Denver - February 6, 2013
Show of hands: Who knew that Canine Companions used to train Welsh Corgis as Hearing Dogs? All right, I see a few hands there in the back but MOST of you didn't know that. I only found out because a nice puppy raiser named Florence sent Marianne an email to say she had enjoyed reading Let the Dogs Speak!* She happened to mention that she'd raised a Corgi named Penni for CCI and I just had to know more.
JEB: When and where did you raise Penni?
FLORENCE: Penni was born May 1996 and I raised her from July 1996 to November 15, 1997. We puppy raisers remember the exact date of turn in no matter how long ago it was. I live in Franklin Square, Long Island, New York. I am in CCI's Northeast Region (NER).
JEB: Why was Canine Companions using Corgis? And what exactly are Corgis like? I've not met any.
FLORENCE: I assume that CCI used Corgis because they are herding dogs that are hardwired to work with humans. Like other herding dogs Corgis are intelligent, inquisitive (nosy is a good word too), attentive, protective, problem solving, people oriented dogs. (How’s that for a recommendation?) They are energetic and learn quickly. They are an interesting combination of soft and tough. Anything that weighs 20 pounds but has the moxie to push around a half-ton cow is tough. But they also respect a leader. I like to say a Corgi is a German Shepherd Dog with three inch legs and a sense of humor. They are a lot of dog in a small package and unlike little dogs (they are not little—they are just short), they are not fragile. Besides, Queen Elizabeth loves them.
JEB: Was Penni a Pembroke or Cardigan Welsh Corgi? (Are you impressed that I know there are two kinds?) And what the heck is the difference anyhow?
FLORENCE: I am always impressed when anybody knows anything about Corgis, so yes, you are very smart, Jeb. Cardigan Corgis have tails. The Pembroke is “broke” (not without money, but without a tail). Although a few “natural bobs” are born, most are born with a tail and it is docked shortly after birth before the nerve endings start working on that end of the dog. (Don’t go all squeamish on me, Jeb. It’s not going to happen to you. You even kept your dew claws, right?) CCI used Pembroke Corgis and did NOT dock their tails. As you know, Jeb, the dog’s tail is another way dogs communicate. Leaving the tail on gave the deaf person another signal. Suppose a deaf person was walking her Corgi on a cold, dark night and all of a sudden the dog’s tail started a slow, side to side wag. That could tell the person that the dog had heard something that needed her owner’s attention.
JEB: Was puppy raising a lot different then?
FLORENCE: Well, aside from the fact that the NER now has a beautiful, state of the art campus in Medford on Long Island, there isn’t too much different. The old campus did not have a place for puppy classes when I was raising Penni so Penni took puppy kindergarten and obedience with a local obedience trainer. We still had to submit monthly reports. However after turn in, instead of written progress reports sent by email, puppy raisers could call in on a designated day to receive progress reports. Also since Corgis were going to be hearing dogs, we taught them commands in American Sign Language (ASL) as well as spoken English.
Jeb: Wait- WHAT? You taught Penni sign language?!? *gulp* Did you already know it?
FLORENCE: Nope, I didn't know it. We were given a sheet which illustrated the commands in ASL. But later, when Penni started visiting the school for the deaf, I did attempt to learn ASL. I took several courses in it. Like French or Spanish if you don't use it, you lose it. So the best I can manage now is polite stuff like thank you, I'm sorry, how are you, what's up.
JEB: Huh. That's way more than Marianne knows, I'm sure. What was Penni like as a tiny puppy?
FLORENCE: Unlike you, Jeb, Penni was not an easy puppy to raise. She was a Corgi, by definition smart and fast. I was used to Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers who although intelligent and willing were not “Energizer bunnies.” One of the first things she did was try to escape under the fence in the backyard. She also considered herself boss of the other two dogs who lived here. I had a big, black Lab at the time, named Rocky, and Rocky was top dog. When Penni first came into my house, he let her pester him for a few days. Finally, he had had enough and he rolled her on her back. She got up, shook herself off, and the look on her face said, “Ok, I get it. You are top dog.” And she never bothered him again.
Penni could learn a behavior in two minutes. I would scratch my head and say to myself, what am I going to do with her for the rest of the day? Corgis don’t like repetition or drills. Unlike Retrievers, who will fetch until they drop, if you make Corgis repeat something they have done correctly, they think they have done something wrong and find a creative way to fix it, thereby doing it wrong. If you don’t give Corgis a job, they assign themselves one and it usually involves chewing something or barking for recreation. So wearing her out became a challenge for me. My obedience instructor suggested agility. Penni loved it and eventually excelled at it.
JEB: Penni didn't graduate as a Hearing Dog. Why not?
FLORENCE: Please don’t take this the wrong way, Jeb. Labradors and Goldens exemplify a song from “Finian’s Rainbow”: “If I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.” They easily transfer their affections. Corgis don’t. Corgis like people but they generally have one special person to whom they are fiercely loyal. Penni decided I was the person whose life she had been intended to change. She suffered from separation anxiety in the kennel. She would not eat and she would not work for her trainer. So she was released from the program. When I first got her back, if I left the house and left her uncrated, she would dig up the carpet at the front door, attempting to follow me. I had to cure her of her separation anxiety and in doing so learned a lot about dog training.
JEB: How did you get involved in doggie sports?
FLORENCE: Early on, my obedience teacher recognized Penni’s intelligence and energy. After class the teacher would let the pups blow off steam by allowing a little puppy playtime. Penni’s idea of play was to run circles around the other puppies, eventually getting them in to a circle, like a herd of sheep. Since there are no herds on Long Island, my teacher suggested that agility would be a good way to challenge Penni’s mind and expend her energy. Penni took to it and loved it. It was never my intention to compete, just use her gray matter and wear her out. A few years passed before I got up the courage to compete. Because she was height challenged and wide bodied, I put her in the Preferred class, which allowed her to jump at 8 inches instead of 12. Penni continued to compete and qualify until she was 13 and achieved PAX (the highest title for a Preferred dog at the time). Then I retired her from agility.
We also took up Rally which is a form of obedience but like agility it has motion and action. She achieved advanced titles in that sport. Penni never liked competitive obedience. It was too rigid and I was not a good handler. So after she earned her CD, I promised her we would never do it again and I kept my promise.
JEB: Please tell me what the heck all those initials after her name mean: COMH, CD RN MX MXJ MXP2, MJP3, PAX, S-OAC O-OJC, OGC, TN-N, CGC. (Staggering slightly) Wow, all those letters make my head swim.
FLORENCE: COMH means "Champion of My Heart." More on that later. The American Kennel Club and National American Dog Agility Council agility titles after her name basically mean that she achieved Masters level on both agility standard courses and jumpers with weaves at the 12 inch jump height and Masters level in standard and jumpers at the lower preferred height, and finally accumulated enough qualifying scores after achieving her masters titles to receive PAX.
JEB: (confused) Wait, PAX means Peace, so Penni won the Nobel Peace Prize?!?
FLORENCE: No, but it's pretty spectacular anyhow. According to the American Kennel Club, "For a title, a dog must achieve 20 double qualifying scores obtained from the Preferred Master Standard agility class and the Preferred Master Jumpers With Weaves class. Qualifying in both the Preferred Master Standard agility class and the Preferred Master Jumpers With Weaves class on the same day equals one (1) double qualifying score." Aren't you sorry you asked?
JEB: Um, kind of, yeah. Did she get a nice ribbon, at least?
FLORENCE: When a dog achieves PAX the handler gets a special stick and then takes a victory lap with the dog around the course while everyone cheers. Penni got a BIG ribbon with the stick. All our friends signed the stick.
JEB: Marianne said I should ask about the ACE Award. So, what's that all about?
FLORENCE: That's a big honor, Jeb. The American Kennel Club gave Penni their ACE (Award for Canine Excellence) in the category of Therapy dog in 2007. You can see her picture and story at this link: http://classic.akc.org/news/ace/2007/honorees.cfm
Penni was given the award at the Eukanuba Invitational Dog Show in Long Beach, California. She stood on the blue carpet where awards for Best in Show and Best in Breed were given, where the finest examples of canine breeding are honored. The entire audience, people dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, people knowledgeable about dog breeding and training, stood and clapped for my little dropout. I tried not to cry.
JEB: (sniffling) Well, shoot, I would have howled like a puppy! You didn't raise any more Canine Companions puppies until recently. Why did you decide to raise another CCI puppy after all this time?
FLORENCE: When Penni died, she took a chunk of my heart with her. At first I thought I wanted another Corgi and I pursued finding a breeder who might have pups or anticipated litters. No one I contacted had any. Besides, I had this nagging voice going around in my head that said, “You owe it to Penni’s memory and to CCI to raise another puppy. What would your life have been without Penni?” I knew that CCI did not use Corgis anymore but I was convinced that raising another puppy was the best way to honor Penni's memory, so I called NER puppy program manager, Katrina Winsor. Shortly thereafter a beautiful black Labrador Retriever pup, Kathleen II, entered my life.
JEB: What was Kathleen like as a puppy?
FLORENCE: Kathleen was a Corgi in a Lab suit. Smart, willing sometimes, stubborn at other times, fearful of some things, daring at others, she presented a challenge and I often wondered if sending Kathleen had been Penni’s little joke, a way to ensure no other dog would ever replace her in my affections. But together with the help of the wonderful trainers at NER Kathleen developed into the dog CCI had hoped she would be.
JEB: Were you surprised when Kathleen was chosen as a breeder?
FLORENCE: I was ecstatic when I received the call that she had been selected to join the breeding colony. When I saw the name on Caller ID, I picked up the phone and my greeting was, “I’m getting her back, right?” Ellen Torop, the program manager, laughed and answered, “On the contrary.” Kathleen now lives with the ideal breeder/caretaker in California. She lives with a family and two other dogs who all engage in outdoor activities, so perfect for her Labrador self. The Wall Street Journal featured an article about her breeder/caretaker and the scientific approach she uses to breed service dogs with the goal of achieving a higher graduation rate. Kathleen is mentioned at the end of the article. Here's the link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204846304578090683395043530.html
JEB: Has she had any puppies yet?
FLORENCE: Kathleen recently had her first "date." She will have an ultrasound this week to determine if she is pregnant and if so, how many pups to expect. I hope one of her pups comes to the NER so I can raise her or him.
JEB: In the meantime you're raising Lombard for Canine Companions.
FLORENCE: Lombard is the easiest puppy I have ever met. He is a yellow Lab-Golden cross; smart, willing, and affectionate. He has a very handsome face but at this point in his life, six months old, all his parts are not growing at the same rate. His head is huge. He has long spindly legs, a skinny, long body, and a constantly wagging tail that can clear a coffee table. He is a low energy dog but enjoys jumping hurdles, running through tunnels, and scaling an A frame on my backyard agility course. He is a big, goofy, love sponge. He also likes his comfort, the couch being the preferred place to lounge. I guess you hear “Off!” a lot too, right, Jeb? He adores my six foot tall son and attempts to climb in his lap whenever he gets a chance. Picture that---55 pound lap dog. We shall see what his destiny is.
JEB: Marianne says Lombard sounds just like me, except I'm 60 pounds. Hmmm. What else should my readers know?
FLORENCE: Well, Jeb, I have to brag about Penni. Did you ever hear the saying, “Man plans, God laughs”? That is exactly what Penni’s life was about. You could say that she was a flunk out, a reject, or euphemistically, a “change of career” dog. But unbeknownst to CCI or me at the time, Penni had a different calling. She became a therapy dog. She worked in a nursing home, a physical rehabilitation center, a Reading to Dogs program, and a school for deaf children. At the school for the deaf she helped the children with their speech, their math, and their English language and computer skills. She helped them learn proper social interaction, responsible pet care, how to get outside of oneself and give back to the community. She even helped them learn to bake! She worked as a therapy dog almost all of her life. On the day she collapsed, five days before she crossed to Rainbow Bridge, we were getting ready to visit the nursing home where her career had begun and where she visited for almost 15 years. Penni was the finest dog I have ever owned, the Champion of My Heart (COMH).
JEB: Jeepers, you made me choke up again. I want to be someone's COMH.
FLORENCE: Well Jeb, be a good boy. Do what Marianne tells you. Listen to your trainers, and go find the thing that you have been destined to do. I have a lot of faith in you. I know you are going to make a difference, just like Penni.
Chow for now!
*Let the Dogs Speak! Puppies in Training tell the Story of Canine Companions for Independence is available online through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Author's royalties are donated to CCI.