Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How to Clicker Train Your Velociraptor

*This post may contain mild spoilers for the movie Jurassic World. But we promise it’s nothing that will ruin the movie for you.

The Internet has been full of movie clips and memes of Chris Pratt’s Jurassic World character Owen wrangling four velociraptors. If you haven’t seen any of the trailers, you can watch one here. The first 35 seconds show Owen interacting with the velociraptors.

The cool thing that you don’t see in the trailers, though, is that Owen trained these dinosaurs using clicker training. That’s really exciting! Clicker training is a positive reinforcement method of training where a desired behavior is marked and rewarded. This type of training can play a role in the bond between an animal and the trainer, creating “a relationship based on respect” as Owen says in the movie.

All of our service dogs are trained using clicker training. We start then when they’re very young. Our dogs go to puppy raisers when they’re eight weeks old, and our raisers start by clicking and treating the puppies just for making eye contact (“attention”). The pups learn that every time they hear the click, they get a yummy treat, so of course they want to repeat the behavior that caused the click.

The wonderful thing about clicker training is that it’s a very clear form of communication. The click clearly marks a behavior, so the dog knows exactly when they’re doing the right thing. The treat then rewards them for it, so the dog is much more inclined to repeat the behavior and even build on it. Using this method, we can easily train a dog to do more complex behaviors, like turning on a light switch, picking up an item, or opening a door. Because the dog is having fun and being rewarded, they often learn quickly.

Plus, the dogs love it! After a while, when our puppy raisers don their clicker and treat pouch, the dogs come running!

Watch the video of SSD Aunt Laura learning how to “heel.” Listen for the click. Revenda, her puppy raiser, clicks every time Laura moves her back legs into the correct position at Revenda’s side. Notice that with each click, Laura gets a treat.


Since this video was taken, Laura has mastered “heel” (swinging into place on her handler’s left side) and “side” (swinging into place at her handler’s right side). You can tell from the video that Laura is enjoying herself. Her tail is wagging and she’s engaged with her raiser.

Now, we know that the clicker training portrayed in Jurassic World is a far cry from what it should actually look like. But we understand that choices undoubtedly had to be made for cinematic effect.  We’re still happy to see this positive training method get a few moments on the big screen.

So we want to know. What behaviors have you taught your “velociraptor” using clicker training? 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Becoming a Service Dog Team

Today, SSD Bridge, SSD Hank, and SSD Nitro are taking their public access tests with their new partners. The other five dogs who were in team training—SSD Beaker, SSD Brickle, SSD Cove, SSD Dexter, and SSD Nola—took their public access tests last week and are now busy working.

The public access test is the evaluation that all of our service dog teams must pass in order to become official working service dog teams. We use the public access test as a way to ensure the dogs are well-behaved in public and that each person has control of their dog—both important aspects of the ADA. We have no doubt that our remaining teams—Bridge, Hank, and Nitro—will do great on their public access test!

These teams have spent the last two and a half weeks learning how to work together. They’ve practiced the basic cues that all of our service dogs know, such as “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “heel,” and “come.” The teams also worked on the individual tasks each dog was trained to perform.

Under the ADA, a service dog must perform tasks related to their partner’s disability. For example, the dog could act as a counterbalance to support someone as they walk, retrieve dropped items, pull a manual wheelchair, or apply pressure to calm their partner’s anxiety. Each of our service dogs learned several tasks based on their partner’s needs and preferences.

After our teams spent a week learning how to work together, we hit to road to practice in some real life situations.

Every team training includes a fun field trip, and this time, we went to ZooAmerica. We planned the trip for the morning, so we could be there before the pavement got too hot for the dogs. It was still a hot day, so we made sure to stop for lots of water breaks.

The zoo is a fun, but challenging trip, since there are lots of distractions for the dogs and the people. We walked through the exhibits, and Bridge, Hank, and Nitro worked on nice loose leash walking. As you can see from some of the photos, the dogs were allowed to notice the animals. After all, it’s difficult not to notice the animals, especially when most of the animals came right over to the edges of their enclosures to investigate the dogs. However, the dogs needed to still stay focused on their partners. Each person did a nice job making themselves more interesting than anything else in the environment!

It was a good, fun real world experience!

After today, Bridge, Hank, and Nitro will be working service dogs. We have already seen what a difference these three dogs, and Beaker, Brickle, Cove, Dexter, and Nola have made in their partners’ lives, and we know those bonds will only continue to grow.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Just Cabinets Furniture & More Teams Up with the Lancaster Barnstormers to Support SSD

Strike ‘em out, Barnstormers! This baseball season, Just Cabinets Furniture & More is teaming up with the Lancaster Barnstormers to support Susquehanna Service Dogs. Every time the Barnstormers strike out the opposing team, Just Cabinets Furniture & More will make a donation to SSD.

Let’s go, Barnstormers!

We will have a table at several ball games throughout the season: May 31, June 19, July 17, and September 5. You’ll be able to meet some of our dogs in training and learn more about SSD.

May 31 is the Barnstormers’ Bark in the Park event. You can even bring your pet dog!

In addition to teaming up with the Barnstormers, Just Cabinets Furniture & More is holding a promotion within their stores. For every selfie taken with any of the huge stuffed dogs in stores and posted on their Facebook Page, they’ll donate $1 to SSD!

They’ll also be collecting donations in stores. Visit any Just Cabinets Furniture & More location to participate. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Highmark Walk Update: We’re Almost at our Goal

We’re so close to reaching our goal of raising $30,000 in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community! We just need to raise $2,572 more!

Luckily, there’s still time for you to make a donation. Donate now to help us reach our goal!

The Walk itself took place on Saturday, May 16. It was a beautiful morning. We were thrilled to see 193 people walk for us!

Our puppies in training enjoyed the Walk, too. Many of them spent extra time working on their loose leash walking so they could show off their skills at the Walk.

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community and to everyone who donated!

And don’t forget, there’s still time to make your donations! 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Graduation Day

When SSD Vicki walked on stage to be reunited with her partner Connor, her tail immediately started wagging. Soon her whole body was wiggling with joy as Connor hugged her.

Vicki is one of the 26 dogs that graduated last week in our annual celebration, graduation, and volunteer recognition ceremony. This is one of our favorite nights! It’s a night full of tail wags and happy tears.

The evening began by sending the dogs back to their beginnings. When each service dog team arrived, the dogs were handed off to their puppy raisers. As you can imagine, there were a lot of happy dogs and raisers! The dogs spent the first part of the ceremony with their raisers, completely out of sight from their partners.

Then the ceremony commenced, and we announced each team. Each puppy raiser brought their dog on stage to be reunited with their partner. Even though some teams had only been together for two months, it was easy to see that a strong bond had already formed between them.

When the puppies are born, we often talk about how they’re on a journey to becoming service dogs, with many people working with the dogs along the way. While the partner, dog, and puppy raiser are still on stage, we show each dog’s journey in a slide show, created by our puppy coordinator, Becky.

Each dog starts out in their whelping home with their whelping family, who cares for them the first eight weeks. During this time, puppy huggers slip in and out of the dogs’ lives, helping them get used to being handled by many different people. At 8-9 weeks, the puppies join their puppy raisers, who spend the next 16 months teaching them as much as possible about good house manners, basic obedience, and other cues our trainers assign.

Once the dogs enter advanced training, we have a group of volunteers who work with the dogs in public so they continue to hone their skills and behaviors in a variety of environments.

And of course, throughout this journey, puppy sitters come into the dogs’ lives not only to give the raisers a break but to let the dogs experience a new home and routine.  

Every person and every experience shapes the dog into what they will become. All of it leads up to the moment when the dogs join their human partner and they become a working service dog team.

We celebrated those teams and all of our volunteers who help to make those teams possible.

Congratulations to the teams who graduated! Thank you to all of our volunteers!

Friday, April 24, 2015

We #WalkforSSD to Give Back

Guest post by Gwen Wenger. Gwen, her husband Keith, and her daughter Emma have been volunteering with SSD in many ways for the past three years. Emma is partnered with SSD Kindle.

My husband, Keith, and I have a beautiful 12-year-old daughter, named Emma, with a very rare seizure syndrome from birth. Emma has multiple disabilities. She does not walk or speak. When she was 9, we decided that a service dog would be a wonderful way to help her in so many ways. We put in an application with Susquehanna Service Dogs in the spring of 2012 and began an amazing journey with an organization we now call our second family.

While we were waiting for the “meet the dogs” call that would mean Emma would hopefully meet her potential partner, we decided to volunteer with SSD. We started out as puppy huggers, which is just about the best job in the world. It was amazing to watch Emma interact with these little lab puppies.

After hugging many litters, we decided we wanted to do more. SSD can always use sitters to give raisers a break. To be a sitter, we needed to attend clicker training and orientation. This was a perfect way not only to start practicing how to handle a service dog, but also to make sure that Emma liked dogs. We had so much fun at the training classes and visiting puppy classes that we couldn’t wait to be approved to start sitting.

We had the chance to sit 15 different dogs in 8 months. It was during this time that we got the anticipated phone call that they wanted Emma to attend a “meet the dogs” session. Emma met two dogs that day in July 2013, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that SSD Kindle was the dog for our daughter. She immediately went to Emma and began licking her and interacting with her. Emma responded immediately to Kindle. The session ended with Kindle sitting beside Emma and Emma’s feet propped up on Kindle’s back. The amazing staff at SSD had told us the dog will pick the human as much as the human picks the dog. Boy, were they right! I still get goosebumps when I think about that moment when Kindle chose Emma to be her girl.

We went through team training that fall, and Kindle came home with us. She and Emma have been a team now for a year and a half, and their bond only continues to grow. Kindle goes everywhere with Emma, including school. She is a companion, a comforter, a helper, and an amazing motivator. Emma will now walk long distances in her gait trainer to follow her dog up and down the hall. Before Kindle, Emma’s physical therapist was having trouble getting Emma to take more than a few steps. This is just one of many, many ways that Kindle has helped Emma to become more independent. Emma is a happier and more content little girl with her new 4-legged best friend. She is also, without a doubt, the most popular little girl at ELCO Intermediate School.

After Emma and Kindle had the standard 6-month bonding period, we were able to start volunteering again with SSD. Last summer, we whelped a litter of newborn SSD pups. GEB Talent (from Guiding Eyes for the Blind) had her first litter in June 2014. She and her 7 pups lived with us all summer. Wow! What an amazing experience! We even got to name the litter. They were the “C” litter. So if you know SSD Clementine, SSD Charcoal, SSD Colorado, or SSD Cookie Dough, then you have met our grandpuppies! The other three were sent to other amazing service dog organizations in Florida and Canada.

Currently, we are housing an SSD breeder dog, SSD Berlin, from the Country Capitals Litter. When she’s pregnant, she leaves us and comes back when her puppies are weaned. She and Kindle are like sisters, and she has been an amazing addition to our family.

We have served on committees for SSD fundraisers, attended numerous events for SSD, and taken every opportunity we can in public to share our story and encourage support for this amazing, life-changing organization. We count our blessings every day and there is no doubt that Kindle and SSD are at the top of that list!

Why do we walk in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community? We want to support and help raise money for the organization that has given us so much and allowed us to give back in return. We’ll see you Saturday, May 16!

Want to join Gwen, Keith, Emma, and Kindle in the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community? Sign up today!

Event Details

Saturday, May 16
On-site registration starts at 7:45 a.m.
5K Walk begins at 9 a.m.
One-Mile Fun Walk begins at 9:15 a.m.

Harrisburg Area Community College
1 HACC Drive
Harrisburg, PA 17110

Sign up for the walk  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Public Volunteers and our Advanced Training Dogs

Every Tuesday and Thursday, the dogs in advanced training hop into the SSD van, and we head out to visit public places like Giant, Target, the Harrisburg Mall, the Colonial Park Mall, or like today, Messiah College for the Special Olympics.

Working in public is an important part of a service dog’s training, because once they become a working service dog, that’s exactly what they’re going to be doing. Working in public. And that means they need to be comfortable working in any environment and situation, wherever life with their new partner takes them.

We have 16 dogs in advanced training right now, and in order to take them out in public, we rely on a group of volunteers to work with the dogs on these public outings. Our public volunteers are amazing! Each Tuesday and Thursday, they meet us at the designated location, and we hand them a dog to work with for two hours.

Carol Fricke enjoys working with different dogs each time she volunteers. “Each dog has their own personality, and it’s neat to see,” she said. Carol started volunteering with our advanced training dogs in public four years ago. When she retired from teaching, she decided that since she loves animals, she’d look for volunteer opportunities with dogs. A news article about SSD convinced her that this was the opportunity she was looking for.

Plus, “I can work with the dogs and not want to take them home with me, because they’re going to be doing such a great service,” she said.

Mel Brownold has also been volunteering with our advanced training dogs for four years. “When I retired, I was looking for a place to do some good,” he said, “and I felt more comfortable with animals than with people.”

He enjoys working with the dogs and seeing people interact with the dogs. “You do a lot of listening when you’re working with a dog,” he said. “You hear stories from people about their own dogs. It’s always interesting.”

Some of our public volunteers also volunteer in other areas of SSD. Mel has helped with team training and occasionally with Meet the Dogs, where people on our waiting list get to meet and hopefully make a match with one of our dogs in advanced training.

Darlene Furlong has worn just about every hat there is at SSD. She’s been volunteering with SSD for 11 years, and in addition to training the dogs in public, she helps with puppy raiser interviews and preliminary interviews for people applying for a service dog. She has done service dog demonstrations and is a puppy sitter. Like Mel, she has helped with Meet the Dogs. She served as a puppy coordinator for a little while and has given private lessons to puppy raisers and demo teams. She and her husband have transported dogs to and from other service dog programs in many different states, and in her travels, she helps recertify our working service dog teams all along the East Coast.

“I love working with the dogs,” she says, “and helping to train them to do their jobs for their future partners.”

Thank you to all of our public volunteers for working with our dogs in advanced training and helping them perfect their skills!