Training Day

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!

 

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.

 

12Jul

New Challenges for Training Days 7 & 8: My Cane and Movement Work

This past week, on July 5 and 7, we upped the ante a bit in my work with Rocky. Part of it was planned, and part of it happened because of my own body.

Let’s talk about the body part first, since that was the first to occur. On Tuesday, when I came to class, I wasn’t doing too well. We’ve had a run of quite a few days now with heat over 100 degrees, and extreme temperatures are one of the triggers for my episodes. I don’t always have full-on paralysis attacks. Sometimes what happens with prolonged exposure to triggers is that I have overall body weakness. I just get wobbly. I have a hard time walking in a straight line, and I need to rest a lot. When that is going on for me, I use a cane to help with balance and support. So on Tuesday, I used my cane in class with Rocky for the first time.

Ripley is, of course, very used to my cane, since I use it almost every time we go out on errands. I bring it as a precaution, because even if I feel strong at the outset of a trip, something might come up while we’re in the middle of a store (fluorescent lights are a trigger) or while eating in a restaurant (certain foods are triggers, and I never know when they will affect me), and then I need support to be able to walk back out of the building.  Or any number of other things. You get the idea.

But Rocky had never seen the cane before during training, so I wasn’t sure how she would react. We used to have a little dog named Houla, and she was first adopted from a shelter to be a companion dog for Sabrina’s dad. He was elderly and used a cane. And it turned out she was terrified of canes, for some reason – something from her earlier life. So Sabrina ended up with Houla instead. Since Rocky is also a rescue dog, we really had no idea how she would react.

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Rocky acted as if the cane had been there all along. We went through a usual class with no problems. In fact, the only issue we had at all that day was towards the end of the class, when we were working on straight line heels. With this command, I was supposed to give Rocky a heel command, walk three steps, then stop, and she was to sit at my side without being told. Initially she was doing great. Then she began doing all her sits backwards – facing Jared, the trainer!

I scolded her and said, “Ignore him. He’s not important.” He laughed and said, “I know, they all do this. They only pay attention to me, and then later they shift all their attention to their handlers, and forget all about me.”

On Thursday, I returned, thankfully with a bit more pep, and Jared said it was time to advance to movement work. Up to this point, most of the training has been incremental; give a command, stop, next command. That’s important in the beginning, but Rocky has all of this down pat, and she is starting to get bored. Now it was time to put it all together into movement, so I spent almost the entire hour of training walking with Rocky heeling at my side.

We walked in a circle around the training room, and Jared gave me these commands: circle right (turn in a tight circle towards the right and then keep walking in the same direction), circle left, and (drat! can’t remember the exact command! but — ) turn 180 degrees right and begin walking the opposite direction, or turn 180 degrees left and begin walking the opposite direction. Each time Jared gave one of these commands, I would say, “Rocky, heel.” At first, she bumped into me when I turned. But as the class progressed, she began to watch me, and pay attention to which way I was about to turn. Remember when I said in a previous post that Ripley never runs into me, no matter how erratically I walk? That’s what this is teaching. Training Rocky to look at me, focus on what I am doing, so when I change direction, she changes direction, too.

Throughout these exercises, Jared would occasionally call out another command, such as “Sit” or “Down/Stay.” And wherever we were, we would execute that command. Then we would continue with the circle heeling exercise.

Imagine that you’re in the grocery store, walking down an aisle, and you think, “Oh. Right! I need milk, too.” And you suddenly make a U-turn, to go back to another aisle. Or you walk into a restaurant, and find that there is a crowd of people, and you have to make an abrupt stop, and wait for a table. Your service dog needs to be able to react as quickly as you do, turning, stopping, sitting, waiting, then starting up again, without running into you or anyone else, without getting her leash tangled up, always paying attention.

What was fun was seeing the progress – watching Rocky rise to the challenge, listen to my voice, catch my minor corrections, and by the end of the night, become focused on me with her full attention.

We celebrated by collapsing on the floor when we were finished for a well-deserved selfie session, followed by kisses for Sabrina and Ripley.

Good dog.

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.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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