March, 2020 was an unusual month for Puppy Don, our family, and our
country. In this entry I'll mostly explain how it evolved in regards to
Don's guide training.
The first day of the month was great!
We received an e-mail from Callaway Gardens & Resort to let us
know their world-famous azaleas were starting to bloom. It was a
gorgeous spring day. Jim had other plans so I made a quick decision to
take Don down there to do some hiking and photographing.
Since it was a couple weeks before peak bloom in the two major azalea
gardens, it wasn't busy that Sunday morning. That made the photography
I loved the "forest therapy" as we walked through two of the
large azalea gardens, and Don got some new exposures and training
opportunities at the Discovery Center that included "down under" a low
bench and theater seats . . .
. . . some very large metal insects at the entrance to the
Center . . .
. . . going into two different kinds of public restrooms,
listening to hawks squawking in the distance distance during a raptor
talk, watching squealing kids pedaling past us on bicycles near the
visitor center, and examining preserved wildlife in the kids' discovery
center. He was particularly interested in a bobcat in a Plexiglas case
on the floor.
Don was a perfect gentleman indoors and out, and he did well with all the
new distractions and "novel objects." You can see lots more
photos from the gardens in my entry dated
NINE MONTHS OLD ALREADY???
Wow, that went fast. Seems like he was a wee little puppy just
yesterday . . .
I posted on Facebook some close-ups that I took
of Don at Callaway Gardens in lieu of a separate photo shoot at home
three days later when he actually turned nine months old:
Isn't he a handsome boy?!
That week I also took Don to Home Depot twice. That is one of his
favorite places to visit because many of the employees and some shoppers
love to pet him. He's getting almost old enough now that I'll need to
stop allowing petting when he's in coat but it's been all right until now
since he waits politely to approach them until I give him the OK.
Thanks to the pandemic, those were his last trips to Home Depot or any other store for a good while.
Watching me take his picture in
the lumber department
Above and below: Getting
drowsy while watching people walk by in the lumber department;
he has very good impulse control
with people and dogs in most situations.
A NEW REALITY
We didn't realize the first nine or ten days of March how much the
newly-spreading COVID-19 pandemic would affect our lives here in the
United States but by the middle of the second week, the transformation
began. Every day there were new guidelines and additional restrictions.
By the end of the month, international travel was banned or
seriously curtailed to try to stop the spread of the virus between
countries. People were encouraged to stay at home and they began
stock-piling and/or hoarding food and other supplies. Schools,
non-essential businesses, and group activities were encouraged --
and soon ordered -- to shut down. The stock market plunged.
A national state of emergency was declared to try to deal
with the medical and financial ramifications.
Above and below: More good
impulse control on a walk, with a deer
close to the path; Don has never
been interested in chasing wildlife.
The economic impact affected Southeastern Guide Dogs, too, and we started
getting written and verbal messages with increasingly bad news about
staff furloughs, discontinued team training, several campus buildings
closed, cancelled graduations, dogs in advanced training being moved
off-campus to live with the trainers, no new pups going back for
advanced training, breeding of new litters suspended indefinitely,
and the school's major fund-raising events -- several spring
Walkathons -- modified to become virtual events.
"Virtual training" became the new model for training guide and
service dogs, just as school kids and college students began remote learning
from home and adults worked from home if they could. Computers and all
things technical became even hotter commodities than usual. "Zoom" became a
household word, and it didn't have anything to do with puppy zoomies!
Don says, "Less Zoom, more
zoomies!!" (training and conditioning
to put his paws up on something
higher than a paw pad)
During the second
week of March all the puppy raising groups were advised to suspend in-person
training meetings and outings until at least May. Ditto for individual puppy
evaluations by the regional managers that were left on payroll. Three of
the five regional managers, including ours, were furloughed for several
weeks at the end of March.
Our group did not meet in person from February until September, and
the number of participants was strictly limited in September and October
to only the raisers, trainers, a few sitters, and the area coordinator. Face masks and
social distancing were required.
After two of the
regional managers, including ours, resumed working in May they were
allowed to do one-on-one puppy kindergarten training and evaluations
(Walk & Talks, etc.) with older pups still in raisers' homes.
Above and below: Homemade
conditioning equipment for Don and the girls
No one had any idea the pandemic would last as long as it has. I'm
writing this in November, 2020 and every state in our country is
currently seeing a second or third wave of the virus. There are more positive cases,
hospitalizations, and deaths due to COVID now than there were in the spring.
Ditto for many other countries around the world. Several countries
are working furiously to fast-track effective vaccines but none are
completely done with the testing required for even FDA emergency approval in the U.S.
Despite not knowing the duration of the pandemic, Southeastern Guide Dogs --
with severely limited staff in March and April -- did a yeoman's
job of putting together virtual training sessions on Facebook for pups
like Don who were still with their raisers. There were daily "calendar
challenges" to watch and practice at home. Regional managers and area coordinators also kept in contact online with raisers via Zoom
meetings and other ways to answer questions and monitor the in-home training.
CALLAWAY GARDENS HIKE #2
I had planned to take Don down to Callaway Gardens several times in
March and April to watch the morphing flower show. Enough else was going
on in our lives as the pandemic worsened and more places shut down that
I made the trip only one more time this spring.
Although CDC guidelines have also morphed throughout the pandemic as
scientists learn more about how the virus spreads, it's always been
suspected or known that it spreads faster inside than outside.
As a result, the outdoor spaces at privately-owned Callaway Gardens &
Resort have remained open all year even as many local, state, and
national parks were closed for a period of time in the spring.
It was ironic that while the little parks along the cart paths in
Peachtree City where we walk the dogs were taped off for several weeks
in March and April to control the spread of the virus on playground
equipment, benches, etc., I was still able to take Don to Callaway
Gardens on March 19.
The azalea gardens, other garden areas, Discovery Center, and
Butterfly conservatory were open to visitors but their restaurants and
overnight accommodations were shuttered temporarily.
March 19 was a hot, sunny day at Callaway -- up to 80 F. --
so Don and I walked only about a mile at the Azalea Overlook and Azalea
Bowl. It was peak azalea bloom time and I loved all the gorgeous flowers!
I posted many more photos of the flowers in a journal entry dated
March 19, 2020.
Although it was a weekday, so many kids and adults were at home now that I was
surprised there were so few people walking around.
As mentioned in
the previous entry, I also took Don to the Day Butterfly Center that visit.
I had called a few days earlier to ask if Don would be allowed
into the conservatory where the butterflies are located and was told
that yes, guide and service pups/dogs are permitted in there. However,
once I was there he could only walk through the lobby, theater area, and
gift shop and was denied entry into the conservatory.
I don't know which employee got it wrong or whether perhaps COVID had
anything to do with the USDA regulations changing for the conservatory,
but I didn't argue. Don was already tired from walking in the heat and
the conservatory -- a large greenhouse -- is very warm and muggy inside, so we left.
I was a little disappointed but realized that, in the grand scheme of
things, it wasn't an important exposure for him and we had a lot more
critical things to worry about.
By the end of the month we would even more personally feel the effects of
the pandemic as it related to Don and Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Because of the large temporary reduction in staff, moving the
pups in Canine University off-campus, suspension/delay of matching
class-ready dogs with their new handlers, and the loss of major income
from the cancellation of all the Walkathons, area coordinators were
advised in late March that it was necessary to reduce the number of pups at all
stages of training.
Area coordinators were asked to identify any puppies in their groups
they felt would be candidates for release because they were less likely
to make it as a guide or service dog for temperament and/or health
Any released puppy or dog would be offered first t the puppy raiser,
then to staff, then to volunteers for adoption. That was also SEGD's
policy prior to the pandemic.
Because I submitted Don's formal 8-month PupDate in late January and my
area coordinator and regional manager hadn't seen him since the middle
of February at PuppyCon in Savannah, I thought they were due an
update on his training, health, and temperament. I sent an email to them for
I know from things I've read online and people I've talked to at both
SEGD and Warrior Canine Connection that there are a myriad of reasons
why pups are released from guide and service dog
programs. Some pups are released because of only one of them if
they are serious enough, such as
allergies, infections, or a lack of confidence.
The standards are higher for a guide dog than for a service dog or other
careers, and guide dogs are what SEGD focuses on the most. I knew Don
has several potential health and temperament "issues" that have caused
previous releases. In my update I included those, as well as his many
strengths. I still thought he would make a fabulous facility dog,
Gold Star Family dog, or kids' companion and I hoped that he would remain
in the program.
Jim and I talked all weekend about what we'd do if Don was released
and offered to us for adoption. We certainly never volunteered to raise
a guide or service puppy with the intention of keeping it permanently,
so this was an unexpected wrinkle. We knew there are many visually impaired
wounded warriors, and challenged kids out there who need a well-trained guide or service dog
more than we need a third pet Lab!
On the other hand, we are a bonded family after seven months. Don is
part of the pack. Jim and I love him, Holly and Casey love him, and he loves all of us.
Above and below: Holly and
Don are BFFs.
How could we say "no" if SEGD offered him to us? It was a long weekend, wondering when we'd know
more about Don's future.
On March 30, I read an e-mail
written by Southeastern's CEO addressed to staff,
volunteers, area coordinators, puppy raisers, and breeder hosts
regarding the difficult decisions he's had to make with his leadership
team regarding cuts and reductions to operations, staff, and dogs.
This paragraph addresses the dogs:
. . . Because we’ve had to cancel upcoming classes, we are facing
a backlog of dogs in our programs. Keeping too many dogs in the training
pipeline isn’t fair to the dogs or the people caring for them.
Typically, about 30% of our dogs do not qualify for one of our working
careers, and we are taking steps now to select some of those dogs
earlier than normal and transfer them out of our programs. We are
identifying these dogs—some of whom are enrolled in Canine University
and some in puppy raiser homes—based on their assessments, trainer
records, and puppy raiser records. We will then place these wonderful
dogs into loving forever homes through our extensive network of friends.
Chillin' out, completely relaxed
Since I'd already seen the first notice a few days earlier and knew
some dogs would be released earlier than usual, what surprised me
the most about the CEO's remarks was that typically 30% of their dogs don't
qualify for one of their working careers. I thought it was more like 10-20%
in a good year when they had the resources to consider other working careers besides
guide and service dogs.
We still didn't know on March 31, my birthday, if any decision had
been made about Don remaining in the program or not. We continued
training and loving him as we had for the past seven months.
Next entry: determining what's best for Don
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don
© 2020 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil