Training My Own Guide Dog

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.

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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.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 20 1/2 Months Old

I am humbled again this week. I am now having to unteach some bad habits that I didn’t even know I was teaching. It is so easy to shape an unwanted behavior without knowing you are doing it. Behaviors that are cute when they are puppies turn out not to be so cute when they grow up. Sagan has started “demand barking” when he wants something like peanut butter in his bone or when he wants us to throw his bone for the millionth time. At first he began grumbling at us. We thought it was so cute because it sounded like he was trying to talk. We, mostly me, without thinking did what he asked because he was cute and I am a little too soft hearted. When I realized I was shaping an unwanted behavior, it was too late. Now, when he thinks I am not moving fast enough to fulfill his desire, he barks at me. Well, this is not at all good and I feel kind of stupid for not paying attention to what I was creating. I made my bed and now it is time to change the sheets.

The picture above shows Sagan resting his head on the arm of the couch.

Our training session this week was mostly about teaching me to unteach undesirable behaviors. Now when he demand barks, I redirect him by asking for a behavior he knows well and then praising him for that. He does not get what he is asking for anymore. It will probably be harder to train me than it is him. There will be no more throwing his bone from the couch at night while watching the news. He loves this game and it is an easy way to keep him occupied while we relax. The issue has become that we get bored with it before he does, thus, the barking, so no more bone throwing unless we are standing or sitting in a designated bone throwing seat. I am so glad to have a trainer that can quickly assess the problem and tell me how to fix it. I wish I was a training genius so I wouldn’t make silly mistakes.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan sitting happily on the couch.

The good news is that Sagan learned how to walk on the treadmill in practically no time at all. He hopped right up and with a little encouragement he was off and walking at a nice pace. The plan is to teach him to walk at my pace. I need to decide what pace I want to be most of the time myself and then we will have him go at that speed. I will use the treadmill to increase my own speed so we will be at a good pace. I wish we could walk on the treadmill at the same time but the deck is not wide enough. I will march in place beside him. It was so fun teaching him and seeing how fast he caught on. I think he enjoys it.

The picture above shows Sagan learning to walk on the treadmill. 

The other funny thing, but not really, was that Sagan discovered tissue boxes. We have them all over the house and he located every single one of them. His goal was to shred the boxes. I have given him boxes to shred ever since he was a puppy. They make great puzzles and are generally safe if supervised. I always handed them to him so he would know they were his to shred. Well, he is a genius poodle and he decided he could find his own boxes which he proceeded to do with great efficiency. He had five boxes before I knew what was going on. Nobody got hurt but now I am back to teaching a solid “leave it” command. This is what I get for having a gifted and talented dog. They are just like super curious children. They need their mind occupied or they will make their own fun. Next week is Thanksgiving and our house will be full so for the next few days I will be working diligently to undo what I did. I will let you know how it goes.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 20 Months Old

It’s all about the toads these last couple of weeks. There was a big fat toad on our sidewalk in front of our house and it jumped away as Sagan came near. It sent him to a frenzy. He was desperate to understand this new amazing hopping thing. Now every time we walk out the front door, every leaf is a potential toad. It is kind of funny at first but the cuteness factor has worn off. There is also a cat that likes to lounge in the bushes of our walkway so just walking out the door these days is a massive training opportunity. It is good for us to have such an opportunity but I hate being hard on him with the corrections. He is getting better at working but he is clearly not as focused as he should be. I am sure we will get through it over time.

The picture above shows Sagan outside sitting happily on a chair with a marrow bone hanging out of this mouth.

Pace and pull are by far our biggest challenge still. I switched back to Gentle Leader nose collar again. The other collar was not working to help slow him down. The Gentle Leader does help. Naturally, I would like to not need anything other than his martingale and his harness. Maybe as he gets a little older he will slow down. We have several strategies to work with this so I feel confident that Sagan and I will have a meeting of the minds over time. I have ordered a treadmill to help me gain walking speed and confidence. Sagan will be trained to walk on it too. I am not exactly sure how this will work out but I am told that dogs love treadmills and it helps get them exercise when the weather is bad. I am excited to have another tool to help both of us find our rhythm.

The picture above shows Sagan playing with his new toy that holds a bully stick.

I talk to a lot of dog people and we love to talk about dog food. It can be a hot topic because there are so many opinions about the best foods. I get asked often what I feed Sagan. I, like most other dog people have strong opinions but I do understand that people make the best choices for their particular situation. I do want to share my thoughts on the matter though in case there is something for you to think about.

Well, to put it right out there, I think the vast majority of dry dog food is garbage. Many of the popular brands of kibble and canned foods are owned by Mars and Nestle candy companies. I don’t know about you but I don’t have a lot of faith that large candy companies have my dog’s nutrition requirements foremost in their minds. Most dry dog foods have been processed into little balls of colored and artificially flavored cardboard. After doing much research, I discovered way more about the dog food industry than anyone wants to know. Dog food companies and veterinarians promote feeding the same food to your dog forever. Humans are encouraged to eat a variety of whole foods and I believe the same holds true for our best creature friends. Dogs don’t want to eat brown cardboard every meal any more than humans want to eat dry toast day in and day out. Dry dog food did not exist until recently in our history together. Due to excellent marketing, we have been led to believe that we are doing a disservice to our dogs if we do not feed them their special balanced formulas. It is very easy to be swayed by good marketing because it is so convenient. We have become afraid to feed our dogs real food for fear that we will do it wrong. I believe that many of the cancers, kidney, liver, and heart problems found in our dogs today, not to mention allergies and behavior problems are due to dogs not having a variety of species appropriate foods. Also, I believe that dogs deserve to thoroughly enjoy their meals. There are many myths about feeding dogs that need to be busted but I am not the one to do that here. If you do some research, I believe you might decide to at least add some kibble toppers for variety and nutrition. At the very least, you can wet the dry food so that it is more palatable and keeps your dog hydrated. Most dogs do not naturally drink enough water to properly digest and absorb dry food.

Sagan gets a mostly raw diet with different protein sources. I do feed him a dry kibble for use in puzzles or training treats. I change brands every time. Right now he is getting a brand that I feel good about. It is Carna4. I do occasionally feed him canned food for convenience when needed. I look for the best ingredients I can find. Smaller food companies that are privately owned make the highest quality foods. I started this way of feeding the day I brought him home at 8 weeks old. So far so good. We have had no digestive issues of any kind and I feel good knowing that he loves his meals. It is funny to watch how fast he offers all his pre feeding commands. Before he gets to eat, he must go through a series of obedience commands. I change them from day to day so he does not know what I am going to ask for. You can’t imagine a more alert, focused dog.

The picture above shows a picture of the dog food that I get for Sagan. 

I know I get wound up about food. I do want you to know that I do understand that people make the best decisions they can. I do want people to be aware though that they can without fear feed their dog some real meat and even fruits and vegetables that people eat. It will keep your dog healthier longer as research is now showing.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 19 3/4 Months Old

These last few weeks have been a whirlwind! We took Sagan to a large family reunion and then to a family wedding. Sagan was exposed to long car rides, hotels big and small, restaurants, shuttles, loud music, large cities, elevators, and best of all, a 10 week old puppy, and my best friends's new dog. Sagan ended his trip with a great romp with my friend's dog in their fenced yard. Now our dogs are best friends which makes me extremely happy. Sagan needs to learn to be a bit more gentlemanly though. Some of his behaviors were not exactly appropriate from a strictly human perspective. My friend’s dog quickly learned to put him in his place. Overall the trips were a great success with only a couple of break downs on my part. 

The first picture above shows my best friend Katie and I in the dining room with Sagan and Cali. The second picture shows Cali dominating Sagan outside on the dirt.

This long trip served to clarify the areas of Sagan’s training that need polishing and which skills still need to be learned. More than anything, I need to get his pace and pull aligned with what I require to feel safe with him in all situations. He loves to take off fast and hard which is too much for me. He works great when he is thoroughly exercised before hand and when the terrain is flat. I have lost a great deal of vision even in the last few weeks, so my fear has reared up its ugly head which is my challenge to resolve. He also has a tendency to like to look in strangers’ baby carriages. So far, nobody has been upset but obviously, this is not cool. He also struggles to lie still for long periods of time at my feet. He just seems to need to pop up and down. I am wondering if he is uncomfortable in some way or if it is just a behavior that needs refining. I also discovered that I need to go back to some basics like following the person I designate without getting distracted. I need to learn to follow him too. Building trust is a process which won’t be rushed.

The first picture above shows my three sons, Seth, Cole, and Sagan looking dapper at the wedding. The second picture shows Mel with Sagan in front of a beautiful Ginkgo Biloba tree at the wedding.

Mostly Sagan was super and I am very proud of him. He handled the crowds very well. He kept his vocalizations to a respectable amount. He is a dog after all. He looked very professional in public places. I was not approached at all by anyone questioning his legitimacy as a guide dog. I am quite proud of that. Now I know better where to make adjustments to make us an even better team. I am rereading the book Forward Together, by Christie Bane to refresh and solidify certain skills. I enjoy the challenge.


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