Training My Own Guide Dog

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 1 year and 1 week old

Sagan went for his first yearly wellness vet visit last week. He was not quite as well behaved as he was when he was younger. His adolescence was showing. He is in a phase where he is sure that he needs to bark or whine at other dogs so he was quite vocal at the vet’s office. The vet said he looks great.

Sagan weighs 51 pounds and is 24 inches at the shoulder. He may get a little bigger over the next few months. I am satisfied with his size. He is not too much for me to handle and he has enough solidity to get enough feedback from a guide harness. I actually ordered his harness which will be royal blue with a black handle. I will be presenting it to him in small positive increments over several weeks or even months. I want every aspect of the harness training to be as fun for him as I can make it. 

The picture above shows Sagan with Mel.  Sagan is doing the "paws up" command where he places his 2 front paws on the first step and pauses before going up the stairs.

I have given up on any kind of stuffed toy. He loves them but he always manages to tear a hole that stuffing can escape within a few minutes of playing. I have been giving him empty boxes with little or no glue on them. I put in a few treats, close it up or even crush it up some. He shreds it to bits with great joy. Fortunately, he has stopped eating the cardboard and only goes for the treats inside. It makes a huge mess but it is fun to watch him be so excited. His marrow bones are still the best for keeping him occupied and the vet says his teeth can handle the bone chewing.

I am choosing at this point not to give Sagan heart worm or flea medications. I treat his coat before we go out which will hopefully keep fleas and ticks away. We will be getting his blood tested every year to make sure he is clear. This is a controversial choice and is not right for every dog. There are many variables that inform this decision. The vet I trust agrees that this is a good approach for where we live and our lifestyle. Everyone needs to weigh the risks and benefits for yourself.

The picture above shows Sagan doing the "find the door" command.

We have been using the prong collar now for about 3 weeks. I have discovered that more people use them than admit it. I resisted it for a long time but the switch has made a huge difference. Sagan does not resist it at all. When he hears the jingle, he comes over and is completely relaxed when we put it on. It is so much better than the Gentle Leader or the other head collar I was using. I think the fact that he has nothing over his nose makes all the difference to him. I will be happy when we can stop using it but for now it is a great training tool.

Sagan’s coloring is considered to be blue. As a puppy he was solid black. He has what is called a “fading gene” which means he will lighten over the first two years or more of his life. After his last grooming, it is more obvious that his coloring is changing. The lighter hair is highlighting his coat now. He will be most handsome no matter what his color.

Training is going well. He has learned to find the toilets and sinks in our house. I will start generalizing the behavior in other locations soon. My biggest challenge is my own ability to be consistent. Inconsistency is the biggest enemy of trainers. I have never been a rule follower or one who sticks to a routine for very long. My trouble is that I train something one way one day and the next day I can’t remember what I did the day before. I am working very hard to train myself to be more precise in exactly how I do things. Hopefully , it will all have a happy ending and Sagan and I will be a solid working team.

The picture above shows Sagan doing the"find the toilet" command. 

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, Birthday Week 1 Year

Good news and not so-good this week:

Sagan with my husband handling passed his Canine Good Citizen test! He did it with only a martingale collar which was real progress. I will list the tasks for you here in case you are not familiar with the CGC test.

•Sitting calmly in ready position

•Down calmly

•Staying on a long line for a period of time

•Coming when called on a long line

•Accepting an examination by strange person, looking in ears, handling paws, looking at teeth

•Meeting another person with a strange dog with them calmly

•Allowing a stranger to hold him while we go out of sight for 3 minutes

•Walking on a loose leash in around people and dogs

•Allowing a stranger to groom him

•Staying calm with loud noises

•Meeting and greeting a strange person in a mannerly way

Sagan was not absolutely perfect for all these tasks but he was good enough for a passing grade. There is always room for improvement. He was also extra-wired yesterday for some unknown reason. We are so proud.

The two pictures show Stu and Sagan in class for the final test. The first picture shows Sagan responding to down command and the second picture shows Sagan sitting calmly as the instructor approaches. 

The not-so-good news is that I am pretty sure I will need knee surgery to fix some loose ligaments. My right knee is unstable. I absolutely hate this! This means that it will be even longer that I am not able to walk with Sagan myself. My husband is doing a great job of taking him for training walks and playdates with other dogs but it really makes me sad that it is not me. I am doing the in-house training so I am involved. I am trying hard to maintain my good attitude knowing that this is not the end of the world but some days I am pretty bummed out about the whole thing.

The picture above shows Sagan running on the back patio as the sleet is falling down.

I started taking a course called Nailed it!, Confidence games for owner-trained service dogs at Donna Hill's Service Dog Institute online. This course is mainly to perfect his ability to work well in public places. I have just started it so I will let you know how it goes. Donna Hill has a great reputation for service dog training. I like having the structure so I can hold myself accountable. The link to the website is https://servicedogtraininginstitute.online/public-access-programs/

The picture above shows Sagan and his new friend, Cru out romping in the field. 

Sagan will be 1 year old on March 2nd. He goes to the vet that day for his wellness checkup. If all goes well and the vet gives the okay, I will order Sagan’s guide harness from Julie Johnson, On The Go Dog Gear. The link is https://www.facebook.com/OnTheGoDogGear/. It will take a while for her to make and I am not in a hurry to get him in a harness especially since I can’t walk with him yet. My plan is to begin introducing him to the harness slowly making it lots of fun. I always want him to have a positive association with the harness. I am thinking royal blue for his dog gear but I am not sure yet. Blue seems right for a dog named after Carl Sagan.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 11 3/4 Months Old

I fully expect to get pushback on what I am about to tell you. If you had told me this two weeks ago, I would have had strong judgments about it myself. After talking to many people and searching my own self and with much deliberation with my husband, we decided to try a prong collar. I fully intended to do only “force-free” training methods with Sagan and a prong collar did not fit in my vision of how I wanted to train him. I promise you this decision was not easily made. It reminds me of when I gave my first son a bottle of formula when I was absolutely determined to breastfeed him at all costs. As a result, he was starving and I was in a very dark pit. One day, I said,” To hell with it!” and I gave him a bottle. He slept for 8 hours straight and I cried some more because I felt shame because I had failed to meet my own standards of mothering. Switching to a prong is proving to be like that. My son thrived after the switch to formula and Sagan is doing so much better after the switch. He does not resist the prong at all. He ran from us whenever we pulled out his Gentle Leader or the other head collar we used. He seems happier and is responding much better. Our walks are relaxed and enjoyable now. I feel like I made the right choice.

The picture above shows Sagan in the living room playing it cool with his ear flipped up.

Yesterday, my husband took him on a pack walk with other dogs. The last time he tried that was a nightmare. This time he chose to walk with a loose leash relatively calmly in the presence of other dogs. Later in the day, we had Canine Good citizen prep class and Sagan was able to stay calm around the dogs and children coming through. We took off the prong soon after class started and he continued to stay calm and focused. In order to pass the CGC test which is this coming Saturday, he must be able to be calm with a flat collar or martingale. I think he will pass. It seems like Sagan just needed to know what was expected of him and the prong gave him a clearer signal. I have not been able to walk with Sagan outside myself because I have knee issues and balance problems. I could not count on Sagan not to pull me over. I feel like now that there is hope for me to begin outside walking.

The picture above shows Stu and Sagan in the living room after going for a walk with the trainer. Sagan is sitting my Stu's side wearing his new prong collar and his vest.

On a lighter note, I have some links for you that we have found to be worthwhile. Sagan loves to destroy things and toys have not been easy to find. I was also worried that he would destroy his bed. We found a bed that he likes and there are no holes in it yet. It is called the PetFusion Ultimate Lounge Memory Foam Bolster Dog Bed w/Removable Cover. Here is the link, https://www.amazon.com/PetFusion-Waterproof-Premium-Zippers-Ultimate/dp/B00TQ47CPW

We found a toy made by Kong that he loves and it is still in one piece. We do take it away from him after every play session. Here is the link, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0B52J4X5C?ref=ppx_yo2ov_dt_b_product_details&th=1

My sons gave us a gift subscription to the Super Chewer Bark Box for Christmas. The first two boxes did not have toys that Sagan went for but this last box had 2 things that have been a hit. They are made by… One I use for peanut butter licking and the other is a disk that he chews and throws around. Overall, it has been fun getting the Bark Boxes but I will not continue the subscription. Here is the link to it though just in case you want to have a look for yourself. https://www.barkbox.com/

So far, the best toys of all are marrow bones. After he gets the marrow out, I wash it very well and then give it to him to chew. I cut up an old pair of jeans and strung the bones with knots. This lasted a very long time. Recently I strung some bones on a cable that he cannot bite through. He carries the bones around with pure glee in his step. I sometimes put treats or peanut butter in the bones for his chewing pleasure. I think homemade toys might be the best choice for Sagan.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 11 1/2 Months Old

Warning! This is one of those posts where I do truth-telling. It is one of those “authentic” or “vulnerable" emo posts that you either love or hate to read.

I think I may be suffering from post-puppy depression. Winter has never been great for me because of the lack of light. Some of you know it as Seasonal Affect Disorder or SAD. I have encountered this type of depression off and on all my life. Years ago I took antidepressants but I decided that is not the way I wanted to handle it. With a lot of searching and experimenting with different methods, supplements, acupuncture, exercise, and diet, I have learned how to manage myself through the winter months. So here I am again with a moderate case of the blues and an adolescent dog who requires routine care, exercise, training, and lots of attention. I am mentally and emotionally exhausted which means my body feels tired. All I really want to do is crawl into bed with a giant novel and nothing else. Fortunately, my husband is well aware of my blue days and he can pick up the slack. This works okay for a day or two here and there but when the days run together, it feels wrong to be a blob in a bed.

The picture above shows Sagan laying on the living room floor. The Sun is shining through the stained glass beaming colorful rainbows onto his fur.

Usually, I can avoid the blue days by exercising regularly, meditating for an hour or even more a day, getting out in the sun, or even traveling south to visit my family. Sagan has challenged my ability to do the things I know work for me. What I am trying to say is that my enthusiasm for training is at a low ebb right now and my fear is that Sagan’s training is suffering as a result. I feel he is not getting the quality and amount of training that will allow him to move ahead at the speed I want him to.

The picture above shows Stu training Sagan in the living room. Sagan is receiving a praise and a treat after his successfully went to his bed. 

There is a less critical voice that lives in me also which is a good thing. It is saying, “Calm down it is okay to slow down.” This helps me relax a little for a while until the demons rise up again. I keep telling myself that maybe Sagan needs a break too. Maybe he needs to catch up with himself and a break is just what we both need. I am still working with him daily and Stu is walking him. We even had a playdate with a dog which was great fun. I have decided that for now I am going back to foundational commands and making sure they are solidified. This way I don’t need to think too hard and Sagan enjoys the games.

The two picture above shows Sagan in the kitchen after getting groomed.

What I am saying here is that committing to training your own dog is not easy even with the smartest dog in the world which Sagan is for sure. The constant vigilance to keep them safe and healthy can be overwhelming. It is different from training a puppy meant to be a family pet. The investment on all levels is huge and should not be taken lightly. The moral of the story is, do not decide to train your own guide dog without planning and thinking about the details. There is no way to foresee the future or all the challenges that might arise along the way, so commitment to the project must be absolute. I am totally committed so I will move through the blues as gracefully as I am able to while calling on support when I need it. I want people to know that training your own dog takes a lot of time, energy, and devotion to reach the desired goal. I am extremely happy that I have made the choice but it does come with some tears along with the laughter.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 11 Months Old

I am hesitant to say it but I will anyway. Sagan seems to be settling down. He still gets zoomies but the body slamming has stopped. He is able to stay down quietly for up to an hour which I think is superb. He still barks at his reflection in the window sometimes. Fortunately, he will stop when we ask him to. Overall I feel like we are in a good place.

The picture above shows Mel, Stu and Sagan in the living room. Stu is about to take Sagan out on a walk. Sagan is wearing his guide dog vest and waiting patiently.

Here is where we are in terms of his training. Some people say I am going too slow and others say I am going too fast. I have learned to take all suggestions and mull them over and decide what is best for me and Sagan.

These are the commands that we have a pretty good handle on. There is room for improvement of course. He has the basic ones down: sit, down, up sit, stand, wait, stay, go to bed, down and under, off, leave it, heel, halt, back up, find the front door, go busy, up on your table, in your crate, paws up, forward, left, right, about, left left (opposite of “about”), curb stops, stand and turn on the grooming table, close, which means he turns and sits between my legs, find the front door, and the forward command. His recalls are good but we are working with a whistle now to get them even better. He is good with the stairs in our house. This needs to be solidified out in the world. He can find a seat anywhere. After writing this list, I am rather proud of myself and my extended support team.

What we are working on now is: find the toilet, behind me, going to his bed when someone knocks on the door, tolerating longer grooming sessions, staying down in the well of the car, quiet command, going to bed and staying there, not passing on the stairs when off-leash, beginning to get used to having a harness on his back with a handle attached. We are using Jingle's old harness for this. I will be ordering his own harness soon. When walking out in the world we are improving his walking straight and focusing on what he is doing. Distractions are a work in progress and improvement is happening slowly. He is doing very well in his CGC prep class. I don’t know if we will be able to get him to the place where he can pass the test with only a martingale collar on or not. We have a few more weeks of class. We continue to expose him to stores and public places. His best work is in stores. I can walk with him alone without a cane and it is a huge thrill every time. My husband and our trainer do the outside walking because there are so many dogs here and Sagan is not reliably controlled. I have balance issues and I am not willing to risk falling. Sagan needs more time to settle and more time to mature.

The picture above shows Stu and Sagan in class. They are on the carpet with the other attendees awaiting instruction. 

There is much more training to do. It never ends really as everyone knows who has a guide dog. I continue to be astonished at his desire to learn and how quickly he learns some things and others not so much. I have days when I think I am a good trainer and others when I wonder what I have gotten myself into. I continue to hold the vision of the two of us walking confidently together with a proud stride.

Next week I want to tell you about my latest toys and equipment. I will give you some links to my favorite things.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, Just Shy Of 11 Months Old

Stu, my husband, is the hero of the last week. We had an equipment failure which resulted in Sagan running free. It was traumatizing for the humans but Sagan thoroughly enjoyed his adventure. Stu did exactly the right thing by sitting down and throwing treats around. Sagan zoomed and zoomed but ultimately landed next to Stu. All is well.

The picture above shows Mel and Sagan relaxing during class. 

This event sparked an urgent motivation to practice recalls. Susie, our trainer brought us a dog whistle which we are now training Sagan to react too quickly. There is nothing like a big scare to motivate one to work harder. The dog whistle will be something we carry with us at all times. We are currently in what is called “the charging phase”. This just means that he gets amazing treats every time we use it. We are practicing once a day for a while and then we will back off. We will need to practice with it periodically so he does not forget. Hopefully, we will never need to use it. I encourage everyone to practice their recalls because it can save your dog’s life.

The picture above shows Sagan on a long line with Mel during class.

The excellent news this week is that Sagan was much quieter in his CGC class. He settled more quickly and was not nearly as vocal. I was very proud. We also took him to Quaker Meeting on Sunday and he stayed down and under quietly. After Meeting, we invited people to come say hello to him and he was great. Progress is definitely being made.

The picture above shows Sagan saying hello to Susie the trainer during class. Susie is on crutches.

 

Sagan is calming down. I don’t know whether to attribute it to his being neutered about 6 weeks ago or just growing up. I confess I would have preferred to wait for the neutering but I need to let that go. Some decisions are so hard to make and the only solution is to make one and be okay with it. Sagan seems healthy and I do appreciate him calming down for whatever reason.

We just took down the last of the house gates. That feels like a milestone. We also just bought him a new batch of interactive toys for tossing. They don’t last forever and it is fun to go toy shopping. I will let you know how they hold up over time.

Overall, today I feel good about training and where we are headed. Learning how to cope with distractions is currently our biggest challenge. Dogs are dogs and they will be distracted. Finding a way to work around that is probably the single most difficult part of training a guide dog. We are not there yet. I am hopeful.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 10 3/4 Months Old

The last week was thrilling. I did cry once when I was too stressed out myself to be out and about with him. Our energies did not mesh well and it just wasn’t fun for either of us. I switched to a different kind of head collar which clips behind the head instead of under the chin. I thought this would be better for knowing where his head is located in space and that his pulling would not create asymmetries in his spine. Anyway, I hate the new collar. I don’t like the way it tightens around his nose. If he does not pull at all, it is great but he still pulls sometimes. So, we are back to the Gentle Leader and the martingale. I attach to both. We are working with him now to ween off the Gentle Leader. In order for him to pass the CGC test, he must have only a flat collar or martingale.

The picture above shows Mel standing in the dining room with Sagan at her side.

 

Now for the thrilling part. We have increased his public access to about three times a week with outdoor walks on the other days. Last week we went to a huge grocery store. Stu pulled the cart and I held onto it with Sagan on my left. Sagan had to walk slowly and stand still for periods of time. Standing still is his most challenging position. He did great though. I did obedience exercises with him while Stu ran off to get some groceries. He performed perfectly. There was even another dog in the store which he noticed but did not go ballistic. It felt so good to have a dog by my side. The most fun was when we went to Target where we met the trainer. She took him while Stu and I followed secretly. Her goal was to make the transition away from the Gentle Leader and to help with pace and pull. Keeping him focused on walking straight is also a work in progress. Then Stu took him for a while with Susie and I following. The best part was when I put away my cane and walked with Sagan through the store alone with Susie and Stu walking behind. Sagan was actually guiding me for the first time. He responded to left and right and he maneuvered me around carts and displays in the middle of the aisles. I was high as a kite after that. For the first time, I felt his real potential to be a guide dog and I was close to tears of joy.

The picture above shows Sagan in the living room looking into the camera with his stuffed shark in his mouth.

 

It was our second time at the Canine Good Citizens prep class Saturday. He does very well with the commands, trainer handling, and all the other requirements. The main issue is that he whines and is restless when he is supposed to be resting quietly by my side. He does eventually calm down but my perfectionism rears up its head and I worry. I tell myself the story that he will never get better. I have been assured multiple times that he is young and he will quiet down. I just have to believe that this is true. I have a tendency to want to rush him to the next phase before he has mastered the current one. It is like asking a teenage boy to jump over adolescence and go straight to being an adult. This mindset only serves to make all of us lunatics. I am learning to break everything down into manageable steps and not to skip over anything. This can be tedious at times but I am learning that it is better to take it in tiny steps in order to make the goal. I am embracing turtle mind. Now if I can just get him to be a tiny bit more like a turtle, we will be well on our way to making a great team.

The picture above shows Sagan in the living room watching televison. He was very interested in the little girl on the screen.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 10 1/2 Months Old

My boy is growing up and calming down. I am grateful for that. He gets into his share of trouble but usually it is our fault for leaving tempting things like leather wallets and TV remotes just where he can find them. The other day I tried using a sour apple spray on our AirPods. I soaked the outside and put them where he could get them. The spray did not deter him in the least. He is getting much better at dropping on command now, so it isn’t quite as scary as it was at first. I do need to find a way to make forbidden objects distasteful for him. Sour apple spray did not work. I could use some ideas as to what might help. We are quite vigilant but our housekeeping is not perfect and I do not always catch him in the act fast enough to tell him “No”.

The picture above shows Sagan laying on his new bed.

Sagan started his Canine Good Citizen prep class yesterday. At the end of this 2-month class, he can get a certificate. It basically indicates that he has enough self-control to do miner therapy dog work. Sagan is not destined to be a therapy dog but he needs exposure to other dogs and I need the structure for enhancing his training. His first class consisted of performing basic obedience in the presence of other dogs and with the trainer making noises. The trainer also rolled around a wheelchair and made noises with a walker. Sagan did well with all the commands but he was too vocal while just sitting and supposedly relaxing. The trainer believes that he will relax and become quieter. He is the youngest in the class. By the end of this class, he will be 1 year old so hopefully, he will learn to relax a little more.

We started working with him on getting me through narrow spaces on the sidewalk. The concept of what I call “double wide” can be tricky to teach. Just when I think he is getting it, he gets confused. He does better when the obstacle is on his left side. He is also perfecting his left and right turns. When I walk with him now, I actually feel him guiding. It is quite the thrill. I will order his harness next month. My confidence in his ability to do the work is steadily growing.

My husband and I will be moving to the Rachel Carson EcoVillage early next year. I am so looking forward to Sagan guiding me on the trails and the campus where the village will be located. Rachel Carson EcoVillage will be breaking ground in March. By the end of this year, 35 homes will be finished so excitement is growing. Sagan will have open spaces to run when he is not working. He is already winding his way into the hearts of the founding members. I am extremely motivated to have him fully guiding by the time we move. This will help me feel more independent.

Rachel Carson EcoVillage has about 10 units left for sale. It is a multigenerational, diverse group of people who are committed to living lightly on the planet. I invite you to check out the website and attend an introductory session to learn more about it.

Rachel Carson EcoVillage https://rachelcarsonecovillage.org/

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