Monday, July 30, 2012

taking new steps

This is my post for The eighth assistance dog blog carnival The topic is marching to your
own drum.
When I received my first dog Valerie in 2006, I knew nothing about dogs.
We never had animals in my house growing up, so it was a completely new
experience for me. I listened to all of the trainers recommendations
about commands, corrections, equipment, medicine, and food. It wasn't
until a couple months later that I started to change.
Valerie wouldn't come on command when she was off-leash or heal on
leash. Doing leash and collar corrections didn't do any good, so I
started looking for help online. I joined some guide dog email lists,
and in one of my google searches, I stumbled on to clicker training and
clicker training podcasts. These helped immensely. She was enthusiastic
about food rewards, no surprise since she's a walking stomach lab. I was
so excited once she learned to put her nose on my hand and learned to
sit between my knees without my need to physically move her into place.
Before that, it never occured to me that my dog could learn commands
other than the ones she learned in class. After I suspected food and
environmental alergies, I found kibble that was human grade and natural
supplements such as fish oil and flower essences that would help her not
scratch so much.
When I received my second dog Zorro, I brought the more human grade
kibble to class and started him on it immediately. He learned hand
targeting and targeting counters before we had been home for two weeks.
I needed a turn around and back up command because I rode a bus every
day, and it was easier if he were facing the isle when we needed to exit
the bus. He had meat food toppers on his kibble after he had tapeworms
because he was too skinny and needed to gain weight. Finally, , I found
him a lighter nylon harness and the martingale collar instead of the
chain or gentle leader. We were never in sync while walking in the
harness from the school, and he refused to work in the gentle leader. I
could more easily feel his subtle movements with the nylon handle, and I
felt better using the martingale collar because it could only tighten so
Last there was Dee. She received fewer corrections since the clicker
foundation was in place from her previous training and I used it as my
first sollution instead of a collar. She came with the martingale
collar, and she did well wearing it. With her, I could do more off-leash
work, teacher to lie down and sit in different positions, and added more
objects for her to find: upstairs, downstairs, trashcan, buttons, and
empty chairs. She also learned some counter balancing and to point her
nose in the direction where there was a sound.
Each time, the list of skills I want and need to teach grows. I prefer
clicker training and operant conditioning over traditional
correction-based training. I've learned to look for more hollistic
solutions to health issues instead of going with the conventional wisdom
of the vet. Other assistance dog handlers are excellent resources, and
they are my first choice for help instead of only relying on the
school's suggestions. I don't march to my own drum as much as assistance
dog partners who owner train, but I add as much as I can to make my dog
and I the best team we can be. Every dog is unique, and I can't wait to
see the different steps my new partner adds to the march.