Training My Own Guide Dog

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, Just Shy Of 11 Months Old

Stu, my husband, is the hero of the last week. We had an equipment failure which resulted in Sagan running free. It was traumatizing for the humans but Sagan thoroughly enjoyed his adventure. Stu did exactly the right thing by sitting down and throwing treats around. Sagan zoomed and zoomed but ultimately landed next to Stu. All is well.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan relaxing during class. 

This event sparked an urgent motivation to practice recalls. Susie, our trainer brought us a dog whistle which we are now training Sagan to react too quickly. There is nothing like a big scare to motivate one to work harder. The dog whistle will be something we carry with us at all times. We are currently in what is called “the charging phase”. This just means that he gets amazing treats every time we use it. We are practicing once a day for a while and then we will back off. We will need to practice with it periodically so he does not forget. Hopefully, we will never need to use it. I encourage everyone to practice their recalls because it can save your dog’s life.

The picture above shows Sagan on a long line with Mel during class.

The excellent news this week is that Sagan was much quieter in his CGC class. He settled more quickly and was not nearly as vocal. I was very proud. We also took him to Quaker Meeting on Sunday and he stayed down and under quietly. After Meeting, we invited people to come say hello to him and he was great. Progress is definitely being made.

The picture above shows Sagan saying hello to Susie the trainer during class. Susie is on crutches.

 

Sagan is calming down. I don’t know whether to attribute it to his being neutered about 6 weeks ago or just growing up. I confess I would have preferred to wait for the neutering but I need to let that go. Some decisions are so hard to make and the only solution is to make one and be okay with it. Sagan seems healthy and I do appreciate him calming down for whatever reason.

We just took down the last of the house gates. That feels like a milestone. We also just bought him a new batch of interactive toys for tossing. They don’t last forever and it is fun to go toy shopping. I will let you know how they hold up over time.

Overall, today I feel good about training and where we are headed. Learning how to cope with distractions is currently our biggest challenge. Dogs are dogs and they will be distracted. Finding a way to work around that is probably the single most difficult part of training a guide dog. We are not there yet. I am hopeful.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 10 3/4 Months Old

The last week was thrilling. I did cry once when I was too stressed out myself to be out and about with him. Our energies did not mesh well and it just wasn’t fun for either of us. I switched to a different kind of head collar which clips behind the head instead of under the chin. I thought this would be better for knowing where his head is located in space and that his pulling would not create asymmetries in his spine. Anyway, I hate the new collar. I don’t like the way it tightens around his nose. If he does not pull at all, it is great but he still pulls sometimes. So, we are back to the Gentle Leader and the martingale. I attach to both. We are working with him now to ween off the Gentle Leader. In order for him to pass the CGC test, he must have only a flat collar or martingale.

The picture above shows Mel standing in the dining room with Sagan at her side.

 

Now for the thrilling part. We have increased his public access to about three times a week with outdoor walks on the other days. Last week we went to a huge grocery store. Stu pulled the cart and I held onto it with Sagan on my left. Sagan had to walk slowly and stand still for periods of time. Standing still is his most challenging position. He did great though. I did obedience exercises with him while Stu ran off to get some groceries. He performed perfectly. There was even another dog in the store which he noticed but did not go ballistic. It felt so good to have a dog by my side. The most fun was when we went to Target where we met the trainer. She took him while Stu and I followed secretly. Her goal was to make the transition away from the Gentle Leader and to help with pace and pull. Keeping him focused on walking straight is also a work in progress. Then Stu took him for a while with Susie and I following. The best part was when I put away my cane and walked with Sagan through the store alone with Susie and Stu walking behind. Sagan was actually guiding me for the first time. He responded to left and right and he maneuvered me around carts and displays in the middle of the aisles. I was high as a kite after that. For the first time, I felt his real potential to be a guide dog and I was close to tears of joy.

The picture above shows Sagan in the living room looking into the camera with his stuffed shark in his mouth.

 

It was our second time at the Canine Good Citizens prep class Saturday. He does very well with the commands, trainer handling, and all the other requirements. The main issue is that he whines and is restless when he is supposed to be resting quietly by my side. He does eventually calm down but my perfectionism rears up its head and I worry. I tell myself the story that he will never get better. I have been assured multiple times that he is young and he will quiet down. I just have to believe that this is true. I have a tendency to want to rush him to the next phase before he has mastered the current one. It is like asking a teenage boy to jump over adolescence and go straight to being an adult. This mindset only serves to make all of us lunatics. I am learning to break everything down into manageable steps and not to skip over anything. This can be tedious at times but I am learning that it is better to take it in tiny steps in order to make the goal. I am embracing turtle mind. Now if I can just get him to be a tiny bit more like a turtle, we will be well on our way to making a great team.

The picture above shows Sagan in the living room watching televison. He was very interested in the little girl on the screen.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 10 1/2 Months Old

My boy is growing up and calming down. I am grateful for that. He gets into his share of trouble but usually it is our fault for leaving tempting things like leather wallets and TV remotes just where he can find them. The other day I tried using a sour apple spray on our AirPods. I soaked the outside and put them where he could get them. The spray did not deter him in the least. He is getting much better at dropping on command now, so it isn’t quite as scary as it was at first. I do need to find a way to make forbidden objects distasteful for him. Sour apple spray did not work. I could use some ideas as to what might help. We are quite vigilant but our housekeeping is not perfect and I do not always catch him in the act fast enough to tell him “No”.

The picture above shows Sagan laying on his new bed.

Sagan started his Canine Good Citizen prep class yesterday. At the end of this 2-month class, he can get a certificate. It basically indicates that he has enough self-control to do miner therapy dog work. Sagan is not destined to be a therapy dog but he needs exposure to other dogs and I need the structure for enhancing his training. His first class consisted of performing basic obedience in the presence of other dogs and with the trainer making noises. The trainer also rolled around a wheelchair and made noises with a walker. Sagan did well with all the commands but he was too vocal while just sitting and supposedly relaxing. The trainer believes that he will relax and become quieter. He is the youngest in the class. By the end of this class, he will be 1 year old so hopefully, he will learn to relax a little more.

We started working with him on getting me through narrow spaces on the sidewalk. The concept of what I call “double wide” can be tricky to teach. Just when I think he is getting it, he gets confused. He does better when the obstacle is on his left side. He is also perfecting his left and right turns. When I walk with him now, I actually feel him guiding. It is quite the thrill. I will order his harness next month. My confidence in his ability to do the work is steadily growing.

My husband and I will be moving to the Rachel Carson EcoVillage early next year. I am so looking forward to Sagan guiding me on the trails and the campus where the village will be located. Rachel Carson EcoVillage will be breaking ground in March. By the end of this year, 35 homes will be finished so excitement is growing. Sagan will have open spaces to run when he is not working. He is already winding his way into the hearts of the founding members. I am extremely motivated to have him fully guiding by the time we move. This will help me feel more independent.

Rachel Carson EcoVillage has about 10 units left for sale. It is a multigenerational, diverse group of people who are committed to living lightly on the planet. I invite you to check out the website and attend an introductory session to learn more about it.

Rachel Carson EcoVillage https://rachelcarsonecovillage.org/

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 10 Months 1 Week Old

It feels good to be back to a training schedule. Our days and nights are calmer and my motivation for working with Sagan is renewed. I am revisiting books and training videos that I studied even before Sagan came on the scene. Now is the time to start using some of the more advanced materials. Sagan is so eager to learn new things and I need to learn how to teach them. We are learning together.

The picture above shows Sagan standing in the kitchen and looking behind himself.

My husband and I are also learning new tricks. We have learned not to put our AirPods in shallow pants pockets where they easily fall out. It is nice of him to find them for us but he prefers not to give them back. Both of our AirPods are now sporting teeth marks. My plan is to perfect his “drop it” and “trade” commands this week. We are also getting accustomed to looking for our cookie sheets and other baking pans on our furniture instead of in the kitchen. Sagan was getting zoomies and launching himself onto the couch. This is not an acceptable behavior so metal pans make the couch landing not as much fun for him. We also only want him on the couch when he is invited. I am not sure yet when we will be able to return our pans back to their rightful place. Sagan also recently discovered that ballpoint pens are the best chew toys ever. This is terrifying because they can do so much damage to dogs. Until I can get a reliable “drop” from Sagan, we need to stop leaving pens around.

Last week I began adding more challenges to his usual commands. Now before he is released to eat his food, I require that he heel and shake hands before he eats. This is for training better impulse control. It is hard for him because he is hungry and he loves his food. He is also required to sit on his bed while food is being prepared. He is pretty good at the “go to bed” command if the stay is short. Now I am teaching him to go to his bed from any place in the house and he must stay put until he is released. It is a work in progress. The other command we are working on is the “close” command. He is required to turn his body and sit between my legs facing the same direction I am. He does this whether I am sitting down or standing. This command comes in handy when we are in a crowded situation. He already does this one pretty well but it needs solidifying.

The picture above shows Sagan in the dining room with his Tearribles monster plush toy in his mouth. 

Our biggest challenge now is his desire to play with other dogs, squirrels, and children on our daily walks. He becomes activated and starts vocalizing and becoming generally unfocused. This is a common problem that will require patience and consistency on our part. He does quite well inside stores which is great. My hope is that his distractability will calm down as he grows older.

We are baking our own training treats now when we can find our pans. It is much cheaper than buying them. Here are a couple of recipes in case you are interested.

Pumpkin, peanut butter, and oats dog treats https://itdoesnttastelikechicken.com/pumpkin-peanut-butter-dog-treats-just-3-ingredients/#recipe

Banana, peanut butter, and oats dog treats https://itdoesnttastelikechicken.com/easy-homemade-dog-treats/#recipe

 

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 10 Months Old

Sagan has healed well from his neutering and all is well. The biggest challenge was keeping him from being too rambunctious. The body suit was the best thing ever for keeping him away from the incision. He actually seemed to like wearing it. We are back to a full schedule of training now that the holidays are over and our house is empty from family again.

The picture above shows Mel, Stu, and Sagan on the couch in the living room. Sagan is laying in between Stu and Mel with his front legs crossed and all smiles. 

 

We had many people coming and going from our house over the last two weeks so we had many opportunities to teach Sagan to go to his bed when someone knocks on the door. Whenever someone was coming over, we set it up so we had Sagan on a leash and when the knock came, we ran him over to his bed and treated him. He was required to stay there until he became calm. Then he was allowed to greet the people. He did amazingly well with this. He got a tremendous amount of loving and lots of different people playing with him. As far as I know he stole nothing of value from anyone and all the holiday decorations stayed safe.

The picture above shows Mel's son, Cole and Sagan on the couch wrapped in a hug with the same excited expressions on their faces.

 

I decided to try my hand at crafting a dog toy which is working out great so far. I have collected used marrow bones and I made a bone chain. I got an old pair of jeans and cut them up. I threaded the bones and tied a few knots here and there. It is quite ugly but he loves it. I occasionally stuff treats in it or put a bit of peanut butter on the bones. He carries it around and then he settles nicely with it on his bed. I have spent so much money trying to find the right kind of toys for him. I think making them is the best solution.

 

We decided that we do not want him on the furniture without being invited. The trainer suggested that we put cookie sheets on the couches and chairs. This has worked like magic. The idea is to break the pattern of launching himself on and off furniture. We do invite him on the couch at times, but he is only allowed to rest with us.

The picture above shows a closeup of Sagan. He looks like he is laughing. 

 

Now that he is 10 months old, we will start asking more of him in terms of training more complex guiding skills. I plan to put him in harness in March when he is a year old. I am excited about this next phase of his training. 

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 9 1/2 Months Old

Well, after a whole lot of soul-searching and consulting with the vet, professional, and other owner trainers, I decided that neutering Sagan was the best choice for us. I planned to wait until he was close to 2 years old but it was not to be. He was exhibiting behaviors that I did not want to become entrenched. Other dogs were noticing him and he became very activated every time he saw a dog even in the distance. We tried to train past these behaviors without success. I am well aware that Sagan’s work may not be as a guide dog but I felt that neutering him now will give us the best chance for success. He is currently recovering nicely from his surgery.

The picture above shows Sagan post-surgery laying on the living room floor. He is wearing his inflatable donut ring. 

 

I am sure that most of you are familiar with the horrible plastic cone that is part of post-surgery care for dogs who are likely to chew at their incision. It is truly miserable for the dog and for us to watch. I researched other alternatives and came up with two. One is an inflatable doughnut that goes over their head and the other is a body suit that covers the wound. We are using both. Poodles have long noses which allows them to get around the doughnut if they are determined. Sagan was determined. We then located the Suitical, which is a body suit. It works great. It seems to keep him calm and he can’t get to the incision. We still use the doughnut at times when he isn’t trying to chew himself. I like to give him a break from the suit. The suit needs to be unsnapped when he urinates and we learned the hard way exactly how that needs to be done. We have had to wash the suit twice. I highly recommend the suit for dogs needing surgery.

The 2 pictures above show Sagan standing in the kitchen wearing the Suitical bodysuit. It is a thin black material with snaps in the back.

 

The most challenging part of the whole thing is keeping him calm and quiet. The first day he was kind of groggy but after that, he was ready to run and jump. I have been keeping him busy as much as I can to keep his focus away from his wound and to keep him from wanting to zoom around the house. We are playing games with food and chew toys. I am looking forward to this phase being over. Keeping him calm for 2 weeks seems unlikely but I will do my best.

 

I confess that I considered not writing about my decision to have Sagan neutered so early. I know that there are strong opinions about neutering before 2 years old or even doing it at all. I was committed to waiting myself, but we don’t always get to do things the way we hope or plan. I did not want to get the lash back from those who think I made a bad decision. It felt out of integrity not to mention this hard decision because people need to know that raising and training a dog requires flexibility. I hope that my honesty will help others who might be in a similar situation. I will keep you posted as to the result. My greatest hope is that this will allow our training to continue with a calmer dog and that we will ultimately become the superior working team that I have imagined.

Link to Suitical bodysuit https://www.chewy.com/suitical-recovery-suit-dogs/dp/140879?gclid=Cj0KCQiAtICdBhCLARIsALUBFcEy0iOft2RHoR1Pz8SUNLICD2qAFVZt_K7VGz3Lei4BmKppGJbsD9UaAiwsEALw_wcB

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 9 Months and 1 Week Old

From a few comments I have received this last week, it is evident that I have some explaining to do. I don’t think I ever spoke about my intentions or philosophy in relation to claiming the label “owner-trainer."  It has been implied that I am misrepresenting myself because I have clearly hired a professional trainer who does work with me, my husband, and Sagan. She comes once a week for 90 minutes. She has never trained a dog to be a guide and neither have I. Her job is to be a part of my support team which every owner-trainer must have to reach the ultimate goal of having a polished working team. It is my responsibility as the owner and handler of the dog to raise a dog that is able to perform his tasks skillfully. A skilled working guide must be able to guide with precision and to be quiet, clean, and polite while he is working. It takes time, devotion, money, patience, and skill to do this well. I am extremely invested in having a working guide who will be a credit to his breed and to me as his handler. I am by no means naive enough to think I can do this without a support team. I am not that smart.

The reasons I have chosen to go the route of owner-trainer are many. I have worked with four guide dogs from established guide dog schools. I have learned a huge amount about what it takes to take responsibility for such a highly skilled dog as well as the care and feeding to maintain a dog at optimal health. It is so much more than learning how to command a dog and keeping it groomed and healthy. There is a bond of trust that must be forged in order to be a good team. I thought long and hard about my decision to get an 8-week-old puppy because it is a huge undertaking to do what I have set out to do. I wanted to create a bond of trust with my dog from the very start. I also wanted a poodle, which are harder to get from established schools. Another reason is that I am committed to training my dog with force-free and fear-free methods as much as possible. I want my dog to be working for me because it is fun for him. This training method takes longer in some cases because behaviors are being shaped, not forced. They are being rewarded for making good choices, not being corrected until the dog absolutely knows what is being asked of him. Every dog is an individual as is every human. It takes time to learn their learning style and it takes time to figure out what motivates a dog to do what is asked of him. I wanted control of this process from start to finish. I take this responsibility very seriously.

The picture above shows Mel playing in the kitchen with Sagan. 

The purpose of writing and posting this weekly progress report is to show what is truley involved in being an owner-trainer with all the challenges and celebrations along the way. I do not know how this story will end. Sagan, even though he is certainly a genius, may not be cut out for guide work. I won’t know for a long while yet. So far, he is doing very well and we are still enjoying the process at 9 months old. I study and consult with other owner-trainers almost daily so that I can keep us on track. I think that others need to know that this is not just a walk in the park even though that is some of what we do. I write this to get helpful feedback from experienced trainers and I have received much good advice from many. I take it in and weigh it carefully against my own judgment and my philosophy of training. I appreciate hearing all of it, so please keep it coming. My greatest desire is to end up with a guide dog that enjoys his work and proves to the world that people who are blind can take responsibility for creating a great support team and ultimately a working team that moves effectively and with pride through their environment. I believe that people who are blind are perfectly capable of choosing and training their own dog with guidance from experienced people. I believe that we can create a working team that rivals and even exceeds the expectations of those graduating from established schools. Owner training is serious business and the result reflects on all those who have working guides. We must hold ourselves to a very high standard so that guide dogs are always considered among the most highly skilled of working dogs. I am committed to training a dog that will make all of us proud.

The picture aboves shows Sagan after his grooming. He is wearing a red, white and green bandana. He looks very handsome.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 9 Months Old

Sagan turned 9 months old on December 2nd. Needless to say, this is an obvious excuse for more toys. Instead of buying them this time, I made them. I received quite a few good ideas in response to my last blog, so I got creative myself.

The first toy I made is still in action. I found an old canvas shopping bag and put some of the toys he never plays with inside of it. I tied up the handles in such a way that the toys inside could not come out. The handles are great hand holds for playing tug. He really enjoys running and shaking it to make sure it is really dead. We play tug together and I ask him to stay while I hide it. He has ripped a few holes in it but it remains viable for now.

The picture above shows Sagan in the living room with his canvas bag toy and stuffed dragon. 

Next, I cut the legs off an old pair of jeans. I opened up the leg and then rolled it lengthwise with the cut seam inside. I tied two knots and he loves it. People also suggested that I cut the pant leg in strips and braid them with knots at the ends. I will try that when these get disappeared.

We started public access in earnest this week. We took him to a hardware store, a pet store, a huge grocery store, and a large department store. The latter was with our trainer. She walked him all over using the Gentle Leader and the martingale. Our goal is to move away from the Gentle Leader. He is getting so much better. He did have a few narcissistic moments when he kept seeing himself in mirrors in several of the aisles. He did manage to get over that pretty quickly. I am grateful he did not bark at his reflection like he usually does. He was also very distracted by some young children. The trainer says we need to find some young kids to hang out with in a relaxed way. I will need to make some new friends to make that happen.

The picture above shows the trainer walking Sagan in the department store. 

Our biggest challenge right now is house manners. If he is not in his crate or tethered in some fashion, he is in constant motion. We have been allowing him to roam freely in the house as much as we can but honestly, it is pretty frustrating. Everything and I mean everything is prime chewing material. Just when I think I can relax for a moment, he finds something I thought was out of his reach. He keeps finding dental floss and air pod cases. It is virtually impossible to protect him from every potential danger. Our house is getting darker and darker because he keeps finding the electric cords that go to lamps. The lamps get banished to the garage for the time being. Once again, “management” is the word of the week. My husband and I are learning not to put our air pods and anything else dangerous in pants pockets that are not secure. Things fall out of pockets on the couch and are targets for an observant puppy. I have also been working on getting Sagan to “trade”. The idea is to give him something more valuable than what is in his mouth at the time. Sometimes this works but more often than not, he is certain that what it is in his mouth at that moment is the best thing ever. I have had quite a few panicky moments when he has something and I have no idea what it is. I even tried sardines as the trade and he opted for the bottle in his mouth. It ended happily ever after but my heart starts racing at times. I just keep telling myself that dogs seem to live fairly well in the wild so I am trying to trust more in his own survival instincts.

My goal for the next couple of weeks is to train him to go to his bed and stay there instead of pacing like a caged lion. We are also working on him staying at the top or bottom of the staircase when not on a leash when we are going up and down ourselves. He likes to go flying around us on the stairs which is absolutely not acceptable. I think he will learn this quickly.

I think holiday decorations will pretty much be nonexistent this year due to Sagan. I am not up to worrying every second about where he is and what he is into. Maybe I will put some lights on the mantle or hang them from the ceiling. 

Overall, I am thrilled with our progress and we are having lots of fun together even though it may sound like I am complaining. This is a real-life slice of life with a puppy. We have located a puppy friend for him. The family has a large fenced-in yard. Sagan had the best time playing. We hope to make this a once-a-week event and to make some new dog friends for variety. I don’t want you to think it is all work and no play for Sagan.

The 2 pictures above show Sagan on his playdate with his new dog friend, Trixie.

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