Guest post by Jean and Randy Hess, puppy sitters and volunteers for Susquehanna Service Dogs
We became involved with Susquehanna Service Dogs as puppy sitters in the spring of 2014. Our initial motivation was somewhat selfish in that we wanted the joy of having a dog in our lives again but did not want to go through the initial puppy break-in period. With both of us working full time and all three children gone from the nest, we did not want to subject a small puppy to being crated up all day.
Our last 3 dogs were Labrador Retrievers (Alex – yellow, Klondike – chocolate, and Angus – black). The only one still surviving, Angus, moved out with our daughter. We do sit Angus occasionally and he has learned that he needs to share with an SSD dog every now and then. At 12 years old, Angus has slowed considerably but the young SSD pups bring out the puppy left in him.
While our motives started out somewhat selfish, it did not take long to recognize that there is much more to this experience than having a dog in the house again.
The first dog we sat was SSD London. London, a black male, is now an active service dog. Our first outing as puppy sitters was a trip to the Giant Food Stores. As we entered the store, we noticed strange looks from one of the other shoppers. Nothing was said. About half way through the store we passed the same person, and again we got a strange look but no comment. As we continued up and down the aisles, London was perfect, paying attention to his handler and ignoring all the other people and distractions. Finally in the last aisle, we saw the same shopper, this time with a more puzzled look on her face. Finally, she stopped us and said, “I have a Labrador retriever at home. There is no way I could get him to behave that way.” At that moment, we were not only very proud of London but also of our involvement with SSD.
A few months later we had the privilege of attending a breakfast with several of the dogs we sat and their new partners. London, Kingston, and Outback were all there and we got to meet their partners. It was amazing how the dogs focused on their partners and how well behaved they were at the restaurant.
With each new dog we like to imagine what their ‘jobs’ will be. While sitting SSD Newman (now a working dog) we noticed that he took a liking to shoes. If a shoe was left unattended, he would pick it up and proudly show it to us. During Team Training the dogs and their partners learned how to work together and the partners were tasked with teaching their dogs a skill. While watching a video of Newman and his partner, there was Newman taking off his partner’s shoe and handing it to her!
We enjoy taking the dogs out in public with us to practice their skills in different places. Taking pictures of them helps us remember who we took where. Our computer is filling up with picture folders for each of the dogs we’ve sat. (We’re currently on number 18). Our friends are amused by some of the antics we go through to get a good picture and have taken pictures of us taking pictures.
|SSD Garnet at the Turkey Point Lighthouse Trail in Cecil County, Maryland, June 2015|
Taking the dogs in public also gives us the opportunity to share SSD’s mission. We’ve been in many conversations with complete strangers about what these dogs can do for people. One of our favorite places to go is the Susquehanna River Trail that runs from Columbia to Bainbridge. We often encounter bicyclists, other walkers, dogs, and children. There are also many other natural distractions that provide teachable moments in “leave it” and loose leash walking. Children are usually the first to notice and comment on the dog, often saying that they would like to pet the dog. We have been surprised that most parents tell their children that the SSD vest means that they are working dogs and they should not be disturbed. On those occasions the parents do not intervene we take the opportunity to explain about service dogs. There are also great places along the trail to take pictures.
|SSD Thor at Schock's Mill Bridge north of Marietta, PA|
Another place we like to take the dogs is to our camper in Maryland. Not only are there opportunities for teachable moments but also time for some fun and relaxation. There are many other people, dogs, as well as squirrels to attract a pup’s attention. The pups often get their meals from the treat pouch on a good day at the bay. Another challenge is walking on floating docks and getting onto a boat. Some are a little cautious at first but by the second or third trip they have gained their “sea legs” and traverse the docks like they were on land. Most seem to enjoy riding in the boat, feeling the breeze and sniffing the air. Probably none more so than SSD Newman.
|SSD Newman loves riding in the boat|
The adaptability of the dogs never ceases to amaze us. Often, within an hour or two, it feels like the dog has always been with us. On the first workday, when Randy gets up at 4:30 am to get ready for work, they all bounce up and are ready to be fed. To their disappointment they hear “Go back to bed. It’s not time to eat.” By the third day, they do not even bother getting up. The ones that normally sleep in bed with their raisers are also disappointed when they are told to go to bed on the dog bed in our room and not in bed with us. Initially, some will assume their rightful spot is in the bed with us and others will ask, but by the third night they all figure out where they are expected to sleep.
Having children and grandchildren that live close by and visit often affords the opportunity for the visiting dogs to practice their greetings. We are always very careful with introductions and once the initial excitement dies down—both dogs and kids—harmony generally ensues. The kids and dogs enjoy playing fetch, hide and seek around the house, and just hanging out. The grandchildren have come to expect that we will have a dog when they get to the house. The two-year olds ask “Doggie?” while the older ones ask “Now which one is this?”
|SSD Bo hanging out with Ava|
Being an SSD puppy sitter has definitely filled our need for a ‘dog-fix’ and so much more. Seeing what these pups can do for their partners just reinforces our desire to be a part of the wonderful Susquehanna Service Dogs organization. We hope that the experiences the pups have while with us will help them on their way to being the best service dogs possible. As someone told us in the very beginning, “a tired pup is a happy pup.”
|Look how happy (and sleepy) SSD Elwood is!|