Yesterday I selected my puppy from his litter! The date has been circled on my calender for the past month, and the night before I could barely sleep, I was so excited.
Starting with the right puppy is very, very important. One of the reasons that owner training has such a high failure rate is that people often choose the wrong puppy. It can be difficult to discern aptitudes and personalities as puppies, and some people end up with a dog that is too shy or too independent for service work. Because I had done so much research in choosing the breeders, and had made absolutely sure that the parents were sound, wonderful dogs, I now only had to choose the right dog for service work from the litter.
Early in the morning, my friends Morgan and Alex and I drove down from Reno to meet with the breeders. The puppies were six weeks old, and I couldn’t believe how much they had grown! When we had last seen them at two weeks of age, their eyes and ears were still closed and they were tiny! Now, they were bouncing, tumbling balls of golden fur, alert and energetic. I thought I would keel over from cuteness overload.
It’s very important when picking out a puppy that you listen to the breeder’s advice. After all, they have the most experience with the puppies having observed them closely and being unbiased. I had already discussed the kind of puppy I was looking for extensively with the breeders, and they suggested Number Five and Number Seven from the litter.
I was immediately drawn to Number Five. On the first day we visited with the puppies as infants, Number Five had been my absolute favorite. He was a larger puppy, with a darker coat. He wasn’t all gold, but had a white blaze on his chest and tiny white socks on his back paws. His laid back attitude, combined with the two hours he spent snoring in my lap, made my heart melt, but I knew the decision of which dog to choose had to be made based on a series of tests and not solely on emotion. Now, four weeks later, I was delighted to see Number Five had caught the breeder’s eye as being a strong candidate, but I forced myself to breathe deep and begin the tests.
Service dogs have to be respectful of their human handlers and never display any aggression. I gently tugged on the puppy’s tails, limbs and ears, wiggled a finger in their mouths and rolled them onto their backs. Both Number Five and Seven submitted happily and without any complaint, not struggling or crying or growling, even when tipped backwards in my arms or suspended from the ground under the armpits for a short time.
My next test was to gently squeeze the puppy’s webbing between their toes. The ability to forgive a stepped on tail or a stubbed paw is vital; the public is always tripping on, stumbling over and veering around service dogs, and a dog that held a grudge would be undesirable for work. Happily, both puppies yawned and didn’t complain.
I then held each puppy’s paw in my hand. I wanted to see what the puppy would do when they couldn’t withdraw their foot. Biting or throwing a fit would clearly be unwanted reactions; both Number Five and Seven did excellent, submitting and waiting patiently until I released them.
Next, I tested the puppy’s reaction to noise. Shopping malls, streets, bus stops, grocery stores, classrooms, movie theaters and other such public places are all noisy and service dogs must be confident and calm enough to handle sudden, unexpected sounds. I let the puppy play for a few minutes, then clapped my hands loudly right over the puppy’s head. Number Five started, stared around, then approached me. His curiosity and recovery from the noise was a great response. Number Seven didn’t even twitch, and also approached me to find out what exactly had caused the sound.
Curiosity and the desire to discover new experiences are vital characteristics in service dogs. Timid, fearful dogs would make for poor working companions. I watched as Number Five and Seven explored the porch, pounced on the garden hose and tackled the cushion I was sitting on.
Number Seven was very food motivated; he immediately and repeatedly located the treats I had brought. Number Five was interested in the food, but when given the choice, opted to curl up in my lap or explore the porch instead of being focused on the treats. As service dogs are trained to ignore all types of human food, they need to have a good balance of food motivation and discipline. Too high of a food drive would make teaching the dog to ignore you when you are eating or to resist a piece of food on the ground more difficult.
My final test was to check the insides of each puppy’s mouth. Black or molted coloring was an indication of a strong sense of smell, a very important quality in my dog, seeing as the pup would have to learn to smell the subtle changes in my bloodstream and alert me to an oncoming migraine. Both Number Five and Seven had black coloring in their mouths.
Next, I asked the breeders for further insights about the puppies; were they overly dominant with their siblings, what were some characteristics they had noticed, how confident and focused was each dog? I found out Number Five had displayed an aptitude for smell; his nose was always working and he was more focused and stoic than his brother, Number Seven, who was energetic and playful. Number Seven was a lighter color than Number Five, and had a tendency to be more out going. Both dogs had excelled at all of my tests; each offered different energy levels and personalities.
In the end, I chose Number Five. His calm, focused demeanor, keen sense of smell and patient, willing personality won my heart, just as he had done the first time I held him as an infant. Had I been at a stage in my life where I had the time to go hiking and be more active, than Number Seven would have been a better choice, but as a full time student finishing school and hopefully embarking on a teaching career, I knew the next decade of my life would be spent studying at desks and working in classrooms. I needed a dog that would be content remaining at my side for hours.
With his focused character and easy going disposition, Number Five was a perfect fit. I have always loved the character of John Watson from the adventures of Sherlock Holmes; Number Five embodied his stoic, dependable and loyal character, so I named him Watson.
Once I made my decision, the breeders let us hang out on their porch and play with the puppy’s mother and grandfather. We discussed when we would return to take Watson home and we watched as Levi (the puppy’s grandfather) tirelessly wrestled with his tennis balls. All too soon, it was time to say goodbye. Reluctantly I nestled Watson back into the pile of puppies, and we headed home.
The entire two hour drive home I couldn’t stop smiling. Even now, I grin as I type, because I am one step closer towards training my next service dog. I couldn’t have done it without the love and support of my family and friends, and I am deeply honored that Watson will spend the rest of his life as my partner and best friend. He’ll graduate college with me, start my career as a teacher at my side, walk me down the aisle and be my shadow for the next decade. His journey has just begun.