This may be the first time I’ve trained my own service dog – it’s the first time I’ve needed one! – but it isn’t the first dog I’ve trained, by far. And my training methods aren’t based upon anything but my instincts and my desire to have a great relationship with my dogs.
40 years ago I worked as a home health aide, and for a few weeks I was taking care of a gentleman who lived with his parents. During my time there his dad got a black lab pup, and tied the dogs leash around his waist. During every waking hour the dog was by his side, whether he was busy or sitting in a chair. Within a week or so the leash was gone and the pup continued to stay at his side, always. Though he was young, he would lay next to his owner’s chair as long as the man was sitting there. If the owner went anywhere in the house, his dog was right there. The pup was automatically “house-broken” (no actual “breaking” involved!) because the man instantly knew when his dog had to go out so he gave him no opportunities to make a mistake.
This left quite an impression on me, and though I’ve never tied a dog to my side, I have always started a new dog – most of them adults, rescued, with baggage – continuously with me, on a leash usually. The dog had my attention continually, and I insisted on his (or hers, but typically males). I take them outside before they have a chance to use my floor as a toilet, when they’ve been considering mischief I knew it before they could act, and could redirect their attention – often with a little training exercise of some sort.
The 2nd part of this, just as important in the long run, is I talk to my dogs whenever I’m doing something. I tell them “time to eat” when feeding, “all gone” when picking up the bowl…”just sit down” nearby while they wait for me to chop vegetables, “OK, let’s go back” when I returned to my chair, “Lay down there” while I was sitting there, etc.
Lastly, when I wasn’t able to be “attached” and totally focused on them, they were crated. This prevented trouble – chewed up socks or puddles on the floor – and gave them a break when they could rest without having their attention on me.
I have had some amazing dogs over the years, started some pups for others before they went back home too, without ever barking an order at them. We just learned to live alongside each other with companionable conversation.
Maisie wasn’t much different at first, other than that she was barely a year old and had lived her life with a chain around her neck outside, with no training or socialization whatsoever. This could have gone very badly or very well, but rather than fearing people or becoming aggressive with them, she craved affection and closeness. While that doesn’t mean that she bonds with people instantly (as a human child with a similar background may do), it does mean that when a bond did form with me she was eager to please and lived – lives – for my approval.
Starting out, we lived – and live – in a 33′ motorhome. No space for a crate, no place to set her alone. So though that was a drawback it simply meant that there was the occasional accident in the house, some of our furniture got chewed up, and so forth. If she wasn’t such an intelligent girl this could have slowed down the process considerably! Still we were together almost always, did everything together, she went with me everywhere, and though she was still extremely wild outside (and incredibly strong, having grown up pulling against a chain all her life) once I started using a front-leading harness, double-clipped to her collar for extra strength*, and taught her to longe – like a horse – she gained respect for the leash and things got better.
* With either the heavy duty harness or the 2″ wide super strong collar, with only one or the other on she would literally break it when she saw a squirrel, or another dog, or when I had to let a tree take the force of her sudden pull that would otherwise yank me off my feet and/or injure my already-fragile spine.
(I should mention that we were workcamping for the summer, so she never had freedom off-leash – this ended up being a good thing!)
I don’t intend to get into the specifics of how I taught her each behavior, but it becomes obvious that just through constantly being together and talking to her, she quickly learned the phrases I needed her to learn. Not through “training” or “commands” but through constant conversation, togetherness, shared activity, and use. Things such as “hold my purse” were easy since she knew a purse from me mentioning it whenever I picked it up, looked in it, put it away, and each time said, “my purse” in context. Returning it to her mouth a few times until she understood “hold” and within a day or two she was holding my purse. Putting clothes in the laundry basket I would “put it in here” while I worked and she watched…then one day I handed her something and said, “put it in here” as I was also putting something in, and she did it. From then on.
And similar with just about everything else she learned. I’ve never shoot commands at her, I tell her what I want and she does it. And the interesting – to me – thing is that she can figure out the meanings of similar requests, because I’ve never boxed her in by only using “commands”. For example I can tell her “get my slipper” and she brings it, then “get the other one” and that’s what she does; I don’t have to repeat “get my slipper” as she figures out context. Similar to when I drop my wireless mouse on the floor I can say, “bring me my mouse” which is an item name I specifically taught her but if I drop my comb I can say, “bring me my comb” and she knows, from the context, what I want.
I believe in including her in all I do, using key words as I do them, inviting her to participate and then showing my approval when she “gets it”, and letting her see and learn context, she has become more understanding of what is required of her, and what it takes to get my praise and delight. In addition, this form of context training has taught her that while she must do what I ask, she can figure it out in her own way when needed. I’ve often told the story of dropping my mouse, which happened to fall into the toe of a shoe. When I asked her to bring my mouse, she took a few seconds to study it, tried to pull it out of the shoe, and when she couldn’t she just brought me the shoe. If I she was used to commands, when she couldn’t “BRING MOUSE!” she likely would have simply given up. Our relationship is more of teamwork, than master and servant. This has also allowed her to do things I’ve needed but didn’t know it, or other things for me, without any prompting on my part…but that’s a topic for another day.
I will leave with one final story, this is something that happened today, and that hasn’t been typical of her before then. My original plan was to train her to target a laser so that when I needed something she would be able to know instantly what I wanted. (We have since worked out another way.) However, while little pet dog Chuy picked up on targeting the light beam (and LOVES that game!) Maisie would always target the device in my hand instead. I didn’t know how to manage that so for the last couple of years I’ve just played the game with Chuy but never again tried it with Maisie. (Another one of my instincts WITH HER is to not do anything knowingly that would end in failure; failure to get my approval absolutely breaks her heart and is therefore counterproductive, as well as painful to see.) Today I was playing the “light game” with Chuy, and at one point he lost the light and couldn’t find where I’d pointed it. Maisie was laying next to me on the davenport and finally, with a sigh, she got up, targeted the beam as if to show him where it was, then came back up next to me. I was so thrilled and delighted and happy with her, all the while she was acting like, “It’s no big deal, mom!”
Maisie isn’t perfect, and neither am I. But we have developed a wonderful working relationship and a loving bond that I sometimes marvel over. On days where I don’t require much help – if I’m sick and in bed all day for example – she literally gets depressed. Her life revolves around me and my needs and how she can help me, and she thoroughly enjoys what she does – it is her purpose. And I really can’t ask for more than that in a dog whose job is service.
FINALLY – here is a collection of photos taken during various phases of Maisie’s life and training with me, in no particular order. Many just show various phases of her training, then some of them just go to show that, in the early days, it wasn’t all smooth sailing! ???