Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Free Range

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.

That's it.

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.


  1. A pup can only learn to think for himself if he's given the opportunity to do so. How can any semi-intelligent person in their right mind believe that a pup brought up in that kind of radically over-managed way could be capable of exercising volition for himself -- much less on behalf of his sightless partner?

  2. Oh, you are inspiring me to chronicle in some way a local story about a puppy-raiser for a No-Name National Service Dog program who lays gargantuan claims to expertise as a DAWG trainer, thought every single one of the pups she's raised has warshed out of advanced work. Over-managed doesn't even begin to describe it, and the dogs in her own household (never having rec'd a lick o'trainin' after puppy kindergarten) are kept like managed hostages while she proclaims her SKILLS to the rest of the world and the too-easily-fooled No Name National Service Dog program.

  3. Hi Heather,

    I gave you an award, the Honest Scrap award.

    A silly little thing, but honesty needs every little reward and your writing is brilliant.

  4. Oh. "Maybaby" is me, Paige from the ES list world

  5. What IS this with the "must never be off leash" thing? In 2002, my husband and I were bounced out of several rescue groups here in Southeastern PA because we wanted a dog that we would (with training) take with us off-leash (him on marathon training runs, me at the community garden).

    I don't know HOW one does agriculture with a dog on leash. (Training the puppy to follow you by tying the leash to your belt while you are working, yes, but even then, you give the puppy times off-leash to see if they are getting it -- and the reward is more time off-leash).

    I am such a newbie/neophyte compared to all of you folks, but it blows my mind how people in my town marvel that Pepper WILL follow me around and WILL come back when I call her if I drop the leash at the Farmer's Market because I've got too much stuff in my hands or I'm inspecting one of the local parks (I just got put on my town's park commission).

    I mean, come on, folks -- having a dog follow you around and be useful is one of the major reasons dog and humans got together in the first place! Why this is or should be so "unusual" just doesn't make sense to me!


  6. Dorene, it sometimes seems that most of the people I encounter with off-lead dogs around here have no voice control, much less dogs who can walk on a leash without pulling the owner's shoulder out of its socket. Which is why they are off-lead. Denial is a powerful thing.

    I suspect that the family "furkids" do whatever they want when they want, so people are stunned when a dog actually takes its cues from a human.

    I feel like I sometimes create a minor traffic hazard in our neighborhood because my collie will do a "stop" and "sit now" at up to 30 ft. out from me off lead when there is a car coming. How do I do it??? Uh, training.

    Totally agree with you.

  7. Interesting that a pup should never be off the leash. In reality one of the things that should be taught is a reliable recall. Especially because a guide dog when off duty could play hardy and get some exercise. Even if it's in a fence in yard it would be grand for the guide to come when called. Although I could understand the schools reasoning behind this policy for if it's not done correctly in low to no key distraction and in a safe environment it could be disasterous for the pup.

  8. I agree that the on-leash-only part is a bit overmanaging, but in the city where I live, it's more for the safety of the dog. Granted, a long line might be a better option sometimes, but a lot of pups don't have a 100% reliable recall around distractions, so it's not like they have a lot of room to run like in the country. I've seen some dogs in my local park (which is unfenced) that have unnerved me with how far they run off.

    No, I'm not against letting a dog run free, but when it comes to raising a puppy that's ultimately not mine in a city environment, I can see the logic. But just like with children, micromanaging is a bit too much. Let them be puppies and enjoy themselves too.

  9. I have also noticed that "free range" puppies are far better adjusted than strictly controlled puppies.

    This is from psychology textbook and it explains why:

  10. Picked up a copy of Pfaffenberger's book, on this recommendation.

    You are indeed correct. No excuse for me not owning a copy before.

    As always, I don't agree with everything he wrote, but the basics of his program should at least be investigated today if in fact his results were so much higher than present.

    Also, the English Shepherd reference did not escape me. ;O)


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