Jared Latham

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.

4Jun

First Day of Training & Kisses for Ripley

It’s real! Rocky and I have started our official relationship, embarking on the first of ten sessions of basic obedience classes at American Service Dogs. OK, I should be clear here – it’s not Rocky that needs obedience training – it’s me. Rocky has already completed all of this work, and has even gone through most of the basic service dog training. I’m in catch-up mode. What needs to happen are two things: I must learn how she has been trained, so I can give the appropriate commands and signals she is used to, and we have to get used to each other, since at this point, we are for all intents and purposes strangers.

Two good students

Two good students

For the sake of convenience, from here on out I will refer to American Service Dogs as ASD, because I’ll be talking about the organization a lot, and three keystrokes is easier than nineteen. ASD offers classes in the morning and evening  Tuesday through Friday, and in the morning on Saturday. You can sign up whenever it is convenient for you, and clients’ needs are met wherever they happen to be in the training process. What that means is that you never know who will be around on any given day. So for our first class, it happened to be just us – me and Rocky in the class with kennel master and lead trainer Jared Latham, and my wife Sabrina and soon-to-be-retired service dog Ripley on the sidelines.

This was both great (tons of individual attention) and not so great (tons of individual attention). I loved having the opportunity to get all of that one-on-one time, but I also felt as if I was under a big spotlight, and it was hard not to feel self-conscious.

We worked on the very basics: sit; sit/stay (working up to this through a four-step process, with tight leash stays, tight leash/loose leash stays, loose leash stays, and then stepping just in front of the dog for a brief stay); name with focused attention (calling the dog’s name when in sit, then rewarding her when she makes eye contact with you); and down. The hardest part about all of it was that as we went through the exercises, Rocky would, by default, look to Jared in between each set. She tended to walk towards him, make eye contact with him. She simply wasn’t focusing on me.

Since the only other canine in the room was Ripley, Jared used her as an example dog. She was lying patiently, for the most part, on her blanket next to Sabrina. Jared would pick up her leash, and do a demonstration of each new exercise. Ripley seemed completely confused by all of this, with a look of “Who is this man asking me to perform commands?” She did, however, perform them, and gladly took the treats offered. A couple of times, she left her blanket, and wandered out onto the floor to come after me. I told her to return, and she did. However, it was clear she thought it all highly irregular.

As I was trying to execute commands with Rocky, I became more and more aware that it has been ages since I have regularly used crisp, clear commands with Ripley. Yes, occasionally commands are called for. Sometimes I have to say, “Ripley, leave it!” or “Ripley, stay.” But most of the time, I embed my commands in sentences. I talk to her like she has a much greater understanding of the English language. “Ripley, let’s go get the mail.” “Ripley, fall back. Too narrow,” when I’m pushing a shopping cart, and we come to a tight squeeze. “Ripley, turn left here.” “Ripley, wait. I’ll be right back.” The thing is, she does whatever I request. The only way I can explain it is that she and I have been together so long; it’s a combination of her picking out certain words, reading my body language, and simply knowing what needs to be done next.

Rocky & Michelle-72

Rocky and Michelle

Working with Rocky is making me hyper-aware that I need to pay attention to what I am saying and doing. Four steps – Rocky’s name, the command, the praise and (sometimes) treat, and then the release. New habits, so she knows what the hell I want from her.

And getting over the self-consciousness, because this is about me and Rocky. Who else am I trying to impress?

Oh – and best part of the class? At the end, Rocky came over to say hi to Ripley, and gave her several sweet kisses. This is all going to work out.

22May

Service Dog In Training: Rocky Meets Dozer, Our Cat

Rocky, the two-year-old female who will most likely be my next service dog, had a big week. She not only met me, Ripley, and my wife Sabrina – she also met, we’re pretty sure, her very first cat.

Rocky is, by our best guess, a Belgian Shepherd Malinois mix. We went to see her on Tuesday for the first time – we being Ripley, me and Sabrina. I knew that Ripley would be fine. As long as the other dog is not aggressive in any way, we never have any issues. Ripley gets along with everybody. She did a little meet and greet, and then that was it. No big deal. Rocky was very friendly with me, approaching repeatedly, and generous with gentle kisses. It was nice to have kisses. She has a soft mouth, and a fairly submissive demeanor. I got no hit that she would try to be the alpha in the household, which is good.

We decided to come back the next day with Malaki, our pit cross, since he can be somewhat nervous with new additions to the family. We also had no idea if Rocky had ever encountered a cat, and because we have four cats at home of our own, plus a roomful of kittens who Sabrina is fostering for a local rescue program, we wanted to ensure that any potential service dog didn’t have major cat issues.

So, on Wednesday we loaded up our truck again, this time with Ripley, Malaki, and Dozer. Dozer is our most mellow cat. Part Siamese, he’s the kind of guy you can toss in the air and catch on the way down, a cat you can literally flip over on his back on the bed to rub his belly, and he purrs all the way through it. We figured if anybody could handle the situation, it would be Dozer.

Malaki tested first. We kept him on a leash, with Rocky and Ripley loose in the room, along with about five people. Malaki was alert but OK –  until Rocky came up and licked his nose. Then Malaki growled and snapped. Rocky immediately backed up, then kept her distance. As Jared Latham, head trainer at American Service Dogs said, “Well, now we know what Malaki doesn’t like. That’s the only way dogs have to communicate. It may not be the best way, always, but it’s the only way they have.” We let the dogs be in each other’s presence a while longer, and it was clear from that point that it was going to be a workable situation. Malaki established a boundary, Rocky respected it, and that was that.

Rocky fascinated by Dozer

Rocky fascinated by Dozer

Now for that cat. Rocky hadn’t noticed Dozer at first. Jared brought her over to the crate that Dozer was in, on the floor. Whoa! Immediate interest! As you can see in the photographs, Rocky was intensely fascinated with the cat. She stretched out on the floor and just stared at him. Dozer couldn’t care less. He was completely unintimidated. He’s grown up around dogs, and has no fear. So they touched noses through the door, and had a good sniff. We opened the crate door – and Rocky tried to crawl inside with Dozer! It was hysterical. There was no maliciousness; she just wanted in there to see what the heck was going on. Jared pulled her back out, and we allowed space for Dozer to exit.

As we all watched, Dozer nonchalantly began to walk the perimeter of the room. Rocky did a GI Jane crouch-crawl, in pursuit. As Dozer made a little headway, Rocky sprang up and trotted after. She began to bounce up and down, complete play behavior, an invitation: “Come on! Let’s go!” Dozer ignored her, and kept walking around the room. He went to the opposite corner, and jumped on top of some wire kennels, and Rocky nearly died of excitement. This was fun! Then Dozer disappeared behind the couch. The dog ran all the way behind the couch, and found no cat. That was simply too much for Rocky. A game of hide-and-seek where the cat actually vanished? She became a bit obsessed, and had to be escorted from the room. Jared and Sabrina had to tip the couch over to find Dozer, who had gone inside – it was a sofa bed, it turned out, so had a “secret” compartment. Still, Dozer was completely unruffled, and walked calmly back to his crate.

We’re thinking we should have brought Bailey, who maybe would have taken a swat at Rocky, and given her more of a sense of real cat behavior. She’ll learn.

 

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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