Training My Own Guide Dog

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 16 Months 1 Week

Sagan got his one-year booster vaccine last week. It did not go as I had planned and now I need to release my pressure valve. Let me say up front that I am not against vaccines so please grant me the opportunity to be angry without judging me.

The picture above shows Sagan sitting happily on Mel's bed.

I do believe that dogs are over-vaccinated if the standard protocol prescribed by a conventional vet is followed. Puppy bodies are not meant to be bombarded with so many vaccines at one time. Most vets push giving many vaccines in one injection. I suppose the idea is that it makes it easier and cheaper to have one office visit instead of splitting them up. Well, this makes me livid because I know too many dogs who have developed cancers at the vaccination sights and have died too early as a result. You may know of dogs yourself who have had tumors form on the shoulder or hip. Often these cancers can’t be treated with any kind of real success. Vets will tell you that there is no correlation but I do not believe it.

I had a discussion early on with our “Integrative” vet and I felt that he heard my concerns and actually agreed with my vaccination plan for Sagan. Guide dogs are required to have certain vaccines in order to be allowed in public places. I don’t have a problem with that. I just want to split them up with plenty of time in between for the body to adjust and also to be able to observe if there is an adverse reaction. If 5 vaccines are given in one injection, there is no way to know which one is causing a problem. To me, this is common sense. So many dogs now have all kinds of skin and food sensitivities which arrive after having their vaccinations. 

Why am I so upset? I thought I had an agreement to only give the Distemper vaccine and then Rabies in a couple of months. I called the office three times to make sure that he was going to get only Distemper. They assured me that this would happen. I trusted them to keep their word. I even asked again when the nurse came to give him the vaccines that it was only Distemper. She assured me that it was. Well, when I got home and looked at the paperwork it said that he got 5 vaccines in one. There was nothing I could do after the fact. I feel violated. I called them and they gave me a song and dance about the Distemper vaccination always being given that way and the separate vaccines can’t be split up. I know that they can be split up even if they have to be ordered special. I thought it was understood that I wanted them split up even if I had to jump through hoops to have it that way. Did they think I wouldn’t notice? 

Sagan had no immediate problems with the injection for which I am grateful. I have no way now to control the potential outcome as he grows older. From now on he will be getting blood titers done to find out if he still has antibodies. I will not be giving any more vaccinations for as long as I can stay away from them legally. He is due for the Rabies vaccine also. You can be sure that I will pester the vet a million times to make sure something isn’t being slipped in without my knowledge.

My hope is that pet guardians will start requesting that the vaccines be split up over time so that pharmaceutical companies will decide to offer them one at a time. Vaccine plans should be made according to geography and the lifestyle of the dog. Not all dogs need all vaccines available. Do your research and find a vet who can think for themselves and are not too arrogant to listen. We need to stand up for our pets so they can live long and healthy lives.

The picture above shows Sagan laying on Mel's bed as she folds laundry behind him.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 16 Months Old

Today is my boy’s birthday. It is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that he has been with us for over a year. We have been through puppy shark teeth, house training, fear periods, crate training, and so so much more. The time has flown and I can’t imagine my life without him in it. Sagan has graduated to Good Dog status in my mind. He still gets into trouble and his house manners need more work and that is up to me to make that happen. It is me who needs more training now so that we can grow together as a team.

The picture shows Mel walking Sagan in front of the clubhouse.

Every two weeks I get on a Zoom call with other owner trainers. There are all levels of experience from people getting their puppy to people who have trained several dogs themselves. The wisdom of this group helps me immensely. I am so grateful for this group because sometimes I really don’t know how to move through a situation. I can ask any question or just vent my fears and frustrations. Last night I did just that. Sagan is ready for the next big steps in his training like learning about overhead obstacles and traffic. It is me who is holding up the show now. My fear of the big wide world is slowing us down. I spoke about this fear on the group call and I received so much support and good ideas on how to move through my fear. Now it is up to me to implement them.

The pictures show Sagan first stopping at a crosswalk and then waiting for a car to pass through the crosswalk.

Two people on the group call suggested that I use my cane in conjunction with Sagan in harness. This makes so much sense to me and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. I confess I resist having my hands full and trying to treat him with a cane in my hand. I prefer not to carry so much stuff with me when we go out but I guess I just need to get over it. I WILL get through this fear period. I was able to be compassionate when Sagan was afraid of everything so now it is my turn to be easy but not too easy on myself.

The picture shows Mel and Sagan entering the crosswalk. Sagan is clearly looking left for traffic.

It was also suggested to me to leave Sagan at home and walk our mapped-out routes alone with my cane. Once again, I really resist this idea but I see the sense of it. It is time for me to buck up now and act on the wisdom I have asked for and received. I will pull out my breathing techniques and allow myself to stop and breathe when I feel my adrenalin flooding my body. I think I am just going to allow myself to stop at every bench and take a breath or two before going further. I will not allow perfection paralysis to keep me from reaching my goals.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 15 3/4 Months Old

This was a big week for us. Sagan got to play with his friend Blue, a big Golden Retriever. Sagan had a blast and it thoroughly exhausted him until the next day. I love seeing Blue too because he reminds me of Jingles. Goldens really do smile and it makes me happy to see that again. I have just enough vision to be able to see the contrast on Blue’s face. Sagan is black and I can’t differentiate his facial features. Stu and I really enjoy hanging out with Blue’s people too.

The picture above shows Sagan on his bed playing with his shark toy. 

We began taking regular walks with me handling. We have mapped out our routes. Sagan is doing great but honestly, I am feeling underwhelmed with my ability to take directions from Stu and my ability to stay calm. Sagan is a real trooper though because if I confuse him, he shakes it off and keeps going. My fear of walking is our biggest challenge now. It is easy for me to say “I need to build my confidence” or for the physical therapist to tell me “It just takes time.” I wish somebody would tell my adrenals to stop acting like I am being attacked every time I take a step. I practice breathing techniques and it really does help. I am doing what I am supposed to do to heal. The hardest part is to accept that it is more than my body that needs healing. Fear and my own lack of enthusiasm are the trouble right now. I have been through these phases before and I know for sure that it will pass. I am sure that most if not all owner trainers go through some variation of this during the training phases. I am so grateful that I have a great dog.

The best session we had this week was a trip to both a busy grocery store and to Costco which was also super busy. All I required of Sagan was to walk by my side with a relatively loose leash and stay calm. There was so much going on with carts coming from all different directions. Stu pulled our cart and I held on to the back with Sagan on my left side. We were a little jerky at first until I decided to stop and do some basic obedience commands so he could get his head in the game. That worked and off we went. We got into a nice rhythm after that. We made stops so Stu could run around and get stuff during which I either had Sagan standing in front of me between me and the cart or I had him sit beside me while we waited. We navigated both stores and he was fabulous. I am so so proud of him these days for his ability to stay calm. He is such a good boy.

The picture above shows Sagan napping on Mel's lap on the couch.

We have also begun taking him to restaurants. We started with outside places and now graduated to inside. He is not perfect at staying down and under the whole time. Sagan prefers movement so he finds being still for so long an affront to his nature. I am sure he will learn to cooperate the more we insist. The best part was when he took me to the restroom and he found the toilet, sink, and door out with no problem. I am generally very pleased with his behavior in public places. He is still very much a work in progress but aren’t we all?

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 15 1/2 Months Old

I must say, I could not be happier with the progress we are making with Sagan’s training. The majority of the credit goes to my husband who takes him on long walks in harness now most every day. I take him first for a shorter preplanned route and then we change handles to a longer one for Stu and they go out again. I am creating a short, moderate, and longer route for myself which will remain the same for some time. This allows for both Sagan and me to get into a rhythm with each other and to build our confidence. Stu walks behind us and gives commands in a code so I can issue them myself when needed. We are still perfecting our method but it is going well.

Last week Sagan had a play date with his best friend Blue, a big golden Retriever. They are perfectly matched in their play style and we enjoy the owners. Susie, our trainer, matched us up with Blue and it is working great. Sagan comes home a slobbery mess but I don’t mind one bit because the joy is palpable.

The two pictures above show Sagan with his friend, Blue. In the first picture Sagan greets Blue with a big hug and in the second picture Sagan's ears are spread out horizontally similar to Sally's Field's hat in The Flying Nun.

We took Sagan to Marshall’s, a huge everything store for practice inside. The idea was to learn more about moving obstacles like shopping carts and moving people. For the first time in harness with me handling, it went well. The store was busier than expected and the isles were narrower than we thought they would be. Susie took charge of him for a few rounds around the store and then I took him. He took me around obstacles and moving people. His work needs improvement but this is expected. Next, I will go grocery shopping with Stu with Sagan heeling at my side as I hold on to the cart. Sagan likes a lot of action so this may be challenging for him to be slow and calm.

The biggest challenge we face now is me. Due to knee surgery, I am a bit shaky and my balance needs improving. My walking gait is not smooth yet and I get very anxious on narrow paths which we have in our housing complex. They are ankle turners so Sagan needs to pay attention so as to keep me in the center whether or not his friend the squirrel is taunting him. So far, I can tell that he is paying attention to the squirrels but he has maintained his work. I get giddy when I realize how far we have come on this journey. I am so proud of Sagan and all of my support people.

Sagan is still resisting the harness even though I have pulled out all the stops for desensitizing him. Once the harness is on, he seems just fine but Stu and I have to tag team to get it on him. I am not happy about this. I will continue to work with him and hopefully, he will surrender more easily to the process. My hope is that over time he will be more joyful about it all. I am so grateful though that when the harness goes on, his pace and pull are delightful.

I am contemplating getting him boots to protect him from hot pavement. It seems like such a hassle to put them on. I was told that Musher’s Secret which is a wax formulation will work so I think I will experiment with that first. I will test it on myself first. If anyone has any suggestions about how to deal with hot pavement, I am all ears.

The picture aboves shows Sagan laying on Mel's bed surrounded by pillows.

Our last batch of toys have not passed the Sagan shred test. We are off again to the store this afternoon in search of the perfect toy. I will let you know what we find.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 15 Months 1 Week Old

My patience was tried this week. The East Coast was blanketed with heavy pollution created by fires in Canada. I have never experienced anything like it. As a result, Sagan did not get his daily walks. I am sure if you have ever had a puppy or a high-energy dog, you can imagine what happens when the dog has pent-up energy. It means exercising your own creative mind to devise diversions inside the house.

Sagan was pretty seriously resisting putting on his harness. I was worried but after consulting other poodle handlers, I discovered this is a “poodle thing”. Since we could not go out, I used the time to entice him to put his head in the harness with very high-value treats. For days I just held the treat in such a way that he had to put his nose through to get the treat. I did this many many times without moving the treat in any way. Over time I began pulling my hand a little further back so he had to put his head further through to get the reward. I also put the harness without the handle on the floor and put treats all around it and inside the head hole while it rested on the floor. We made it a fun game. Sagan, being the genius that he is, knew exactly what I was trying to do so he was very watchful. He knew that eventually, I was going to try to put it over his head so he would put his head through super fast and back out. By the end of the week, he was accepting the harness over his head while I fed him treats. He probably gained weight this week. I have a feeling that Sagan will not ever jump for joy to have it put over his head but thankfully, he does not seem to mind wearing it and working. I will keep playing these types of games with him in hopes of making it easier for him.

The two pictures above show Mel training Sagan. Mel is enticing Sagan to put his head through the harness with a kong full of treats. 

I confess that I am guilty of using marrow bones and Bully Sticks to keep him busy. I did more of this than I like to do but sometimes I just needed a break. Stu and I did do recalls up and down the stairs with us hiding in different places. I also had Sagan stay while I hid a toy or treats in the house. He is great at this. I would sometimes tell him exactly where to look by saying, “Find it, toilet”. I used different words that he knows. It was so fun to watch him go directly to the place I put the treat. Other times, I tried to hide them in sneakier spots without telling him. He quickly found everything.

Mentally challenging a dog tires them out faster than physical exercise so I began asking him for more before allowing him to eat his food. At some meals, I would make it very challenging by having him go to his bed after I had put down his food. Then, I called him to me in the opposite direction from his bowl. This was very hard at first but he got it quickly. I changed his commands from meal to meal so he really had to think. By the end of the week, he was a pro at moving away from his food and performing his basic obedience commands in whatever order I gave them. He is such a good dog.

Sagan’s favorite activity is destroying boxes. I save big and little boxes that have little or no adhesives on them. I put a couple of treats in all the boxes and put the little ones inside the bigger ones. I put all kinds of things in the different boxes in hopes of keeping him engaged. Fortunately, he does not eat the boxes and just goes for the treats. My house looks like a dump yard now but it’s okay.

The picture above shows Sagan on his bed ripping apart a box that Mel put together for him. 

The last big change this week is that I started letting him sleep with me all night on my bed. I know this is a controversial subject. Some trainers say that this is a horrible idea and others say it is just fine. I have never let a dog sleep with me before because of the shedding of other breeds. Sagan is super clean. My intuition tells me that it is good for bonding. It may be my imagination, but I do think he is more attentive to me now. He seems to want to be near me more than before when he was crated all night. He does have a tendency to want to sleep on top of me so we have some work to do on his allowed space. He now comes into the bathroom with me when I shower. I leave the shower doors cracked so he can look in which he does almost all the time. Running water fascinates him. He usually ends up with his head wet. We are having fun together now in different ways. Raising and training a puppy is not for everyone but I am thoroughly enjoying the process especially since I have such a great support team.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 15 Months Old

Two weeks have passed since my last post. I was wiped out from my travels and I managed to acquire a nasty case of laryngitis. My brain seems to think that since I could not talk, I couldn’t write either. No worries though, all is well now.

We started Sagan in harness seriously over the last weeks. I am walking him now myself on very short walks. I take the same route every day. This way I am getting super familiar with the route and Sagan and I are learning how to work together. Stu follows behind to keep us safe. I wear a visor to protect my face from the sun and branches. Eventually, we will start calling his attention to high obstacles. I don’t want to flood him with too much mental work quite yet. I also am very aware of my own equanimity so as to keep us both as calm as possible. I am trying to remember my footwork at curbs. It was once second nature when I had my already trained guides. Footwork and hand gestures are important as well as body alignment, especially at intersections. In order to maintain my orientation, I need to know which direction my feet are pointing. Sagan’s body and mine need to be going in a straight line across from the down curb to the up curb across the street. There is so much concentration required for both of us. We are doing a little every day even though he could probably do more. I must protect my own sanity. My goal is to transmit through the harness that I am calm and confident.

The picture above shows a side view of Mel walking Sagan with a harness. 

I am somewhat concerned that Sagan does not seem to like putting on the harness. I have resorted to putting him in a sit against a wall so he can’t back up away from the harness coming over his head. I always treat him with the most excellent treats but this does not make him happy. All of my other dogs loved the harness. I feel like I need to make it more fun. I have also been reassured by other owner-trainers that not all dogs like putting on the harness but they do just fine once it is on. Sagan seems to fit in this category. I will continue to work with him to see if I can help him like it more.

Once the harness is on, he takes his work seriously and his pace and pull are great. He still notices other dogs but usually, his work stays on point. I keep the leash in my right hand so that I know where his head is and so that I can correct him if need be. Sagan is not a super-sensitive dog. He is able to moderate his stress by shaking it off and then he keeps on going. I wish I could learn to do that more effectively myself. I am so grateful that he does not get bent out of shape if he gets a little correction. He is also able to think for himself and he usually makes very good choices when he is asked “to find the way” around an obstacle. Overall, I am extremely pleased with our progress.

The picture above shows a frontal view of Mel walking Sagan with a harness.

Susie, the professional trainer, Stu, and I make a great team. They are still doing the long walks but my stamina is growing so my walks with him will become primary. Once Sagan and I get our rhythm, we will begin perfecting his attention to moving obstacles like people walking in front of us and crowds in general. Once I feel confident in these areas, we will move on to traffic. I have no doubt that we are exactly where we should be in this journey of ours. There are quite a few challenges yet to meet but we are well on our way.

Here is my dog toy and gear report. So far, Tug A Jug slow feeder is still our favorite food puzzle. We use it every day with joy. The link for the tug a jug toy is

Marrow bones are a staple. We get them from the farmer's market if we can. If the Bone guy isn’t there, we get them from the grocery store. Once they are empty, I wash them and put them in the microwave for about 2 minutes. They do eventually crack after being thrown around on concrete. We monitor him and so far, all is well. They also get stuffed with treats and peanut butter sometimes when we need him to be occupied.

Last week I was kind of blue so I needed some retail therapy. That used to mean I go buy myself clothes. Now it means buying dog toys and gear. During one of these therapy sessions, I found a lick mat silicone food bowl. It suctions to the floor. I can feed his raw food in there without worrying that it goes on the floor. I can also lightly cook his vegetables in it. I like it very much. The link is

I did get him a couple more toys but I will review them later when I know if they pass the test of time.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 14 3/4 Months Old

My son’s wedding was the big event this last week. Sagan went everywhere with us. The trip took about 6 hours and we stopped once. We covered his crate so he could relax better. I hope to wean him off of the covering but this was his first big trip and we needed to make it easy on all of us. I did give him some CBD dog treats before we left. I am not sure if that helped him relax or not. Next time we make the trip, I will not give him anything and see what happens.

The picture above shows Sagan relaxing with Mel, Emily and Cole during rehearsal at Pittsburgh Friends Meeting.

Sagan and I walked in together with Stu. He Sagan was quite regal with his bow tye. The bow tye also had a pin on it that was the face of Carl Sagan in a star. The pin said, “Hail Sagan!”.  He did not seem to mind wearing one more thing around his neck. He stayed down for most of the wedding. He popped up a couple of times but it was no big deal. I was most grateful that he did not vocalize at all.

After the wedding there was a reception party in a park. The music was loud and there were about 150 people . We took all of his gear off and let him be a dog. He was still under control but we let people pet him with proper manners. He was calm and gentle. He was exposed to loud music, flashing lights, and crowds dancing all around him. He may have been a little shell shocked but we did not keep him in these situations for long periods. It was a nice day and a bunch of us sat outside for much of the time. 

The picture above shows Sagan hanging out with Quay, Mel and Karen at the party and then recieving pets from Ken and Carla. 

The picture above shows Sagan down and under in a loud crowd. You can see parts of him through the legs of the second table on the left under Quay and Mel's feet. 

The next day we went to Rachel Carson EcoVillage where we will be moving in a few months. There are some nice straight long paths so I put on his real harness and we went for a walk. He found a seat for me and stopped at a driveway where the color changed. I am very proud. His pace and pull are quite good. It felt so good to be holding a handle and walking alone. He was concerned with my family members walking in front and in back of him. He kept turning his head to see where everyone was placed. We need to work on his ability to remain steady. He tends to speed up and slow down at inappropriate times. I believe that all of this is fixable and now we know better what are his strengths and areas of growth. I also learned that I am extremely stair phobic. This is an area that will require a lot of practice and proofing. I want to trust him. Trusting my former guides has been an issue for me so there is room for growth for both of us. One of my owner trainer friends told me to learn how to fall. This may sound silly but it is a great idea. I also want to train Sagan to stay by my side in case I do fall.

The picture above shows Sagan and Mel sitting at a bench on campus.

Walking in harness with Sagan at Rachel Carson EcoVillage was truly a highlight. I am imagining us walking all over the place with ease and grace. It is so quiet and beautiful there. We will be able to play in the grass and other open areas without worrying about pesticides. That is a huge relief for me. I never want to go through watching my dog die from pesticide exposure again. If anyone reading this is interested in living in a community of people who have  stewardship of the environment and believe in living a regenerative lifestyle, there are several units still available. You can sign up for an introductory session on the website.  Introductory sessions happen 3 times a month. They cover a tremendous amount of information.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 14 1/2 Months Old

Last year on Mother’s Day I cried because I was so exhausted after having Sagan home for about 2 weeks. My family told me to go to bed and I did that gratefully. This year I did not cry once. My husband let me sleep and took care of the boy most of the day. What a huge difference a year makes.

The picture above shows Sagan laying on his bed with his toy octopus in his mouth.

The biggest news this week is that I got a shorter harness handle. It is an almost miraculous improvement. I took my first real walk with him. He stopped at the curbs perfectly with a hard stop at the up and the down. I started to cry then because it felt so good to have a dog with a nice pull and pace. It was a short walk with no major distractions. He was so incredibly good! My husband and the trainer have done such great work with him. I planned for me to do most of the walking but my body had another idea. My feet and knees are much better now so the timing is perfect for me to work with him myself in harness. I believe that life unfolded just like it was supposed to and it is all good. My husband and the trainer will still be doing the long walks for now. I will need to build up my stamina and confidence. I am so grateful to Stu and Susie for getting to this milestone.

The two pictures above show Stu training Sagan on the sidewalks with a recognizable person standing nearby. 

This week my oldest son is getting married. Sagan is going on his first big trip. I admit that I am worried more about what to pack for him than I am myself. I want so much for him to have good manners. I will need to keep myself calm so that it transmits to him. We will be visiting Rachel Carson EcoVillage where we will be moving at the end of this year. I hope to have him in a harness for a short walk. I will report about that next week with wedding pictures.

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