On our own

Bear’s Territory!

We went to a Bear lesson last night.  Kristin confined us to her kitchen, making for an easier scrub down after we left.  Because she has puppies in her home pretty much all the time, we cannot go out onto the soil where Bear can play with his litter-mates and with other dogs because parvo-virus can survive for six months in the soil.  This could be catastrophic for Kristin if her puppies continued to catch parvo.  So we stood in the kitchen and learned about one more behavior to teach.  At the end of the lesson she basically said that we don’t need to go back for another month, when we’ll introduce the high blood-sugar scent.  This is both good and bad.  It is nice to get frequent feedback on how things are going, which we will not get for a month.  There is a cost to getting this feedback, which we won’t have to pay for a month.

Left or right

With a big book on the floor, we click and treat when Bear puts his paws on the book.  With front paws on the book, we gently touch his hip to get him to move his back feet while keeping his front paws on the book.  We have him turn left and turn right.  Eventually we will name this for Bear, saying “Left” or “Right” depending on the direction we need him to turn.  The purpose of this skill is to get him in the right position when we go to a restaurant or a theater and he needs to turn his rear end to one direction or the other.

It took awhile for Bear just to get his front paws on the book.  Kristin noted how lethargic he was.  This might be a post parvo symptom or just Bear.  No one knows at this point.  After a few turns on the book, we went outside and practiced walking with distractions.  It was good to see how Kristin reacted to the distractions, giving a lot more treats and forcing the proper position at times.

Dec has a low

Bear following Dec everywhere.

A couple of days ago Declan woke at 63 blood sugar.  I asked if we could have Bear try to signal the low.  Declan agreed and we had Bear come up and sniff his arms.  It was clear that Bear smelled something.  It was also clear that he wasn’t really sure what to do.  With some persistence  Bear pawed Declan.  We clicked and gave treats.  We did this a couple of times in a row.

It is difficult to describe the change in the mood when this occurred.  And I think this is one of the powers that dog’s have.  They are able to put people at ease.  Just by having Bear interact with the low blood-sugar episode, suddenly Declan’s mood went on an upward trend.  He drank his juice, put the timer on, and immediately started putting Bear through some exercises.  And Bear picked up on Declan’s excitement.  He followed Dec around wagging his tail as Dec commanded him to sit, stay, lie down, and sit again.

I am looking forward to more of these occurrences


Backyard blues

Bear in the TV room

At a glance, or from a distance, it looks just about the same.  You might notice the dog pen pieces (the same ones that used to be inside) at the back and side of the house, keeping Bear in the backyard.  It is a bit surprising that he hasn’t figured out how flimsy the plastic pieces are that keep him secluded in the backyard.  I imagine that it is largely because they were so good at keeping him contained when he was a little puppy.  And on top of that, he still prefers to be inside, preferably on a couch.

But other than the dog-pen pieces purchased at Baby’s R Us, the plants, the shed, the path, the bikes, they all look the same.  Until you walk through the backyard, you would think that it hadn’t changed.  Getting a fenced-in yard was on our list of things to do before getting Bear.  All the other items were taken care of: dog food, chew toys, crate, and aforementioned dog-pen.  A fenced in yard never got done, and it has really only been done in practice.  A more substantial gate at the back and the side need to be installed (one run to Home Depot has supplies for the back gate stacked behind the house).

Walking through

Two things will hit you as you walk through the backyard.  You will notice both eventually.  One is the smell.  It is not overpowering, but it is there.  And it is stronger in some spots.  The smell emanates from piles of poo with plenty of “sitings”.  Along with the smell is the number of flies.  Attracted to an abundant amount of nutrition, the flies swarm the piles.  It has taken me a week to adjust to this new setup.  I now seek and scoop the piles first by sight and then by sniffer.

I first look for a gathering of flies, and then I hone in on the exact location by smell.  As a kid I would get paid a quarter per poop to cleanup Sammy’s yard.  Maybe it was the cold, or maybe it was the thin air in Colorado, but I remember those poops being dry to the point of brittle.  (It could also be the health of Sammy’s insides compared to Bear’s insides)

With paper bag and a shovel called the Super-dooper-pooper-scooper (it had a scissor type setup), I would get two-dollars of poop without any hassle.  There was never any struggle to get all the pieces; I never remember stepping on any. (It could also be that as a kid I just didn’t care if I stepped in dog poop)

Being isolated in the back, I didn’t clean out Sammy’s yard that much.  However, as a central part of our traffic flow, especially in nice weather, I clean the backyard at least once a day.  With the plastic bag over my hand like a glove, I venture out, taking big slow steps, looking for piles.  In the beginning I more often than not found the pile by stepping in it.

I think it is the humidity that keeps the odor on my shoes, and I apologize if you notice a dog poop smell around me, but I can’t escape it.  I’ve started leaving my shoes at the door, fearing what is clinging to the bottom.  I hope that I’ve developed highly sensitized sniffing of dog poop, and that I actually pick it up when others don’t.  I smell it at the gym and out for frozen yogurt.

It’s gotten to the point that I have changed some habits.  Instead of sitting with my leg crossed over the knee, I now have both feet flat on the ground to minimize the smell.  I’m told this is actually better posture.  Other unanticipated positives of having a puppy include: meeting a lot of our neighbors that have dogs; meeting a lot more women when I am walking the dog (see It’s true); getting the our cats in better shape since they walk with us.

It is worth noting that there are also unanticipated negatives of having a puppy: my hands smell like dog food from feeding him during training, my shoes smell like poop, and the backyard is littered with “chew” toys.

Bear territory

Bear playing with a water bottle during Maggie’s soccer practice.

The back patio is littered with actual chew toys and with “found” chew toys.  Branches and scrap pieces of wood are piled in a spider plant.  A bottle of fluoride pills (Portland does not add fluoride to the water) is punctured without a lid next to Bear’s squeaky red dog.  A hair-brush with the half a handle (don’t tell Heather or Maggie) lays in the rock path next to Bear’s kong and bone.  The soccer cone and duster can be found behind the rose-bush next to a hole he has been working on the last two weeks (again, don’t tell Heather).

As Declan and I walked through the yard, he said, “This is Bear’s territory.”  This just made me think of the pre-Tedford era, back when Pawlowski took the Bears to a top ten finish, which then made me a bit sad thinking of the recent loss to dreaded USC.

Spider territory

Lower right is the fly that has been sucked dry by the spider.

Every year about this time there are a lot of spiders.  The nests explode into an abundance of baby spiders.  There are a bit of a nuisance, but they disappear pretty quickly.  This year they are feasting on all the flies.  We get to witness the lower end of the food chain in our backyard.  Beginning from the waste of a higher order mammal, to larva and flies, and onto spiders.

Back at work (not me, but Bear)

Endless summer for me, more on that later, but Bear is back at it.  Met with Kristin at a random park between Portland and Forest Grove off of 185th Avenue.  Kristin was amazed at how healthy Bear looked.  She said that after she visited him at the pet hospital, she did not think he was going to make it.  She had never seen a dog look so sick and not die.

After a quick discussion about what we’ve been doing with Bear and our concerns about some of the habits he is picking up and resistance to some drills, we got to work.

One concern was how he seeks out other animals to meet when out in public.  It is fine to meet other people and animals, but he needs to do it under control and continue to mind who he is with.  As a service animal, he needs to behave when out in public, whether it be on the sidewalk or in a store.  Being at a public park about the time school was ending was a fortuitous location to practice this skill.  The first group of students walking through the park, two girls and a boy, on their way to 7-11, stopped and asked to meet the dog.

We let them know that we were training him, and that he needed to be sitting. This puts them on their heels just enough, so they don’t come in strong with hands cupping his head and petting him hard.  It gives me time to get him into a sit, get the clicker out ready, and a handful of treats for rapid fire clicking.  Surprisingly, the boy was the only person in this first group that wanted to pet Bear, which he did.  When Bear moves to stand up and move closer, I hold him down and continue clicking and giving treats.

Another bad habit for Bear is pulling while on leash.  So on our way to meet the next group of high schoolers, Kristin showed me how to correct for behaviors we want to eliminate, including the pulling on leash.  At this stage we need to be careful not to give treats once the behavior stops because Bear might start to construe the treat being given for the bad behavior.  When he was younger we would click and treat when he quit pulling, encouraging him to keep the leash slack.  Now when he is distracted and continues pulling to pounce on the Big Gulp cup, I pull him back and hold the leash up vertically.  The collar slides up to the top of his neck at a constant pressure (no jerking).  This is timeout for Bear.  He stays in the timeout until he settles down, and directs his attention to me.

I watched Kristin demonstrate this several times on the way over to the group of footballers on the basketball court.  We asked them to meet Bear, which one of them begrudgingly did.  Rapid fire clicks and treats and Bear was better at staying down, almost ignoring the hand petting him.

After a few more groups to meet, including a very enticing group that included three kids, one in a stroller, which was very challenging for Bear, we moved onto some scent work.  The new skill is to signal while on a walk.  this is done by grabbing the dongle, which hangs from the leash.  The trick with this skill is for Bear to grab it only when he smells the low-blood sugar scent.  So we walk along with the dongle swinging in front of his face, occasionally hitting him in the face.  He receives clicks and treats for ignoring the dongle.  Then the scent is presented to him and when he grabs the dongle a click and treat is the reward.  Right away Bear picked up on this.  It was impressive.  Kristin gave praise at how smart Bear is.

And then on cure, Bear began grabbing the dongle without the scent and ignoring it when the scent was presented.  It’s nice for this to happen at the lesson, to see how Kristin responds to it.  I can imagine this happening at home trying to pick apart what I’m doing to fix it, and ultimately getting frustrated with the whole process.  Instead of getting frustrated on my own, Kristin explained to stop walking and present the scent more forcefully, with the dongle coming in quickly after.

At this point Bear just needs to get his mouth on the dongle to get the treat.  In the future he will need to really pull on it to get the treat.



Bear watches Dec prepare his kong.

Without guidance from the expert, banished from her property because of the dreaded parvo, we have made progress.  Training sessions have become less frequent, though the routine remains pretty similar.  Skills that remain since the beginning of time, from Bear’s perspective, are sit, down, stand, and circle.  Skills from nearly the beginning of time are scent signals (pawing, doorbell, and the dongle), leave-it, nice-walking, and watch me.  Skills introduced in the last two sessions pre-parvo include army crawl (Dec’s favorite), rollover, stay (Bear is nailing this one), nice-walking without leash, and go to bed.

Upward Trending

Walks have been enjoyable for the most part.  Aside from the occasional distraction of the dog across the street or the leaf in the middle of the sidewalk, Bear gets the mullet walk.  If the leash is in the left hand, then it is all business.  He walks at our hip, matching our speed, and sitting down when we stop.  Impressive, I know, but keep in mind that he is getting clicks and treats along the way.  When the leash transfers to the right hand then it is time to sniff and roam around a bit.  To be honest, I was a bit skeptical of this set up, but I see Bear looking back to check and see what hand the leash is in, and going to business or party mode depending on left or right hand.

During the walks we’ll stop two or three times and do some drills.  This lets Bear know that reacting to commands is not done solely in the living room or our home.

The sidewalk repertoire includes sit, down, circle, stand, and stay/come.  Of all these, “down” is the most difficult for Bear.  Unless he sees or smells the treat in hand, he glances at me while I give the voice and hand command, and looks away in disinterest.  If he senses the treat, then he will cock his head to the side, as if asking me what is this “down” word you say.  I’ll repeat the command, lowering my hand nearly to the ground.  This is when he usually makes it to down, putting a paw on my hand as he goes.  Bear is best at the stay command.  At home or on the sidewalk he’ll watch me from 20 feet, waiting for the okay to be released.

Not the best picture, but Declan is getting Bear’s Kong ready, putting peanut butter on the inside of it, before taking it to bed.

At the opposite side of the activity level from walking, Bear is spending more time in Declan’s bedroom at night.  Dec goes to bed earlier than everyone else, and Bear will follow us down to his room, settling into his den under Dec’s bed.  Dec tells us he moves between the den (under Dec’s mattress), the trundle bed, and Dec’s bed throughout the night.  Bear will wake Dec up around five most mornings.  Dec was low one of these times, but I think Bear is getting into the habit of moving around at five, and Dec is accommodating Bear, bringing him upstairs at that time, whether he is low or not.

Holding Steady

Walking without a leash with the pointer clicker, and go-to-bed have not progressed.  I’m afraid that we have missed the next step of these skills and he is learning something entirely different.  For instance, the go-to-bed command is meant to get him onto the “bed”, which is a blue-foamy mat with paw prints on it, that feels like a yoga mat for animals.  To condition Bear to go to bed, we lay the mat out and stand so the mat is between us.  As soon as he touches the mat I click and give him a treat.  At this point he goes into a sit before getting the treat.  To release him from the mat, I throw some treats on the floor and say “okay.”

We have done this drill a lot.  And now we say “Go to bed” as he approaches the mat.  However, I think Bear may be conditioned to go to the mat only if it is between us.  If I release him with treats on the same side as me, then he’ll saunter around, checking out what Ashley is doing, or look out the window.  It was my understanding that if the mat was on the floor then he would automatically go to it, yearning a click and the treat that follows.

“Go to bed” is a crucial command for Bear.  In school, at a restaurant, in a theater, or in a plane, the mat will be put down on the ground with the command, and Bear will plop down on it, staying there quietly until released.

Downward Trend

Unfortunately, the pairing of a low scent and signalling for the scent has digressed.  Pre-parvo Bear was a star at seeking the scent hidden in a pocket, tucked under a sleeve, or stuffed in a sock, and then signalling with either a paw or grabbing the dongle.  Now Bear finds the scent most of the time, but he will mouth it, trying to grab it.  We have had to go back to holding the scent sample in our hand, presenting it to him, and getting him to paw after.  The dongle and door-bell signals have gone to the way side in the pairing.

Bear is very lackadaisical with this work, often times plopping to the ground or looking at his favorite couch while I try to engage him to pair.  Heather and I have to remind ourselves and each other to keep it fun for Bear.  It is very frustrating when he puts his head down.  It feels like a personal affront.  What we’ve found is that simply moving him to another room and giving him energetic pets and tussles puts him in a more receptive state.

Falling off the Cliff

Not sure why, but Bear has taken to making a couple of deposits in the basement each week.  I am unwilling to accept that he is finding the basement a better place to poop than outside.  He sleeps in the basement with Dec most nights.  I cling to the hope that Bear is finding a second best place to poop.

Two nights ago Bear left a pile in the laundry room and one in the common room (both in the basement).  After cleaning it up, Heather found a small piece by the back door.  That small piece gives me hope that he was trying to get outside to the preferred spot.  Unable to get outside, Bear found the laundry room, which probably feels like a good place to make a deposit to him.  The laundry room has a concrete floor.  In the middle of the floor is a drain.  When the pump decides not to pump, then water spews from the floor drain.  Though we can’t smell it, Bear might pick up some septic smells from times when the pump quit working.  I am holding on to that logic.  I do not want a dog that feels comfortable pooping inside.

Bear and I go to a lesson this afternoon.  We are not meeting at Kristin’s place, but we found a park in between that we can meet at.  I have a lot of questions about how we have been doing and what direction to go.

When is the end?

On the move with one of Fiona’s teddy bears

It is beginning to feel like it will never end.  We are a month removed from Bear’s release from the pet hospital, and we continue to train the same drills.  Because parvovirus is so resilient we cannot meet at Kristin’s house.  It can survive six months on the ground.

Not only would we have to clean our shoes before entering, but she would have to disinfect the house after we left.  Because she constantly has puppies at her property for training, the risk of another puppy getting parvo is too great.  We are hoping to set up a lesson at a park somewhere between our homes.

I am curious about what the other litter-mates, the ones that have been having lessons for the past six weeks, are working on right now. Are they continuing with pairing scent with signal?  Have they mastered the “Go to bed” command?  Are they able to walk outside without a lead?  Have they moved on and begun new skills like laying under a chair quietly?  Have they gone to shopping malls?  Have they taken the bus?

At our last lesson with Kristin she started having us work on fun tricks with Bear.  The Army crawl was one, and rollover was the other.  She said that this allows kids “meet” Bear more easily.  They are silly tricks, and the kids can command Bear to do them.  I have not been diligent about these drills.  And I am not sure if it is because I am getting tired of doing all the same things over and over again, or if it is Bear’s reaction to these tricks.  I’ll often get to these after going through five or six other drills.  Bear will sometimes just put his head on his paws at the sight of another drill, or he will get real goofy with his feet up in the air, wiggling back and forth.

Our routine now includes some scent work, going to bed, basic obedience, walking with the pointer-clicker, and nice-walking on leash.  Not sure if Bear is getting a bit bored with this stuff, but I am.  I will delay training to the point where some days we only have two training sessions.  So now I wonder if his resistance to some of the training is in part my resistance?  The chicken or the egg question.

And one of my fears is that we will never get there.  It will never be over.  I came to this realization as I sat in Rosh Hashanah services on Monday.  It was nice to take a pause from life and sit quietly in the sanctuary, but the kids were nagging to leave.  And I reminisced about when I was their age and what I would do to get out of services.  Strategically timed bathroom breaks coupled with a walk around the block would take up 20 minutes.  Sitting there with the kids, I came to the realization that I have never seen the end of either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur services.  Ever.  It got me wondering about Bear and if I’d ever see the end of the training.

The bond grows between Declan and Bear.

Mingling with non-kin

After an exhausting afternoon at Maggie’s game.

With school begins soccer season.  We have anywhere from three to four games each weekend.  With each game lasting two or more hours, depending on drive time, that can be a lot of alone time for Bear. A lot of alone time can quickly lead to a puppy looking for something to do.  A puppy looking for something to do will likely find something to tear apart.

So Bear has now helped cheer on Maggie’s team at two games.  This is a great opportunity for Bear to meet other dogs and people, to practice some drills, and to check in on scent training in unusual places.  Though not Bear’s or our strong suit, meeting people the correct way is an important skill to learn.  Bear seeks out other living beings, whether they be four- or two-legged, or winged.  He’ll scan the horizon for movement and lock onto something moving.  He holds his head high, prancing on his paws as the person or animal approaches.  The signal is clear: “Hello there!  I want to smell you!  Come over to me!  Look how cute I am!”

However cute and solicitous Bear is in these moments, it is not something he should be doing.  First, he needs to pay attention to the person he is caring for, the person that is leading him.  If he is constantly looking for someone else to interact with, he is spending less time minding his work.  Though his load will be much less than the guide dog looking out for cars and curbs, Bear does need to be mindful of the scents.  Further, he has a lot more liberties than a non-service dog.  He is allowed to go pretty much anywhere.  With that liberty comes responsibility.  He needs to be a quiet presence.

When we are out with non-kin (aka out in public) if someone asks to pet or meet Bear, then he needs to sit down quietly for the meeting.  The problem is that by the time I can answer, Bear has usually deposited 27 licks on the person’s arms and legs.  Further, his tail, traveling at close to mach 1.5, is liable to put welts in non-friendly pet people (yes, they are out there).  So we are baby-stepping into public places.  Soccer games are a great place for this.  Not only are most people more interested in their star athlete on the field, but there is also a lot of space to take Bear if things get out of hand.

In addition to soccer games, Bear has walked to the store with me.  It was a great setup.  The temperature approached 90 degrees and it was a five block walk to the store.  By the time we got there, Bear had lost the edge, and I had put his “Service Dog” vest on, which had people pointing at us instead of approaching us.  An occasional person would ask what his “Service” was.  Reflecting on it now, I wonder if they were honestly curious, or if they saw the whole thing as a ploy for me to get my puppy into the store.  At times it could be the latter with the lack of control Bear has.

As opposed to the first time I went to the store with Bear, this time I actually had shopping to do.  Bear was doing great as I was able to “click” and give treats by the cheese and bread station.  Things started falling apart at the meat counter.  Even if we were alone, the raw meat smells would have derailed any partially trained puppy, but there were about five other people waiting at the counter.  Things went downhill as we left the meat counter carrying two pounds of ground beef.

One hand had the leash and clicker and the other had a package of ground beef.  I hadn’t anticipated walking through the store without a means of handing out treats.  How was I going to deliver a one-gram of bland kibble in the same hand that clutched two pounds of ground beef.  At one point I put the package down to dole out a handful of the dry food.  As my right hand took on peanut butter, tea, and tortillas, I only hoped that Bear wouldn’t lose control and jerk towards someone or something in the store.

My mind played out the scenario.  Bear lurches toward something or someone.  I start to correct him while the peanut butter topples down.  My right foot instinctively reaches out to break the fall of the peanut butter, which loosens the purchase I have on the ground beef, causing it to fall to the ground, breaking open as it hits the tile floor.  The tortillas and tea remain in the clutch of my arm.  All that is left to do is exit as quickly as possible.

We made it to the checkout without the incident playing out, but I was sweating, and mentioned how hot it was to the clerk.  He looked at me sideways, responding that it wasn’t that hot inside with the air conditioning.  Though I didn’t get to enjoy the AC before stepping back out onto the pavement, I was happy to have a free hand to dispense treats to Bear.

Where are we going?

After several excursions into public, I begin wondering about where we are supposed to land with this lab puppy of ours.  I think of the Guide Dogs for the Blind that we met at the Aviation Museum over the summer.  I cannot see Bear in control of himself and minding his leader the way those dogs looked after the person on the other end of the leash.  Bear dances along the sidewalk, whereas the Guide-dog looks heavy footed.  Bear’s tail is whipping around in circles.  The Guide-dog’s tail is lucky to get to half-mast.

I realize that Bear’s work will be much lower than a Guide-dog’s work.  Bear simply has to signal when he smells a high or low blood-sugar, which he is able to do in a controlled setting with the scent-sample in a test tube.  On top of signalling, Bear also needs to be an extremely well-behaved dog.  This is where I am wondering about the do-ability of our endeavor.

I wonder if the transition a Guide-dog has to make from the people who train them to the person that they will live with helps shape their behavior.  At this point Bear is bonded to Heather and I the most, then Declan, then Maggie, and then Fiona, when she allows him close to her*.  Concern remains with how Bear will transition to being with Declan (and occasionally Maggie) all the time instead of with Heather or I.  How will he act when we all go out together.  Will he be minding the people he needs to, or will he be latching onto Heather and I?

But, man, we have come a long way so far.

* I believe that Fiona’s feelings toward Bear are thawing out a bit because of his popularity on her Tumblr and Instagram accounts.  You’ll have to ask her what her account is on those social media sites.

Chew Toys

Declan and Bear on the couch after waking up. (need the yellow-eye tool)

Bear is a lab puppy and he is losing his teeth.  When he is not sleeping, on a walk,  harassing the cats, eating, or being trained (in order of time), then he is finding items to hijack and chew.  The hijacking part is still cute.  Bear will find the gloves under the bench, or the teddy bear on the couch, and he will run away with it with tail wagging and head held high.  He is so happy to have found this new treasure.

This morning Declan couldn’t find his left shoe.  Though that is not that unusual, we normally find it after looking in the usual spots: where the shoes are supposed to be, in the TV room, or in the bathroom.  No where to be found, I started gathering an old raggedy pair when I saw the left shoe in the backyard.  No tears or puncture wounds, the shoe sat unharmed where Bear dropped it after hijacking it from the shoe pile.

Bear has always enjoyed shoes.  Shoes and sandals are now scattered throughout the house.  It is a big world, however, and Bear has broadened his tastes to include soccer cones, Legos, library books, magazines, homework, helmet, Tupper ware, socks, gloves, and actual puppy toys.

Problems begin when the hijack turns into a chewing session.  So far three library books have been used, two pairs of flip-flops, a sponge, a phone cord, and a stuffed Kenny doll. And Bear continues to prefer the table and chairs as a chew toy.  I believe the chewing stage has begun.

I am reluctant to purchase chew toys.  Not only do they end up in the corner nearly unused, but some chew toys, like hooves and hides, can make their breath pretty atrocious.  Each trip to the store I look for chew toys, but I leave empty-handed as I consider the potential benefits and real costs of the chew toys.

We have granted Bear one jelly sandal, the Kenny doll, and a pair of flip-flops.  Is this the wrong message to Bear?  I’m afraid we might be setting him up for more turf wars with the kids.  If that pink jelly sandal is fine, then why not this new John Madden boot.  They have the same underlying odor, but their texture and size are so very different.  It would be like when Jelly Bellies came out with new flavors.  They look and feel like a jelly bean, but they taste like bacon, or they taste like watermelon.  And you can’t stop eating them.