Thursday, December 11, 2008

Team Training

After having my in-person interview at KSDS, I was told they would be in touch as to when I would actually get into a class. The anticipation was delicious, but sure had me antsy! I remembered my tour of the Canine Housing Unit, and seeing all those lovable furry faces. Dog-lover that I am, I fell in love with several that day! I knew I couldn't pick out which one I wanted. KSDS is understandably very particular about matching the right dog to the right person for team training. So I had to wait and see what their decision would be.

The day I got the call telling me to come in for the class beginning in about a week, I was in a spinny-headed daze. I was really going to get a Service Dog! As I pushed my manual wheelchair painfully around town doing errands on my own, I tried to envision what it would be like to have a dog help me pull the chair, and carry purchases. I'd look around my apartment and think, what will the dog to to help me around in the house? I'd have to wait and see, but the wait would not be long!

The first day of the training, I met my classmates, Angela (from California) and Bridgid (from Kansas). We all wondered and speculated what kind of dog we would get --- German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, or Labrador. KSDS had a strict policy, we discovered, about not telling a student beforehand about which breed or gender of dog he or she would be partnered with. This was to completely dispel any preconceived ideas about our dogs, and give us a fresh clean-slate perspective as we learned about our new canine helpers.

That first evening, we had a presentation from a puppy-raiser, who told us about the process they go through in getting a pup ready for a working life. Our second day at KSDS, "Dog Day," we were each presented with our new canine partners. I was given a beautiful male yellow Labrador with incredible golden eyes, named Woody. Bridgid was given a beautiful male yellow Lab, as well -- a half-brother to Woody, in fact, named Mercury. Angela was partenered with a male Golden Retriever named Stealth. "Three men for three ladies," grinned KSDS founder Bill Acree.

And off we all went into the grand adventure of working with our dogs! The team training covered a wide variety of things. We had to learn about Dog Psychology, in order to better understand our canine partners. This paved the way for helping the dogs to accept us as the Alpha, thus building and strengthening our working bonds. We were taught which commands the dogs knew, and how to give and enforce those commands. We learned that praise and correction were essential to the working relationship; and correction ---like praise--- could be verbal, physical, or a combination of both.

In order for each student to personalize the training, we had to use the letters of our surnames, and formulate a sentence beginning with each of those letters, stating our keys to training. My paper looked like this:

Susan Keys To Training

C Correction & Praise!C Correction & Praise!
U Understanding Your Dog's Point Of View
R Return To What Works If You Hit A Spot That Doesn't
R Remain Focused On What You're Supposed To Be Doing
A Awareness Of Your Dog, Especially In Public --- He's #1 !
N Never Let Frustration Stay In Your Way. Try A New Approach If Something Doesn't Work.


The training wasn't always easy, but it was certainly interesting! Learning to work all of the commands was a real challenge. Yes, the dogs were trained, but they were also training us in how to work with them. Basic obedience is an absolute must as a foundation, and we learned the ins and outs of mastering basic commands like "Heel," "Come," "Sit," "Down" and "Stay." The extra commands like carrying objects to a designated person, and having the dog pull a wheelchair we also learned and worked into our obedience routines.

We each had our individual challenges. One of mine was getting Woody to catch on to retrieving things for me. Keys were a no-no, at first, as the trainer told me to start out with soft objects, and work up to hard or metal ones. I thought the ultimate thing would be socks, as they were nice and soft. There was a hitch, though. Woody wanted nothing to do with my fresh laundered socks! As I undressed for bed at the motel one night, I wondered what in the world I could find that was soft, that Woody would be interested in enough to try to retrieve. When I took off my bra and tossed it toward the bed, my throw missed and the bra hit the floor. Woody saw that and immediately pounced, bringing it right to me. I was thrilled, of course. But I kept thinking, "Heavens, I can't bring a bra to class for him to practice retrieving!" It was more than a little bit disconcerting.

As we were told in class, "It's not hard to get a Service Dog, but it's a lot of hard work once you do!" There is the feeding, and grooming, and bathing, and vet checks, and daily obedience works, honing old skill-tasks, and learning new ones. We were also made very aware that our dogs were living breathing assistive tools to help mitigate our disabilities. But these animals, though highly trained, were definitely not little doggy robots! They had their own personalities and quirks, and as I discovered with Woody, a warped sense of humor at times!

We all worked our collective buns off, doing obedience games and exercises. We attended lectures and demonstrations on eveything from feeding and proper nutrition, to bathing and how to properly care for the dog's ears and teeth. (I had an extra heart-tug on the day of the bathing demo -- the dog used for that was a black Lab named Frasier, who turned out to be not only Woody's littermate, but that same Lab I saw as a snoozing puppy in his training cape at a dog show in Lincoln, NE some 15 months earlier!) We learned about flea, tick and Heartworm control, Access Laws for Assistance Dogs, and what to expect when it was time for the dog to retire from working. We has to pass two tests ---KSDS's test for our three main advanced skill-tasks, and the Assistance Dogs International test to certify our dogs for being able to work in public with proper manners, and be under the handler's control. A LOT to learn, but Angie, Bridgid and I each passed and graduated with our new canine helpers!
©2008 SKC

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