Sunday, February 26, 2017

Puppy Snooze Button

A quiet Dakota peers at me from beneath the blanket


Dakota is an alarm clock. As soon as it hits 7 a.m., she sits up in her crate next to my side of the bed and looks at me. And then she whines.

When she was a young puppy, I would take her outside as soon as I heard her start to fuss because that was her way of telling me she needed to go outside. Unfortunately, it quickly became a habit, and now she starts whining at 7 a.m. every weekend. Dog is 8 months old now. She doesn't need to go out immediately anymore.

It’s my own fault she whines. I created the pattern: Dog wakes up, dog whines, human gets up, human lets dog outside. Even though I would wait until she stopped whining, I didn’t wait long enough for her to disassociate her whining with the opening of the crate door. In her mind, she whined and a few minutes later, the create door opened. Magic!

Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m a morning person. In the winter, I like to be up and out of bed by 7 a.m. on weekends. In the summer, it’s even earlier. It was just natural for me to take the dogs outside soon after I woke up. But in doing so, I created a whining monster puppy.

Something needed to change.

I knew she was capable of staying quiet when I got out of bed. During the week, I get up at 4:30 a.m. so I can be at the gym by 5:30. Little dog doesn’t even crack her eyes open anymore. When I first got her as a tiny puppy, she’d whine while I got up to get ready for the gym, but since it was so ridiculously early, I just ignored her. After 2-3 weeks of whining, she stopped and kept right on sleeping.

Why I never applied the same rules to her 7 a.m. whining on weekends baffles me. I should know better. It was time for some tough love, because as a service dog, Dakota needs to be silent in her crate. She’ll be spending time crated in advanced training, and her future partner will undoubtedly need to crate her sometimes. Besides, her future partner might not be a morning person. Even if Kota’s not crated, she can’t be waking up her future partner at 7 a.m. every morning.

So after assuring my fiancĂ© (who likes to sleep in on weekends) that Kota’s whining would soon go away if we completely ignored her, I began Operation Puppy Snooze Button.

When the clock hit 7 a.m., I got out of bed like I wanted to. But instead of just waiting for Dakota to be quiet for a few minutes before letting her out of her crate, I ignored her completely. I got a cup of coffee and my book, and curled up on the couch to read.

Well, Dakota wasn’t happy with this turn of events, and she whined. She’d stop for a few minutes, and then whine again. Sorry, pup, I can’t hear you!

Half an hour and two cups of coffee later, she was still alternating between a few minutes of silence and awful, high-pitched whines. Since my fiancé was still trying to sleep, I decided I needed to do something.

Dog was staying her crate, though. No way was I rewarding her for whining for 30 minutes. So I covered her crate with a blanket and went back to my book. The blanket seemed to do the trick. She whined once or twice, and then I heard a grumbly “Hrmphf!” as she flopped down.

And then nothing. Absolute silence for 35 glorious minutes.

When I came to a good stopping spot in my book, I let her out and we continued with our morning.

Dakota’s a quick study, so I’m hoping that after a few more weekends, she’ll stop her 7 a.m. alarm clock whining and simply wait quietly until I let her out of her crate.


In other news, I can now feed Kotes and Fire in the same room! Instead of morphing into a mindless food monster as soon as I fill her food dish, Kota continues to remain a thinking dog. She eats at a normal pace, even though Fire’s only halfway across the room, and when she finishes, she licks her bowl completely clean. When every last drop of flavor is gone, she looks at me instead of trying to dive into Fire’s bowl. Little puppy waits for me to tell her “okay” before she tries to lick Fire’s bowl clean. Puppy’s come a long way! Someday, I should be able to feed them right next to each other, just like she’ll one day be fed in advanced training.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Power of a Click

"Hi, human! Look at me walking here! Just checking in to get a treat!"

The clicker is a powerful thing.

For those of you who are new to my blog, Susquehanna Service Dogs uses clicker training to train all their dogs. It’s based on positive reinforcement. Every time the dog does something you want, you click and give the dog a treat. What dog wouldn’t love that? The clicker is also a very precise way to communicate with your dog. It marks a specific behavior or moment in time.

And it’s powerful. Let’s take loose leash walking. Well-timed clicks can transform a dog from one who pulls on the end of the leash into one who walks right next to you on a loose leash.

Of course, poorly timed clicks can turn your dog, who used to walk perfectly on a loose leash, into a dog who continually pulls to the end of her leash.

Now let’s take Dakota. When Dakota was a puppy, she used to walk beautifully on a loose leash. She’d stay right next to me, and the leash would be in a perfect, loose J shape. I was pretty proud of how nicely she walked. As she grew older, however, her perfect loose leash walking started to fall apart. She’d take a few steps right next to me, and I'd click and treat, but then she’d trot quickly ahead until she was at the end of her leash. And after that initial click, she'd keep pulling to the end of her leash.

SSD teaches puppy raisers to use penalty yards when dogs pull on the leash. Basically, when the dog starts getting too far ahead, you simply walk backward—the penalty yards—until the dog is back by your side. Then you walk forward again, clicking and treating after a few steps.

Well, penalty yards weren’t working with Dakota. Oh, she’d come back and stay right beside me for a few steps, but as soon as I clicked and treated her, she’s trot ahead again. We’d do more penalty yards, she’d take a few perfect loose-leash steps, I’d click, and she’s zip ahead again. More penalty yards, and well, you get the picture. We were getting nowhere. In fact, we were literally moving backward.

I chalked up her poor loose leash walking to being a teenager. When dogs hit those teenage years, at least half of what they learned goes flying out of their head. I figured little teenage Dakota thought the world was too interesting, so I tried what I did with teenage Doppler—I clicked and treated much more often. As soon as I gave ‘Kota a treat, I’d click again while she was still walking next to me.

Her loose leash walking got WORSE the more I clicked. So frustrating, because I thought I was doing everything right! I was doing the penalty yards. I was clicking while she was next to me. Why wasn’t it working?

That’s when I realized the problem wasn’t a teenage Dakota. The problem was ME. I was inadvertently clicking Dakota for walking quickly to the end of her leash.

See, I discovered that immediately after ‘Kota got her treat, she’d take 3-4 really fast steps. When I clicked right after giving her a treat, I was actually clicking her for walking really fast. Because the clicker marks an exact behavior, Dakota thought I was clicking her for walking fast. Of course, she kept walking fast which quickly put her at the end of her leash. After all, she’d been trained all her life to continue doing the thing she’d been clicked for. Walking fast became the behavior instead of loose leash walking.

Once I figured that out, I took a moment with her to simply click and treat for attention. I wanted to give both of us a chance to reset and focus. When we started walking again, I began delaying my clicks. Instead of clicking immediately after giving her a treat, I let her take those 3-4 fast “yay, I got a treat!” steps while I kept a steady pace. And what do you know, after her four fast steps, she slowed down, looked at me, and readjusted her pace to mine.

After a few nice steps—click, treat! I kept walking at a steady pace and waited for her to finish her fast “yay, treat!” steps and again, she readjusted her pace to mine and checked in with me. Once she had walked a few steps nicely with me, I clicked again.

Within five clicks, she stopped going anywhere near the end of her leash. She still took a few fast steps but she never went farther than a head and shoulders ahead of me before she re-matched her pace with mine. And she continually checked in with me instead of focusing only on the environment around her.

My loose leash walking puppy was back, thanks to the power of the clicker!

There are still times when Dakota sees the most interesting thing in the world and goes to the end of her leash. When that happens, I still give her penalty yards until she comes back to me. But now I know that when we start walking forward again, I need to be very precise with my click. 


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Mealtime Scramble

'Kota might match my wardrobe, but she sure is hard to photograph.

Dakota loves to train. She loves to take long walks. She loves to snuggle. But without a doubt, the thing she loves most is mealtime.

And it’s a race to the finish.

The only problem is, poor Fire has no idea there’s even a competition.

When I first got Dakota, I started feeding her and Fire at the same time, right next to each other. As a service dog in training, she has to sit and wait for the “okay” before she can eat. (Fun fact: The food bowl is an environmental cue for SSD’s dogs. As soon as they see the food bowl, they should sit without needing the verbal cue or hand cue.) At the word “okay,” both dogs would dig into their respective food bowls. Fire ate like the dignified older dog he is, and Dakota, well, Dakota inhaled her food. Almost literally.

She'd gulp down 3-4 bites, then dive into Fire’s food dish and go to town. Poor Fire, dignified old dog that he is, wouldn’t tell her no. He'd just keep trying to eat while this little black blur darted around his dish, chomping his food. When I guided Dakota back to her own dish, she'd eat a few more bites, then sprint back to Fire’s dish. (Or tried to sprint. The kitchen is hardwood—okay, technically laminate—and her legs scrabbled about so she sort of skated to the other dish.)

This would happen at every meal time, which was a problem because I couldn’t gauge how much food she was actually eating. SSD dogs need to maintain a healthy weight, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t know how much food your dog is eating. Plus, poor Fire is ten years old and deserves to eat his meals in peace.

My first solution was to stand between them and physically block Dakota from Fire’s dish. I thought that after a few times of being blocked, she would start to gain the self-control to stay away from other food bowls. But I didn’t factor in just how food-motivated she is. Little dog loves food. Blocking her with my body was not working. Plus, her future partner could not be expected to block their service dog from eating other animals' food.

Okay, so then I tried feeding her in her crate. She’s contained, Fire can eat in peace—perfect solution! Or so I thought. But then Becky, SSD’s Puppy Coordinator, pointed out that once ‘Kota gets to advanced training, she’s going to be fed around other dogs and will need the self-control to stay away from the other dishes.

I needed a new solution—and I think I found one that may actually work.

I prepare both food bowls. Fire gets his food in the kitchen. Both dogs sit, then I tell Fire “okay.” He digs in, and Dakota and I walk (well, Dakota sprints) into the living room. My living room is set up so I can close one of the two doorways, which is great, because it leaves ‘Kota only one way to get into the kitchen where Fire’s eating.

At this point, she really doesn’t care too much about what’s happening the kitchen because she’s focused on her own food. Near the other doorway, she sits and I put down her food bowl and give her the “okay.”

Surprisingly, when she’s not in the same room as another dog, she slows down a little bit. Instead of inhaling her food, she just eats quickly. Meanwhile, I stand in the doorway, ready to block her when she tries to sneak through to sprint to Fire’s food dish.

The first few times I fed her like this, I had to physically block her. But after the third day, she started sitting soon after she finished licking her bowl clean. One big step toward success! She's no longer thinking, "EAT ALL THE FOOD! ALL OF IT. FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOOOOOOOOD!" She's actually thinking and controlling herself. As a reward for her self-control, I currently tell her “okay” once I know Fire’s finished eating, so she can run and lick his bowl clean, too.

Over time, I plan to move Dakota into the same room as Fire and eventually not even let her lick his bowl clean. Together, we'll build up her self-control until mealtime is no longer a mad scramble.

But for now, I’m celebrating the small successes. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Mall Walkers

Fire either really likes Dakota or he's too tired to care.

SSD Dakota and I have become mall walkers.

Before I continue with this post, I guess I should connect a few dots between this one and my last post from two years ago. Here's the short version:

Doppler was discharged from the program shortly after he entered advanced training. He couldn't get over his anxiety about stairs, and stairs are one of those "make it or break it" skills for service dogs. Even if he would have been placed with someone with a wheelchair, he still would need to use stairs in an emergency situation. Although I couldn't adopt him, he found an awesome family and is living the life as a pet. (Seriously, he's got the life. He lives out in the woods and has a little boy to play with. I'm pretty sure he's one of the happiest dogs in the world.) 

After Dop Dop, I helped raise SSD Cookie Dough and then SSD Oasis. Cookie is now an awesome working service dog (if I do say so myself). Oasis decided service dog work wasn't for her, but she still wanted to be a working dog. She's now an explosives detection dog with the CIA! 

I'm ridiculously proud of all three pups. 

And now, I'm raising SSD Dakota. She's a seven-month-old black lab, and you know what's awesome about that? She matches my wardrobe! Almost all my dress pants are black, and for the first time ever, the dog hair doesn't show! Trust me, this is a big deal. 

I wasn't originally going to raise Dakota. My fiance and I are busy planning a wedding, and we had decided that raising a puppy would be too much. So I just agreed to puppy sit Dakota for a week until she was ready to go with a raiser.

Yeah...

After five days, the little snuggle bug had wiggled her way in and now I'm raising her. She's been with us for four months now. 

And now we're mall walkers. One of my goals for 2017 is to walk more each day, which is a great goal in the spring, summer, and fall. The winter? Not so much. Plus, treating a puppy in the cold is miserable. Your fingers get wet, which means they get twice as cold. Not fun.

However, 'Kota still needs her exercise. Throwing a ball in the yard is great, but it does nothing to help me hit my goal of walking more. Plus, going to the mall also lets 'Kota practice her skills out in public. With a full treat pouch, we head to the Colonial Park Mall.

It took 'Kota a minute or so to settle in. This was her first trip to this mall, and there were lots of unfamiliar smells. I'm sure there were lots of dog smells, too, since Susquehanna Service Dogs takes their advanced training dogs to the mall regularly. I needed to use a lure to get her to go through the doors  correctly. Although she waited for me to tell her "go on through," she just wanted to sniff the carpet as soon as she was inside instead of turning around to look at me. To help her be successful, I used the lure, and she whipped around in a beautiful "go on through." 

Once we were inside, we paused for a few minutes just to get our bearings. I clicked and treated 'Kota for attention. After about five clicks, she was ready to begin our first epic mall walk.

Dakota was a champ! She walked nicely on a loose leash. We only had to do a few penalty yards in the beginning. She's also becoming a rockstar at taking the stairs. (Since raising Doppler, stairs are one of the things I make sure to work on.) Colonial Park Mall has these great sets of 2-4 stairs that are perfect for practicing. Little 'Kotes will stop right next to me on each stair, exactly like a service dog should.

We also got to practice some leave-its near the food court. I also started working on "under," even though we won't start that cue in puppy class for a while. Hey, I was surrounded by benches! Plus, Dakota already knows "under" when we practice with the chairs at work. However, I've learned that she's not great at generalizing, so we started back at the beginning when we practiced with the benches at the mall. I knelt in front of the bench and used a lure to get her to go under. After that first lure, she followed my hand under the bench. We'll keep working on it on our next mall walk.

Overall, we walked a mile and a half on our first mall walk! Dakota will sleep well tonight.


I opened a bag of chips. She woke up to investigate, but got none for her troubles. Beggars get nothing.