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
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
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
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
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,
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.
SUNDAY ON TYBEE BEACH
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don
© 2020 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil