A couple of times a week, I get asked if Bright is in training. It probably shouldn’t, but it’s kind of giving me a complex; does she look like she’s in training? Do I look inexperienced at handling her? Or is the idea of a graduated, working Service Dog just so foreign to most people that they assume that every dog they see in public is in training for that far-off, out of this world goal? Or maybe it’s because I’m not blind – Service Dogs are always seeing eyes, right?
Even though Bright has achieved that far-off goal, the issue begs another question: Is a Service Dog ever done with training?
Do professional athletes ever stop going to practice or yearly training camps? If anything, they practice harder once they’ve been signed to professional teams, because there’s more on the line if they fail. If I want Bright to continue to work well for me, I have to adopt the same philosophy.
This topic has been on my mind because I moved from Rochester, New York to San Jose, California this month and am running into a behavior issue that I didn’t anticipate; I work in a retail store (which shall not be named) and in transferring from my old store to my new street side one that allows dogs inside, Bright encounters many more dogs during her work week. After a year of very little practice working with potential playmates nearby, she’s having a hard time focusing on me in this environment.
Practice makes perfect…or at least better.
Bright’s new distraction has reminded me how important practice is, and if you’ve ever played an instrument, you know exactly why. No matter how many times you perform a particular piece, you have to practice in between to make sure you’re not falling into bad habits or forgetting anything important. If you think of a Service Dog’s job as a performance, you’ll see how easy it can be to get lazy and modify behaviors to be less work or more convenient. Since Bright doesn’t think, “Ooh, my bad. I better not greet the next dog,” I have to make sure the right thing to do is fresh in her mind all the time.
There are several ways to practice commands and behaviors once your pup knows what you expect:
Repetition. When you say, “Sit,” and Tina the Terrier puts her bottom on the ground and looks at you with, “Did I do it right?” eyes, you should smile and shower her with enthusiastic praise. When you say, “Sit,” and she lays down, you should immediately issue a correction to let her know that she’s not doing what you asked. Once she fixes her behavior, bring on the praise! This kind of rehearsal should be done in lots of different environments, but your expectations and reactions should be consistent no matter where or what you’re practicing.
Setups. Barry the Bichon has a bad habit. Whenever guests come into the house, he greets them by jumping up and licking every inch of them that he can reach. Most of the time, people react with laughter and, “Aah, he’s so sweet,” which only reinforces his bad behavior. A good way to teach him that this isn’t acceptable is to set him up. Ask a friend to come and ring your doorbell, and let them know that when Barry jumps you’re going to issue a correction; that way you can be prepared with a leash, and your guest knows not to encourage his bad behavior.
Classes. It’s really easy to get frustrated when the only dog you ever see misbehaving is your own, and nothing will mess up a dog’s ability to concentrate more than a frustrated handler. If you’ve hit a wall with practice on your own, find an obedience class where you can work in a group and learn from the experiences of other teams.
No pain no gain?
Kind of. The thing is, dogs tend to do what feels good, so practice has to be light and enjoyable. Practice things you know are easy for your dog between the hard stuff, and take breaks to be silly and play every few minutes so that your pup never loses sight of the fun. I can tell when Bright is ready to be done because she gets antsy and her pads start to sweat. Watch your dog for signs of stress, but as a general rule, daily practice should be done in 10-15 minute increments.
Back to my problem of Bright’s newfound social butterfly status: my plan is to take her to weekly CCI Puppy Class, where she has to behave like a lady for an hour even though there are about 15 other ready-to-romp labs in the same room. Between classes, I’m going to be extra vigilant about praising her for doing the right thing, and I’ll do my best to anticipate bad manners before they happen. If I can prevent her from experiencing positive reinforcement for her bad behavior, we just might find success.
Do you have any suggestions for us? What behaviors does your dog struggle with? What’s your favorite way to practice?