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.


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.