6 December

Zinnia Has A Godmother

by Jon Katz

I think it’s time for Zinnia to have a Godmother, a loving presence outside of our family,  a generous spirit to help watch over her and guide her through life.

Only one name pops up, that would be Sue Silverstein,  my friend, the art and theology teacher at Bishop Maginn High School, and one of Zinnia’s most fervent admirers.

Sue has the kind of generous heart and gentle soul that makes a great role model for human beings and dogs.

Sue has suffered some in her life. But rather than wring her hands and lament about her life,  she has channeled that pain into the art of loving and nurturing others. It lifts my heart every time I see her with her students; the warmth and respect between them is something palpable.

I don’t want to beat the Christian drum too loudly, but it is a Catholic school, and if Jesus Christ ever does return, he will seek out Sue and kiss her on her forehead. She is what he meant by calling on his followers to love the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable. She’s the real deal.

Sue loves and cares about every student she teaches; every day, they come back from the outside world to thank her and hug her and talk to her. She knows who needs shoes and who needs a kick in the butt. She and Principal Mike Tolan have been instrumental in supporting my work on behalf of the refugees and other students and teachers at the school.

I thank them for letting me in. She has been counting the days to Zinnia’s arrival and lights up whenever she sees her. She has a bet, toys, and treats for Zinnia whenever she shows up at the school.

She is Zinnia’s first triumph as a therapy dog.

Sue makes so much of what I do possible and has helped me learn how best to help the needy and the vulnerable. This is an honorary title, I suppose, but a way I have of letting her know that I love her and appreciate her work.

Sue never wants anything for herself, only for others. I can’t imagine having a teacher like her. I just might have been normal.

On top of everything else, she has become a great friend to me, to Maria, and of course, to Zinnia.


5 December

Zinnia: MY Report Card

by Jon Katz

In my first post on Zinnia, I wrote the vet’s report card on her health. In this post, I want to give myself a report card on my handling and training of Zinnia.

I think I’ll give myself a B +. It would be premature to grade myself any higher than that, there is just too much work to do, too many chances to screw up. And nobody is perfect, certainly not me.

How is Zinnia doing?

Great, she’s in perfect health, says the vet, and comfortable, grounded and of great temperament. Hats off to Lenore Severni, those are the marks of the wonderful breeder.

I want to write about her conventional training, and also her therapy dog training, which has begun.

Zinnia’s acclimation is well underway.  She eats in her crate and voluntary rushes into her crate at bedtime. She sleeps through the night with no whining or barking, she does bark in the morning when she hears the other dogs moving around.

She never gets out of the crate unless she is silent, never while barking. She’s getting that message in the morning.

Zinnia is eleven weeks old, a crucial time for socialization that will determine if she grows up into a well-adjusted dog suitable for therapy work or one with emotional and behavioral problems (as Bud had and still has to some degree.)

This is the age to make sure she is vaccinated but also that she meets new people, interacts with other dogs and is introduced to cars, different situations, and places.

My goal is for Zinnia to meet 200 different people before she is 14 weeks old. We’re more than halfway there.

By 14 weeks, a dog’s world view is pretty much formed, it’s very hard to change it after that. My goal is for Zinnia to meet a lot of people, and trust a lot of people.

By seven weeks puppies have begun to develop the physical coordination and muscle control necessary for house training. Zinnia has had two accidents in two weeks, she eagerly goes outside and eliminates.

She is eating a lot of snow, and I think that is straining her bladder control. She had one accident at the Mansion, I carry disinfectant and Odor Off with me wherever I go. Both accidents were peeing.

I have no doubt she will be fully housebroken in a week or so, thanks to our crates.

This is an age when puppies sometimes feel fear and anxiety, they need a lot of encouragement and praise and affection. Zinnia gets those things all day, every day.

Obedience training can begin in earnest at age nine, as long as the training is positive, short and simple.

Week twelve is an important one for Zinnia, that’s when dominance and submission instincts start coming to the fore, she will start soon to figure out just where she fits in the social order of the household, dogs, and people. At this stage, fear gives way to curiosity. So far, I haven’t seen much fear in Zinnia.

At three months, serious teething begins, we need to be ready for that with vigilance and lots of chew toys. Teething Lab puppies are intense. She will not chew up our house or furniture or shoes.

Zinnia sits on command about 95 percent of the time, we are working on “stay” and she comes about 90 percent of the time when called. I’ll be working daily to make that 100 percent. At this age, I don’t give any commands I can’t enforce. She is already testing me at times.

We have bonded in a serious and loving way, which makes training a lot easier. She knows her name, makes eye contact with me, follows me when I move around the house or outside. I’ve introduced her to the Mansion several times and to Bishop Maginn High School twice.

She enters both places with tails wagging and much enthusiasm. I need to focus now on getting her to keep putting her teeth on people, I think she still thinks of fingers as teats. I am learning how to correct her with the sound of my voice and that is working.

I am also beginning visualizations with her, she and I increasingly communicate without words, just as Red and I did.

It’s time for me to step up the training, a challenge in 20 inches of snow. I’m also starting to take her out on short walks so she can get comfortable with the leash.

We permit unsupervised play in the yard with Bud, the two love to chase one another around. I’m cutting back sharply on play in the house, especially at night, which is and should be a quiet time for us.

In the Mansion and Bishop Maginn, she is calm and responsive. I am confident about her ability to do therapy work.

So overall, I’m doing well. I want to keep the focus on, Zinnia is a great dog, and if I don’t mess up, she will bring light and sunshine into many lives. She already has.

I’m doing well. I have to be conscious of my low levels of frustration and impatience. Training is as much about the people as it is about the dog. When it goes off the tracks, it’s my fault, not hers.

5 December

Second Vet Visit: Zinnia Gets An A Plus

by Jon Katz

Zinnia went to Dr. Suzanne Fariello (Cambridge Valley Veterinary Service) for her second visit – Lyme and other shots, and she got an A-plus for weight, coat, body structure, and cuteness. She listened intently as Dr. Fariello explained what shots she was getting.

I recognize that Zinnia is not just my dog, so I want to openly share her progress and health reports. I realize I am opening myself up to epidemic second-guessing and alarm messages, it’s okay, I can take it.

Seriously, Dr. Fariello said she looked beautiful, perfect, her vitals are perfect, her weight is now 18 pounds.”She looks great, keep on doing whatever you’re doing.” I take that as a compliment from a diligent and honest vet.

Zinnia, like many Labs, is almost indiscriminately loving to people who give her treats.  She even loves people who stick needles in her.

She has gone to two feedings a day from three.

She gets one cup morning and evening of Royal Canin Labrador Puppy mix (yes, it is controversial, of course. Several people have contacted me to warn me it isn’t great food and isn’t even puppy food.)

I don’t manage my veterinary health care online.

I paid $148 for today’s visit, $200 for the first one,  and I’m going with Dr. Fariello and the breeder, Lenore Severni, who recommend this food for lab puppies. That’s good enough for me. Lenore is a fierce advocate for her puppies.

I am not a nutritionist and have no desire to join the nutritional dog fights that rage online day and night.

Lenore Severni is a wonderful breeder, and Suzanne Fariello is a terrific vet. If I blow off their advice for an anonymous and invariably untrained person online, that seems like Steward Malfeasance to me.

Lenore has been breeding Labs for more than three decades, and Suzanne went to school for six years to be a vet. Good enough for me. Zinnia is thriving on this food.

It’s something of a myth in the dog world that you can tell how big a dog will get by the size of their paws. That is not true for most dogs, according to the research I’ve seen and Dr. Fariello.

We live in an age of great mistrust for scientists and facts. I respect highly trained professionals, they are not perfect, but they are a lot better than anything else I’ve found or read.

You really can’t tell at 11 weeks how big a dog will be, according to the biologists.

Dr. Fariello and I both think Zinnia will be a big dog, but not unusually large by Lab standards. We both are guessing 50 to 60 lbs, just about Red’s weight for most of his life.

Zinnia is stocky, and she does have solid paws. But her mother is not enormous, and I don’t see Zinnia as being that large. It’s just a feeling.

I don’t know for sure either, but I am confident that big paws are not a reliable indicator of anything but rumors and myth. Everybody I’ve met has looked at Zinnia’s hands and told me for sure that she will be enormous.

None of them have any evidence to support the claim.

So I can almost promise that she won’t be significant. But we’ll see, I’ll be honest about it if I’m wrong.

5 December

Zinnia Meditates At the Mansion. The Heart Sings

by Jon Katz

Zinnia came to her first Mansion Meditation Class with me today, I teach a guided meditation class every Thursday morning for one hour. I kept her on a leash for most of it and gave her a small treat to chew.

Then I took the leash off and she sniffed a bit and lay down. She is grasping the idea of being calm, astonishing for a dog so young.

When it was done, she lay down and went to sleep. When we were done, she went and visited with several of the residents. She is teething, so I am careful to not let her do any chewing on people’s hands.

The residents are crazy about her and were lining up to pet and touch her. She’s a natural at this, she knows how to be calm and patient. We actually had two meditation sessions, back to back. She is doing beautifully and I did some training in front of the residents so they can see their therapy dog begin to take shape.

She’s going to be great at this if I do my job and train her well. She seems naturally contemplative and the heart sings to see her meditating with the residents.

4 December

Bishop Maginn: Zinnia’s Amazing Day, Reporter and All

by Jon Katz


Zinnia and I had an extraordinary day at Bishop Maginn High School Wednesday.

I brought her to my Writing Workshop class, and three of the students, Grace, Katie, and Blue have volunteered to work with me while I train Zinnia in her therapy work. This gives her therapy dog training an important, even radical, new dimension.

Francesca Caputo, a reporter for the Evangelist newspaper in Albany, came to my class to write about Zinnia and (also pretended to want to know about me…:). Zinnia is like that; she sucks up all the air in the room.

The paper has the largest circulation of any weekly newspaper in the area.

It was great. I talked about training dogs, getting Zinnia to pay attention to me, how to get her to sit.

Sue Silverstein brought a bunch of toys and a blanket, and then Grace, Katie, and Blue each took turns calling for her to come and to sit.


Zinnia was remarkably calm and responsive all during the visit.

I was very proud of her. I had the most wonderful time.

We talked about not feeding her steadily, not letting her chew on people, and speaking clearly and forcefully when giving a command. I told them it was important they not simply crank her up by yelling or wrestling or talked too loudly.

The idea was to make her calm, not excited. Therapy dogs are not born, they are made.

I talked about the importance of noticing when she gets excited and doing my calming exercises to settle her down. I suggested giving treats every third or fourth time, not every time she does something right.

Therapy dogs need to be calm, and also to read need and attention. No mistakes are tolerated in environments like hospice or extreme elderly care.

I did my calming training with her twice, and it worked both times beautifully.

Zinnia loved the toys and attention. When she got excited, I called her over to me and had her sit down, then lie down (she doesn’t have a quick lie down yet, too soon, I help her to lie down).

Francesca was thorough; she asked me why I was doing therapy work, how I was training Zinnia. It was fun to talk to her.

Zinnia is a car dog now. I was concerned the ride back and forth would be hard for her, but every time I underestimate her, she sets me straight.

She slept in the back seat all the way to Albany and back. It’s hard for me to believe she’s only eleven weeks old. To the people freaking out because I started working with her and socializing her so soon, I’m happy to remind you once again that you have no idea what you are talking about.

Minding one’s own business is a potent spiritual exercise, although it’s becoming a rare one. Zinnia loves new experiences and is happy to meet all kinds of people. She feels safe everywhere she goes.

This dog is more than ready to get to work, although we are certainly moving in a slow and relaxed pace. My rule, for now, is that it all has to be fun for her. And it was. She is having a blast.

The harder training and work comes in a few months.

Zinnia is more than ready to do this work.  She had dozens of interactions with students today; she handled all of them correctly.

What makes this experience so special is the school, of course, it is such a warm and safe and encouraging place. It inspires me and lifts me to be there.

In my years-long search for ways of helping the refugee children, none has welcomed me and opened up to me the way the school has. And as a result, the Army Of Good has swarmed in and done magnificent work.

I thank Principal Mike Tolan and Sue Silverstein for that, and the Archdiocese of Albany. The school embodies the best traditions and aspirations of Christianity. The light still shines.

It is a gift to me as much as anyone else.

It shouldn’t be challenging to help people in need, but it sometimes is. But not at Bishop Maginn.

The other unique part is my idea to include interested students in training. I’ve enlisted six students to be Zinnia’s assistant trainers, the Dog Squad. They are eager and excited. Their enthusiasm is a tonic

Zinnia will grow up with these students, and they will learn about dogs and how to train them. They are all dog lovers, and they are much taken with Zinnia. Watching them will help me prepare Zinnia more deeply and thoughtfully.

Zinnia has the helping spirit inside of her.

I am surprised and impressed with the way Zinnia handles herself. When we walked into the school Wednesday,  Principal Tolan suggested I pick her up because the class bell was about to ring, and the halls would soon be jammed with rushing students.

I said no, let her walk, and she didn’t blink as scores of kids rushed past her, many stopping to pat her or hug her.

We carried her up to my class on the second floor.

Then she went into the center of the room and played with the toys Sue left her.

Then one by one, I asked Blue, Clare, and Katie to work with her, and they did.

I love the idea of training Zinnia in the school with some of the students.

Enlisting the students is a fantastic way for her to learn and for the students to learn. I will also use her on exam weeks, during college entrance freakouts, and if individual students are depressed or traumatized or frightened.

As she grows up in school, she will form some powerful relations apart from me and independently of me. I learned today that several students cried when they heard Red died. Dogs can be critical, especially to kids who have suffered so much with persecution and poverty.

One junior came up to Zinnia, shaking and visibly frightened. She said she was always terrified of dogs, something not uncommon among refugees and needy children. I told her I’d take her hand and help her to touch Zinnia.

Zinnia’s tail started wagging the second she saw her and slowly and very carefully, the young woman touched Zinnia’s side and felt  her softness and looked into her eyes, and said, “oh, wow.” And then she moved to touch her again. The smile on her face was precious.

Maybe I’ll get her into my Dog Squad.

Bedlam Farm