This one’s going to be super media heavy, guys, just a heads up.
So, I’ve been talking a lot in this series about Winnie and about Service Dogs, and I figured now’s the right time to show instead of tell.
Winnie is currently solidifying her obedience skills, and sometimes that can feel kind of frustrating because it can seem like she’s not learning anything “useful” yet. I fall into that trap sometimes. I think everyone does. But it really helps me to be able to see how the skills she’s learning now will turn into tasks later.
Oftentimes tasks are made of multiple steps, each which need to be trained individually before they can be put together. So, while the skills Winnie is going to show you may seem simple, keep in mind that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Here’s a highlight of Winnie’s basic commands:
Sit is the classic command. It’s the first thing that most puppies learn how to do, and Winnie is no exception. She figured out that sometimes when she sat, magic food would fall from the sky, so she’d wander around, sitting randomly, hoping the food would come. It was adorable. Sit is a lot different for Winnie these days, it is used as a polite way to say ‘please’. She has to sit to get food, or treats, or pets, and because of it, she’s learning that she has to be calm, even if she’s excited about something. She can’t do it calmly yet, especially when what she wants as to see people of dogs, but she does manage to stay sitting while her tail whips back and forth and her butt vibrates.
Down is Winnie’s default move. It’s very difficult sometimes to keep her from going right into a ‘down’ from other commands. Which can be hard, when we don’t actually want her to be down, but it’s also good because when I’m at school and at work, down is going to be in the position that she’s in. So down is the first step. Right now, she’s not in the formal position that will be required from her later, but it’s a great stepping stone to build on.
Stays are my personal hell. They’re probably Winnie’s hell as well, but since she can’t talk, I’ll never know. What I tell myself and what I’ll tell you is that she’s still a baby. She is five months old, and her self-control abilities are almost nil. They’re actually better than most puppies her age. Stay is definitely up there in the top 5 of skills that will be important when she’s working. I need to be able to stick her somewhere and trust that I can move around without her getting excited and bounding off. The combination of down and stay, (often called a down-stay command in the training world) will help her handle public access as she gets older.
Touch is one of the most important and most used commands when it comes to training service dogs. It’s a simple concept, you ask the dog to target, and they touch your hand, or a pole, or a ball on a stick, etc. Simple right? Say you want to walk nicely next to you, you can just walk with them targeting. If you want her to touch a part of your body, you just target your knee. This likely be a part of most of the commands that Winnie will learn.
The first time your 9-week-old puppy tries to make off with a poop bag, you realize very quickly that she doesn’t understand what “NO NO NO STOP DAMNIT” means. And you realize that “NO NO NO STOP DAMNIT” makes a terrible command, because you’d look like a lunatic saying it in public. This is where Leave It comes in. Leave it means, essentially ‘ignore that’. When Winnie was very little, we used it to (try) and stop her from eating garbage on her walks. But as we’ve all matured, Leave It has changed in a wonderful way. Winnie is a social butterfly to a fault, and all she wants in life is to say hi to every human and dog she can see. So, we use Leave It when we can’t stop and visit. And (mostly), she moves on. As we move toward more public access skills, Leave It helps her learn what is and isn’t ok for her to sniff or touch. This skill will likely never become part of a task, but it goes towards her general temperament and manners skills, which are just as important.
I don’t think anyone can know how many ways ‘Look’ can be used until they try to train a dog. I honestly thought that it was kind of silly when the trainers at puppy kindergarten introduced the concept. Why did it matter if the puppy looked at you all the time? Now, Jess did point out that my issue may have been an autism thing, and that just because I didn’t care about eye contact or looking at peoples’ faces, it doesn’t mean that Winnie didn’t either. So, I have half-assed it for a while; look, guys, I’m only human. But as Winnie started doing more complex things, I started to see the value. When she looks at me, she’s checking in with me. She’s asking ‘” is this okay?”, “am I doing it right?”. We’re communicating in a way that makes sense to her. I still find it uncomfortable sometimes. It turns out dog eye contact feels just as weird as the human version. I knew there would be extra training challenges because I’m autistic, but I think we’re getting through this one ok.
This is just a handful of the things that Winnie can do so far, and she’s learning more every day! Do you have a favorite trick or command that your pet knows?