Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on Miss Huff lantana flowers in our yard


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"Facing due east, this Georgia barrier island has been a popular vacation spot since the late   
1800s. Home to wide, clean beaches with warm and gentle waves, Tybee Island is the
perfect escape for those who need a healthy dose of sand, sun, and seaside bliss."
~ website
Yes, that did sound enticing when we registered for PuppyCon 2020 earlier in the winter!

We missed the annual conference for puppy raisers on Southeastern Guide Dogs' campus last fall soon after we got Don because it was already full, so we were glad when the large Savannah Puppy Raisers Group invited volunteers in our Atlanta group to attend their conference February 14-16.

This was their third time presenting this regional conference and they did an excellent job of it. I know a lot of work went into organizing it.

Driving under a sprawling live oak tree in Savannah on our way to Tybee Island

Fifty or sixty puppy raisers, area coordinators, SEGD staff members, and other folks attended the conference. More then ten members of the Atlanta puppy raisers' group were there, and five of our pups. We boarded Holly and Casey near home and took our pup-in-training, Don, with us.

The only disappointment of the weekend was that we couldn't keep Don with us overnight in the cottage to which we were assigned. Thirteen college-age puppy raisers and sitters who were staying in a large three-story house were assigned to keep Don and several other pups with them on Saturday and Sunday night. We knew about that arrangement ahead of time and agreed to it. Don was with us during daylight conference hours.

One of the folks involved with the Savannah puppy raisers group runs Mermaid rental cottages and very graciously provided several of them to attendees at no charge. We shared the charming Key Lime Parrot three-bedroom, two-bathroom cottage with three other raisers in the Atlanta group:



Attendees were asked to arrive about 5PM on Friday. Since we had a five- or six-hour drive and knew we might run into traffic or other problems along the way, we left home early to have a cushion of time. We had about an hour to kill before checking in so we took a walk with Don and hung out with one of the other members of our puppy raiser group and his pup.

Other than the day we took Don home from campus in Florida, this was his longest car ride. He did fine. He loves to ride in our car and we stopped a couple times to let him "go busy." 

The setting for the conference was the Tybee Guard House, which is adjacent to a beautiful park with  ball fields and a half-mile loop path:

The rental fee for this community building is usually $800/day but that was waived because our group did a beach clean-up on Sunday morning.

The building has bathrooms and a room in front, and a kitchen and larger meeting room in back. We checked in, got our registration materials and housing information, and set up a 42" crate for Don in the front room.

Conference activities on Friday evening and Saturday alternated between inside and outside. Fortunately, we had perfect weather all weekend. When sessions were inside, Don spent part of the time in his crate in the front room and more of it with us at our table in the larger back room. There were about two dozen crates set up along the walls in the front room. Since these are well-trained pups, the room was much quieter than you might expect.

Buddy the Golden retriever on the left, Don on the right

Don was so good. He was happiest when he was lying under our table but he never made a peep when he was in his crate. His sitter also said he did great in his smaller crate both nights she was taking care of him.

Before supper on Friday we drove a few miles to our cottage, quickly settled into one of the bedrooms, then returned to the Guard House for pizza and a welcome session at 6PM.

In addition to all the valuable information we got during the conference, it was nice to meet some of the staff, puppy raisers, and pups from other groups that we'd only "met" online so far. It's nice to put real people and pups with names and photos.

Dapper Don relaxed under our table during several of the indoor sessions.

About 7 PM we handed off Don and his 36" crate, food, bowls, toys, and other gear to his sitter for the evening, then returned to our cottage and relaxed in the comfortable living room with the other raisers from the Atlanta group who were staying there. It was a good chance to get to know them better, too.

We all missed our pups, though! Two other raisers in the Atlanta group were in a cottage where they could keep their pups.


Saturday was packed full of conference activities from 10 AM to 7 PM.

We had breakfast at our cottage before heading over to the Tybee Guard House. We were happy to see Don -- it was mutual. We could tell he was relieved to see us. He's never spent that much time with anyone else.

It's good training for the guide pups to experience a different handler and home while they are being raised. Each pup is supposed to "camp" in another home for a couple weeks before they are a year old. Don hasn't done that yet in our group, so spending two nights in the "dorm" with thirteen people who were new to him, as well as seven or eight other pups, was good.

Statue on front porch of the Tybee Guard House:  Tiffany 2 by Mary Ingalls

Informal reports from a few of the young people in the house where he spent two nights were excellent regarding his good behavior, and descriptions of his demeanor weren't a surprise -- calmer than the other pups, less confident but friendly with all the people and dogs, and tired out quickly from all the stimuli. He was the first pup to go to sleep.

After another welcome and more introductions, our first training activity on Saturday was outside where we practiced polite people greetings and impulse control.

Raisers and their pups lined up about 8-10 feet apart and attendees without dogs tried to gradually approach and distract them. Don did VERY well with this. He would notice what the young woman who tried to distract him was doing to get his attention but as soon as he looked at me or didn't respond to her, he'd get a treat.

He learned very fast to ignore her and/or look at me! She later wrote a nice note about his behavior, as did his sitter, and he got a bag of treats as a reward.

Don and I are above the red dot.

After this we did a Buddy Walk, also good for impulse control, on the scenic rubberized path around the park next to the Guard House:

We did our Buddy Walk with Steve (L) and his pup Karlin from our Atlanta group.

Before and after lunch we had two TED talks indoors with one of the regional managers and a trainer from campus.

The first talk about training included signs of stress to look for with our pups. It was good to get additional information about that since our area coordinator has pointed out several times when Don is exhibiting signs of stress such as drooling, tongue flicking, or scratching himself.

Above and below:  scenes from those two talks

The second talk was about the importance of canine conditioning exercises to prepare these pups to be future working dogs. They need strong muscles and a good sense of balance and hind end awareness.

After the conditioning talk we took the pups outside to go through a series of exercises on the porch with a wobble board (below), Cavaletti bars, weave poles, boxes to get into, and other equipment/obstacles similar to ones we've used at home with Don:

Don on a wobble board at the conference

We also did more stair work at the nearby ball field:

The next session was the most inspiring of all the presentations we heard during the conference -- a panel discussion by three people who have received Southeastern guide or service dogs from SEGD and how the dogs have changed their lives -- a retired veteran with PTSD and TBI who credits his service dog for being alive today, the mother of two blind 12-year-old boys who received a companion dog, and a blind woman on her third guide dog.

All three are so grateful for their dogs and thanked us puppy raisers (and staff) for our part of the process. The dogs truly do change lives and it's gratifying to be a part of that.

Dapper Don on a solo walk around the park on Saturday
to just get some exercise and have some "alone" time.

Attendees who have never done a "blind walk" were encouraged to do one outside during the afternoon with a trainer and guide dog in advanced training. I signed up for a time during a talk about canine health and CPR taught by the same veterinarian who presented this to our Atlanta group recently.

I've been curious about doing a blind walk, but also ambivalent because I feared having balance issues.

It was hard keeping up with the dog but I'm glad I did it. I didn't trip or fall; it was just awkward for me, as I'm sure it would be for someone who is all or mostly blind and getting their first guide dog. It gave me a little insight, so to speak, into why some people who could benefit from a guide dog might hesitate to get one, as well as the challenges any first-time handler faces.

I'm on the left above as I walk blindfolded with a trained guide dog.

I encouraged Jim to do a blindfold walk, too, but he opted out and just watched me.

The last activity before supper was served was a "scavenger hunt" in pairs or small groups with our pups. Our goal was to use a check-off list to find as many sounds, smells, surfaces, and other exposures as possible in an hour. We went with the two other raisers we're rooming with and found quite a few of the things on the list.

Don has already experienced some of the other exposures. I plan to finish the list in the coming months before he goes back for advanced training in the fall.

It was a long, busy, information-packed day. After supper we relinquished Don to his sitter again and went back to our own cottage to relax.


There was a full schedule for Sunday, too, starting with a beach walk for the raisers and pups, and beach cleanup for folks not walking a pup. I mentioned earlier that the organizers got free use of the Tybee Guard House for the conference by agreeing to help clean up a section of the beach.

Jim got up before breakfast to go for a walk through town and wandered out to a different part of the beach. He took photos there and at a military memorial he found:



No pets on beach, except legitimate guide and service dogs in their vests.   
In Georgia, guide and service pups-in-training have the same access rights.


Jim is retired Army.

After breakfast in our cottage Jim and I drove down to the south end of the island to pick up Don and all his paraphernalia at the house where he stayed overnight with a puppy sitter.

That was our first time to see the three-story house. Don was very happy to see us and vice versa. He stayed in a room on the second floor with his sitter and another young woman. We went up there to see Don and get his crate. We had to go up and down the bare wooden stairs carefully because they were so steep and narrow. Don heeled very well going down with me.

Then we drove back to the north end of the island to the beach our group helped clean up. We met the local volunteers in charge of beach cleanup, who distributed buckets and trash grabbers to Jim and the other folks who weren't walking pups.



We crossed over the sand dunes on a long wooden walkway. It was comical watching the pups as they got to the end of the bridging. All were on leashes -- and they all wanted to run zoomies as soon as they hit the sand, including Don!

Everyone dispersed, some going north and some south. Jim and I headed south but didn't walk together until we met back up near the boardwalk. He stayed close to the dunes to pick up trash and I walked closer to the water with Don.

Since Don has never seen sand dunes, a beach, or an ocean before, I was watching him closely for any signs of stress or bewilderment. He looked all around with curiosity once he realized I wasn't going to let him run off-leash, but he didn't seem afraid. He has a lot of trust in me.

Shortly after I took that picture above, one of the raisers in our group began flying a drone over our heads. That was fun! Our heads were swiveling around following the drone.

Here are some of the photos I took of Don's reaction to that -- another totally new experience for him, although he may have thought it was just another noisy bird:



I walked with Don on the hard-packed sand about 50 feet from the water most of the time because it was smoothest to walk on, there weren't crunchy shells for him to sniff or put in his mouth, and I wanted to more gradually introduce him to the water.

We walked about half a mile before turning around, reveling in the sunshine and sounds of the surf.

There was lot of foam close to the water. Don was interested in watching it blow in the wind. He didn't back away when it moved closer to him as the waves came in:

Near the end of the walk Don willingly followed me to the edge of the water and got his feet wet. He didn't seem afraid, although he avoids puddles. He's never gotten more than ankle deep in a creek or pond at home so I didn't try to lure him into the waves. He had enough new experiences over the weekend without that!

I took this photo of Jim, Steve, and guide pup Karlin when I met them on the way back to the boardwalk over the dunes:

We found another new footing for Don on the beach:

After everyone met back in the parking area for a group photo we said our good-byes and began our five-hour drive back home.


We missed several more activities and talks back at the Guard House -- the conference continued until 3 PM -- but we needed to pick up Holly and Casey from boarding so they didn't have to stay two more nights. Monday was a holiday and we couldn't have gotten the girls until Tuesday morning.

Don did fine on the drive home but was clearly exhausted. So were Jim and I. It was raining hard when we stopped at a rest area for a potty break. Don refused to get out of the car -- that's how much he does not like rain!

We are glad we attended the conference but as I mentioned earlier, I think it was too much sensory overload for Don. He was lethargic and it took him four or five days to recover physically and mentally.

And then we had something else to worry about that probably occurred when he was at the three-story house those two nights with a sitter during the conference, either from "running all over the place" with the other dogs (insider reports we heard) and/or repeatedly going up those steep, shallow, bare wooden stairs.

He's been on a wide variety of steps and stairs but never that many in a period of two days.

A few minutes before we left the Tybee Beach area to go home, our area coordinator's daughter, a veterinarian, told us that one of Don's rear legs looked stiff and didn't appear to be bending properly. Dr. Michelle had been observing him on the beach and in the parking area.

She watched us walk some more, then manipulated his hind legs for a couple minutes to try to determine if the problem was with the joint(s) or a soft-tissue injury. She said she couldn't tell without x-rays but that his gait is definitely not balanced. She advised going to our vet for x-rays and an exam ASAP, and we got official approval for that.

Jim and I didn't notice anything different or wrong with how Don was moving that morning or after we got him home. He's always had a somewhat awkward gait, especially during fast growth spurts during adolescence.

His brother Paulson's co-raisers were also concerned about Paulson's legs being stiff on Sunday. Dr. Michelle watched him, too, but advised them to just do more conditioning with him, not take him to a vet. Those stairs probably got him, too! He was staying with his two raisers in the same house-of-stairs that Don was.

Don's handsome brother Paulson, who is being raised
by two young women at GA Southern University

Although Don wasn't limping and didn't appear to be in any pain, we took him to our vet, Dr. Jeff, on Tuesday. X-rays showed excellent development, cartilage, and alignment for his age and size. That was a relief!

Dr. Jeff told us 1) Don may have a natural stiff-legged gait, 2) he could just be in a "clumsy adolescent growth stage," and/or 3) he may have strained a muscle, tendon, or ligament this past weekend. He couldn't tell definitively from the x-rays or his observations and exam, nor could he see any difference then between Don's two back legs when he was walking, as Dr. Michelle had noted two days earlier.

When I notified one of Paulson's co-raisers the outcome, she verified that Paulson was also walking more stiffly but tends to do that all the time and drags his hind legs sometimes. So does Don. She noted that one of Paulson's older half-brothers in her group does the same, and said it could be an inherited trait the boys got from their sire. (It has been helpful to compare notes with this raiser from another group while we've had Don.)

Tybee Beach  (2-16-20)

No special rehab was indicated for Don, just the normal conditioning exercises SEGD wants us to do and what we've been doing at home for several months -- daily walks in our hilly neighborhood, weaving between milk jugs, stepping over ladder rungs on the ground, crawling under benches, climbing in and out of boxes, etc.

On-leash walking was approved and some steps if he goes slowly, but no running around our yard for a couple weeks. Dr. Jeff also said it was OK for Don to go to the Braves stadium for our group outing in a few days.

Next entry: photos from our puppy raisers' group outing to the Atlanta Braves stadium

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don

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2020 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil