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! 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Meet the Ballroom Dance Puppies

There are brand new puppies at Susquehanna Service Dogs! SSD Mali gave birth to six puppies on February 22. Meet the Ballroom Dance puppies!

SSD Cha-Cha, yellow female, pink collar
SSD Jitterbug, yellow female, teal collar
SSD Samba, black female, purple collar
SSD Tango, black male, orange collar
SSD Jive, black male, blue collar
SSD Foxtrot, black male, brown collar

These puppies are just starting their journey to becoming service dogs. Over the next few weeks, we’ll share more information about how these puppies start learning to be service dogs from the time they’re just a few days old. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

How to Train Your Dog to Heel

All of our dogs learn the cue “heel.” On cue, the dog should pivot counter-clockwise until they’re parallel with their handler’s left side. Among other things, “heel” can position the dog for forward movement. It can also be used to create space between their handler and another person.

We use clicker training, shaping, and a box to teach our puppies to heel. By having the dogs anchor their front paws on the box, they learn to move just their hind legs.

One of our volunteers, Revenda Bierley, filmed each step in the process as she trained SSD Sabor to heel. Watch the video to see how Sabor goes from simply stepping on the box to pivoting into the heel position without the box. At the end of the video, SSD Aunt Laura, who’s going through Team Training with her new partner right now, demonstrates the completed behavior.

Thank you, Revenda, for the awesome video! 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Eat Chocolate to Benefit the Community

Did you know that you can benefit people in the community by eating chocolate? You can if you’re eating that chocolate at Chocolatefest!

On January 29, Keystone Human Services is holding its annual Chocolatefest at Hershey Lodge. You’ll be able to taste chocolate desserts and other creations by area restaurants, hotels, caterers, and confectioners. There’s also live music, a silent auction, children’s activities, and a cake competition.

All of Chocolatefest benefits Keystone Human Services’ work to support children and adults to live full lives in the community. KHS includes autism services, intellectual disabilities services. mental health services, early intervention, Capital Area Head Start, and of course, us! Susquehanna Service Dogs has been a program of Keystone since 1996.

We’ll be at Chocolatefest with some of our puppies in training. You’ll have the opportunity to meet the dogs and help them practice good greetings. You’ll also be able to learn more about SSD, what we do, and all of our volunteer opportunities.

We hope to see you at Chocolatefest!

Event Details

Hershey Lodge
325 University Drive
Hershey, PA 17033

January 29, 2017

Premiere Reception
10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

General Session 1
12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.

General Session 2
2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

General Session Ticket Prices
$20 in advance
$25 at the door (as available)
Children ages 5-12, $5

All Day Chocolatefest VIP Ticket
$75 (good for all three sessions)

Buy at one of the following locations:
  • Hershey Lodge
  • Giant Food Stores
  • Boscov’s
  • Turkey Hill
  • Rutter’s

Friday, December 30, 2016

5 Tips for a Successful Farm Show Outing with your Service Dog in Training

For a dog, paying attention to their handler can be challenging, especially if there lots of distractions in the environment. The Pennsylvania Farm Show is coming up on January 7-14 (food court opens January 6), and many of our dogs in training will attend. It’s a great training experience! However, between the crowds, the delicious food, and all the animals, it can be hard for puppy raisers to keep their dog’s attention.

Here are five tips to help you set your puppy up for a successful outing.

Awesome Power Treats
One way is to make sure you have power treats, really good power treats. You might even want to go beyond hot dogs, especially if hot dogs are your typical power treat. Think chicken or leftover steak.

Keep the Outing Short
If you’re planning to spend hours at the Farm Show, you may not want to bring your puppy in training with you. Set your dog up for success by planning a short outing. If your dog is doing great, you can consider staying a little longer, but try to leave while your dog is still being successful.

Have a Plan
There’s a lot to see and do at the Farm Show, so having a plan can help you set your dog up for success. Check out the schedule of events and pick out a few things you think your dog will be able to handle. If your dog does well, you can always check out other exhibits. Make sure you also have plan in case your dog is having a challenging time and you need to leave, especially if you’re attending with friends and family.

Know the Stress Signs
Make sure you know your dog’s stress signals. By recognizing the early signs of stress and then removing your dog from the stressor, you can help your dog have a more successful outing. For example, if you’re walking near the cows and your dog starts to yawn, scratch, pant, or shake themselves, they might be telling you they’re stressed. Move your dog away from the cows (or whatever the stressor is) and find a quiet corner where your dog can relax. If you need to, take your dog outside and give them a sniff break. If your dog becomes too stressed, leave the Farm Show entirely.

Don’t forget to pay attention to the other end of the leash, too! If you become stressed, your dog will pick up on it, and it will affect their behavior.

Don’t Expect Perfection
The Farm Show is a difficult outing! Cues that your dog knows perfectly at home will suddenly become very challenging at the Farm Show. For example, your dog may have mastered “go on through” and walk perfectly through doorways at home and out in the general public, but at the Farm Show, you may have to use a lure to get your dog to walk through a doorway correctly. That’s okay!

You may also find that you need to click and treat much more frequently to keep your dog walking with a nice loose leash. That’s okay, too! You’re helping your dog be successful.

If you’re taken a service dog in training to the Farm Show before, what other tips do you have?