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. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

26 Cues

When our puppy raisers are handed one of our puppies, they become responsible for training that dog for the first 12-18 months of his life. Puppy raisers teach the dogs the basic service dog cues and good house manners, as well as take the dogs out in public to gain as many experiences as possible. But what are these basic cues? For a service dog, the basics involve a little more than “sit” and “stay.”

Our puppy raisers are responsible for teaching their puppy 26 cues. We cover 10 of these cues in puppy class. The other 16 are detailed in the puppy manual that each puppy raiser receives, and raisers can always ask one of our trainers or veteran puppy raisers for help with a cue. We’re always happy to help!

Here are the 26 cues that form the foundation of every Susquehanna Service Dog:

All the way up
The dog puts all four paws on an object.

The dog walks 5-7 steps backward. Dogs that don’t know “back” will be limited in their placement. For example, a dog that doesn’t know “back” can’t open a door and therefore can’t be placed with someone in a wheelchair.

“Car” cues the dog to jump into the car. The dogs need to practice getting in and out of cars, vans, SUVs, trucks, etc., and they should be able to get in through any door, including the trunk in a van or SUV.

Recalls (come)
A good recall can save a dog’s life. Our dogs practice recalls inside and outside in many different situations and environments.

Comfort trainer
Depending on their placement, a dog may wear a comfort trainer. For example, all of our balance dogs wear comfort trainers to give their partners more control over the dog. We want to make it as easy as possible for our partners to dress their dog for work, so we train our dogs to put their snout through the comfort trainer and hold it there while their partner secures it.

The dog lies down and rolls their hip.

“Easy” cues the dog to take treats nicely. This is especially important if the dog is going to be placed with a child.

The dog untangles himself from the leash.

Get busy
The dog potties on cue, on any surface on and off leash. Again, this is an important cue. We never know where a dog is going to be placed. A dog living in the city won’t necessarily have the luxury of a nice patch of grass, so they’ll need to be comfortable going on concrete or asphalt.

Get dressed
This is another cue that’s helpful for partners who have limited mobility. On cue, the dog puts his head through the harness and stands still while it’s buckled.

Go on through
The dog goes through an opening, turns around, and looks that the handler, without pulling to the end of the leash. “Go on through” can be used to go through doorways, maneuver through aisles or other tight spaces, or even simply have the dog turn around in an open space.

Go to bed
We have found that many of our partners use the “go to bed” cue. “Go to bed” means the dog goes to a designated bed or towel, lies down, and stays there until released. Our facility dogs perform this cue a lot when they’re not needed with the students. It also lets the dog know that it’s time to relax.

On the cue “heel,” the dog moves to stand on the handler’s left side. “Heel” takes a long time to train because there are so many steps to it. We train it using a box. The dog puts her front paws on the box and we click and treat her for moving her back feet around the box.

The dog walks into her crate and stays there, regardless of whether the door is open. The dog should be able to do this whether or not the handler is in the room. All of our dogs are crate trained, and while the dog is in the crate, she should be quiet and relaxed, even if there are other activities going on around her.

Every single dog that we place learns this behavior, and it’s a favorite among our partners. On cue, the dog rests her front legs in the handler’s lap. The dog should be able to do this from either side. Lap can be used to give pressure to relieve anxiety, or as a way to a dog to deliver an item to someone in a wheelchair. It’s also a great way for handlers to pay attention to their dog.

Leave it
“Leave it” is a behavior that never ends. We are always working on it with our dogs. A good “leave it,” like a good recall, can save a dog’s life. We start training this cue by holding a piece of kibble in a closed fist and clicking the dog for looking away from the fist. Eventually, the dog should be able to walk by anything interesting on the floor, tables, chairs, etc. and ignore it. We encourage our puppy raisers to continue practicing all of the steps, even if their dog has a solid “leave it.” In Team Training, we show our partners how to work on “leave it” from the very beginning steps, and it’s always easier to have a dog that remembers it.

Let’s go
The dog begins to walk next to her handler.

At Susquehanna Service Dogs, the dog’s name is a rewardable cue. Whenever our puppy raisers say their dog’s name, the dog should look at them and they should be rewarded for it. This is why we don’t train a “look at me” type cue. The dog’s name is the cue to look at their handler.

“Off” should only be used if a dog has put their paws on something they’re allowed to be on. For example, if you invite them up on the couch and now you want them back on the floor, you would say “off.” You could also use it to ask your dog to leave your lap. “Off” should not be used if the dog is doing something they shouldn’t be doing. For example, if they put their paws up on the counter. In that case, you would simply take their collar and guide them off the counter without a cue.

“Okay” is the word that releases a dog from a behavior. For example, we use it to tell a dog they can come out of their crate, and we use it to release a dog to eat.

The dog puts their paw in your hand. This can be a useful cue for nail clipping and grooming.

“Side” is the opposite of “heel.” The dog moves to stand next to their handler on the right side. We teach it the same way we teach “heel.”

“Sit” is probably one of the most basic cues. It’s also one of the easiest cues to forget to practice once a dog learns it. However, it’s important to continue practicing solid sits so that the dog actually does a “sit” rather than sliding right into a “down.”

“Stay” tells the dog to remain exactly where they are. The dog should be able to perform this behavior in a sit, down, and stand. There are two types of stays. One is a cued “stay” where the dog stays alert to his handler. The other is a relaxed stay that may or may not have been cued. The handler is busy doing something else, and the dog just relaxes in a down and maybe even falls asleep.

The dog stands with no movement. The dog shouldn’t stand and then sit, or stand and move around. To get a solid stand, delay the click after giving the cue. The dog will most likely stay still until they hear the click. Then simply delay the click longer each time so you’re actually clicking for the standing and waiting in that position.

The dog goes under an object, such as a bench, table, or chair. Even big dogs can fit until low benches and chairs. “Under” gets the dog out of the way of other people that may be passing by. It keeps people from tripping over the dog, and it protects the dog from being stepped on.

The dog puts two paws on an object. It can be hard for a dog to distinguish between “up” and “all the way up,” so it may be helpful to practice “up” against a wall and just have the dog put their feet against the wall.

Visit is another favorite of our partners. Every single one of our dogs learns this behavior. On cue, the dog puts her head in the handler’s lap or hand. 

When our dogs enter advanced training already knowing all of these cues, they can jump right into the more advanced cues they’ll need to assist their future partners. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Whelping a Litter of Puppies for the First Time

The Jackson family thought that whelping a litter of puppies in their home would be a fun thing to do.

Turns out, they were right.

The Jacksons are whelping their first litter of puppies, the D litter. Dexter, Dory, Dudley, Duke, Delilah, Diesel, Dewey, and Diego just turned six weeks old, and they’ve been living with the Jacksons since they were three days old. The mom, GEB Boise from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, gave birth to the eight puppies on June 25 at the SSD kennel.

“Who doesn’t want a litter of puppies in your house?” said Jane Jackson. Besides seeing these adorable puppies sleeping and hearing their little puppy noises when they dream, her favorite things about whelping a litter is having puppy huggers visit her home and sharing information about Susquehanna Service Dogs with them. She also loves watching the puppies make progress. For example, one puppy wasn’t comfortable being alone, but then one day did fine by himself. Another puppy walked along the teeter-totter and managed to stay on all four paws.

Caring for a litter of puppies isn’t all puppy snuggles and playtime, though. There’s a good bit of work involved. We keep track of a lot of information about the pups, including their weight, and that means lots of note-taking. And of course, they’re puppies, so there’s always something to clean, whether it’s the whelping box, a puppy, or the puppies’ toys. The toys and objects are rotated through the whelping box so the pups gain exposure to a variety of new objects, and every time a toy is removed, it needs to be cleaned.  

Each day, the puppies need to be exposed to something new, such as crate time, visiting other rooms, new toys and objects, and different smells, surfaces, and sounds. The Jacksons have a white board with a to-do list for the pups, as well as a chalkboard to keep track of which puppies have already been taken care of. It’s different than raising one puppy, says Jane. There are eight puppies to expose to clicker training.

“You don’t really have any idea what you’re getting into until you actually do it,” she said. “It’s like having kids. There are certain rules you have to follow for SSD, but you also have to figure out how to make it easy for yourself. You need to think outside the whelping box.”

The Jacksons and the Wengers, another first-time whelping family who’s caring for the “C” litter, have been paired with two of our experienced whelpers. Susan Tyson and Diane Bohenick, both of whom have whelped numerous litters for us, are just a phone call or text away, and they have lots of tips for the first-time whelpers. For example, Susan suggested using baby food as a treat for the puppies. That way, you can just dip your finger into the jar and let the pups lick it off. Jane has been using chicken and rice or beef vegetable baby food for the “D” puppies. Diane and Susan also suggested having an outdoor space for the puppies.

Taking care of eight puppies is time-consuming, and our other volunteers offered some tips that have been real time-savers. For example, at least half of the whelping area is covered in newspaper, and this section serves as a pottying area for the pups. We’re always collecting newspapers for the puppies. However, one of our volunteers, Betsy Smith, rolls the newspaper rather than folding it, which makes it very easy to grab one or two sheets. The Jacksons also bought a large piece of vinyl to protect their hardwood floor in the puppies’ area. A lot of people may be hesitant to whelp a litter because they’re worried the puppies will mess up their house. But the puppies don’t really mess up the house, said Jane.

“Susan and Diane made it look easy and fun,” said Jane. “And the Ds are very laid back. They sleep a lot.”

Thank you to the Jacksons and the Wengers for taking care of the “C” and “D” puppies for the first eight weeks of their lives!