We like to say that every success story at Helping Paws begins with a puppy. It may be safe to say it begins before the puppies are even born, when Caretaker Home volunteers agree to give puppies their first home, to nurture them through the first eight weeks of life. Veterinarians stay on call for emergencies, Helping Paws staff put in extra miles and hours with the arrival and development of each litter, yet it is the volunteers who embrace the cares and concerns for these vulnerable new lives who really provide the jump start to every Helping Paws success.
Our three most recent litters arrived within three weeks of each other. Twenty-six puppies came into the Helping Paws program that fast, and just that fast three Caretaker Homes immersed themselves into waiting, whelping, and worrying about these small bundles of promise. Their stories are very different but their outcomes are similar: Healthy puppies who have now moved on to their Foster Home Trainers to begin the journey as service dogs in training.
Jill Rovner with Karma: The Loyal Litter
Puppies were absolutely not in Jill Rovner’s plan until she met Karma. The 5-year-old Labrador Retriever was already an experienced mother as the dam of the Game Litter, born in 2016 when The Captain’s Labradors provided both Karma and the services of their stud dog Chester to Helping Paws. When a new Caretaker Home was needed, Jill agreed to welcome Karma IF she could have the puppies somewhere else. “That responsibility and all the time needed seemed overwhelming,” she remembers. “Karma is the first dog I have had on my own.”
Arrangements were made and Karma moved in. As their subsequent partnership evolved, Jill realized that life without Karma for even a few months was a nonstarter. She prepared for puppies. Her sister and niece committed their help and support. As a member of the development staff at Helping Paws and a first-time puppy wrangler, Jill was perfectly positioned to be guaranteed by the breeding program staff that without equivocation, she would not be the only human present when the puppies began arriving. It was her biggest concern.
Karma had more confidence in Jill than that.
Late in the evening of March 27, Helping Paws staffers called it a day for anticipating the arrival of puppies. Careful to the extreme, they had reassured themselves and Jill that Karma would wait at least until the next morning.
Karma’s daughter Laska Dorothy was born within the next hour.
Although everyone but Karma was caught off guard, rookie Jill managed to juggle a cell phone call of “Help! They’re coming!” with rubbing the puppy for drying and warmth. She wisely positioned Laska Dorothy’s face so Karma could lick open her airways. Eileen Bohn and Judy Michurski put on the afterburners driving to Jill’s house, arriving in time to nurture each of the six future service puppies in training successfully born into the wee hours of the next day.
“I figured out in a flash that I am simply Karma’s assistant. She is a great mother and knew what to do more than I did,” Jill says.
Still, Jill was needed. One pup developed a worrisome external abscess in the first week, prompting an immediate trip to Inver Grove Heights Animal Hospital and the vets who remain on call for Helping Paws. Another had temporary issues with digesting a new food, and a third suffered a leg injury that kept him from seeking to nurse. Add in some more routine vet visits for ongoing puppy care and Jill stayed busy with the tender loving care part of having puppies.
The puppies thrived and their capacity to play and charm took over as the prime experience. Jill set up a schedule of people visiting to help socialize the puppies, including visitors grieving other losses that were alleviated at least temporarily by cuddling puppies.
“Even with all the work,” she says, “watching each personality develop and seeing the pack interact was an amazing experience. The power of nature and the constant happiness those puppies provided is something I still think about all the time.
“The puppies brought me joy many times every single day. I am so glad I changed my mind and didn’t miss out on Karma as an amazing mother and having a house full of puppies. Best of all I know these pups will go on to change other lives.”
Gloria and David Sather with Augustina: The Music Litter
Three weeks into life with ten new Music Litter puppies in the house, caregiver Gloria Sather found the biggest moment of all. “I was lying down near the puppy pen, a bit teary-eyed and totally exhausted. At that moment a puppy walked toward me and opened his eyes. It was the first time I had seen any eyes open up, and I went from feeling the lowest of the lows to the highest peak moment, just like that.” And thus, she adds, she rediscovered the memorable moments that make bringing these puppies into the world an exciting proposition.
Gloria and David Sather first encountered Helping Paws through another Foster Home Trainer, Carol Lamoureux. They watched her work with Rocket, impressed with the dog’s skills. With Carol’s encouragement, they applied to be a Caretaker Home shortly after their beloved Labrador died. Six months later, they began training 8-week-old Augustina, a Golden Retriever from the April Litter. From the start, “Stina” was destined to become a breeding dog once she completed training.
Bred to Teller, whose services were donated by Jane Docter from Docmar Goldens, Stina produced 10 puppies via cesarean section on April 7. The veterinary staff at Inver Grove Heights Animal Hospital stepped in to support a healthy outcome for the 7 males and 3 females.
The first three weeks of puppy life are generally easier on the human counterparts, as the dam provides the needed care. Unfortunately, in the first week Stina developed mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue. A 2 x 3-inch open wound near a nipple had to be protected by a washcloth every time the puppies fed. As that wound healed, a second wound opened up on another nipple; this one was smaller but still needed protection from, as Gloria puts it, “40 small feet with sharp nails.” With ten puppies seeking a spot to nurse, the Sathers managed the real estate issue by allowing five puppies to nurse at a time, having Stina roll over between cohorts.
Ultimately Stina healed. For the next five weeks 10 puppies—carrying musical litter names such as Calypso, Tango, Charleston, and Hip Hop—wrestled, explored, and starred on their mother’s Facebook page. David Sather was able to work from home many days, supplanted only when daughter Karin could write her thesis and watch puppies as well.
The Sathers were also joined by the Lunch Ladies, a group who offered to step in on days when no one else could be home.
Helping Paws retired Stina as a breeding dog rather than take a risk of her developing mastitis with a subsequent litter. The Sathers embraced additional rounds of puppies, however, and are now training Stina’s daughter Mesa, who will become the next generation of breeding dog.
“Day to day, it’s fun to see the puppies develop and grow,” says Gloria, “and the workload for the humans is very real. You need the flexibility to have someone home when they are here. In the end, the real heroes are Stina and the other mothers: Everyone who benefits from these puppies owes the mothers a debt of gratitude for taking what those sharp little teeth dish out.”
Susan and Mike Martiny Family with Lanie: The Nice Litter
Thirty puppies, four litters and spreading the joy could sum up the experiences of the Susan and Mike Martiny family as a Caretaker Home.
But it wouldn’t tell the whole story. Add in two generations of Martinys volunteering as Foster Home Trainers and at least two family friends also volunteering in that capacity, and the summation of the Martiny Effect for Helping Paws becomes more fully complete.
The Nice Litter is the Martiny’s fourth time as a Caretaker Home. Golden Retriever Elise provided three litters for Helping Paws, including the Blue Litter that arrived in 2014. Dogs from those litters are now graduated and working as service dogs or demonstration dogs. “It was long enough ago,” Susan Martiny says, “that I still had to call to ask a few questions” before Lanie (an Elise daughter) produced puppies April 16. The Nice Litter is sired by Briggs, whose services were provided by Judy Campbell of Elm Creek Golden Retrievers.
Lanie did offer up at least one surprise for the veteran caregivers. Her ten puppies arrived on the Easter holiday—a bit early—with the last two puppies delivered by C-section at Inver Grove Heights Animal Hospital. One result was that the pizza ordered in created a special holiday feast for the family and Helping Paws breeding staff.
Besides puppies, it is children who mark the litter experiences for the Martinys. They initially wanted to volunteer in a way that included the entire family. The first step was becoming Foster Home Trainers for Mac, a service dog graduated in 2008. “We could fit that into our regular life,” Susan explains. With the Nice Litter, the family tradition continued as 8-year-old Elizabeth helped with puppy care and adult daughter Kaitlin now takes on becoming a Foster Home Trainer for Nessie, Lanie’s daughter.
“We love sharing the puppies with people outside the family,” Susan says. “It seems so few people have ever seen puppies so young, and the bonus is they get to learn about Helping Paws when they come to visit.” This time around, Elizabeth’s dance team joined together to put socks on 20 empty water bottles that served as enticing and crunchy puppy toys.
What advice can the veterans of puppy care offer for future Caretaker Homes? “This is such a cool experience for everyone involved,” Susan says, “but it’s good to know that for 12 weeks, this is what you will do: It will be four weeks of vet visits before the puppies arrive, and then eight weeks of puppy care—including cleaning around them and laundry—on a 24/7 schedule.
“I am so thankful I trained a service dog before we signed on as a Caretaker Home. Knowing what the trainers will do, knowing what that experience includes, has been such a benefit to caring for these puppies and then watching them go forward into the world.”
[To see more about the Loyal, Music, and Nice litters, please see their photo galleries in the About Us section of this website. To learn how to become a Caretaker Home, please see the Breeding Program section of this website.]
—Photos by Steve McCuskey, Judy Michurski, Gloria Sather and Mary Gustafson.