Training My Own Guide Dog

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. https://carna4.com 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.

 

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, Almost 19 Months Old

Sagan is not afraid of rain which is a beautiful trait for a guide dog. He loves playing in the shower while it is running and playing dodge with the garden hose. I, on the other hand, am not a great fan of taking him outside when rain is coming down in sheets. My boy recently decided that he had rather go in the grass out in front of our house which requires a human escort rather than going out alone in our fenced yard. As a result, he did not evacuate his bladder for more than 24 hours at a time. This made me crazy! I worried that he had something wrong even though he was acting fine. I have since learned that dogs just do this sometime and they will let you know when they are willing to go in a designated spot. I confess I did take him out to the grass during a clear time in the weather. I refused to go to bed without him clearing his system. Anyway, we are still challenged by the behavior. I am sure there is an obvious solution but I have not wrapped my brain around how to execute the training in a step by step way. Any suggestions are welcome.

The picture above shows Sagan sitting outside on his bed. He was just asked a question so his head is tilted dramatically.

Our trusted favorite toy, Tug a Jug finally broke after a year of hard use. I dropped it one too many times while teaching him to find it on command. I have been trying to teach him to show me where something is that I have dropped. He learned the behavior at the expense of the beloved toy. Also, the rope inside finally succumbed to mold and mildew. It smelled pretty gross. I immediately ordered another because it is such a huge part of our morning feeding routine.

The picture above shows a closeup of Sagan's smiling face as he happily ran towards the camera.

Training has been off schedule due to weather. We did get to work several times last week on outside stairs at the nearby courthouse. He does very well with stairs but I still struggle to trust him. Sagan is excellent at evaluating a situation and making good decisions about which way to get around obstacles. He is also generalizing how to assess overhead obstacles. My challenge is to get over my own fears of falling or getting hit in the head by tree branches or pipes hanging off trucks. I have a very sensitive startle response so that panicky feeling is tough to work through. I must practice more and more with him. I am still not taking him out alone which is something I want to remedy very soon. Fear is my obstacle to figure out. Maybe I should wear a helmet and padded clothes. I doubt that would be a good look. Anyway, fear is my demon at the moment.

The 2 pictures above show Sagan after being groomed. He is much lighter in color. The first one is taken inside the house. He is wearing a halloween print bandana. The second picture is him sitting outside. He looks very regal.

Next month we hope to start traffic training. We will make sure he has the behaviors learned in a grocery store environment first before taking him to real traffic scenarios that we will set up for him. I am told that teaching traffic is not really difficult but there are obviously some planning and precision involved. I will keep you posted.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 18 1/2 Months Old

Sagan seems to be revisiting his rebellious teens this week. He has learned that in the middle of the night he can move to take up the exact center of the bed when I get up to go to the bathroom. This would not be so challenging if he would just move back to he spot, but naturally he is too smart to just give up his preferred position. Instead, he goes completely limp like a rag doll. I can’t move him. I pull and cajole and he does nothing. The other problem is that he is way too funny and cute so I am laughing and cursing at the same time. Talk about mixed messages! He will most likely need therapy to heal the scars.

 

The other less than perfect moment this week was he ate a half pint of the best tomatoes in the world. I may have created a tomato monster. I suppose this was mostly my fault but I did not realize I was shaping a behavior I do not want. This is my speculation on what happened. When he was younger it was suggested to me to give him cartons like you might get at the farm markets so he can shred them. I did this and he had a great time. Well, he generalized that all cartons like that are free for the taking. We learned not to leave those cartons empty on the counter. Then a few days ago I started putting these lovely tomatoes in his food bowl and there you have it; A dog who likes tomatoes and cartons. It only makes sense that together on the counter should be fair game. He saw me get the tomatoes out of the carton so when I was not in the kitchen, he devoured the tomatoes and brought me the carton to shred with him. Anyway, they did not bother his digestive system for more than a few hours the next morning. The moral of the story is be careful about what your dog is noticing because they might be learning something you did not mean to teach. You can’t unteach an unwanted behavior so now you must rely on teaching him impulse control. The other option is to not put tomatoes in cartons within his reach. I will most likely keep the cartons of tomatoes off the counter.

The two pictures above show Mel and Susie training sagan. The first shows Sagan firmly planted at State and Hamilton curb in Doylestown. The second shows Sagan checking oncoming traffic while guiding Mel across state street with Susie attached. 

 

We did do some actual guide dog training most days. We are refining his pace and pull and correcting our alignment when walking. Susie, the trainer attached another lead to his collar so when she noticed him wrapping in front of me, she was able to correct him quickly and effectively. He learns very fast so we were much better by the end of our walk. I am so grateful to have an excellent support team. Sagan takes his work seriously while in harness so I can forgive some teenage silliness in the house.

 

The first picture above shows Sagan guiding down Clinton Street sidewalk with Susie attached and traffic/cars in the background. The second picture shows Sagan taking an affection break at a bench on Court Street. 

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 18 Months 1 Week Old

I did what I set out to do this week and I am proud. Sagan is taking his work seriously and I am pushing both of us to be more adventurous. We went to a mall twice to work because of the heat which was fun even though malls are not my favorite place. I don’t think I have been to a mall since I trained with my last guide dog at a school. We also took our first train ride and then out to eat. Getting on the train was scary because I did not think it through before trying to get up the stairs. Sagan lost track of his back legs and he faltered. Stu saved us and then he took Sagan to rework the steps up. I need some advice on how to do this better. Over all I feel good about this week though I am emotionally tender.

The goals for working in the mall were to work on pace and pull in a place that feels safer for me. The mall was almost empty which made it perfect for learning to get into a smooth rhythm with each other. There is nothing like the feeling of walking with confidence while avoiding people and other obstacles. He handled moving obstacles like people and carts gracefully. He found seats and even the bathroom when asked. I am very proud of his bathroom skills. I think one of the best things about having a guide dog is going into a huge public bathroom and navigating them with ease. He was a super star today.

The picture above shows Mel working with Sagan at the Montgmomeryville Mall.

The train adventure was not as fun as the mall. Sagan stayed down and under the seat very well and he did not seem to be ruffled by the train noises at all. I am so grateful that he seems to take things in stride. If he is stressed out by something, he shakes it off and gets back to work. The hardest part about the train trip was that we were going to a place I had never been before and it was noisy with cars and strange intersections. Stu and I had trouble communicating because it was loud. I became very frightened and disoriented. Sagan was great the whole time but I was a nervous wreck. We only had to walk two blocks to a restaurant so it was short lived. Sagan settled under the table like a good boy while I relaxed with a beer and good food. The trip home was easier. I think the next time will be more familiar and more confidence building for me.

The picture above shows Sagan suavely crossing his legs while relaxing on the bed. 

We accomplished so much this week. My plan is to continue to gradually put both of us into situations that challenge our teamwork and that will provide more opportunities for more focus on his part. My work is to learn to stay calm and to shake it off like he does. We have much to teach each other. I could not ask for a better dog. Stu and Suzy have been such amazing supports for this grand project. I feel certain Sagan and I will be the kind of team that works for my lifestyle.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 18 Months Old

Is it age, prednisone, or training that has enhanced an already delightful puppy? We will get to find out soon. We went to the ophthalmologist yesterday and she said his eyes look really good. This means that we will continue to taper the prednisone. He is now down to 10 mg every other day. I am grateful that the prednisone did not make him a wild man. He has gained some weight in weird places, but hopefully that will resolve now. It is extremely difficult not to feed a dog when they act like they are starving. I think I did a pretty good job limiting his food but I was not perfect. I am going to let go of the subject of the vaccine reaction now. I am going to assume that he's going to be just fine and I won't ever have to write about it again.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan sitting on the bed. Sagan is facing the camera with his tongue hanging out.

Now that Sagan is more mature and we are past the vaccine reaction, I am ready to step up his training. I am setting new goals and beginning to make plans as to how to achieve them. I am writing this list here to hold myself accountable and maybe to give you some idea of what it takes to graduate an owner trained dog.

•Polishing house manners: Counter surfing resurfaced when he was so hungry so that needs to be addressed. 

*Barking at outside noises is getting better but it is a work in progress.

•Teaching him to show me things I have dropped and not running off with them. Most of my hair clips have less prongs on them than they should. He always manages to find them like he does with ball point pens. I have not figured out how to get him to pick something up gently and put it in my hand or at least touch it with his nose.

•We continue to refine his response to overhead obstacles and ground obstacles or dangers.

•We will take a short train ride and maybe a bus.

•The next big thing is traffic. We will begin by calling his attention more to natural moving vehicles in a way that does not frighten him but lets him know that he needs to think before crossing an intersection. I am not quite sure how we will manage this part but I have support. I hope to begin this in October.

•Pace and pull needs attention also. This is something that is confusing for me because I want to walk faster as is my nature but I am scared. I did fall last week while walking with him. I was not hurt badly but I feel vulnerable. My self protection response is something I have not tamed yet. I don’t enjoy falling or getting hit in the head so it is a challenge to move through. Many people who are blind say I need to get over my fear and I am practicing my self soothing techniques to the best of my ability. He is quite good at adjusting his pace for me but his pull is still a little strong for me. It is a delicate balance.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan in the living room. Sagan just returned from a walk and is recieving some love from Mel. 

I think pushing myself out of my own comfort zone is our biggest obstacle now. Sagan is a dream to work with; it is me that holds us back now. Fear of the unknown which is constant for me as a person who is blind is not a trivial wall to climb. It takes a great deal of slow breathing and being willing to push myself toward the breaking point without actually breaking. This is necessary for progress. Emotional stamina and physical stamina are my main projects now. This is all character building or so I am told. I should have a great character by the time this is all over.

I am open to suggestions or good resources to learn good traffic training methods. I have a pretty good idea, but more knowledge is always good.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 17 1/2 Months Old

For the last two weeks training has slowed down due to heat, prednisone, and lethargy both his and mine. His eyes are better but they are not back to normal. We are down to 10 milligrams a day. He takes it in the morning so he takes a nice long morning nap. When evening comes he is back to playing. I am glad to have him back to his old tricks. The prednisone makes him extra hungry so counter surfing has become an issue. He keeps bringing his Tug a Jug to me to fill it with food. It is so hard not to give it to him because he is so cute and intent on his goal of getting more food. I do not want an overweight dog so I am restraining myself. 

We have by no means stopped his training even though the intensity has changed. For the last two weeks we have worked on overhead obstacles. We are doing this by setting up a tripod with a light wooden rod which is adjustable in height. Susie, our trainer came up with this system and it works great. Sagan is learning to anticipate the obstacle and then to either take me around it or to stop to allow me to probe for information. We can put the rod all the way across the sidewalk or pull it back so he must decide whether there is room to go around or to stop. It is a lot to grasp for him since he can walk right under the rod himself. We are having fun changing the positions and now we are adding distractions to the mix. Sagan and I will be walking at a nice clip while Stu walks across the street or Susie and I are talking to each other while she is located on the other side of the obstacle. Fortunately, I don’t get hurt if he runs me into it because it will swing away from me. I make myself close my eyes to make sure I don’t cue him unconsciously. He has only run me into the obstacle a few times. He learns it very fast. The distraction part of the training still needs some work. We are also using natural overhead obstacles like branches and pipes sticking out the back of trucks. Our plan is to work on this for the next few weeks increasing the difficulty then, we will begin traffic training hopefully in October. By then his prednisone dose should be very low or finished. It would be so grand if he heals completely from this rare vaccine reaction and the fear can go away.

The 2 pictures above show Mel with Sagan doing obstacle work.

Our HOA is spraying pesticides on the property today so Sagan and I will be inside for the next few days with windows closed and air condition on. I plan to get back to house manners and basic obedience which I can do indoors. We may take him on his first train ride if all the stars line up correctly maybe next week.

Overall, I feel good about his progress even though we have had to take it easier for the last few weeks. Now I need to recommit to teaching him new things and returning to daily obedience. I have done some back sliding due to general malaise. Training dogs to do anything is not a linear path and I am doing my best to accept that we have just taken a detour from the path we set in the beginning. I have had much anger and grief to work through and it set me back. We are coming out the other side now so all is well. 

Training my Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 17 Months 1 week old

My boy is starting to look like an old man. So far the side effects of the prednisone have not been too harsh. He lets me sleep all night for the most part. He does wake me up a little earlier than before but I don’t mind. He is definitely hungrier but his weight remains the same. The drug looks to be shrinking his muscles so his head looks rather skeletal and his legs are thin. My hope is that this will all resolve when this is over. He sleeps pretty much all day so he is easy to have around. I am looking forward to getting my rambunctious boy back.

The picture shows Sagan standing in the living room looking at the camera.

We are taking him for short walks and introducing some new concepts. We started teaching him about overhead obstacles last week. This is not an easy concept and I think he might have a little brain fog going on. He doesn’t quite get what is being asked of him. I also think we do not know the best way to teach it to him. We are figuring it out. Sagan is not super sensitive so a few mistakes on our part don’t seem to be too detrimental. I am confident that we will succeed over time. I am not rushing him now. We have time. This week we are going to set up some lower obstacles to help him get the idea.

The picture above shows Sagan taking a nap on the couch.

I have done a huge amount of research on autoimmune-mediated Extraocular Polymyositis over the last week. It is super rare but there is a correlation with vaccines. It appears that most dogs get over it after treatment but may have another episode if vaccinated again. This will be a tricky business as time goes on. I am doing my best to keep my equanimity as time passes. All I can say is please ask your vet to split out the vaccinations. Maybe if enough people ask, change will occur. 

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