Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Meet SSD Onyx

SSD Onyx spent her Christmas stalking two Dalmatians. Her puppy raisers aren't sure where or how she learned it, but Onyx sneaked up on the two Dalmatians who were visiting for the holidays. She moved slowly, getting closer, closer...then POUNCE! She jumped on them. Neither Dalmatian was especially fond of being jumped on. After getting pounced a few times, the one decided that the best way to avoid Onyx's sneak attacks was to keep moving. The other took a more direct approach and simply growled at the little lab when he had had enough.

Onyx is one of the three service dogs-in-training that we are going to be following on the blog. We will give you a window into her life as she learns different skills and behaviors and grows from a playful puppy to a skilled service dog ready to assist her partner. Look for weekly posts about her, SSD Aladdin and SSD Nubble.

You may remember Onyx from the Puppy Cam. She comes from the Crayon litter, born on September 3, 2009. She joined her puppy raisers on October 31, 2009. When they first got her, this little black lab weighed just under 13 pounds. She was just at the vet last week with her brothers Rusty and Denim, and she weighed 29 pounds. She's growing quickly!

Onyx is one smart puppy, and every day is an adventure with her. She's always exploring and experimenting with behaviors and her surroundings. Her puppy raisers can sometimes see the wheels turning in her head. One day, she picked up her food dish and dragged it from its usual spot all the way upstairs. Now, the SSD Puppy Raiser Manual says to feed the dogs in different rooms of the house, so they get used to eating anywhere. Well, Onyx seems to have taken this to heart. It's as if she was saying, "Today, I'm eating up here!"

She also loves to steal shoes. Her puppy raisers have had to move all their shoes out of reach to keep them from being chomped. However, they don't want to completely discourage her from playing with shoes because someday she may have to retrieve her partner's shoes. If she learns as a puppy that shoes are bad, it will be much harder for her to learn to retrieve shoes as an adult dog in advanced training. Her puppy raisers have been practicing leave it and then substituting something else, such as a chew toy, for the shoe.

And Onyx certainly loves to chew! It seems to be one of her favorite things to do. In fact, that seems to be the favorite thing for all the puppies in the Crayon litter. Onyx will chew on things that just don't make any sense to her puppy raisers - the legs of a metal coffee table or a brick fireplace. To stop her from chewing on things like this, they have been using the leave it cue, just like they do with the shoes. Except that Onyx is smart and has a mind of her own. Not two minutes after getting a treat for giving a good leave it, she goes right back to chewing. In her mind, it must seem like a really cool game. It's as if she's thinking, "If I chew on this, they'll tell me to leave it, and when I do, I'll get a treat. So if I chew on this table, I'll get a treat. I like this game!"

Her puppy raisers are working on keeping her from chewing things she isn't supposed to be chewing. They're also focusing on leave it and making it productive so that she doesn't go right back to what she was doing.

They're also working on recalls. Recently, Onyx had her puppy evaluations, where SSD's trainers ask each puppy to demonstrate certain skills. Onyx, however, was having none of that. She was more interested in chewing the carpet than in retrieving a ball, and she certainly didn't want to come when called, especially when there was something much more interesting to do - chew! Even though Onyx does a recall at home in a familiar environment, she still has trouble if there are distractions. For example, she loves to play with the neighbor's dog, a bulldog named Casper. She loves it so much, that when her puppy raisers call her to come, she ignores them. In order to recall her, they have to call Casper, and Onyx follows him over. Since this is the first time they're raising an SSD puppy, her puppy raisers turned to our trainers and other puppy raisers for advice. Here is some of their advice:

Practice frequently, but start small. Since she has difficulty with recalls when there are distractions, start with a very small distraction and build up over time as she gets better. When you're practicing outside, use an extra long lead so she stays safe while still being free to roam. When she does ignore the distractions and come when called, give her a jackpot of treats. She'll start to think, "Ooo, if I come when they call me, I'll get lots of tasty treats!" Finally, to make sure that she keeps giving a good recall, cue her to come, give her lots of treats, then let her go back to whatever fun, exciting thing she was doing (as long as it's safe). That way, come won't always mean that the fun ends. It will mean "come get tasty treats, then go back and have more fun."
With Onyx, the real trick was finding the right motivation. While she likes her regular treats (her food or cheerios), they just weren't a powerful enough motivator to get her to abandon the fun thing she was exploring. You could practically hear her thoughts: "Go get some cheerios, or stay here and watch these birds flying? Ha! I'm watching the birds." But when another puppy raiser suggested using cheese whiz - wow! What a difference! Now Onyx will voluntarily recall herself when she knows her puppy raisers have a can of cheese whiz. They haven't tried the cheese whiz when they're recalling her from playing with Casper yet. We'll let you know if it works.

She also loves chicken. Her puppy raisers discovered her love of chicken one day while cutting some at the kitchen counter. They had been working on different cues with Onyx, such as sit and down. When the chicken came out, she voluntarily gave a down. It's all about finding the right motivation.

Next week, Onyx will be spending a week with her brother Denim and his puppy raiser. It will be interesting to see how they interact and what they teach each other. Will Onyx learn some tricks from Denim? Check back in the next two weeks to find out.

We wish you and your four-legged friends a happy New Year!





Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Follow the Lives of the Service Dogs

Do you know how a little puppy becomes a service dog? How about what kinds of skills a service dog learns? Or how the dogs even learn those skills?

If you're not sure about the answers to these questions, don't worry. Next week, we're going to start a series about the life of a service dog-in-training. We're going to give you a window into the lives of SSD Aladdin, Onyx, and maybe even Nubble, our newest puppy. We will be following these dogs on their journey to becoming service dogs.

You'll discover the places they have gone, skills they've learned, and the fun and adventures they've had along the way. You'll also learn about our puppy raisers, those wonderful volunteers who welcome a puppy into their home and raise it for 18 months.

If you have questions about the lives of the service dogs, leave us a comment. We will do our best to answer your questions.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

SSD Holiday Party

The holidays started early for the service dogs. Last week, we held our annual holiday party. Puppy raisers, partners of service dogs, SSD staff, and of course, the dogs got together for food, fun and a little socialization for both people and dogs. What a great time!


We started off the evening with a huge potluck buffet. Each person brought a dish to share. As more people arrived, it became a puzzle to fit all the food on the table - and it was all delicious! While the people ate, the dogs waited under the table or at their handlers' feet. Even the little puppies! A great display of how well our puppy raisers are doing with their dogs.

After dinner, it was game time! The dogs and their handlers got a chance to show off some of their skills in D-O-G. In this game, dogs and their handlers form two teams. The first team chooses a dog to perform a trick. The other team needs to find a dog that can also do that trick. If the other team cannot perform the trick, they get a "D." The goal is to NOT spell the word "dog." We took some videos of the dogs and their handlers playing D-O-G:


SSD Gideon picked a quarter up off the floor. It seemed like this trick was going to be too difficult for the other team to counter. But then SSD Dutch came forward. Instead of picking up a quarter, Dutch picked up a dime!



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SSD Midge challenged the other team to perform a "hold." This seemed like a pretty routine trick until Midge's handler revealed the object the dogs had to hold: a hot dog! After Midge held the hot dog in her mouth for a few seconds without eating it, the other team had to find a dog that could do the same thing. SSD Pearl stepped forward, and she held the hot dog, too! Great job, Midge and Pearl!

SSD Graham Cracker was able to step up to the plate when the other team challenged him to walk between his handler's legs and sit.


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Even one of the puppies from our most recent litter, SSD Slate, was able to match some of the tricks. When the other team challenged him to do sit-ups (going into a sit from a down position), he proved that while he may be a puppy, he was more than ready for this challenge!


Slate is being raised by a puppy raiser in our Northeast Division. We're very glad they were able to come to Harrisburg to enjoy our SSD party with us!

If you'd like to see photos from our holiday party, visit our Facebook page.


We have a wonderful evening of good holiday fun! If you'd like to join us next year, become a puppy raiser! Applications are available on our website.



Monday, December 7, 2009

Help the SSD Princes

SSD Philip, Aladdin and Caspian need your help! These three service dogs-in-training have been diagnosed with Cauda Equina Syndrome, a serious disease in which the spinal nerves in the dog’s lower back are compressed. This compression can be caused by a variety of things, including infection or a ruptured disc. It can be very painful for the dogs.

However, there is good news! The nerves damaged by Cauda Equina Syndrome can be repaired through surgery! Philip and Aladdin have already had the surgery and both are doing well. We expect Philip to return to training in early January. Since Aladdin had his surgery more recently, we are unable to determine when he’ll be able to return to training. However, he is doing well in his recovery. Caspian will be having his surgery sometime soon. We hope that all three of these wonderful dogs will be able to return to training in the new year.

Susquehanna Service Dogs, Philip, Aladdin and Caspian need your help! The diagnosis and surgery for these three princes costs a total of $4,800. ($1,600 for each dog) Would you please consider making a donation to help us pay for these important surgeries? Please help us make sure that Philip, Aladdin and Caspian are happy, healthy dogs that will one day help their partners live full, independent lives.

Thank you so much for your support for these wonderful dogs!

Please make a donation now.

Read more about Cauda Equina Syndrome.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Training Dogs to Alert

A little while ago, we received an excellent question on Twitter from @mrlent about training dogs to alert for a fainting condition caused by heart rate. (See his original question here.) Our answer is going to take a few more characters than the 140 limit on Twitter, so we thought we would post it here.

Dogs have an amazing ability to respond to extremely subtle stimuli, sometimes so subtle that neither humans nor machines can pick up on them. It will seem like the dog is alerting to a condition. However, the dog is technically responding.

You may have heard of Diabetic Alert Dogs, and even though they have the word “alert” in their name, they are still responding to a stimulus, in this case an odor that the body produces when blood sugar drops. These dogs are trained to perform specific behaviors when they smell that particular odor.

Dogs that “alert” for seizures are also fairly well known. These dogs perform a behavior before a medical crisis arises, sometimes signaling their partner when a seizure is going to occur. However, these dogs are still responding to something, not alerting. We just aren’t sure what the dogs are responding to, which makes it seem like they’re alerting.

A dog could be trained to respond to a fainting condition. We have actually trained and placed several dogs with individuals whose primary disability involved fainting or loss of consciousness. A dog could easily be trained to retrieve a telephone, pull an emergency cord, cover the person with a blanket, dial 911, alert someone else in the house, etc. The only way a dog could be trained to alert to a condition would be if the person knows of specific things that usually occur before he or she loses consciousness. It is possible to train the dog to respond to these things, thereby creating an “alert” before the person faints.

Some of the dogs we have trained to respond to a fainting condition have developed alert behaviors. However, they are still technically responding to something – we as human just aren’t able to perceive what they are responding to. In order to train a dog to perform a behavior, we need to be able to perceive specific cues or stimuli.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Service Dogs: Specially Trained Partners

In early September, we held our Meet the Dogs sessions where several people who had been on our waiting list got to meet the dog that would become their partner. Since then, we have been specially training each of those dogs for each person, so that when the service dog teams graduate, the dogs are able to assist their partners with their unique needs.

We’re dedicated to making sure that we are meeting the needs of each person who receives a service dog from us. When we’re matching people with a dog, we learn as much as we can about that person’s unique needs so we can specially train the dog. For example, one person may need to use the dog for balance as he moves. Because everyone gets around differently, we will fit a dog with a harness and have the person try using the dog as balance at our Meet the Dogs sessions. This gives the person the opportunity to find out how the dog will be able to assist him with balance. Also, because there are several different types of harnesses a balance dog can wear, this short demo allows the person and dog to find the type of harness that works best for them. From a training standpoint, it gives us the opportunity to observe how the person is walking or moving with the dog. In advanced training, we will then try to duplicate some of those movements so the dog is specially trained to do balance work with their partner.

Similarly, we sometimes need to change the name of a dog in order to meet a person’s needs. Each litter that we breed and raise is assigned a theme, and each puppy is named according to that theme. For example, our most recent litter is called the Crayon litter, and each puppy is named after a crayon color. However, when a person is matched with a dog, we may need to change the dog’s name for that person. For instance, we have placed several hearing dogs with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Sometimes, because of their disability, the dog’s name may be difficult for the person to pronounce. We will then change the dog’s name for that person. Changing a dog’s name is not as difficult as it may seem. It is simply a matter of training the dog to respond to a different name. And something as simple as a name can mean all the difference to that dog’s human partner.

If you would like to read more about how we match people with dogs, please read our Meet the Dogs post.

Since 1994, 171 service dog teams have graduated from our program, and we currently have 26 puppies being raised by our wonderful, dedicated volunteers. As a fully accredited service dog organization, we are dedicated to high standards of quality and making sure that our service dogs are able to assist their partners with their unique needs. We love our work, and we’re looking forward to the day when the dogs that are currently in advanced training graduate with their new partners as working service dog teams.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Night for the Dogs: Black Tie & Tails

Dogs strutted around the ballroom in their finest evening wear. They held their heads high, as if they knew they were the guests of honor.

Our 6th annual Black Tie & Tails was a fun and charming evening for both our human and canine guests.

The women dressed in elegant gowns and dresses and the men wore their best suits or tuxedos. One gentleman even wore a full kilt. The dogs also dressed for the occasion, in bowtie collars, satiny and glittery skirts – even a red feather boa. The gala began with the reception, where guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres, had their photos taken and had their caricatures drawn by Neil McMillin to commemorate the occasion.

Guests mingled, meeting new friends and catching up with old ones. Dogs’ tails wagged and they sniffed each other, getting acquainted. Some of these dogs have come to Black Tie & Tails for several years, and we love seeing our old friends again. One owner commented that her dog gets really excited for Black Tie & Tails, and with good reason. These dogs are guests of honor.

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At the beginning of the night, each dog was formally announced by Flora Posteraro of ABC27, our mistress of ceremonies. The dogs pranced across the dance floor as their names were announced, showing off their evening wear and perfect grooming. There were black, yellow and chocolate labs, a golden retriever, a corgi, St. Bernards, a Great Dane, and many others.

During dinner, each dog relaxed at their owners’ feet and enjoyed a delicious doggie dinner provided by Doggy Delights. The dogs loved their dessert – Frozen Woofys! Watch a video of SSD Rossi enjoying her Banana Rama Ding Dog Frozen Woofy. Rossi is a demo/interview/therapy dog for SSD.

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Linden seemed to enjoy being in the limelight while she ate her dessert:

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Our human guests enjoyed a delicious dinner, silent auction, live auction and live jazz music provided by Andrew Bellanca and friends. Items auctioned at the live auction included vacations in Annapolis, Florida, and Loon Lake; a cocktail party; and the rare opportunity to name an SSD puppy.

Black Tie & Tails benefits SSD, and we would like to thank all of our guests and sponsors for attending and supporting us, as well as the Sheraton Harrisburg-Hershey Hotel for providing such a lovely venue. It is with your support that we are able to provide service dogs to assist people to become more independent. With your support, we are able to change lives.

We hope you had a lovely evening with your canine companion. We know we enjoyed it!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dressed for Success

Susquehanna Service Dogs Rusty, Shamrock, Lavender, Onyx, Copper, Slate, Jade, Denim and Sienna are dressed for success! Those purple things they’re wearing are puppy-sized harnesses.

All of our service dogs wear harnesses to show that they are a service dog or service dog-in-training. (For SSD, a purple harness means the dog is still in training. A green harness means the dog is a working service dog that has been placed with a partner.) However, having the puppies start wearing them this young is something new for us. If you watched the Hill Top Litter last November, you probably noticed that the puppies did not wear harnesses. With the Crayon Litter, we decided to get the puppies used to their harnesses early. By the time these puppies are grown, they’ll have changed harnesses five times!

We have a very specific reason for dressing the puppies in their harnesses so early. Their mom, SSD Winter, is very sensitive to her harness. If possible, she prefers not to wear it. Harness sensitivity is a trait that the puppies can inherit. We’ve seen it in puppies as young as eight weeks old.

What’s so bad about a dog that’s sensitive to his harness? Nothing is “bad,” really. It does limit the dog’s placement options, though. A dog with harness sensitivity will not be able to be a balance dog because balance dogs wear a special harness that partners hold on to. Also, since the dogs don’t necessarily need to wear their harnesses while they’re at home, partners may need to dress the dog when they go out in public. A dog with harness sensitivity would not be able to be placed with an individual who uses a wheelchair, especially if that person is going to be dressing the dog. It wouldn’t take the dog long to figure out that if he doesn’t want to wear his harness, he just needs to stay out of arm’s reach. A service dog would not be doing his job of assisting his partner to be more independent if that partner has to have someone else put the harness on the dog.

Additionally, dogs that do not like their harness are a little more challenging to train. For example, if a dog doesn’t like his harness, he will tend to do a “sphinx” down rather than a relaxed down, meaning he may hover or not roll onto his hip. Additionally, dogs with harness sensitivity may not like to walk on strange surfaces. Both the relaxed down and walking on strange surfaces are important skills for service dogs.

By having the puppies wear their harnesses at such an early age, we’re hoping they do not develop harness sensitivity. So far, things are looking good!

Here's a video from a few weeks ago of the puppies playing in their harnesses: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/2308177

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Puppies Say "Yum!" to Puppy Food!

It didn't take the puppies long to figure out that the mush in front of them was food. Soon after we plunked them down in front of a plate of softened puppy food, they dug right in, eating like champs.

A little over a week ago, the puppies ate their first meal of "real" food, beginning the process of weaning. We soaked puppy food in water to soften it into a gruel, then served it to the puppies. Because this was the first time they were eating real food, we fed one puppy first. Shamrock was the lucky first puppy to eat his meal. At first, he wasn't entirely sure what to make of the new food, and he licked the edges of the plate. But once his caretaker scooped a little food on her finger and let him lick it off, Shamrock got the idea and dug in.


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After that, we fed three puppies at a time so we could watch them and more easily monitor how much they were eating. Until they got the hang of eating, we actually stuck their front paws in their food, which seemed to help them realize that there was tasty food in front of them. Watch a video of Jade, Denim and Copper chowing down:

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The puppies even licked up the food that fell off the plates onto the blanket!

We feed the puppies a lamb-based puppy food, recommended by the vet because it will help avoid allergies later. The puppy food must also contain DHA, which is important for brain and eye development and can help them learn more quickly and enhance their memory. While SSD Winter was pregnant and later while she was nursing, she ate puppy food so the puppies would receive the nutrients through their mom.

All of our food comes from Abrams & Weakley.

You can help us feed the puppies! As these puppies grow, they go through a lot of food. We provide food for our dogs while they're young puppies and while they're in the kennel. When they join their puppy raiser families, they go with a five pound bag of food. We also take care of any special veterinary diets. Additionally, when we place the dogs with their partners, we give the partners a 40 pound bag of food.

Donate to feed a puppy!

We hope you enjoy the videos and the puppy cam! We know we love watching them!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Live on the Puppy Cam: The Crayon Litter!

Our Puppy Cam is now live! You can watch Shamrock, Slate, Denim, Sienna, Onyx, Lavender, Copper, Jade and Rusty as they play and sleep. Just visit our website: http://www.ssdpuppycam.com to view the Puppy Cam.

As the puppies make their debut on the Puppy Cam, they are also reaching a milestone in their development. Today, they ate puppy food for the first time!

Look for a post soon about the puppies' reactions to their first "real" meal.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

You're Invited to Tails from the Bark Side!

You’re invited to Tails from the Bark Side, a Howl-o-ween costume dinner dance to benefit SSD’s Northeast Puppy Raising Program!

When: 6 p.m. on Saturday, October 10, 2009

Where: VFW Post #3448
B. Gregory Krummell Memorial
440 Sterling Road
Tobyhanna, PA

Tickets: $25 per person (must be purchased by Sept. 28)

Tails from the Bark Side includes a 50/50 raffle, Chinese auction, music, food and costume prizes! Entertainment will be provided by Long Time Comin’. Costumes are optional.

To purchase tickets, please email pattydo65@hotmail.com.

Service dogs and any SSD dog are welcome!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Crayon Litter: The Early Days



As soon as we walk into the room, we can hear the soft squeaking noises of nine puppies. SSD Winter, the proud mom of the newest litter of Susquehanna Service Dogs, pads over to greet us, then flops down at our feet, the picture of a tired mom. Winter’s breeder caretaker family is tired, too – the puppies must be fed and cared for every four hours around the clock. And yet, even though everyone is ready for a nap, there’s a feeling of exhilaration. All because three feet away, in a box lined with a heating pad and plenty of towels and blankets, are nine little puppies, wriggling, sleeping and making those adorable little puppy noises.

Born September 3, 2009, the puppies will live with their breeder caretaker family until they are seven weeks old. Winter’s maternal instincts are not strong, and she doesn’t have enough milk to feed nine puppies, so we need to do many of the tasks she would normally do.

The mother usually licks her pups to stimulate their digestive system. To mimic Winter’s tongue, we use a cotton pad soaked in warm water to rub the puppies’ bellies. Because Winter does have some milk, we make sure that all the puppies have a turn at nursing, but we supplement them by bottle-feeding them puppy formula.

The breeder caretakers must stimulate and feed Shamrock, Slate, Denim, Rusty, Sienna, Lavender, Onyx, Copper and Jade every four hours – an exhausting, but rewarding process, especially when you can see the puppies doubling and tripling their birth weight! (By Day 9, the puppies had doubled their birth weight!)

In addition to caring for the puppies’ needs, we do Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) with them until they’re 18 days old. Developed by the US Military for their canine program, ENS became popularly known as the “Super Dog” program because if it’s done properly, it can greatly increase the dogs’ neurological capacities.

We perform five exercises in order once each day with each puppy:
1. Tickle between the puppy’s toes with a Q-tip. (3-5 seconds)
2. Hold the puppy straight up in the air so its head is vertically in line with its tail. (3-5 seconds)
3. Hold the puppy upside down so its head is vertically in line with its tail. (3-5 seconds)
4. Hold the puppy on its back. (3-5 seconds)
5. Place the puppy on a damp cloth that has been refrigerated for at least five minutes. (3-5 seconds)

Performing these exercises can kick the puppies’ neurological system into action earlier then it normally would. Studies have shown that dogs that have been exposed to ENS are more resistant to disease and have a greater tolerance for stress. In addition, dogs that have gone through ENS perform better in problem-solving situations and tend to be more active in exploring their environment. If you would like to learn more about ENS, read Dr. Carmen Battaglia’s article about it.

These capacities are especially important for service dogs. Service dogs will need to learn many new behaviors, sometimes even figuring out a new behavior on their own, and they will continually learn new skills as they adapt to their partners’ needs. They will need to generalize the behavior, performing it in many different environments that can often be stressful for the dog. The ability to stay calm and focused is necessary for service dogs to assist their partners.

ENS will give Shamrock, Slate, Denim, Rusty, Sienna, Lavender, Onyx, Copper and Jade an advantage as they grow and start to learn the skills they’ll need as service dogs.

We will continue to share updates on the puppies' progress. The puppies will be eating their first meal of real food (softened puppy food, or puppy gruel) within the next two weeks. Look for a post about their adventure with real food!

Also, we are going to have a Puppy Cam for the Crayon litter. It will be streaming live on Ustream and you'll also be able to watch it on our website. We'll have more information about the Puppy Cam soon!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sign up for OneCause and Support SSD!

We need your help!

OneCause, an online fundraising site that lets you raise money by shopping online, is holding a contest for its causes. The first 10 causes or schools to get 20 new supporters will receive $250 from OneCause. We're asking you sign up for OneCause at http://www.onecause.com and choose Susquehanna Service Dogs as your cause.

It takes less than five minutes and costs you nothing. Please sign up and help us become one of the first 10 causes to get 20 new supporters!

OneCause is a great site. When you shop through OneCause, companies and merchants will donate to your chosen cause. It's a simple way to benefit SSD.

Thank you so much for signing up for OneCause (http://www.onecause.com) and for your continued support!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Meet the Dogs: Making a Match

It’s the moment some people have been waiting for. They’ve been waiting for one, two, three or more years.

It’s the moment they get to meet the dog who may become their service dog.

Two weeks ago, six people who have been on our waiting list met several of the dogs currently in advanced training. At our Meet the Dogs sessions, individuals meet several dogs to find a good match for their needs and personality. We take matching people with the dogs very seriously. The dogs and their partners will be working together for the next 8-10 years, and we want to make sure they can not only work together but also form a lasting bond.

At our Meet the Dogs sessions, each person spends 1 ½ to 2 hours with us. During that time, we go over their application, asking lots of questions. We ask so many questions and ask for many details because once a person is matched with a dog, we will specially train that dog for their unique needs. In order to do that successfully, we need to know things such as which side the person prefers the dog to walk on, whether the dog will need to pull a wheelchair, what type of doors the dog may need to open, and what type of retrieves the dog may be doing, among many other things. Then, when we’re training the dogs, we try to recreate the environment in which the dog will usually be working. For example, one person requested that her dog be able to turn her touch lamp on and off. To make sure that the dog will be able to perform this behavior in the person’s home, we asked her to send us a picture of the lamp and the area around it, including the floor, table and ceiling, so we could recreate the scene as accurately as possible.

Once we learned as much as we could about the person’s specific needs, it was time to meet the dogs: SSD Barely There, Coriander, Gnat, Lil, Mite, Sonora, Midge and Pearl. Each person met several dogs out of this group. When we bring a dog out, we walk him over to the person and give them time to hang out and greet each other. Then we take the dog about 20 feet away, and the person must give the dog a series of cues, clicking and treating the dog when he performs them. First, the person calls the dog to “come,” then “come, sit” and finally “come, down.” The person and dog get more time to hang out together, and then they go for a short walk. Each person goes through this process with several dogs and ranks the dogs according to how much they liked them and how well they think they’ll be able to work with them.

We love the moments when the people actually meet the dogs! It’s a special time to see the reactions of both the people and the dogs. Barely There trotted right over and gave kisses. Gnat trotted over, gave kisses, and then promptly turned his back, asking for his butt to be scratched. Lil was a little lady, sitting or standing calmly while she was petted, while Sonora was a ball of energy prancing around the person for attention. Midge, affectionately known as “The Tongue” because she loves to give kisses, licked whatever part of the person she could reach. Each dog greeted each person in their own way, with their own distinct personality.

Not only does the person choose the dog, but the dog chooses the person. The same dog will react to different people in different ways. For example, SSD Lil, a beautiful black lab, went right over to one person and gave him her complete attention, moving closer to him as he petted her. When it was time for her to go back to her crate, she kept looking back at him as if she didn’t quite want to leave. With another person, however, Lil’s attention wandered. Instead of coming almost immediately when called, she trotted over to investigate an interesting smell by the wall before walking to the person, and she didn’t seem quite as eager to be petted. Just as each person has a distinctive personality and gets along better with some people, each dog has an individual personality that makes them better suited for certain people. Lil’s reaction to different people is just one example of a dog behaving differently with each person. The dogs began forming bonds with different people, and it’s this bond – with the person and the dog choosing each other – that we look and hope for. It is this bond that makes a good team and loving companions.

Besides the bond between person and dog, there are several factors that contribute to making a match. For example, if a person needs the dog to pull their wheelchair, we must make sure the dog’s bone and joint structure is sound so the dog is capable of safely pulling the wheelchair. Most important, however, is the person’s choice of which dog they prefer. Once we match people with the dogs, those dogs will be individually trained for their partner’s needs. The dogs that are matched from this Meet the Dogs will go through Team Training with their partners in February.

This is such an exciting time for SSD and for the people who may soon be matched with their service dog! We wish each person and the dogs good luck as they continue their journey to becoming partners and companions!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Welcoming Our New Puppies!

The next generation of SSD service dogs has been born! We welcome the Crayon litter: Shamrock, Slate, Denim, Rusty, Sienna, Lavender, Onyx, Copper and Jade.
SSD Winter, who was originally a puppy from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, had a caesarean section to give birth to these nine puppies. Because she was under anesthesia, human helpers did the tasks Winter normally would have done - freeing the puppies from the amniotic sac, squeezing fluid from the puppies' lungs, drying their fur and cutting the umbilical cords. The puppies' yelps as they took their first breaths were such beautiful sounds!

We did have one moment when we worried a puppy might not make it. One of the puppies had gotten stuck in the birth canal before we arrived at the vet. The puppy was very weak when it was finally born, but with the help of some CPR and an oxygen mask, it was soon wriggling to join its brothers and sisters! What a relief! The puppies waited in a warming box for Winter to wake up.

Once the anesthesia wore off, we bundled Winter and her pups in the van for the ride home. The puppies nursed in the van. On the ride home, Winter's mothering instincts kicked in and she tried to see to all her puppies' needs that she hadn't been able to do while she was under anesthesia. She even tried to chew off the puppies' umbilical cords - again!

Back home, mother and puppies settled into the whelping box.
Each puppy is named after a crayon color:

Shamrock - yellow male
Slate - black male
Denim - black male
Rusty - black male
Sienna - yellow female
Lavender - yellow female
Onyx - black female
Copper - yellow male
Jade - black female

Once the puppies are about four weeks old, you'll be able to visit them for puppy hugging. We'll give you more details about puppy hugging in a future post.

Congratulations, Winter, on a beautiful litter! Thank you to everyone who helped with the whelping, and a special thank you to Dr. Hahn at the Palmyra Animal Hospital! We couldn't have done it without you!






Tuesday, August 4, 2009

State College Spikes Support SSD!

The State College Spikes are auctioning off their game bats at their home game tonight against the Aberdeen IronBirds. They're generously donating the proceeds to SSD! Each bat is autographed, and four of the bats have been signed by the entire team! The bats will be auctioned through a silent auction.

We're trying to raise funds to match their donation. For every $10 we raise, the Spikes will donate another bat. Plus, if you donate $10, your name will be entered into a drawing to throw the first pitch! Click here to donate and support SSD.

We'll be at the game tonight with some of the dogs. You'll be able to meet SSD Gideon, Basil, Ichabod and Vision. Stop by the silent auction table and say hi! The game starts at 7:05 p.m. in State College.

Thank you so much for your support! It is through your donations that we're able to raise and train service dogs to do things like alert their deaf partner that the smoke alarm is going off or to find and retrieve a cordless phone. Your donations help change lives.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I'll Take Sit for 400

"Lil, down," said the young girl.

When SSD Lil laid down, the girl told her to stay. Then, right in front of Lil, the girl spun five times. Lil cocked her head as if to say, "What are you doing?" but she never budged from her down. "Good job, Lil!" The girl clicked and treated the dodg before heading back to her seat.

SSD Lil and the girl weren't just fooling around. They were playing SSD Jeopardy at our SSD Dog Training Summer Camp. Each summer, kids ages 10-14 spend a week at the kennel learning about SSD and training a service dog that becomes "theirs" for the week. Last week, we had 10 kids in the camp, and this week, five girls participated. Each of them were paired with one of our advanced training dogs - SSD Coriander (Cori), Mite, Lil, Midge and Pearl. These dogs just entered advanced training on July 6, but they have been doing great with summer camp and the girls have been having a lot of fun with them! (Big thanks to our puppy raisers for doing such a great job raising the dogs!)

Each girl worked with the same dog all week. This year, campers chose their dogs themselves, which helps ensure that the camper-dog teams work well together. They might only work together for a week, but the girls and dogs form bonds with each other. As part of the camp, the girls learned clicker training, listened to presentations about SSD and the dogs, and played games to both test their knowledge and just have fun with the dogs.

We played Jeopardy halfway through the week, giving the girls a fun opportunity to test what they had learned. Instead of answering with a question like in traditional Jeopardy, campers had to ask their dogs to perform skills such as sit, come, down and stay while ignoring distractions, like a spinning camper. Our version of Jeopardy is based on the idea of proofing - asking in different ways for dogs to perform behaviors in different environments. So one camper had to put a spoonful of peanut buter in her mouth and then ask her dog, SSD Mite, to sit. (Mite gave a beautiful sit right away!) Another girl had to do jumping jacks while asking SSD Pearl to sit. (Pearl, and later SSD Midge, looked very confused. We learned that we're going to have to work on teaching the dogs to give behaviors while the handler is in motion. By the end of their advanced training, though, Pearl and the others should be able to sit beautifully, regardless of what their partner is doing when they give the command.)

Why is proofing important? Service dogs travel everywhere with their partners and they will need to be able to continue assisting their partners regardless of where they go and what distractions they encounter. A service dog that will down-stay beautifully at home will not be much help to their partner if the dog won't down-stay in a public place. Also, some partners may use communication devices or may ask for behaviors in alternative ways, and their dogs need to understand and assist them. Proofing helps ensure that the dogs will be able to assist their partners with their unique needs.

Today, the girls are going to the mall to take a modified version of the public access test our SSD teams take to become certified. We all had a wonderful week, and we're looking forward to next year's SSD Summer Camp!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Puppy Sitters and Kennel Sitters

Before SSD Coriander started her advanced training this week, she spent a few days with a puppy sitter. The family who volunteered to puppy sit took her into their home and hearts and continued her basic training until it was time for her to go to the kennel for advanced training.

Puppy sitters could be described as temporary puppy raisers. They welcome an SSD puppy into their home when the puppy's puppy raiser goes on vacation or has an emergency where they may not be able to take care of their puppy for a while. The puppy sitter not only provides a loving home for the puppy, but also continues his basic training. Puppy raisers provide the sitters with everything they'll need: crate, food, leash, scarf, bowl, toys, puppy journal, and of course, the puppy. Puppies can be anywhere from 8 weeks to 18 months old.

Kennel sitters are similar to puppy sitters - they also provide a temporary home for an SSD dog. As the name suggests, kennel sitters watch a dog that is in advanced training at the kennel. Advanced training in the kennel can be stressful for the dogs. Training becomes very intense and targeted and the dogs need a break just to be dogs, just like people need a weekend away from work to rejuvenate and recharge. Kennel sitters provide that weekend away from the kennel, giving the dogs time to just be dogs and completely relax. Because of our kennel sitters, our dogs in advanced training are happier and show fewer signs of kennel stress. You can read about SSD Roanoke's time with his puppy/kennel sitter before he was paired with his new partner.

Our organization would not run nearly as smoothly if it weren't for our puppy sitters and kennel sitters. Our volunteers are so important to us and the dogs. Puppy and kennel sitters may provide only a temporary home for a dog, but they form lasting connections with each other. At SSD Team Training in June, a newly place dog and her former puppy sitter saw each other for the first time in a while and there were tears of joy and lots of canine kisses. Soon this service dog and her partner will form bonds that are just as strong, if not stronger, as they navigate their lives together. It is this wellspring of love that goes beyond training that makes service dogs more than just a working partner. They become loving friends and companions, and our puppy raisers, puppy sitters and kennel sitters play an important role in preparing these dogs for a life of service and companionship.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Qualities of a Puppy Raiser Home

SSD depends on its volunteers to help us raise and train puppies to become service dogs. Of these volunteers, our volunteer puppy raisers make one of the longest commitment of time. Puppy raisers welcome an SSD puppy into their home and raise and train them for 15-18 months, teaching the puppy some of the skills and behaviors they'll need to succeed when they return to the kennel for advanced training.

Although anyone can become a puppy raiser, there are certain things we look for in our puppy raisers. We take as much care selecting our puppy raisers as we do matching service dogs with their partners. When we're placing a puppy with a family,we want to make sure both the puppy and the family will be happy and safe. Once we receive a potential puppy raiser's application (which can be found online),we visit that person's home for an in-home interview, and we usually take an SSD demo therapy dog or puppy-in-training with us to help.

Safety
The safety of the puppy is one of our first concerns. When we visit a family in their home, we look to make sure that the house is puppy safe. Are there cords the puppy could easily chew on? Are there other objects around that the puppy could get into mischief with and potentially hurt himself? Usually, if a house is kid safe, it's puppy safe. We also look at the house's proximity to busy roads and whether the yard is fenced in.

Family Pets
When we bring our SSD demo dog into the home, we watch how both family pets and the SSD dog react to each other. If the pets or our SSD dog react in fear or if one tries to dominate the other, we may not be able to place a puppy in that home. We do not want to create a tense situation for the animals. We're looking to make suure all of the animals can live together happily and safely.

Family Commitment
One of the most important things we look for is whether the entire family wants to raise an SSD puppy. It's a large commitment, and the entire family must at least be in agreement that they want to raise a puppy. Training requires the commitment of everyone in the house. If one person does not adhere to the training, the puppy may not learn the necessary skills and behaviors properly. We're looking for families who are all willing to invest the time and love to raise and train a puppy. (We're been using "family" throughout this post, but individuals can raise SSD puppies as well. We've even had college students raise puppies for us.)

Home Alone
We also look at how many hours the puppy would be spending home alone. One of the goals of raising an SSD puppy is to expose him to many new experiences, something that is not possible if he has to spend too many hours alone in his crate. Puppies need to be socialized and become used to a variety of different environments so they learn to generalize behaviors. Exposure to new and interesting experiences also increases the puppy's capacity to learn and helps ensure that the dogs will be able to continue supporting their partners as service dogs regardless of tempting distractions.

Attendence at Puppy Classes
As part of their training, puppies and their puppy raisers are required to attend SSD puppy classes 2-3 times a month. Puppy classes are essential for the puppy's journey to becoming a service dog. They help to lay the foundation for important skills and behaviors. In addition, puppy raisers can ask questions and voice concerns about raising and training their puppy. To be successful puppy raisers, families must commit to attending SSD puppy classes.

These are some of the main criteria we look for in our puppy raisers. If you are interested in becoming a puppy raiser, you can apply online.* Even if you don't necessarily meet all of the criteria for being a puppy raiser, please don't hesitate to apply. We would love to meet you and set up an interview.

Besides our puppy raisers, we depend on puppy sitters and kennel sitters to help us raise and train these potential service dogs. In our next post, we'll talk about the responsibilities of our puppy and kennel sitters.

(*Because we're located in Harrisburg, PA, it's necessary that our puppy raisers live within a one-hour radius to make it easier for vet visits and puppy class attendence. However, we do have a small group of puppy raisers in northeast PA.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

SSD Puppy Raisers

SSD Coriander will begin her advanced training at the SSD kennel on July 6. She's a real sweetheart and we're very excited for her to start her training. She will leave her puppy raiser family, where she has spent most of her life, and start learning the advanced skills she'll need to one day assist her partner.

Coriander's success in advanced training is greatly increased because of the solid foundation of behaviors and skills she gained from her time with her puppy raiser family. Although a dog's success in advanced training and as a service dog does not necessarily depend on their puppy raiser's ability to train them, the puppy raisers do give the dog a foundation of skills and behaviors that are essential to their success in advanced training. In fact, dogs that receive this foundation tend to complete their advanced training more quickly.

SSD has been blessed with a wonderful group of puppy raisers. Our puppy raisers are volunteers who donate their time and love to a puppy that will live with them for 15 to 18 months. We depend on these volunteers because, as the name "puppy raiser" suggests, they raise the puppies during the time when they are young and learn new behaviors easily. If you have a dog of your own, you probably know that it's easier to teach young puppies than it is to train older dogs, though it's certainly not impossible to teach an older dog new tricks!

Puppy raisers are responsible for the early training of the puppies. They expose puppies to as many new experiences as possible to both increase their learning capacity and to get them used to performing behaviors in any environment. Puppy raiser responsibilities include:


  • lots of daily exercise

  • housebreaking

  • car rides

  • walks in populated places

  • walks in parks and forests

  • visits to new and interesting places

  • visits to meetings (so puppy learns to wait quietly)

  • regular attendence at SSD puppy classes

  • special games several times a week

But even more than that, the job of the puppy raisers is to give the puppies lots of love.

Check out these blogs written by some of our puppy raisers:

SSD Hawk's blog

SSD Cinderella's blog

SSD Barely There's blog

It's possible for anyone to become a puppy raiser for SSD. You do not need to have previous experience training dogs. You just need to love animals, have an open mind, be willing to learn, and be positive, patient, inquisitive and generous. We can train you to train an SSD puppy. However, we do have certain criteria that we look for in our puppy raisers. In our next post, we'll share some of the things we look for in our puppy raisers and how you can apply to become one.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

SSD Team Training

At the Dauphin County Conservation District, eight service dog teams move around the room. You can hear commands and clicks as partners and dogs practice skills together. One partner tells his service dog to "Leave It" when the dog starts to investigate an object on the floor. The dog obeys, receiving a click and a treat. In a separate room, a hearing dog practices with her partner. A timer is set to go off at varying intervals and the hearing dog must alert her partner every time it beeps. She successfully alerts every time.

This is just a very brief snapshot of the Team Training we held from June 8 through June 19. Team Training prepares partners and service dogs to begin their lives together. Throughout the past two weeks, teams listened to presentations about training and working with service dogs and had plenty of time to ask questions and practice with their service dogs. They also did home visits. Team Training gives partners and their service dogs a chance to bond and start to learn each others' habits.

This year, we had a large class - eight partners and dogs, including two hearing dogs, one balance dog and five service dogs. Five partners were receiving successor dogs. These five individuals had previously had a service dog through SSD, but their dog may have passed away or is ready to retire. All eight teams have successfully completed Team Training and took their practice access and skill tests yesterday. Today they're visiting the Whitaker Center to practice working as a team in a fun, public place with lots of distractions for both dogs and partners.

On Wednesday, teams will take their final access and skill tests and then sign the papers that will make them official SSD teams! Each partner has worked so hard and risen to every challenge, and we have confidence that they will all be successful in their lives as service dog teams.

We wish SSD Roanoke, BeBe, Larch, Sadie, Bryce, Sedona, Jonagold, York and their partners good luck!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Part 6: Crate Behavior

We mentioned in Part 4: Canine Manners Around Food that crates are a source of comfort and relaxation for our service dogs. Crates are not a form of punishment. In fact, because crates become a happy, stress-free place for our dogs, the dogs sometime choose to go in them just to hang out and relax. One SSD puppy once fell asleep in his crate - he was flopped on his side, perfectly relaxed, with his head lolling out of the crate door!

Since we use crates in training and they become an important part of a service dog's life, we have certain expectations for behavior when dogs go in their crates. When they're in their crate, service dogs should be able to chill out and relax - no whining or barking - and they wait patiently for a verbal cue to leave the crate.

To get puppies used to their crate, we feed them at least one meal inside it. Receiving a meal in the crate helps the puppy associate the crate with good things, so it becomes a happy place.

When we're teaching puppies to wait quietly and patiently until they're released from the crate, we use a method similar to our method of teaching dogs not to bolt through other doors. (Read Part 5: Dogs and Doors - Patience Is a Virtue for our post about bolting through doors.) If the puppy starts to move when we open the crate door, we close the door and don't let the puppy out. When the puppy is once again waiting quietly, we try opening the door again. If he tries to barge through again, the door closes. The door only opens completely when the puppy stays patiently. Similarly, if the puppy starts barking or whining when we start opening the door, the door closes until the puppy quiets down. Sometimes this takes patience on our part, but it's important to outlast any vocalizing. When the puppy is both quiet and staying patiently, we then open the door and signal the puppy to exit the crate by saying "okay."

Throughout the process of opening the crate door and releasing the dog with an "okay," we don't use the "stay" command. We want our dogs to learn that when they're in a certain environment, in this case the crate, they must always "stay," even if there is no specific command. Service dogs often need to be as unobtrusive as possible, automatically giving behaviors depending on the environment and other cues.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Part 5: Dogs and Doors - Patience Is a Virtue

How many doors do you go through in a day? Probably more than you realize. We started counting how many times we went through doors but lost track somewhere around 40.

One way a service dogs helps his partner is by opening all those doors. However, even more important than the skill of opening doors is the patience to wait calmly while a door is opened. You've probably noticed how excited your dog gets when you open the door to go outside. He probably prances in place and bolts through the door as soon as you get it cracked open. Our service dogs are no different before they complete their training. Just like any dog, they sometimes get so excited to go outside that they try to dash out the door before we barely get it open.

They may try to bolt, but we don't let them. We train our service dogs to wait patiently - either sitting or standing - until we give them the "okay" to go through the door. Especially when we're opening the door to the outside, we want to make sure it's safe for the dog to go through. And once the dog is placed with his partner, the dog may need to wait patiently by the door for the safety of his partner, as well.

We use a fairly simple method to teach our dogs to wait calmly when we're opening the door to the outdoors. We start to open the door, and if the dog moves toward the door, we close it. (Being careful not to close the door on the dog, of course!) We repeat this process until the dog waits patiently when the door is opened and only goes through when he's released. During this process, we usually keep the dog on a leash. That way, if he manages to get through the door before we can close it, we can easily bring him back inside to start over.
Once the door is open, we give the cue for the dog to go through ("okay," "go on through," "let's go"). There is no need to give the dog a treat for waiting calmly. Getting to go outside is enough of a reinforcement or reward. The dogs soon learn that patience is a virtue when it comes to doors.

Next post: crates and time for chilling out.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Part 4: Canine Manners Around Food

While meals are being prepared, regardless of whether it's a four-course dinner or a quick midnight snack, our service dogs must stay away from the food. Dogs can either remain in a down-stay or just remain out of the area. We do not want our service dogs sniffing or counter-surfing (running their nose along the counters in hopes of swiping tasty people food). We actually do not even want service dogs to be underfoot when food is being prepared. The dogs could become a danger to both themselves and their partners if they're wandering through the kitchen while their partner is making a meal. Service dogs must also ignore any food left on counters, the stove, tabletops, etc. when their partner leaves the room.

We start teaching dogs to leave people food alone when they're still puppies. We start by crating them during food prep. Now, many people associate crates with punishment, but that isn't true for our service dogs. Crate actually become sources of comfort for the dogs, especially because service dogs are working dogs. When our dogs go in their crate, they know that work time is over and they can just relax and hang out.

If we don't crate puppies during food prep, we keep one eye on the puppy so we can proactively discourage any attempts to check out the people food. For example, we might use a gentle "eh-eh" sound or push them off the counter. When the puppy stays away from the counter on his own, we reinforce his behavior with good things, such as attention or treats.

To help teach puppies to ignore people food, some of our puppy raisers begin by eating a snack at a coffee table. They may use clicker training to reinforce the puppy's behavior when the puppy ignores the food. Using this method, one puppy raiser can now eat on the couch with her service-dog-in-training at her feet, and the dog shows no interest in the food!

When we find our older dogs (4-6 months or older) sniffing around the counters or with their paws actually up on the counter, we use stronger verbal correction and push the dog off the counter. For older dogs, a dog bed can serve as a good place to "anchor" the dog during food prep. The dog learns to stay on his bed while his partner is preparing food, unless instructed otherwise.

When teaching dogs not to counter-surf, it's important to remove any items from the counter that might tempt the dog, especially if you need to leave the room.

At meal time, our service dogs must lie quietly or just "hang out," meaning the dog stays away from the table and shows no interest in the food. This will take lots of practice. If dogs sniff at food, we use a verbal "eh-eh" sound. Some of our puppy raisers keep a cup of kibble on the table to reinforce their dog for good behavior.

Ultimately, our service dogs need to perform good manners around food regardless of where they go. This means that in restaurants, they must lie quietly under the table without sniffing, whining or barking. It's easiest to teach good behaviors at home and gradually introduce the dog to other environments to generalize behaviors.

Check out the photo on SSD Hawk's blog to see an example of a service-dog-in-training's self control around food. Even though some of the goodies are dog treats, it demonstrates the skills around food that we're looking for in our service dogs.

Look for our next post about dogs and bolting through doors.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Part 3: SSD Good Manners - Jumping on Furniture and People

It has been a busy few weeks for SSD! We recently held our 16th Annual Celebration and Graduation for our service dog teams. Twelve dogs graduated! Seven of those dogs are now paired with their partners, working as service dogs. One dog became a facility dog with the Hill Top Academy, one is an in-home service dog, another is a companion dog, and two are demo, therapy and interview dogs!

Graduation highlights exactly why we exist. As we officially paired service dogs with their partners, we could see how these dogs changed lives. Our work and the work of other service dogs organizations is so important because it allows people to live full, rich and independent lives.

We had promised to post some of our guidelines for the good manners we expect from our service dogs, so here are just a few of them. Over the next few weeks, we'll post more of them.

Jumping on Furniture
All of our SSD puppies are trained to stay off the furniture unless they are invited up. Whether a service dog is allowed on the furniture is ultimately the decision of the service dog's partner, but until dogs are placed, we train them to stay off furniture.

We begin teaching puppies to stay off furniture as soon as they're tall enough to jump up. With their natural curiosity, most puppies will try to jump up, and we stay vigilant and simply remove them from the furniture. We use the same procedure with older dogs, though we must watch them more closely since jumping on furniture may already be a learned behavior.

We then use clicker training to teach our dogs when it is okay to jump up on the furniture, adding an "okay" or "all the way up" cue and patting the furniture. We also use clicker training to teach "off." When teaching "off," dogs must get off the furniture and stay off.

Because teaching dogs to stay off furniture requires you to watch the dogs closely, you may have to crate your dog when you're not home. If you're leaving your dog uncrated, make sure you block access to furniture so your dog doesn't jump up when you're not there. If you make it impossible or at least very difficult for dogs to jump on furniture when you aren't home, they'll learn that they shouldn't jump on the furniture at any time. Otherwise, they may learn that it's okay to jump on the furniture when you're not around, even through they may stay off it when you're home.

Jumping on People
We want our service dogs to have wonderful manners when greeting people, and that means no jumping on people. Service dogs must keep all four paws on the floor when greeting people, regardless of the environment. Furthermore they should do this without any special cues, restraints or treats from their partner.

To teach dogs to keep all four feet on the floor, we never reinforce jumping, even with puppies. It may be cute when a little puppy greets you by putting his front feet on your legs, but if you reinforce this action as a puppy, you'll soon have a full grown dog jumping up and putting his feet on your shoulders. This means that when your puppy jumps on you, you should not lean down to pet him, talk to him, or reinforce the action in any other way.

If our puppies or dogs jump up on us, we ignore them and walk right through them. Walking through them means that when they jump up, we walk forward, giving the dog two options to regain his balance:

1. fall backwards
2. get off and put all four feet on the floor

Neither of these options harms the dog and they soon learn to keep all four feet on the floor.

Our next post will share our guidelines for service dogs and food.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Part 2: SSD and Good Canine Manners

Service dogs are assistants, not pets, so they go through extensive training to learn the skills they need to serve their partners. Because they are so important to individuals' lives, we have high standards for the characteristics, manners and skills our service dogs must have.

To be successful in teaching the dogs good manners, we begin training and set the rules for good manners from the moment puppies are born. In an ideal situation, we manage the puppy's environment so there is nothing they can get into trouble with. As they grow, we use clicker training to teach good manners and reinforce good behaviors. However, the ideal situation does not always happen, and even when you're using clicker training, you may still have to deal with bad manners or behaviors and use some form of punishment. Simply ignoring the behavior will only work if the dog is only seeking attention, if the behavior is not reinforced in any other way and everyone is ignoring the behavior, and if the behavior is new and can be easily stopped.

Since ignoring behaviors does not necessarily work all of the time, we sometimes have to use some form of punishment. By "punishment," we do NOT mean anything harsh or harmful to the dog. SSD does not condone any punishment that is painful or harmful in any way to the dog. However, we do believe there are times when verbal correction or mild physical pressure are necessary to correct a dog's behavior. Punishment can be either positive or negative. Positive punishment involves adding something to the dog's environment, while negative punishment involves removing something the dog desires, such as stopping playtime when a puppy starts nipping. The stoppage of playtime is enough punishment for the puppy to get the message that she shouldn't nip.

Above all, when correcting behaviors and teaching good manners, it's important to be consistent. In order to assist their partner, service dogs must learn which behaviors are acceptable and which ones are never acceptable. They can learn this if their trainers consistently correct bad behaviors and reward good ones.

In our next post, we'll share some of the specific guidelines we have for some of the behaviors and manners we require in our service dogs and tips on how to train dogs in good manners.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Part 1: Characteristics of a Successful Service Dog

When we're choosing the dogs that will become service dogs, we have certain characteristics that we look for. Our dogs must be:
  • Adaptable
  • Confident
  • Friendly
  • Polite
  • Easy to live with

Dogs that exhibit these traits are much more likely to become successful service dogs.

Adaptable

Service dogs must be able to relax during downtime. While service dogs are working dogs, they do not have to work all the time. They do have play time and time to relax. Typically, downtime occurs when the partner or handler removes their treat pouch. However, some partners may not be able to remove their treat pouch or they may need to keep a cup of treats near them all the time. In that case, the dog must be able to recognize work time from relaxing time.

Dogs must also be able to easily adjust to new people, surroundings and events. No matter what environment they're in, they must be comfortable and not get excited or nervous. Their human partner depends on them for assistance, and in order to do that successfully, dogs must be able to ignore distractions and take everything in stride. A dog that gets stressed out in new environments may not be able to give their partner the support they need, while an even-tempered, adaptable dog will be able to continue working regardless of their surroundings.

Confident

As service dogs, our dogs will need to interact with people who may have unique mannerisms or use adaptive equipment. They must be confident when approaching and interacting with people. Service dogs must also be able to encounter any environment with confidence. For example, a balance dog assisting his partner to walk down a path cannot swerve to avoid a grate. A sudden movement may cause his partner to fall. Instead, he must be able to calmly and confidently walk over the grate while continuing to support his partner.

Friendly

As you might expect for a dog that's serving people, service dogs must be friendly and interested in people, and they should want to cooperate with their partner. However, we don't want our dogs to be so friendly that they leave their partner's side to greet people. Dogs need to have a balance of friendliness and self-control.

Polite

When you walk into someone else's house or room or borrow someone else's things, it's polite to respect their space and belongings. You wouldn't run pell-mell around their house or cause damage. Similarly, service dogs must respect people's space and belongings, including those of their partner.

Easy To Live With

One of the goals of a service dog is to assist their partner to become more independent. Their job is to make daily life easier, not more complicated. Service dogs should be quiet and save rough dog play for outside. They should get along with their partner's pets, whether dogs, cats or other animals. Dogs must stay off furniture and beds unless invited up. For the safety of both dog and partner, service dogs should also wait patiently when doors are opened rather than bolt right through. All of our service dogs are housebroken and will toilet on cue both on and off leash and on different surfaces. They must also be well-behaved even when they are not with their partner. They should be able to be left alone, uncrated, for at least two hours without disturbing the house.

These basic characteristics and behaviors, learned through extensive training, make a dog more likely to be successful on their journey to becoming a service dog. In our next post, we'll share some of the specific training our dogs go through to learn these appropriate behaviors and manners.

Monday, May 4, 2009

What Makes a Good Service Dog

Service dogs play an important role in people's lives. They are so much more than just loving friends - they change the lives of their partners through their assistance. With the assistance of their service dog, individuals who may have had to depend on other people to help them are able to perform tasks for themselves. Service dogs provide support and independence and enrich lives.

Because they will play such an important role in individuals' lives, the dogs must meet certain criteria in order to become service dogs. We breed, raise and train Labrador retrievers to become service dogs. We use Labs because of their intelligence, agility and gentle, even temperament. Labs tend to be cheerfully obedient and genuinely enjoy cooperating with people. Also, Labs are known for having "soft" mouths, meaning they can pick things up with their mouth without puncturing or marking them in any way. This is especially important because service dogs may often be retrieving things for their partners.

All of our dogs begin training from the moment they are born. We begin interacting with the puppies to get them used to being around people. When the puppies are eight weeks old, they go to puppy raisers - volunteers who raise the puppies and train them in some of the skills and manners they will need to be good service dogs. The puppies also attend puppy classes, and once they are 15-18 months old, they enter advanced training. We'll share more about puppy raisers in a future post. For now, if you'd like more information, please visit our puppy raiser page.

Not just any dog can become a service dog. In fact, some of the dogs we specially raise and train do not have the right characteristics to become service dogs. For example, SSD Honeycrip and SSD Penny were discharged from our service dog training. While both of these dogs had excellent manners, they had a tendency to intently follow their noses, making them too olfactory and intense for service dog work. However, their olfactory skills made them perfect candidates to be accelerant dogs, and they both now have careers with the New York State Troopers as accelerant dogs working at the United Nations. Other dogs that do not become service dogs may become therapy dogs or companion dogs or may even be adopted as pets. No matter what direction their "careers" take them, all of our dogs find loving homes.

However, in order to become service dogs, our dogs must meet certain criteria and display certain characteristics that tell us they will be able to fully serve their prospective partners. This new blog series will talk about the characteristics we look for in all of our service dogs and the training our dogs go through on their journey. We hope you learn a little more about what our service dogs do and maybe even find some training tips you can use with your own dogs.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Clicker Training Part 6: Generalizing Behaviors

One of the strongest benefits of clicker training is its ability to train dogs to generalize behaviors. It's extremely important for service dogs to be able to generalize behaviors so they can perform them in any environment. Service dogs are working dogs and they must be able to consistently perform behaviors regardless of environment or potential distractions. That means they must lie quietly under a table at a restaurant without barking, begging for food or scavenging from the floor. That means they must walk calmly on a loose leash next to their partner through a crowded mall or park. That means they must have excellent manners. The goal of training is to teach self control, which generalizes to any environment.

Why is generalizing a behavior important? Dogs, like humans, are creatures of habit. Once they learn where and when to perform a certain behavior, they will almost unfailingly continue giving that behavior in that same environment. This in itself is not a problem. You may want your dog to always give the same behavior in the same environment. The problem appears when you want your dog to perform that same behavior in a different environment. If he hasn't generalized the behavior, he may not be able to perform it as well, or maybe not at all, in the new environment. For example, let's say that you've always trained your dog to come when you're outside in the yard. Your dog is romping in the yard and having a great time, but it's time to come back into the house. While you're standing at your door, you call for your dog to come, clicking and treating when he comes. Soon your dog become super-trained to always come immediately as soon as you call him to come to the house. He now associates "come" with "come back inside the house" because that's how you always practiced this behavior. Now let's say you're standing in your living room and you call your dog (who is already in the house) to come. He'll probably look at you as if to say "Why are you saying 'come'? I'm already in the house." He may not respond by coming to you because in his mind, he has already performed the behavior just by being inside the house. So it's important to practice behaviors in many different environments so your dog learns to perform them regardless of where he is and what's happening around him.

To help your dog generalize a behavior, practice clicker training at different times of the day, in different rooms of the house. You should practice outside in your yard, or while you take a walk. Is a friend coming to visit? Take a few minutes to practice a behavior so your dog gets used to performing it no matter who is around.

Once your dog has generalized a behavior and can perform it in any environment, he is more likey to continue performing that behavior many years down the road.