Bringing up Tia … and Shoshone, Trixie, Jake …


    Kris Sandahl drove from Malibu to Oceanside Friday to get her new puppy. She didn’t get pick of the litter, didn’t even get to name it herself. And what’s more, she only gets to keep it for one year.

    Tia, an 8-week-old female Golden Lab mix, did come with a red leash and a flashy yellow cape designating her status as a Canine Companion in training.

    Playful, friendly, curious, Tia will spend the next 12 months with Sandahl, developing some of the traits she will need to aid her eventual owner, who probably lives in a wheelchair.

    Call it Socializing 101. How to deal fearlessly with shopping carts, traffic, bus and airplane travel, and things that go bump in the night. And how to harness the natural instinct to retrieve and then deliver an object, not just to the general vicinity, but exactly into the hand or, for quadriplegics, mouth to mouth. But first, of course, she must learn to subjugate instinctive puppy behavior: chewing, digging, sniffing and chasing everything that moves.

    Sandahl, who grew up with a lot of dogs around because her family bred and raised Shelties, says her friends are asking how she could possibly raise a puppy and then give it up?

    “I think it will be bittersweet,” she says. “But the joy of being able to help someone else will help with the parting.”

    Julie Shular knows all about the parting. In a few days, she will turn in Shoshone, her fourth Canine Companion, a black Lab who grew from a 3-month-old puppy last May to a substantial, 95-pound adult.

    Shoshone will join three dogs matriculating in a ceremony in Santa Rosa, where he will then begin a 6-month, “Operant Conditioning” course of advanced training. He will be evaluated by the participant coordinator and trainers for temperament and other characteristics to match him up with a suitable applicant. That is, if he graduates.

    “It’s hard to give them up, but the hardest thing is when they call and say, ‘Your dog’s not going to make it,'” Shular said. “You have a sense of failure, that it’s the end of the road. There’s a certain pride in being able to say, ‘I raised four dogs and they all made it,’ but they don’t all make it.”

    Of candidates for all kinds of canine assistant programs, only about 45 percent graduate and are placed. Whatever the reason the dog is deemed unsuitable, the person who raised it has the first chance to get the dog back.

    It’s often not that the dog is a total washout, but rather that it is just not suitable for a particular kind of work.

    “My friend has a release dog that’s now doing Search and Rescue,” Shular said. “Other dogs can do therapy — going to hospitals, nursing homes or shelters for battered women and children.”

    Jake, a golden retriever that Shular raised, was released and returned to her.

    “I’m glad to have him back,” she said. “They said he was too much of a one-person dog.”

    Shular blames some of Jake’s problems on his picky appetite. “Their training is based on food-reward, and he’s not a good eater anyway. He really doesn’t care about food.”

    Canine Companions International has a category of placement where the dog is assigned to a facility rather than to one person. Shular’s second dog, Trixie, a female golden retriever, was working for a grade-school teacher when she developed a medical problem that caused her to limp.

    She needed surgery, so Shular took her back for recovery. “Even though she was sound after the surgery, wheelchair work was too strenuous for her.”

    But there’s usually a right place for such dogs, given their exceptional temperament and training. Trixie is now kind of a poster dog for CCI and accompanies the organization’s spokesman, author Dean Koontz, on public-relations trips. Koontz, a staunch supporter of CCI for 20 years, learned about the organization while researching a book that had a character who needed a canine companion.

    “I gave her to Koontz to be a CCI ambassador,” Shular said.

    Unlike her other dogs, Shoshone is an eager eater. “He would dive into the food bowl,” she said. “And he was brave about water from the first time at the beach.”

    During the socializing process, the dogs must learn to use all forms of travel: planes, trains, buses, even boats. “You have mishaps, but most people are really understanding,” Shular said.

    At one time, the dogs were taught to go on escalators; they no longer do because of the safety factor and because people in wheelchairs can’t use escalators anyway. Shular recounts trying to coax Trixie onto an escalator in a department store, but the dog was too frightened. “Pretty soon the store manager came by and asked if it would help to turn the escalator off. She did, and of course Trixie got right on and walked up. Then the manager turned it back on, and when Trixie got on it, all the shoppers cheered.”

    For Sandahl, having a friend in Malibu who has been through this training is a real help.

    “Julie has been wonderful. She’s the main reason I went with Canine Companions,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn. The philosophy changes over time. I always used choke chains, but now it’s discouraged, it’s a last resort.” The preferred leads are now Halti or Gentle Leader, a nylon strap that goes around the nose as well as the neck.

    “I was very active in obedience training and showing,” Sandahl said. “I missed having puppies around, but I didn’t want to be a breeder. This was the perfect solution.”

    Sandahl, a music teacher at Juan Cabrillo, is looking forward to taking Tia to school. “I thought it would be neat for the kids to experience.”

    Shular says that at 8 weeks of age, the puppy’s brain is fully developed, so you can start to teach them anything. “But they have a short attention span,” she adds. “And there’s a stage when they learn different things. If you can prevent them from learning those things, like eating the cat’s food, if they grow out of the phase without doing it, then they never will.” Shular advises putting lids on trash cans and waste baskets, spraying Bitter Apple on table legs, plants, slippers, anything they might chew. And make every effort to prevent them from taking food off a table or the floor. “If they get something good and they have nothing better to do, they’ll try again. Food success costs you 10 times.”

    “Tia is special,” Sandahl said. “She never walked on a leash before and she doesn’t fight it at all. And she isn’t intimidated by loud sounds … or big dogs,” she said, noticing Tia investigating Shoshone, who outstouts her by about 85 pounds and remains completely aloof to her sniffing. “She gets distracted, but she isn’t fearful.”

    Shular gives Sandahl tips on everything from marketing to housebreaking.

    “They told me to take her out every hour, maybe every two hours at night,” Sandahl said. “The first night I got her home, it was raining and I was standing out there, telling her to hurry, and I thought what did I get myself into?”

    She said her husband works at home and is willing to help. “When I’m teaching, he’s taking care of it. Later, when she’s older, I’ll take her to school with me.”

    Along with the yellow cape, puppy raisers are give an I.D. card that allows them to take their charges places other dogs are not allowed.

    “When I travel, I get a photo laminated to a card that fits in the dog’s cape,” Shular said.

    “Bus drivers are usually good,” she said. “And we took 15 dogs, 30 people, to Catalina on the boat. And not one got seasick.”

    “I’ve taken mine on the KLON Blues Caravan,” Shular said. “I usually call the clubs ahead so they’re expecting us.”

    Shular says there are also many fringe benefits to raising puppies that no one tells you about. “My first one showed me how to slow down, how to live in the moment, notice clouds, walk barefoot in the grass.”

    And people smile at your dog.

    Sandahl said, “My husband said his face hurt from smiling so much all weekend.”

    Shular said she likes to keep a diary, a “baby book” for the person who gets the dog, that it helps them make a connection with their new friend, to understand the dog’s progress in overcoming its fears.

    And the sorrow of parting, well, that just goes with the joy of helping someone less fortunate.

    “One dog that makes someone independent, the love you give that dog ripples out to everyone.”

    Sandahl added, “What a gift, to be able to do this.”