Thursday around noon Kim came to pick Nala and I up for our trip across the border and to the prison. Drummand who was being returned that day, greeted us happily from the back seat. A quick stop for coffee and the four of us were off; ready to train, ready to learn and ready to meet someone that I've been wanting to meet for a very long time.
Upon arriving at the prison, we were signed in as per normal; markered number on the back of our hands. We also went through a metal detector. Kim introduced me to some pretty amazing people,the two people responsible for getting the Leader Dog puppies into the Michigan prison system. Nala sat patiently as I shook hands, signed forms and unloaded my pockets of most everything. She needed a few gentle reminders to "sit," as everything was pretty exciting, but I was really happy with her. Since checking in is such a big deal, things were a bit muddled for me. I'm pretty sure it was Kim who introduced me to the person I've wanted to meet for a very long time, but I can't honestly remember.
Patty, a blog writer from "Plays with Puppies" and now "Puppies Inside," was there with another Leader Dog volunteer to do puppy training with the prisoners and later that evening outside puppy raisers. I can't remember when I started reading Patty's blog, but it was somewhere between her first puppy and her second; I think. Even more strangely, when Glacier and I were welcomed back to LDB for re-training in the spring of 2011, Patty was there meeting the person who had been matched with her puppy Mike. Our paths crossed then, but we never actually met. In fact, I walked right past her in the hallway. So, after many years of reading her blog, I was so excited to meet her.
After all protocols were met, our group walked out through a door into the freezing cold, through a gate and then into the dining hall. I was later told that it was the dining hall and that all of the tables had been pushed up against the walls. They were regular tables with stools fastened to them. Plastic lawn chairs had been set up for everyone to sit on.
We were greeted by many voices, barking dogs and a smell of unscented anti-septic. Nala took the noise in stride and didn't return any of the doggie communications. Again, I was very proud of my girl. I located a plastic chair and settled in. Unfortunately, I had picked the one closest to the door and the wintery air was filtering in.
"I picked the wrong seat, I think." I said to a woman who worked for another Michigan prison. She was there observing the goings on to see, I'm assuming, whether or not a puppy program would be feasible in her own facility. She offered to switch seats, but I didn't want her to freeze either. She asked someone to shut the door which made us both happy.
Eventually, the man who started the program at this prison came and sat beside me. We had some great conversations and he explained a lot of the layout of the building, how exactly the prison system worked and of course general doggie chat. I learned a lot from him and enjoyed having company.
We started the training session with something that is called a "relaxation" routine. Perhaps routine isn't the right word, but it isa series of behaviours the dog is asked to perform while holding a sit stay. I suppose a down stay would work as well, as long as you have the dog perform the sit or down and the dog remains in that position for the duration of the exercise.
Nala rocked my socks off. Even with all of the other dogs, handlers giving cues and the LDB volunteer talking she did exactly what I asked her to do. She even ignored one of her reward treats I dropped at her paws. The man who started the puppy prison program, crushed it under his shoe after a while and so the temptation was removed. I was impressed. I had Nala wear her play collar with the bell on it so that I knew if she was moving. It came in handy because she barely jingled the whole time which meant she held her sit stay even when I dropped her leash and moved away from her.
The rest of the afternoon sort of went by in a blur. The LDB volunteer took a few dogs at a time to watch them going up and down stairs. Patty took Nala, out of harness, around to act as a dog distraction. We had a very interesting conversation about over using the cue "leave it." We talked about how the puppies had to learn how to make the decision to leave something even if they are not told to. Quite often, blind people with their dogs will pass a tempting object and the handler won't even know it was there. This has happened to me probably more than I know. The story that I could remember that was a really good example consisted of Glacier kicking a doughnut and me not even knowing. If Tenie hadn't been there to tell me to praise him, I never would have known my dog just chose to "leave" a doughnut that he kicked with his own paw. Nala also used her decision making skills when she stood with her paws practically in a pile of Gold Fish crackers for over ten minutes and I didn't even know. Her head had been at an odd angle for the whole time so I asked why and I was informed she was trying to ignore the tasty mess.
It also happened to be one of the puppy's birthday that day and another in a few days. So, of course we sang them happy birthday and a few birthday games, with an emphasis on obedience, were played. The most competitive game was the game of Musical Chairs the handlers played with their dogs having to sit when the handler sat in a chair. Nala just laid at my feet, taking the commotion all in stride.
One of the guys came to talk to me during one of the raucous party games. He is raising a German Shepherd puppy whom I am totally in love with. When he came to chat, he didn't have his puppy and I took the opportunity to have someone run Nala out to do her business. We are not allowed to go to the dog parking area because of its location within the prison. We had been there for quite a long time by this point and I knew Nala needed to go. I told him he could walk her around a bit if he wanted just to let her stretch her legs. I told him to make sure she heeled nicely though and not to let her push the boundaries with him just because he was new. He was so excited to take her.
By the time Nala had returned from her business break and small walk, I had news for her. I had been asked if I wanted to take one of the puppies home for the weekend. I was so shocked and excited. The man who started the program had been the catalyst in that and he asked me if I wanted to take Bravo, a large, 8 month old Golden Retriever. Of course I did, but without a cell phone to contact Mr. K, I was unsure. I hadn't planned on taking a puppy home. I thought that I needed to pass some sort of test or something first.
Our afternoon went by much too quickly. I had brought Roscoe's Leader Dog harness for everyone to see the difference between Nala's and the Leader Dog style. There were more questions from the inmate raisers which I love answering. The questions are always so relevant and I know that they listen to the answers and take the information to heart.
We packed up and headed out to dinner. There were twelve dogs at our very long dinner table that night. Apparently, Nala was laying next to an olive all dinner long and didn't even move. Again, good girl Nala. From what i could tell, all puppies were well behaved during dinner. Miss Kayla, or Little Miss as I like to call her, was a little super star. I hadn't seen her in two weeks and was absolutely shocked at how much she had grown.
After dinner, we all went to a firehall and practised some more obedience, including the relaxation exercise again as well as some recall. All of the dogs were tired and some just didn't want to work anymore. I'm not sure I could blame them. Nala was tired too, but she did very well. There was a little German Shepherd pup on his way to a different Michigan prison who had been upset all day. He had just left Mom and his litter mates a few short days before and had spent the last couple of nights in different places. He sounded so tired and confused. I couldn't believe how tiny he was. By the end of the evening he was so sleepy that he found a little corner by where Patty and I were chatting and fell asleep. As we were walking out someone said,
"There's a leash over there." To which Patty replied,
"No, that's my dog."
We all laughed and joked that she was leaving him behind because he was too noisy. She had left him sleeping while she gathered up her stuff. Poor wee guy really needed a nap.
Kim sent Kayla back to prison and Bravo climbed hesitantly into her back seat. And so began my weekend adventure with a very stunning and stubborn Golden Retriever puppy who weighs 71 pounds.