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.
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.
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.