Spike, free-range foster puppy
Official Policy There Shall Be No Exceptions :
Puppy is never to be off a leash. Never to run free. Never to chase a stick into the ocean, run crazy Ivans through the park with a pack of homies, eat dust at the rear wheel of a mountain bike. Why, we don't even teach them to come when called, because this pup will never be far enough away to have anywhere to come from.
Puppy is too valuable to put him at such terrible risk, and anyway, running around without a leash will teach him incorrigible habits.
How The World Really Works, as candidly explained to me by the guy in charge of enforcing Official Policy There Shall Be No Exceptions:
The ones whose puppy-raisers don't ignore this edict never make guide dogs. If they don't run free as puppies, they invariably fail the training.
Now didn't that tidbit prick up my ears? Oh, do tell!
We were sitting in folding chairs at an undisclosed location, watching as an undisclosed teenage Labrador ran amok in a pack of undisclosed other dogs, dove into an undisclosed body of water, rolled in the undisclosed unspeakable, and got his undisclosed adolescent butt kicked by the adult males in the group.
My Informant -- hereafter "MI" -- a volunteer regional coordinator for Nameless Guide Dog School (NGDS), had repo'd the pup a week or so previous. A high-strung and increasingly distraught first-time puppy-raiser had complained of multiple serious behavior issues, and when these could not be resolved by giving her advice and some tutorials, the coordinator had taken the pup in to see if he could be salvaged.
Of course, once the pup was in his hands, he never saw any of these "behavior problems." They just melted away. Dissolved in the cold, clean depths of Undisclosed Body of Water.
The only issue that remained was some moderate traffic-shyness, which MI was working on by taking the pup into town every other day. I'll give him another week or two to get over it, but if he doesn't, we'll wash him out. Fair enough -- any kind of traffic-shyness is anathema in a guide dog, and a fear that is patched over with months of training, rather than resolved with self-confidence, is still there under the surface, waiting to get a blind person killed.
The fate of the washed-out guide dog prospect is enviable in dog terms: a long waiting list of carefully-vetted families eager to adopt, and no more Official Policy about never stretching one's limbs.
I pressed MI. He told me about a woman who had fostered over a dozen puppies for NGDS, and every one of them had trained up like butter, and gone on to become a successful guide. We'll call her FM, for Foster Mom.
NGDS was clocking a miserable success rate in their purpose-bred retriever pups. Fewer than half -- closer to a third -- were succeeding in training.*
A fine thing for those carefully-vetted adopters (and frequently generous donors) who lined up for a well-bred pet/conversation starter, but not so great for all those blind people who just need to get to work.
After three or four pups came back from FM and bucked the odds, after they started sending her multiple (staggered age) foster pups at a time, after she became the Go-To person for pups that tested borderline or were failing in other foster homes, after an institutional legend started to form itself about the woman with Majickal Puppy Powers, MI decided to conduct a fact-finding mission. By this time, FM was emboldened by her track record, and concealed nothing.
At her farm, the puppies ran loose on a large acreage amid livestock, horses, and a constant hum of activity. Puppies that were in the way or starting to make trouble got corrected, mostly by her older dogs. Otherwise they were mostly ignored and allowed to hang out and participate in the life of the place. Once every week, or maybe a couple times a month, she'd toss a pup into the truck and take it with her to town, where it would learn to tolerate a leash. She was too far out in the sticks to take any of the puppies to the NGDS-approved classes, and too busy to mess with the regimen spelled out in the foster manual.
My Informant did not fink on her. His experience with the bureaucrats at NGDS suggested the strong possibility that they would attempt to crack down to "fix" FM's practices, and fire her as a volunteer if she didn't get with the program whose results she was trumping.
I don't understand why FM's method of free-range puppy-raising works, but it does, so I'm not going to mess with it.
I loved that phrase. Free-range puppy-raising.
Anyway, that sparked MI to start paying attention to the outcomes of the pups raised by the volunteers under his aegis.
And sure enough, he found what he later revealed to me: The ones who didn't "cheat" the always-on-a-leash rule consistently produced puppies who failed in training.
The cheaters produced some failures, too, but also all the successes.
I should have asked him how he finessed this information when supervising foster families. How he encouraged guerrilla puppy-raising without getting fired.
I threw another stick for the Lab pup.
* Ah, progress. In the 1950's and 60's, Clarence Pfaffenberger reported that improvements in the breeding program and puppy-raising protocols at the Seeing Eye and Guide Dogs for the Blind had raised their success rate to 80-90% among their purpose-bred pups.
My conversation with MI took place quite a bit more recently than Pfaffenberger's reports. I'm now told that a guide dog graduation rate of 50% is considered good by "industry standards."
A shocking number of people who are employed full-time by the service dog industry have never heard of Pfaffenberger or his work, or the foundational work of Scott & Fuller.
What is worse, they are unfamiliar with the concepts in either work.
Pfaffenberger's book has been in print and widely available since it's original publication.
Back in the 90's, I carefully xeroxed the only copy of the Scott & Fuller book still alive in the Harvard Library system. It was too precious not to have it, too hard to find.
But a few years later, it was reissued, and remains in print. There's no excuse for every dog trainer, breeder, and working dog handler not to own his own copy and read it thoroughly.