Thursday, October 29, 2015

Happy National Cat Day!

Garfunkel enjoys a beautiful day at the kennel.
Happy National Cat Day! Yes, you read that right. Today, we’re celebrating cats! Specifically, we would like to celebrate two cats—Garfunkel and Vader. These two black cats live at the kennel and help us train our service dogs.

We make sure that all of our service dogs are okay around cats. While the dogs are in training, we never know who they’re going to be partnered with. We don’t know if that person will have cats or if they have friends or family who have cats. Plus, it’s always possible to come into contact with cats outside, and the dogs need to be able to ignore them and stay focused on their partner.

Every dog in our program meets Garfunkel and Vader at some point. In fact, it’s common for one or both of them to greet you when you arrive at the kennel. (They’ve also been known to stow away in people’s cars if they leave the windows open!) Many of our puppies in training see the cats when they arrive for puppy classes or when they have playdates in our fields.

We have also recruited Garfunkel and Vader to help the dogs practice recalls. In puppy class, we play our version of golf. The puppy raiser puts their dog in a down-stay or sit in one marked square, then walks 10 meters away to a second box. The raiser then calls their dog to come. Sounds pretty simple, but then we add some distractions, like kibble, tennis balls, or one of the cats. Garfunkel or Vader will be in a crate between the dog and their puppy raiser, and the dog must trot right over to their raiser without stopping to investigate the cat.

We also deliberately introduce the dogs to the cats during their one year evaluation to see how they do.  

So our cats play a big role in our dogs’ training to help them become successful service dogs. And that’s why we’re celebrating cats today!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Team Training: When Everything Comes Together

On October 21, 2015, four people and their service dogs completed team training and became new service dog teams. We’re so excited for them and we’re looking forward to hearing about how their service dogs have changed their lives. Congratulations to our new teams!

Team training is the culmination of several years of training and countless hours by our volunteers and staff. Those tiny puppies that you watched snuggle and play on the puppy cam have grown into dedicated working dogs.

“It all comes together,” says director Pam Foreman. “When you have good dogs, good training, and good matches, it all culminates in this—an amazing team training with attentive dogs who are ready to work.”

The four dogs who are now working with their partners—Bohemia, Harlem, Tadpole, and Tazo—spent their first year and a half with volunteer puppy raisers, who taught them a series of behaviors, including sit, stay, down, heel, loose leash walking, and self control. These dogs went everywhere with their raisers, gaining valuable experiences to prepare them to go everywhere with their partners.

When the dogs were about 18 months old, they entered advanced training, where our trainers began teaching them the behaviors they would need to know to assist their partners. Each dog was individually trained based on their partner’s unique needs.

For trainers Katie Grube and Lauren Holtz, this was the first team training with dogs they had trained.

“It’s humbling to sit back and see the dog you trained in team training,” said Lauren. “So many people touched his life. My job is just to bring out his full potential so he can do what he was meant to do.”

“I have loved spending the past few weeks watching the bonds form and helping partners learn to work together with their dog,” said Katie. “This is the reason I come to work every day.”

We’re confident that Bohemia, Harlem, Tadpole, Tazo, and their partners will do well together!

Today, new dogs are starting advanced training and the next step on their journey to becoming working service dogs.

“I’m excited to train the new group of dogs coming in and improve my training based on what I learned from this team training,” said Katie.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Vote for Your Favorite Photo for Susquehanna Service Dogs’ 2016 Calendar

When you open your 2016 Susquehanna Service Dogs calendar, which dogs will you see? Will it be a wrinkly-faced little future service dog? Will it be a working service dog team? You get to help us decide which photos will be featured in our 2016 calendar!

From now until 11:59 p.m. on September 6, you can vote for your favorite photo on our Facebook Page. Please note that voting is different than last year. You can only vote ONCE in the entire contest, so make sure you pick your absolute favorite photo!

The photo with the most votes for each month will be featured in the contest. But remember, you can only vote once in the entire contest.

We’ll announce the winning photos on our Facebook Page at the end of the contest. The 2016 calendars will be on sale in mid-October.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Joy of Being a Puppy Raiser

Guest post by Catie Wallace, puppy raiser and volunteer for Susquehanna Service Dogs

Catie with her first dog, Blitz

I’ve been with Susquehanna Service Dogs for about two years now and it still feels like just yesterday I got my first puppy.

I got involved with SSD by the Yursha family. When they got their first dog (Parks), I thought it was the coolest thing ever and had to do it myself. I asked my parents if I could raise a puppy and always got the answer “no.” After two years of asking about every other week, I finally got the answer I wanted— “yes, but we are only doing one.”  Of course, I was super ecstatic and got on the website right away and filled out the application to raise a puppy.  A few months went by and I got the email saying we have a puppy for you, and I remember bursting into tears, I was so excited.

On June 24, 2013, I got by first dog Blitz, a tiny, fluffy, wild eight-week-old puppy. Training started that night with her the second I got her home. I was already out in public and practicing things with her and having everyone oh and ah over her. Training continued and it was stressful at some points and other points I was so happy seeing how she progressed. Unfortunately, Blitz did not make the program. But she is living happily in my house.

Remember the part when I said my parents told me only one dog? Well, I ended up getting another puppy, SSD Blush. I remember going to puppy hug her litter and playing with all the puppies, except Blush. Blush was that puppy who slept in the corner the whole time and didn’t make herself known, unlike her siblings. We got the call Thursday night saying Blitz was being discharged, but they had another puppy for us. Of course, I said yes right away. My parents were another story. Blush is still in the program and still in training, and will be going to advanced training soon!

Now SSD Jubilee, my newest puppy, is a seven-month-old black lab and the sweetest thing ever. We told the staff that we would love to raise another one but under one condition. This puppy has to be black or chocolate and cannot have a name that starts with a B, since Blitz and Blush are yellow and we can’t tell them apart. Could you imagine three yellow labs?! Another reason why we wanted to raise another puppy was because this past year we had to put our two house dogs down, and with that happening and Blush getting ready to go to advanced training we didn’t want Blitz to be alone and get bored. So far Jubilee is doing amazing with her training and I am so proud of everything she is doing and how fast she is learning things!

L to R: Blitz, Jubilee, Blush

Raising multiple dogs at once can be frustrating at times, when you’re trying to train one but then you have two more sitting at your side wanting to learn, too. But it has also helped me become more social with people and want to volunteer more. I love going out in public with one of the dogs and having people ask me questions about the program and always thanking me for doing what I do. And lastly, with raising dogs you gain a whole other family. Going to outings, play dates, and even class there is always someone there helping you, talking to you, and you always end up sharing stories about your dog.  (Who ever gets tired of puppy stories?!)  

A couple weeks ago I was able to help out at team training. That was the best experience I was able to be a part of.  Seeing the dogs working and bonding with their partners was so rewarding, and knowing that one day one of my dogs will be doing that is so rewarding. Waking up several times a night with an eight-week-old puppy, all the frustration, the tears, and all the proud moments is so worth the end result of seeing that eight-week-old puppy grown up and helping someone else. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Puppy Sitting – A Great Way to Have a Dog Without Really Having a Dog

Guest post by Jean and Randy Hess, puppy sitters and volunteers for Susquehanna Service Dogs

We became involved with Susquehanna Service Dogs as puppy sitters in the spring of 2014.  Our initial motivation was somewhat selfish in that we wanted the joy of having a dog in our lives again but did not want to go through the initial puppy break-in period.   With both of us working full time and all three children gone from the nest, we did not want to subject a small puppy to being crated up all day. 

Our last 3 dogs were Labrador Retrievers (Alex – yellow, Klondike – chocolate, and Angus – black). The only one still surviving, Angus, moved out with our daughter.   We do sit Angus occasionally and he has learned that he needs to share with an SSD dog every now and then.  At 12 years old, Angus has slowed considerably but the young SSD pups bring out the puppy left in him. 

While our motives started out somewhat selfish, it did not take long to recognize that there is much more to this experience than having a dog in the house again. 

The first dog we sat was SSD London.  London, a black male, is now an active service dog.  Our first outing as puppy sitters was a trip to the Giant Food Stores.  As we entered the store, we noticed strange looks from one of the other shoppers.  Nothing was said.  About half way through the store we passed the same person, and again we got a strange look but no comment.  As we continued up and down the aisles, London was perfect, paying attention to his handler and ignoring all the other people and distractions.  Finally in the last aisle, we saw the same shopper, this time with a more puzzled look on her face.  Finally, she stopped us and said, “I have a Labrador retriever at home. There is no way I could get him to behave that way.”  At that moment, we were not only very proud of London but also of our involvement with SSD. 

A few months later we had the privilege of attending a breakfast with several of the dogs we sat and their new partners.  London, Kingston, and Outback were all there and we got to meet their partners.  It was amazing how the dogs focused on their partners and how well behaved they were at the restaurant.

With each new dog we like to imagine what their ‘jobs’ will be. While sitting SSD Newman (now a working dog) we noticed that he took a liking to shoes. If a shoe was left unattended, he would pick it up and proudly show it to us. During Team Training the dogs and their partners learned how to work together and the partners were tasked with teaching their dogs a skill. While watching a video of Newman and his partner, there was Newman taking off his partner’s shoe and handing it to her! 

We enjoy taking the dogs out in public with us to practice their skills in different places. Taking pictures of them helps us remember who we took where. Our computer is filling up with picture folders for each of the dogs we’ve sat. (We’re currently on  number 18). Our friends are amused by some of the antics we go through to get a good picture and have taken pictures of us taking pictures.  

SSD Garnet at the Turkey Point Lighthouse Trail in Cecil County, Maryland, June 2015
Taking the dogs in public also gives us the opportunity to share SSD’s mission. We’ve been in many conversations with complete strangers about what these dogs can do for people. One of our favorite places to go is the Susquehanna River Trail that runs from Columbia to Bainbridge.  We often encounter bicyclists, other walkers, dogs, and children.  There are also many other natural distractions that provide teachable moments in “leave it” and loose leash walking.  Children are usually the first to notice and comment on the dog, often saying that they would like to pet the dog.  We have been surprised that most parents tell their children that the SSD vest means that they are working dogs and they should not be disturbed.  On those occasions the parents do not intervene we take the opportunity to explain about service dogs.  There are also great places along the trail to take pictures.  

SSD Thor at Schock's Mill Bridge north of Marietta, PA
Another place we like to take the dogs is to our camper in Maryland.  Not only are there opportunities for teachable moments but also time for some fun and relaxation.  There are many other people, dogs, as well as squirrels to attract a pup’s attention.  The pups often get their meals from the treat pouch on a good day at the bay.  Another challenge is walking on floating docks and getting onto a boat.  Some are a little cautious at first but by the second or third trip they have gained their “sea legs” and traverse the docks like they were on land.  Most seem to enjoy riding in the boat, feeling the breeze and sniffing the air.  Probably none more so than SSD Newman. 

SSD Newman loves riding in the boat 
The adaptability of the dogs never ceases to amaze us.  Often, within an hour or two, it feels like the dog has always been with us.  On the first workday, when Randy gets up at 4:30 am to get ready for work, they all bounce up and are ready to be fed.  To their disappointment they hear “Go back to bed. It’s not time to eat.”   By the third day, they do not even bother getting up.  The ones that normally sleep in bed with their raisers are also disappointed when they are told to go to bed on the dog bed in our room and not in bed with us.  Initially, some will assume their rightful spot is in the bed with us and others will ask, but by the third night they all figure out where they are expected to sleep.

Having children and grandchildren that live close by and visit often affords the opportunity for the visiting dogs to practice their greetings.  We are always very careful with introductions and once the initial excitement dies down—both dogs and kids—harmony generally ensues. The kids and dogs enjoy playing fetch, hide and seek around the house, and just hanging out.  The grandchildren have come to expect that we will have a dog when they get to the house. The two-year olds ask “Doggie?” while the older ones ask “Now which one is this?”  

SSD Bo hanging out with Ava
Being an SSD puppy sitter has definitely filled our need for a ‘dog-fix’ and so much more. Seeing what these pups can do for their partners just reinforces our desire to be a part of the wonderful Susquehanna Service Dogs organization. We hope that the experiences the pups have while with us will help them on their way to being the best service dogs possible. As someone told us in the very beginning, “a tired pup is a happy pup.”   

Look how happy (and sleepy) SSD Elwood is!

Monday, August 3, 2015

We Have Gone to the Dogs!

Guest post by Revenda Bierley, puppy raiser and volunteer for Susquehanna Service Dogs

When our youngest child went off to college, my husband and I decided our nest was too calm and quiet for our taste.  Enter SSD Aunt Laura.  We attended several training classes and passed a home inspection, crossing our fingers hoping we would soon receive a call to raise a puppy.  As luck would have it, our wait was short lived.  On May 24, 2014, we were handed an exuberant yellow lab from the recent Aunts and Uncles litter to raise, socialize, train, and love for Susquehanna Service Dogs. 

Unlike our children, Aunt Laura came with a manual of instructions, which adorned a small nook in our kitchen.  This manual was read and reread as we learned the new language of dog training.  Necessary commands were practiced daily and for the first eight weeks, we attended weekly training classes, after which, classes were held every two weeks.  Aunt Laura proved to be a wonderful student, eager to please and quickly mastering the mandatory list of basic skills. 

Raising and training a service dog requires a fair amount of work and perseverance.  We soon realized that raising this puppy was also a lot of fun.  After all, you take the dog everywhere you go—grocery stores, restaurants, sporting events etc.  The goal is to expose the young dog to any and every place a person needs or wants to go, from riding an elevator, to navigating stairs or even passing food on the ground.  These experiences are vital to their success and each accomplishment is one step closer to making a difference in the life of an adult or child with a disability. 

Maybe it was a moment of weakness or the fact that we were enjoying channeling our parental energies into raising a service dog that when we received a call this past February asking us to take another puppy, we accepted.  Two days later, we welcomed SSD Elsa into our home.  Elsa was tiny with a very large personality.  Her name alone was a crowd pleaser with children and she eagerly accepted the adoration.  Elsa embraced life and her new surroundings enthusiastically and gratefully accepted SSD Aunt Laura as her mentor.  She too has proved to enjoy her training sessions and is quickly mastering the cues we teach her.       

With two service dogs, our appearance in public places that are otherwise off limits to dogs arouses people’s interest.  In some cases, it has inspired others to inquire about the dogs and become raisers as well.  However, most people simply question us as to how we will be able to give the dog up when the training is finished.  I admit, we have not crossed that threshold yet and I am sure it will be difficult.  I am also sure it will be worth it to the recipients of the dogs I raise.  In the meantime, we have found new connections and we are part of an extraordinary community of individuals with the same purpose—help support the mission of Susquehanna Service Dogs.      

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Puppy Sitter Class

We talk about our puppy raisers a lot, but they aren’t the only ones who play an important role in shaping a young puppy into a successful service dog. Our puppy sitters also help prepare the dogs for life as working service dogs.

Puppy sitters are volunteers who take care of our dogs in training when their puppy raisers are unable to do so. A dog may go to a sitter while his raiser is on vacation or has a family emergency. Sometimes, our dogs go to sitters just so they can gain exposure to new routines and experiences.

Once our dogs become working service dogs, they will go home with their partner and have to adjust to a whole new daily routine. If you’ve ever had to change up your own routine, you know that it can be a little stressful at first, and it’s the same for dogs. However, we train our dogs to adapt to new situations, and spending time at a sitter’s home, where they’ll have a brand new routine, helps the dogs transition to their lives with their new partners.

The dogs’ training doesn’t stop when they go to a sitter’s home. Yesterday, we held one of our puppy sitter classes, where our sitters can learn how to work with the dogs in public. Nine sitters joined us at Bass Pro Shops in Harrisburg, PA, and each one was matched with a dog and a puppy raiser. Together, they traversed Bass Pro and the Harrisburg Mall.

Since we only had one hour, we focused on six tasks and behaviors: loose leash walking, getting in and out of the car, pottying, greetings, leave it, and entering and exiting the elevator. All of our sitters did a wonderful job working with their dog!

Loose Leash Walking
Loose leash walking is perhaps one of the most important and most difficult behaviors to teach the dogs. The dog must walk on the left side of the handler with the leash in a loose “J” shape. The handler clicks and treats the dog for attention and for being in the correct position beside them.

The dog is never allowed to pull. If they pull, the handler walks backward to give the dog “penalty yards” until the dog is in the correct position again. Then they walk forward again, clicking and treating for a loose leash.

Sometimes it can be very frustrating to work on loose leash walking, especially if the dog is excited about being with a new person or in a new place. But it’s so important to always reinforce the loose leash and never let the dog pull. Once the dog is placed with their partner, pulling on the leash could potentially injure their partner. The dog must have the self-control to walk calmly next to their partner.  

Like loose leash walking, getting in and out of the car is an exercise in self-control for the dogs.  The dog must enter the car on the cue “car” and wait to exit until given the “okay.” Why is this important? The safety of the dog may depend on having the self-control to wait for the “okay” to exit the car. The dogs will be going almost everywhere with their partners, which means they’ll be getting in and out of the car a lot. So, for example, if they’re getting out of the car at the grocery store, the dog must be able to wait for their partner to make sure it’s safe for them to get out of the car in parking lot.

Get Busy
All of our dogs potty on the cue “get busy.” (We don’t recommend saying this cue inside, even if you’re not saying it as a cue for the dog. Some of our dogs are very good at responding to these words!) Before they enter any building or public space, our dogs must be given a chance to potty, even if you know they’ve just gone half an hour ago. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all working service dogs be house trained, and service dogs can be legally asked to leave if they are not house trained. It just makes good sense to give the dog a chance to take care of business before entering a public space.

Service dogs must also be under control while out in public. However, this can be very challenging for puppies in training, especially when people want to pet the puppy. During greetings, the dog must have all four paws on the floor, and their attention should be on their handler. It may help to put the dog in a “sit” or a “down.” Feeding the dog treats (no clicks) while someone is petting the dog will also keep the dog focused on their handler instead of the person petting them.

In these situations, the handler can say no to people who want to interact with the puppy. If they just need to take care of errands and leave or if they don’t think the puppy can handle the greeting successfully, it’s perfectly fine to tell people they cannot pet the dog.

Leave It
Our dogs should be able to ignore food or other items on the floor. Even if a treat meant for the dog falls on the floor, the dog is not allowed to eat it off the floor. They get a new treat (or two) from the treat pouch.

Why is it important for the dogs to ignore food or other items on the floor? For one, if the dog is chasing down food on the floor, it means they’re not paying attention to their handler, which means the dog isn’t doing their job. Two, the dog may pull to get to the food, which could potentially harm their partner. Also, what the dog thinks is food might actually be harmful to the dog. For example, if a person’s medication fell on the floor, the dog must have the self-control to “leave it” until those meds can be picked up. So the cue “leave it” means the dog must ignore the object and never gets to go over and eat it.

“Leave it” can also be used to tell the dog to ignore people or other animals.

Many of our dogs will be riding in elevators with their handlers, so it’s important for the dog and handler to be able to enter and exit the elevator safely. You don’t want the doors to close with the dog on one side and the handler on the other! The dog must wait while the handler blocks the door with their body. Then the handler tells the dog to “go on through,” which cues the dog to enter (or exit) the elevator, turn around, and look at their handler.

Thank you to all of the sitters who joined us for class, and thank you to the puppy raisers who shared their knowledge with our sitters!

If you’d like to sign up to become a puppy sitter for Susquehanna Service Dogs, just visit our website and fill out an application.