Day 5: The Gift You Can Only Give Once-Puppies of Purpose Have a Busy Schedule Ahead of Them!

Many people love seeing Service/Assistance Dogs when they are working with clients, but often don’t realize the work that has gone into those dogs over their entire lives to get them ready for the job at hand, and the work begins as soon as they are born.  As a whelping home for my first time in 2015, I was a bit amazed at everything that these puppies are exposed to in the early days of their lives which research has proven has a direct impact on how well adjusted they can be as an adult dog!  I also had to learn that holding and loving these puppies is critical, but it doesn’t replace the other things that puppies need to experience; new environments to experience and changing their environments to teach them to adapt to their surroundings, exposure to a whole variety of sights, sounds and smells, socialization with every possible opportunity once they are old enough (but at the very least with me and my husband handling them frequently until they can socialize with others) creating brain challenges for them to keep their neurological stimulation at its very peak so they can transfer that to becoming a dog that loves to work and help with tasks.

Here are the stages of these tiny pups and what they should experience in order to give them the perfect building blocks for success!

The excerpt below is taken from a Healthy Pets article by Mercola and does a great job of explaining the first 8 weeks of puppy development.

5 Milestones in Every Puppy’s Life

Stage 1: Whelp. A whelp is any just-born carnivorous animal. The word is most often associated with newborn puppies. Whelping means birthing; to have whelped means to have given birth.

Stage 2: Neonate. Neonate refers to a newborn pup from day 0 to day 13 of life. Neonate puppies can’t see (their eyes are still closed), can’t hear (their ears are sealed shut) and can’t pee or poop without stimulation (licking) from mom.

They have no teeth, nor do they have the ability to regulate their own body temperature.

These tiny babies depend on mom and their littermates to stay warm, which is why they tend to snooze in furry little piles. Neonates sleep about 90 percent of the time, and when they’re awake, they’re nursing.

Fortunately, they’re born able to smell, which helps guide them to mom’s nipples at mealtime.

The first milk a mother dog produces is colostrum, which contains the antibodies that transfer maternal immunity to help protect the pups from opportunistic diseases during their first weeks of life.


Virtually all the energy a neonate’s body generates goes toward growth. They typically double their birth weight during the first week of life. Since they can’t yet stand, they sort of paddle around using their front legs. This soon leads to crawling.
It’s during this time (days three to 16) that its beneficial to institute early neurological stimulation (“super puppies,” as some say) which can oftentimes result in more balanced adult dogs.

The U.S. military did studies on raising puppies, and they found that doing certain exercises with puppies during the time of rapid neurological growth, between the puppies third and sixteenth day of life would increase the pups performance in later life. They created a program called the Bio Sensor program consisting of 5 exercises to be done once a day with the pups. They found that not only were puppies able to cope more with stressful situations, and problem solve better than other puppies, but that they were actually physically healthier with higher cardiovascular performance, stronger immune systems, adrenal glands and heart beats.

They are only done for a brief 3-5 seconds so as to stimulate the neurological functions without stressing them too much.


Holding them upright encourages neurological stimulation and blood flow


Holding them upside down for 3-5 brief seconds causes additional neurological stimulation which is different than when they are held upright!


The supine position has them laying on their back or cradled-I can just imagine those brain cells developing as we go through these exercises!


Using a Q-tip on the paws and between the pads is a tactile stimulation that can help them be adaptable in future situations where there is a flooring change, a different surface that they need to manipulate, etc. and keeps them learning to be adaptable to their surroundings



Placing the puppies on a cool, wet rag briefly continues to stimulate the neurological connections that they will use as they grow into adult dogs!

Below is a video explaining neurological stimulation by a veterinarian.

Stage 3: Transition period. The transition period covers days 13 through 21 of a puppy’s life. The ears start to open at around day 14, and the eyelids between days 10 to 16. As you can imagine, these events give the pups a whole new outlook (literally) on their world.

They begin to respond to smells and tastes, and their little puppy grunts evolve to whines, yips and barks. By day 15, most pups are standing up, and within the next several days they take their first unsteady steps. At this point, they go from total reliance on mom to a bit of independence.

Stage 4: Awareness period. The awareness period is day 21 to day 28. By 3 weeks of age, pups are using their senses of sight and hearing to learn. They’re beginning to play with their littermates and explore their environment.

This is also the time during which puppies gain some control over elimination and begin moving away from their “den” (sleeping area) to pee and poop.

Stage 5: Socialization period. The initial socialization period encompasses weeks 3 to 8 in a puppy’s life. It’s during this period that her interactions with other pets and people increase, and she’s able to form attachments.

At about 4 weeks of age, mom’s milk production begins to taper off, and the puppies’ calorie requirements increase. As mom gradually weans her pups, they begin showing serious interest in solid food.

As luck (and more importantly, nature) would have it, at 3 to 4 weeks, the canine teeth begin to push through, and a full set of puppy teeth make an appearance between weeks 4 and 6.

Age 6 to 8 weeks is considered a critical time in every puppy’s socialization period. This approximately two-week window is when puppies are most accepting and least fearful of others.

How quickly a pup’s mental development occurs is a direct result of the environmental stimulation she receives during this period. By week 8, most puppies are fully weaned. Puppies need additional, expansive socialization from 8 weeks to 6 months of age to best acclimate to all life will throw at them as adults. At 3 to 5 months, permanent teeth begin to replace puppy teeth, and by 7 months, puppy has a full set of permanent teeth.

Here is a video that I believe explains the process of Super Puppy Training that Whelping Homes perform with their litters to help them have the best possible start in life on their journey to becoming an assistance dog!


Day 3-The Foreign Language of the Whelping Box; Strangely Familiar and Yet Totally Brand New at the Same Time

The puppies have been in my home for 3 days now, and what I realize is that although it’s not my first litter,  it’s a whole new world that I have to explore again with new eyes.  Every litter, every momma dog,  every experience, and every puppy is different; and every whine, cry, and pant that I had learned to decipher from a previous litter in my home is now only a casual reference point and I have to learn the “language of the box” all over again.  I have to use what I’ve learned in the past to help guide me on this journey, yet I can’t allow the previous experiences to cloud my judgment for what’s in front of my eyes with THIS litter.


A cry from a puppy can be that they are too hot, too cold, hungry, not feeling well, are looking for their mom, or have to go to the bathroom which they need Sugar’s assistance for, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The possibilities are endless, and as soon as I assume I automatically know what it is without exploring all of my options I’ve lost the benefit of fresh eyes to find the real reason for their vocalization.  Honestly, it’s like learning a foreign language in a record amount of time! Some litters love a warm whelping box, while others don’t; some love being with their littermates and others love to be in the far corners of the box away from everything-yet puppies going off on their own could also indicate something might be amiss.  So, you carefully watch and wait for their next move so you can compile the information and then come up with your best guess as to what’s going on and if it’s an issue or just puppies being puppies.



There’s what the books and the experts tell you about tiny little puppies and then there’s your vision of what you see, your gut instinct, and the interactions between mom and puppies.  It turns you into a detective of sorts until you solve the mystery and you see a reaction in the puppies, the mom, or the environment that tells you either you are right on or try again.  More often, it seems to fall into the latter category, and yet you don’t have the option to get frustrated because being alert to the tiniest of clues is really important. You don’t have time to pat yourself on the back, because a new mystery is waiting just around the corner to present itself for you to solve! The first big hurdle is the birth of the puppies, but sometimes people don’t realize that there are a hundred more hurdles along the way to them becoming 8 week old bundles of joy! Lucky for us, staff is there to guide us along the way with their knowledge and expertise so we don’t have to do the journey alone!


One litter in our home loved a 90-degree whelping box and this litter prefers more like an 80 degree box-but the variables are what played into that difference.  Sugar is spending much more time in the box this time around and so they are cuddling with her nice warm body more often; the days have been sunny and the sunlight in the window can warm the room more than if it were the middle of winter; even my choice of waterproof pads and sheets can affect the level of heat that the floor retains which affects their comfort level. All of these things that change are out of my control and so I have to figure out how to solve it differently this time than maybe previous times. We watch the puppies constantly to watch their body language.  If they huddle they might be cold, if they spread out they are too warm, if they cry it could be either or a combination of anything else!

By the end of the night, your mind feels like you’ve spent all day in a college-level course of a brand new language, and tomorrow you get to do it all over again with a whole new language! My brain loves a challenge, so this experience gives me opportunities in thinking “outside of the box” and to be open-minded.  I honestly believe that my experiences in whelping have directly impacted my views of the real world; I have learned to explore options much more freely and to look for solutions that might not be “traditional”.  It’s taught me to appreciate experiences and people, places and things that I may not have previously because you never know how much effort, training, skill or heart that has gone into what you see in front of you!



Nursing while laying down is EASY!  But sitting up gives you an idea of just how smart I am already!


I never get tired of watching the puppies vie for their Mama Sugar’s attention!

Day 2 – The Wonder of Love in Progress

As I sit here during the pre-dawn hours, I watch with wonder at this moment in front of me.  Just 24 hours ago, we were at the Vet Hospital getting an earlier than planned assisted delivery of future assistance puppies.

But now, as I watch with only the light from the streetlights and the heating lamp, I am on the sidelines, watching this beautiful bond being formed between a mother dog and her puppies. I quietly sneak a peek into her private world-where humans aren’t part of the equation.  You would think that she was too tired, in too much pain from the surgery, or too concerned about herself to concentrate any of her limited energy on her litter of 7. But, what I witness is exactly opposite of that; I see Sugar-who with every litter has given it her all in ways I would have never guessed would happen in the canine world! You see her watching the puppies as if she were studying them to get to know them; at the first sound coming from them she immediately reacts to see what the issue is and she offers the only thing she has to make them feel better -herself. And tonight is no different because she searches for them even if she is out of the box for a couple of minutes-wanting me to bring her food into the whelping room area where she will be close to the puppies.  She chooses to only leave the room to go outside to the bathroom, preferring a 4X5 whelping box in the office in our house instead of the freedom of our entire house where she could relax! Now that the babies are here, she knows where HOME for her is!

And her mother’s senses which are laser sharp seem to gain clarity with each litter and each day, like when she finally decides to come out of the box to sleep right at the entrance but wakes up for no apparent reason, goes into the box and walks directly to ONE particular puppy who magically goes to the bathroom only seconds later- and she is right there to clean her baby up!  What is it that tells her which puppy would need her a few moments into the future? Is it a particular scent that gives her direct cues of what she needs to do with which puppy?:  She also hesitates and doesn’t step into the box; preferring to wait for us to come check on her when she gives a little whine so that we can move the puppies out of her way and she can get into the whelping box without incident! She also exhibits this behavior if she is going to get out of the box and puppies are on her.  Rather than jumping up and displacing the puppies she waits for them to be cleared from around her before making her exit.

I sit outside of the box with a sense of wonder at watching this critical bond with her puppies unfolding right before my eyes! I wonder what it must be like for her to wake up and all of a sudden have someone placing puppies on you.  I can only imagine her instinct is so strong that taking care of these babies just seems like another everyday experience that came her way!

Some of those questions got me to thinking about whether scent makes it possible for dogs to ‘smell” their relatives even years after they have been separated.  The studies seem to show that indeed they do!  See the article below for some of the backgrounds on studies done by Cornell University.

picture of article about dogs remembering relatives
Sugar for sure is a natural at this motherhood thing, and the pictures below give you just a tiny glimpse of how evident that is when you watch her with her puppies, the “N” litter!


Miss Pink having some one-on-one time with her Mama

Mr. Blue showing he knows what he wants and how to get it!


Sugar and her puppies are enjoying a sunny afternoon catching up on some much-needed sleep after 2 night shifts!



14 days and counting!

April 8th is Sugar’s due date, and that means just two more weeks until we get to discover how many puppies are waiting to join the ranks of life-changing “puppies in training”! She is 46 days along currently and the pups will start growing rapidly during this last stage of development!

Their organs have developed, claws have formed, hair has grown, and on Friday I was able to feel them kick for the very first time!  No one else could feel it, so I thought maybe I was mistaken, but Saturday I felt it again and today there was no doubt that what I was feeling was some tiny puppies making their presence known!!!! This may not sound surprising, but when you realize they are only about 5 inches long at this age of their development it might change your mind!

Sugar showing one of her former whelping moms who stopped by for a visit what she’s growing….

So, the journey begins over the next two weeks!  I will be picking up the whelping box, whelping kit, and some supplies to start preparing for a home with puppies; the room they will call “home” will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected to make sure they have a great area to start life on the right track, and our schedule starts slowing down to make a calmer environment for Sugar to just rest and relax!

At this time, we have no idea how many puppies to expect other than the fact that during her ultrasound they were making an educated guess of somewhere between 2 and 6 puppies!  So, when delivery day comes-I will be just as surprised as to the number of puppies as everyone else!

And now the waiting begins….this is the two weeks that can feel like an eternity:)

Some interesting things about the puppies growing during the pregnancy;

The Rate of Growth of the Fetus:

  • At 10 days the ova is approximately 1/12 to 1/20 inch long.
  • At 3-4 weeks old they are approximately 1 inch in length.
  • At 6 weeks old they are approximately 3 1/2 inches long.
  • At 7-8 weeks old they are approximately 5 inches long.
  • At the 9th week, they are 6-8 inches long.

The stages of development are interesting as well:

  • At 10 days the fertilized ova have reached the uterus.
  • At 10-21 days traces of the fetus appear, and traces of head, body, and limbs can be discerned.
  • At 3-4 weeks the first indications of claws can be seen.
  • At the 5th week, the stomach is well defined. At 6 weeks large hairs appear on lips, eyelids, etc.
  • At 7-8 weeks the eyelashes have appeared, and hair is beginning to appear at the tip of the tail, head, and extremities.
  • By the 9th week, the puppy is getting fully covered with hair and ready for its birth.

The killer puppy dog eyes waiting to be fed….


Learning Every Day-A bunch of ZZZZZZ’s

Today was the first time I went back to Stanley Correctional Institution since Lyric and Liam left. They were going to get an opportunity to see some of the footage that was shown at the Fetching Ball Gala for Can Do Canines and I was excited to be able to say hi again to the handlers in the program. We also had the added bonus of bringing 4 puppies from the “F” litter (who are Sugar’s grand puppies-their Mom Clover is from Sugar’s first litter ) to them to begin their journey in the program!

Although it was the 4th time I had seen the footage, it still grabbed my heartstrings and brought me to tears. There is something about watching the process of others loving and letting go that gets me every time. And it’s not because of the sadness of saying goodbye, but rather the magnitude of people giving of themselves in order to get a dog to its final destiny. I’ve experienced the part where you say goodbye myself, and I’m not one to say it’s easy, but I’m so thankful that people are able to see themselves through that momentary sadness for the joy that their dedication brings to others-it’s a magical experience to see dogs with their clients and know that volunteers make that happen!

So I was thrilled when I returned today and was equally as excited to see the program handlers, watch their dogs and the progress that’s being made, and I got the opportunity to ask them how they are teaching these puppies such amazing things! I watched the puppies attention to their handler, the obvious bond they have formed even at this young age, and I wished my training skills were remotely as good as theirs! These dogs were on waits/stays all around the room and when their handler called them, they came and found them-and almost all of the other dogs still held their position. I felt honored to be able to watch them train, and I realized that if you stay honest you will realize that you can constantly learn from others throughout your day!

One of my favorite comments I heard while they were training was when I heard a handler talking to his dog and saying “Wait-think about what you’re doing. It’s all about choices.” and when the dog did what was expected, the handler responded “good choice”. I marveled at how that simple interaction could sum up many of life’s moments in a nutshell!

As I looked around the room, I was so happy to have the opportunity to see Sugar’s previous litter, the Z litter-as well as our other Breeding Foster in our home Krackle’s puppies-the X litter! I wanted to hear about how they were all doing, and I loved being able to answer the questions from the inmate handlers about Sugar and Krackle’s personalities, whether the puppies looked more like the moms or the dads, and I loved hearing how happy they were with their pups in training!

This journey continues to amaze me at every turn, and today I appreciated the opportunity to try to comprehend a few of my takeaways from the day: the difficulties of letting go through the eyes of another, the gift of acceptance of ourselves and others, the responsibility to yourself to grow as a human and strive for something greater, gratitude for others to recognize the sacrifices that are made…..and to make sure I always try to keep an open mind and not take another’s journey for granted.

It was obvious; the puppies have grown-but all of us who are involved in this journey have grown equally as much along the way, and for that, I will always be thankful!

Sugar with Blue puppy

Zip as a baby with Sugar









4th litter without people

The day they came back from Duluth Correctional to go into great start homes

Zing 020718

Zing showing how to “be handsome”!

Beyond the Walls of Stanley-Liam and Lyric Continue Their Journey!

Warden hutch of puppy pictures

The program dogs from 2017 proudly displayed by the Warden’s office!

Today seemed like a day that I was excited for and dreading all at the same time.  I was excited to see Lyric and Liam finish one leg of their journey and have the opportunity to go into their long-term foster homes because that meant they were one step closer to the day they would graduate.  But, I was also dreading this day because I know what it feels like on the day that you are turning in your puppy in training; and even though you know that this is all part of the process and so worthwhile for the final objective or raising assistance dogs, it’s a difficult day none-the-less.  Today wouldn’t be hard for me other than the fact that I would be watching others saying goodbye to their dogs in training, and as a volunteer who has puppy raised, I could commiserate with their feelings all too well.

I saw it as soon as we got into the correctional facility-the handlers were out playing with their dogs and having fun-but the look on their faces told me there was more than just playing going on.  They were processing the day ahead of them, and they were quieter and less conversational which I could totally understand.  Petting the dogs by the handlers was more frequent, the kibble rewards were flowing freely, and other inmates that aren’t part of the program could see and feel the change in the room as well I’m sure.

Changes were already happening; the inmates had packed up the items for the dogs and some if not all of them that were switching cellmates had rearranged their items and moved in with their new roommates.  Change happens quickly here, and I wondered if that was a piece of self-preservation learned over the years or simply a way to move on and start fresh again.

Before we knew it, filming was coming to an end and it was time for the handlers to say goodbye to Lyric and Liam. I watched from a distance, mainly because I knew if I got any closer I wouldn’t be able to contain my emotions which were hanging by a string the way it was anyway. I didn’t want to make the day anything more difficult for the handlers than what they had to already do.  The snuggles with their pups in training were heartwarming and sincere and it was clear what these dogs had done for their handlers.  They had given them the gifts of patience, confidence, a learned discipline in dog training, trust and teamwork and that just was the tip of the iceberg.  One inmate told me that this was the best thing he has ever done with his life and I was amazed to hear this verbal acknowledgment.  It was during those moments I realized the gravity of one dog and a person who is incarcerated.  The research shows that dog programs in facilities like these reduce recidivism and create success in the handlers-and I’m confident that these 4 men will prove those statistics right.  Success in dog training is easily transferred over into many aspects of life because you need the same skills in life as you do training a dog.

It’s more than just a dog.  And turning them over for the next part of their journey is a difficult one.  As a whelping home, we worry about the next step for the puppies that we have loved for their very first weeks; as a great-start home we worry about the next step in their journey for the pups we have loved from the time they were 10 weeks old; as an inmate handler/puppy raiser you worry that the  foster home for the pup you have loved many months or more won’t be able to give the puppy the same amount of time and attention that you have provided every single day since they walked through your doors and into your heart; and as a final foster home we worry whether we will be able to give them all of the skills they will need to have in order to realize the vision of the organization to give freedom and independence to those that are waiting for it.  It’s not easy!  All of this involves stress and whether we can do the job we volunteered to do.  There are moments of doubt and lack of confidence-did we do ENOUGH????  What does ENOUGH look like?

And then I tried to figure out what I could do to share with the handlers a little bit of Lyric and Liam after they left so staff and handlers could see that everything was well.  I figured the best way to do this is to share the comments from other fellow volunteers-and these are for all of the inmate handlers that work with dogs from Can Do Canines!

And although this story is about the Life of Sugar and her L puppies, I don’t forget for one moment that Liam and Lyric weren’t the only dogs that left the program yesterday to start the next step and that next week more dogs will be leaving there.  The feelings I talk about here apply to all of the handlers in the program and my appreciation and gratitude is for everyone who makes that program successful-from Can Do Canines, the Staff at Stanley and the inmate handlers.  It couldn’t happen without all of them!

Throughout this post is a glimpse of Lyric and Liam when they arrived as well as their final day with their handlers…….

Puppy kisses LiamPuppy love tooPuppy Love with Lyric

And the comments from other volunteers in the program show the effect of this program as well:

“Could you tell them that I understand how much they will miss him and I will take good care of him?”

“All of us fellow puppy raisers and fosters know just how they feel….and I hope they know that these pups are going to touch more lives along their journey to their forever client. I’ve post-prison fostered several dogs and each of them has enriched my family’s life. I can always tell they’ve been well loved and cared for, because each dog has been nothing short of amazing, each in their own way.”

” It is never easy to say goodbye! Please be sure the handlers know how much they are appreciated. Their efforts never go unnoticed and we are grateful to have them as part of our big “team.” These dogs are so special because they change clients’ lives, but they always change the handlers’ as well. Wishing Lyric & Liam the best of luck as they begin their next chapter.”

“What a blessing these dogs are for so many people along the way!”

So, if there was any doubt that volunteers are rooting for the success of the Prison Programs or the success of the dogs that pass through them, you can see that volunteers all hope for a graduation at the end of the rainbow!!!

Puppy love makes the world go round

Then and Now…….Lyric as a puppy coming to the PAWS Program

Vernone and Lyric at the appreciation banquet

After 8 months here, Lyric’s all grown up!

My biggest disappointment of the day was that I didn’t get the opportunity to go back in and say goodbye to these volunteer handlers due to the filming schedule, to shake their hands, congratulate them on a great job and wish them well….and I just couldn’t write a blog today without taking an opportunity to do that.

An Open Letter to the Inmate Handlers of Stanley 

Thank you.  You have been willing to open yourselves up to allow me to follow your journey with Lyric and Liam.  You endured the endless questions, the changes, and interruptions in your daily life so filming could take place, and you still managed to keep training the dogs to the highest level to increase their success once they left you and your PAWS program.

You have given them a piece of your heart, and that is the best thing these dogs will use to make you proud.  You have learned to trust in them, and they, in turn, have learned to trust you.  It may not have always been easy, but you didn’t give up on them or yourselves.  That is what maybe impressed me the most because as a puppy raiser previously I had to struggle through the training challenges and had to figure out what I could do to stay positive, continue training and wait for the moment when the dog finally clicks and understands what you are asking them to do.   Sometimes it would have been easier to give up – but with determination comes success!!!

I am so appreciative that you allowed me into your lives to get just a glimpse of life at Stanley within the PAWS program.  You may have been learning many new things, but I was learning along the way as well.  The lessons I’ve learned are dramatic and for me, they are life changing.  I know being a part of a film project is daunting and fun all at the same time.  But filming wouldn’t have been successful if you hadn’t shared your experiences, challenges, and your heart.

On Saturday, the first two dogs from the Stanley program(Harvey and Rio) graduated with their clients. I can only imagine how proud you feel that you had a piece in that story of their success!I can’t wait for the day where you can see Lyric and Liam graduate!  I would love to see the grins on your faces when you see once again that through this program you are changing lives!!!  And my grin will mirror yours-because I know the hard-fought journey for these two beautiful pups required a commitment that many might find difficult to comprehend.

Congratulations to Ronald, DJ, Marc, and Vernon as well as all of the handlers working with dogs!  Wishing you continued success in everything you do on your journey!!!!


Liam at can do

Doing some tasks after arriving at the organization

Liam sitting pretty

Liam showing off some of his tricks in the Can Do Canines Training room!

Liam sitting pretty 1

The tail wag while sitting up was impressive!

Lyric at Can Do Canines

Waiting for his next command…..with his beautiful eyes focused on the treat!

Lyric at Can Do doing a park

Lyric did a beautiful park while waiting for the filming to begin!


Day 336-A Banquet to celebrate SUCCESS!

“Success is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together.”

Vernone and Lyric at the appreciation banquet

Lyric enjoying some snuggles with his handler!

Last night I got the wonderful experience to attend a banquet at Stanley Correctional Institution for the PAWS program with the inmate handlers and sitters. And while I make the long drive to the facility, I often think about what I can learn during my opportunity.  What is it about the prison programs that makes them special? Why should anyone care about the dog programs in prison?  Are these programs valuable for anything other than just having a place to put dogs until final training?  Each time I get the privilege of getting to see a program like this in action, I gain a newfound respect for the programs as a whole, for the Correctional Institutions that invest time and energy to make a program of this magnitude a success and for all of the individuals themselves that grab this opportunity and turn it into something very special that an outsider like me will probably never be able to grasp in totality.

I arrived and anxiously awaited the opportunity to get to the visiting room where the PAWS Appreciation Banquet was going to be held. (PAWS stands for Prisoners Assisting with Service Dogs)  Once I entered, I saw a room full of handlers with their dogs and you could feel a true sense of community in the room.  Other volunteers, staff, the Warden, program trainer….everyone was there visiting and truly enjoying the opportunity!  The handlers were so kind and made sure I had time to visit with both Liam and Lyric and I had to tame my excitement about seeing all of these incredible dogs getting ready for the next step in their journey towards graduation as assistance dogs!  I got the opportunity to talk with some of the handlers and I asked them how they were feeling about the upcoming “event” of sending their dogs to final training. We talked about how the moments would be difficult, but they would be laced with excitement for the “final moment” of seeing their hard work being realized as the dog they trained walks across the stage with their client someday in the future.  The pride they felt was palpable; the excitement in their eyes was readable; the emotion in their hearts about this partner of theirs was understandable! More than once I had to distract myself so I didn’t tear up just thinking about it!

The fun of the evening was just beginning!  We were able to have a wonderful dinner with the handlers, and just enjoy conversation about the everyday things!  I was able to meet the other dogs in the program-the H’s, I’s, and J’s-Helga, Huey, Hickory, Ike, Iris, Jasper….and the list continues!  I sat back and watched the handlers interacting and how completely comfortable they were with a dog at their sides. I absolutely loved seeing the fosters/volunteers from the program who take the dogs on weekends to add to their socialization skills and home life and it was fabulous to see the whole group just talking and connecting through the love of dogs!  The differences disappear and the similarities blossom all because of these 4 legged wonders!

We were honored to be able to hear the story of a client and how a very special assistance dog has changed her life; and while I was listening to her story, I realized that this is maybe where the journey of an inmate handler and that of a Great Start home/Puppy Raiser differs the most.  Outside of prison, the dogs we choose to work with are part of our everyday lives-and a very important one at that.  We put amazing amounts of energy and time into training the dogs,  but we have other endeavors and things that require large portions of our time. But for these handlers, oftentimes these dogs are the majority of their schedule from the moment they wake up until they go to bed. Certainly, they are also busy with daily activities and jobs, but these dogs become their constant companions and their confidant-someone they can share their hopes and fears with.   In a way, these dogs start their “assistance” journey when they come to prison; they help these inmates find peace, teamwork, success, pride, trust, hope, and joy just to name a few.

paws appreciation banquet october 18 2017

What a wonderful opportunity to visit with the handlers and learn about their journey with their dogs! The handmade items I’m holding are incredible!

It was then time for the dog demonstrations-and what a wonderful opportunity it was!!!  Watching these handlers take pride in their accomplishments was just as fun as seeing the dogs complete their tasks!  They were proud of their work, but they were PROUD of their dog! They got up, introduced themselves and their dogs, and then it was so wonderful hearing them speak about some aspect of the dog program, what they were going to demonstrate, and how that applied in the assistance dog world! They talked about the importance of the tasks they were learning, free shaping and the dog’s personality in learning it!  I just kept thinking “I want to have a training class with them so they can show me how they taught these dogs such incredible things!”

I know that there are sometimes struggles within prison programs in the area of teamwork; but when you think about the close proximity that these handlers have to live and the added stress of their situation I think they are doing wonderful!  I watched the other handlers as one of their team was doing a demonstration and they couldn’t hide the fact that they were enjoying themselves and the success of their teammate!

They took a moment to thank their trainer, and it was very obvious how much they appreciate her!  They made her a beautiful token of their appreciation, which promptly made me cry!

Towards the end of the evening, items were won through a drawing and all of the items were made by inmates.  Their talent is amazing!

appreciation banquet

Yep, best friends is an understatement!

When the evening was over, I once again felt so lucky to be a part of this very special journey.  I so enjoyed getting to talk with the handlers, seeing their accomplishments and witnessing their change along this incredible journey!  They are not the same people they were when they started in this program, and THAT is why programs like this are priceless!

appreciate banquet signatures

Just a couple of the comments from Liam and Lyrics handlers-I think “Thank you for the chance to show how Lyric changed my life” says it all.  There is absolutely NO doubt that these dogs change lives well before they are placed with their clients.



Day 318-Training with an Inmate Handler-The Journey Continues!

mark with pups

The unbelievably talented producer Mark with two of his stars for the documentary! Liam on the left and Lyric on the right.

And yet another incredible day to visit the Sugarbabies Lyric and Liam, interview the incredible handlers, watch all of the Stanley dogs interacting and playing, and appreciate their great training talent and the prison programs that help to make Can Do Canines dogs successful and life changers! “Inspiring” doesn’t even do justice to the day and I so appreciate each and every opportunity I get to learn more!

The training that the handlers are doing with all of the dogs (not just Lyric and Liam) is truly magical. As a volunteer myself, I watched them show me some of the training and commands and I couldn’t believe my eyes! Teaching the dogs that they have independent foot movement by placing their feet on small FITpaws objects one at a time on command, pinwheels spinning in one direction, Whirling by turning and spinning in the opposite direction with a flick of the wrist, “parking” by turning around in front of the handler and backing under a chair they are sitting on, taking the full bag of training treats gently to another bystander with a soft mouth and never even TRYING to eat the treats, pivoting beautifully, sending them out around a post from a distance where they return to a beautiful “front” position waiting for their next opportunity to please their handler……the list could go on and on!!!! Oh, and did I mention the ‘simple’ job of a dog performing tasks based upon a music note that is being sung??????? 🙂 To be honest, I felt a little bit inadequate as a volunteer trainer!  I was thinking, “Wait, I have to learn how to teach that!” I had to remind myself that the obedience portion of the training like sit, down, wait, recall, and loose leash walking is the most critical part of assistance dog training, and that the reason these dogs know so much more is simply because they have much more time to learn these things and it gives dogs in prison jobs to do to keep from being bored.

As I spent the day interviewing them and watching their efforts unfold in amazement, I kept thinking how much time they have spent working with these dogs. They are making a difference in these dog’s lives, and they are making a difference in the lives of the future clients. As volunteers for this organization, we tell ourselves this as well. But as the day progressed, I got a sense of HOW MUCH these dogs are changing the handlers lives-and it is in this place where the difference between inmate handler and volunteer diverges a bit.

As volunteers outside of the prison program, we take a puppy or dog into our home and we independently train it to the best of our ability so that someday in the future it will have the best chance of being an incredible partner for a client. It is us and a dog. We go to training class with others, but it is mainly one on one work that we do with the dog. I want the dogs I train to make everyday life easier, social opportunities greater, and independence for the client is an expected result I hold myself to.

In prison, the handlers have the same task-but with many more obstacles in their way along the journey. They live with others 24 hours a day and have to navigate through the intricate world of how others around them play a part in their journey. One-on-one training doesn’t happen nearly as much, and most of the time they are together with others. They have “sitters” for when they are unable to be around the dogs, and therefore there may be differences of opinion on how to train a dog. Some handlers may want to share their knowledge with others, while not everyone else may not be interested in hearing their expertise. Imagine what it would be like if you had to spend all day, every day, with 20 others who are training dogs-eat, sleep, train and play together. And then maybe you can imagine some of the daily struggles that might be encountered along the way.

During this journey, they have to learn to interact with the assistance dog in training that they are caring for, but they have to grow in learning how to interact with other inmates and handlers along the way as well. All of sudden, if they learn to trust the process, life transforms a bit and they have to see outside of themselves and work towards a goal together. And as important as “graduation day” is for all of us volunteers to see our dogs in training cross that stage, it takes on a much greater importance for these handlers.  It may very well be the proudest moment of their lives, and you can feel their excitement about seeing the dog they trained on stage!

During the interviews, this is the part that impressed me most and more than once reduced me to tears. I listened to the handlers express their joys and their struggles, and they more than once talked emotionally about how it’s not easy, but it’s worth it because of their love for the dog in training. Some of them talked about how it used to be just about them and they never thought of anyone else before, and now they have to work to create a future for a dog so that they can change someone else’s life. And they admitted that it’s not always easy to make that leap from thinking only of themselves to putting someone else first, but it was obvious that were putting their best efforts into the process and that is truly inspiring. Maybe one of the many benefits of having a program like this is that the handlers get to let their guard down a bit-they get to share emotions, and they get to invest their heart.

It is often said, even by me, that this organization couldn’t be successful without the participation of the prison systems that are currently part of the program. But what is sometimes left unsaid is that it’s very likely that some of these handlers couldn’t be as successful in their journey to change and develop if it weren’t for the love of a dog. These very special, born for a purpose pups!

Thank you to everyone that has allowed me the opportunity to see into a part of the assistance dog world that not many get to see! It has changed my perspective, and it has given me a newfound appreciation for gifts that assistance dogs give to everyone along the way. They don’t just change and touch the lives of the clients they are placed with; they touch the lives and hearts of hundreds along the way-and those whom they touch will never be the same!

2nd interview pic with Liam

Liam and I having a conversation about his ‘star quality”!


Holly with Lyric and Liam.JPG

I so loved having the opportunity to reconnect with the pups again!


Liam in the pool

Liam taking some time to enjoy a pool break during the 90+ degree late September day!

July 19th, 2017 – Oh! The Places You’ll Go! Congratulations GRANDMA Sugar!!

Ivy with AU litter (002)

Ivy looks so content as a Mom-completely reminds me of Sugar with her smile!

You’ll be on your way up,
You’ll be seeing great sights,
You’ll join the high fliers,
Who soar to great heights!

Wherever you fly,
You’ll be best of the best,
Wherever you go,
You will top all the rest.

~Dr. Seuss

While Sugar only has a little over a week left until she has her 4th litter of puppies, I received the awesome news today from Can Do Canines that Nutmeg (now named Ivy) from Sugar’s very first litter has just become a momma to 5 beautiful puppies in Japan, and Sugar now is a Grandma!

This is special news on its own, but it is even more special when you consider that the journey of these dogs in training cross state lines, traverse countries across the globe, and touch the lives of countless numbers of people along the way. Sugar currently has puppies in Japan, California, Canada and Minnesota amongst 4 different organizations.

Sugar began her career at Guiding Eyes in New York.  When she was 1 1/2 years old. Guiding Eyes and Can Do Canines arranged to have her become a breeding dog for Can Do Canines, with the opportunity of some of her pups going back into the Guiding Eyes program or a program of their choice to continue to bring great bloodlines into programs across the world.  Sugar had her first litter in August of 2015 and had 6 beautiful little girls-2 yellow and 4 black pups which became the Spice Girls litter.  Cayenne, Poppy, Sage, Nutmeg, Clover and Saffron started their journey in the assistance dog world!

It was determined that Nutmeg and Sage would be in Great Start homes here in Minnesota until they were old enough to travel and then they would go back to Guiding Eyes. Then the puppies were sent to Japan in helping to further develop a program for guide dogs there.  After leaving Can Do Canines, their names were changed to Ivy and Isla. and their big journey began!

At some point during that time it was decided that Ivy (Nutmeg) would become a breeder dog and that Isla (Sage) would be in the guide dog training program. It’s really incredible all of the things that are taken into account in Assistance Dog programs that determine which path will be best for each dog, but I’ve learned over the years that it is not a decision taken lightly! Personality/Temperament, breeding qualities, size, and a huge variety of other factors play a role in the decisions of making awesome assistance dogs!

After this first litter, Sugar has had 2 more litters and has had a total of 16 puppies with more on the way! She’s definitely doing her part to make a difference in the world!

And, so the legacy continues for assistance dogs across the globe on a daily basis-with the help of many, programs flourish, lives are changed, and success is realized!

Congratulations to Momma Ivy, Grandma Sugar and EVERYONE who has a hand in making the dogs, the programs and the world better every single day!

Above are photos of Sugar (left) taken today at 8 weeks pregnant and on the right is Ivy/(Nutmeg) before she had her puppies.  Like Mother, Like Daughter!!!

Ivy Nutmeg and Isla Sage

Ivy and Isla are representing November for the calendar!



Giving Back, Looking Forward-A First Hand Account of Lyric and Liam’s First Day at Stanley

(The blog entry below is written by Mark who is videotaping the journey of the Amazing “L’s” from birth to client for a documentary on assistance dogs)

A bit more on the journey of the Amazing “L’s” – rock stars Lyric and Liam as they settle into Stanley Prison.

Yesterday, Barb Chelgren and Ciara Nervick once again proved how selfless the Can Do Canines Great Start puppy raisers are. On treacherous roads, they made their way to Can Do Canines in New Hope,  Barb with Liam and Ciara with Lyric. It was the turn in day for the pups they had loved and trained and given their hearts to. The moment when the leash is handed over is one that I had always heard about but have never witnessed. After a few more pets and kisses, Barb and Ciara were off to continue on with their day with a little piece of their hearts left behind.

Liam and Lyric’s day was just beginning. Trainer Dyan Larson loaded them up for the 2 hour, 20-minute drive to Stanley Correctional Institution in Stanley, Wisconsin. Stanley is a medium security facility and the warden, Reed Richardson, is safe to say, a dog fanatic! He has a lab at home and when he was promoted to warden and assigned to Stanley, he insisted on making Stanley a dog prison. At the time, there was only one other prison in Wisconsin that trained dogs and he was going to leave no stone unturned to get one at his prison. He and his staff worked like crazy to find a partner to make it happen. Can Do Canines was just far enough away that it didn’t make sense for them to place dogs in Stanley. That’s when Dyan Larson changed everything.  She is an amazing trainer who lives in Eau Claire who agreed to be the program trainer. That meant Can Do didn’t have to travel their staff to Stanley and the program was launched.

To say the warden and staff at Stanley are thrilled to have a puppy program is a vast understatement.  The warden talks about all the positive changes that have resulted from having dogs, even with the inmates who aren’t part of the dog program. Just seeing a dog walk by makes all the difference in the world. And it’s all thanks to the perseverance to a lab loving warden.


The Warden getting to know the new pups on the block!


So, no surprise yesterday that when Dyan arrived, the warden was in the parking lot to greet her and the newest members of the Stanley gang, Liam and Lyric. Since they’re brothers, and brothers tend to chew on each other, Dyan suggested to Warden Richardson that he take Lyric and she would take Liam. After walking across the parking lot towards the front door, and of course, a pee break by the flag pole, the two walked into the lobby only to be greeted by 8-10 staff members who couldn’t wait to see them. They had all heard for two months that they were going to get two of the “L’s” and the excitement of everyone finally seeing them was just joyful to watch. After all the initial hellos, everyone went back into the administration area where they closed the door to the lobby and let Liam and Lyric off leash. The puppies went wild running around the room, getting tons of pets and kisses and, of course, Liam and Lyric got each other’s ears a few times.  As the staff looked on with huge smiles, Warden Richardson taught Lyric to speak in about 3 minutes. I’m sure Dyan wasn’t that impressed having just listened to Liam and Lyric speaking non-stop for 2 ½ hours from Minneapolis!

Warden then hooked up Lyric’s leash and headed back into his office to show Lyric where the treats are kept!

Then, it was time. After going through security to enter the prison, the puppies were then walked outside through two more huge gates, past the razor wire and into the visitors building. After going through Control, which monitors the movements of everyone in the prison and opens and closes doors, the puppies walked confidently into the visitors area where four carefully chosen inmates were anxiously awaiting their arrival.



Lyric soaking up the love and hugs!


Liam full of kisses!


Puppy love at it’s best!


Liam greeting his new handler!


Two inmates are assigned to each puppy. The inmates share a cell and the puppy crate easily takes up 40% of the floor space in the cell. It’s extremely tight but no one complains a bit because they have a puppy. There are approximately 40 inmates in the dog unit. They are all in the same housing unit and all go to training classes even if they don’t currently have a dog assigned to them. Ahead of Liam and Lyric coming in, there were 12 dogs in the unit so that means only 24 of the inmates have dogs. The rest all share in the joy of being around the dogs and help with the training during the classes. However, there’s nothing like having your own dog and that’s what the four inmates in the visitor’s room had been waiting for months.

Ronald and Vernon were assigned to Lyric. DeJay and Marc were assigned to Liam but whose dog was whose didn’t matter when Liam and Lyric walked through the door. Within seconds, the four inmates were on the floor savoring all the puppy kisses and hugging and loving the pups up like they had known them forever. Just to see the joy on the faces of the four was overwhelming. It didn’t take a minute for Marc to end up on his back with a puppy crawling all over his chest.

After 10 minutes of intense puppy loving, they took them outside for another potty break and then onto the unit. The dog unit is building 5, the closest to the front gate. It’s also the most visible to the guard tower and has several fenced in areas that the inmates and dogs can play off leash and potty. Each dog has his own assigned potty area so they can make sure to track any issues a dog might have. At night, when the inmates are locked in their cells, if a dog has to go busy, the inmate rings a buzzer and staff lets the inmate and dog out of the cell, down the cellblock and out to the potty yard. After they are done, they’re locked back in their cells.

The unit has two stories of cells that are in a big U shape. The common area in the middle is known as the day room. That’s where inmates spend a lot of their time before and after work. They eat all their meals there and socialize with each other. It was into this room that Liam and Lyric and their new puppy raisers walked, or should I say floated, into. Immediately, all the inmates gathered around the new stars of the dog unit. Of course, so did the 12 dogs and it was mayhem.  It was an incredible scene. Most of the inmates with dogs spend a great part of their time in the dayroom on the concrete floor just being with their beautiful pups.

After all the greetings had tapered off, it was time for an early dinner for the inmates because Dyan’s training class started at 4:30. Liam and Lyric were put into their crates in their cells for the first time and they were not happy. As Lindsay Merkel so perfectly put it, they sang songs of their people serenading the inmates with a little dinner music. But, that didn’t last long because it was out the door and to the huge gym where training happens.

Even though most of the dog unit inmates had just met Liam and Lyric, Dyan introduced their arrival at the class to a great round of applause and hoots by the whole unit.

Earlier, Dyan told the four handlers to make sure they didn’t compare Liam and Lyric’s abilities to those of the other dogs in the unit who are somewhat older. She emphasized that the new pups should have at least a week to get settled into their new surroundings and told them to keep working on the skills they already have learned from their Great Start homes but to not push them yet.  So, during the class, Liam and Lyric mostly watched the other dogs go through the paces and enjoyed all the pets and attention from the inmates who don’t currently have dogs assigned.

I told Marc and DeJay the story of how Liam got his name. He was Holly’s favorite from day one and when Holly got to assign names to the puppies, she knew in an instant that her favorite was going to be named Liam because that’s her grandson’s name. I told them that Liam had been Mr. Orange and that Lyric had been Mr. Red. Warden Richardson heard the story and looked at their leashes and said the dogs needed to trade leases because by happenstance, Mr. Orange (Liam) had a red leash on and Mr. Red (Lyric) had an orange leash on . So now both pups are flying their original colors as they begin their new chapter in their lives to being assistance dogs.

After the class, it was time to go out to potty again on the way to Unit 5. By this time, Liam and Lyric were EXHAUSTED. I don’t know how they could even move. They all stayed in the dayroom when we called it a night around 7. I think they were going to be falling fast asleep in no time.

I’ll visit again in two weeks to see how they’re coming along. Their days will be filled with more of the same. Lots of quality time with the handlers and tons of training. The puppies will go with the inmates to their jobs in the prison just as the puppies go with their puppy raiser families to work. Evenings are spent with the dog unit inmates comparing notes on training and showing off what they’ve done with their dogs.

Just as puppy raisers and Great Start homes have a need to hear about what happens in prison with their pups, the inmates have an insatiable need to hear what happens to the dogs when they are teamed up with their clients. There is a big bulletin board hanging in the dog unit dayroom that has Alisha Schrock’s letter of thanks to Can Do for her dog Maverick. They have all the issues of the newsletter with the client stories just to hear. They also, for several months, have had the photos Holly took of Sugar and the baby “L’s” hanging up there awaiting their arrival at Stanley.

I hope this gives everyone a little more info on what goes on. Thanks to Warden Richardson and his Admin assistant Lori for making this all happen!