American Service Dogs

6Sep

Rocky passed her test!

It’s official! Yesterday Rocky became a bona fide, full-fledged service dog, complete with an ID badge and a certified letter stating she had successfully completed training and passed the test conducted by American Service Dogs.

This is a first for both of us. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not have a set standard for the testing of service dogs. It does require that the person using a service dog have a disability, and that the dog must perform specific tasks to assist with that disability. It is completely legal to train your own dog to assist with your disability; you do not have to use a professional trainer or agency. Ripley and I did our training on our own, with guidance from some in the field, and some very good training manuals. But when it was time for her to retire, I knew I wanted to use a professional agency, because I didn’t have the luxury of starting off with a puppy – my disabilities were now more severe, I needed a dog to step in more quickly, and I wanted help in the transition process from one dog to the next.

American Service Dogs, and in particular their head trainer, Jared Latham, gave me everything I needed to make that possible. The training was supposed to take 20 weeks, or about five months. We took quite a bit longer. That was due to a number of factors. In June last year, I left for a month to go to California, and although I worked with Rocky in those summer months, she didn’t actually come to live with me until August, after another short trip to California. Then we were involved in a lot of home remodeling, which sometimes interfered with our training schedule at the kennel. And I was also managing the tough process of easing Ripley out of her role as my service dog. But by December, Rocky had taken over all service dog duties. And despite the fact that we didn’t always make it to class, she was getting a major education in public access, going everywhere with me. She not only accompanied me on the little day-to-day outings (dining out, store runs, doctor appointments, etc.), by the date of her test, she had flown to California and back twice, taken a Greyhound to Albuquerque, and gone on several long car trips. I had no doubts about her ability to be out in the world.

Still, as we headed out for our test yesterday, I was nervous. I’m a perfectionist, and I wanted everything to go just right. Last week, Sabrina and I went to Mesilla Valley Mall and did a practice run, and Rocky was perfectly in sync with me, acing everything. But she sometimes acts differently in front of Jared, because he used to be her trainer, and she’s not sure who to look at – him or me.

We went to the Barnes & Noble at the university campus for the test. First thing on the list, we tested “touch,” and Rocky nailed it, pushing the button to open the front door. Then we went inside to the cafe, and I gave her the command “under” as I sat down at a table. She went underneath and laid down, again right on cue. So far, so good.

We did a few more quick commands downstairs. “Handle and massage” – the dog should be able to be handled, her paws inspected, mouth opened, tail tugged, etc. “Get dressed” – stand at attention while the handler puts on the dog’s service vest, eager and ready to go to work. “Calm” – get the dog excited, then give her a command to go into a calm mode. Again, all no problem. Then, she got to ride the escalator to go upstairs, which she loves. Lots of tail wagging.

I won’t go through the whole test. There are about 35 commands, including long-term (10 minute) sit-stays and down-stays at a distance of 100 feet, a final down-stay that is even longer, and numerous moving commands at heel, with variations such as “hurry,” “easy,” an automatic sit when you stop, etc. There were only two that she hesitated on. Initially, she didn’t respond to “lap,” when I am sitting and she is supposed to put her front feet into my lap – which was crazy, because it’s one of her favorite commands. But I think it was because the chair had arms, and it threw her off. I tried it again on a bench, and she aced it. And we flubbed the “sit,” “come,” ‘stay” using hand signals only, because I hadn’t practiced that; I do use hand signals, but always in conjunction with voice, so we need to work on that.

Jared gave us a pass. Hooray! This by no stretch of the imagination means that the training is over. Ripley and I grew as a handler/service dog team throughout our years together, and it will be the same with me and Rocky. Passing this test means we have our foundation laid; the basic and advanced obedience skills are all there, and Rocky has a firm handle on public access. Now we can move forward with fine tuning behavior, and start teaching her more and more skills to help me directly with my disability.

Yay, Rocky! Rocky the Rock Star!

22Apr

Escalators, Elevators & Automatic Doors

On April 11, in anticipation of Rocky’s first big trip (airplanes!), we headed out for an afternoon training with Jared Latham of American Service Dogs to work on special access skills. Our destination? The Barnes & Noble bookstore at New Mexico State University, because it is the only place in Las Cruces that has an escalator.

We were joined by three other service dog handler teams, plus three other members of the ASD staff, so we made quite an entrance. Barnes & Noble has three things that make it an ideal place to practice for airports: escalators (tall ones!), an elevator, and handicap-access push button doors. It also has a nice, roomy floor plan, so our presence wasn’t intrusive.

Some time ago, before I met Rocky, she had been on an escalator in training with Jared, but that was over nine months ago. I never went on escalators during my years with Ripley, and have always been a little nervous about them; they can be intimidating. If available, I will still always choose an elevator. But here’s the thing: sometimes the escalator is right in front of you, and the elevator is located way in the back of the building. Since fatigue can be a major factor for me now, having the option of using an escalator is a perk. So I was willing to learn.

At first, Rocky balked, and wouldn’t go hear the base of the escalator. But Sabrina had the brilliant idea of boarding ahead of us. As soon as she did that, Rocky stepped right on with me.

After that, there was no stopping her. The two of us went up and down the escalators more than ten round trips. And if a dog can grin – well, she was grinning. Her tail was pumping like a metronome. Rocky was clearly pleased with herself, and jazzed about this new skill and her success. She trotted from one side to the next, to the point I had to slow her down so I could rest.

We broke up the routine by taking the elevator, so sometimes she took the up escalator, rode the elevator down, then took the up escalator up and down, then took the elevator up. Nothing seemed to faze her.

After it was clear this was a done deal, we moved outside to the handicapped access doors. Up to this point, I have only practiced this skill at home, using a fake button on the wall. I held a treat above the button and gave the command: “Rocky, touch!” Bam! She nailed that button with both paws, and the door came open. Whoop! We repeated it several times on the outside door, and then went inside, where the button is different, a smaller rectangular shape at a slightly different height, and bam! She nailed it again!

Rocky, Sabrina and I went home feeling very good about the day. Just to reinforce everything, we returned to Barnes & Noble the next afternoon, and went through all of it one more time on our own, without any other dog/handler teams, or our trainer. Piece of cake. Ready to rock and roll!

 

25Nov

Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal

rocky-2016-11-25-72pxAnybody passing by our house over the last week has heard a lot of what my American Service Dogs trainer Jared Latham calls “the Barbie Doll voice.” Especially when teaching a dog a new skill, it’s critical to get really, really excited when the dog does it right. I not only reward the behavior with a treat, but I get downright silly with praise. And that means switching my voice to a not-everyday high-pitched tone, to differentiate from the usual tone I use to give the commands. Hence, “Barbie Doll.”

And what have we been working on? Something well worth all the squeaking. Rocky is learning how to push a button to activate an automatic door, like the ones they have for handicapped access.

Let’s backtrack, and I’ll walk you through what we’ve been doing. First, the need. When I’m out in public, I usually use a cane. I don’t always need one when I leave the house, but I never know when that may change, as my episodes can come upon me very quickly, leaving me either weak and unsteady, or unable to walk at all. Holding Rocky’s leash in one hand, and a cane in the other makes doors tricky if I am out on my own, plus doors are often heavy. Some doors, like at grocery stores, are operated by sensors, so that’s no problem. But others have handicapped access buttons. The idea is to train Rocky to push those buttons, so that I don’t have to.

How do you train a dog to push a button that’s up on the wall? At American Service Dogs, there is a practice button, so I knew I would work up to this gradually. I watched another client one day, Katie, with her dog, who is quite large. He knew full well how to do it, but wasn’t really in the mood for training. When Katie insisted he go through with the exercise, he finally walked up to it, and slammed it so hard that the button fell off the wall and onto the floor. Then he looked at all of us as if to say, “There. Button pushed. Are you satisfied?” We couldn’t help breaking into laughter.

The basic command you use is “Touch.” Jared started me out on that, showing me how. He knelt in front of Rocky when she was in a sit position, with a treat in one hand, and he cupped his other hand in front of her, low to the ground. He said, “Touch,” trying to get her to put her paw in his hand. When she didn’t, he tickled the bottom of a paw gently with one finger until she placed the paw into his hand, and then rewarded her. After a few tries, she began to respond to the tickle fairly quickly, placing her paw in his hand.

I tried that at home, and within a couple of days, Rocky responded to “Touch” by putting her paw into my hand, with me kneeling in front of her. I then made it a little harder, standing up, so she had to lift her paw higher to get her paw into my hand.

We haven’t been to the kennel in a couple of weeks, and I was feeling guilty about not introducing any new training. I thought, “How can I go to the next step with ‘Touch’ and have Rocky respond to a button?” Well, first I needed a button. After I little brainstorming, I came up with the idea of using a furniture coaster – you know, the round plastic discs you use to slide heavy furniture around easily? It was the right size and shape. I attached it to our glass side entrance door with adhesive velcro strips, and voila! A practice button! (This impressed Sabrina, so I felt pretty pleased with myself.)

Now, how to transition Rocky from touching my hand, to touching the button? Enter Pup Peroni  training treats and “Barbie Doll” voice. For the next several days, I gradually focused Rocky’s attention from my hand to the door, then to the button. I tapped the button, rewarding her just for looking at it. I rewarded her for lifting her paw in the general direction. And finally, she made contact with the glass! Huge squeals on my part! The next day, she actually touched the button, at the end of the training session. And today, on leash, we walked toward the button, with me giving me the command just as we neared the door, and six times in a row, she touched that damn button with her paw. I don’t know who was more excited, Rocky or me. She was wiggling back and forth, so proud of herself. We went inside to brag to Sabrina and talk all about it, and everybody (all the dogs) got cookies.

Then, of course, I realized I needed a picture for this blog post, and hadn’t taken one. So I took her back outside, and asked her to do it again. Tricky – trying to offer the treat, give the command, and hold my cell phone steady to take the photo. She successfully touched the button twice, and I got two shots. It wasn’t until I was back inside that I realized something really interesting: up until this point, every single time Rocky has responded to the “Touch” command, she has used her left paw. Jared had even commented on that first day, “Oh, she’s a lefty.” So what do I see in the best of the two photos, the last one I took? She touched the button with her right paw. Go figure. She’s ambidextrous.

 

22Nov

Kitten Conditioning

hey-dilly-72We have a new member of our household – introducing Dilly Pickle, the rambunctious, fearless, three-legged kitten.

Now, as you may remember, if you’ve been following this blog, Rocky had had no experience with cats prior to moving into our household. On the day we first met Rocky in May, at the American Service Dogs kennel, we brought in Dozer, our most easy-going cat, to see how Rocky would react. We wanted to make sure she would be able to adapt. She seemed curious and eager to play, but with no bad intentions. When she finally came to our house for an overnight visit in August, it became clear that Rocky was a bit more focused on cats than was comfortable. She spent her entire first twenty-four hours skittering around, wanting to lunge after every cat that came into view. (We had four.) Ah, more work needed. So we then brought Bailey, our oldest and grumpiest cat, in to the kennel, and worked with trainer Jared Latham to try to desensitize my dog. Between Bailey’s body language and a squirt bottle, we managed to get the message across that cats were to be left alone. It still took a while for Rocky to calm down completely at home, but eventually she made peace with the cats. Just as with our other two dogs, canine and feline co-habitate without incident.

During all of this time, my wife Sabrina has been fostering kittens for ACTion Programs for Animals (APA). A total of thirty-seven kittens have passed through our house this year, on their way to new homes. Sabrina’s office is kitten central, with two big kitten condos set up, so she can keep two separate litters at a time. She lets them out to play during the day, but only in her office, with the door closed. The great thing is that all of our dogs have been exposed to the little ones, without anyone being in danger. Rocky has had lots of opportunity to be around kittens, in a safe way. It has also let the kittens get used to dogs.

dilly-water-dish-72But Sabrina finally succumbed, and became an official “foster failure” with Dilly Pickle, meaning that with this one kitten, she simply couldn’t give him up. So he’s staying with us. About three months old, he was the runt of the litter, all of them polydactyl (having extra digits – it looks like their paws are mittens!), and Dilly himself is missing more than half of his back left leg – an injury that occurred before APA got him from the shelter.

His first weeks in our house, Dilly was with his litter mates in a kitten condo. But after the others were old enough to be adopted, and we made the decision to keep him, we moved his condo into our bedroom. Kitten season is over, so he is now the only little guy in the house. It took a few days for Sabrina to feel brave enough to let him run around, and at first he was closely guarded. However, it soon became apparent that this little guy has no idea he is disabled. He began climbing up to the top of our cat trees, scrambling up every piece of furniture, leaping off of bureaus. He is fearless. And, having grown up with dogs coming in and out of his room, Dilly thinks they are just one more option for playtime.

I was pretty cautious with Rocky initially. I’m still working on her reaction to rabbits on our walks outside. That prey behavior, which triggers something instinctual. I didn’t want this small creature, running quickly, to spark a bad reaction. But I needn’t have worried. From the beginning, she has been wonderful. She will be half asleep on the bed, and Dilly runs right over her body, and Rocky barely even raises her head. Once Rocky ran from the front door towards the kitten, who was across the room, just to say hi. The kitten was startled, and did a Halloween cat all-fluffed-up-and-hissing greeting. Rocky immediately stopped right in front of him, and lowered her head, as if to apologize. “Sorry, little guy. Didn’t mean to scare you!”

Wagging tails are huge fun, of course. Ripley will eventually give warning snaps, because Dilly has sharp teeth, and he bites down hard on those tails. The warnings are good, as Dilly is beginning to learn some boundaries.

Overall, of the three dogs, I had worried about Rocky the most, because she is the youngest, and has never had a kitten loose in the house. Yet, surprisingly, she has been the best with Pickle. I think Ripley is getting grumpier in her old age. And Malakai doesn’t like having his favorite spot in the bed taken.

So, good girl, Rocky. Because believe me, this will not be the last kitten in the house. You might as well enjoy them.

 

21Oct

Rocky Has Issues Too

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that recently I’ve been using the services of animal communicator Kat Berard. In January she worked with our pit/boxer cross, Malakai. A few weeks ago, she helped out Ripley, trying to ease her transition into retirement.

Well, Rocky, my new service dog, has some issues, too. So why not let her have a chat with Kat to see if we can work some things out?

Mostly it centers around separation anxiety. She wants to be with me all the time. Hey, that’s great, right? She’s my service dog. She should want to be with me all the time! Well, yes, that’s true. I have been working very hard over the last five months to create a bond with Rocky, so she feels strongly connected to me. But I also need her to trust that this is her home, that I will always return to her, and she will not be abandoned.

Here’s a little background. Rocky is from American Service Dogs, which places shelter dogs in service positions. I believe Rocky actually came from a private home, not a shelter – but the fact remains she was given up once, and went to live at a training kennel. At some point, she was assigned to a young boy, and went as far in the training that she went home with him and his family. But the family, because of changes in their lives, decided a service dog was not a good solution for them at that time, and returned Rocky to American Service Dogs. Back to the training kennel, and dealing with a second abandonment.

When Rocky and I first started working together at the kennel, she was slow to bond, showing strong attachment to Jared Latham, the manager and lead trainer at ASD. When she eventually shifted her loyalties to me, she didn’t want me to leave at the end of class; she wanted to go home with me. Once Rocky had her first overnight visit at my house, that was it. She was committed.

I still return to the training facility a couple of times a week for further classes with Rocky. I have to close the dutch door to the training room so Rocky can’t see the main entrance – otherwise she attempts to head toward that escape route at every opportunity. At the end of class, after behaving perfectly, I open the training room door, and she nearly pulls me off my feet racing for the front exit. I can barely restrain her. As soon as our car is in sight, she’s fine. Then she know’s she’s going home.

Here is a more extreme example of her fear. Last month, we took a friend and spent a long afternoon at White Sands National Monument. It was a big outing for Rocky, her longest yet. We came home and fed all three dogs, and my friend Ruth said, “Rocky must be tired. Why don’t we leave her home and let Ripley be the one to go out to dinner with us?” I knew that Rocky adored Malakai, and I, too, felt Rocky was exhausted. I also knew Ripley would love the special time being service dog for the evening, so I agreed. We locked the dogs in the house just to be on the safe side (given Rocky’s recent history as an escape artist).

We were gone about an hour and a half. When we came home, Rocky met me right inside the door, whining, and she started to pee. I quickly opened the door to the dog yard, believing at first she simply had to go to the bathroom. But when I stepped outside, she went into the most submissive position I have ever seen. She got down on her belly in the dirt, and crawled towards me, head lowered. She appeared to be begging my forgiveness for whatever horrible thing she had done which had made me leave her behind. Of course, I should have known better; I had seen her pee in submission/fear before, once or twice at the kennel.

I gave her  as much love and reassurance as I could, and convinced her to come back into the house, but it still took nearly four hours before she would stand up in front of me and behave normally.

Talk about heartbreak. Oh, I so wished I spoke dog that night!

So, we have asked Kat to drop in for a bit this weekend to see what’s up, to reassure Rocky I’m a permanent fixture in her life, to explain that sometimes even service dogs have to be separated from their people for short periods of time, and I’d like her to be able to handle that without having a nervous breakdown. Because that would be helpful. For both of us.

 

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14Aug

Rocky Out on the Town

Rocky and I have now officially been set loose in Las Cruces – watch out! We have advanced to the part of training that focuses on public access, meaning it is time to introduce distractions of all kinds, getting Rocky ready for life out in the real world. But is the world ready for us?

Brief overview of the hard parts: I said “Heel” approximately two thousand times. Working outside means walking in the sun, which means I get tired, and have to use my cane, so in addition to getting frustrated with Rocky when she is so excited that she’s ignoring me (usually because she’s trying to keep up with the other dogs in our group), I get a little cross because my shoulder starts to hurt from the sharp corrections, and it’s difficult to keep up with some of the other dog handlers, who are more able-bodied than I am. And then there’s the attention: When people see service dogs moving in a pack, or going through exercises, they stop to stare, or come up to ask questions, and I get it, really, I do, but that’s just one more thing to deal with when I’m doing my best to stay upright.

Here’s how the day started. Rocky suited up for the first time in her new service vest on Saturday, and seemed to immediately know we were headed out for real work. It’s funny – that’s exactly how Ripley acts. When I put her vest on, she knows she’s on the job. Now, don’t get me wrong. Rocky still had quite a few instances today when she momentarily forget she had the vest on. But when I say, “Get Dressed!” she stands stock still, and lets me buckle the vest onto her. She is ready.

We headed to American Service Dogs to meet up with the rest of the group at 9:30 a.m. There were eight handlers with dogs. After some brief business, we all loaded back into our cars and headed off to the day’s destination: the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces. This huge market, held on Main Street each Saturday from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m., features nearly 300 vendors. Hundreds of adults, children, and dogs come each weekend to stroll, shop, listen to music, and enjoy the New Mexico weather. It’s the perfect place to bring a working dog that needs to learn to ignore distractions.

At the Farmers and Crafts Market

Michelle & Rocky at the Farmers and Crafts Market

First we met on a corner and ran through training basics, things we would be working on at home for the rest of the week. The commands include: “Handle & Massage” (getting a dog used to being touched all over), “Get Dressed” (put on the vest), “Calm” (calming a dog down), “Name” (saying a dog’s name and having them look you in the eye), “Off” (get down off of person or furniture), “Load” (get into vehicle), “Easy” and “Hurry” (varying the pace of a dog), “Place” (sending dog to lie down in a certain area), “Gotcha” (allow someone to grab dog by the collar), then come from 10 feet away, sit/stay at 10 feet and down/stay at ten feet. All of this went great.

Then we were off to walk the market. Really, Rocky did remarkably well. She did not react to any people, didn’t try to pick up food, or go into any of the food vendor stalls, didn’t respond to any of the dozens of pet dogs that were present, not even the two that lashed out at her in snarling, barking frenzies. The only thing she did that made it hard for me was tug at her leash, walking slightly ahead of me instead of staying in a relaxed heel position. And, again, this was mostly because I was with other handler/dog teams who were walking slightly ahead, and she wanted to keep pace. Still, that constant tug can be exhausting. And frustrating.

After an hour at the market, Sabrina, Rocky and I headed back to the truck and home.

But the big day wasn’t over yet. We decided to take Rocky out to dinner! The original plan was to head out to Habanero’s, our favorite Mexican food restaurant in Las Cruces. But for some reason, they were closed. So we went right next door to the best Vietnamese place in town, Pho a Dong. It turned out to be a perfect choice. Even thought it was Saturday, there were only a few other patrons – maybe three tables occupied. We chose a four-top table in the corner, which gave us lots of room and privacy.

Robert, one of the owners, came over immediately to wait on us. He knows us, and has met Ripley before, so was surprised to see Rocky. I told him it was Rocky’s first night out at a restaurant. He turned to her and said, “Well, hello, Ms. Rocky. Thank you for joining us this evening.” Pho a Dong has great food. But Robert is part of the fun of dining here. He is a relentless comedian, who is so quick with the one-liners that it makes your head spin. He broke into a Rocky Balboa mimicry, and started asking my dog about Paulie.

Again, restaurants have their challenges. A dog must stay still for a relatively long period of time. She should not respond to the smell of food by getting up and putting her nose near the table, or by trying to pick up food scraps on the floor. She should be quiet. It’s stimuli, yes, but almost more demanding of the dog when she is out walking; it requires absolute passivity, while still maintaining attention and focus on the handler.

Dinner at Pho a Dong

Dinner at Pho a Dong

I had a feeling that Rocky would ace this one, and she did. She laid at my feet throughout the entire dinner without making a sound. She did not once try to get up, not when our waiter came, not when the food was served, not when the dishes were cleared. The only time she moved was when I asked Robert to take a photo, and I accidentally scooted my chair back slightly. She had been directly underneath the table, and it startled her, and she sat up. So, the photo here shows me with my hand on her head, as she got back down on the floor, behind my chair.

Otherwise, she was a complete rock star. Which has become her new nickname, ‘natch, when things go well. Rocky the Rock Star.

25Jul

Distractions, Distractions – Training on July 19 & 22

Ripley patiently waiting

Ripley patiently waiting

It’s funny – the more I work with Rocky, the more I realize how I have come to take so many things about Ripley for granted. I’ve mentioned before that Rocky is learning how to heel without running into me. Well, she also loves riding in the truck – GOING places! What that means is that she has a tendency to push ahead when a gate or door is opened. At her second home visit, which was last Friday, I wasn’t anticipating it. When I opened our front gate, she bolted through. I dropped my water bottle, wrenched my shoulder, and my cane went crashing to the ground. I had a brief flash of anger, before calming myself with this thought: “OK. Something to work on. Walking through gates and doors.”

Because, you see, I haven’t had to do this for years. Ripley waits calmly at every door, every time. It’s hard to remember those first months, when she was trying my patience. I have to remind myself there is a learning curve. That Ripley, just like Rocky, screwed up in the beginning.

Rocky really does want to please. She wants to do a good job. I’m the one who needs to stay centered, and remember that each lesson must be repeated multiple times in order for her to have success.

Harper-sm

Harper the puppy

Jared, the head trainer, went on vacation last week, so we worked with a different trainer for the first time – Luke Nail. The unofficial theme of the day was distractions. First, we had classmates. Lately, Rocky and I have often been the only team working. But on Tuesday, we were joined by puppy Harper, a squirming little five-month-old bundle of excitement with her two people, and Fling, who we’ve hung out with before. (And I should know the handlers’ names by now, but I still don’t. I’ll learn them!) Fling and Harper worked on their commands, at their levels, while Luke upped the ante a bit for me and Rocky.

We were mostly focusing on sit/stay and down/stay. But instead of just extending either time or distance, Luke added some extra challenges. While I stood at the end of the leash with Rocky in a stay, Luke had me pace back and forth. Then he had me walk past Rocky, until I was behind her, leaving her in the stay. Finally, I gave a “Rocky, come!” command from behind. All of this she executed beautifully.

Fling and her handler

Fling and her handler

Now came the really creative part. Luke asked me to put Rocky in a down/stay, and then walk away and drop the leash while keeping her attention. First he threw a couple Pup-Peroni sticks near her. She didn’t budge. Good dog. Then he grabbed a small plastic bag, and started tossing random things in her vicinity: bolts, glue bottles, other clunky metal pieces. She glanced at them, but didn’t break position. Luke picked up a hat, lofted it through the air, and it landed near her. No startle response. I was impressed. Then he came up behind her, and clapped his hands loudly. Rocky jumped to her feet. Whoops.

Luke said, “OK, that was a fail. Let’s bring her back to a success.” I put her back in down/stay, and we did a couple more dropped objects, then a softer hand clap, which she was good with.

Now, why is this all an important part of training? Let’s say I’m in a restaurant, and my service dog is under the table. My cane is leaning against my chair, and it slips, and crashes to the ground. If my dog startles, she might jump up, and knock against the table hard enough to upset drinks. You get the idea. A dog should be able to respond appropriately. Real danger – react. Loud sounds or nearby objects that are not danger – stay calm.

On Friday, Jared returned from vacation, and we did more movement work. But once again, distraction training entered into the picture. This time, instead of simply having me walk in a circle and ask Rocky to focus on heeling appropriately, Jared stood in the center of the room and tossed out small treats in our path. So as I attempted to keep Rocky’s gaze on me, I also had to check each downward glance towards one of those tempting Pup-Peroni pieces. We were pretty exhausted that night, because we had done cat training earlier in the day, and then had gone home to test our new skills for three hours, before returning to the kennel for the evening’s class. So neither of us were in top form. I have to admit – Rocky ate quite a few of those treats.

We’ll do better next time.

 

23Jul

Bailey the Cat Kicks Some Dog Butt

So what do you do when your service dog in training shows an unhealthy obsession with felines? You enlist one bad-ass cat to show her some manners.

After hearing about our first home visit last week, where Rocky spent the entire time straining at her leash and on tiptoe, cat hunting, trainer Jared Latham at American Service Dogs said, “Bring me a cat.” Well, we have several to choose from. Dozer isn’t a good option, because he simply doesn’t care; too nonchalant. Kenji is equally unfit, because he’s smart enough to freeze; a cat that doesn’t move won’t stimulate enough interest. Little Bit is certainly pissy enough. A little too pissy. Neither one of us wanted to lose a limb in the process. She also has a bad habit of peeing all over you when she’s stressed, and we didn’t really want to add that to the afternoon’s agenda. So Bailey seemed the obvious candidate.

Bailey is the same age as Ripley; well, actually her senior by about two months. She turned eleven in March. So she’s the grande dame in the household. She has always been regal and rather aloof, not much into the whole petting, lap-sitting thing. In fact, she’s not very interested in humans, except for their obvious usefulness as providers of food. There are only two instances where she asks for human touch: one, when you are sitting on the toilet, and she rubs against your legs, asking for head scratches; and two, when you are in bed, and she cuddles against your feet. Be warned, though – if it gets hot, and one has the audacity to stick one’s feet out from under the covers, Bailey does not hesitate to bite your toes for that rude disturbance.

She does, though, like dogs. She was completely enamored of our little Catahoula-cross, Houla, who passed away a few years ago. Now, she is infatuated with Malaki, our pit-boxer cross. She rubs up against him, cuddles with him, loves to groom his face.

New dogs are a different manner. Especially new dogs with no manners, who come charging across the room at her like Rocky did last week.

We arrived at American Service Dogs with Bailey in the cat carrier, and went back to Jared’s office. Rocky, Sabrina, Jared, Bailey and I were all in the small room, ready for cat training. At first, Jared had us leave Bailey in the carrier, and I had Rocky on leash. My job was to walk Rocky around the room and correct her whenever she looked at the carrier. One time Jared used a spray bottle as a correction. After that, it was just me, “AHHT” voice corrections, and leash tugs. Rocky’s eyes kept going back to the carrier, but eventually I managed to convince her this was off limits, and she went into a down/stay right in front of the carrier, eyes averted.

Then we brought the carrier out into the large training room, and practiced walking in circles around the carrier, where I again corrected Rocky each time she strayed towards the cat. This brought up all the initial behavior at first, but after about ten minutes, Rocky began to listen to me, and ignore the cat in the box.

We went back to the small office, for the real test. Jared let Bailey out of the carrier. Of course, as I knew she would, Bailey immediately went under the sofa. Since we wanted her to stay visible, Jared got down on the floor and reached underneath to grab her. Even as he did it, I thought to myself, “Oops. This is not going to end well.” He pulled back his hand suddenly and yelped, “Hey! She bit me!” One of the rules with cats: When they are hiding, do not reach underneath into said hiding place bare-handed to grab. You don’t know what end you are going to get, and they have a much better turning radius than you do. You are going to lose.

When we are trying to flush out a cat, we use either a squirt bottle, or a stick (broom stick, yard stick, etc.) I handed Jared my cane. “Try this.” He swept it underneath the couch, and Bailey popped out the other side, coming up to the top of the couch. Now she remained in our sight, and I was able to work more with Rocky, who was interested (OK, very interested), but managed to stay in her down/stay position with some effort.

Bailey took control at this point. Parading her diva self around the room, she made it very clear that she was in charge, she would not be intimidated, and this dog had better learn some manners. She strolled right past Rocky at one point, and sat just inches away from her.

By the end of the session, I was able to let Rocky off leash, and she walked slowly over to Bailey, without aggression, and gave her friendly, respectful face licks. Just a couple. Then she retreated. No one got clawed or hissed at. No one got chased or terrified. Bailey returned to her carrier with dignity.

A highly successful training session. Whew.

 

18Jul

The Power of “AHHT”

While Ripley and I were in California in June, we spent ten of our eighteen days camping out at my good friend Wendy Dayton’s house. The visit didn’t go quite as planned – Wendy was to be my wheels for the duration (as she often had been before I left California), and we had a list of fun activities on the agenda. But the night before I flew out of New Mexico, she texted me at about 10 p.m. – “Houston, we have a problem.” She was at the emergency room, waiting to have x-rays of her foot. While dusting cobwebs out of the spare bedroom (where I was to stay), she had stepped down off of a bed, fallen, twisted her ankle – and, yes in deedy, broken a bone in her foot. Oops. The right foot, of course, which meant she couldn’t drive.

So, after frantic rearranging (figuring out an airporter bus, how to get to her house, etc., etc.), I did safely arrive at Wendy central, to find her in her very stylish big boot. Here I was, the friend who could be so helpful. She is a single woman living alone with three dogs who is suddenly stranded for six weeks. I am the house guest with one more dog, who can’t drive either. Aren’t we a party waiting to happen? Our plans needed to be altered; somehow we managed, thanks to Uber, the goodwill of friends, former paid drivers of mine, and pizza delivery.  And, of course, a sense of humor.

But, I did find myself with quite a bit of time alone at the house, while Wendy was off at work during the day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (thankfully transported to and from by friends). And home meant home with four dogs.

Shanti

Shanti

Shanti is Ripley’s age; they’ve known each other forever, with many shared visits to the dog park over the years. She’s white and black, sleek and fast, despite her advancing years, and loves to chase balls. Although completely sweet, she still, when excited (such as when you first walk in the door), jumps up on people. Ruby, the little white moppet, is only about four, and thinks she rules the roost. Mostly this shows up when the other dogs try to play, and she attempts to stir up trouble by getting in the middle. Titus is the youngest, a brown and white complete hooligan, lovable but with quite a few bad habits, which include barking at all who go by the house, barking when anyone is talking on the phone, barking in general, chasing all cleaning implements (while barking), and jumping up on the back of people’s legs repeatedly. And, all three of them love to rush out to the back yard to bark, whenever that opportunity arises.

When we would come in the front door, we would be greeted by a cacophony of barking, and Wendy would have to use the door and her legs to push the dogs back in order to enter. We didn’t even try with the pizza delivery guy. Wendy put the money outside with an envelope, and a note to leave the pizza on the porch. It would have been utter chaos otherwise. At one point, a neighbor came by to speak to Wendy about repairing a fence, and the poor man was drowned in barking, until Wendy was finally able to push her way through the dog body mass to get outside to find out what he wanted.

With all of this going on, there were a number of times when Ripley just left the living room and went into the guest room to lie down. She needed a break.

Titus

Titus

Let me stress: These are not bad dogs. They are all wonderful dogs.  They simply have some not so desirable habits. And since I had nothing better to do, I thought, why not try out some of the dog training techniques I have been learning?

So, while Wendy was at work, I began with the very basic command that Jared Latham of American Service Dogs had taught me for correction: “AHHT!” It’s a stern, guttural correction that gets a dog’s attention. You say it, then follow it with whatever your command is. When the dog responds, then you give praise. Every time Titus barked, I barked right back. “AHHT!” He startled. And stopped barking. Immediately. If Shanti jumped on me, I said, “AHHT! Off!” Then I ignored her until she came up to me respectfully. When Titus jumped on the back of my legs, I raised my leg up backwards, pushing him off, and said, “AHHT! Off!” When Ruby went running right into everybody’s business, I said, “AHHT!” There was a lot of “AHHT”-ing going on those first few days. But it worked. Miraculously.

After four days, I left the house with a friend, who came to pick me up for coffee. When I returned, I put the key in the lock, opened the door…and was greeted by three silent dogs, tails wagging. Not a single bark.

I’m no dog whisperer. But this stuff works.

13Jul

How Slow Can You Go? Training Day 9 & A Bit About Jared Latham

(I am finally caught up! Well, practically. This post is for last night’s training session. From here on out, we’ll be in REAL TIME!)

Training Day 9

As 6 p.m. approached, time for our training session at American Service Dogs, I almost called to cancel. I was feeling that rotten. But then I thought, no, that doesn’t make sense. Rocky needs to see me when I’m at my best – and at my worst. Because that’s what she is going to have to learn how to do; read my body language, and know what I need from her. I can’t teach that if I only show up on good days. So Ripley, Sabrina and I got into the truck and headed out.

Jared Latham, our trainer, could tell right away I wasn’t at the top of my game. But he said, “That’s OK. We’ll go ahead with the movement work, and just take it at your pace. Let me know when you need to rest.” He also said it would be good for Rocky, because she would have to learn to adjust her pace to mine.

I began to walk around the room in a circle, as I had done two days before, this time using my cane. I was feeling very weak, so I was walking incredibly slowly. It was like watching super slo-mo, a grandma shuffle. Rocky was at heel on my left. At first, she had no idea what to do. The pace was so much slower than what we had used on Tuesday that she was completely thrown off. She couldn’t tell what her role was. I would take a step, and she would sit down before I took my next step. So she was bopping up and down between a step and a sit, in between my shuffles. Then she did downward dog stretches between a couple of my steps. After that, once or twice she simply laid down, waiting for me to catch up.

Jared told me to keep giving her the command “Easy,” reminding Rocky to hold back, stay in step with me. At the beginning, we were the only ones in class. But then the little shepherd Fling arrived, with her handler. They stepped into the center of the circle, and started working on basic commands.

We interspersed our glacial walking with right circles, left circles, and U-turns, and occasional sit/stays and down/stays. Gradually, Rocky fell into step with me, got into rhythm. Now her biggest problem was when our circle passed one of the other dogs in the room – Ripley or Fling. Rocky likes dogs. She’s social. She wants to veer out, say hi. Jared helped me to do small corrections, keeping Rocky’s focus on me, adjusting her attention, while at the same time keeping her pace at my pace.

I would like to say at this point how much I appreciate Jared, and how much I am learning from him. That’s Jared, the photo up top. I hope at a later date to interview  him to find out more details about his background. For now, I can tell you he received his initial dog training from his service in the Army, where he worked with bomb dogs. He left the service because a bomb went off too close to him, and he has TBI (traumatic brain injury). It affects  his short-term memory (among other things), and he compensates by keeping everything written down, logged, relying heavily on his iPhone, iMac, etc. (He’s a Mac guy, through and through.) The Army used to be very focused on more punitive dog training: choke collars, adverse conditioning. But they learned in more recent years that wasn’t so effective, and have moved towards more positive reinforcement. In addition to training service dogs, Jared helps many people in Las Cruces deal with aggressive dogs. He uses that combination: strictness when necessary, lots of rewards and praise when that is enough.

As I work with Rocky, Jared often walks quietly along beside me, and at just the right moment, tells me when I can give a slight corrective tug to the leash, or reminds me to give a verbal command, so Rocky knows what is coming next. He also acknowledges the times I have done something correctly, noticing when I catch Rocky just before she breaks out of her sit during a stay, or starts to wander, which reinforces my self confidence. I feel as if every day I am adding tools to my kit, building my knowledge base.

 

One last thing about this night: When I arrive, Rocky almost always runs to greet us. But it is usually Ripley she goes to initially, not me. She loves other dogs, and has included Ripley in her circle of friends. Then she’ll turn to me and say hi. At the end of training on Tuesday, though, something different happened. I was exhausted. Laurie, the kennel helper, asked if I was done, and I said yes, and handed her Rocky’s leash. Laurie turned, and she and Rocky walked all the way to the door of the training room.

Then Rocky spun around, and ran to the end of her leash to come back to me. As if she wanted to say goodbye. My heart melted on the spot.

 

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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