Greetings from Westchester! On Monday I started my new job at Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD), a non-profit service dog organization located about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan. I know it's only been 4 full days, but already I LOVE MY JOB! ECAD uses at-risk youth to train the dogs for people with disabilities (about half veterans and half civilians). The kids are responsible for all levels of training, from puppy to placement (ready to work). They are also responsible for maintaining the kennels, grooming the dogs, feeding, etc. For the next 9 months I am going to be learning the ins and outs of the dog training and the teaching so that I can take over my own group of dogs and kids and become an instructor. This week, I have been shadowing the instructors and learning a bit more about dog training and about how things work at ECAD. The people, both staff and students, are totally awesome and I'm loving spending my day with them. I know this is going to sound super cheesy, but hearing the veterans talk about how this program helps them and watching the kids struggle to train the dogs and work their butts off here is truly amazing. I have no doubt that I am making a difference AND I'm not sitting at a desk on a computer all day which is an added bonus.
Thus far, I have been struggling with unlearning commands from the Guide Dog Foundation and replacing them with the ECAD commands. Many of them overlap, so I actually have a head start, but it reminds me of when I tried to learn Spanish after learning French and I ended up speaking Franish or Spench. Either way, the dogs are confused when I tell them "Forward" instead of "Let's Go" or "Inside" instead of "Go Through". Most of the dogs here are Golden Retrievers, which is a less familiar breed for me. They are more enthusiastic and goofy than labs. These dogs are also "softer" and a bit easier to train. Yesterday I was in awe watching the high school boys run through an exercise where one person had to control 6 dogs. The dogs were all on their "jump on" boxes, which are 2 foot high tables where they get groomed. Going down the line, each kid had to ask the dog to "jump on" or get off and go under the box, while maintaining order and keeping the other 5 dogs in place. Then they had to ask the dogs to all "sit" or "down" or "shake" and then we took toys out and started trying to distract the dogs by tossing rope toys over their heads while the person in the "training" position maintained control. All of this without touching the dogs, the leashes, and using minimal body language (ie. no pointing). I must say, when it was my turn, I was nervous but successful at getting all the dogs to go under their table and stay. Today I worked with 3 or 4 dogs on turning on and off light switches. I also worked on having the dogs pick stuff up and hold it for me. Such smart doggies! Pauly is also loving having so many new friends and getting to hang out with mom all day in the training center. He's exhausted and happy with his new life. Today one of the kids took one of the electric wheelchairs and took Pauly for a "run" around campus. They're best friends now.
Small world tidbit of the day: the chairwoman of my department at Columbia walked into ECAD this afternoon to pick up a dog. She is one of the weekend homes for our dogs in the program. I was totally surprised and confused to see her. How funny, huh?