Training My Own Guide Dog

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 9 Months and 1 Week Old

From a few comments I have received this last week, it is evident that I have some explaining to do. I don’t think I ever spoke about my intentions or philosophy in relation to claiming the label “owner-trainer."  It has been implied that I am misrepresenting myself because I have clearly hired a professional trainer who does work with me, my husband, and Sagan. She comes once a week for 90 minutes. She has never trained a dog to be a guide and neither have I. Her job is to be a part of my support team which every owner-trainer must have to reach the ultimate goal of having a polished working team. It is my responsibility as the owner and handler of the dog to raise a dog that is able to perform his tasks skillfully. A skilled working guide must be able to guide with precision and to be quiet, clean, and polite while he is working. It takes time, devotion, money, patience, and skill to do this well. I am extremely invested in having a working guide who will be a credit to his breed and to me as his handler. I am by no means naive enough to think I can do this without a support team. I am not that smart.

The reasons I have chosen to go the route of owner-trainer are many. I have worked with four guide dogs from established guide dog schools. I have learned a huge amount about what it takes to take responsibility for such a highly skilled dog as well as the care and feeding to maintain a dog at optimal health. It is so much more than learning how to command a dog and keeping it groomed and healthy. There is a bond of trust that must be forged in order to be a good team. I thought long and hard about my decision to get an 8-week-old puppy because it is a huge undertaking to do what I have set out to do. I wanted to create a bond of trust with my dog from the very start. I also wanted a poodle, which are harder to get from established schools. Another reason is that I am committed to training my dog with force-free and fear-free methods as much as possible. I want my dog to be working for me because it is fun for him. This training method takes longer in some cases because behaviors are being shaped, not forced. They are being rewarded for making good choices, not being corrected until the dog absolutely knows what is being asked of him. Every dog is an individual as is every human. It takes time to learn their learning style and it takes time to figure out what motivates a dog to do what is asked of him. I wanted control of this process from start to finish. I take this responsibility very seriously.

The picture above shows Mel playing in the kitchen with Sagan. 

The purpose of writing and posting this weekly progress report is to show what is truley involved in being an owner-trainer with all the challenges and celebrations along the way. I do not know how this story will end. Sagan, even though he is certainly a genius, may not be cut out for guide work. I won’t know for a long while yet. So far, he is doing very well and we are still enjoying the process at 9 months old. I study and consult with other owner-trainers almost daily so that I can keep us on track. I think that others need to know that this is not just a walk in the park even though that is some of what we do. I write this to get helpful feedback from experienced trainers and I have received much good advice from many. I take it in and weigh it carefully against my own judgment and my philosophy of training. I appreciate hearing all of it, so please keep it coming. My greatest desire is to end up with a guide dog that enjoys his work and proves to the world that people who are blind can take responsibility for creating a great support team and ultimately a working team that moves effectively and with pride through their environment. I believe that people who are blind are perfectly capable of choosing and training their own dog with guidance from experienced people. I believe that we can create a working team that rivals and even exceeds the expectations of those graduating from established schools. Owner training is serious business and the result reflects on all those who have working guides. We must hold ourselves to a very high standard so that guide dogs are always considered among the most highly skilled of working dogs. I am committed to training a dog that will make all of us proud.

The picture aboves shows Sagan after his grooming. He is wearing a red, white and green bandana. He looks very handsome.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 9 Months Old

Sagan turned 9 months old on December 2nd. Needless to say, this is an obvious excuse for more toys. Instead of buying them this time, I made them. I received quite a few good ideas in response to my last blog, so I got creative myself.

The first toy I made is still in action. I found an old canvas shopping bag and put some of the toys he never plays with inside of it. I tied up the handles in such a way that the toys inside could not come out. The handles are great hand holds for playing tug. He really enjoys running and shaking it to make sure it is really dead. We play tug together and I ask him to stay while I hide it. He has ripped a few holes in it but it remains viable for now.

The picture above shows Sagan in the living room with his canvas bag toy and stuffed dragon. 

Next, I cut the legs off an old pair of jeans. I opened up the leg and then rolled it lengthwise with the cut seam inside. I tied two knots and he loves it. People also suggested that I cut the pant leg in strips and braid them with knots at the ends. I will try that when these get disappeared.

We started public access in earnest this week. We took him to a hardware store, a pet store, a huge grocery store, and a large department store. The latter was with our trainer. She walked him all over using the Gentle Leader and the martingale. Our goal is to move away from the Gentle Leader. He is getting so much better. He did have a few narcissistic moments when he kept seeing himself in mirrors in several of the aisles. He did manage to get over that pretty quickly. I am grateful he did not bark at his reflection like he usually does. He was also very distracted by some young children. The trainer says we need to find some young kids to hang out with in a relaxed way. I will need to make some new friends to make that happen.

The picture above shows the trainer walking Sagan in the department store. 

Our biggest challenge right now is house manners. If he is not in his crate or tethered in some fashion, he is in constant motion. We have been allowing him to roam freely in the house as much as we can but honestly, it is pretty frustrating. Everything and I mean everything is prime chewing material. Just when I think I can relax for a moment, he finds something I thought was out of his reach. He keeps finding dental floss and air pod cases. It is virtually impossible to protect him from every potential danger. Our house is getting darker and darker because he keeps finding the electric cords that go to lamps. The lamps get banished to the garage for the time being. Once again, “management” is the word of the week. My husband and I are learning not to put our air pods and anything else dangerous in pants pockets that are not secure. Things fall out of pockets on the couch and are targets for an observant puppy. I have also been working on getting Sagan to “trade”. The idea is to give him something more valuable than what is in his mouth at the time. Sometimes this works but more often than not, he is certain that what it is in his mouth at that moment is the best thing ever. I have had quite a few panicky moments when he has something and I have no idea what it is. I even tried sardines as the trade and he opted for the bottle in his mouth. It ended happily ever after but my heart starts racing at times. I just keep telling myself that dogs seem to live fairly well in the wild so I am trying to trust more in his own survival instincts.

My goal for the next couple of weeks is to train him to go to his bed and stay there instead of pacing like a caged lion. We are also working on him staying at the top or bottom of the staircase when not on a leash when we are going up and down ourselves. He likes to go flying around us on the stairs which is absolutely not acceptable. I think he will learn this quickly.

I think holiday decorations will pretty much be nonexistent this year due to Sagan. I am not up to worrying every second about where he is and what he is into. Maybe I will put some lights on the mantle or hang them from the ceiling. 

Overall, I am thrilled with our progress and we are having lots of fun together even though it may sound like I am complaining. This is a real-life slice of life with a puppy. We have located a puppy friend for him. The family has a large fenced-in yard. Sagan had the best time playing. We hope to make this a once-a-week event and to make some new dog friends for variety. I don’t want you to think it is all work and no play for Sagan.

The 2 pictures above show Sagan on his playdate with his new dog friend, Trixie.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 8 3/4 Months Old

Toy failures are my gripe this week. Sagan needs new toys or maybe it is me that needs him to have new toys. Truth be told, I am addicted to new ones for him. It is so fun to watch him get so excited. Well, I was told that I am “spoiling” him. I prefer to think of it as “enrichment”. Anyway, I ordered a food dispensing ball which he absolutely loved for about one hour until it broke. Then, I ordered something that caught my attention on FaceBook. The idea of it was brilliant I thought. We opened the box and he went crazy for it. We played together for about 15 minutes and it ripped. I was so bummed out. I was determined to get him something, so we went to the local pet store. I got three more toys. One lasted a day before it ripped, he ripped the cover off of another but it is still viable. The last was a rubber food dispensing ball. He has that one still but it is too easy for him. Needless to say, I am frustrated and still looking. My goal is to find a toy that is not food related and that we can play together without it ripping.

The 2 pictures above show Mel and Sagan outside of the Dogs and Cats pet store. 


Sagan is 46 pounds now. I am so glad he loves jumping on his grooming table via a chair because lifting him is now too much. He seems to really enjoy his grooming sessions which is a good thing because his puppy coat is coming out and he gets mats and tangles. I brush him about 4 times a week. Somebody told me about detangling spray which is helping a lot. 


His training is going well. I taught him how to shake hands this week. It took about a half-hour over two sessions. I am going to teach him to turn or roll over on the grooming table so I can brush both sides of him without going through an ordeal to change his position. We are mostly working on house manners. He is great as long as nobody else is watching. It is time to engage other people to help with door greetings and staying on his bed. I also need to teach him not to pass on the stairs. Since he has more freedom to roam in the house now, this has become a hazard.


The best thing of all was that he got to actually play with another dog in a fenced-in yard. Our trainer set up a play date for him. Sagan had never played in a free area with another dog since I got him at 8 weeks old. We have been using a long line for his running exercise but I wanted him to be able to stretch out and play. When he first met the new dog, he attempted some dominant behaviors but the other dog quickly put him in his place. All went great after that. They ran and ran. It was so fun to watch and Stu and I met some new friends too. The plan is to do this at least once a week.


Back to toys; I ended up making him a toy out of a canvas bag. I put a couple of his other toys that he does not take much interest in and tied them up in the bag. He carries it around in his mouth. It has lasted three days now. Today I am going to make something with an old pair of jeans. I am not going to buy any more toys with stuffing in them. I wish some enterprising business-minded person would create safe toys that could last more than 15 minutes.

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 8 1/2 Months Old

Sagan and I began communicating better this last week. I did not cry once nor did I say bad words in his direction. I attribute the more joyful cohabitation to two major changes. Being much more conscious of maintaining a puppy proofed house and allowing him much more freedom to regulate himself off leash when I am not paying attention to him. I tend to be a little bit of a helicopter mom out of fear that he will get hurt and I have stepped back. Instead of providing him endless stimulation, I am sitting down and doing nothing to occupy him. I am noticing that he paces around which I assume is because he does not know what to do with himself. This is challenging for me to sit still and just let him do it but it is already paying off. He finally settles and takes a nap. This feels like real progress.

The picture above shows Mel and sagan in the living room. Mel is reclined on the sofa and Sagan is sitting in between her legs sitting and staring at her.

I love that he settles and goes to take a nap but there is a slight problem. He does not choose his bed or his crate for his nap. He plops down on the carpet in random spots. I have tried to make his bed and crates positive places but I guess our ideas of what makes a great bed are different. I am sure this is an easy fix which I will tackle once I figure out what he prefers. Sleeping in random spots is not an option so it will be addressed. For now, I am observing to find out what he chooses for himself.

The picture above shows Sagan laying in the kitchen while he chews on a long bully stick.

I continue to ask the question, “How do we communicate best since I am blind and eye contact is not a choice?” All the training books and trainers rely on eye contact to connect with your dog so as usual a person who is blind is required to think outside the box. For the last few days I am experimenting with treating him whenever he just happens to touch my hand or leg when he comes near. I started this by calling him to me and treating him when he voluntarily touches me. He learned very quickly that the treat does not materialize unless he touches me. Now that he does this behavior reliably, I treat him when he just happens to touch me. The result already is that he checks in with me every few minutes to find out if I will treat him. I try to treat him every time for now. I will begin using intermittent reinforcement. So far, I am pleased with my experiment. I want him to want to be near me most of the time. I will gradually fade the treats and let the praise be enough to maintain the behavior. This does not solve the lack of eye contact completely by any means but one sure thing I have learned by training Sagan is that behavior must be shaped in tiny increments. I am not prone to being patient with tedious details so I am getting over it. I will continue to find our own special style of communicating.


Now quickly about toys: Early on I bought toys that were recommended to me. I was disappointed when Sagan did not go crazy for them. The problem I know now is that he was too young for them. I reintroduced the Jolly egg, which is a very hard light plastic wobbly ball. When I gave it to him when he was younger, it frustrated him because he wanted to bite it and couldn’t. Now he has learned to use his feet and he knocks it around. It keeps him occupied for long periods of time or as long as I can tolerate the noise. The second is a food releasing puzzle that held no interest for him earlier. It is the Busy Buddy Tug Jug. It has become his main way to give him his breakfast kibble. He gets very excited about it and he works for his food. Similarly, the Planet dog orbee food dispensing toy is now a favorite for him. He has learned that his front feet are great tools for getting what he wants. These toys have been mentioned in previous blogs but his reaction to them have changed. I thought you might be interested.

Links to toys

Jolly egg,

Tug jug,

Planet dog Orbee,


Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 8 Months One Week Old

This last week was different because my husband was traveling so Sagan and I were alone. We had a good time except when we didn’t. I puppy-proofed the house more than before so I was able to give him more freedom to roam. Overall, I think this turned out well even though I found myself checking on him constantly for fear that he might have something I did not think of in my proofing process. Once again, “management” along with “meditation” saved my sanity this week.


I just read over my daily log and I had to laugh. Most of the notes I took besides noting food, water, elimination, training time, playtime, crate time, and a few other things, read like a behavior file of a true adolescent. The week began with me rearranging the house and putting a bed for him in our living room. He thought it was interesting at first but he won’t sleep on it unless there are a whole lot of treats involved. Then, we were playing crate games and he laid down on top of his crate very relaxed and satisfied with himself. He did what I told him to do but not exactly.  The funniest thing was when he had freedom and I was happily doing some computer work, I heard an odd sound coming from another room. It took me a minute to convince myself that I really needed to go check on him. When I got to him, he was contentedly gnawing off the foil of a champagne bottle. It is such a poodle thing to do, so I got a good laugh. Needless to say, the wine rack got relocated. I decided to put the champagne in the refrigerator for some unknown celebration. Laughter saves a lot of adolescent puppies.

The 2 pictures above show Sagan laying on and beside his bed in the new living quarters that we set up for him. 


There is one behavior that started this week that I find disturbing. With his new freedom and his new hormones, he has begun to use my body as an object to bounce off of and to mouth. It does not feel aggressive at all but it is nonetheless an unacceptable behavior. He probably weighs close to 50 pounds now and he is lightning fast. He zooms around like a crazy dog and body slams me and he nips. It is very hard to be blind and catch an over-aroused dog. My strategy was to turn my back to a wall and hold on. He finally got bored with me and went elsewhere for his excitement. My hope was it would not happen again so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Well, the next day he did it again. I caught him and placed him in his crate. I noticed that he immediately plopped down and went to sleep. I realized that this is his new indication of an over-tired or over-aroused dog. His crate is our best friend. Unfortunately, it happened again the next day. I had his house line on him so I could catch him if I needed to which I did. Susie, our trainer suggested that I immediately tell him to sit and do some obedience with him. She also said to have him jump on and off the couch over and over. This way our interaction ends with both of us feeling better. This is working beautifully so far. Having a trainer to call on is a great help.

The picture above shows Mel training Sagan in the living room. Mel is sitting on the couch as she hands Sagan a treat after he follows a command.


I want to mention a training exercise I am doing now with Sagan. It is a Relaxation Protocol developed by Karen Overall. It is basically having the dog in a down stay while you stand there or do other moves like clapping your hands, walking around the dog, and leaving his view. Treats are dispersed at intervals. I have enjoyed doing this and Sagan seems to settle easier and his down stay has improved immensely. The protocol is on YouTube. The link is


Poodles are kind of like highly intelligent and curious children. They have lots of energy and they need their minds to be working. If they are not provided with mental and physical stimulation, they will create their own which is often less than desirable behaviors. As a result, my management toolbox is growing. I introduced nose work last week. I hide his breakfast kibble all over the house. Some are in Kong toys and some I just place on the floor. He is required to sit-stay while I do this. I go back to him and treat him for staying so patiently and then release him to go search out his breakfast. He loves it. He is still getting his raw food in a bowl but everything else he works for. This satisfies his brain and his belly which gets him ready for a nice morning nap.


I want to tell you one more thing. The tribute I wrote for Jingles got published in our local newspaper. I sent it to them in hope that people will connect the dots between pesticides and increased cancers and organ failures in our animals and ourselves. Here is the link in case you are interested. It is similar to the blog post I wrote here a few weeks ago. Link to article,

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, Still 8 Months Old

Sagan was 8 months old on November 2nd. He got a giant bully stick for his present. His jaws are strong now so I have to keep a close watch while he is enjoying it. I take it away from him when it gets to be about 5 or 6 inches long. He also had his first water buffalo horn.  It was great fun for about 5 days and then it started chipping. It went straight to the trash. I am still searching for a chew toy that has little or no calories and is not made of synthetic materials. I am concerned that so many pet products are made of dangerous plastics and micro fibers. I don’t think they are good for our animals to be chewing. If you know of environmentally friendly pet products, please let me know.

The 2 pictures above show Sagan dragging a small red shovel up onto his outdoor bed. He did this a few times.


My biggest thrill this last week was walking Sagan myself in a large cemetery. My husband and Susie, our trainer, were with me. Stu and Susie have been walking with him alone these last months while my foot healed. It felt so good to be walking again. I used my cane in my right hand and Sagan was on my left. Stu and Susie changed places as we experimented with what works best. It was truly a discovery walk for all of us. We discovered that Sagan and I weave. I have never been able to walk in a straight line. This is common for people with visual impairments. In fact, most people have a tendency to veer in one direction or the other. It is a guide dog’s job to keep the handler walking straight. We discussed how to teach him this somewhat more complex task. Over all I am pleased with the progress we have made. I am feeling impatient to get a real harness in my hand again, but I will wait until his skeletal system has stabilized more. I also want his hormones to settle down some. 

The 2 pictures above show Mel, Sagan and Susie, the dog trainer out for a walk at the cemetery. 


The update on Sagan’s narcissistic tendency is that with all the windows covered, he has pretty much stopped barking at himself while inside the house. This morning though, while we were outside, he climbed on a chair and looked at himself in our living room window. He barked just a little and then I ushered him off the chair. The oven and dishwasher doors don’t hold any interest for him anymore for which I am grateful.


In case you are interested, I am feeding Sagan raw food with kibble for training. The brand of dry food is Open Farm puppy food.  He likes it well enough to hold his interest for training. I also use dehydrated organ meats and Ziwi Peak packaged dog treats. I keep thinking that I will make my own treats but it has not risen to the top of the priority list yet.

Puppy food,

Ziwi treats,

Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, 8 Months Old

I did not cry once this last week but it is a very good thing that Sagan is very cute when he is being naughty. As I spoke about last blog post, we have relaxed his training schedule to accommodate his adolescent brain fog. Our walks are not so structured and free play time has been incorporated into each walk. He was resisting his vest so much that he is getting just a little break from it. We want him to look forward to and enjoy his walks so we are backing off while his body and brain sync up again.

The picture above shows Sagan laying on the outside patio chair staring directly into the camera.

“Management” is the word of the week. After reading several articles and watching webinars on adolescence, I decided he needs more enrichment. Our morning routine has changed to include two different food puzzles along with his smaller portion of raw food which still is given in a bowl. I do require him to do some basic obedience commands which change every day before his bowl is released to him. It is funny to watch how fast he performs these commands when he knows food is on its way. I put kibble in a wobble toy and then some in a tug jug toy. Links will be below. When I first got these toys for him, he was too young to properly play and work them out. Now he loves working at getting out his food. It works great for me because I get to have my coffee while he is occupied. I also bought him a snuffle mat which is great fun and time-consuming. He spends much more time now working or playing for his food. Lick mats have become part of the rotation also. I spend more time preparing food fun for him than I do for my husband and myself. I am now collecting toilet paper and paper towel rolls for doing nose or scent work. I am not sure how to do this yet. That is a project for another week.

The picture above shows Sagan in the kitchen with his snuffle mat. He is searching for the treats that I hid throughout the mat. The mat resembles Vincent Van Goh's "Starry Night" made out of felt.

Sagan grew too big to go through his tunnel which he loved. I got him a larger one and it is much longer also. My hope is to figure out how to train him to go through the tunnel to get to his relief area. This way when it is snowy or rainy weather I can stand at the door and send him out through the tunnel. I think it is a brilliant idea but I am not sure exactly how to train him to do it. I am generally a weather wimp so I am trying to devise a strategy to make it easy on myself. If anyone has ideas as to how to train him to do this, let me know.

The picture above shows Sagan inside his new blue tunnel. He is walking through to the opposite end with a big smile on his face.

I mentioned last blog that Sagan barks at his reflection. Our trainer suggested we get a product that clings to windows which essentially makes them look frosted so he can not see out of them nor do they reflect his image back to him. It has been very helpful. I will put the link below. It is easy to put on the offending windows and comes off easily too.

One more little story and then I will list the goodies we got last week: I was putting him through his obedience commands, one of which is “go to your crate.” He is very good at this and does it with delight. Well, last week he discovered that he can climb on a chair to get to his grooming table and then walk across to the top of his crate. I told him with all seriousness to go to his crate. He took off like lightning toward his crate only to take his detour which put him sitting perfectly and proudly on top of his crate. He did exactly what I asked him to do. I did not treat him for the behavior but it sure was funny. 

The photo above shows Sagan sitting on top of his crate.

Link list for useful puppy management

Wobble toy

Tug jug

Lick mats

Snuffle mat,

Water buffalo horn,

18-foot tunnel 24-inch diameter

Window cling stuff


Training My Own Guide Dog: Sagan, Almost 8 Months Old


My baby boy is turning into a man. How do I know this? Well, his baby boy parts are looking more like man parts and he has become much more intrigued with them. When he got his first real haircut, his image of himself changed. Now he is looking at his reflection in windows, mirrors, and even the oven door. He insists on barking at this beautiful specimen of a poodle. I hope he is not on his way to becoming a narcissist. Of course, I am not really worried about this but it is pretty amusing to observe him catching his reflection in every window and glass. I am told that this is normal teenage antics and that it will pass. He is also noticing other other dogs and squirrels which did not seem to be much on his radar before last week. I do not want to neuter him anytime soon so I hope we can move through this transition with patience and good humor.


Early last week we had a bit of a scare. My husband was playing with him on a long line and a flirt pole. The flirt pole had a springing action and somehow it broke. The broken parts flew back in his face and cut just below his eye. He yelped in pain and my heart dropped out of my body. It did not damage his actual eye and is healing nicely. Fortunately, he does not seem to be traumatized. He wanted to play with the flirt pole again within a couple of days. That is not going to happen so it has been disappeared.

The pictures above show Sagan on the couch playing with his octopus. He would run to catch it and bring it up on the couch and than repeat the action several times over. 


The last few days I have been reading everything I can get on adolescence in dogs. I have reluctantly come to understand that though my dog is a genius, his body is a major distraction for him much as it is with human teens, which simply means learning and listening to me is not his top priority. We have eased up on his training to take off some of the stress. It is back to basics and asking him to do things that we know he knows well. My main focus now is building trust and an even stronger bond. We are still working on his house manners and devising new games to keep his brain engaged. His outside walks are less stressful right now. He was getting too aroused at loud traffic and other dogs so now we are letting him observe from a further distance. We are working on his impulse control and loving him up while his mind and body figure out how to navigate hormones. I believe I took good advantage of his spongy puppy brain to teach him many things. Now is the time to reassess and to give him some space to grow up a little more.


I realized this last week that my ego is very much rearing up its head. I want to be the best trainer with the best dog that has ever lived. I can be competitive and driven when there is something I feel I have to prove. Ego has no place in dog training. It is not good for dog or handler. I know this intellectually but really living into egoless dog training is an exercise in self awareness. If I can keep my equanimity for the next ten months or forever, I will certainly be closer to true enlightenment.

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