If you’re new to this series, please check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3! These were published in Just Labs magazine – an honest-to-goodness print magazine, for which I serve as the editor. If you have a Lab, please check out the website, or share it with a Lab-loving friend; you can even request a no-obligation issue. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Thank you so much to Leader Dogs For the Blind for, first, Cici (!), and for sharing this story – and welcome to all of the new people who have stopped by! I hope you take a peek around the rest of the site.
Stimulation and socialization are key for any puppy, but for those dogs destined to the world of service, the sooner these can begin, the better. For the “average” Labrador, though, it is equally important, and as you look for that next puppy, it might be a good question to ask a breeder when you are considering getting one of their pups: How much stimulation and socialization have the pups been getting from the very beginning?
For Leader Dogs For the Blind (LDB) pups, they receive a series of regimented “puppy stimulation exercises,” beginning from Day 3 and continuing to Day 16, that have been shown by the military to be beneficial in improving cardiovascular performance, with stronger heart rates and heartbeats; strengthening adrenal glands; increasing tolerance to stress; and providing greater resistance to disease.
These exercises, which might not seem like much and last for 3-5 seconds each, include:
• gently stimulating (tickling) the puppy between the toes on any one foot using a Q-tip;
• holding the puppy perpendicular to the ground (straight up), so that its head is directly above its tail for 3-5 seconds only;
• holding the puppy firmly with both hands and perpendicular to the ground (straight down), so that its tail is directly above its head;
• holding the pup so that its back is resting in the palm of both hands with its muzzle facing the ceiling (one of our pups always passed out);
• placing the pup on a cool, damp towel, feet down.
Once these initial exercises were completed and the pups were moving around more, eyes open and wagging, the stimulation came in the form of people contact. Lots of people contact. Individually, we’d take them into a bedroom where it was carpeted and get right down and play, make noises, let them explore and run and waddle and fall over and run some more, all the things puppies need to do. That’s where I found out that, yes, in fact their teeth had come in, when Reggie wriggled under my arms, wormed his way up, and chomped on my ear.
These individual times began to show their personalities, too. Buster put his nose on the ground and sniffed and explored, oblivious to my claps and floor taps, intent on figuring everything out. Pearl did the same, but with more caution. Yelsa sat down and yapped and had an altogether haughty look, the experience beneath her. And Olaf, Pixie, and Reggie just flat out played with us. They followed us everywhere, crawled over legs and arms and hands, bit, licked, tugged, barked, and wagged constantly.
Another new experience at around the four-week mark: food. That smelly puppy mash was absolute heaven for them the very first time they tasted it. Yeah, they’re Labs all right.
But the LDB rules also start right away, too. In particular, making sure they do their best to sit before any interaction them, whether it’s picking them up, playing with them, or feeding them. Ziegenmeyer feels that’s one of the most crucial things a host family can do.
“Puppies born in our program are bred and raised with this purpose [being a Leader Dog] in mind. Keeping that purpose in mind as puppies are handled makes the difference between having raisers start with a pet puppy that needs to learn manners, and a future Leader Dog that is ready to continue with training. Teaching the self-control exercise of sitting for every interaction provides a life skill other dogs may never learn.”
It’s such a riot to be standing by the whelping box and watching the melee for attention when, all of a sudden, one of the pups will stop, look at me very seriously, and then sit on his or her own. That’s the one I then reach down and pick up for some cuddle time.
With these daily interactions and adjusting to life with eight Labradors in the house, the days, as they so often do, slipped by. It was time to start thinking of the journey back to LDB to drop them off, a date already established before they were even born. “We will schedule an appointment, within days of their birth, for the litter’s return,” says Ziegenmeyer. “This is so we can start making arrangements for their next stage in their journey. We will be calling raisers and setting up appointments for them to pick up their next puppy. Raisers will start getting weekly e-mails the week before getting the puppy. These will continue through sixteen weeks, offering the raisers a curriculum to get the best start with their future Leader Dog.” We’ve been preparing a packet of photos to go back with each pup, too.
When the puppies arrive back at the facility, LDB is ready. “Many steps along the way are scheduled for the puppies so they can be prepared to go to their puppy raisers,” Ziegenmeyer says. “Each litter goes through a physical, vaccines, deworming, microchipping, and a bath before going to their raisers. We break these up over the few days they are with us so we don’t stress the puppies too much. These few days also allow us time for Puppy Development to confirm appointments, assess the litter, create raiser packets, and allow the dad’s host home to meet the litter.” Cici will also get a work-over at that time before loading back up in the car and coming home.
It’s funny – the first signs that Cici was starting to feel back to her old self, a couple of days after the births. I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for bed, and I heard a snort. I looked out into our bedroom, and there’s Cici, sniffing around. She scooped up one Nylabone rubber ball, stuffed in a Kong bone alongside, looked at me and smiled and wagged, and then shuffled back downstairs to take care of her pups.
And now, as I write this just before Thanksgiving, she pretty much hangs out with us and plays with Ginny like normal, only a week away from taking the pups back to the LDB facility, from Mark’s “worst day of his life.” I’m sure we’ll have lots of tears. But three more litters are in store for us, and what comforts me is knowing that Cici will be coming home with us.
While we were in the midst of puppy mayhem, we received a letter from Leader Dogs for the Blind along with a couple of photos. One of the stately yellow Labs looked an awful lot like Cici. Sure enough, this letter was an update on Cici’s very first litter. Two of her puppies went on to become Leader Dogs, one for someone in the South, another for someone in a different country. We also learned how and why some of the others didn’t complete the training. “Each dog has its own success rate, as well as each breed,” says Ziegenmeyer, “but if we base Cici’s success rate on the average of her breed, we would expect 58 percent of her puppies to become working Leader Dogs.”
Looking at the six pups scampering around right now, I can’t help but wonder which ones will someday change a life.
So wraps the story of our first litter with Cici. Another gaggle of pups should be arriving this fall, and we’ll all feel a little more prepared. But even now, Maddie gets a little teary-eyed thinking of “her” pups; it’s heartening that we’ve kept in contact with a few of them – one (little Mr. Blue, who we named Buster) even has his own Facebook page! And as Cici bonds more with us each day – she’s now been with us for a full year – I look forward to the day when we can “officially” make her a Smith.