FROM RESCUE DOG TO SERVICE DOG
TRAINING FROM OCTOBER, 2012 TO NOVEMBER 2013
I received a call from a lady, in a nearby city, inquiring about training a dog for service. I asked what services she wanted this dog to perform and she told me, “I have dwarfism and it would be helpful if the dog could lay under my feet.” I thought, “A dog for an ottoman?” “Do you have a dog yet?” I thought that was important. She had three dogs, all of which were special needs. This wonderful couple made it their practice to adopt dogs no one else would want. But for a Service Dog she needed a dog with all four legs, good hearing, and healthy eyes. None of her present dogs had all of those. I did not hear back from the lady, Amy, and I thought my requirements and expectations were too high. Then came another call, “I have a dog. Will you evaluate him to see if he will work?” We set a time and they drove to my city and my home. They opened the hatch of their car and there was the goofiest looking, ill-mannered Lab mix, with a grin on his face saying, “Here I am!” This adolescent dog was everything adolescent implies. This dog was anything but bashful, and was everything un-socialized. “What do you think?” Amy anxiously asked. “Give me three minutes with him and I will tell you.” This dog certainly appeared to be a project. But he showed me he had promise and I agreed that I would work with him. I explained that this was not an inexpensive program and that at some point we may rule him out and need to find another dog. We agreed. I told Amy and her husband I have two rules for this to work.
1. They would only take their raining counsel from me. They were to ignore TV, books, or another trainer. No Cesar, no training books. Just me.
2. This has got to be fun. No rushing, no frustration, if we want Max to not be stressed, we could not be. If it is not fun for the dog, it is not fun.
With those two understandings we would begin.
I gaged Max’s training according to Amy’s need. With dwarfism Amy had increasing trouble navigating stairs, inclines, and slippery surfaces. Amy’s shoulders functioned with difficulty, and her knees and hips made a more than three or four steps impossible. Where Amy worked she had to walk all the way around the building to a ramp to enter. Being four feet tall shopping and shopping carts were avoided. Wow! Not only would Max have to fit in the Service Dog role, he was going to have a lot of needs to be attentive to. Not only would he have to perform his tasks perfectly, but he would have to anticipate Amy’s needs in every situation. He could not see a squirrel and take off after it with Amy’s hand in the leash. That would not be pretty. We made a list of needs and we guessed Max would have to learn more than forty (40) behaviors, all of which had to be fluent.
Now, more about Amy. Amy has her PHD and is the Chair of the French Department at IU. She travels around and out of the US. This meant that Max had to function in other cultures as well.
Amy’s husband, Jeevan, is a Medical Doctor and serves in the cancer field. They are both loving, considerate and giving. As I said, Amy has many medical issues. Not only would training Max be a long process, but I knew it would be very hard on Amy. I needed to be aware of her endurance as well as Max’s. Amy was a trooper and was a perfect Service Dog handler.
Another concern I had for Amy and Jeevan was Jeevan’s feeling left out of the process and create an unintentional gap in their relationship. When they brought Max to me in our first meeting I told them, “This is Amy’s dog. Every good thing comes from her. Feeding, treats, affection, all from her.” Jeevan would be kind to Max, but Max could not bond with him. It was important for Max to bond with Amy. I knew this would be hard. Jeevan could only be a part of the training if there was something he needed to have part of. Things like, showing affection to Amy. Max had to be aware that was okay. Helping Amy, Max had to know that was okay. If Jeevan, for some reason, needed to take Max’s leash, Max needed to know that was okay. When we were training, Jeevan could not offer suggestions. Outside of the session we could talk, but in the session Max had to know he could only listen to me or Amy. The best way to address this, so Jeevan did not feel left out, was to talk about it, and talk about from time to time. It worked out just as it needed to.
So we set a date to start. In the meantime I did not want time wasted. Amy was to take Max home and begin implementing my instructions. It was she who would take Max from the car. She was to limit Max’s time with the other dogs. She was to in control of his play time. Only she could feed, treat, or walk Max. From now on, no treats because Max is cute. Max had to work for rewards, including praise. To eat, he had to sit. To be petted (only by Amy) he had to sit. Max would not be on welfare, no freebies. If he begged, nothing. If he wined, nothing. Max was now in the labor force without a union to advocate for him. His only handler, director, and advocate was Amy. If you could know Amy you would discover she is no pushover, but she did have her weak moments with Max. She held her own, most of the time. When I train behaviors, if I get 80% out of the dog, I consider that acceptable. That includes the handler. In this case they were both at about a 95%.
There were several “firsts” to begin with. However, every behavior had a process and each behavior was designed to build on the previous behavior. I would not allow Max to become overwhelmed. So, the place, in formal training, to begin was Max’s public access. Oh my, his first trip to the Mall was like a kid in the candy store. If I told the Security person that he was a Service Dog in training, I think he would have walked away, having a good laugh. All we could do was walk Max to acclimate him to the new environment, one he would be spending a lot of time in. From this experience it was obvious, a simultaneous behavior we needed to work on was Max walking on a loose leash if we didn’t want to lose Amy.
Max was smart. It did not take long for Max to realize he was doing something very special. He very quickly understood, when we came together, it was training time. He also knew that that clicker thing meant good things. Max became extremely serious about our work. In fact I always had to be sure Max’s stress was eustress and not distress. I do not think there was any session of our over 125 that Max did not have fun. Well, there was one. Max was trying so hard to work, but I sensed something just wasn’t right. I ended the session on a high note, and told Amy something was wrong with Max. I asked her to take him to her vet for an exam. Sure enough, Max had a virus. Bless his heart, he was trying so hard. After that it seemed he trusted just a little bit more.
Max responded to my methods with seriousness. If there was a lull he would sit, lay, and sit again. He was saying, “Hey, do you see what I’m doing. Why isn’t that thing making that noise?” When Amy took the leash and ask something of Max, Max would take the leash in his mouth, jump up and down. He just was not taking Amy seriously. Amy was getting frustrated because with me he was serious, with her it was always play time. My cues were responded to, her cues aroused him. A good trainer is already guessing the cause of this difference. Amy had a high pitched voice, mine is low pitched. Mine was a commanding, hers was “let’s play.” I told this to Amy and instructed her to lower the tone of her voice. This did not come naturally for Amy. She had to consciously change the pitch of her voice. As she did this, the problem completely resolved. Amy’s lower tone was still high, but Max understood the difference and we never had this issue again.
Max was doing really well on his loose leash. He was staying beside Amy, but we had to teach Max that staying right beside her was the best place in the world. We had to train Max to be on Amy’s right side because her left shoulder was not strong. If Max lurched at something it could worsen her left shoulder. What we needed to work on now was “stay.” Oh boy. Max had learned his “rest” cue. But Max has springs in his legs. He thought rest meant his belly touched the floor and he was to bounce back up. “Stay” was not in either his vocabulary or intention. This seemed to take Max forever. Amy was his job, he understood that. So every time she moved, he moved. If she stepped back, he stepped forward. If we put him in a down by a kiosk and she stepped out of sight, he was up. He was smart, as he would come from the opposite direction and greet Amy. If Amy back around the kiosk she would not see him following her. “Success,” she thought, until she turned around. There was Max with the “I caught you,” grin. There were some things Max could do, but he just didn’t understand the purpose, so a few things took a little longer. When Amy was finally able to take two steps away from Max and he stayed in his down, we celebrated with Max. After that his stays became perfect and for great duration.
One of the behaviors we needed to teach Max was “pulling.” We wanted to be able to hook Max to Amy’s grocery cart and Max help by pulling it. This was not easy for Max although he caught on quickly. It was scary at first. I hooked his leash on a bicycle rack. The rack was aluminum and was not heavy, but that thing following Max was a different concept. There were a couple of approaches to this, Max got through this exercise, and became a perfect “puller.” If we were going to have Max pull a grocery cart he would have to learn his directions. Amy could not see over the cart so Max also had to be her eyes. We taught Max “left turn” and “right turn.” This was easy for Max to grasp and Max understood left and right. He learned slow and faster. He learned back and forward. He learned “side step, right and left.” This meant he would move sideways by moving his two side legs in the requested direction. People thought that was funny. Sometimes, to help Max, Amy would move as if dancing and Max would follow.
The stairs for Amy and Max was a bit more complicated and had to be trained separately.
Going up stairs for Amy was a different protocol than coming down. It was not as complicated for Max as I was afraid. He was now beginning to anticipate Amy’s different needs. Max now, instinctively, understood how Amy “would” move and position himself accordingly. Like in the car. When Max was taken to the car he would jump in and Amy would have to streeetttch to hook his safety strap. After a few times, Max decided on his own, “It’s better for her if I put my front feet up, leave my back feet on the ground, until I hear that “snap,” then bring my back feet up into the car.” Max was developing the ability to think and anticipate.
Targeting was another behavior Max caught on to right away. I wanted Max to open the handicap doors for Amy. I started by placing a target in my hand, then slowly move it up the door I placed it about a foot from the bottom of the door. This door had a push bar. He said, “Oh, I get it. You want me to do this.” And he stood up and pushed the door open. That was that. All we had to teach him was the word for the behavior. He knows that “open” means doors with a bar on it, and “push” means the circle or square on a post. Max hardly needs cued. When he comes to an entrance and sees a push button on a post of the wall, he just goes ahead and opens the door. Max can push light switches, grocery carts, and he can help push an item Amy needs help moving.
Max learned to stop at curbs, place his front feet on the street so Amy can balance herself on his shoulders, then step down. Then Max brings his hind feet from the curb and waits for Amy’s, “Let go.” In one session Max learned to brace his front legs for Amy to balance herself. She would say, “Brace” and you could see his legs stiffen and his shoulder muscles flex. It was amazing and wonderful because Max new what his job was.
Max’s recall was one of his favorite behaviors. Max had to respond immediately to Amy’s call to “come” or “come aside.” We trained this in a variety of ways. Each method was to teach Max that responding to Amy, and responding quickly, meant something wonderful. His favorite game was Ping-Pong. Amy stood on one side of the room, I on the other. I would call Max. As soon as Max came and got his treat, Amy would call. To increase his speed he would not receive reinforcement if he was slow. He caught on to this very quickly, and it was hilarious to see him get his treat, Amy call, and Max’s whole body whirl in motion and head for Amy.
I have to include another of Max’s favorite training, retrieving things. We taught him two different retrieves. One was for him to pick something up and place it in Amy’s hand. This was for something Amy needed. Bending down was difficult. So Max could pick up pencils, a paper. Oh, picking up a paper was hilarious. Max wanted to tear the paper apart. He would pounce on it and kill it. He enjoyed that and it took a while for him to get, “Oh, you want the paper in one piece? Shoot!”” But we got through that. The other behavior was for Max to pick something up, hold it, and deliver it to the nearest trash can. We started with “drop it,” then moved to where to drop it. This went well with most items, except for the Styrofoam cups. Do you know how much fun it is to hear that crunching sound when you tear a Styrofoam cup apart? Max finally got the concepts. He now delivered things whole to its designated place, according to the cues. He never lost his enjoyment of retrieving. Of course, for all his behaviors, he performed with gusto. Max just plain enjoyed life.
Max was taught not to take food from strangers. One day, long after Max graduated, Amy was in a Mexican restaurant. A man across from Jeevan and Amy’s table reached down with a tortilla chip, placed it between his paws. Aside from the stupidity of doing that, Max turned his head and ignored the chip.
Often, Amy needs the use of a wheelchair. We incorporated her wheelchair in a session of training at the Mall. We wanted to teach Max, “aside,” as well as, “front.” The reason we needed “front” was that going down a ramp, she needs to go backwards. I know, I thought that odd also. That just shows how much we understand the needs of a person handicapped. We couldn’t have Max back-up for that distance as that would have been dangerous for both. I held Max’s leash, Amy called him, he came to her frontally, and she began to back down the ramp with Max following. We showed this to Max one time without a cue, but marking the behavior. He caught on so quickly that we gave him the cue “front,” and after that session Max had it down fluently. Perhaps this was so well learned because we had also worked with a motorize cart at a grocery store. There were times Max absolutely amazed me. Max also had to understand what it meant to gage his distance from Amy’s feet, and her wheelchair. This did take a little work because Max wanted to stay close enough to touch Amy. He would get his paw stepped on or rolled over. He caught on to keeping himself close, but safe.
This brings up a very good point. Some dogs are so smart and catch on so quickly, a good trainer knows he/she must stay ahead of the dog. Example, when I trained Max to target door bars and openers. I started out with a target on my hand so he would touch the target with his paw. Suddenly Max understood what I was moving toward and opened the door. On a scale of 1 to 5, Max went from a 2 to 5. I would have been a poor trainer had I taken Max back to a 3 because he jumped ahead of me. My training plan has to be such that I understand that possibility and I must be ready to jump ahead of his understanding. If I don’t factor that in, Max will get bored while I’m trying to redraw my plan. A dog may surprise me, but he cannot get ahead of me. Max had a habit of doing keeping me on my toes.
When Max’s session was over, Amy and I would bet something to drink and decompress and let Max come down also. Max would lay and sleep. He was always worn out. When Amy would put him in the car he would kiss me, lay down and sleep all the way home. He was tired but fulfilled.
An important thing we needed for Amy was the possibility of her falling. I wanted to teach Max “bark” and “quiet.” He had fun with this exercise. But, if Amy fell, she needed to be able to cue Max to bark to summon help. Also, for Amy’s personal safety, I want her to be able to cue Max to bark if she was uncomfortable with an approaching person. Max was not aggressive, and I would never train a dog to be aggressive. But the approaching person does not know that and that is a good deterrent.
Another thing I had to teach, this time to Amy, was the ADA laws. Merchants, Mall security people, even Law Enforcement officers are not always informed of the laws pertaining to Service Dogs. Because I have a Service Dog, I know the problems the handicapped can have. Amy, Max and I met at Panera’s. Amy had not yet arrived. I went to a lady who was with a friend and introduced myself. I explained to her what I was doing. I asked her if, when my client got settled with her dog, to come over and ask her to remove Max because she had allergies. So I had that set up. Amy was settled and the lady came over, “Mam,” she said, “Would you please remove your dog? I have awful allergies.” Amy’s face went blank. She looked at the lady, looked at me, looked at Max, and was lost. I shook the ladies hand, said, “Thank you,” and she left. Amy told me, “That was mean.” That was the best thing I could have done. The experience was a good teacher. The handicapped endure so much unnecessarily. The fact is, a business or person can ask a person with a dog, two questions.
1. Sir./Mam, is the a Service Dog?”
2. What service is your dog trained to perform?
They cannot inquire about a handicap or if the person has the handicap. If a person has allergies, that is not cause to remove the dog. They cannot ask for the dog to be seated away from the public. Amy and her husband had the experience of a restaurant manager asking them to take a table away from the customers. Amy politely said, “No. We want that table there.” Remember, Amy is not one to be intimidated.
The other challenge a person with a Service Dog encounters. People think the dog is adorable and just cannot exist without that person’s petting. A person may be polite enough to ask if they can pet the dog. We say, “No, he is a working dog. Thank you.” Of course it is on the dog’s jacket, “WORKING DOG. DO NOT PET.” Since Amy travels to France, she has this in English and French. Some people cannot read and they just have to ask. We want to be polite and educate people. However, some people will not take “no” for an answer. Some will approach and reach out, determined to pet. I taught Amy she must use her body and step between the dog and the person, and kindly but firmly, say, “Please do not touch my dog.” The person may take offence, but it is her being offensive rather than me offending.
Amy was getting ready to take a flight. I am friends with the Chief of Security and the Indianapolis International Airport. He was kind enough to assign an officer to us for a visit. The officer was very kind and allowed us to go where the public could not. We was able to take Max through the TSA in a mock experience. The agent allowed Max to stay with Amy. Max observed the agent placing hands on Amy. The agent searched Max, and placed his hand under Max’s back pack. Max was a little anxious, but handled this experience well. Amy reported how perfect Max was in all of these airport situations after the Indianapolis session. This session was very important in Max’s training because Amy and Jeevan have flown several times since. Max has never had one problem.
A few days after the airport session Amy flew to another city for major surgery on her shoulder. Max was with her before as well as after the surgery, but not during. Amy was laid up for 6 or 8 weeks. I kept close to Amy and Max during this convalescing period. Amy reported that Max, after about a month, was getting rusty. I asked where Max was being fed to which she said he eats in the kitchen. I told Amy I wanted his food and water beside the bed, and only treats came from her. She could ask small things from Max to keep a sense of working. This brought Max right back to his serving Amy in just a couple of days. Max has not been lax since then.
Max’s 11 months of training was done with a clicker and operant conditioning. In all of those months there was not one act of punishment, coercion, or manipulation. He was never scolded. If he was not doing what was being asked, we understood the problem was US, not him. We had to adjust how we were approaching the training. There were times Max taught us how best he would respond to a request. Max was never wrong and we had to listen to him. When we came to a session Max was always excited and anxious to learn. Max came to trust every request. He may have been a little unsure once in a while, but he never resisted learning one behavior.
One last point. Max fell in love with me. His trainer. I always say, “If your dog isn’t this way with your trainer, get rid of the trainer.” But there can be a downside to that if the trainer is not aware. There was a point where I realized Max was bonding to me and I to him. In this kind of extensive and intensive training there will be some unavoidable bonding. But I realized Max was looking to me more than to Amy. I had to change my relationship with Max. This was not easy on me or on Max, but it had to be done. For two months I was strictly, trainer. Max was always “over the moon” to see me. It took 5 minutes to calm him and get into a session. I was as bad about this as Max. What I did was this. When Max and Amy came in to wherever we were that day, I would not even look at Max until he was calm. If I approached him and he got up from a sit or down, I turned and walked away. He would cock his head in wonderment. It just about killed me. I wanted to go hug him and apologize. When I finally greeted him I was very detached. When he did what was wanted, I had Amy praise him. I did not. This worked very well. Max loved me, but he was definitely bonded with Amy. This taught Max a lesson, “You like other people, but Amy is master and focus.”
Now Max can love on me all he wants, because I know he knows my place. One day I made a visit to IU. I saw Amy and Max, but Max had not yet seen me. As I got closer Max gave me a glance. It was hilarious because when he glanced at me like I was just another person, he turned his head back to Amy, and just as quick, he jerked his head back to me. Max is the only dog I have seen take an actual double take. He could not compute me being there in his territory. Several times, he would look to Amy and turn back to me. Then, when he could believe what he was seeing, Max was excited from nose to tail tip. We loved on each other and when we calmed down, his attention went back to Amy and he served her needs. That is what I wanted. That is what we worked on together.
Max graduated, certificate and all. Now he is on the job every day for Amy. The most significant thing Amy said to me in all this time together was, “Now (with Max) I feel like a normal person. When Amy said this, my eyes filled with tears. That is why I train Service Dogs and Companion Dogs. This is the real payoff.
I must say something about the dog being trained. I have discussed this many times with my professor and mentor, Julie Shaw. In some ways what we do in training a Serviced Dog, however necessary and needed, is unfair. What we do is condition the fun out of the dog. We are asking the dog to ignore being a dog, ignore other dogs when in public, to ignore the squirrels, not to chase the ball that rolls by, not to approach people, to lay under a table for an hour while we eat, and ignore children. This was extremely hard for Max, because Max loved children. It took a long time to get him to ignore children that were close by. I’m not saying this is harmful to the dog. The Service Dog does not miss what it does not do. We still condition the fun out of the dog.
Our Service Dog, Nekayah, is a prime example of this. Our Dexter, a Great Pyrenees, will go outside, especially if there is snow, and lay for long periods of time. If another dog is here, Dexter will go out and play, run and romp. Not Nekayah. Nekayah is a Hearing Impaired Service Dog. She alerts my wife to many things in the house and outside. She even alerts when someone is behind her in a store. There are 7 or 8 buzzers, dings, and rings to which she alerts. Nekayah is on the job all day and night. If she hears the smoke detector she will wake us up. In her head she is never off duty. We can tell her to go play. Sometimes we tell her, “Go get the rabbit.” She’ll run out the doggy door, run the perimeter of the yard, and come straight back in. She will not allow herself to be where we are not. She is relaxed in the home. She is not anxious, waiting for the next buzzer. She just chooses to be with us. Right now she is laying on a chair, on her back, head hanging over, tongue lolling out, resting. Oops. The oven buzzer just sounded. Nekayah is up, going to the next room to tell Linda, “Whatever you are baking, it done.” She did her job and now is resting on another couch.
What I am saying is this. This is not bad. These are very special dogs who give up a lot to serve one person for all of its adult life. The dog is highly educated and is able to think for itself. It was Max’s idea to start going and getting sox for Amy in the mornings. When Amy steps off the curb and tells Max, “Let’s go,” and Max stays where he is. Amy looks up and sees a car. We call this in Service Dogs, “Intelligent Disobedience.” The dog knows to move is dangerous for my master. The handler has to learn to trust the dog. I told Amy many times, “Max is never wrong. Listen to him.”
I have had this with our Service Dog many times. Every time I thought Nekayah must be wrong, she was right. Once I told Nekayah, “Find mommy.” Nekayah sniffed the air and headed forward. I just knew Linda didn’t go that way and I would direct Nekayah another way. I frustrated her terribly. I found that the direction Nekayah was going was exactly the way Linda went. Another time, Linda was leaving the Mall. She walked out, Nekayah beside her. Nekayah stopped at the curb, Linda stepped into the access drive. Nekayah immediately jump in front of Linda, and pushed her aside. Linda did not see a car coming. Nekayah saw it and placed herself between Linda and the car. We handlers can get so used to the routine that we don’t always look. Nekayah is trained to always look, to always be ready for what is not the norm, and to act accordingly. Intelligent Disobedience. Always trust the dog.
There are people who feel, when we train a Service Dog, that we are placing the dog in bondage. I have had a few who have actually said that to me. I don’t know what they would suggest to the handicapped person as an alternative. We are discovering, more and more, the capabilities of dogs. Not only dogs, but small breed ponies are now showing promise, as a guide animal for the blind.
Is it wrong to use dogs for hunting? What about agility, or sports? Is it bad to train dogs for Search and Rescue? These dogs are not mistreated or abused. They save and protect countless lives each year. I wish these people, although well intended, would demonstrate their outrage at the blood sports dogs are forced to be a part of. There is where the energy should be expended, to stop that horrific abuse.
Well, this is Max’s story. That dog with that goofy smile. That dog who didn’t know what to do with those hind legs, who was so full of life and love. That beautiful, shiny haired dog with glistening eyes, who was so fixed as if he was afraid he would miss an instruction. This dog who finds joy in serving Amy every day, and does so for no other reason than devotion, is the textbook dog for Service Dogs. There are no words to that can fully tell others about Max. He is the model of all Service Dogs, but a mold like no other. He is the perfect ambassador for Service Dogs. He is the perfect Service Dog for Amy.
In a few months I will do a follow-up with Max and Amy. We will meet at the Mall and do some evaluating, but I am sure Max will pass that evaluation with amazement.
What I hope with this article is that my readers gain an insight into what is poured into the dogs that are wearing service jackets. For many reasons, not every dog qualifies for this training. Max was one that did, and he excelled. To be able to tell Max’s story is an honor.