Service Dog Training is Like a Box of Chocolates.
"Excuse me!" I sloshed through the puddles from the previous night's storm in my already sopping shoes to catch up to the woman walking up ahead. She didn't turn around, the umbrella in her hand spinning slightly as she forged up the sidewalk.
I called out again, "excuse me ma'am!" Copper and Sarah, another dog that I was walking, trailed behind me in an attempt to keep up with my fast pace. Sarah was unimpressed with her surroundings, but Copper had zoned in on the open umbrella and had his tail hesitantly tucked which is his signal that he's uncomfortable and unsure about whatever object has his attention. This time my call drew the woman's attention and she turned to face me.
"Hi, sorry," I huffed out as I shoved a pupperoni treat into Copper's mouth to distract him from his intense focus on the woman. I continued towards her while chucking yet more treats into Copper's open mouth like a pez dispenser, "my dog has never seen a stranger carry an umbrella before, would it be alright if you said hi to him and gave him a couple treats to introduce him to it?"
And so my day began...by asking a random stranger on the street if my dog could greet her and her open umbrella. She obliged but didn't seem overly thrilled. I''m sure she'll tell her family around the dinner table about the tall freak with the two dogs who chased her down the street while she was out attempting to enjoy her morning stroll. But I walked away from that interaction feeling successful because after a few moments of being allowed to approach the umbrella in his own timing, Copper walked away not concerned about it anymore where before he was unsure and anxious about the previously unknown object. Because I took the time to address his concerns properly in that moment (even though I embarrassed myself a bit) Copper will most likely have a positive association to umbrellas in the future and not be as concerned the next time he comes across one. Many of my days wind up with occurrences like this because when you're training a service dog you just never know when you're going to stumble across an opportune training moment that you HAVE to address right then and there.
Training service dogs is so much more than taking your dog with you everywhere. As a handler, you are subjected to criticism, judgement, harassment, and extra attention from the public wherever you go. You have to be ready to train with your dog no matter where you are or what you're doing. You always have to be on your top game because if you aren't you might miss an opportunity that you won't be able to get back. I guess you could say that service dog training is like a box of chocolates because you just never know what you're going to get.
After the umbrella incident, I quickly wrapped up our morning walk as it had started to rain. I was planning on meeting a friend for coffee and lunch and Copper was coming with me. We arrived at the coffee shop before my friend, so I headed inside in hopes of finding a dry table with a delicious vanilla latte in my hand.
"Do you even allow dogs in here?"
I looked up to see a gentleman at the counter gesturing towards me as he directed his question (said super snarkily by the way) towards the flabbergasted barista in front of him. The barista handed him his change with an astonished look. Copper was clearly a service dog as he was being impeccably behaved at my side and labeled in his service dog vest. Her response was a simple "Uh, yeah, we do allow service dogs."
The gentleman huffed, shoved the change in his pocket, and skulked off to another corner of the room. As I approached the counter to order, the barista gave me an apologetic smile along with a "hi, sorry about that, what can I get you?" I honestly appreciated her sincerity and with a shrug I laughed off the gentleman's rudeness with a joke about how I was used to it by now. Ok, service dog in training event number two for the day.
We found an available table outside and Copper and I settled down to wait for my friend. She joined us shortly, with her own service dog in tow, and we chatted for a bit. After a several minutes or so had gone by, I heard the jingle of dog tags and Copper's head popped up expectantly. I quickly surveyed the area and spotted an older woman walking a small dog towards the coffee shop's patio on a retractable leash with a poop bag in her hand. She was headed for the trash can located not too far away from our table. Both service dogs were interested but held their positions under the table. I reached into my ever present treat pouch attached to my hip and grabbed a handful of treats in preparation for rewarding Copper. He has trouble focusing around other dogs and we've worked on him refocusing on me when other dog's are present. The little dog walked by us to the trash can and Copper glanced at me (to which he got a couple rewards.) On the way back, the little dog spotted us and stretched on it's retractable lead to get to us. Copper looked uber interested, but with a firm "leave it" he turned away and focused on me. The woman seemed to get the hint, reigned in her dog, and moved past us on her way back to the parking lot. I let out a little sign of relief and gave Copper another well deserved reward. He had done well!
I popped into the restroom at the coffee shop before walking to the restaurant for lunch. Naturally I took Copper with me. He sat and stayed excellently as I took care of my business and didn't budge when the toilet flushed loudly. After washing my hands and without even thinking about it, I stuck my hands underneath the hand dryer and waited for the surge of hot air. Copper immediately jumped back with his tail tucked. I wanted to smack myself.....I realized he hadn't ever been exposed to the hand dryer. I grabbed more treats out of my treat pouch and let him lick them out of my closed hand one at a time as I intermittently turned the dryer on and off with my other hand. After a few minutes I could tell he still wasn't a fan of the dryer, but he would approach it when it was off and he wasn't as nervous when it was on for short periods of time. Event three and four down apparently.
My friend and I had a great time at lunch while the dogs napped underneath the table without issue. About halfway through our meal a family with a young girl were seated directly within eye sight of our table. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the little girl repeatedly look at our table with wide eyes and giddy smiles. I saw her motion to an older woman sitting across from her several times and each time the woman turned around in her chair to give our table (and dogs) a once over. I tried to focus on my friend and our conversation and not let the neighboring table's adoration of our service dogs distract me. When people stare at me and my dog in public it makes me feel self conscious and anxious.
After lunch, I bid farewell to my friend and her service dog and popped over to Old Navy located in the same shopping center to see if there were any tall shirts on sale. Copper plodded along dutifully at my side. He stopped dead in his tracks when we walked through the door and saw the infamous Old Navy dog statue next to the mannequin display just inside the door.
"Awwww what a cute doggie," a woman cooed as I walked through the door. I saw Copper's immediate change in body language and ignored the woman. I didn't have time for her now, I had to make sure this was a positive experience for Copper. His tail was tucked slightly, but wagging, as he waited by my side for direction. "Copper, say hello," I said which is his release command to greet someone/something. Copper approached the dog, hesitantly at first, but quickly warmed up to it. He sniffed it's muzzle then moved behind to give it's tush a sniff as well. I allowed him the time to get comfortable. After a few moments he looked up at me with a bit of confusion as to why the dog wasn't moving. I assured him, gave him some treats, and asked him to down next to the dog. Copper obliged, but he still was a bit unsure of this dog that hadn't yet moved and was displaying very stiff body language.
"Good boy Copper," I said chipperly as I snapped the photo. To help him get his mind off of the strange stiff dog I asked Copper to pick up his leash off the ground which he happily did for me. With his tail back to normal, comfortable, positioning we ambled off into the depths of the store to shop. Crises averted and the next training event (which one are we on now?) handled properly.
We shopped, we bought items (because let's face it, how can you NOT at Old Navy) and on our way out I offered Copper another opportunity to greet the dog statue. He did without hesitating this time. I breathed a sigh of relief....it had worked.
Glancing at my clock I realized that I'd be hitting quite a bit of traffic on the way home and it would be at least an hour in the car. I had to use the restroom again. Old Navy was part of a mall, so I popped into the entryway between stores and looked around for a bathroom. Surely one couldn't be too far away.
"PUPPY!" a little girl garbled as she toddled towards us as we walked through the door. Dead ahead was the kid's play area and they were swarming en mass. Copper cocked his head in interest and I stepped in front of him to prevent the child from falling into his face and grabbing an ear or two along the way. Luckily I didn't have too as the parent appeared out of nowhere and clutched the little girl's arm with an apologetic glance my way. I smiled in acknowledgement and thanks for their quick handling before moving off down the hallway. I popped a treat into Copper's mouth as a reward for his unwavering heel during the entire ordeal. He happily chewed and tapped along beside me.
I couldn't find a bathroom; it was incredibly frustrating! I finally saw a sign for Target at the end of the mall's hallway and figured I might as well just pop inside there to use the restroom instead of continuing to strike out of luck anywhere else. I rounded the corner into the restroom a little too quickly and bumped into Copper. He glanced up at me then moved to walk behind me to avoid any further fumbles. "Sorry Bud," I thought to myself as I surveyed available stalls. The handicap stall was currently in use. I grimaced as I looked at the regular sized stalls which were tiny. With a sigh and a roll of my eyes I moved forward.
It took a few seconds to position myself just right inside the stall and have enough room to lure Copper into it after me. Finally, I figured out the only way it would work was if I basically hung off the back of the door and swung it open so Copper would have enough room to walk in and curl around the door for me to close it. Copper decided he wanted to lie down and stay to wait for me which would have been fine if he wasn't spilling into the next stall.
"Oh look Mommy, there's a DOG in here!"
I rolled my eyes. Damn kids were everywhere! I finished and had just enough time to get my pants back on before I saw a little hand come reaching from the adjoining stall and grab Copper's tail. He quickly stood up and moved into the middle of the stall with a confused look in the direction of the hand. To the sound of giggling I managed to recreate the hang-off-the-back-of-the-stall-door move in order to extricate us both out of the tiny space.
Copper dutifully followed me to the sink and sat next to me while I washed my hands. This time I opted for the paper towels instead of the hand dryer. I was just tossing the used paper towels into the waste basket when behind me the hand dryer surged to life. Both Copper and I jumped. Immediately I grabbed treats out of my treat pouch and offered them to Copper who lapped them up with enthusiasm. I could tell he wasn't thrilled with the shrill noise (that even hurt my ears) but he wasn't as scared as earlier that day. We quickly made our way out of the bathroom which resulted in me bumping into the wall because I was paying attention to Copper and not where I was walking.
"Let's put this day to rest Bud," I said to Copper as we weaved around the dollar bins in Target towards the doors to the mall walkway. Copper trotted along beside me as chipper as could be. Thank God I hadn't destroyed his spirit with all his new experiences today.
Halfway to the parking lot doors we passed the little kiddie rides that were set up in a row. At the end was the classic horse ride that has been around since I was a wee tot. Copper's ear's perked up in interest but he didn't break his heel. All I wanted to do was get in my car and head home, but, I recognized a training opportunity that I needed to address.
"Wanna say hi to the horsey Copper?" I asked. He looked up at me bright eyed and tail wagging loosely. I dug around in my purse for some change and popped it into the slot. The horse immediately cranked to life and lilted back and forth. Copper looked at me inquiringly. I smiled back at him and with a wave of my hand I told him he could say hello.
Copper hopped forward and with a furiously wagging tail sniffed the horse from head to toe. After a thorough looking over Copper was satisfied to sit next to it calmly while it chugged away. During the ordeal several people passed by and glanced our way with interest. Once young couple in particular was interested and stopped for a few moments to watch me train. "Look at that seeing eye dog get trained," I heard the young teen whisper to her gentleman companion. I tried not to sigh in frustration. I could have taken a moment to educate her about service dogs for invisible disabilities (which Copper is being trained for) but I was honestly too tired. So, I let that one go. Ok so the next several training events had come and gone and we had survived without too may mishaps. After that we made our way back to the car. Copper passed out the second his head hit the back seat and he was knocked out the entire ride home.
Remember my last blog where I described service dog training as being hard? Have I convinced you yet? Both Copper and I worked hard, so we are going to take a little rest before heading out again. Check back here soon for more training stories about Copper and my adventures.