Tuesday, August 20, 2013

10 Months, 3 Weeks: Training - Day 155

In large programs the puppies who are destined to become a service dog are sent to Puppy Raisers who teach them the foundation of basic obedience and give the puppy a broad socialization foundation.  It is an such an important part of a puppy's socialization that the puppy is not returned for task training until it is between 14 and 16 months of age.  Basics, such as Sit, Down, Stay, Loose Leash Walking and Leave It are the foundation to the final dog who exits the large program with their disabled handler.

This means the foundation for task training is building a confident and stable dog who has had a long history of rich positive re-enforcement and has been taught to learn.  They've seen and experienced many types of surfaces, sounds, smells and sights in their early months.  They have also been introduced to many types of people and crowds.  Even so, some of these young dog exit the programs having never seen someone in a full body suit or wearing a odd shaped costume.

I read a story of a dog who, having already graduated from a large program, was taken to Disney Land in Florida and was very frightened of the Mickey Mouse costume.  Disney, a wonderful supporter of the disabled community arranged to have Pluto, Mickey and other costumed characters work with the handler to help the dog learn that they would not hurt him - he left happy and confident and enjoyed many other trips to the park.

When I started training Max I took him to a local Science Fiction  Convention which, at that time, was held on the Gonzaga University campus.  The concentration of people was in different buildings with access to large open areas outside that gave up many breaks from the crowds.  Because of this, I could, at that time, take him for a majority of the day.  He was, to say the least, tired by the time we headed home for our breaks at noon, dinner and then finally bed.

The convention, SpoCon, moved after the second year I was working Max to a hotel downtown, the Double Tree, and the access to open areas remained - River Front Park or just outside the building.  For Max, who wasn't raised from infancy to handle large crowds, I spent a lot of time working him in and out of the crowds until he could in the last three years just enter and be okay with the press of people.

The greatest advantage of SpoCon is the number of full body costumes and other types of appearance changing outfits.  For Max, the hardest thing to handle was the sounds of people walking by with belly dancing bells jingling.  It took us three years to get him indifferent to them.  This year, I had two more dogs to introduce to SpoCon.

I took Emma with me for pure socialization.  With treat pouch packed with cheese, hot dog, Howies Turkey and chicken breast I took her with me to the hotel to pay for my membership and introduce her to various costumes.

Emma arrived in a state of heightened excitement.  It took some work to walk her in on a loose lead, but once in she was nothing but wiggles and wags.  She didn't react to any costume she met, though she did seem to have a thing about sticking her nose into the pleats of Victorian Era dresses.  She was a bit worried at first when she saw a man with a multi-colored beard (which I kindly pointed out to her) but before she could go much beyond a pause in her tail wagging I was stuffing chicken into her mouth and she decided the man with the strange beard was okay.

She was able to meet people in chain mail, wearing crabs on their heads and many other types of strange outfits and took it all with a wiggling sense of joy.

What amazed me was when I saw a pen cap on the floor and my step-daughter pointed to it and Emma picked it up and handed to me.  I had only just the day before broken through whatever block she had about retrieving and suddenly she was doing something I hadn't even prepped her for in a public forum with a crowd of people around her.  She got five rapid fire treats for doing such a wonderful job.

We spent approximately 45 minutes visiting with people, meeting, sniffing and examining new costumes and just learning to refocus on her handler while in a distracting situation.  Whenever I let someone say hi to her I offered her a treat, by the end of the 45 minutes she went to meet a friend of mine and after a quick "hi" she turned back to me.  Mission accomplished.

While talking to that friend I noted she laid down at my feet and watched people go by without trying to interact with them and finally, without prompting from me, put her head on her front paws and relaxed - the excitement of the environment she was in had subsided and she was able to relax and take it easy at my side.

With this as her final act I brought her back to my place and waited with her while she played in the yard to process the very exciting event she had just attended.  She had been lit up, enjoying herself and showed no fear or worry, outside of a second or two with the multi-colored beard, but hadn't processed everything that had happened to her yet.

When I passed her off to her owners I told them to give her the weekend off and just let her work through the excitement of the convention and realize she did something amazing and it didn't kill her.

What was more exciting for me was how well Emma did with everything.  I knew she would be rubber necking when I took her in and it gave me the perfect opportunity to reward her for seeing so many things all of a sudden.  Each time she looked at a costume or make up I said her name in a happy voice and gave her a treat.  We started with her taking a treat once every 3 seconds and ended with her taking treats once every 7 to 10 seconds as we moved through the crowd.  There were points when I had 15 to 20 seconds between treats when she was laying at my feet and at one point there was a gap of nearly 5 minutes between treats while she relaxed by me.  It was the first sign that Emma was truly going to thrive in a public setting.

She's still going through a lot of emotional and mental changes as she moves into her second year of life, so there is not promise she'll be able to work full time in public venues yet, but she's showing the first signs that she has the foundation needed to succeed as long as we continue to make the trips into such settings positive.

Enjoy the pictures of the different costumes Max and I have seen over the years (many of them present at every convention) when attending SpoCon.

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