Training My Own Guide Dog

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

Sagan is being a little rebellious this week. Stu and I have been somewhat or probably a lot remiss in practicing recalls. As a result, Sagan has learned the really fun game of keep away. This manifests when he has something in his mouth that I need to check on and he runs in the other direction. We turn and walk away and tell him to sit. He usually does this, so we walk toward him with an item to trade for the one in his mouth. It is working except when the thing in his mouth is the best thing ever, then it gets a little tricky. My problem is that I can’t see what he has so I get panicky. Naturally, this helps nothing. I think he is getting better though as we are more consistent with our reactions. He also reads minds so he knows when we want him to go in his crate or when we want to put on his walking gear. He moves away from us. This problem is also a result of being slack with our recalls.

The 3 pictures above show Sagan on the outside patio performing obedience commands before he gets a reward.

The other behavior that has cropped up recently is demand barking. I am sure we created it unknowingly. One thing I know for sure, raising a good dog makes for a more conscious person. Awareness is a great gift that puppies give us should we choose to accept it. Sagan has figured out that barking gets our attention, so if he loses his bone under the couch or under something he can’t reach, he can bark and we come running to get it for him. We are softies and we want him to be happy. We also want him to be quiet. Being the genius that he is, he has generalized the barking to let us know that he is bored and it is time to play. It is totally our fault for relenting and playing with him. As I am throwing the toy for him, I am thinking to myself, “I shouldn’t be reinforcing this demand barking.” I need to rearrange my thinking to think before I act and not during the action. Now I am reaping what I have sewn. Fortunately, Sagan unlearns behaviors about as fast as he learns them if I can figure out how to undo what I taught him in the first place.

The moral of this story not be slack in teaching and practicing recalls and think before you act. We have some revisiting of foundation skills before we really dig into harness training. I am sure our backsliding is normal but nonetheless, it is humbling.

The good news is that his outdoor work is improving remarkably. He is learning how to find the way around complex obstacles and it is clear that he is thinking on his own. This is an essential skill for a good guide dog so we are very pleased. He is getting much better at his impulse control around children, squirrels, and other dogs. Overall he is doing great with his guide work but we just need a little work on house manners which translates to I need to think better, act better, and be more consistent.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, Coming Home Day 14 Months Old

It is blowing my mind to think that one year ago today I had a little black ball of fuzz in my lap coming home from Massachusetts. It was a 6-hour drive and he was a dream and oh so cute! The breeder and I had many discussions about what I needed in a puppy that I intended to train as a guide dog for myself. Owner training is becoming more popular but it is by no means an easy task. I trusted Danielle Rouleau of Doe Valley Poodles to pick out my puppy for me. She made sure he was thoroughly temperament tested and exposed to many people and situations before she decided. She said that the final decision was made because he was more food motivated than the other one she thought might work. I am so grateful for that decision. From my perspective, a food-motivated dog is much easier to train. I feel very good about how far we have come in a year.

The picture above is from one year ago when we went to meet and pick up Sagan. Sagan is sitting on Mel's lap in the front seat of the car. 

This last week harness work has begun. We are mostly playing games with it to make it fun for him. He is successfully putting his head through the harness and then accepting it completely on his body. He isn’t sure yet that it is his favorite thing but I believe he will be okay with it in time. I have picked up the handle and given the “forward” command along with “find the door” and he DID IT! Then we found the toilet several times. He pulls into the harness but not confidently yet. He is not sure about the handle thing that touches his back. If the right food is introduced or a request that he understands, he forgets about the harness and does his job. We have only done this twice in the house so time will tell the story. Right now I feel excellent. Now if I can get my own body to cooperate, we will hit the streets. 

The picture above shows Sagan in the kitchen wearing his blue harness. He is very excited about his new accessory. 

Needless to say, this occasion demands dog toys and special treats. I got him a water buffalo horn and it was a mistake. I also got him an esophagus from some large animal which he is currently enjoying immensely. I also got him a frog and another puzzle which we have not figured out yet. I am saving it for later or for another rainy day. I will let you know how they hold up to his teeth.

The picture above shows Sagan outside on his dog bed with the water buffalo horn between his paws.

Overall, I feel great about this experiment. I am especially grateful to Danielle at Doe Valley Poodles for picking a good puppy for me.

Link to Doe Valley Poodles

Link to Julie Johnson On the go dog gear

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 13 3/4 Months Old

I am so impatient I could scream! Sagan is doing great but I still can’t walk with him myself. My knee is healing nicely or so I am told but I want it healed right this minute!!! I feel like a three-year-old who wants all the candy at one time. I haven’t cried any though.

Stu has been walking him every day. They go all over the town and local parks. Sagan is being exposed to elevators, loud trucks, construction in progress, and so many other situations. Stu gives me detailed reports when he gets home so I know what is going on mostly. He and Susie took Sagan out last week with the body only of his new harness. They said it did not bother him one bit. I am so wanting to get my hands on that harness handle to start the real guide training. I suspect this forced waiting for me is a good thing. Sagan probably needs to mature more and me starting to work with him in harness will stress him out. I am choosing to believe that there is a purpose to needing to hang on a little longer. I still might throw a quiet tantrum from time to time to shake off my own impatience. Meantime, we will take him to my physical therapy appointments so he can have the experience of waiting quietly for me.

The picture above shows Sagan on the bed after being groomed. 

My son is getting married at the end of May. It is a trip of about six hours by car and we will be staying in an Airbnb. We are working to get Sagan ready for this big new experience. He has a crate in the car now and we take longer rides. Sometimes we just sit in the car while he has a bone in his crate. We discovered that covering the crate like a bird cage works well to keep down overstimulation. That will need to be removed over time because it will be too hot for him and he just needs to be able to settle by himself. I am not exactly sure how to wean him off the covering so if there are suggestions, I am eager to hear them. We are looking into backup plans in case we feel Sagan isn’t ready to be put in this situation.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan on the couch. Sagan is relaxing, laying his head on Mel's leg.

I am spending much of my downtime reading dog training books. There is a great book written by an actual guide dog trainer. I read it early in this experiment and was very impressed. Now I am reading it again for detail. It serves to crank up my enthusiasm to get Sagan truly working. It also makes me feel somewhat overwhelmed by the task ahead. I am back to meditation and breathing practices to help me stay calm and focused. It truly helps. My hope is that Sagan will meditate with me like Jingles used to do. I would always let Jingles sit in my lap for a few minutes so she could get her massage meditation. It was the time each day when I would massage her all over. She could never get enough. Sagan is learning to like the massage part. I am sure that over time he will be able to hang out with me.

The book I spoke about is called Forward Together by Cristie Bane. Here is the link

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 13 1/2 Months Old

I got off my blogging schedule due to knee surgery on April 5th. I have been self absorbed last 2 weeks with my own recovery. Fortunately, Stu has willingly taken over being a single parent for Sagan and feeding me as well. I feel very grateful to have such a willing partner in this owner training experiment. It has been somewhat challenging for me to let go of control of feeding and general care for Sagan, but Stu is doing a great job. My fear is that Sagan will transfer his devotion to Stu but I think in the long run, Sagan will understand his job and be devoted to both of us. I don’t have much choice so I am choosing to be optimistic that Sagan is smart enough to figure out his place in life.

The picture above shows Sagan being regal on the bed.

Sagan has truly turned a corner in terms of his maturity and ability to generalize behaviors. Stu reports to me everyday at length after their daily ramblings out in the world. The report just gets better and better everyday. They went to the farmer’s market uptown this morning for the first time. There were lots of dogs, children, and the crowds are closer than Sagan has seen. Sagan noticed what was going on around him but his work was not compromised. There were children walking in front of him, dogs in the distance and up close, and lots of noise. Stu said he kept to his tasks with minimal vocalizations and pulling toward the distractions. This is fantastic news to me. My boy is growing up.

The 2 pictures above show Sagan laying on his dog bed while playing with an empty box.

I received Sagan’s new custom harness this week. It is royal blue with a black handle. He looks very professional in it. I have only tried it on him once to make sure it fits. Starting today, i will begin exposing him to it in a positive way. There will be lots of treats and very low key exposures. My plan is not to have him really working in it until I am healed enough to take charge. I am going to need to relax into taking it slow and embracing turtle. The harness training will be a new level and I am not sure exactly how we will do that part. I have lots of support though so I feel confident that we can do it. Sagan is a genius and I think as he matures he will do his work well.

I chose to buy a harness from Julie Johnson. She custom makes dog gear and I loved the harness she made for Jingles a few years ago.

The picture above shows Sagan in the kitchen wearing his new blue harness. 

I think I promised to report on my effort to teach Sagan how to take a deep breath. Well, that will come later because I just didn’t feel like working with him. Here is the link to the video on how to do it. There are some annoying ads before the actual video.

Next week I start physical therapy and I hope to take Sagan to some of the visits. I will work hard to get my body back in working order because I am impatient to get out with my boy.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 13 Months Old

We are seeing some real progress this week. I did not cry this week about Sagan anyway. He seems to be settling down but I am afraid to say that and then jinx it. He really does seem to be in a new phase of maturity and for that I am grateful.

This week Stu took him on many walks all around town and into stores and offices. He has even been into the hospital complex. He is learning to meet and greet people nicely or to sit quietly while the grown-ups have a conversation. Stu was especially thrilled when he gave Sagan the “find the way” command where there were cones and orange tape at a construction sight. Stu stopped and let Sagan make the choice as to how to interact with the new situation. At first, Sagan went under the tape himself because he could. Stu let him realize on his own that Stu could not follow. Sagan backed out and took Stu around properly and back to the curb on the other side. This is an advanced skill and Sagan was super. Stu reproduced it later in the walk. Another behavior that we did not teach but Sagan seems to have figured out is to block my path when there is something that I can run into. He has done this more than once but I am not sure he is actually protecting me but trying to get around the object in the fastest way himself. In any case, it is a behavior that can be shaped to serve a good purpose later in harness training. This is particularly useful when crossing streets or blocking at steps or large drop-offs.

The two pictures above show Mel, Susie, and Sagan in a department store. The first shows a shopping cart obstacle and the second is Sagan doing the "down and under" command with a little boy nearby. 

We went to a large department store where we practiced how to maneuver narrow spaces. The idea was to teach him the “behind” command. This was a little confusing for him because I think we did not completely think through the strategy. I had forgotten exactly when we use the “behind” command in guide dog school. I need to ask some questions of other owner trainers to ask how they do this one. He did learn to stop when I was following along with the shopping cart so I would not slam into it. He learns these types of commands very quickly mainly because they are natural self-preservation behaviors. They just need to be tweaked a little to make sure he knows to include me by stopping a little sooner than he might if he were alone. It feels so good to be walking with him myself. He has a lot of learning to do but overall I am very pleased with his progress.

The two pictures above show Mel and Sagan walking in the department store. The first picture shows Mel walking Sagan in a narrow aisle and the second picture shows Sagan navigating near an elderly shopper. 

We continue to look for ways to keep down his anxiety or excitement when in new places. He tends to whine or yip when he sees something that he deems worthy of play or might be dangerous. We covered his car crate so he can’t see out which helps greatly. I hope to gradually wean him off that covering. Fortunately, he quiets down fast but it is a that needs work. I just learned about a way to teach a dog how to take a deep breath to calm themselves down. I will let you know how it works next week.

This coming week I will be having a simple arthroscopic knee surgery to fix my knee that has kept me from walking very much. The surgeon says I will be dancing at my son’s wedding in late May. Sagan will need to be restrained more than usual so as not to knock into me. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to me using a walker and going up and down stairs on my rear end. I feel like I might need to put a cage around my leg. I am so ready to get this knee fixed and get Sagan in the harness.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, Almost 13 Months Old

This last week was wet and rainy. We did manage to have one play date with a Shiloh Shepherd. The two of them got along great. After his playing hard, we took him to my chiropractic appointment. This is the office where he tends to get vocal. He was so tired though this time, he stayed quiet. It was such a nice day out we decided to push the edge and take him to an outdoor restaurant. There was another dog there but we managed to keep Sagan out of view for the most part. He did very well.

The two pictures above show Susie the trainer, her Shiloh Shepherd Heidi, and Sagan outside walking in the field. 

Thursday we went with our trainer to a large department store that was virtually empty. It was a perfect place for practicing all kinds of tasks. I have been checking off tasks that he needs to be proficient in for public access. He had to lie quietly on the floor when food was dropped in front of him. We banged metal carts all around which required him to back up in a straight line. At first, he was a little confused but after a few tries, he did it very well. He was able to follow along with me holding on to the cart with a loose leash and stand quietly while Stu walked away from his sight. He found seats. I also took him into a bathroom that he had never seen before and where he found the toilet and sink for me. All of this needs more practice but for a first go-round, I was very pleased.

Our biggest challenge now is that on rainy days especially he gets vocal and anxious about fast cars and sounds in general. I think the wet surfaces freak him out. Once he gets into the store he turns into another dog. I am not sure how to address this problem so I am open to suggestions.

I am so bummed out because I learned that the ball field where we have been running the dogs will be liberally sprayed with pesticides next week. After my experience with my previous guide dog dying of kidney and liver disease induced by pesticide exposure in our neighborhood, I am not willing to let Sagan play there again. Supposedly, pesticides are safe after they have dried but I am quite certain this is not the case. There is no way to know for sure exactly when the products were applied and I am not willing to chance Sagan having skin problems and cancer later in life. I urge all of you to be very aware of where your dogs are walking and playing particularly this time of year. Lawn companies are out in droves now poisoning everything they can think of. So, as of now, we have no good place for Sagan to run and play.

Sagan got to experience me really crying this week. My knee was doing so well until yesterday. It went out again and I had trouble getting it to return to the correct alignment. I was so upset about it that I let loose with an ugly cry. Sagan was concerned. He came over and put his head on my lap. Then he jumped up beside me and licked my face. He was very sweet and it helped me get my mind off my pity party. I hope to find out this week what will be the solution for getting my knees back to stability.

For the longest-lasting toy report, there is only one that still stands the test of time and teeth. It is a food dispensing toy that we use almost every day for breakfast. I thought you might like to know. It is the PetSafe Busy Buddy Tug-a-jug Dog Treat Dispensing Toy. It keeps him busy and I also use it for training impulse training, hide and seek, tug, and I will sometimes put a little peanut butter around the top and let him sit in my lap while he licks it off. It seems indestructible. The link to the toy is  I wish I had another similar toy for the sake of variety. If you know of one, please let me know.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 1 Year 3 Weeks Old

This was a thrilling week for me! I finally became totally committed and highly motivated to make my own body a top priority over all things. When my knee began going out on me several times a day and x-rays showed that I might need knee surgery to stabilize the knee, physical therapy became my most favorite thing. I also returned to Pilates which strengthens and stabilizes the whole body. So once again Sagan is my greatest teacher and motivator. Having a great guide dog is not useful if I am in no shape to walk with him.

When our trainer came last Thursday, I felt like my knee was strong enough to walk outside with Sagan. I was on cloud nine because we did so well together. We stayed very close to home but that was good enough for me. We practiced impulse control going out the front door. He has a tendency to bound out which obviously is not safe. I began using the “forward” command along with the “steady” command. I showed him what was expected and he caught on very quickly. Of course, it needs to be practiced often in order to get it ingrained. Once we could get in and out of the door gracefully, we began walking down the front walkway of my house. This is an area where he often becomes activated to whatever is going on out in the world. We waited for him to relax and then I gave him the “forward” command and off we went. After a few tries, he actually modulated his pace to mine. When Stu or the trainer walk with him, they go much faster than I do so it was important to know that he slows down for me. I felt like crying when I realized that he was doing his best to walk at my speed. We practiced left and right turns, walking straight to the curb, and finding the front door on command. He was great! I really feel like now that Sagan is going to work out as a guide dog. There is a huge amount of work to do yet but he is well on his way.

The two pictures above show Mel, Susie the trainer, and Sagan outside on the front walkway.

Relaxation is the word of the week. We decided to put a crate in the car for him and his first experience was less than wonderful. All last week we have been having car parties. I take a bone or something wonderful for him to chew, a book, and a beverage for me out to the car while it is in the garage and we sit together and relax. This week we are going to pull it out of the garage and maybe take a short trip. The crate is covered so he can’t see all the lovely dogs and trucks going by. We plan to take him to the groundbreaking ceremonies for Rachel Carson EcoVillage in a few weeks and we want a  peaceful trip.

I also taught Sagan the command “relax”. I shaped it by treating him whenever he put his head down while in the down position. If he was on the couch with me and his head went onto my lap, I said, “Yes!” and gave him a treat. He figured out very quickly that head down means a treat. Then I added the cue word “relax”. Then, I progressed to just saying “relax” and treating him when his head went down. Now I am working on duration. My goal is for him to hear the cue and actually relax under a table or wherever I want him to. Training such a smart dog is so rewarding.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan on the couch. Mel is teaching Sagan the "relax" command and Sagan is resting his head on Mel's leg.

Rachel Carson EcoVillage will be our new home hopefully by the end of this year. My goal is to have Sagan working for me by then. Here is the link to the ecovillage in case you want to check it out yourself. There are a few units left for sale.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 1 year 2 Weeks Old

Last week feels like a blur. I know a lot happened but I am not remembering everything. Sagan had two playdates with his Leonberger friends and a golden retriever friend who is new to him. They all had a great time. Sagan is so tired afterward that it takes him a day to recover. We forgot to take pictures.

We have had to step back on our walks because Sagan is getting too amped up when he sees dogs in the distance. He does pretty well with dogs that are close so we are devising a strategy to help him get by this phase. I also think our walks were too long and he became overstimulated. This is normal to take a few steps backward according to the developmental stage of the dog. Sagan seems to be going through a high anxiety period so gentleness is required. Stu and I both have a tendency to skip over the small steps needed to reach the desired goal. Sagan is teaching us to keep the steps small. Impatience has no place in dog training. As I have said before, “embrace the turtle attitude.”

The highlight of the week was when a fellow owner-trainer friend stopped by to meet Sagan. She has been a puppy raiser and trained her own dogs so I respect her opinion. She and her husband helped us work with Sagan. Below is what she posted to a guide dog owner-trainer group.

The picture above shows Eileen with Sagan in the living room. Sagan is kissing Eileen's face.

“I met Sagan this weekend. Wow, Mel wasn't kidding when she says he catches on instantly. He was sniffing me and got a little too personal. I said "private property" and lightly pushed him away. He instantly sat back. Then he found the dog food in a zip lock in my pocket. Again a light push and I said "no pickpocketing" and he sat down instantly. Next, I tried to show him something he had never done before. He offered up several behaviors before I figured out how to show him what I wanted.  As soon as he understood my intentions he took my lead and stepped with me like a dancer. Wow. He also sat in my lap at least 4 times giving me plenty of poodle hugs. LOL, I'm still a Labrador addict but Sagan  the poodle is everything poodle lovers gush about."

The two pictures above show Eileen and Joe in the living room with Sagan.

Thanks to Eileen and Joe for working with us. We were able to check off a few of our public access tasks like Sagan being able to tolerate people stepping over and around him without him braking. We still need to accomplish these tasks out in public but we are getting there.

This week we are working on getting him to settle in a crate in the car in preparation for some longer trips coming up. We are taking it very slowly.

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