Assistance Dog Training Update #1

It has been 4 months now since I began training our pet as a service dog. Our intent at the time was to work on training Gryffin to (1) retrieve things; (2) find people; (3) close and open a door; (4) behave in public; (5) identify and get appropriate equipment.

It’s been a joy and a pleasure for both Gryffin and myself to work on these things. We’ve met the trainer, the wonderful Arlene Halloran, about once every 3 weeks and continued to attend puppy class in the intervening 4 months, and while we have lots to work on, progress has been made on every front. The most fascinating thing about the process is how to break things down into simple steps that he can learn, and how much I’ve learned about his personality and quirks in the process. Here’s an update on where we are:

Retrieve: Retrieving is broken into two types of tasks.

  • The first thing we started working on was “find” (by name). This is going pretty slowly — he is beginning to understand naming, but typically sniffs around until he happens upon the right thing and I praise him and give him a treat. So he has the idea of find but has a long way to go. To make things slightly harder, I have been inserting other commands between find commands, and varying the order of things found. He is most reliable with the cane. We have also begun teaching him to find my children by name. Also his Kong (for peanut butter when we leave the house), keys, and anything else we can think of that is useful.
  • The second thing we began working on was “take” “hold” and “give”. He has made significant progress here. At first, I had to put something in his mouth and hold it shut. Then we progressed to him taking it voluntarily from my hand, eventually no matter where I held it, and finally from the floor. Now he will pick things up off the floor even if they are across the room from me. Also, he will pick up a variety of things including toys and soft cloth things, but also more uncomfortable things like a set of keys or a metal spoon. Today we introduced take by name (as in “take keys”) and soon we will begin working on taking things by name that are out of sight. Eventually he will also learn to “clean up” his toys.
  • For getting the cane, we discovered he is uncomfortable picking it up. We’ve incorporated it into the work on pull (described below).

Find: Described above under retrieve.

Close and Open: This is broken down into several basic abilities

  • “Pull” (tug of war on command) can eventually be used to retrieve something heavy, or open a door. He loves this game, and in one training session progressed to the point that he would pull the cane around. We have not yet applied it to other things like doors, first I want to make sure the cane pull is very solid.
  • “Touch” (touch something with your nose). He does this every time we let him out back. However, it turns out he doesn’t like to push things very much. In fact, we have had to work very hard to get him to push open the pocket door, by progressively narrowing it and calling him through it. This will probably not be used as often as other things.
  • “Paw” (shake hands, and eventually “High 5”). He is not yet reliable with this, though my daughter has been working on it. We will try to improve it this month, and make him do it every time he wants to go out. Eventually we can teach him to use a paw to close a door (or turn off a light, etc.)
  • “Back” (walk backward). This will eventually be used to pull on something and back up so a door opens. Right now, he walks back with a lure and me in front of him. The next step is for me to stand beside him and we both back up (with a wall or couch to help us stay aligned and straight).

Behave in Public: There are several commands we need to progress on for this.

  • “Under” is the command used when he needs to get out of sight (under a bus bench; table in a restaurant, etc). He can only go in these places in the U.S. because he is training as a service dog and with permission, of course. He is also practicing this command at home, and has finally progressed from doing it with a lure to doing it with a snap of the fingers most recently.
  • “Stay” is the basic command that is commonly taught to many many dogs. He needs to learn to do it more reliably, and in many many different situations. We need to work on it much more at home as well as out, and work towards “errorless learning” (increasing the difficulty always to just below what he can actually tolerate). Tied to this, we realized today that he doesn’t actually know the word for down (just the signal) so we will work on this too (my daughter being my ever present helper :).
  • “Leave it” is a safety command — when we walk by dead bird, for example, leave it should cause him to look at me and ignore the yummy item on the street. This needs lots more practice.
  • Greetings are an important moment, as is entering a new space (a home or business). He needs to learn better behavior in all of these settings.
  • “Bed” is a useful command in my office, where sometimes students are uncomfortable around dogs. He needs to learn to go to his bed, lie down, and stay there as long as I need.

Equipment: In addition to the obvious appropriate equipment, we need to explore some other possibilities: A cape that can carry things (such as a laptop) might be useful. Also, a “bridge handle” that might be able to help with balance. Finally, I am hoping to start a research project involving a video camera and buzzers or some other communication mechanism that I could use to help guide him to an object of interest, whether in or out of sight.

Personality: I have learned thanks to Arlene’s insights how to identify some of Gryffin’s stress signals (“this is too much for me”), that he responds by shutting down to being criticized (he much prefers praise and just ignoring the mistakes), and just how much he loves being trained.

Gryffin and I are both so happy with the progress he has been making. All of this has been made easier by the fact that I am very energetic at the moment, with no symptoms at all most days. It’s a pleasure to work with him knowing that this will pay off on the harder days, and to enjoy the good days we are having right now.


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