Saturday, March 23, 2013

Weekends with Daisy: Feel-good dog story about training a prison pup. Two-part exclusive interview!

Back when Mom worked at the Paper, whatever that was, she had a friendship with a colleague named Sharron Kahn Luttrell. Nearly 20 years ago, and within a couple of weeks of each other, they each had little girls. They did new-mommy things together, like trying to figure out whether there babies were progressing typically and taking their lambkins to visit farms and such. Often underfoot was Sharron's dog. More about her later.

What does this have to do with moi? Nothing, until now. The versatile Sharron has penned a memoir about her experiences training a dog to be a helpful companion. Through NEADS, prisoners train puppies during the week, while host families take weekend duties and introduce the pups to the world. Eventually, pups graduate and are placed in their forever homes.

(Mom will not let me make the invidious comparison, which would highlight her failures—my successes, of course—in training moi. Nevertheless, the comparison is obvious.)

Sharron's book, Weekends with Daisy, is due out this fall (one can pre-order now), and Sharron's also cut a movie deal with CBS Films! News hound that I am, I communicated with Sharron to get the scoop on her life with this adorable, do-gooder pup.

T:    A dog's life is wonderful--we only wish we could be with our people longer. Tell us about the beloved pup who set you on this journey of training assistance dogs. 

Sharron: Well, she was a German shepherd and she had the best name ever: Tucker! I know that’s traditionally a male name, but it fit her personality. My husband Marty and I brought Tucker home as a puppy soon after we bought our first house. She was with us for all of those firsts: first child, first steps, first day of kindergarten … and beyond as we settled into being a family of four (five, if you count Tucker, which of course we did).

She was nearly 15 when we said goodbye. Marty and I couldn’t bear to go through that again with another dog. Yet, there was this huge void without one. When I found out about the NEADS weekend puppy program, it seemed like the perfect solution. NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) trains puppies to be service dogs and places them with disabled clients. Most of the puppies are trained by prison inmates and are furloughed to volunteer puppy raisers on weekends.

T:     Each pup has their own characteristics--lovable, frustrating, exhausting, inspiring...What made Daisy unique?

Sharron: Besides being cute and loveable and smart – and I know this is going to sound extreme --  Daisy was a role model.  My goal was to approach the world as she did, without judgment and always expecting wonderful things to happen. Sometimes I list toward the gloomy side, but every weekend, Daisy helped set me straight. She loved everyone she met and because of that, everyone she met loved her. She threw herself into whatever she did: fetch, walks, training exercises. But when it came time to work, she’d collect all of that energy into a neat little bundle and apply it to the job at hand. If I could approach life like Daisy, then I would be the happiest, most contented human on earth.
T: Mom has attempted the training process with me, but I really have both my parents well in hand. Who actually was trained in this process, you or Daisy?

Sharron: We were both trained. Daisy was trained by a prison inmate and I was trained by NEADS’ staff. The people at NEADS had the harder job because it’s not easy to train a human to train a dog. Not only do we perceive the world much differently, humans interact with one another in ways that are confusing or threatening to dogs, so we have to undo a bunch of habits and instincts before we can communicate effectively with our dogs. That’s a lot to overcome.

T:  What do you know of Daisy's life after her time with you?
Sharron: Daisy became a “social dog” for a boy with Aspergers. She helps him feel comfortable around other children. She also keeps him calm and centered. 
T:  What does it take to train a "prison pup"?
Sharron: In prison, the inmates have a schedule of commands they teach the dog over the course of a year, beginning with the basics like “sit,” and ending with advanced skills, such as opening a refrigerator door, retrieving an object from inside, and closing the door. The inmates use clicker training and positive reinforcement.

Our job as weekend puppy raisers is to expose the dogs to the experiences they’re likely to encounter once they’re working as service dogs. We bring them to the mall, the supermarket, museums, on bus and subway rides so they’ll be comfortable and confident everywhere they go. We also make sure they understand that the commands they learn in prison apply in every other situation – that “leave it” on the cell block is the same as “leave it” in a restaurant when your child just dropped a French fry on the floor.

If Mom could approach life like me, she'd certainly be the most well-rested human on earth. Except for all the fun I'd have once I learned how to open the refrigerator door! Speaking of, I'm hungry. Tune in tomorrow for the rest of my exclusive interview!