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On Sid’s Brilliance and Dog Envy

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, and I don’t think I should contact the Rhinosure agency just because I want more dogs. 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”!

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Service Dog In Progress

We took Sid out on a training run yesterday. Well, less a training run than a chance for me to get a feel for where he’s at in public access skills, so I know where we need work.

The first stop was Panera, to get a reading on where we’re at for restaurants. We picked an odd time and chose Panera because they have handy outdoor seating, plus the food was paid for when we sat down to eat, so if Sid had been a huge dork, we could have picked up and left no problem. He actually did very well until a sparrow decided to check him out, which got him a little excited. I’m not sure what that tiny bird was thinking, hopping to about 2 feet away from Siddy, but Sid at least was not uncontrollable. He just really wanted to try and bite that bird. In a lot of ways it would have been easier on him for us to eat inside, because outside you had a lot of distractions: small suicidal birds, human passers-by, traffic noises. But on the other hand I wasn’t at all sure that he’d be well-behaved enough for inside, so better to sit outside for my mental health.

The next stop was Borders, where the only problem was that Sid was starting to lose focus about halfway through our time there. I suspect it was because a book store is a pretty damn boring place for a young dog, and my browsing style in bookstores involves a lot of slowly creeping along shelves and then standing, sometimes crouching — in other words, not a lot for him to do but stand around. So it’s not surprising, given that he’s 10 months old, that his attention kind of wandered and also he forgot where his butt was and knocked into shelves once or twice. I think he’d have done better if Borders were more of a high-distraction environment, actually, because he does quite well with just standing around watching the world go by, as long as the world is, in fact, going by.

The final stop was PetCo, where he was pretty golden, which reinforced my suspicions about him doing better when there’s things for him to look at and smell while I go about my people business at the other end of the leash and harness.

All in all I was really pleased with him. For 11 months old and me just now having the energy to start systematic public access training with him, he’s doing really well. It helps that the foundations are there already: he has a good off switch, he’s accustomed to behaving politely. While he got bored and distracted, at no time did he go totally dork-faced and inattentive. I think the thing to do is ask him for brain work in boring places, like getting him to target with nose and paw while I browse the books. We’re also working on “Find Daddy!” and he enjoyed doing that at Borders.

The trip was also good for building my confidence in him. He’s not at the level where I can work with him without being mindful, and won’t be for a long time, but it was good for me to see his bomb-proof and confident self out in the world, getting bored but not anxious, and generally just being an all-around good candidate in the rough. Well, to use a rock-tumbling analogy, I think we’re through the totally rough stage, by virtue of early experience, his essential nature, and basic training in house manners. Now we’re on to the medium grind, and it won’t be too long before we head gleefully off into the pre-polish and polish stages.

Beowulf, bless his heart, taught me a lot about what I want from a service dog. Now Sid is showing me how to get there with him. And we’re having a good time.

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Dog training is sometimes silly.

Yesterday was a high-pain sort of day (THANKS WEATHER) but I really wanted to get in some training time with Siddy. He lights up with the clicker comes out, so I decided we’d just do stuff for fun, because I was on drugs that make me slightly fuzzy in the head. Fuzzier than usual, anyway.

The end result of this is that 1) Tink threw a tantrum because she didn’t get to play the clicker game and 2) Sid is now well on his way to handing me my pack of cigarettes when I ask him for them.

Someday I’ll be serious about this whole training thing. Yesterday was not that day.

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Service Dog Etiquette for Dog Lovers

A friend of mine asked after my rant about adults trying to pet Siddy while he’s in his vest, “Is there ever an appropriate time to pet a working dog in a vest or harness? Like when you’re just hanging around?” And I immediately started kicking myself, because in my rant I didn’t really mention what people SHOULD do if they’d like to pet the dog, just ranted a lot about what they should not do. Bad trainer, me.

Unfortunately there’s no way for me to let people down gently because the only safe answer is “No, there is never an appropriate time to ask to pet a working dog.” There’s a lot of reasons for this, and I’m glad to see people like Blue Buffalo (@bluebuffalo) | Twitter address it on social media to get the word out. I’ll detail them below from my own experience using Beowulf (in dog-accessible places since his Public Access Skills aren’t up to snuff for things like restaurants and grocery stores and other REALLY HIGH-DISTRACTION areas) and Sid’s training outing.

1) You can’t tell by looking at someone what that person’s disability may be. Sure, it may look like the dog is just lying down hanging out while its handler waits for the waiter to bring her coffee and spinach quiche, but the dog may be a diabetic or seizure alert dog, or a hearing dog. These dogs need to have their attention focused on their handlers, which they can easily do while lying down next to a chair.

2) While to you it may just look like I’m hanging around, in fact I might have just gotten that hazelnut coffee I’ve wanted all day and settled into this comfy chair at Panera with my coffee and a spinach quiche, and I’m looking forward to some quiet people-watching time. You can’t tell by looking at me whether or not I want to talk to a stranger, or particularly whether I want to talk to the 800th stranger that day who wants to pet my dog. And what looks to you like we’re taking a break and my dog just nudged me so I’d pet him may in fact be my dog alerting me when I fogged out as he was trained to do, and I’m not really in a state to be coherent with a stranger yet.

3) If I let you pet my dog in public, I’ve just taught you and everyone watching that it’s OK to pester service dog handlers about petting their dogs. For all I know, you’re the big dork who is going to ask the next service dog handler you see, and when you’re told “no” you will whip out the “But other people let me do it!” line and then I’m the annoying service dog handler teaching people bad habits.

4) If I let you pet my dog while he’s in harness, I am blurring the line for him between “Working, must concentrate on my person” and “not working, I can be sociable with strangers.” Because I am using my dog to help me stay upright, I can’t take the chance that he may learn that it’s OK to schmooze people while he’s working and veer towards the next clueless person to make a smoochy noise at him. Letting you pet him while he’s working, even if we’re both taking a break, may lead directly to a situation that seriously endangers my safety.

5) I’m probably really, really, really tired at that point of people approaching me and asking about the dog, trying to distract the dog, expecting me to stop what I’m doing and educate them about the dog and about disability, asking me to reveal my medical problems to them because of the dog, or generally treating me like I’m invisible or have the dog with me for a conversation piece or I’m an evil gatekeeper to the dog just out to stop them from having an innocent good time fondling him. I’m just trying to get the things I need to do accomplished, to live my life, and people who will ignore the dog and treat a handler like a dogless human being are few and far between. By asking to pet the dog, you are putting yourself firmly in the camp of “people who don’t treat me like a real human being because of the dog.”

Let me try to tell you what using a service dog part-time has been like for me, using as an analogy something most everybody uses: shoes. You have a pair of shoes. They are the first shoes you have ever found that fit like they were made just for your feet and are really nice-looking shoes. In these shoes, you can go about your whole day and your feet and back and legs feel great and never get tired. In these shoes, you can conquer the whole damn world.

There’s just one problem with the shoes. They attract attention. The first couple of times people smiled at you and said “Nice shoes” it was pretty flattering, but then things started getting a little out of hand. People would stare at your shoes, wherever you went, in a way that made you feel like you were nothing but a way of displaying your wonderful shoes. People would approach you while you’re just trying to buy some milk at the store and get out and go home and expect you to tell them where you got the shoes, how the shoes are working out for you, and then listen to them tell you all about their favorite shoes. Disturbingly, some people will ask to touch your shoes. Sometimes they are still standing when they ask, but other times they are asking as they kneel down and reach out for your shoes. REALLY disturbingly, some people just lunge for your shoes without even asking. Once or twice, you’ve nearly tripped and fallen because someone was grabbing for your shoes. When you act alarmed that these people are trying to take your shoes away while you’re walking in them, people respond by being defensive and angry. Why would you be wearing such wonderful shoes, after all, if you didn’t want to let people touch them or you didn’t want to talk about them? Can’t you see how much they want to touch your fabulous shoes? Why are you being so mean by denying them something they want so much?

When you’re out and about, nobody talks to you about anything but your shoes. You might be in a class you’re really excited to take, because you want to meet other people who are interested in the subject matter, but the other students and the instructor just want to talk to you about your shoes. Even worse, they assume that your shoes are all you know about and act totally surprised when you speak up about things that are not shoe-related. When you ask for help in a shop, the person you’re talking to addresses your shoes rather than you. People say “good morning” to your shoes. People assume that you won’t be able to do things because you won’t want to get your shoes dirty, or you can’t do them because your shoes are not their idea of appropriate footwear for the activity, and they inform you of these exclusions as if you’re supposed to be grateful.

What you’re actually grateful for is the one or two people every day who treat you just like your shoes are nothing remarkable. You come to cherish the people who act as if they don’t even see your shoes. And despite the fact that you love your wonderful shoes, you begin to deeply, deeply wish you could find another pair of shoes that did not attract all this attention that worked for you, but no matter how many pairs you try on, you never can. You find some shoes that are kinda workable and sometimes you wear those just to avoid all the problems with your favorite shoes, even though you know that by the end of the day your feet and legs and back will be aching. After enough painful days, you start feeling pretty bitter towards all the people who make your life so much harder when you’re wearing your favorite shoes, because if they’d just be polite, it would make such a huge difference to you.

So what should you do when you see wonderful shoesa service dog and its handler? The answer is easy: ignore the dog. No matter how much you want to talk about the dog, touch the dog, ask the dog’s handler questions about the dog, tell the dog’s handler about your own dog — don’t. Treat the handler exactly like you are busy treating all the people in the world who do not have dogs with them. If you have a customer service job, or you actually need (not just want) to approach the dog handler, speak to the person, not the dog. Ignore the dog, no matter how hard it is for you. A service dog is not “just” a dog, to its handler it’s a trusted partner and a vital part of what its handler needs to get through the world. Remember too that service dog handlers deserve privacy about their medical issues just as much as everyone else, and asking “Why do you have the dog?” or “what does the dog do for you?” is exactly like asking “So, will you tell me about all your medical problems?” (i.e. none of your business).

The people I am going to happily let pet my service dog are the ones who see me and the dog when the dog is off-duty. In other words, my friends and family, people who might come to my house and hang out, or at whose house I might hang out long enough to ask if I could let my dog be off work, as it were. These are people I know pretty well, obviously. If you’re not one of those people, if you only see me and my dog in public situations, then I’m sorry but no. You can’t pet my dog, and you need to be OK with that.

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Sid Goes Out In Public

Yesterday marked the first time I’ve dragged Sid out in his green vest, which clearly identifies him as a Service Dog In Training and also includes patches which say “Working Dog Do Not Pet”. The end result of this first evaluation: Sid needs more work on leash walking in fascinating places like Tractor Supply, but is starting to get the hang of it, and I Hate People.

No, let me be precise: I hate adult people. Universally the children we ran into today who wanted to interact with Sid saw the patches, read the patches, and did not attempt to interfere with Sid. One boy paused on his way out of Home Depot to look me in the eyes and say “Nice dog.” I smiled and said “thank you” because hey, Sid is a nice dog and the kid was fantastic.

The adults, though? Oh, the adults. One man behind us in line at Tractor Supply said to his kids, “His patches say he’s a working dog.” and then proceeded to reach out and try to pet Sid. I said, “Please don’t, he’s in training. That’s why his patches say not to pet him.” And the guy responds, I shit you not, “Oh, I didn’t see that.” while trying out a sheepish smile on me.

Really, Mr. Anonymous Guy in Tractor Supply? REALLY NOW? Sid, on the other hand, was pretty golden, he eyed the guy’s hand, gave it an indifferent but polite sniff, and then moved so I was between him and Mr. Anonymous Partially Literate Guy. I gave him a chunk of hot dog for it.

He was balanced out by the young girl in the same store who started to approach Sid (I’d seen her ogling him from afar), saw his patches, and settled for just hanging around to stare at him, which was a little creepy but I’m totally OK with a little creepy since she was being very polite.

Let me insert a pic of Sid in his vest here. Perhaps I need to have LIGHT UP BLINKY PATCHES for the adults, who are apparently either illiterate or convinced that their desire to pet a dog trumps my need to train the dog. Not that I’m, y’know, bitter or anything. One thing that works against me is that Sid is a damn good lookin dog, so he attracts more attention than a less notable looking dog would. The thing that works for me is that Sid is not terribly interested in strangers and sometimes even looks like he wishes they would stop bothering him. He got lots of hot dog bits to encourage him to keep ignoring the impolite strangers. Now I just need to work on him not following Daniel after he realizes that’s what I’m doing.

Oh, right, I was putting in a pic… I’ll just put it in huge and full-sized so everyone can admire my handsome dog in his spiffy vest. Please note the cool collar with flames and skulls.
A shot of the front half of Sid's body, coincidentally with my legs in jeans also in frame. Sid is wearing a dark green vest with a soft raised handle. A patch on the side of the vest says Working Dog Do Not Pet, patches on the top say Service Dog In Training. There is another working dog patch on the other side which you can't see. Also he has a really, really cool collar with flames and skulls.

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Sunday morning I sat down with one cup of puppy food, the clicker, and Sid. We still do a lot of work on pretty random stuff as Sid and I get into the groove of training together, so we worked on picking up his tuggy bumper for a while and then when he got bored with that, I asked him to target my hands. A fist means “target with a paw,” my open, empty palm means “target with your nose.” I offered him my fist and he took it gently in his ginormous maw. Whoops. Another try and I got the paw target I wanted, but thought that getting him to gently take my hand would be a cute trick, so I set to work shaping it by offering him the back of my open hand.

Success! He now knows five hand signals, for “sit” and “down” as well as paw-target, nose-target, and mouth-target. And then I realized that people meeting a new dog who have been allowed to pet him often offer the backs of their hands for the dog to sniff first, and Sid is going to be a very large black German Shepherd who is going to see this as an invitation to take the person’s hand in his mouth. People are often nervy about this kind of thing. Whoops.

It seems I have inadvertently booby-trapped my puppy, and now I need a different hand cue for “hold my hand” so that he doesn’t wind up frightening anyone.

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Many different dogs make a good trainer.

I hope so, anyway. My dogs have hilariously different approaches to being clicker-trained, which means that if I rapidly switch between dogs I have a tendency to get discombobulated.

The has been helping communities manage dog waste for almost 20 years! We used our expertise to create a line of pet waste stations and bags that are both well designed and cost effective!

Tink, for instance, throws behaviors at you in rapid-fire sequence. I once watched her teach a trainer with over a decade of experience to click her for sitting up and begging instead of doing a plain sit, just through sheer speed — the trainer could never manage to click Tink when she had both front feet on the floor. She is constantly in motion, so it’s hard to select just the response you want, since you have to have sharp eyes and fast reflexes to get a click in there.

Beowulf has a tendency to just freeze in place. I need to do “101 things to do with a box” with him, just to get him used to the notion that a click does not mean “stop right where you’re at”. On the other hand, the dog has a KILLER stay. When it comes to my dog, I am very serious. I want to give him the best as I could that’s why I got into pet insurance reviews.

Sid is fun to train but I have to be careful free-shaping him. As I discovered tonight while working on teaching him to pick up my keys, if he doesn’t get a click when he thinks he should, he checks out and goes to lie down on his bed and sulk. I have to either very carefully and very slowly ratchet up my criteria for him, or adopt a variable-amount reward so that he gets, say, my pet needs that one kibble for hovering his nose over the keys, but four or five if he licks the keys.

My keys, incidentally, are kind of slobbery after the last training session. It’s a little gross.

In other news, the dogs’ new tags from Down 2 Earth Jewelry got here and are hanging from their collars. They are gorgeous little things and I must get pics. I informed Sid that now that he’s officially wearing his “co-pilot” tag, he must be a Good Boy all the time.

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Adding another blog to the blogroll!

There are some good dogblogs over there on the right, you know. Recently I’ve added Training of a Search Dog, where you can read about Mr. Musket’s journey to his new career as a SAR dog! For those of you with short memories, Musket has been here twice before for short stays, and has finally found His Person who adores him for his high drive. I encourage you to keep up with him, cause it looks like it will be a fascinating read, especially if you’re interested in what goes into a Wilderness SAR dog!

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Tink is officially smallest dog in the house again.

When we took Sid in for his first vet appointment, he was a skinny thing with not much muscle tone and weighed in at 58.5 pounds, which is right at or below where Tink tends to ride in terms of weight these days. He went in Friday for his lepto and Lyme boosters, and weighed in at 63.5 pounds, officially making Tink the smallest dog in the house again in terms of weight.

“Smallest dog in the house” seems like an odd moniker to apply to a dog who is 28″ at the shoulder. Tink is very oversized for a Doberman bitch, much as Beowulf is way too tall for a Doberman dog. The contrast between builds with Dobes and Shedders is pretty interesting, too. Sid and Zille are about the same height, around 24″ at the shoulder, but Zille weighs in around 70lbs and she is pretty much nothing but muscle. This is, for the record, about the same thing Beowulf weighs, and he’s 7″ taller than Zillekins. Siddy’s 5 pound weight gain has been entirely muscle; I’m keeping him on the lean side of a healthy weight to minimize stress on his joints as he grows, but his shoulders, haunches, and back have filled out with healthy (and strong!) muscle that is giving him the start of looking like the adult dog he’s going to be.

Meanwhile, back at the Manor, I’ve established that a few pieces of cheese will not cause Roo to vomit uncontrollably, so I’m thinking of taking up clicker training with him. I’m kind of on a training kick. I’m working with Sid because, well, he’s got a lot of work to do before he can be my Mobile Cane and Hairy Crutch, I’m periodically working with Tink[1] because she thinks it is deeply unfair that the puppy should get all the cheese, and I think it would be hilarious to have Roo doing things like jumping through hoops and otherwise performing for his food.


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Sid Training Log, part the whatevereth

Today we worked on placement, as in “put yourself where I point.” Sid did under the desk, at my feet, under the other desk, and on top of a rubbermaid container, and did it all in a mobility harness. I’m not putting weight on him yet, of course, but I do like to work him in harness so that the harness is associated with Fun Interactions Involving Cheese, as well as with “working, must be Srs Dog”.

A couple pics:
This picture is at a really wonky angle, please forgive.  It shows Sid, a black Shedder who is seven months old, wearing a dark brown leather harness which has a stiff handle (actually reinforced with metal) sticking up 3 inches above his backbone.  Imagine a guide dog harness (the kind where the straps go over the shoulders instead of across the chest) if the handle was rigidly attached to the harness so it went straight up, and also very short.  His front feet are up on a blue rubbermaid box which is about 16 inches wide by 2 feet long.

This was the beginning of getting him onto the box. I knew he could get his whole body on the box because he’d done it previously in order to lick my ear while I was sitting in my chair, but he was weirdly reluctant today. No matter, some cheese and a clicker changed all that! Behold:
Sid, in harness, sits on top of the rubbermaid box with a happy face!

I did eventually get him to lie down on top of the box, but he wouldn’t hold it long enough for me to get a picture. Trust me, it was adorable. He’s a pretty adorable dog. And he has such fun training in harness or out! He’s a great joy to train for me because patience is my downfall as a trainer, and Sid picks things up FAST. This means I spend less time breaking behaviors down into bitty steps and shaping them from there, which lowers my frustration levels quite a bit. I do need to get more systematic about training, though, because right now we’re working on the “what seems fun today” system and that’s likely to leave gaps in Siddy’s education.