Training with Don really felt like I was in school again. Everything I had learned and achieved some 14 years ago when training my Staffordshire Bull Terrier Cracker, had to go out of the window. While many of us will use extreme and sometimes even quirky techniques to get our cute puppies to do what we want them to, it doesn’t work like that with a service dog.
I first had to decide which language I was going to use to give Don commands. Yes, Don is multi-lingual. Many service dogs, particularly from Personal Service Dogs begin their training in French. Due to the simple but distinct sounds used in French, it’s very easy for a dog to figure out what you want. It’s also one of the easiest languages to use if your speech is impaired. If you can’t manipulate your mouth and tongue well enough to articulate your words, in French you can often make sounds that are still clear enough for a dog to understand. Although I took French at school, I don’t know enough to confidently use French commands. I also didn’t want to use Dutch. Though I speak fluently, I wanted my commands to stand out from the sounds of spoken Dutch we often hear when out and about. So I chose English. At the time I didn’t realise that my choice would present my with a challenge. I had to learn a huge list of commands. Service Dogs only had these written in French and Dutch. So I ended up translating them.
Next came the rules for training. When we teach our puppies to sit or stay, we often end up repeating ourselves numerous times before the puppy does what we ask. I quickly learned that this is a big mistake when training. Dogs can count. If you say ‘sit’ 3 times, the dog will learn to wait for you to say ‘sit’ three times before doing it. My rule: Say Don’s name, followed by a single command and then wait…
Lastly there’s the reward. Don knows he’s done something correct when I say the word ‘yes’. When teaching him new things, this is paired with giving him a cookie. They say the way to a dog’s heart is through his stomach. We get through a lot of cookies in a month. Does that mean Don has a big heart?
A lot of what a service dog does for its handler, is based on basic games. Playing fetch with a tennis ball, tugging on a rope toy and pushing things away from him. If a puppy enjoys playing these games, they have the potential to become a service dog.
If you read the previous column, you’ll know that we started with picking things up off the floor, taking off my sweatshirt and finding keys. Picking things up from the floor and finding keys are based on the same principle, retrieving a tennis ball. He came to me already trained to respond to the command ‘get it’. It’s handy if he sees me dropping the thing I need him to pick up. Sometimes I have to point in the general direction of what I dropped. If I don’t, he might go get my baseball cap, or something else of mine which lays on the table. The further away I drop or throw something, the easier it becomes to change the command to ‘get the keys’ for example. For that game I started by dropping them at my feet. Each time I dropped them, I threw them further and gradually changed the command. This works with multiple objects. I can name my quad cane or the post and he’ll go get them.
Taking off clothes is a simple tug game. For the most part I use the command tug and show him what I want him to tug. There are exceptions though. Ropes on the kitchen cabinets and doors have gradually changed from tug to open. Just by repeating the exercise and gradually changing command, he knows what I expect of him. The same works for the rope that’s attached to the light switch in my room. I was able to change that from tug, to light. Because the rope never changes position, he will walk across the room and turn on the light for me before I go inside.
During the training he had with his foster family, he learned to use his nose to push things away from him. This is done using the command ‘push’ and is handy for numerous things. He can close drawers, cupboard doors and has even learned to put his head under the foot plate on my stairlift so that he can use his nose to push it up and fold it in.
Occasionally a service dog is required to complete complex tasks. Meaning that he needs to carry out multiple commands in a row in order to get something done. In our house, Don has to do that when opening some of the doors. If you’re used to simply pushing down the handle and pushing a door away from you to open it, the same task for Don means he has to work twice as hard. First he has to tug a rope to make the door loose, then he has to push it with his nose to open it. It took several training sessions for him to learn this. First we rewarded him for only tugging the rope. Then asked him to push the door and rewarded him for that. Then we worked on only giving the reward after he did both. Even though it took a long while, he eventually got the concept.
I have such a good connection with him that I can teach him a lot of simple things myself. It’s a question of showing him what I want, rewarding him when he does it and then combining it with a command. I’m glad I’ve learned how to do this successfully. It means I can easily give him more tasks to do as my body changes and I don’t necessarily need help from a trainer.
Every command is given in a fun and friendly way. I never shout at my dog. Not even if he does something I don’t want him to do. I may lower my voice and articulate my words more clearly, but shouting won’t ever help. Just like a child who wants his own way, Don will continue doing that one thing I don’t want him to if I shout.
Training has been a whole new learning experience. One I’ve enjoyed very much. I feel like it’s also made me a better person as I’ve had to learn to be patient in order to get the help I need.
Photo by Codee