Amie and Matt Chapman have worked on raising puppies as guide dogs for many years. Guide dogs provide vital services for visually impaired people, acting as their eyes everywhere they go. Raising these puppies requires a high level of patience and consistency, as well as extensive training. Matt, a filmmaker by profession, decided to showcase exactly what they do by creating his “Growing Up Guide Pup” online video series about their latest puppy, Ricki, a female Golden and Labrador Retriever mix. Nylabone sat down with Amie and Matt to find out more about their community-minded work.
Ricki, the star of the “Growing Up Guide Pup” video series poses for a quick photo.
Photo Courtesy of the Growing Up Guide Pup Facebook Page
Amie receives Ricki at eight weeks old. Ricki adjusts to sleeping in the crate. Ricki takes her first trip to the grocery store.
Video courtesy of GuideDogManiac on YouTube
Nylabone: When did you begin raising guide dogs?
Amie: When I was taking some college courses I had a class about how to raise a puppy, and at the time Matt and I had moved in together and we both wanted a dog. We had a very small condo and I looked at what my instructor was doing and she said, “yeah, I take my dog everywhere,” and I thought that would be a good solution. I could get a guide dog puppy and take it everywhere I go, and I wouldn’t have to worry about the space issues of a condo and getting it exercised. And it seemed like a lot of fun.
Nylabone: How many guide dogs have you raised?
Amie: Ricki here is number 10.
Nylabone: And what breeds have they been?
Amie: We’ve done mostly Labs, we had one—the dog before Ricki—was a full Golden Retriever and Ricki is our first cross between the two.
Nylabone: And when you saw Ricki was it love at first sight?
Amie: Oh yeah.
Matt: Ricki is so cute. She’s kind of special because she’s a cross between a Golden and a Lab. She has more Lab features than Golden features, but her fur is really gold like a Golden. So she’s really cute. I have always had a preference for a red dog, we have Eli who is red also—although he’s just a Lab, he’s not a Golden also—and we have two red cats, so we have a lot of red animals in our house. It was definitely love at first sight. We just love her, she’s been awesome.
Nylabone: You mentioned your other dog, Eli, who was originally raised as a guide pup but was not suited for being a service dog. How does Eli handle the young puppies coming and going?
Amie: One time we went grocery shopping and took Ricki with us. We left Eli at home and we forgot to close the office door, and he let us know that he wasn’t happy. Eli has been described as the party boy, and when he was a puppy he just wanted to have a good time. He really liked to work and enjoyed learning new things—he still does—but when there was something more exciting he was just like, “yeah, I’ll see you guys later, I’m going to go check this out.” He’s definitely an amazing dog, and a lot of fun, but he also gets into a lot of mischief.
Matt: The funny thing about Eli too is that Eli’s really smart, like he’s probably the smartest dog we’ve ever had, but it’s almost like he’s too smart for his own good and he doesn’t want to be a guide dog. He didn’t want to work to please; he likes to work when he gets treats. He’s the type of dog who just turns it on and off. “Yeah, I don’t feel like doing what you guys tell me if it’s more fun not to, it’s more fun to always try to get away with things and get into trouble.” He’s really smart and he’s been great. We’ve put him into some of the movies I’ve made. He’s been seen quite a bit online, and in Growing Up Guide Pup too.
Nylabone: Eli was in the one video where he ate the strawberries, right?
Amie: Yeah, right off the vine in my parent’s backyard. That’s just Eli, I mean, he’ll do it right in front of you. You’re looking right at him and he’ll be like, “Yup, I’m taking the strawberry. What are you gonna do about it?”
An episode of “Growing Up Guide Pup” with Ricki’s first trip to the dentist office, Amie Explains why Ricki has a leash on all the time, Eli gets into trouble eating strawberries, and the Macklin door is discussed. Video courtesy of GuideDogManiac on YouTube
Nylabone: What training techniques do you use with the guide dogs?
Amie: With the puppies we use a lot of positive reinforcement. Mainly praise but we do use food. We have to get approval from the school, they have representatives that come down and teach us how to use food appropriately, they want it to be delivered in a specific manner. If they’re having issues learning specific things or avoiding distractions, like Ricki here—she has problems with protocol—we use food rewards. But it’s mainly positive reinforcement and they’re also pretty much bred to do what is asked…with the exception of Eli.
Ricki is eager to please, she really just wants to do whatever you’re asking her to do. She tries so hard to do everything, even though she has a really hard time ignoring certain things like birds and squirrels. She really just wants to make you happy and that’s really what they’re looking for. If the dog is having a hard time and is not eager to please and work for praise and is just happy being with you, they don’t make the best guides. The ones that graduate, they really want to do the work. We hear it all the time. People say, “Oh, the dogs are forced to do this,” and they’re definitely not. The dogs that do it really, really want to do it.
Nylabone: Have you taught her any additional tricks we don’t know about?
Amie: We’re not really supposed to be teaching her tricks, we have a specific set of commands that we’re supposed to teach her and our job is to basically socialize her and get her habituated to the lifestyle of going out everywhere—being calm in the grocery store, waiting patiently in line, walking down the street, ignoring things around her, that sort of thing. She does pretty well; she’s got her nemeses, the pigeons and squirrels are definitely hard for to ignore. I mean, I’ve taken her to the grocery store and done a full round of shopping with just her and she’s just perfect. She’ll wait in line as I unload the cart and pay, and she’s ready to go—she knows it’s time to head out the door. She’s got a lot of good things going for her.
Nylabone: What is your favorite story while raising Ricki?
Amie: One of my favorite stories is probably our Las Vegas trip. We went to Las Vegas a couple months ago for a veterinary conference because I work in a veterinary hospital. Ricki really liked Las Vegas because we were getting up early in the morning and driving over to the convention center, and we had to walk through the casino to the convention center for lectures, and she really took to that schedule. By the second day, she knew where we were. I’d park the car and she picked up her pace, she had this little trot going for her, and she seemed really happy and had a nice bounce in her step. She knew exactly where she was going. We’d walk into whatever room the lecture was in and she’d lie down quickly. I also packed my Nylabones with me and I’d hand her a Nylabone toy; she’d chew on it for a little while, take a rest, and when we’d take a bathroom break, as soon as she’d go to the bathroom she’d go back in. She’d sit nice and quietly, and when it was time to go, she was happy to go back to the hotel and relax, and a couple of hours later we’d head back out. She really seemed to understand that her job was to stay focused. I just hadn’t seen her that focused and happy before, she was on her game on that trip.
Matt: Another thing about Vegas was that all the veterinarians and the dog people there hadn’t seen their dogs in a while. They’re all dog people away from their dogs at home, and everybody wanted to say “Hi” and pet Ricki, and she handled that well.
Amie: I walked into one conference one day and I had people waving me down. I had no idea who they were and they’re like, “Can you come sit by us with the dog?” And I was like, “okay…” They wanted me to sit next to them because I had Ricki with me.
Matt: And also, there’s one thing that comes to mind. Week 18 was when Ricki was scared to go in the pool and we kept trying to get her to go in the pool, but it wasn’t until she saw her mother in the pool that she finally she worked up the courage to actually jump in the water. Before that we always kind of had to coax her and kind of had to guide her in. But she actually jumped in the water when she saw her mom swimming. That was kind of cool. We actually got it on film and it was in our Week 18 episode. It’s probably a pretty big deal for a dog to do that, go to that next level when they’re swimming and just jump in. And it was absolutely because of her mom. It was kind of cool to see that her mom helped her get past that. It’s kind of a magical moment that we actually got on tape. It’s very hard to be filming and get things organically. Sometimes we’re lucky, and sometimes we’re not, but we got lucky that time.
Ricki swims for the first time. Amie trains Ricki to ignore food with a “seeding the floor” exercise.
Video courtesy of GuideDogManiac on YouTube
Nylabone: What are Ricki’s favorite activities?
Amie: She does love to swim although we haven’t been in a while. She likes to run around backyards and just have fun being a dog. Definitely in the house one of her favorite activities is playing with your toys. She’s literally lying down in my office and she’s got two Nylabones in front of her and she’s going back and forth between the two.
She’s been a really good puppy and she’s never really chewed on things she’s not supposed to—she’s always chosen the toys over furniture and other stuff. She was not hard to housebreak in terms of chewing behaviors like other dogs. The toys are working!
Matt: She just absolutely loves the water hose. It’s just such a mundane thing, but she goes nuts when I’m outside spraying down the leaves out back. She wants to come out and play with the water, it’s really funny and cute.
Nylabone: Do you have any tips for raising a puppy?
Amie: Be patient when training and teaching housebreaking or anything with a puppy or any dog. It takes some time for them to learn the rules of the house—what’s appropriate for them to play with, what’s not appropriate to play with, where it’s okay to go to the bathroom. Don’t get discouraged. Training dogs takes a lot of patience, they’re a lot like children. They don’t know any better, so yelling at them just doesn’t help that much. If you take a nice calm approach, guide them properly, and show them the way in a gentle manner, they respond to that really well. Rather than yelling at them if they’re chewing on something inappropriate, give them something appropriate to chew on—and when they chew on it, praise them for it.
Matt: Praising as opposed to scorning is something that we definitely learned from Guide Dog. We get a lot of training tips and information from them that we’re able to use with Eli or with any dog. It’s great information that transcends.
Amie hands out toys from Nylabone to the group. Ricki and Eli enjoy their new dura chew toys. We announce the details to our Nylabone giveaway contest. Video courtesy of GuideDogManiac on YouTube
Nylabone: What inspired you to start the Growing Up Guide Pup series?
Amie: There was another person in our puppy-raising group that was a first-time raiser. She started a blog beginning a couple of weeks before they even got their puppy about how they were prepping the house and how they were going through their feelings of excitement. Every once in a while they would update their blog about how things were going with pictures and stuff. I thought, “Hey, that’s a really neat idea—I’m not a writer, but I’d love to document this next puppy.” So I asked Matt, who has a lot of talent with filmmaking. He kind of liked the idea and we got to talking, and he figured out a good way to do it.
Matt: It was our way to document what we’re doing. At the time, the economy tanked and business wasn’t going very good for me. I was just pretty much primarily freelancing, and it got to a point where I was getting tired of that. I wanted to do something I have a passion for and something we could do together, since we’re married. We weren’t sure if it would work out, but we thought we’d give it a go.
The format is working pretty amazingly, and for me it’s been inspiring to take the talent and experience that I have and apply it to something more meaningful. Amie is just a natural in front of the camera. We felt that we had something that we could give to society that would be a good thing, and at the same time maybe it would be something that we could…I don’t know, perhaps make a living with. Even at this point we’re still not sure of the future of what we’re doing.
The thing that is good is that we’ve rallied the whole entire community of visually impaired people, guide dog raisers, other service dogs—as well as communities that do other things, like canine companions and search and rescue—and they understand things that we work on and do that kind of transcend all working dog environments.
It’s been really awesome and we’re really excited to see where this can go. We’re picking up a little steam with the series, but it’s been a hard go. We don’t have the most popular content, it’s not full of nudity, profanity, or the “bling” that most of the other YouTube videos have that do so well. But I’m proud of that fact because, you know we’re doing something that can actually help humanity for the better. And it’s not an easy thing to come by. We also appreciate your support. We love Nylabone and you guys make our favorite toys for our dogs. And it really is sincerely true, we’re not just saying that!
Amie: It really is one of the only things that Eli can’t gnaw right through.
Nylabone: Are you going to get another puppy after Ricki?
Amie: When we returned our first dog we knew it was going to hit us hard, so we picked up a new puppy the same day. But since we’ve kept Eli and have a permanent dog in the household, we’ve been taking little breaks in between puppies. I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do yet, if we’re going to try to get a new dog when Ricki leaves us right away or if we’re going to take a little break.
But we’re definitely doing another puppy after Ricki, and we’re hoping to work our way through her issues. We’ve got a few weeks left, and we haven’t given up. She’s just a really good dog, and it’s definitely going to be hard to transition to a new puppy, but that would be a great thing to show in the new episode—what we do go through transitioning. We’re all used to the dog that we can trust in the house, that’s totally potty trained, and that we can take anywhere. Then we go back to the very beginning of the puppy, probably crying in the crate and having accidents. It changes your everyday lifestyle when you bring in that brand new puppy, because you can’t do everything with it, especially after you’ve gotten into a habit with the last dog once it’s reached Ricki’s age. You kind of get into a groove, and then it starts all over again.
Nylabone: How does Eli like new puppies?
Amie: Eli is not a huge fan of the baby puppies. He kind of has a space issue: He doesn’t like them climbing on him, and they just don’t know any better. He doesn’t like new puppies, he doesn’t like noses up the tush and being clawed on and climbed on. So he barks at them. He puts up with it, but he prefers puppies once they’re about 5 months old and they’ve figured out that they need to leave him alone.
In the first couple of episodes Eli was a little grumpy with Ricki, but they really are the best of friends now and will hang out. It’s been hard for us to document because it happens just for short spurts of time. With the bigger Nylabones, they’ll both be chewing on one and kind of tugging on it a little bit. It’s all in good fun, and they really like to share their toys with each other. Ricki likes to taunt Eli: He’ll be laying down and she’ll be walking around, kind of holding a toy, and he’ll grab it and she’ll run away, and he’ll get it and she’ll try and get it back. She tries to entice him to play.
Nylabone: We’ve heard that “Growing Up Guide Pup” has won an award. Can you tell us more about that?
Matt: There’s a festival in LA called the LA Web Fest, and it’s the only film festival in the world for the web-show format. There are various other film shows out there, conventional festivals that might have a category that is commonly being called “New Media,” where there just combine everything together. The LA Web Fest is the only web film festival in the world (although there’s a new one starting in Europe this year, so there will be two), and we won Outstanding Reality Series. That was kind of a big deal because this is kind of a new format that hasn’t existed for very long, and that is doing a reality series for the web. We got accolades for that, and it was exciting. And having an Outstanding Reality Series award gives us a little more credibility, which I’m very excited about.
Nylabone: Has all this attention turned Ricki into a diva?
Amie: Ricki is a total diva. She gets jealous if Eli or any other dog is getting attention. She wants to be in the center of the spotlight. And she knows when the camera comes out we’re going to go do something fun. She’s adapted to the lifestyle in front of the camera, and she doesn’t know any differently. She’s gotten used to the camera hitting her in the butt as we’re walking and it doesn’t faze her any more. She’s a bit of a diva, but she’s also kind of a tomboy. She likes her sports and she likes to get down and dirty..
Update: After this interview took place, Amie and Matt learned that, unfortunately, Ricki was not accepted to Puppy College. They are not discouraged, and Ricki still did great in the program. They plan to take on another puppy in the future.
A final decision is made in regards to Ricki’s future as a guide dog in training. Video courtesy of GuideDogManiac on YouTube