Training My Own Guide Dog

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 2 Years 3 Months Old

Life has kicked my butt the last two months. My sister sat down to have a glass of wine and the next minute she was gone from us. She was on life support for one week which gave our family a chance to gather. My feet got ripped out from under me and two months later, I am trying to reshape myself in this new world. As a result Sagan has had to grow up some himself. He has had to endure two trips to North Carolina with ten hour car rides back and forth. He learned to give up his vigilance long enough to take naps in his car crate. He and I learned to navigate our way through labyrinth rest stop bathrooms; you know the kind where there are more than one entrance and exit. We both got thoroughly confused but a very nice person came to our rescue. I find that people are generally very kind. After our trips to North Carolina, we left home again to visit Rachel Carson EcoVillage where we will be moving next year. On all the trips Sagan did his best to act like a well behaved guide dog. I am proud of his progress.

Now we have settled back down and our training together is at full steam again. My husband hangs further back now when we walk and gives me less and less information about overheads and complex obstacles. Sagan is doing great work. It is me who struggles to trust. That has always been my issue with guide dogs and human guides as well. I have been whacked on the head and fallen in holes even when walking with a perfectly sighted person, so I am a little wary. Everyday now my confidence grows and Sagan and I are becoming a more cohesive team.

Somewhere during our travels, Sagan was bitten by something we think. He began licking his right front leg which has resulted in a small spot which is inflamed. He can’t leave it alone so he has been wearing that awful cone on his head to keep him from licking his leg. Being a poodle,  he is able to defeat the cone when he is committed to the effort. We alternate between wrapping his leg and using the cone when we can be watchful every second. It is almost healed now so my hope is that he will forget about it.

The two pictures above show Sagan in the living room happily wearing his cone.

 

Our intention was to have been finished with basic traffic training by now but with the huge interruption  we got off track. Next week we will start with traffic basics again. I have no doubt that he will pick it up quickly.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 2 Years and 2 Months Old

I totally forgot Sagan’s birthday. I know it is silly to mark a birthday every month but I am silly so there you have it. Anyway, my mind and heart were preparing for my trip to North Carolina for two memorials for my sister. We took Sagan and once again he endured a 10 hour car trip without complaint. We took breaks and only harnessed him when necessary. He is a master at public bathrooms which really helps a lot. We stayed in four different Air B & B’s. We kept to his feeding schedule as close as we could but the sleeping schedule was all messed up. There was nothing I could do. There were so many people and he has a bad case of FOMO (fear of missing out). Sometimes he could barely keep his eyes open but he would not sleep until I went to bed. I need to work on him being able to relax. As long as he is connected to me or Stu, he does very well but that is not always desirable. I am open to suggestions on how to keep a dog calm and quiet while either attached to a piece of furniture or in his crate. All the dogs I have gotten from guide dog schools have been content to be alone even while in a crowd of people. This was one of those situations where I did not anticipate and I was in no position or frame of mind to train him. 

Sagan barked during the memorial service. It was one loud startle bark. The church was very quiet and the microphone made a horrible sound that was kind of like somebody knocking. It startled me too. Also when the choir sang a loud song he softly whined. I covered his ears. I am not sure if in the larger scheme of my life if this is a problem or not. I am rarely in such situations so I need to decide if it something we really need to work on or not. Something that did crop up that definitely needs attention is that he started standing up when people started clapping. I think I can work through this by putting on clapping sounds. 

I was obsessed with fleas. I rubbed him down with Wondercide every other day. I also put a combination of things in his food to deter fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. I have not seen any fleas, so hopefully we dodged that one. We will test for heart worm in a couple of months when we can get an accurate test. I feel fortunate that he has a robust digestive system so there were no issues with being in a strange environment with lots of chances for encounters with dead creatures and plant material.

The best part was watching him interact with the lake. He wanted to go in so much but he couldn’t quite figure out how to go about it. He did finally go in with the help of Stu and my sons. He never actually swam because the lake is shallow enough for his back legs to be on the bottom. He looked pretty silly trying to walk on water. 

The three pictures above show Sagan learning to swim in the lake with his 4 siblings.

Over all he was a very good boy. To my knowledge, he did not eat any frogs or lizards. He did not chase ducks or other water fowl. I feel sure he is happy to be back home now as am I.

Here are the products I gave for flea control in case you are interested.

https://www.wondercide.com

https://earthanimal.com/product/natures-protection-flea-tick-daily-herbal-drops/

https://earthanimal.com/product/natures-protection-flea-tick-daily-herbal-internal-powder-yeast-free/

 

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 2 Years plus a little

Sagan has had some major training opportunities these last weeks. My closest sister in age collapsed suddenly at age 74 which required quick planning so the family could gather in North Carolina. Sagan had to be in his crate for a 10 hour drive. He was so good. He went to rest stops, restaurants, strange houses, and hotels. He even stayed with me all day in a hospital while we waited with friends and family for decisions to be made about life support for my sister. Sagan caused no problems at all. He also helped us divert our minds from our deep sadness. Maybe he can be a therapy dog too someday.

At the end of this month, we will again make the trip to North Carolina to two services for my sister. Once again his manners will be tested. We thought about flying but I am not quite ready to go through all the paperwork required to fly with guide dogs yet. I just had a rabies titer done and we will not get the results for maybe a couple of weeks. I may need to get the rabies vaccine for him before we fly and I am not prepared to go through the possibility of him having a severe reaction like he did with the last vaccines. I realize I am rambling but that is all my mind can do these days with the grief weighing heavy.

We started a “recall” class with Sagan last week. We have been slack about getting that basic command really solid. We think the structure of a class might help us focus. So far, our focus has not been so great. Teaching a good solid recall for a smart dog is challenging because they think for themselves and they think they have a choice in the matter which they actually do. I don’t even try to call him back if he is playing with another dog. My hope is that he will get better as we keep working with him.

The picture above shows Sagan and Quinn playing in the yard. Quinn has a frisbee in her mouth.

Once we returned from North Carolina, we traveled to Rochester, New York for eclipse watching and a poodle party with a friend who has a poodle from the same breeder as Sagan. The two dogs were crazy happy to be together. They could not rest for more than a few minutes before the fun had to start all over again. Now that we are back home, Sagan seems exhausted. We all need time to recover. These trips have been good because I am noticing holes in his training which we will need to work on in the future. Sagan is a very strong dog and strong willed. My hope is that he will mellow as he gets older.

The first picture shows Sagan and Quinn waiting attentively for treats and the second picture shows them taking a nap together on the rug after a long day of play.

The next weeks will be filled with more traveling. Sagan will get to experience a lake for the first time. I think he will love it. We will be traveling to the land of vicious fleas and ticks so I need to figure out my strategy to keep them off my boy. I will let you know if what I try with him works or not. I do not want to subject him to flea and tick pills so we will see what happens.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 2 Years Old

Sagan had his 2nd birthday on March 2nd. His coat is still clarifying so his coloring is patchy. The grey is coming out more and more but I would not say he is blue like he will be as he gets older. He is extremely handsome though.

I am happy to say that he has calmed down quite a bit. He still gets into trouble when his brain is not otherwise engaged. My husband’s ball point pens are still his favorite thing to run off with but he is less likely to crunch them to bits. He still loves to tear paper and boxes that do not belong to him. We have not yet mastered the “trade” game. That is one of the downsides of having a gifted and talented dog. He is very well aware that what he has stolen is way more exciting than whatever I am offering him for trade. I trust that this too will pass.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan at a local park. Sagan "finds the door" of the bathroom.

The big news is that we started traffic training this week. We started with cars coming out of driveways slowly. Once he figured out what was going on, we made the encounter a little more dramatic. I challenged him to go forward while the car was still moving and once I showed him that he needed to plant his feet or back up, he understood very quickly. I was extremely pleased with our first session. I think the car drivers were a little nervous but all went well. I have not decided yet how intensive I will get with traffic training. I am thinking now that I will take naturally occurring opportunities to train him. This is a work in progress so we will take it one day at a time.

The two pictures above show Mel walking with Sagan during traffic training. Susie, the trainer is instructing the driver when to drive out of the driveway as Mel and Sagan approach. 

His pace and pull are improving. I am easing off the Gentle Leader. My goal now is to be able to have control most of the time with his leash in my left hand along with the harness handle. His level of distraction has diminished greatly so this feels reasonable now. Over all, I am very pleased with his level of skill. I confess that I have had some moments when I thought my ambitious idea to train a dog myself was a mistake. Stu and Susie kept reassuring me and encouraging me to take a breath and keep going. It feels so good to be almost ready to declare him a graduate of guide dog training. Of course, training never ends because there is always room for improvement and new tricks and skills to learn. Now if I can keep loose and aggressive dogs away from him, we will truly be a working team.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, One Week Shy Of 2 Years Old

Snow, ice, snow, ice, rain, and more ice which comes with salt and unreliable terrain. My default mode when there is snow and ice is to “freeze” then “flee” as quickly as possible. I have no qualms about admitting that I am no “blind hero” type of person. I am an ordinary person who deems it a survival choice to remain inside when the world outside is very likely to be detrimental to my general well being.

The problem with this attitude is that Sagan, who needs a lot of mental and physical stimulation, still needs his mind and body occupied. I am extremely fortunate to have a husband who has no fear of snow and ice and is happy to take Sagen on snow walks. Sagan has gotten plenty of exercise on a 30 feet long line while walking in the ball fields next door. Sagan comes home with literal snow boots which require me to give him a quick foot bath or rather leg bath. He knows the routine now and jumps right into the bathtub. This has been going on now for about 2 weeks and outdoor training has suffered. Sagan really wants to be a sled dog but he was not hired for that so I need to refocus my efforts which I am now committed to doing. It has been a nice rest of sorts but we need to get back to setting boundaries because he is beginning to think he is unemployed.

The two pictures above show Sagan with his "snow boots" on. 

I have not been completely negligent these past snowy weeks. We have been to the dentist, restaurants, grocery shopping, and to other appointments which required him to follow Stu or lie quietly at my feet. He is quite good at the inside work. He finds bathroom stalls, lavatories, and doors to the inside and outside. He navigates people and shopping carts with sufficient confidence. We went to a huge store where there were two other “service dogs”. I think one of them really was a service dog but the other was certainly not. We had a bit of a tussle but it ended with me on my feet which is always a good thing. The store was quite crowded and Sagan kept his equanimity and I did too for the most part. I will just say, I did not cry.

The picture above shows Sagan in the snow at the ballfield. 

In two weeks we begin traffic training for real. Susy, my support trainer, Stu and I had a consultation with a professional Guide dog mobility trainer to discuss exactly how to do this. She gave us some great tips and she will be another part of the Training Sagan Team. I feel fortunate to have found a professional guide dog trainer who is willing to work with me. I will talk more about her in the future after we see how it all goes.

I am committed to transparency so I must say this journey has not been all roses and puffy white clouds. Sagan still pulls like a freight train and that needs to be resolved before I feel safe. He also really enjoys goosing people which is never appropriate. His recall needs work which is totally my fault. Sagan reads my mind so I need to clear my mind before I attempt to do something he is not fond of doing. I guess the good news is that I admit my faults and I am willing and excited to fix them. I wish I could just tell him that I can’t see so he would know what all this is about. Sometimes I feel like I am moving too slow with him and that I should be further along in his training. On the other hand, I am reassured by other owner trainers that the beauty of training my own guide is that we can do it at a pace that works for us as an individual team. We are unique and are not glued to a time line. Sagan is wicked smart which is kind of like working with a super smart child. They must be handled with care and forethought or being outsmarted is highly likely. I feel confident for the most part that this will have a happy ending, but sometimes I wonder, which is only natural. I will keep you posted.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 23 Months Old

Sagan really got to experience snow for the first time. We took him out on a long line and let him run free in safe places. He had a blast! There was almost no formal training while the snow was around. I was worried about his paws getting hurt by the salt and whatever else is used to keep away ice. I am also terrified of ice so I stayed home. Unfortunately, even though I was putting on Musher’s Wax, his back foot is bothering him. I am trying to figure out the best way to treat it. He licks constantly. I hope to avoid a trip to the vet so I am soaking his foot and putting on a healing ointment and then wrapping it. I tried putting on a cone but he just works around it. If it isn’t better in a couple of days, I will call the vet. I have some boots for him now. Once this is healed, we will try them out.

The first picture above shows Sagan playing outside in the snow with two little girls. Sagan is between them jumping up at a snow ball. The second picture shows Sagan iin the house with a dusting of snow covering his fur.

We did go to Home Depot last week to start teaching him about traffic. We had so much fun and he was amazing. We set up scenarios in the isles. Susy and Stu took turns cutting in front of us from different directions. Naturally, Sagan caught on fast so we had to work hard to surprise him. It was a lot of mental work for him so we gave him breaks to keep down his stress level. At one point we had him in a down stay near a busy intersection of isles where there were kids and carts passing. He was great and I was so thrilled. We also practiced following Stu all over the store which Sagan did excellently. I also took him to the bathroom where he did everything I asked him to do. When the session was over, I asked him to “find the door outside”. He found an outside door but it was not the door I wanted. It was not the door we came in but he was correct that it was a door outside. I was so proud. I praised him and asked again for the door outside and he took me to the correct door this time. I gushed praise over him. It was a real confidence building session.

The picture above shows Sagan standing on the grooming table showing off his new haircut from the groomer.

The last test of the day was to go to a restaurant. He tucked under the table and relaxed with no issues at all. We both came home and took a long nap. I am looking forward to continuing this type of training. I wish I felt as good about walking on streets but hopefully that will come in time.  

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 22 Months Old

My first guide dog, Glory, was this age when I got her from The Guide Dog Foundation in NY. She was a slight 42 pounds black poodle. She is responsible for my love affair with poodles. Sagan is a very different creature from Glory. He weighs around 52 pounds I think. I am currently working on getting his weight down. Sagan is a rough and tumble athlete whereas Glory was delicate and sassy. Glory was truly my heart dog but now Sagan occupies equal space there now. I feel so fortunate to have made it this far with him with a great support team. We are not ready yet to call ourselves a solid working team but we are getting there.

The picture above shows Mel, Stu, Seth and Sagan at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

We traveled to our future home in Pittsburgh for 8 days over the holidays. He has become a calm traveler and his public bathroom skills are getting quite good. We still get confused in those huge rest stop ones though with many doors. People are very kind though, so I just ask for direction. People love to help. I know a lot of people who are blind who complain about people touching their bodies to direct them but unless they are truly rough with me, I thank them gratefully. It is my gift to them. I use these opportunities for training him.

The two pictures above show Mel sitting with Sagan at the Botanical Gardens.

We went to many events while we were in Pittsburgh. We wanted to meet as many of our new neighbors as possible which required lots of restaurant visits. He was excellent. The best compliment a guide dog handler can get is, “I didn’t even know he was under there.” He still has a little trouble weaving in and out of tables smoothly. We need to work more on the concept of space clearance or what I call “double wide”. He follows Stu very well which is a command I use often. Pace and pull are still our biggest challenge. I have a strategy now though which is working. I will talk more about that later when I give it more time to work.

The two pictures above show Sagan watching the trains and the koi fish at the botanical gardens. 

The scariest part of the trip was a dog attack. A pit bull mix dog came out of nowhere with no person in sight. I was not walking him at the time for which I am deeply grateful. Stu had him out for a brisk exercise walk and Stu saved Sagan. The dog did not make contact with Sagan. Stu had to kick the dog several times before the dog stopped coming at Sagan. Stu was quite shaken up when he got home. I examined Sagan thoroughly and he was not hurt. Fortunately, Sagan seems not to be traumatized but we will know for sure as time passes. Dog attacks are one of my worst fears. If anyone has any suggestions on the best way to protect our guides, I am interested to know. It has become all too common and we all need a plan to deal with it. Three out of my four guide dogs have been attacked. Two of them had to be retired because of loose dogs. I wish there was some way to fix this growing problem but I don’t know how. We need to start a movement.

For information on The Rachel EcoVillage, visit https://rachelcarsonecovillage.org

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 21 Months Old

Sagan is old enough now to start some more serious finishing and polishing. We have accomplished all the major guiding commands except intelligent obedience in relation to traffic. I hope to begin that gently next week. Of course, a guide dog is never finished training. It is important to keep up their skills daily. They can get sloppy with their work if they don’t keep practicing. Getting him to slow down has been my main priority these last weeks. I feel like I have a technique now that is working pretty well. I added back the Gentle Leader with his martingale. I keep a steady tension on both collars with the leash in my right hand. Ultimately, I want to have my right hand free. This method helps me keep a lighter touch on the harness handle which is what I want. I am using the treadmill to help him understand walking more slowly and pairing the command “steady” when I slow down the speed. Then I use the command “hop up” to speed him up. Different people spell it differently. He seems to enjoy the treadmill which will come in handy on bad weather days. Overall I feel pretty good about our progress. Sometimes I worry that I am not pushing him or me enough but I suppose there is no set in stone time table. That is the beauty of training my own dog.

The two pictures above show Mel on a training walk with Sagan. The first picture shows Mel and Sagan stopping at a curb before crossing the street. The second picture shows Sagan stopping at curb. He places his 2 front feet on the top of the curb and waits for the next command. 

My husband started working again which made our outings to public places less frequent. Sagan needs to learn to be calm and relaxed when there is nothing going on like sitting in a restaurant or lying at my feet while in a meeting. Since I am not going out as much, I have started putting on his harness and having him at my feet for long periods of time. He is at my feet as I write this. He is not super happy about it but he will learn that he can relax while in harness. We also practice going up and down the stairs and to the bathroom. This combined with the treadmill tires him out which is always a good thing. Poodles like to be using their brain and body more than I do so it is a challenge to keep him from finding trouble. Poodles often take a little longer to mature than other commonly used guide dog breeds. I think because they are very curious and tend to be very independent. I don’t mind. I can wait. I never want a different breed. For me, poodles are the best. 

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan sitting at a bench in the neighborhood as a very loud firetruck  with Santa and a firefighter on the roof drive by. 

Sagan did start what is called “morning bilious vomiting” a few weeks ago. I was feeding his last meal of the day too early. I now give him a small handful of Vital Essentials nibs at bedtime and then a few more when he gets restless in the very early hours in the morning. This sounds like a burden but I usually need to get up anyway so it is no problem. This has solved our problem and now he sleeps later in the morning. My biggest challenge is not to feed him too much in a day. He does need to lose a little so I am adjusting. He is food obsessed and it is so easy for me to give him a bone or something with too many calories to keep him busy. This is my problem, not his.

The picture above shows Sagan laying on his bed with his new gingerbread man toy which he has already destroyed. 

 

If anyone here has trained traffic skills to their dog, I am open to suggestions and tips as to how to do it. It isn’t a skill I want to mess up so suggestions are welcome.

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