It was a moment of truth for Wrangler, the adorable 5-month-old guide-dog-in-training who is growing up on the set of NBC’s Today Show.
Before him stood an otherworldly creature with bulging white eyes, covered head to toe in fluffy blue hair. It was none other than the strange being known to the world as the Cookie Monster.
This was an important test for the little yellow Labrador Retriever. He had to demonstrate that he was not afraid of the odd character and that he knew the best way to say hi.
He rose to the occasion. “Wrangler went right up to the Cookie Monster and gave him a big kiss,” recalls Saxon Eastman, who has the enviable task of being Wrangler’s volunteer puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, in Yorktown Heights, New York. It’s her job to bring the four-legged TV star to his command center in the studio, a crate in the “orange room,” every weekday.
Eastman says that greeting people, a key part of the Canine Good Citizen test, is one of the most important skills guide-dog wannabes must master. Whether they are dressed like Muppets or not, all kinds of characters will be a part of Wrangler’s life when he’s on the job.
Saxon says that the bustling studio gives him lots of practice
“He spends most of his energy at 6:30 a.m. greeting all of his friends,” she says. There are so many people who love him—including guests who ask to meet the dog before anyone else—that simply saying good morning can exhaust him so thoroughly that he falls into a deep sleep in his orange crate.
So even at this young age, Wrangler has mastered the art of polite greetings. In addition to lots of practice, he’s had Eastman’s guidance and the cooperation of everyone in the studio.
Wrangler, who will be taking his Canine Good Citizen test sometime this spring, will likely have little trouble with this exercise. But for many dogs, greeting a friendly stranger and sitting politely for petting are among the most difficult CGC tasks.
Eastman says that maintaining control over the puppy during greetings is a matter of making sure that it is “more rewarding to stay connected with me.” Ideally, Wrangler should say hello and then return to her.
Really big rewards were the key to perfecting Wrangler’s art of making friends. As to what she uses to tell him he’s done a good job, Eastman says, “He’s a typical Lab, very food motivated.”
Socialization, exposing a puppy to as many sights, sounds, and experiences as possible, early as possible, is one of the keys to raising a stable, confident dog, says AKC’s CGC director Mary Burch, Ph.D. Not all dogs will have the rich environment of a TV studio in the middle of New York City, but there are places in every community, such as local dog-friendly stores, where dog owners can expose puppies to noise, new sights, and people.
Another issue encountered often in CGC tests is jumping. It is often the reason a candidate does not pass.
Some dogs are too friendly and exuberant and may leap up out of excitement and enthusiasm. Especially with big dogs, this can be annoying, or even dangerous. In this article, Dr. Burch offers tips on teaching your dog to keep four on the floor.
With a little work, and a good supply of impossible-to-resist treats, you’ll be able to teach your dog to politely greet people, even those who are dressed up as gigantic Muppets.
More on the program from The Guiding Eyes: The Puppy Raising Program is comprised of more than 400 volunteers from Maine to North Carolina. Some already have pets of their own, while others commit to raising guide dogs as a way to give back. Raisers live in urban, suburban, and rural areas, in apartments, townhomes, and single-family residences.For additional information on Guiding Eyes' Puppy Raising Program, call 1-866-GEB-LABS or visit www.guidingeyes.org/volunteer/puppy-raising/.
Photos by Samantha Okazaki / TODAY