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.
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.
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.