Friday, November 21, 2014

Living a Fuller Life with SSD Outback

Guest post by Roger Hostetter, a US Army Gulf War Veteran partnered with SSD Outback

First, I would like to thank Keystone Human Services and Susquehanna Service Dogs for this wonderful program.

I am a US Army Gulf War Veteran with PTSD and other medical issues from my service in the Gulf. I received an Honorable Discharge from the Army in 1991, and I spent the next 17 years going from one mental health doctor to another. I forget how many I actually saw before being able to have the ones that I currently have.

 In 2008, I saw a doctor who, within one appointment, diagnosed me with PTSD.  I believe it was two appointments after this that he told me he was leaving and had talked to the doctor that I currently see. I was afraid I would have to basically start all over again, but this doctor picked right up where the other one left off.

A few years after this, I heard about veterans receiving service dogs to help with PTSD. I spoke to my doctor about this and he said he felt it would be something good for me to look into, but that he couldn’t help much since the VA doesn’t help veterans receive a service dog.

So my search began. I found so many places out of state. After years of searching, I discovered Susquehanna Service Dogs.

Since they were a local organization I contacted them right away and asked if they have service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

I filled out an application and had the formal interview and was accepted as a client. I was told the wait for a service dog can be anywhere from 18 months to 2yrs. As time passed, I really didn’t think about it, but knew every day that did pass was a day closer to one day getting a dog.

I received an email in May regarding setting up an appointment to the “Meet the Dogs” session.  Through more emailing, an appointment was made. The day of the session, I had no idea what to expect. When I walked into the room, it looked like a military board-type set-up, a bunch of chairs on one side of a table with one chair on the other side.

They asked some questions before any dogs came out and more questions came after I interacted with each dog. I met and interacted with Outback, Kingston, London, and Slate. When I was asked at the end to rank the dogs from my favorite and working down, Outback was my favorite.  To me this was a very important step in the process and another step closer.    

After this, you wait for about a week to see if you were matched up with a dog or not. I received an email stating I was matched up with a dog and the team training class was going to be sometime in October. I believe this now was early June.

The next several months were slow since I now was waiting on the packet regarding the training class and the name of the dog that I was matched up with.

I think it was early September that I received the packet in the mail telling me that I was matched up with Outback and the dates of the class.

The month of September and those few days in October right before the first class date were very slow.

Next thing I knew though, it was the day training was to begin. Team training was awesome and the entire staff and volunteers really care about the clients and of course the dogs.

Outback’s first day at his new home was on Thursday, October 10. That late afternoon and evening was very rough for me. Hank, our little dog was barking just about nonstop. I didn’t know if the barking was aggressive barking or what it was. I tried a lot to get him to stop barking. Sometimes he would stop and shortly after, he would start right back up.

I was really frustrated and was almost to the point of calling Amanda [SSD’s training coordinator] and telling her that the next day, I would be returning Outback and dropping from the class. But I got myself calmed down and recorded 3 different barking sessions for either Amanda or Ryan [one of our dog trainers] to watch and help me.

The next day, which was Friday, Amanda watched the recording and told me that she sees Hank wants to play. There was no aggressive barking here at all. I’m happy to say that Outback and Hank are now best friends. They play a lot. Hank thinks he is as big as Outback.

Within a few days of Outback and me being around each other all the time, I could see a bond forming which has grown and continues to grow. I knew that he knew what he has to do for me and he just needed to get used to me instructing him on what to do.

I was nervous about our Public Access Test. In the back of my head though, I knew we would be okay since our practice test was good.

The morning of our Public Access Test, I kissed Outback and told him that today was a big step for us and that I would do the best that I can for us. He did great. I was told we both did great. After we passed, I gave him a kiss again and told him I love him and that we are a team now.

We have been out to a lot of different places, such as Walmart, the VA Medical Center, Kmart, Sears, some restaurants, and the gun show in Lebanon.

The gun show was something that I would have never gone to alone. I decided to try it out with Outback. He did great there. It was very packed. I had my focus on him the whole time that I really didn’t think about how packed it was. Outback and I even met Governor Corbett.

At restaurants, I still want to sit the way that I do—my back toward a wall or at least facing a majority of the people and including the door. But I have found that even with Outback in a down-stay as instructed, my focus is still on him throughout the entire time we are there.

There are still places that I will not go and I will not subject Outback to. I look out for him as he does for me.

Once again I want to thank everyone that made it possible for Outback and me to be a team, which has also made it possible for my life to be a little fuller.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lucky Dog Casino Night

Are you ready to get in on the action at Lucky Dog Casino Night? We’re so excited to invite you to Lucky Dog Casino Night on November 22 at the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey! We had so much fun at last year’s event, and this year should be even better!

The evening begins at 6 p.m. with a reception, dinner, and silent and live auctions. This year, we have some great silent auction items for you, donated by our supporters. We have items from Climbnasium, Naylor Wine Cellars, Dog Is Good, Hill’s Pet Nutritio, Bold Lead Designs, and Pizza Grill, among many others.

After dinner, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., you can play complimentary casino games! You’ll receive a free voucher for chips. Try your luck at the craps table, go for a royal flush at the poker tables, or beat the dealer at black jack. If you run out of chips but want to keep playing, we’ll give you another voucher. At the end of the night, we’ll have prizes for the people who win the most amount of “money.”

Service dogs and service dogs in training are welcome, of course, but we ask that you leave your pets at home.

Tickets are available online. We hope to see you there!

Event Details

November 22, 2014

6-11 p.m.

Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey
4650 Lindle Road
Harrisburg, PA 17111

$100 per person
$150 per patron (includes listing in program)

Business casual

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tips for Going to a Restaurant with your Service Dog

Yesterday in Team Training, our partners ate lunch with their dogs for the first time, and next week, they’ll be eating in a restaurant for the first time.

People with service dogs have public access, which means they can take their dog anywhere that’s open to the public. This includes restaurants, which as you well know, normally do not allow dogs.

Here are some tips for taking your service dog or service dog in training to a restaurant.

Think about your dog when choosing a table
While you’re in the restaurant, your dog is going to be tucked under the table in a long down-stay. Ideally, your dog will fall asleep. When you’re choosing a table in a restaurant, keep your dog’s comfort in mind. If a table has one leg in the center, your dog may not be able to lie comfortably under the table, which means she’ll be less likely to remain in a down-stay while you’re eating. If you’re being seated by a hostess, don’t hesitate to request a booth if you see that your dog won’t fit comfortably under the other tables.

Be mindful of other patrons
When you’re walking into the restaurant and going to your table, be mindful of the other patrons. Don’t let your dog sniff other people. If the restaurant seems like a challenging place for your dog, you can hold a few treats in front of your dog’s nose to keep them focused until you get to your table.

The same goes when it’s time to leave. If your dog has been lying down for a long time, the first thing they’re going to do when they stand up is shake themselves. Try to have your dog stand where they won’t send fur flying in all directions. For example, if you’re at a booth, ask your dog to stand while they’re still tucked under the table. 

Watch out for food on the floor
Inevitably, food ends up on the floor in restaurants. And chances are high that if there’s food on the floor, your dog will find it. Keep an eye out for anything on the floor that might distract your dog.

But what if you want to go to a restaurant that offers things like peanuts to patrons and encourages people to throw the shells on the floor? This might be a good time to simply leave your dog at home.

Keep one eye on your dog at the buffet
Buffets can be very tricky to navigate with a dog. You have to hold the leash, serve yourself food, and carry your plate. It can be a balancing act! You can always leave your dog at the table with a friend or family member and ask them to hold your dog’s leash while you get your food. If you take your dog through the buffet line, keep a close watch on your dog because you don’t want them sniffing at the table or stealing a lick or a piece of food. As you move through the line, you can put your dog in a “down” while you serve yourself. This will keep your dog’s nose far away from the food. Then you’ll just need to balance your plate and hold your dog’s leash as you walk back to your table.

If your table is near the buffet and you know your dog has a solid down-stay, it can be very tempting to leave your dog unattended at the table while you get your food. However, while you might know your dog extremely well, you don’t know the other people in the restaurant. While you’re at the buffet, a child (or an adult) could pet your dog under the table, they could try to feed your dog, or someone could whistle or talk to your dog, all of which could easily distract him. It’s always best for you or someone you trust to stay with your dog at all times in a restaurant.

Have you taken your service dog or service dog in training to a restaurant? Share your tips in the comments.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Team Training: Learning to Work Together

After spending about 18 months with their puppy raisers and another 6-8 months in advanced training with our professional trainers, SSD Cobalt, SSD Kingston, SSD London, and SSD Outback are ready to work. These four dogs have been working with their new partners in Team Training since Monday.

During the first day of Team Training, we spent the morning talking about the process of Team Training and Susquehanna Service Dogs and learning about clicker training and shaping (our training methods). And then after lunch came the moment everyone was waiting for. It was the moment when each person gets their dog for the first time. It’s one of our favorite parts of Team Training.

Our volunteers and trainers brought the dogs in one at a time. As the dogs came in, they made a beeline for their partners, and their tails were wagging so fast they were just a blur. Watch how happy Kingston is to greet his new partner.


To help the dogs learn exactly who they need to pay attention to, we had each person give their dog lots of treats during this first meeting. After each team had a chance to start bonding, we began working on basic cues, such as the dog’s name, sit, down, and come.

For the first week of Team Training, our teams learn several new cues each day. We also practice behaviors like getting in and out of a car, using an elevator, going to a restaurant, and handling greetings with all kinds of people.

Today is such a beautiful day that we spent most of the morning outside. Each team worked on loose leash walking through the grass and then went through several cues, including sit, down, stand, and pressure (the dog lays across the person’s legs), and up.

Today is also the first time that each person ate lunch with their dog. To get ready, we practiced the cue “under,” where the dogs go under the table and lay down.

Over the next week and a half, our service dog teams in training will take their new skills out in public. We’ll visit the local malls and have lunch in restaurants and food courts, and by the end of the two and a half weeks, each person will be well prepared to take their public access test with their service dog. 

Each team is doing great! We're looking forward to the rest of Team Training!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gold Star Behavior: Heel

All of our puppy raisers teach their service dogs in training 26 behaviors. However, there are a few that we consider “gold star” behaviors. These are the behaviors that we would love for all of our dogs to know by the time they come to the kennel for advanced training. These gold star behaviors are “lap,” “visit,” “heel,” “back,” and loose leash walking.

Right now, all of our puppies in training are working on “heel” in puppy class. When the behavior is finished, the dog should swing his hind legs around until he’s standing parallel against his handler’s left side.

We have a very specific way of training “heel.” All of our dogs start learning the behavior on a heel box, which is a one foot square box about six inches high. The dogs put their front feet on the box, which then acts as an anchor for the dog’s front paws while they learn to move their back legs counter clockwise. Once the dog puts his front paws on the box, the handler starts stepping counter clockwise around the box, clicking and treating the dog for moving their hind legs. Gradually, we hold the click until the dog has taken several steps. Eventually, the dog will pivot the entire way around the box until they’re in the heel position at their handler’s left side.

Watch SSD Laura move her back legs all the way around the box. Note that at this point, we’re not using any cues.


The behavior isn’t finished yet. Now we take the box away and start the process all over again with a board or piece of paper on the floor instead of the box. SSD Laura’s puppy raisers used a square board. Watch how Laura continues to move her back legs around the board.


Finally, it’s time to remove the board or paper. At this point we can add the cue “heel,” if the dog is moving into the heel position consistently. Look at how Laura snaps into the heel position regardless of how her puppy raiser moves.


As you’ve probably guessed, it takes time for the dogs to learn “heel,” since there are so many steps. Dogs that come into advanced training already knowing “heel” will be able to start learning other behaviors sooner than dogs that still need to work on the behavior.

We’ve seen lots of dogs in puppy class who are on their way to finishing this gold star behavior!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Creative Behavior Challenge: Can Dogs Paint?

We have some budding artists in our Northeast Puppy Raising Program, and they all have four paws. SSD Olympia and the other service dogs in training in our Northeast group are learning how to draw and paint, and it’s all part of their service dog training.

Our Northeast Puppy Raising Program has been meeting in Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday evenings for over six years. Classes are taught by Meg Irizarry, who has been a force-free dog trainer for more than two decades. She provides guidance and shares her knowledge and expertise with our puppy raisers. The Northeast group goes on many outings to places like mini-golf, the movies, a dairy farm, grocery stores, casinos, and even bowling. They also make a yearly outing to the airport, where the service dogs in training experience airport security.

Every year for fun and to improve the raisers’ training skills, Meg assigns a Creative Behavior Challenge. For this challenge, the raisers need to devise their own training plans and present the finished multi-step behaviors to the class. Skilled service dogs must be able to perform multi-step tasks, so we teach them how to “chain” behaviors together.

One year, Meg asked each raiser to use their imagination in creating a task involving orange cones. For instance, Susan taught SSD Slate to play soccer. He nosed a ball between two cones. Score! Sarah S. taught SSD Sky to recognize a picture of an orange triangle and then match it with an orange cone. Building on that skill, Sky also matched a picture of a green square with a green felt box and a picture of a red circle with a red ball. Pretty impressive! (Word around the hydrants is that Sky is now reading 101 Dalmations!)

Deb taught SSD Zane to put a cone on a puddle of spilled water to make sure no one slipped and got hurt. SSD Graham learned how to put plastic rings on a cone, thanks to Sarah K. Knowing Graham, he probably keeps his toy box organized, too.

Another year, Meg asked the raisers to choreograph a canine freestyle dance routine. SSD Nubble danced to “I Can See Clearly Now” with raisers Donna and Lindsey. Nubble was definitely the best dancer of the three, mostly because he is so adorable.

Last year’s challenge involved a secret phrase for each pup. Each raiser taught their dog a task demonstrating the phrase. The class then tried to guess the phrase based on the task performed. Sarah and SSD McKinley’s phrase was “tragedy/comedy.” McKinley “played dead” and then jumped up at the last minute to make everyone laugh. Donna’s phrase was “in/out,” so she taught SSD Roo to ring a doorbell to enter the classroom. After the challenge, this skill came in handy at home. Roo would ring a doorbell installed at nose height for permission to come inside. This was more pleasant than barking to be let in.

This year, we have our canine artists. In the spring, Meg handed out non-toxic markers and paper. The task was “Drawing for Dogs 101.” To accomplish this challenge with SSD Olympia, Donna devised a series of steps. First, Olympia targeted (touched) the paper with her nose. Then she targeted the paper with the marker in her mouth. Donna’s plan was to have Olympia draw a triangle, but Olympia gets very excited while training and consequently drew in a more abstract style.

Donna also found that Olympia tended to water down the markers with her saliva, so she decided to teach her how to use paint. This required additional steps to target the paint palette, as well as some experimentation to find the best painting tool. A sponge brush ended up working best. Olympia continues to enjoy creating works of art and her raiser says that Olympia hopes to cushion her retirement savings with the proceeds from her paintings!

What do you think of Olympia’s masterpieces?

All the raisers in the Northeast group are looking forward to next year, when Meg will surely ask them to rise to the challenge again. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

First Vacation with SSD Kindle

Guest post by Gwen Wenger

We had our first vacation with Kindle. We went to the beach for four days. She exceeded our expectations! She was on the floor of the backseat of the car for the two hour drive from my sister’s house to the beach. She slept. She did great!

Kindle was a little unsure of the room at first and was sniffing and investigating all over for the first half hour. After that, she reacted like she does when she gets home. She was content with the blankets, toys, and her family. She also did great on the three hour trip home, where she laid on the seat beside Emma. I realized that she works a LOT when we are on vacation because of how little time is spent in the room. She handled this beautifully! She followed cues and she was startled by NOTHING. She sat by the edge of the pool with one of us while Emma was in the pool with the other.

Kindle slept under tables beautifully at all the many restaurants and ice cream places we went. She greeted strangers appropriately. Our biggest concern was the actual beach. We took her out in the evening for the first time. The sand was cooler and there weren’t many people. She was so much to watch as the waves washed up. She did the sweetest thing. After experiencing the waves for five minutes, she turned around and ran up to Emma in the stroller, hopped into “lap” position, and licked Emma excitedly before running back to the waves. She was very clearly telling Emma ALL about it and wanted to share it with her. It was so sweet!

When we took Emma to the edge of the waves in her little beach chair, Kindle followed cues to stay with her girl. Needless to say, lots of people has smiles on their faces everywhere we went.

We also saw other dogs in some of our activities. Kindle was a bit distracted with one, but with more treating, she stayed on point. She had an opportunity to actually greet another dog and visit a little. She did great, and I was pleasantly surprised she kept going back and visiting Emma without being cued during the interaction.

Another favorite part for me was when Emma would come out of the pool and sit in a lounge chair. We would have Kindle jump up and block Emma by staying in a down position at the bottom of the lounger. Too cute and very helpful!

We went miniature golfing. Kindle stayed right with Emma’s stroller as we went from green to green. She was so cute! At one point, she nosed a ball toward the hole. It was Keith’s [Gwen’s husband]. She was bribed, I’m sure!

After returning to our room twice, we let Kindle show us where it was, and she went right to the door every time. We had lots of great elevator practice, too. She was taking some pretty serious naps under the table by the end of the trip. She was pooped!

Kindle also enjoyed her own cup of ice cream at Stewart’s Original Root Beer Eatery. Great trip and we should expect nothing less from Kindle. She is an amazing dog!

Gwen and Keith's daughter Emma is partnered with SSD Kindle. The Wengers have also volunteered with SSD as puppy sitters, and they recently whelped the "C" litter.