or I was nearby, she would hold it forever. Really. It required an enormously long walk before she would relent and release, if then.
She wouldn’t even poop if anyone was watching her. This made getting a stool sample for her check-ups quite an adventure! I would let her out, then, as she headed for the field, a PCA and I would sneak out and hide, flattened against the wall, as if we were playing Charlie’s Angels. (Except, instead of guns, we held plastic bags.) We would peek out periodically to see if she had attained squat mode. Likewise, Jersey, who knew something was up, would look back now and again to check that nobody was watching.
Once she took up the telltale hunch, she was committed. My PCA would run to where Jersey was trying to finish up her business as fast as she could, and I would try to find some sort landmark to keep in sight in relation to the pooped area.
“There,” I’d yell to my PCA. “Somewhere near that brown leaf, behind that patch of tall grass.” In a big, open field, there’s not a lot to go by. The PCA would move forward slowly, trying not to step in the “sample.” We all hated stool-collection day.
I made better choices with Gadget. For one thing, I learned that the cue, “Piddle!” is very embarrassing to issue in a public place. Gadget’s cue was “Hurry up!” I also got him used to peeing and pooping on command while leashed, though given his druthers, he, too, preferred to poop off-leash in the distance. (Tangent: Are all dogs, given the opportunity, privacy poopers? Or is this a Bouvier thing? I don’t remember my first dog, a Border Collie mix, acting this way, but we lived in the suburbs, so she was on leash for all her walks. If you have an opinion, please share.)
Point Two: Dogs will only “go” (unless it’s really urgent) on the type of surface to which they’re accustomed, or after a lot of training with no other options.
Since I live in the country, the surface both Jersey and Gadget were accustomed to was grass or some other natural surface (leaves, snow, etc.). I believe all dogs prefer this, but they certainly can be taught to eliminate on pavement. (Most guide dog schools assume their dogs will be working in an urban environment and train for that.) However, if a dog has been toileting on natural surfaces all his life, you’re really asking the impossible to suddenly tell him to relieve himself on tarmac with no practice.
Now, I need to explain what I mean when I say I “live in the country” or that “I’m rural,” because one thing I have discovered is that non-rural people often think they know what rural means, when they actually don’t. I ran into this when discussing The Great Toilet Surface Search to a fellow assistance-dog partner, for example. Being rural, in my present location, not only means no cell phone reception, cable, or DSL; and unpaved, rocky, hilly roads that require four-wheel drive; it also means the nearest blacktop is at least half a mile away, and the nearest cement sidewalk (all ten feet of it), is three miles away. So, I cannot possibly expect to toilet train a pup by asking him to “hold it” until we can make it to a surface other than grass or gravel.
Perhaps you are thinking, “Since you live in the country, why not just let him relieve himself there? Why does he have to learn to go on other surfaces?”
The answer is that while I currently spend 99 percent of my time at home, I am hoping to be able to get out more eventually, and on those rare occasions when I do go somewhere now, I’m generally in a biiiig parking lot, full of pavement, with nary a blade of grass in sight. Part of being rural means long car trips to get almost anywhere. For example, even if I had Gadget pee before we got in the van if it was a long ride, or if we were going to be indoors for an extended or indefinite period, such as the ER, I wanted him to “go” right before we headed in, as well. This meant that I had to hunt down some tiny patch of scrubby grass or a pathetic shrub before Gadget and I could go in to see the dentist or buy some groceries.
I want my new little guy to go wherever, whenever I ask him, whether that be on grass, asphalt, brick, concrete, dirt, or wood chips. In order for him to be used to doing this, he has to have a lot of practice on a variety of surfaces. The advantage this time around is that I’m working with a puppy, who is not yet able to “hold it” very long and who will be willing to let go wherever we happen to be when the urge hits.
To this end, we have been constructing The Wondrous Doggy Toileting Area next to the ramp. That way, when I take the little guy out of his crate to run him outdoors to relieve himself before a session of play or training, our “toilet” will have options of snow, gravel, brick, “grass” (which is really frozen grassicles and dirt at this time of year), cement pavers, or blacktop. With him on a short leash, I can take him to whichever surface I want him to use, so that we rotate among different types on an ongoing basis.
There’s other stuff happening, too.
Lest you think I’m a case for a Freudian analyst, let me assure you, I do have other preparations underway that are not about excretory functions. I’ve got my stock of puppy toys and puppy food, I bought a bunch of new clickers and wrist holders for them, which I will place, with treats, all around the house. I’m rereading my puppy-raising and dog-training books and watching my dog training DVDs.
We have rearranged furniture, done a bit of puppy proofing, and set up the crates again (with divider panels), which, of course, has brought up fresh waves of grief and tears, as I’m reminded of the way things looked, smelled, felt with Gadget, and are now no longer. I’m happy and excited, then I feel sad and cry, then I focus on puppy preparations again. If I thought sitting on an actual nest would help, I’d be doing that, too.
For those who have been asking or suggesting names, no we have not yet named him. One of the most exciting anticipatory activities has been noodling with potential names. I have never named my own dog before! I’ve named cats, rabbits, fish, mice, etc., but all my previous dogs were rescues, and I didn’t have the heart to add one more change to their lives. Betsy and I have discussed scores — several dozen — names, and I’ve narrowed it down to two that seem promising. However, I won’t know his name for sure until I meet him. As my wise PCA, Nancy (who has more animal experience than I ever will), said to me, “He’ll tell you his name when you meet him.”
I am sure she is right. And once we’ve met, I’ll take him outside to his new multi-surfaced toileting area and say, “Okay, Mr.____, hurry up!”
As always, Sharon and the muse of Gadget welcome your comments.
P.S. Please, please, please send positive vibes for good weather and clear skies from 4AM through 8PM this Saturday in Hartford, Raleigh, Chicago, Detroit, and Des Moines! Because Betsy has several connections to make between Hartford and Des Moines and back again!