Thursday, June 17, 2010

Birthday Party a Success

Happy Birthday, Smoke's Pup Crew! The dogs' first birthday party was a success with over 100 people attending and enjoying an evening of conversation, food, and Tony's dogs! Nearly $3,000 was raised to underwrite some of the dog's expenses during their final year of training.

Thank you to all who attended, especially the kind representatives of the Tony Stewart Foundation who have done so much for this litter of service dogs in training.

More photos are coming but here's one of the eight dogs POST-PARTY! They were exhausted but happy. One year old and one more year of training until they begin their career in service!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Happy Birthday to Smoke's Pup Crew

It's hard to believe, but Smoke’s Pup Crew is turning 1 year old in June. In celebration, we're holding a birthday party for them.

WHAT: 1st Birthday Party for Dora, Dega, Bristol, Racer, Riley, Charlotte, Lily, Hunter, all members of the Tony Stewart Foundation litter
WHEN: June 15, Tuesday, from 6:00-9:00 pm
WHY: For fun and to help fund the dogs’ final 12 months of service dog training
WHERE: ICAN’s new office complex, at 5610 Crawfordsville Rd, Suite #18, Indianapolis, IN 46224 (just west of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and on the corner of Crawfordsville Road and 22nd Street; note the suite number is not ICAN’s office suite).
RSVP REQUIRED VIA EMAIL BY JUNE 1: RSVP your plans to attend and how many people will be attending with you by sending an email to Sherri at RSVPing helps us plan for refreshments and space.

Attend the party and mingle with other ICAN and Tony Stewart Foundation supporters, enjoy meeting the dogs and seeing how they’ve matured, have some food and drink, and give a birthday “gift” to the dog of your choice. PRESENTS ENCOURAGED! The dogs have asked for the following types of presents: thin paper that’s green and has numbers and photos of past presidents on it, checks, and credit cards! They’re hoping to receive gifts that will keep them on track during their final year of training.

Each dog will have a donation box of its own and you can select which dog to support. Photographer Carl Frye will be there again to take a photo of you with the dog you are sponsoring, just like this amazing shots he captured last year of shower guests Sophie and little sister Macy with puppy Hunter.

Can you come? We sure hope so. RSVP by June 1 by emailing

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dora and The Sit Test

When training a service dog, ICAN wants to ensure that the dog pays attention to its person EVEN IF the person isn't right in front of them and making eye contact.

We begin teaching this by using a command the dogs know well: SIT. Using this command, dogs and handlers participate in the "Sit Test". Dear pup Dora recently was introduced to the Sit Test with a very funny and insightful result! Read on for more on Dora and her Sit Test (and several photos that show Dora's progression from a pup to an adolescent dog).

The Sit Test involves the following:
1) The dog sits upon request facing the handler.
2) The dog sits upon request at the handler's side.
3) The dog sits upon request with the handler seated.
4) The dog sits upon request with the handler sitting on the floor with his/her back to the dog.
5) The dog sits upon request with the handler lying down on the floor.
6) The dog is asked to lay down and stay while the handler walks 6 feet away, then asks the dog to sit.
7) The dog is walked across the room and told to stay. The handler asks the dog to sit from across the room.
8) The dog is walked across the room and told to stay. The handler calls for the dog to come, then asks the dog to sit when the dog reaches the half point of the room.

Simple, right? Handlers and their dogs turn this training exercise into a friendly competition as their dogs learn new ways to perform the SIT command.

Brandon, a handler at Plainfield Correctional Facility who trains Dora, was helping her through the Sit Test commands. Dora, like all of Smoke's Pup Crew, has passed her Level I certification of skills and is working on her Level II certification. (They remain a precocious and advanced litter! And beautiful...did I mention beautiful?)

Dora was having great success at the Sit Test until she reached the 8th and final step -- the step that requires the handler to be on one side of the room with the dog on the other, then the handler calls for the dog to come and gives the sit command when the dog is halfway across the room.

In ideal situations, the dog will begin to come to the person and then instantly sit when the sit command is given.

Dora had another idea.

She was used to being told to COME. She was used to being told to SIT. But, this new game of being away from her handler and then told to BOTH come and sit within a few seconds of one another seemed to confuse her. Or more accurately, she seemed to think Brandon was confused! Imagine a thought bubble coming out of Dora's head and it saying, "WHAT? You tell me to come, then you tell me to sit, then you tell me to come, then you tell me to sit? Which do you want - come or sit?"

Then, Dora had a brilliant idea. She'd give Brandon BOTH commands!

So, sweet Dora took a few steps toward Brandon when he said "Come", then before Brandon could say anything else, she'd sit! Then, she stood up on her own, took two steps toward him, then sat down. Again and again she did this on her own, slowly making her way toward Brandon, as if saying to Brandon, "Look dude, it seems to me you are very confused on which command you really want me to do. SO, until you make up your mind, I am going to do BOTH!"

The handlers and ICAN trainers erupted into laughter at Dora's attempt to fulfill Brandon's commands. Dora looked around at everyone with a look that said, "Humph. I'm not sure what's so funny. I'm simply trying to problem-solve here. But everyone IS laughing and smiling at me so that must mean I did something right! I just love when they laugh and smile at me - makes me feel very special and loved."

And so you are, Dora.

Check back soon for an update on another dog from Smoke's Pup Crew. Future blogs will speak to one or two of the pups and what they've been up to in training and while on furlough outside of the prisons.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bella Departs ICAN Training (but there’s a happy ending!)

At ICAN, we firmly believe that no dog in service training ever fails the program, although they may experience a “career change”. Such is the case with dear Bella who is departing the ICAN training program. Let us explain why. (Don’t worry – she’s healthy and happy and there’s a happy ending!)

To understand the challenge with Bella, we ask you to think of the following. Take your most firmly held belief, one that you can’t imagine yourself ever, EVER changing your mind about.

How hard it would be for you to change a belief that your mind, your heart, and your soul believe to be right, true and real? Pretty darn hard. It would be like trying to convince Tony Stewart that he shouldn’t race for the win when on track!

With that example in mind, let’s explain Bella’s reason for her career change.

Bella has her own deeply held belief that she can’t give up.
Her belief is that certain things that she encounters in life have a vital importance and significance, so vital and significant that she will defend against them being taken from her. The technical term for what Bella does is "Resource Guarding.”

In many domesticated dogs, this instinct to guard and protect things that ensure survival and health has decreased because of generations of living with abundant resources and being kept safe by human guardians. However, due to some dogs’ genetics, this instinct to resource guard still shows up. Typically, dogs who have this instinct tend to start showing it between 5 and 7 months of age.

In some cases, this resource guarding and reactivity is mild and the dog can be trained with positive methods to give up the guarded item in favor of something more attractive. However, in Bella’s case, there are no items more attractive to her than the item she is currently guarding and defending. This greatly limits the ability to train her from demonstrating the unwanted behavior. ICAN staff and trainers spent several months working with Bella to modify her pattern of resource guarding. Initially, our positive training methods appeared to have worked and she went one full month without incident, receiving an abundance of praise and treats for her appropriate behavior. But then, without warning, she reverted back to the resource guarding and did so without any warning.

Bella's resource guarding is tricky because her response involves growling and use of her mouth to ward off what she sees as a threat to her survival. For example, a person’s hand reaching to remove a rawhide from her will be growled at or nipped at. It doesn’t matter that this hand may be offering her a juicy steak to replace the rawhide; something in Bella tells her that she must keep the rawhide for survival. Bella’s response is further complicated in that it is spontaneous, intense, and unpredictable.

Does this mean Bella is a bad dog or untrainable? NOT AT ALL. In every other instance, Bella is a beautiful, loving dog and very skilled in offering appropriate behaviors when asked. Was this something brought on from being trained inside a prison? NOT AT ALL. I wish each of you could see the dedicated care and positive-based training that all of Smoke’s Pup Crew receive from their trainers living inside correctional facilities. Bella’s trainers did everything correctly in teaching her skills and behavior appropriate to a service dogs.

No, Bella is not a bad dog. Sweet Bella simply has been born with a tendency to resource guard as dogs in the wild would. Unfortunately, service dogs can’t behave this way. Bella's behavior and environment would require a level of management that would be an unreasonable expectation to pass on to a person already managing a disability. ICAN’s accrediting body, Assistance Dog International, is very clear in stating that a dog demonstrating resource guarding to Bella’s extent cannot be a service dog candidate.

It’s important to recognize Bella’s limitation because of what we ask service dogs to do for a person with a disability. Here’s a simple example: we ask a service dog to pick up and retrieve items for a person. Imagine if the person Bella is helping drops a medicine bottle and Bella retrieves the items but decides she needs to keep it for “survival”. Would she growl and perhaps nip when her person tries to take the item away? Possibly. Imagine the item dropped is a medicine that a person must take immediately, such as an inhaler, to avoid serious health issues. What happens if Bella delays this medicine being taken because she won’t give it up?

What happens to sweet Bella now?
We know that statistically not all dogs who enter service dog training have the temperament, motivation, and skill set to become service dogs. At ICAN 2 dogs out of every 5 in training will not be suitable for service work and will require a “career change”. That’s when the ICAN Release Dog process kicks in. People who have an approved release dog application on file with ICAN can adopt dogs that are released from the ICAN program. When a dog becomes available for adoption, ICAN reviews these applications to find the best possible match for the dog and for the applicant.

ICAN’s focus for finding Bella the perfect “forever home” meant finding a special family who understood dog behavior and her severity of resource guarding, who knew how to manage it when it occurred, and who would love her despite her tendency.

Fortunately, a family well acquainted with ICAN was interested in Bella.
Carol and Rob adopted Sadie, a released ICAN Labrador, four years ago and wanted to add a Golden Retriever to their family. ICAN had complete confidence in Carol and Rob’s ability to help Bella manage her tendency and knew Bella would have a wonderful life with them – but would Carol and Rob feel that immediate connection with Bella, a connection strong enough to overcome the challenges they would face with her resource guarding?

The answer was a resounding YES! A trial adoption was arranged to give Bella, Carol and Rob time to confirm the situation worked for everyone. Bella spent a few weeks with the family and the decision was unanimous – Bella had found her forever home. Bella was jubilant – wouldn’t you be too with over 70 acres of wooded, rolling land, a new Black Labrador step-sister named Sadie, and two doting owners?

Best of all, Carol and Rob are open to continuing Bella’s training in appropriate serviced-based skills and may eventually be able to take her to places, such as nursing homes, where her environment can be controlled so that items that tempt her to resource guard are not introduced.

We’ll miss Bella, and so will the men who trained her from a small pup to her current age of seven months, but we are all pleased to know she has a fantastic new family.

As for Dega, Dora, Bristol, Lily, Charlotte, Racer, Hunter, and Riley, they are continuing their training and learning lots of great skills. Can you believe that in a mere 5 months Smoke’s Pup Crew will be one-year old?!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Puppy Field Trips to New Prisons!

It’s time for Smoke’s Pup Crew to see new sights, sounds and people! Yes, starting this week the Pup Crew will begin a continual rotation from Plainfield Correctional Facility (PCF) to other correctional facilities.

This is a good thing for the puppies for several reasons.
1) Imagine having to live with your brothers and sisters day in and day out. Since birth, that’s what the pups have been doing. Now is the time for the pups to “cut the cord”, to grow up a bit, and get out there and meet new dogs that sound and look different than the rest of the Pup Crew.
2) Similarly, within any prison location, the sights and sounds and routines can become very predictable, with new learning experiences harder to come by. However, by switching prison facilities, the puppies are introduced to a new base of people, buildings, sounds, and experiences. Being introduced to new things is a fantastic learning opportunity for a puppy. It helps socialize the puppy and make him or her more accepting of new situations when they occur in the future (and that’s what ICAN needs a service dog to be – flexible and adaptable).
3) The puppies are used to the trainers that have worked with them for the past four months. But, we want to make sure the dogs are able and willing to work for anyone and everyone. By rotating the dogs to different facilities, the dogs are introduced to new trainers with different appearances, voices, and routines than the men at PCF.
4) Lastly, rotating facilities is beneficial to the puppies because each person who trains for ICAN has different training strengths and opportunities for improvement. When a puppy rotates between trainers, that puppy benefits from having access to each trainer’s strengths. (And, each trainer benefits from having a new dog to train because a certain dog can help a trainer turn an opportunity for improvement into a new strength.)

Having the pups rotate prisons is also good for the offenders at Plainfield Correctional Facility (PCF), although it’s difficult for the trainers to let go – even temporarily - of the little fur ball they’ve helped along in life. Why is this a good thing for the trainers?

1) Moving the puppies to a different location helps the trainers begin to understand and process the fact that there will come a day when the dogs have to leave – permanently. It’s a reminder that the puppy is not “theirs” but instead is a dog in training that will eventually leave them permanently and go to live with and work with a person in need. At ICAN, we have learned that small separations between a trainer and a puppy now go a long way toward making that final goodbye easier.
2) When a puppy from Smoke’s Pup Crew leaves the PCF facility for another, it means the trainer gets a well-deserved rest. For four straight months, these men have worked day in and day out with their puppy. Sometimes taking a small rest from training gives the trainer a chance to revitalize and renew their commitment to the ICAN program.
3) PCF trainers now have the time to work with other dogs in the ICAN program and learn how to train more mature dogs who are working on advanced behaviors. Replacing a puppy with an older dog means the men at PCF hone their training skills even more, making them better all-around trainers.

What does location rotation of the puppies of Smoke’s Pup Crew mean for this blog? Nothing will change here. We’ll still have photos of the puppies and updates from the people who are training the puppies.

To everyone, Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Picture Perfect -- Pup Photo Session

Smoke’s Pup Crew had an adventure near the end of 2009. They traveled to the Tony Stewart racing shop on the northwest side of Indianapolis for their very own photo shoot.

Carl Frye, the photographer who expertly captured the pups’ personalities when they were 6 weeks old, graciously volunteered to capture their adolescent personalities at 20 weeks of age. The main difference between now and then? What were slightly squirmy seven-pound puppies are now energized 35-pound, 6-month-old adolescents with insatiable curiosity and boundless energy. What hasn’t changed? They still are adorable.

Enjoy these photos and marvel along with us at how much the pups have matured. (Need a photographer for a special event? Contact Carl at
DORA (above)
HUNTER (below)

LILY (below)
RACER (below)
RILEY (below)

BELLA (below)BRISTOL (below)

DEGA (below)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Pups Perform! Videos & Photos

Want to see some amazing video footage of Smoke's Pup Crew in action? Click HERE to watch a 10 minute performance by the pups as the handlers at Plainfield Correctional Facility demonstrate the puppies' skills. The handlers were demonstrating (for prison staff and for Tony Stewart Foundation reps who came to watch) several of the commands the pups have mastered.

In this video, you'll watch as each handler requests behaviors from the puppies and the skilled pups respond. Here are some of the commands you'll see in action and an explanation of why they will be important when the dog enters the profession of service work.

TOUCH - the dog touches the handler's hand or another object with its nose; touch is put to practical use when a person with a disability asks his service dog to open a door by "touching" the auto-open button with its nose.
SHAKE - the dog raises a paw from the ground into the handler's hand; shake is important for grooming purposes when a person with a disability wants to trim the dog's toenails.
BACK UP - the dog walks backward from the handler; this is an important behavior since a person in a wheelchair must maneuver the chair, meaning the dog must be able to move in tandem with the chair's direction.
LEAVE IT - the dog ignores the temptation to pay attention to something or someone other than its handler; when working for a person with a disability, a service dog must be able to ignore distractions so that its sole focus is on its person and assisting them. That means ignoring squirrels, other people, loud noises, and bouncing tennis balls as you will see in the video!

All of these behaviors and many more are vital to service dogs working safely and effectively alongside their person.

The audio isn't great given that we were recording in a large gymnasium, but the video should give you an idea of just how far these nine little guys have come and give you an idea of how skilled the handlers who train for ICAN are. All those clicks you hear throughout the video are the sound that the "training clickers" make. The training clicker sound lets the dog know that that he or she has performed the correct behavior that the handler asked for.

After the nine pups finished their performance, IT WAS PLAY TIME! Watch the puppies at play outside and in the baby pool! The last and larger dog to approach the pool is Daddy Bodhi who was visiting the pups that day. Finally, check out the photos after this video of the handlers the day of the performance.