Training My Own Guide Dog

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.

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.

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