"Not My Dog": Tales from Puppy Raising

Monday, December 25, 2006

Murphy goes public

I wrote this piece for the Maine Sunday Telegram, at my boss's urging. I'd give you the link to the site, but there are no pictures..
So here are the words:

I couldn't help falling in love with Murphy, a soulful-eyed black Lab pup.
Anybody who's a dog person can understand why. What's harder to understand is that I took Murphy into my home with a mission of loving him, spending hours each week training and socializing him -- and giving him away after a year.
My family and I are among the dozen or so puppy raisers in Maine who volunteer with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Our job is to take rambunctious puppies and teach them good manners and socialize them, and then give them up.
In November of last year, Murphy entered our lives, a wiggly 12 pounds of energy and slobber.
Two weeks ago, he left for the test that would determine whether he'd go into training as a guide dog.
He had matured into a smart dog who loved to work. But was our year of training together going to be enough?
If the light had been green, I might never have been a puppy raiser.
While stopped at a light near the Iris Network in Portland, I saw someone walking a Lab that wore a jacket bearing the words "Puppy in Training" and "Guiding Eyes for the Blind."
I gawked, fascinated.
I have always loved dogs, and the prospect of training a dog -- especially one that could radically change someone's life -- was an appealing challenge.
A few days later, I saw a blind person with his guide dog. It seemed like a sign.
After a lot of persuasion applied to my husband, Bob Sharp, I found the Guiding Eyes Web site and called to find out more.
Most friends and family thought I was crazy. Those who weren't dog people didn't understand why I'd want to deal with mess and fuss -- much less for a dog I wouldn't get to keep.
The dog lovers couldn't see how I could work with a pup so intensively and not love him. And once I did, how in the world would I give him up?
My father was utterly convinced I was going to break my preschooler son's heart.
If the pup doesn't pass training, raisers generally get first right to adopt. But I knew that if I did this, I'd want to accomplish the task and see the pup succeed, no matter how much I loved him.
Before we could do anything, we had classes to learn the Guiding Eyes training methods and rulesand let the coordinators size us up.
The instructors, Doris Dennee and Nina Scribner, were raising their fourth and 12th pups, respectively.
After three classes, they deemed us ready to puppy-sit, another requirement. We arranged to baby-sit Chance, a year-old black Lab, for a week.
At the handoff at the Yarmouth rest area, Chance and his raiser, Ann Walko, seemed blithely unconcerned. Chance jumped into our Jetta and flopped on the floorboard for a snooze.
Bob and I were feeling nervousness second only to the terror we felt when the nice people at the hospital kicked us out to go home with our newborn son.
But we had a great week with Chance, and it was clear that a dog could fit into our lives.
The final hurdle: our son, Andrew, who was about to turn 4.
We talked a lot about how the puppy wouldn't be our dog. We talked to him about how much the dog could help someone.
I wasn't going to do this if I didn't think Andrew could handle the pup's inevitable departure.
But Andrew seemed to get it. "This isn't our forever dog," he said at one point.
Now, we just were waiting for a puppy.
Raisers only get to choose a gender, but I was hoping for a black Lab -- a wardrobe-driven decision, given that we already had two black cats.
We knew we were in line for an "M" or an "N" pup, and one pup was named Murphy, a name we had decided years before would be an awesome name for a hypothetical dog.
I knew there was no way we'd get Murphy.
Then we got the call from Scribner: In two days, we'd become foster parents to Murphy, a black Lab. His brother, Maddox, was going to Freeport to live with Beth and Chris Parker, the other first-time raisers from our class.
The karma looked good.
Murphy and Maddox had already passed an 11-step test to assess a pup's temperament. About one-fifth of Guiding Eyes pups are adopted out at this stage, deemed too tentative or shy to ever make it as guides.
Murphy didn't appear to have that issue. The first word of the trainers' analysis: "wiggly." I didn't need to be a professional to figure that out.
We were off to a rosy start, even though his tiny puppy bladder at first required a
5:30 a.m. wakeup call -- fun when you get home from work after midnight.
He was adorable and smart enough to start picking up commands quickly, almost too well.
Guiding Eyes dogs are taught to eliminate on the command "get busy." One night, I asked Bob, "Did Murphy get busy?"
He hadn't, but when he heard me, he did, right there on the kitchen floor.
We couldn't be mad as he proudly cocked his head in that way that Labs do. But we started spelling out "GB" to be safe.
Sometimes communication was less clear.
Abruptly, he started refusing to walk down our road. He'd plant his feet and whine piteously.
I cajoled, I squeaked his toy, I carried him down the road to show him there was nothing to fear. He wasn't convinced.
Just as suddenly, a few days later Murphy began trotting happily down the road again.
I never did figure out why.
In the middle months, as Murphy expanded exponentially to his eventual 70-pound frame, I began to fear that one of us might not survive.
Other raisers began murmuring sympathetically about him being a "pistol," and, indeed, he could be a real challenge.
He was getting bigger and stronger, but his brain was still firmly in puppyhood. He had a stubborn streak. He wanted to befriend everyone he saw by giving them lunging kisses. He thought I walked way too slowly.
Every three months, Bessie Sheehan, the regional coordinator for Guiding Eyes, visits Maine to evaluate the dogs.
I was on edge about the late-June evaluation. I badly wanted Murphy to earn the puppy-in-training jacket. Many more places will allow you to bring the puppy inside if it's wearing a jacket. It also keeps friendly onlookers at bay, reducing distractions.
Selfishly, with the doubts I was having about Murphy, I wanted a validation, a sign that we were on track.
I knew in five minutes it wasn't going to happen. Murphy spied a construction worker and nearly yanked Scribner off her feet as he lunged away.
Sheehan sighed and all but rolled her eyes, clearly signaling her doubts about Murphy.
On some level, I knew Murphy's disposition was what it was, something Scribner kept emphasizing. But I couldn't help but feel that I was coming up short somehow in the training, especially since Maddox earned his jacket that day.
As exasperated as I was at Murphy, like any proud mom, I was determined to prove he had what it took. I'd already seen flashes of it, such as when he visited Andrew's preschool and remained quiet and gentle among 3- and 4-year-olds.
I've been accused of being stubborn myself, and we were headed for a battle of wills.
A few weeks later, Murphy had to go to New York to have a lingering baby tooth pulled. It was, by that time, a welcome break.
But after his stay was extended when a ride back to Maine didn't materialize, I was at a loss. So I volunteered to drive down to collect him, with my 4-year-old son and Zola, a Lab leaving for training.
Zola had a coat the color of honey and a disposition as sweet. Other raisers had nicknamed her "Zoloft," a nod to her mellow nature.
She was as opposite from Murphy as you could get. It was looking like Murphy could turn into a "forever dog," and I was torn about that prospect.
But on the way home, Murphy lay quietly on the floorboard for the five-hour trip.
Maybe two weeks of kennel life had been a kick in the tail for him, and a breather that I didn't know I needed.
With the support of Scribner and other raisers, things started looking up.
With Andrew in kindergarten, Murphy, who finally got his jacket, became my near-constant morning companion.
We walked in Gorham, at the University of Southern Maine and near Maine Medical Center in Portland. We practiced ignoring tourists at L.L. Bean.
We hung out at Gorham's Baxter Memorial Library, the post office and Target. He grew so fond of the dog biscuits he got at Gorham Grind that he would sometimes look hopefully at its door as we walked by.
It seemed like a switch had been thrown as Murphy celebrated his first birthday, and apparently started to think.
I worked to avoid referring to Murphy as "my dog."
It became harder to think about him leaving and more likely he would be gone for good.
"Just when he's getting to be a really nice dog," Bob said, almost wistfully.
We spent several weeks readying Andrew for departure day, but he handled it like a champ. "Bye, Murph," he said, hugging him. "Be good."
I wasn't sure I'd do as well.
It helped that I was at the drop-off with Scribner, Beth Parker, Walko and Jean Hobart, another volunteer. While we waited for Sheehan, we joked and talked about the dogs, making it almost like a celebration.
The camaraderie is one of the best things about the raising experience. Others are always there to offer advice, cheer you on or take the puppy for a few days if you go out of town or need a break. Scribner in particular had been Murphy's regular baby-sitter, once taking him for two weeks while I was on a business trip. She loved him, as he reminded her of Lance, his older half brother whom she had raised.
When Sheehan finally arrived, I gave Murphy a hard hug and whispered to him that I would always love him, wherever he went. He slurped my ear, thwacked my leg with his tail one last time, and jumped confidently into the travel crate.
It was what he was supposed to do, and yet my eyes misted.
Three days later, Parker and I traveled to New York to watch Murphy and Maddox be tested to determine if they'd be accepted for formal training.
We watched the test on closed-circuit TV, in a room full of Guiding Eyes employees and other raisers. One was Cora Martin, a Connecticut retiree who fosters Wella, Murphy's mother. "I had to see my first grandpuppies," she said.
The testing measures a dog's response to stress, having it react to starter pistols, other noises and a person who suddenly unfurls a large umbrella near the dog.
After a year of work, we could do nothing more, except hope.
Uncharacteristically, Maddox shied and balked at the umbrella. The mood grew somber.
By the time Murphy's turn came, I was nervously biting my thumb. "C'mon, boy," I muttered at the TV. "You can do it."
And he did. A few minutes later, instructors announced that Murphy was officially accepted for guide dog training. They would test Maddox again.
Even though only roughly half of the dogs who enter training actually graduate, it still felt like a huge milestone.
I got to talk briefly with Pamela Cunningham, the trainer who'd handled Murphy through the test. She praised his composure and said she was optimistic about him. As we spoke, Murphy veered between us, not quite sure whom he should be with.
After a few minutes, Cunningham led him back to the kennel. He followed her without a look back.
Was it worth it?
Yes, it was hard work. Yes, it was hard to watch Murphy walk away, even though I always knew that day would come.
But I don't think I've done anything special. Many raisers have done far more than I ever have. Thousands of Mainers volunteer; this is just how I've chosen to do it.
I've made friends and exercised my patience. I believe my son, already a caring kid, has learned even more about helping others.
Even if I didn't always love it at the time, I've seen some beautiful sunrises and gazed at the stars during the last trip outside for the night. I've had the simple pleasure of watching a happy dog chase a tennis ball in the snow.
Will I do it again? I hope so.
I've thought a lot lately about the person out there who could get Murphy, if he makes it.
It probably would be a man, since Murphy is large. I wonder if he might have kids or grandkids, since Murphy is good with them. I wonder if Murphy would be his first guide dog.
But most of all, I hope he will love his dog half as much as I did.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Pictures from IFT

Let's see if I can get multiples to work here....

This is Beth, getting ready to watch.

Now, here's a look at Wella, Murphy's mom

Below, the boys in the kennel. Maddox is at left, Murphy is in the middle, and Navarro is on right. (The next frame depicts Murph humping Navarro, but we will censor that!)

Finally, this picture says it all. Pamela takes Murphy back to the kennel after his testing. Goodbye to me, but hello to a new life.

Update on the littlest trainer

Andrew is doing great. He didn't cry at all when Murphy left, and he wanted to hear in detail about the IFT. He did ask if we get to go to Murphy's graduation, and I said, yes, of course (if he makes it.)

And then, on Friday morning, I found him in the living room trying to teach Squeegee, our cat, how to sit. He proceeded to try to teach him stay and "touch" -- and I must brag that he knows the GEB hand signals cold. Quite impressive if I do say so myself.

Sadly, Squeegee doesn't see the point and I fear is a less apt pupil than Murphy was.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The IFTs....

Wow, I have so much to write on this one.
For those who just want the news, Murphy passed his IFT and went in for training. Whew! Wow! Yay Murphy!

You watch the IFT in a room on closed-circuit TV, and instructors and instructor assistants handle the dogs. I went down with Beth, who raised Maddox, Murphy's brother, in Maine.

There also were several other raisers who had come to see their dogs. And Cora, who is raising Wella, their mom, also came to see how her "grand-pups" were doing.

Beth and I were nervous wrecks, so we were glad that Murphy and Maddox were in the first group. We were a little concerned about them being in the group together, because they ALWAYS wanted to play and rough-house when they were together being raised. But they were in the same kennel, so perhaps they had gotten that out of their system.

The IFT basically tries to measure how the dog will react on stress. They do some sits & stays and downs, and then the big test comes when the trainer walks the dog past someone holding an umbrella, and they suddenly poof it open at the dog. What they're looking for is how the dog reacts. If he startles or is alarmed, then the question is whether he recovers and will investigate and settle.
Other parts of the IFT include seeing how the dogs react when a starter pistol goes off, and other distractions. Then later, the person with the umbrella comes back, with the umbrella rolled up, and they want to see whether the dog wants to look at it.

A yellow Lab named Aztec went first, and he did well. Then it was Maddox's turn. Unfortunately, he really freaked out at the umbrella. He got very scared and would not go back near it. I felt so badly for Beth. He did everything else well, but that was definitely a sign of concern.

Then it was Murphy's turn. I was biting my thumb and whispering to the TV, "C'mon boy, be brave, be strong." And he did great! He passed the umbrella just fine and kind of just flicked an ear at the starter pistol. (Living within hearing distance of the Gorham Police's firing range has paid off.)

Finally, they announced that Murphy and Aztec were in for training, and Maddox would be pending further evaluation, and the fourth dog, Navarro, was released. I was so relieved and psyched, but I tried to temper it, for Beth's feelings.

I did get to talk to Pamela, who handled Murphy, afterward. She said she thought he was a great dog, really smart and tuned in, and that his obedience had been great. I know that Bessie, our regional coordinator, has been concerned that Murphy is too "soft" and I asked her about that, but she said she didn't see that during the test, that he seemed pretty confident to her.

I did get to pet Murphy and hug him, but he was very distracted and seemed kind of confused, not sure if he should be paying attention to me or to Pamela. It was kind of bittersweet. It's a fine balancing act: You have to have a bond with the dog while you're raising him, but he can't be too dependent on you, or he won't succeed in training. I would say that I have accomplished that with Murphy. I always told people during training that he was not my dog, and I would have to say that he most definitely is not now.

We did get to meet almost all of Murphy's family. Cora, Wella's mom, is just delightful. We got to meet Wella, who is a gorgeous girl. We also got to see his brother Chipper go through the IFT; he passed. Mica and Morley, his two yellow brothers, had already passed IFT and were in the kennel.

Murphy is 70 pounds and Maddox is 50 and we had always wondered which one was more typical of the litter. It's definitely Maddox; Mica, Morley and Chipper were all about his size. I guess Murphy takes after his dad, Farrell. If you want to see a picture of Farrell, check on his friend Sarah's blog at http://sarahspups.blogspot.com/.

There were so many cute puppies to see! I almost wanted to take one home. But I need to chill and see what happens with my job, and with Murphy.

I will get monthly reports on Murphy, so we'll see how it goes. Only half of the dogs make it as guides... I hope he is one of them.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A last special moments

Note: I confess I'm cheating. I'm retroactively entering what I would have had I had time. :-)

Murphy and I went out Saturday night so that he could get busy, and surprised three deer cutting across our backyard on their way to the woods.
It was so silent that we could hear the soft thump and whoosh as they went. Murphy froze in perfect Lab hunting alertness but didn't lunge.
It is a nice memory to end on.

Labs love snow!

I'm just glad that it snowed before Murphy left, and he got to play in it ... even if I had to double-glove for his Friday workout because it was so cold.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Family footsteps

I may have mentioned before that Murphy's litter is kind of special, because they are the last puppies of Farrell, his dad, and the first puppies for his mom Wella.

It was a litter of eight, and one puppy, Mya, didn't go out for fostering and was released at eight weeks. I checked the GEB database yesterday, and three of his siblings have already had their IFTs : Mica and Morley are now in training, and Mead was released.

So for those stats-hounds, we're batting .500 for this litter ... it's up to Murphy, Maddox, Meg and Chipper to see what they can do now.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Cartoons really do imitate life

Another thing on the toys ... Nina gave us a squeaky toy at class Saturday -- clearly a highly-destructible toy! But we decided, what the heck, we'd let him play with it under close supervision and time its lifespan.

It only took Murphy 14 minutes to get a puncture and get the destruction going (at which point we immediately took it away from him!), but they were 14 minutes of sheer doggy ecstasy.

So much for the magical last week...

I'm about ready to scream ... Murphy has started barking in the crate in the morning again. I'm at a loss. His food hasn't changed, he still gets taken out at night at the same time. If anything, he's been spending even more time out of the crate with us. But now, every morning, he barks and barks -- a definite GEB no-no. This is testing me; I'm trying not to get too frustrated because I can't get this to stop. Arrgh! I told him this morning that he's working to make sure I don't cry on Saturday.
On the other hand, this willfulness is a good sign for eventual success, providing it can be harnessed.