Jared Latham

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.

 

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.

 

9Jul

Training Days 5 & 6 – Getting Reacquainted

As much as I had been looking forward to my three-week trip to California, I also felt reluctant to go. It seemed I was just starting to make a connection with Rocky, and then I left. Would I have to start all over again?

My first day back with her was on June 28. We were joined in class by the big Mastiff, Danu, and a new little herding dog named Fling, there for her first day of class. (It’s funny; training is just like going to a dog park. I’m learning the names of all the dogs, but not, so far, the names of the handlers. It’s impossible not to learn the dog names, as every command starts with the name: “Fling, sit.” “Danu, stay.” “Rocky, come.” You get the picture.

We started off as always with sits, the most basic command, then worked on sit/stays and down/stays, now up to 10 seconds. Danu was having a “I don’t really want to pay attention to my handler” day, so Jared, our trainer, was assisting with some stern corrections. Add that to the fact that Rocky looked at Jared the entire time we were in the room, and I was getting a little frustrated. It was as if I wasn’t even at the other end of the leash.

However, I knew this was mostly because I had been away, and she  hadn’t seen me. It was a case of “Who are you again?” On top of that, I was feeling a bit “whooshy,” which is my short-hand way of saying I was weak and kind of on the edge of having a paralysis attack – which I did not want to happen. (Not that my preferences have ever mattered in the least.) To make matters worse, I had forgotten both my cane and my bottle of water.

As we moved on to other commands, Jared had me take Rocky into the adjoining training room, so there would be fewer distractions. I worked on straight line heels, where I say, “Heel,” lead off with the left foot, step one step, then stop, and Rocky is supposed to sit at my side. We also practiced “Comes,” where I stand in front of her, step back to the end of a loose leash with her in a sit position, say her name to get her attention, and BEFORE she moves, say, “Come,” and she is supposed to come and sit at my feet. Rocky was doing great on these two exercises – except every time Jared would poke his head in the room, she would do her “sit” backwards, facing him instead of me. Gaw!

Finally, it was the end of class, and we returned to the main room for our last exercise, the extended down/stay, where we stand next to our dogs for about 10 minutes. Sabrina looked at me and said, “Are you OK? Do you need a chair?””  I mumbled, “I’m fine.” The woman working with Fling said, “Are you just saying that?” To which I had to honestly answer, “Uh, yeah,” as I started to wobble. The kennel assistant, Laurie, and Sabrina both grabbed a chair and brought it to me. I guess it’s not as easy to hide what’s going on as I sometimes think.

On July 1, I returned to training, and Jared asked right away how I was doing. I happily reported I was feeling stronger. I found we were working with Fling again. Her handler immediately said, “You look better today!”

We increased our time on sit/stays and down/stays to one minute, and again worked on name/come commands and straight line heels. By the end of the class, I felt I had made that connection again, and Rocky was working beautifully with me. Jared said he would keep us in the Obedience One group for another week or two, then bump us up to Obedience Two. That means we’ll start moving out into the world, beginning our access training, getting used to people, elevators, electronic doors, cars – all those things a dog is not exposed to when training in a kennel.

Even more importantly, Rocky will start coming home with me soon, first for overnight visits, then longer stays, and eventually for good.

Blanket Buddies-smOne of my favorite parts about these nights is this – whenever we enter the training room, Rocky runs up to give Ripley a nose kiss. Usually during the training session, I don’t use treats as a reward, except at the very end for new tasks. This drives Ripley crazy, because she is so food oriented. Why is that other dog getting little cookies? So as soon as we finish, I walk Rocky over to where Ripley is sitting, next to Sabrina, and give Ripley the “down” command, then reward her with a treat. Rocky always lies down, too, right next to Ripley. Double treat. That’s the way the evening ends – Rocky and Ripley side by side on Ripley’s blanket, with Rocky’s tail wagging madly.

**If you are enjoying these posts about the adventures of Rocky and Ripley, I have a favor to ask of you. Please click on the Calendar/Date icon on the top of the page to open this individual post. Once you have done that, a number of options will appear at the bottom of the page. You can “like” the post, add a comment, check the box below the comment box that says, “Notify me of new posts by email,” or share this post with others via your favorite social media outlet – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, or email. Thanks so much for reading, and dog kisses from Rocky and Ripley!

5Jul

Playing with Rocky & Training Day Four

(Still catching up – this is from June 7, the last session we had before Ripley and I went on vacation!)

Through a misunderstanding, I arrived at class an hour early. It turned out to be a serendipitous mistake, as it allowed me to spend sixty minutes in a back room simply hanging out with Rocky, grooming her, stroking her, and playing; in other words, bonding in a way we haven’t been able to so far.

I sat on the floor, with my legs apart in a vee. She would wander across the room, sniffing around.  I called her name, and she would come running, landing in a heap in my lap, or sliding full body between my legs. Then she would just lie there, head over my thigh, luxuriating in the attention. She will blossom in our home, I am sure of it. She is so ready to be with a primary handler, away from the kennel.

New Team-72

Michelle & Rocky

Ripley was a bit confused by me paying attention to Rocky, not sure what her role was. She wandered over periodically, checking in. I completely understand that she is trying to sort this out. Who is this interloper, taking up space in my lap? But there was no hostility or aggression. I tried to include her as much as I could, and she had her blanket, her “safe space,” to return to, when Rocky and I were involved with each other. Sabrina was also there to help out.

There was a poodle in a kennel in the same room who barked much of the time which was annoying and gave Sabrina a headache so that wasn’t great, but otherwise – the hour was very good. Only one incident. Rocky kept licking one foot. She let me look at her other feet, was very good about letting me touch her body all over. But when I tried to examine the troublesome toe, at first she was OK, but then she got squirrelly, and wouldn’t let me see. Jared, the trainer, came into the room towards the end of the hour, and I asked him about it. He called Rocky over to the couch, and commanded her to give him the foot. She did. He looked at it, and said it was just a scab. But then I noticed she had peed on the floor. Clearly there are some fear issues here. She will do what he tells her to, but only because, at times, he demands it. Jared is a good trainer; but our styles are different. He sometimes uses a stronger approach than I feel is necessary, and I can tell already that Rocky is as sensitive as Ripley is. Strong is not needed. She will respond to a much lighter approach. One more reason that it will be good for us to have her out of the kennel soon, and in our home, so that I am her primary handler.

I had to use to the bathroom before class, and I had Rocky, so I told Sabrina to take Ripley. That was weird for all concerned – for me, to be in a bathroom with another dog, and for Ripley, to let me disappear from her sight. Even in these smallest of things, there are going to be big adjustments for all of us.

For our training session, we had two other female classmates, one with a big galoot of a Mastiff, and the other with a young mixed breed, lean but taller than Rocky. From the get-go, it was a difficult night. The Mastiff wasn’t cooperating, so Jared once or  twice got his attention with a squirt of canned air, each time scaring the bejesus out of Rocky. After the first blast, Rocky kept trying to avoid Jared, and leave the room, which meant each time one of our exercises landed us near the doorway, she pulled in that direction.

Jared was still trying to help the woman with the Mastiff, using verbal corrections, and they tended to be in the middle of the room. So everywhere Rocky and I went, we ran into them, with Rocky shying away. To make matters worse, there was a new kennel helper who was watching the class, and she was doing things such as praising Rocky when she executed a command correctly, or offering suggestions, talking to me, saying, “Jared told me that….”

I was trying to pay attention to Rocky, knowing full well what was going on and what I needed to do, and trying desperately to get Rocky to focus on me. Argh!  By the end of the class, Rocky finally did some really great, attentive “comes.” Jared was talking to me, as I listened out of the corner of my ear, saying, “Yes, good, big praise for that one.” At the the same moment, the kennel helper said, “Good girl, Rocky!” I had reached my limit. I turned to her and said, “It would be very helpful if you didn’t praise my dog when I am working with her.” She immediately apologized, and stopped her interruptions.

After class, we spoke briefly, and I asked her name, said I hadn’t meant to be rude. She said Rocky is her favorite in the kennel, assured me she understood. I also spoke to Jared privately, said, ” I hope you didn’t mind; I had to say that.” He just smiled, said, “She’s new. She’ll learn. It was a hard day.”

And it was a hard day. But I left feeling hopeful, because Rocky and I had connected so strongly in play, and we had also persevered through the tough training situation, and had still managed to work as a team.

17Jun

Training Day Three – Breakthrough

I had a bit of an epiphany before arriving at our next day of training. Because the training room has fluorescent lights, I have been wearing a special pair of tinted glasses over my regular glasses, designed to protect my eyes – one of the triggers for my episodes of paralysis is fluorescent lights. I realized, though, that one of the problems I seemed to be having was keeping Rocky’s attention, getting her to make eye contact. What if it was the glasses? What if she couldn’t “find” me behind those two pairs of lenses?

So for our third day of training, I decided to risk the lights, and shuck the tinted glasses. Once again, Rocky and I were the solo team working with Jared Latham, head trainer, with Sabrina and Ripley looking on from the sidelines.

Up to this point, Rocky has spent half the class looking at Jared. I have felt like a poor second, someone she is tolerating at the other end of the leash. But on this day, everything changed. We clicked. For the entire hour that we worked together, Rocky listened to my voice. She looked up at me at the end of every command. We were a team.

We learned the four part correction sequence. Give a command. “Rocky, sit.” If she fails to respond, give a voice correction and repeat the command. “AHHT! Sit.” If she still fails to respond, give a leash correction, along with the voice correction and command. This means I am holding the leash loosely, so I now give a brief tug on the leash in the direction of the position I am asking for, and say, “Rocky, AHHT! Sit.” If even this fails to give the desired result, I move to the final step, which is to use my hand to place my dog in the correction position (using as little contact as possible), with the dog’s name and command. And always, after the dog has done what I have asked, respond with verbal and physical praise.

Rocky sits

Rocky sits

Rocky, for the most. part, does not need correction. She knows all the commands, and knows how to follow them. The only reason she ever needs correction is because she gets bored; as in, “Really, do I have to do this again? I’d rather lie down now. I’m tired of sitting.” So that gave me a chance to practice the sequence, at least up to step three. Step four was never needed. After a few times of practice, the steps feel useful and practical. There is no manhandling, no jerking or tugging. Just clear, precise directions in those moments when my dog is not paying attention, and I need to bring her focus back to task.

After the class, we had another breakthrough moment. Sabrina asked Jared about Malaki, our other dog, who tends to pull on the leash. Malaki can also be an escape artist; he has slipped out of a regular collar, so for a while, we used a harness. They discussed different types of collars, and Jared said one possibility was to combine a choke collar with a regular collar, in a manner which keeps the dog secure, without causing choking. He picked up a nearby choke collar and slipped it over Rocky’s head to demonstrate how the leash clips in.

As Jared went to remove the collar, it caught on Rocky’s ears, and she cried out. He stopped, and tried again. She shrieked in pain, and it was clear that the collar was too tight, catching as it came over her head. Jared released the collar, and I realized he was going to wait until we left to deal with it.

I didn’t want go knowing that my dog was in this situation. I got on the floor with Rocky, my knees on either side of her chest, and took the collar in my hands. Jared got down as well, to hold her; I believe he thought she might bite or snap out of fear. Gently, very gently, I brought it up on one side first, and worked it to the edge of one ear, lying the ear flat and then pushing it through until that side was free. Then I repeated the movements on the opposite side, and the chain slipped off over her head and nose into my hands. Rocky moved forward into my chest, and licked my hands and face.

It wasn’t planned; it was only a few seconds. But in that moment, Rocky learned she can trust me. And that’s going to take us a long way.

15Jun

Training Day Two – Classmates

(Note: Rocky and I have actually completed four days of training, and Ripley and I are in California right now on a writing retreat and visiting friends until June 26. I’m playing catch-up with blog posts, since somehow I fell behind, and there’s so much tell you!)

After our initial day of training, Rocky and I stepped into a much different arena for day two, as we were joined by classmates – two Rottweilers, one a seven-month-old wiggler, and the other full grown but still young. The young Rottweiler was working with a woman, and the older dog was being trained by a man.

We worked in the front training area, which isn’t very large. The first challenge was simply trying to stay in our own space and out of each other’s way. The second was trying to deal with the cacophony of commands. The man used a very large voice for all of his communication with his dog, and it was a bit like listening to a drill sergeant commanding an entire unit. Since my style is much softer, trying to create the cocoon in which Rocky and I could work proved somewhat difficult. But, I had to keep reminding myself, sometimes she will be in a situation with a lot of background noise, and she will still need to be able to shut that out and respond to me. So it’s actually a good thing to practice in all kinds of environments.

Rocky did well, and with the others in the class, I had less self-consciousness about giving commands, praising, and taking the beginning steps in this new relationship.

American Service Dogs sign

American Service Dogs sign

One of the things that we practiced this time that is very new for me is the use of the command “AAHT!” instead of “No!” Here’s the thinking behind this one, from kennel master Jared Latham. If you use the word “No,” dogs learn the word quickly as an indication of bad behavior, and your displeasure. The problem comes if you also use the word “no” in regular conversation. Let’s say you and your spouse are trying to decide where to go for dinner. “Do you want to have Thai food?” “No, not Thai food again! How about Chinese?” “Ack. No, no, no. You know they use MSG and I always get a migraine. What about Mexican?” So the dog is sitting there, hearing this chorus of  “no,” wondering what in the world is going on. She either thinks she has done something wrong, or she begins to tunes it out, as the word slowly loses its impact.

Instead, I am learning to say the word “AAHT!” It is said in a short, clipped, slightly gruff tone, when a dog does not do as she is told. Rocky has already been trained to respond to this command, and when I use it, I am amazed at the reaction – immediate attention. Jared said the sound itself is similar to the low growl that a mother dog makes to check the behavior of a pup. (I have to tell you that later, after returning home, I tried it out on Malaki, our other dog. Sometimes when I let him out in the backyard at night for one more run before bed, he doesn’t come in at the first call. I realize it’s partially my fault. I say, “Malaki, come. Come, Malaki. Come. Come one, you. Hey, buddy.” Etc. I end up sounding as if I am negotiating, almost pleading. That night, I said, “Malaki, come.” He didn’t come. I called out, “AAHT, come!” And he came tearing around the corner to the door. Impressive.)

One more thing from tonight’s training. Ripley, as usual, was on the sidelines watching from her blanket. Jared used her as the “demo dog” for several things that we worked on tonight. She was somewhat reluctant to come to him each time, still looking at him with that, “Who the heck are you, and why are you asking me to do these things?” expression. But he was so sweet with her. As he leaned down to coax her over, he said, “Come on, mamacita.” It made my chest ache, hearing those words from him. My sweet mamacita.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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