This started out as a comment in response to Sharon Wachsler (of After Gadget) on my last post, but it started getting really really long so I thought I’d just make it a post.
I should probably just get it out of the way that I am tickled to death that Sharon is reading, I used to pop into After Gadget before coming to terms with the fact that my chronic pain wasn’t going to get better because dog training! and it definitely went in my feed reader when I made the decision to partner with a service dog and realized I would have to train my own dog because service dog training! Plus her comments are further evidence that my blog is read by people who are not, in fact, related to me (hi Dad!) which is pretty cool, let me tell you.
Anyway, what Sharon said that started this whole line of thinking off was
Wow! Doing so well at such a young age! I thought GSDs tended to mature slowly, as is true for bouviers and a lot of the other large, herding breeds.
Can’t say I’m not jealous, though trying not to be. (Recently talked to Barnum’s breeder, who told me his litter had been particularly slow to mature. Makes me feel better — it’s not just me/us!)
However, he has magically gotten calmer, more food- and work-motivated once the testosterone pump was turned off, if you catch my drift. ;-)
I feel I have to start out with a disclaimer: I’m not sure I would have posted it if I’d made that training/assessment run and Sid had been a total dork-faced scatterbrain the whole time. I would have needed a lot of time to process the fears it would raise in me of having to wash him out, and time to get over feeling like a bad trainer, and all the other inevitable anxieties that arise when our dogs turn out to be fallible beings instead of the perfect angels we’d like them to be. And Sid carries the weight of some extra baggage: not only is he a Service Dog In Progress but I am not kidding when I tell you I have loved him since he was 2 weeks old, when I cradled him in my hands and he went “grrrrrwoof!” at me amid his infant puppy dreams.
So not only do you have the usual worries, but if I have to wash him out, he cannot stay, or I have to adjust my meds or stick with a cane or something. We don’t have the space, time, or finances for five dogs in the house, four pets plus a service dog. We just don’t. And a cane is not terribly ideal for me and I don’t feel 100% safe using one, because I have to develop a compensatory lean to make sure I don’t wobble away from the cane and fall over. And let me just keep dragging Sharon into this, because she wrote a couple really good posts on the issues she was having with her SDIT, Barnum, and the heartbreak that goes along with these considerations. Those posts hit a couple different nerves with me. Part One is here, Part Two is here, and here’s Part Three.
So anyway, if I had taken Sid out and he had seriously scared me about his ability to handle what I need from him as a service dog, I probably would not have written about it for a good long time. Because there is so much hanging on his ability to service dog for me.
But yeah, I am proud to say that Siddy is performing at an unprecedented level for a dog as young as he is, who is as new to public access work as he is. Stupid fatigue and pain keeping me from taking him out all the time, but anyhoo.
I can’t claim this is entirely due to me as a trainer. GSDs are slow to mature, and but I have some advantages with Sid:
1) He has a good “off switch.” I’m not sure if you can train this, I’ve never had to try. Beowulf has a great off switch. Tink’s off switch sucks. But a good off switch, or the ability to just lie around and zone out, is essential because a lot of what I need a service dog to do is lie around and zone out. Or at least lie quietly and watch the world go by. Sid is happy to do this as long as the world is busy enough to hold his interest.
Really, Sid is just good rough material in the first place. He comes from a long line of dogs who were selected not just for their willingness to work with people, but their desire to work with people, which is an important distinction. This can make a real difference, and it stacks the deck in my favor because I’m not trying to constantly convince Siddy that it’s worth his time to work with me; working with me is what he wants to do.
2) I’ve spent a lot of time reinforcing that “off switch” and the “lying quietly” behavior. There’s a bed under my craft table, if we’re in my room and I’m busy then I direct Sid to the bed and pause periodically to ruffle his ears, feed him a piece of cheese, or hand him a good toy. He gets a lot of reinforcement for just lying quietly.
Which is one of those things that I kind of figured out on my own, actually. You can find a lot of resources out there on training your own service dog, but they all focus on task training and how to break down tasks. None of the ones I saw said “Figure out not only what tasks you need, but what your dog will actually be doing when you’re out with him.” Working Beowulf at school proved to me definitively that I needed to teach Sid to be OK with just lying around.
All of this is not to say that Sid does not have moments when I kind of despair that he will ever be grown up enough for me to trust him 100% with my well-being. He’s still a puppy, and while he can straighten up and focus and fly right, sometimes his natural dorkishness gets the better of him. And I don’t want to train all of that out of him, I love his big dorky grin and the way he rolls onto his back and flails around with his eyes wild and his tongue lolling out. My job at the moment is to teach him to save the dorkface for times when it’s appropriate, and expand his ability to focus.
And, y’know, envy is all over the dog world. While Sharon is jealous of Sid’s ability to just chill, I was reading this post with a list of things Barnum is working on and feeling like a serious slacker trainer with an under-educated SDIT. It’s too bad, in a lot of ways, that owner-trainers can’t do week-long “dog exchanges”; I think we’d all feel a lot better about our own dogs and ourselves as trainers if we could do periodic “trade-offs”!