Tuesday, June 17, 2014

21 Months: Training - Days 332 - 336

Emma spends a lot of time watching the neighborhood.
Monday - Friday

A service dog lives in an ever changing world.  In a single shopping trip the dog may be bumped, touched or startled several times.  I have had Max, my personal service dog, hugged suddenly by small children, his faced grabbed by a pre-teen who then pushed her face quickly into his, a pre-teen roll by on those shoes with wheels in them and slap his rump as he went by, a child run up a bus aisle and trip over him (she kicked his face when she did) and more.  He's been attacked by several dogs, had strangers pet him without permission and at least once a trip to the local Winco had a child put out their hand and run it along his back as they walked past us going the other direction.  He's been barked at by other dogs, screamed at by children, stepped on by people and had boxes dropped less than a foot behind him, fallen on when someone lost their footing and landed on both of us (I was in my power chair), stepped on when sleeping in a movie theater, was pressed into a wall when the elevator we were in filled beyond capacity and yet more.  If you think it's easy being a service dog, it's not.  We ask these dogs to live in a world in which anything can come around the next corner or something unexpected and frightening may happen and we expect them to handle it without barking, freezing or attacking.  It takes an unflappable dog to work in public.

Emma is not unflappable.  I have taken her out on different types of public access training and she's never slept quietly at my feet nor has she relaxed once.  She can't just put her head down and tune out the world and focus on her job.  She does this thing with her head where she looks like a little bird glancing about.  It's cute until you realize it's her trying to take in every aspect of her world because she doesn't feel safe.  She either walks with her head up, her body stiff, her tail rigid and high while making these bird like movements as she tries to take in all points of the compass or head low, tail down, body arched and steps slow as she starts to shutdown and withdrawal from the stimulus overload.  In either presentation her mouth is closed.  If she didn't have the top knot she does, I would see knitted brows.  I see ears that are either flared so far forward she's in high alert or set back as she tries to make herself small.

These body postures go away when we go on regular walks, though I still see the quick glances and hyper alertness when walking.  She enjoys a good trot with the power chair, but the moment something changes in her environment, such as a dog or person appearing unexpectedly, she's on high alert and the happy Labradoodle smile (open mouth, tail slightly higher than her back or even and waving gently, body relaxed and fluid) leaves and the tense worried Emma returns.  She's fearful of strangers in general and startles without good recovery from sudden frights.  On the days she can go out to work toward public access she would, to someone who doesn't recognize the stress signs, appear to be doing fine, but once home the internal struggle she fought between her training and her fear shows.  She refuses to eat, begins hiding behind furniture, begins destructive chewing and startles even with the slightest movement on anyone's part.  She also becomes highly demanding for attention.  I refuse to take her out if I see overt fear signs in the home, which include classic body posture of ears back,  head low, body low and tail tucked.  I can't see adding to her stress for the sake of training; it's not fair to her.

She did extremely well on a quiet day in Riverfront Park, but still had stress signs.  She spent most of it with an open mouth, loose body and good ear and tail position.  I had occasions where she'd startle and curl into herself and I'd have to take the time to give her reassurance she was still safe.  She had times she became so alert she couldn't hear me or respond to known cues, but in a quiet park setting she had 95% good and 5% high stress as compared to when she goes to a store where it's turned the other way.

But it's more than that.  A service dog needs to handle stress in all aspects in their lives.  The ever changing life of living with humans, including visiting dogs and people, requires an ability to handle that stress and not have emotional fallout later.  Emma internalizes her stress.  She is super excited to see my friends and family she's grown to know as her extended family over the past 2 years.  She's madly in love with my mother and Ronda and truly enjoys a good cuddle with my friend John.  It's taken several visits with John and his dog Yoda before Emma was able to handle the stress of Yoda coming into the home - John commented on that.  My Mom has commented she's doing better, but she too has noted how easily Emma can shy away from something or go off and hide away when we are busy with a project around the yard.  Where my dogs and other trainees see the visits as a fun way to meet new people, become involved in what we are doing to the point of being a pest and then eat without issue later in the day, Emma does not. She stays away from the projects we work on, dashes to find a new spot to watch us from a distance when we move close to where she is and it's hit or miss if she'll eat later.  She only joins us when we are done with the project and are sitting quietly talking about the next project.  Emma is not secure in her world and asking her to enter into an even bigger, scarier world outside of home is not right.

I have taken her to the local smoke shop and even there, when it's me and the employee only, she cannot relax.  She's still looking around rapidly, unable to hold a position unless heavily paid for it and never just relaxes and puts her head down.  She simply can't relax when away from home.

I have a friend whose dog was much the same and in hindsight realized the alert, quiet dog that she worked was really a stressed dog who was holding all of that stress inside.  The dog showed many of the same issues Emma does.  He didn't eat well or at all if he was stressed by public access training and at times wouldn't join the training game because of stress.  He knew his cues, performed them flawlessly and worked for his handler out of love, but he never relaxed when in public.  He had been taught how to put his chin down and appear relaxed in public, but when touched the tense muscles could be felt.  He is no longer with us.  He had a breakdown at 3 years of age and went into full Additions Disease.  He had passed his public access training at 16 months, worked from 16 months until just prior to his 3rd birthday and was a solid working dog until then, but he was internalizing all of that stress and it resulted in the ultimate price - he had to be euthanized because he couldn't control his bowels, shook when a leash was touched, even if it wasn't for him, and had lost 15 pounds because he refused to eat most of the time.  He was under constant medical care at the time, but his crisis was so serious that no medication helped him.  The first signs of his breakdown was his starting to refuse to walk more than a block from his home; six months later he was gone.  He was a Standard Poodle.

Poodles tend toward Additions Disease as a breed.  Emma is part Poodle and thus at higher risk.  I do not want to push her into a job she's not suited for, though she is trained for, just to raise the number of graduates in my program.  Her health, mental and emotional wellbeing is far more important to me.  I have spent most of her life building up her confidence and we've built it up, but not enough.  Emma simply is never going to be confident enough to deal with the challenges of public access.

I have worried for her, had her sleep next to me, fed her, cared for her medically, physically and emotionally and loved her since she was 14 weeks old. I have sat back and felt great sadness when she's shied between one click and the next.  I have felt frustrated when she's sniffed her food and given overt fear signs and walked away, though she's eating in a different area from the other dogs and there is nothing to be afraid of between one feeding and the next - she simply has days that focusing enough to eat is too hard.  I have cuddled, reassured, reinforced and rode the roller coaster with her from one day and sometimes one minute to the next.

Don't get me wrong, she doesn't live in a constant state of fear.  I would say most of the time she is a happy dog who loves breathing and enjoys life, but there are things in this world that frighten her badly and those things will be faced daily in public.  Tight spaces, people standing over her, people bending toward her, strangers touching her, sharp sudden sounds, rattling sounds, strange dogs, odd surfaces and quick movements all frighten her.  She loves to play, she lives to run, she enjoys a good bone and truly enjoys contact with the people she loves.  She's willing to try, even if she is fearful, to make her people happy.

When she was six to twelve months old she found learning to retrieve horrifying.  She withdrew, fear peed and spent an enormous amount of time behind my recliner.  It took lots of consults with lots of trainers to split her lessons thin enough to make them reinforcing and not adversive and once she learned the task she loved it.  Today she finds great joy in retrieving objects, but some objects still frighten her.  When she was younger a metal bowl was the most horrifying thing on the planet and it took me 8 months of fine splits and lots of DS/CC work to make metal bowls okay for her.  It took a year to make her comfortable with traffic and walking by it.

She just doesn't do change well.  I run a business in which I must take in board and train dogs to work with.  Max, Dieter and Malcolm all welcome the new guest and continue to train, eat and play well.  I see Malcolm join the new guest in play and eagerly work on his lessons without issue.  He's young and sometimes the new guest will bang on the x-pen I use to block off my training area and give my trainees space to train and think and he'll tell me by his ears and his leaning away that it makes him uncomfortable, but when I redirect the noisy guest he returns to training without concern.  Emma cannot do that.  She can't focus on the training with the new guest outside of the x-pen for a day or two and needs confidence building lessons again to bring her back on task and if the guest bangs on the x-pen she's done with the lesson, unable to take treats and needs physical reassurance she's safe.

Buddy threw her for a total loop when he was boarded for 7 days.  She and I worked on confidence building skills and by the end of Buddy's stay she was able to return to task training with a bit more confidence, but I could still see she was worried about Buddy.  Chevy wasn't as bad of a disruption for her.  She continued to eat, unlike when Buddy visited, but I did have to add moist food to make her eat.  She did train, since Chevy is crate trained and thus was out of sight during her lessons.  She returned to over reacting to changes in her environment again - barking without being able to stop at small changes outside of the fence line, destructive chewing (she destuffed my chair and killed 3 stuffed toys) and spent a lot of time either demanding attention or staying a distance from the group of dogs.  I continued to give her the physical, mental and emotional support she's always gotten from me, but that simple change of a new dog was enough to disrupt her.  Malcolm, Max and Dieter shrugged off Chevy and Buddy's arrivals, continued their training and eating and normal behaviors like they hadn't arrived.  Malcolm even engaged both Chevy and Buddy in long games of tug-o-dog, Catch Me If You Can, Keep Away, Tag and for Buddy wrestling and Chevy laying quietly watching the neighborhood and communing - all of this while still doing excellent public access training, in home training and acting like himself without stress fallout.

Emma loves doing her tasks.  She lights up when she gets it right.  She LOVES to pick up items I have dropped, closing cabinets, playing the Go Get Help game and Turn Down/Make Bed game, Nudge Arm game, helping with pulling off socks, pants and jackets/shirts and showing off her advanced basic training.  She has a fantastic sit, down and stay.  She has an exceptional recall and truly loves playing Touch as a game.  She is willing to try learning something new, but each time we approach a new task or an advancement of a task she becomes worried, shy and withdrawn for a bit until she solves the puzzle.  Each task I have listed has been carefully crafted while working with a dog who approaches learning with both joy and fear.  She loves the attention training gives her, but when she thinks she may be wrong she stresses herself into shutdown.

This means Emma has been career changed to an In Home Only Service Dog.  She can go on trips with her family to hotels as long as she isn't taken out for public access work in the stores and restaurants.  She doesn't do restaurants well.  When I had taken her she growled and barked softly under her breath when new people were seated nearby.  She was fearful of being under the table and never did relax and go to sleep during the meal.  She will be fine in a hotel room where she's not pressured by sudden changes and can perform her tasks in a controlled environment.  She'll enjoy her walks with her family, be a huge help to her handler in the home and provide unending love and laughter with her silly, sweet, soft and bouncy personality.   Emma is not a failure, but a young girl who just needs a soft hand and predictable world in which to thrive.

Emma worked this week on her confidence building skills by working on Go To Mat (shaping it) to begin some work on self calming behaviors and finalize her door greeting manners.  She also worked on her tug task for opening doors for her handler so she can either go get help or even help him leave his room or a room when working in the home.  She had to return to basics and relearned the task with the cabinet and has started again at working it on the door to my bathroom.  Once she's comfortable with the door on the bathroom I'll have her family work with her in her home to learn how to work those doors when cued.

She has light switch tasks, finalizing her Turn Down and Make Bed tasks and deep pressure task to finish.  The deep pressure will be used to calm her handler when he becomes upset and helping to relieve pain on bad days.  The light switch task will be to help with turning on and off lights as he needs.  She needs polishing on Clean Up and Laundry (which is taking his clothes and putting them into a basket for him) and final polishing on greeting guests in a controlled manner.  I will look to see if there are any other in home tasks she can do to make her handler's life more independent in the home and work on them.

Emma has learned to learn and so as her handler discovers new things he'd like her to do for him, she is fully able now to learn those things and add them to her list of tasks.  She will become stronger at her job and they will become a team once she's graduated at the end of summer and they've spent six months on being a team together.

Please remember, Emma didn't fail.  Emma worked through strong fears, built confidence and learned a lot of amazing things to get where she is and where she's going.  She's a remarkable, loving, sweet girl who simply needs a more predictable world than public access was able to give her.  Emma's story has not ended, but is just beginning as we learn what all she can do to make her handler's life fuller.


  1. I love this, not because Emma has experienced a career change but because I have a very similar dog I raised. The stress of training had him shut down, at 18 months his kidneys were shutting down, he wasn't eating, was constantly stressed, dog reactive and hated working in public. I had to fight so hard for him to be allowed to be a pet but he's almost 6 now and is a completely different dog, still reactive and easily stressed but much happier. Thank you, for caring enough about Emma to do the best for her instead of the best for your program!

    1. Our goal is for both ends of the leash to enjoy the partnership and if the dog is unhappy in it's job then the partnership is not successful. For Emma, the choice over her wellbeing and my stats was easy. I am glad to see her happier and doing better overall and she's loving her in home tasks as well.

  2. I had a lab who did the same kind of stress things. I rehomed her to a loving home with an autistic child. she still does service work for him but she does not do public work she is strictly a stay at home SD.

    1. What an amazing gift you gave that family. I am glad both ends of the leash benefited from your gift of accepting your pup for who he was. Thank you for sharing.