Monday, July 25, 2011

Train-the-Trainer: Week 3

Cocoa is a superb shopper!
Yes, I know, I'm a day late with the update on week 3 of train-the-trainer.  It's just that, well, there is so. much. to. do.  We only have one week until the clients arrive for boot camp, so we are working ourselves and our dogs through the final push in preparation of the clients' arrival.  We started week 3 with our first public outing to the Danbury mall.  For many of my classmates, this was their first public outing with a dog and everybody was pretty nervous.  That being said, everybody did great.  Since then, we've been back to two different malls, gone to restaurants for lunch three times, visited the supermarket, and done numerous other public outings.  Having to go to the mall for work is taking a serious toll on my wallet!

Ben and Honey lift onto the bus
This week we also had the opportunity to meet former ECAD clients who were returning to take their public access test.  The public access test is taken every year to ensure that the client and dog are maintaining their training.  Meeting the clients, hearing about their first year with their service dog, and troubleshooting their issues was a phenomenal learning experience.  I think it really brought home Lu's point that every one of our dogs needs to be at 150% when we place them, because the client will only be able to maintain a fraction of that training.  The clients that we met with were mostly kids and their determination, independence, and soaring spirits were remarkable.  Personally, I have also been amazed by the parents of these kids, watching them balance their desires to give their kids independence with their protective instinct.

Wish us luck as we embark on the final week of training before we welcome our clients to ECAD next week! If you're feeling extra generous, wish us some caffeine, too, because our coffee pot quit on us this morning (no doubt from exhaustion).   
Joplin and Cocoa enjoy their Sunday by the pool.  Cocoa enjoyed it a bit more than she should have!

Garrison being gentlemanly as ever.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Train-the-Trainer: Week 2

Visiting Pup Pups
6 5-week old Golden Retriever puppies spent the week with us at ECAD in order to teach us about the training that takes place at a very early age.  At 5-weeks old, the puppies are still nursing from mom, but also eating kibble.  They nibble and move around and play, but they are not yet the rambunctious, mouthy, squirmy 7-8 week old pups most people take home.  At this age, the puppies are starting to learn to "watch me", which means to focus on me and look into my eyes.  They are learning to trust humans by being asked to relax, even fall asleep, in people's arms.  Having the pup pups here was definitely the highlight of this week.

Public Outing #1
On Saturday, we all met at the Danbury Mall for our first field trip with the dogs.  The outing went very well, with all dogs and people behaving themselves.  At the beginning of the week, we rotated dogs because we don't want to form too much of a bond with each dog before giving them to the client in 2 weeks.  So for the past week, I've been working with Crisco, the most handsome dog in the kennel (I'm not biased, really!).  Crisco did very well in the mall yesterday, heeling nicely, pushing elevator buttons, carrying my glasses case and water bottle, and staying down through lunch. 
Crisco lookin' sly
Coming to Jesus
Also this week, many of us had, what Lu calls, a "coming to Jesus" meeting with our dogs.  I couldn't define it better than Urban Dictionary, so, at the risk of losing some readers, I'm going to reference the UD: 
Getting called on the carpet, dressed down, or otherwise chewed out in a severe manner. 
Crisco should have rented a conference room for all of his meetings on Friday.  On three separate occasions, Crisco completely shut down and challenged both Lu and I over picking up a dropped item.  If you've never seen a dog go head-to-head with a human in a full-on challenge, it's truly a battle of the wills.  Crisco's body language changes so severely as his tail drops, his eyes avert, and his body stiffens.  For a full ten minutes, first I and then Lu attempted to correct and motivate him to pick up a can.  For a full ten minutes, Crisco stood his ground.  For a full ten minutes, I don't think anybody in the training center breathed.  To be clear, it wouldn't have gone on this long if we were, say, training a household pet.  However, when your first priority is your client who has MS and Crisco refuses to pick up her dropped keys in the middle of the snow storm, you need to teach him that this command, to pick something up, is not really a request and he does not really have the option to refuse.  When it was clear that Crisco was not going to get out of his challenge head-place, Lu picked up the can and Crisco slowly opened his mouth to accept it.  This was as much of a win as we were going to get, so Crisco was sent to bed to think about what just happened and I was given orders to insist that he pick up the can upon being let out of his kennel.  When I went to my room two hours later, can in hand, in a fresh frame of mind, I placed the can on the floor, opened Crisco's kennel, told him to "look, get it, hold, bring it, and give" and he completed every single step flawlessly.  And then we celebrated like that damn can of peas was really the winning lottery ticket. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sophie's In-For-Training

Just got that dreaded email... it's time for Sophie to go to college.  Like most parents, I feel a mixture of pride and dread that her time has come.  She is still so immature, only 48 pounds, and it really doesn't feel like she could possibly be ready for her formal training at the Guide Dog Foundation.  However, I trust that they will figure her out and, in many ways, it will be nice to have an answer to the "what's gonna happen with Sophie?" question.  For a year now we've been wondering if she will be a guide dog, a vet dog, a service dog, a breeder, or a pet.  Even though it is months away, her in for training is the first step to answering that question. 

Once she goes in for training, the week of July 25, we won't see her again until she graduates.  We will get vague updates every two months and maybe some pictures.  It's going to be hard, especially on my parents, but I know she'll be fine in the kennel and will have a blast with her roommate.  Hopefully I'll get a break in train-the-trainer so I can see her before she goes!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Train-the-Trainer: Week 1

To say that this first week (has it really only been a week?) of Train-the-Trainer was a rollercoaster would be an understatement.   We have had some really high points: late night study sessions spent laughing hysterically and eating ice cream, our first full day of bonding with our dogs, cheering for each other as we improve and excel at training techniques, lending a shoulder to cry on, or sharing a box of cookies to giggle over.  There have also been some really low points: moments of complete exhaustion, moments of self-doubt, moments of frustration with the dogs and with each other.  Through the tears and the laughter, though, we have learned a lot this week and we have bonded as a group and developed substantial and meaningful relationships with each other.
See below for individual photo captions.  Click on the collage to see it larger.

Our week began with lengthy lectures and intimidating quizzes.  As a group, we pretty much bombed our first quiz, which jump started our intensive, late-night study sessions.  We didn't start really handling the dogs or doing any hands-on training until mid-week.  Throughout the week, we test-drove a number of different dogs, each of us learning our individual strengths and weaknesses as trainers and learning the quirks of the dogs' personalities.  We learned about grooming, canine learning theory, motivation, praise, and correction.  On Friday, we were asked to keep our dogs with us during lunch, marking the first time we were entrusted with a dog without supervision.  At the end of class that day, Lu told us that these were our "matches" and we would keep them for the evening.  These were the dogs we would be working with for the next 4 weeks, bonding with them and training them, and eventually training our clients to work with them.    

Adam was paired with a large male yellow Labrador named Russ Jr.  Adam described Russ as "good-spirited, like a gentle bull".  Russ is a boy's dog in every way - he is big and loyal, he loves his ball, wants to roll around and wrestle, but he's even-tempered and serious when working.  They have already developed a visible bond and are working beautifully together.  When Lu took Russ's leash yesterday to demonstrate how he would help his autistic client (by laying on top of him during a meltdown, or grounding him if he tried to bolt), Russ periodically glanced over at Adam showing his loyalty.

Hana was paired with Cocoa, a petite, gentle, mellow, female Golden Retriever.  Cocoa is steady, calm, sensitive, and expressive.  They are a great match, and when Hana was feeling down this week, Cocoa responded by leaning against her leg and staring into her eyes.

JP was paired with Sprinkles, a goofy, galumphing female Golden Retriever.  Sprinkles can be really silly, which compliments JP well because he's a very serious guy.  She's really good at making him laugh, which is exactly what they both need.

Ben was paired with Garrison, a more mature, male, deep-red Golden Retriever.  Garrison lives for a good snuggle and he's an absolute love.  He is eager to please, calm, steady, and handsome.  He will sit still for hours if he's getting petted, leaning in to get as much contact as possible.

Alas, I was paired with Joplin, a female Lab x Golden cross.  She is younger than the other dogs and is very active.  She doesn't hold still for more than 5 minutes (we're working on this), lets her excitement get the better of her, and goofs off as much as she can get away with.  She is eager to please, and will benefit from a "drill sergeant" trainer who will give her command after command and be extremely consistent.  She is different from any dog I've ever worked with and I love that she is a challenge.  I look at Joplin and see the learning potential for me as a trainer.  Joplin will be an alarm dog, meaning she will be responsible for alerting somebody to an alarm or medical condition (for example, she has to be persistent in waking up a narcoleptic).  This job will capitalize on her personality characteristics that would prohibit her from being another kind of service dog, and she is definitely a natural.

I know this is an insanely long post, but it was a very eventful week!  I promise to keep it shorter next week. Please leave comments with any suggestions or things you'd like me to elaborate on throughout the week or for next week.   

Photo Captions:
1: Ben and Tina on their first lunch date
2: Reese being a demo-dog
3: Cocoa and Hana hard at work
4: Joplin thankful for Pauly's bed
5: Joplin
6: Crisco adoring JP
7: Our first group lunch and unsupervised time with the dogs
8: Tina's princess paws
9: Lecture time
10: Lu teaching Russ to go behind an autistic child who is head-banging
11: Cocoa and Hana being attentive
12: Lu teaching Russ to lay on or near an autistic child who is having a meltdown
13: Lu teaching Cocoa to lay on an autistic child
14: JP grooming Sprinkles
15: Cocoa
16: Russ Jr.
17: Russ Jr.
18: Joplin
19: Garrison and I cheating on Joplin and Ben
20: Garrison

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Train-the-Trainer: Roll Call

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to introduce the 2011 ECAD Train-the-Trainer class (drum roll, please):

Within about one hour of meeting Adam, he described his younger self to us as a self-defecating Jew.  Rest assured, though, folks, because there's really so much more to him than his self-defecation (no, those are not typos).  All of Adam's stories start with an unexpected and enticing premise like "when I was living on a Kibbutz in Israel..." or "when I was teaching art in Nantucket..." or "when I was working in an IT department in Norway...".  Seriously, he never ceases to pull out some new tidbit of expertise, wisdom, or insight based on his world travels and diverse 5-year career stints.  Of late, Adam is very interested in therapeutic horseback riding and would like to incorporate therapy dogs into this endeavor.

Hana is a very philosophical, insightful, gentle, kind, humble woman.  She is seriously, so, so kind.  She is the mother of identical twins who fall on the autism spectrum (interesting, though, for all you genetic nerds out there, on very different levels on the spectrum).  Hana is here at train-the-trainer without much dog experience and is really putting herself out there and trying to soak up as much information as she can.  She describes this opportunity has truly "right" for her and she feels like something is calling her to this.  Hana is quick to laugh and to compliment and she has an almost unnatural way of making me feel at ease.  She is very motherly towards me and it's remarkably comforting.  I think that her honest attitude will really help her when it comes to the dogs, and the dogs will definitely help build her confidence.  I can't wait to watch!

Ben is a marathon-runner, family-man, published author, dog lover (and yes, I hyperlinked his name, check it out).  He may or may not be working on a book about ECAD and about the human-dog relationship.  This may or may not mean that we are all on our best behavior for fear of our future published depiction (and because the tape-recording pen is turned on).  Ben is not staying in the house with the rest of us, which means that we haven't had as much of an opportunity to get to know him.  His presence in class is noted by his ability to ask the question that I want to ask before I even know I want to ask it. 

JP is one of the young veterans who has been volunteering at ECAD for a few months.  He sort of stumbled into the train-the-trainer course and is a great addition to our "litter".  He is a smart student and brings some of that "boot camp" mentality to dog training, which the dogs respond really well to.  JP also helps us understand what our clients, at least the veterans, may be dealing with and what these dogs can give to them.

And then there is me, the smart-ass, who got a 3-week head start learning this ECAD stuff and that's really just totally unfair.

All in all, it's a darn good group with a solid sense of humor, humility, and intelligence.  Thus far, I think we're really enjoying each others' company and learning a lot not only from our amazing instructors but from each other.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Happy 4!

I made it home for the weekend after a totally exhausting week at work. Many folks were on vacation or out of the office, so I found myself taking on a lot of responsibility. We didn't have the boys coming in for training, so I did a lot of individual field trips into town with the dogs. Crisco to the coffee shop, Joplin to lunch, Cocoa to the train station, and Sprinkles home for the weekend.  This allowed me to get to know the individual dogs better and to assess their specific training needs. Train-the-trainer begins on Tuesday. This will be 6 weeks of extremely intensive lecture and practicum on how to be a dog trainer. ECAD holds this course every summer and interested people can pay to attend. As part of the 6 weeks, we each get assigned our own dog to "finish". This means that the dog will be with us, essentially acting as our service dog and forming a very tight bond only with us. For the entire time, we are not allowed to separate from the dog, taking it everywhere we go and getting it ready to hand over to a client with disabilities at the end of train-the-trainer. I will be blogging about train-the-trainer on my blog (here, duh) and likely also on ECAD's Facebook page.
Sophie and Sprinkles
But before class begins, I am enjoying a not-so-relaxing weekend at home with relatives visiting and 4 crazy dogs (Pauly, Sophie, KK, and Sprinkles, an ECAD dog). 4 for the fourth!  Sprinks and I need to have a chat about this 6am wakeup call thing because it's not working for me.  Yesterday she joined my mom, brother, and I on 4 hours of painful errands (Costco, Target, Marshall's, Home Depot) and was absolute perfection.  She was focused, followed all directions, and was practically invisible.  I was really impressed and proud of her.