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.

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.)