11:51 AM

Canine Companions Puppy in Training

Robin and Tony Bird following Tavi's script in their lives as Puppy Raisers.

Like so many across the country, Robin and Tony Bird brought a puppy into their home this year.

Unlike your puppy, Tavi came with an instruction manual.

Tavi is a Canine Companions for Independence puppy, sponsored by State Farm®. The Birds were selected by State Farm and Canine Companions to raise Tavi, which means good in Hebrew. A yellow Labrador retriever, Tavi was born in August and has been living with Tony and Robin, and their 12-year-old rescue Bella, for two months.

"With Tavi, the training is formalized," Tony said of the bounding bundle of exploration. "We have goals and a monthly progress report to turn in."

While he is a puppy, and anybody who has raised a puppy knows they get more distracted than a moth at a candle festival, he is in training to be a working dog. As puppy raisers, the Birds are not just giving their home and hearts to Tavi, they are giving their time and resources to support Canine Companions, which has a schedule of milestones for Tavi to reach on his way to becoming a service animal.

"We have a sense of obligation to make sure we follow the prescribed plans they have," Tony said.

Robin said the commands they can use are just one of the differences between raising Tavi and Bella. Instead of telling Tavi "no," for example, they need to use "don't." And Tavi is on a regimented daily schedule because of the high likelihood his future owner will be on one.

"Tavi's daily grooming is another difference," Robin said. "There is teeth brushing, coat brushing, weekly trimming of his nails, and my personal favorite – cradling, aka snuggle time."

"We have never brushed our dog's teeth," Tony said. "So it has created many of the funnier moments. As a squirmy puppy, he often gets toothpaste in his nose and even once on his eyebrows."

"With Bella," Robin said, "we can take her to the groomer for all of these things."

Because Tavi will receive specialized service-animal training in early 2022, he needs to learn the vocabulary the trainers use. The Birds call his name to get his attention, and then follow with the command they are trying to teach.

"So far he is doing very well with: sit, here, down and he knows his name," Robin said. "We are working on wait and don't."

The rest of the puppy-raising world surely can appreciate that.

"We have never done formal training, so all of this is new," Tony said. "We've often adopted dogs past the puppy stage. Bella was 18 months old when we adopted her."

They have learned the importance of treats to the training process, and that regular kibble can be that treat. They have also benefitted from the power of distraction.

"The training methods from Canine Companions are to focus on and reinforce the positive, so if we see him approaching a negative situation, like reaching for the top of a trash can, rather than correction, we use distraction with kibble or a toy," Tony said. "At this point, I have even seen the distractions work on Bella, who is almost 12."

Robin shared that Tavi is being crate trained, while Bella has free roam of their home, but they have seen that Tavi is learning to like his crate and has put himself in it on a few occasions.

It's not been all work and no play. He's a puppy, so there is plenty of play time. Tavi and Bella dressed as Batman and Robin for Halloween, the Birds socialize him whenever they can, and even arrange playdates with other puppy raiser families.

As a future service dog, it is important that he is comfortable in the car and in new places, so the Birds take him everywhere. He's been to the vet, their State Farm agent's office and to shop. He's also had regular visitors through a steady stream of friends to the house.

"It's been a highlight and surprise, just how quick he is. Still only three months old, he's energetic, and not proficient at any of these, but the fact that he has the basics for his name, sit, down and here, he's well ahead of what I expected," Tony said. "There is a lot of work to do to make sure what he's learned sticks and that he continues to advance, but so far, he's doing really well and it's been a lot of fun."

Tavi's First Vet Visit