(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.