Training My Own Guide Dog

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  https://www.chewy.com/petsafe-busy-buddy-tug-jug-treat/dp/48812  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. https://rachelcarsonecovillage.org/

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.

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.

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