We had a very special guest visiting us this week. He is in training (with someone else) to become a service dog. His trainer is away for professional education and so he needed to stay with someone else for 10 days. I got the job (lucky me!) because I am helping his future person learn about positive reinforcement training and will spend a lot of time with them during “transfer”. After his trainer decides he is ready to go the new person, they will need to work together under supervision to figure each other out, develop a comfortable flow, and transition into a working team. I got that job because of my location (proximity to future owner) and my relationship with his trainer.
It’s a humbling experience. I knew it would be. Service dogs and the people who train them amaze me. I am a fan of Laurie Luck of Smart Dog University. She is on the faculty of both Karen Pryor Academy and Clicker Expo. Last year, I attended her talk and lab about teaching service dogs different behaviors including how to alert to odors. Introducing the topic, she acknowledged the “wow” factor but also said, “it’s just behavior”. If we know how to train well, which includes a lot of topics, then we can train some amazing things. Laurie raises dogs for a service dog agency and frequently posts stories and photos of the process. I highly recommend her blog.
So what have we done so far? In the first 36 hours, my initial goal was to get to know him and let him get to know us. “Us” includes me, the house dogs (I do not intend to introduce him to the Livestock Guardian Dog as there is no purpose to that), my husband and importantly, the horses. His future person is a horse person. Much of his future life will be spent in the many venues of horses- from the barn to competitions. This guy has not met horses before. The first time he saw mine, there was a staring contest. Dog stared at horses; horses stared at Big Black Dog. I was shoveling food pretty quickly and there was a bark or two but he refocused on me quite well. He’s had good basics for attention and responding to cues. Each viewing over the next 36 hours got progressively more relaxed until yesterday afternoon when he could glance but not bark.
Day 2 I took him into the barn for the first time. Looking at it from the perspective of a dog who has never been in a horse barn before, there is a lot of newness! A dog’s sense of smell is so much stronger than ours but I don’t even know a person who isn’t affected by the smells of a barn the first time (and then there are those of us who know we are home when we smell that particular scent). His nose went to work immediately. Being in the middle of hard winter, all the barn doors were closed up tight so I could let him loose to investigate. My own dogs go immediately to the kennel because of a very high history of reinforcement in there. But this guy sniffed everything. Of course he decided it was fine dining as well so we began work on “leave it”! The cat went straight up a wall and then begged to be let into the loft where he did not have to meet the Big Black Dog. All in good time, George kitty.
Big Black Dog decided that winter in the far north is a mixed bag. He loves to go out but can’t figure out why his feet start burning and then can’t figure out how to walk without putting them down. But he loves to tunnel in the snow. Thanks to the bitter cold we’re having, all the snow is fluffy, fluffy powder. He lies down and squirms along, completely disappearing under the deep powder and all you can see is a mole track as he wriggles through the deep snow until he explodes up out of it looking like chocolate covered with powdered sugar.
Day 3 we went for a visit with his future person. He has met her before and was very excited to be at her house. He trotted around reacquainting himself with her dogs and her home. When it was time to go to work, we put on his harness and they practiced walking (on both sides), going through doorways, up and down stairs, sits, downs and retrieving dropped items. There was a huge difference since the last visit. This time he waited for her to initiate movement. He watched her carefully to try to figure out what she needed. He was much more reliable and much less reactive than previously. It was very helpful for me to see how they worked together so I can communicate to the trainer some new things that we need to figure out. For instance if he is on her left and they find themselves at a door which swings toward them to the left, what is the most graceful way to maneuver him into a better place so he doesn’t get squashed by the door and is still where he needs to be to help her?
I think what has struck me the most in working with them is the importance of stimulus control for this dog. There can be no “oops” in his working life. Too much is riding on it.