Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Pre-Orientation with the Newest Members of Dickinson College Dog House

Yesterday was an exciting day, and not just because of the solar eclipse! We welcomed 12 first year students from Dickinson College to Susquehanna Service Dogs as part of their pre-orientation!

At Dickinson, incoming first year students have the opportunity to sign up for some element of campus life that interests them. They then get to come to campus early (pre-orientation) to learn about it. Or in the case of the 12 students who signed up for Dickinson Dog House, our Dogs on Campus program at Dickinson, they got to come to SSD!

Over the past two days, these students have gotten a jump start on learning how to work with our dogs in training. They toured our facility, learned clicker training, and worked with some of our dogs in advanced training.

Once their semester begins, they’ll be able to start working with our dogs at the Dog House right away.

This process also benefits our dogs in advanced training. Working with a novice handler is a great experience, especially since their future partners may also be novice handlers. The more experience our dogs can get working with handlers of varying experience, the better.

Since it started, Dickinson Dog House has raised five dogs for us and they’ve whelped three litters of puppies. The Dog House is unique among our Dogs on Campus programs. Multiple dogs live in the house with the students, and the students take turns working with the dogs. Plus, there’s a host of other Dog House club members who are trained to work with our dogs and can assist throughout the day.

These are a great group of students, and we’re looking forward to working with them over the course of their college career!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Practicing Recalls with Golf

Our puppies in training play golf to practice their recalls. No, they don’t grab a golf club and hit the links, although some of our puppies in training might be at Keystone Human Services’ annual golf tournament on September 12. Our puppies and their raisers play our own version of golf during puppy class. (For our current raisers, we’re playing golf in our green puppy classes.)

We place two hula hoops several meters apart. The raiser asks the dog to “down” inside one of the hoops. The dog must then stay there while their raiser moves to the other hoop. When they’re ready, the raiser calls the dog to “come.”

If the dog runs right to their raiser, they score a hole in one! Raisers and dogs rack up additional for every time the raiser uses the word “come” beyond the initial cue. They also earn strokes if the dog stops to greet another dog along the way.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, just like the sand traps in golf, there are obstacles in this version of golf. In each puppy class, we introduce a new obstacle. The first time it was a water dish between the two hoops. Dogs had to run by the dish without stopping for a drink.

At our last puppy class, it was tennis balls. Watch SSD Chickadee sprint right through them!


In the video, Chickadee completely ignored the tennis balls. But what would you do if you know your dog gets really distracted by tennis balls (or whatever the obstacle is)?

Set your dog up for success. Instead of trying for a hole in one, only walk a few feet away from your dog before calling them to you. Make the recall as easy as possible. It’s okay if it takes you two, three, even four or more short recalls to make it to the other hoop, as long as you’re making sure your dog can be successful with each recall.

What if your dog stops to play with a tennis ball? Don’t worry! Just go get your dog and re-cue them into a “down” somewhere where you know your dog won’t get distracted by the tennis balls (or the other dogs in training near the course). Walk as far away as you think you can go and still have your dog be successful, then call your dog.

A good recall can potentially save your dog’s life, so it’s important to practice often in many different environments with different distractions. Start small and build up so your dog can be successful. And don’t forget to give your dog a jackpot of treats when they do come to you so they learn that good things happen when they come running to you! 

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Love Bugs in their Service Dog in Training Harnesses

The Love Bug puppies are two weeks old today, and they’re wearing their tiny service dog in training harnesses!

Why are these puppies already wearing harnesses when they’re too young to go out in public? We start teaching all of our pups to wear the harness when they’re just a few weeks old to help prevent them from developing harness sensitivity. When they’re older, they’ll wear a harness every time they go out in public with their raisers and later their partners. We want our dogs to be completely comfortable wearing it while they work.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are not required to wear a harness that identifies them as a service dog. However, we require all of our dogs in training to wear our harness and we highly recommend that our partners have their service dog wear one. Why do we do that? Even though it’s not required by law, the harness makes it clear to the public that the dog is a service dog in training or a working service dog. It’s a clear signal to others that the dog is working and they shouldn’t interfere with them, although there is still much education to be done around service dog etiquette. (Please note that the ADA does not cover service dogs in training. However, in Pennsylvania, trainers and dogs in training are given the same access as working service dog teams.)

When working service dogs wear a service dog harness, it also reduces the likelihood that a business will challenge the person’s right to be there with their service dog, making it easier for our partners to go about their lives. The ADA gives people public access with their service dogs, which means they and their service dog can go any place that’s open to the public. This includes restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, and more. We want our service dogs to make people’s lives easier, not more challenging. 

So all of our dogs, like the Love Bugs, start wearing harnesses when they’re still tiny puppies. It’s one small step in their service dog training. And as you can see in the photo above, the puppies are already getting very comfortable in their harnesses!

If you’d like to learn more about the service dog law, you can read the service dog section of the ADA, as well as these FAQs aboutservice dogs and the ADA

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Difference a Service Dog Makes

Guest blog post by a friend of SSD Diego, a courthouse dog in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania

Dear Diego,

You proved yet again that you are a phenomenal asset to Cumberland County Children & Youth. 

As I sat in the playroom yesterday with my young friend, she became very nervous when her caseworker entered with a new caseworker and introduced her.  My young friend looked at me to help her feel better, and I did the best I could with my words.  But only a few minutes later, your handler helped you knock on the door, and before my friend even saw you, she heard the shake of your collar.  Her worries left her and with a huge smile on her face, she yelled, “Diego!” just as you stepped in the doorway. 

She remembered everything you had taught her five months ago, and she asked for your paw and a fist bump.  You obliged several times, and her smile grew.  After a couple of visits, you even let her lay her head on you while the two of you snuggled on the floor.  Then came some vigorous ball playing.  I had to leave to go to the hearing, but my friend was so focused on you, she never knew I’d left.  When I came back, your card was clutched in her hand.  As we met up with her little sister in the parking garage, she leaned over and told her all about you and that she already had a card and had asked for that one for her.  So, that was the second smile of the day you created.

You are such a sweet, loving boy, and I know this is just one moment of many each and every day.  I’m so glad you picked Cumberland County to be your home.

Keep up the great work and keep on wagging!

P.S. My friend drew this picture for you. 

If you would like to support future service dogs, please join Susquehanna Service Dogs for the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community on May 20 at HACC in Harrisburg, PA. SSD is one of 48 nonprofit organizations participating in the walk. All of the money raised by our walkers comes directly to us.

Ways to participate:

1. Sign up for the Highmark Walk, raise money, and walk on May 20.
3. Make a donation.

Event Details

May 20, 2017
5K begins at 9 a.m.
One-Mile Fun Walk begins at 9:15 a.m.
On-site registration starts at 7:45 a.m.

1 HACC Drive
Harrisburg, PA 17110


Thursday, March 9, 2017

How to Train a Long Down-Stay

Originally published in our newsletter, Independence Unleashed, April-June 2016

A long down-stay is one of the behaviors that many dogs struggle with when they enter Advanced Training. Yet this seemingly simple behavior is extremely important for working service dogs. Their partners will use this behavior all the time. A long down-stay is one of the behaviors that helps a service dog become invisible in public. When they go to a restaurant, the dog will be in a long down-stay under the table. Movie theater? Long down-stay. Office or school? Long down-stay. Airplane or public transportation? Long down-stay. As you can see, a dog cannot be placed as a service dog until they have mastered this behavior.

Service dogs must be able to hold a quiet down-stay for a long time, without needing to be re-cued and without barking or whining.

How do you train it?
The key to training a long down-stay is to never treat the dog during the stay. When puppies are very young, you can cue them to “down,” give them a treat (but no click), and then cue them to “stay.” Then they don’t get another treat until you let them know the behavior is over by clicking and treating.

For older puppies, you should simply cue them to “down” and “stay” without giving them a treat. They get the treat at the end of the behavior, when the down-stay is over. Only then do you click and treat.

What if the dog gets up?
If the dog stands up before you let them know the down-stay was over, you can re-cue them to “down” and “stay.” But don’t give them a treat! It’s extremely important that you do NOT give them a treat when they lie back down. Why? If you treat them to lie back down, the puppy learns that when they stand up, they’ll be given something to do and get another treat. And since these are smart dogs, they’ll just keep standing up so they can get another treat for lying back down.

If a dog knows that they’ll only get a treat at the end of the long down-stay, they’ll learn to settle much better. The ideal long down-stay results in the puppy completely relaxing with their head down.

Where and when should you practice?
A great place to start teaching your puppy is in your own home! You can start at the kitchen table. Put them on a leash during dinner and cue them to “down” and “stay.” That way, if they bark or whine, they won’t interrupt anyone but you. Plus, you won’t be tempted to treat them to make them be quiet. Once your puppy can handle a long down-stay at your kitchen table (or anywhere in your house), you can try other places.

Please remember, though, that the length of your dog’s down-stay will depend on their age. A 10-week-old puppy may not be able to do a 30 minute down-stay (unless they’re sleeping).

With consistent practice, your dog will be able to settle into a relaxed, long down-stay and become practically invisible when they’re out in public.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How We Match a Person with a Service Dog

This February, seven people received their new service dogs. Each person was specially matched with their service dog to make sure they’ll be a good fit.

The first time a person meets their new service dog is at Meet the Dogs. At that time, they don’t know which dog will ultimately become theirs. However, the matching process starts long before a person meets a dog.

When we have a group of dogs in advanced training who are ready to begin the matching process, our trainers sit down and discuss what jobs each dog is best suited for and what type of person they would match best with. Not only have we been watching the dogs since they’ve been born, but our trainers have spent at least two months working closely with the dogs in advanced training. Each dog has strengths and weaknesses that make them better suited for different jobs. Once we figure out what kind of job a dog could do, we look at the waiting list to see who might be a potential match.

Our waiting list is 1-3 years long, depending on the dogs we have available. We begin with people who have applied for successor dogs and then look at the people who have been on our waiting list the longest. At this point, we look at many different things.

We look at the person’s home environment to make sure the dog’s energy level fits the physical environment they would live in. For example, we wouldn’t want to place a high energy dog with someone who lives in a small apartment.

We also look at the person’s lifestyle. Do they travel a lot? Their dog would need to be comfortable flying or taking long road trips. Do they work in an office? The person may need a dog who’s happy spending most of the day sleeping. Are they always on the go? The dog would need to be more active and comfortable with continually changing environments. Does the person spend time in the hospital? The dog would need to be able to handle a hospital environment or be able to handle the stress of being temporarily separated from their person.

We also look at whether the dog gets along with other animals and if they’re good with children.

One of the most important things we look at is the tasks a person needs the dog to perform. We want to make sure the dog wants to do that type of work. When a dog enjoys the work they’re doing and their partner knows they enjoy it, then the team can really bond, and we know the team will be successful.

All of these—and more—are factors we consider when determining if a dog and person are a potential match. If we think we have a potential match or matches, we invite the person to Meet the Dogs.

During Meet the Dogs, the person comes to our Susquehanna Service Dogs Complex and actually meets the dogs. The person works with one dog at a time. We bring in one dog and let them interact. Then we ask the person to ask the dog to do some basic obedience cues, such as “sit.”

The whole time, we watch the person and the dog. We know that the person picks the dog and the dog picks the person. Does the dog want to stay with the person? Were they eager to work for that person? Or do they wander away when left to their own choice? Is the person comfortable with the dog? Or do they tense up when the dog comes near?

After meeting each dog, we ask the person to tell us what they liked and didn’t like about the dog, and then we have them rank the dogs. Based on all of this information and everything we’ve observed, we match the person with a service dog. There’s science behind each match, although sometimes it comes down to a gut feeling that a person and dog will suit. 

Once the match is made, we start training each dog specifically for their partner. We’ll share more about how we train dogs for their partners in a future post. If you haven’t read our last post about the new dogs who just entered advanced training, be sure to check it out! You’ll read about our dogs in training before they start the matching process. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Twelve New Dogs Start Advanced Training

Twelve new dogs start their first semester of advanced training today! They’re joining seven dogs who are already in advanced training.

Last night raisers gathered at our kennel to officially turn in their dogs for this next step in their training. The dogs will now live at the kennel from Monday through Friday, going home to their raisers on weekends and holidays.

Each dog was fitted for their new collar. Every dog in advanced training has their own unique collar, which helps us, raisers, and sitters tell the dogs apart. Dogs from the same litter are often in the kennel at the same time, and they can look a lot alike!

Each dog also was fitted in their new green advanced training harness. During the dogs’ first 18 months, when they’re with their raisers, they wear the purple puppy-in-training harness. Green marks the next step in their journey.

The most exciting part for the dogs was meeting their new roommate. Often roommates are siblings, and they have fun romping and playing together in their kennel run and outside, just like they did when they were tiny puppies.

Play is an important part of our dogs’ day. Kennel life can be stressful for dogs. Not only is it a new environment, but it’s completely different than their home with their raisers. We make sure the dogs get to play in the field several times a day, and we put bones and chew toys in their kennel runs. We also have Walk and Cuddle volunteers, who do exactly that with the dogs. They take the dogs for fun, relaxing dog walks, play with them in the field, and cuddle with them in a separate, comfy area. Our Walk and Cuddle volunteers have been known to just bring a book and snuggle with the dogs while they read. Playtime and the Walk and Cuddle program help to reduce kennel stress.

Although life at the kennel can be stressful for the dogs, it’s an important step in their service dog training. It gives us a chance to see how the dogs handle living in a new environment. When they become working service dogs, they’ll go to live with their new partner in a new environment with a completely different routine. We need to have confidence that our dogs will be able to handle that change. It wouldn’t be fair to either the dog or the partner if the dog became too stressed because of the environmental changes. So living at the kennel is an important part of the dogs’ training, but we do everything we can to make it fun and enjoyable.

What will the dogs do in advanced training? The first few weeks are devoted to reviewing and polishing all 26 cues the dogs learned with their raisers. The dogs will also retake their 12-month evaluation, which lets us see if anything has changed in the past six months.

As we get to know each dog, we start to get a feel for the type of work they might do best. We put them in a balance harness to see if they mind it. Balance harnesses have a hard handle for a person to hold, and the dog must be completely comfortable with this new equipment. We also test the dogs for hearing work. Not only does the dog need to recognize sounds, but they have to want to respond to those sounds. We see if the dog is interested is psychiatric service dog work or if they like to work next to a wheelchair. Our goal is to discover which type of work the dog likes best. We want all of our dogs to enjoy their service dog work.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, our new advanced training dogs will go out in public to places like Giant Food Stores, the mall, or Target. There, they’ll work with our public training volunteers, which will give us a chance to see how well the dogs work with different handlers.

This is an exciting time in these dogs’ lives! Raisers can expect sleepy dogs when they pick them up this weekend. Thank you to all of the raisers who dropped their puppies-in-training off at the kennel last night!