Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Our Trip to Zoo America

What could be better than going to the zoo on a beautiful Saturday afternoon? Going to the zoo with a service dog-in-training!

Fifteen service dogs-in-training went to Zoo America for a puppy class outing. Throughout the year, we take the dogs on several outings so the dogs get experience working in public. Although our puppy raisers frequently take their dogs out in public, these special planned outings are also helpful for the puppy raisers because it gives them a chance to work in public while our trainers are right there to give support and answer any questions they might have.

Our Zoo America is always a fun outing, and it's a wonderful opportunity for the dogs and puppy raisers to practice their skills. With so many distractions, it's a challenge for the dogs to stay focused. Our puppy raisers were ready with power treats (treats like chicken, cheese, or other yummy things that the dog only gets in challenging situations), which really helped the dogs stay focused on their handlers.

Because the dogs were around so many different animals, it was a great opportunity for puppy raisers to practice reading their dog's body language. They needed to watch their dog to make sure that they weren't becoming too excited or stressed from the zoo animals. For example, when we stopped at the wolves' area, we paid special attention to the dogs, and if they started to get too excited, or started barking, the puppy raiser removed them from the area. SSD Topaz approaches the wolves in this video. You can tell from his body language that he is aware of the wolves, which are about twenty feet in front of him. However, he is still able to focus on this puppy raiser - see how he turns and looks at her? As soon as he gives her his attention, she clicks and treats.

In addition to watching the dogs' body language, we also paid close attention to the zoo animals' behavior because we did not want to upset them or cause too much stress. We had to be especially watchful in the wolves' area, because as soon as the alpha wolf smelled the dogs, he started pacing. If he and the females of the pack started to get stressed, we removed the dogs, even if the dogs were just sitting there quietly observing. In this video of the wolves, you can see the male wolf pacing back and forth. You can tell that he's very aware of the dogs, although at this point he is not overly stressed about it.

All of the dogs were very interested in the wolves. Can you guess what other animal almost all of the dogs were extremely interested in? The fish! At the bears' area, you can watch the fish through the glass, and almost every dog that saw them was fascinated by them, especially since they have probably never seen a fish before. SSD Topaz wasn't entirely sure what to make of the fish, but he did a great job and didn't bark at them.

SSD Star and Falcon also though the fish were fascinating, but they are not so distracted that they can't pay attention to their handlers. Watch how Star's puppy raiser works with her to get her to walk nicely on a loose leash. Once they get to the fish, Star does an "up."

SSD Hendrix, on the other hand, wasn't interested in the fish at all.

SSD Journey, one of our dogs in advance training, spent some time near the bear's habitat. She seemed much more interested in her puppy raiser than in the bear, though. Even when her puppy raiser pointed to the bear, Journey just looked and then turned right back to her puppy raiser. Wonderful!

One of the most important skills a service dog can have is the ability to walk on a loose leash. Throughout our entire zoo outing, we continually worked on loose leash walking, which can be very challenging for dogs, especially when there are such great smells around. Loose leash walking is all about self control for the dogs. They need to ignore distractions and stay right next to their handler. In this video, SSD Grace works on loose leash walking. Watch what Grace's handler does when Grace starts to pull ahead. He stops, backs up until Grace comes back to him and turns around. Then when she starts loose leash walking again, he clicks and treats.

Why is loose leash walking so important? Imagine a balance dog and their partner walking along the sidewalk to get to the car. As they get close to a tree, the dog smells something wonderful. He lunges to get to it. His partner is thrown off balance and falls.

Now picture a service dog for a child with autism. While the parent is holding the leash, the child is holding a special strap attached to the dog's harness. If that dog pulls on the leash, the child is going to be pulled as well.

Loose leash walking is important, and the dogs need to do it all the time, in every environment. The zoo was a great place to practice!

Thank you to Zoo America!

We try to plan several outings for the dogs-in-training, and we're always open to suggestions. We look for places that have lots of sights, sounds and smells. For example, we've done a Ghosts of Gettysburg tour, Chocolate World, a memorial day parade, a bus ride, and National Night Out. If you have any ideas for other places in Central PA where we could take the dogs-in-training, please let us know in the comments. Thank you!


  1. It looks like all the puppies and raisers are doing a great job. This is a very fun and good place for the dogs to learn or refresh their skills. SSD Dutch and partner Connie go to Zoo America a lot. The alpha wolf, which happens to be the one running along the fence, is called Colony. He now knows SSD Dutch, but we still have to make sure he doesn't get to stressed out, if he does he starts to fight with the other pack members.
    Keep up the good work with the training.
    SSD Dutch and partner Connie

  2. Just a note: the alpha male's name is Dakota. I happened to be at the zoo the day that SSD was there, and I was very impressed. The dogs did great.

  3. Thank you so much! The zoo can be a very challenging place for the dogs, and their puppy raisers worked hard to keep them focused.