We talk about our puppy raisers a lot, but they aren’t the only ones who play an important role in shaping a young puppy into a successful service dog. Our puppy sitters also help prepare the dogs for life as working service dogs.
Puppy sitters are volunteers who take care of our dogs in training when their puppy raisers are unable to do so. A dog may go to a sitter while his raiser is on vacation or has a family emergency. Sometimes, our dogs go to sitters just so they can gain exposure to new routines and experiences.
Once our dogs become working service dogs, they will go home with their partner and have to adjust to a whole new daily routine. If you’ve ever had to change up your own routine, you know that it can be a little stressful at first, and it’s the same for dogs. However, we train our dogs to adapt to new situations, and spending time at a sitter’s home, where they’ll have a brand new routine, helps the dogs transition to their lives with their new partners.
The dogs’ training doesn’t stop when they go to a sitter’s home. Yesterday, we held one of our puppy sitter classes, where our sitters can learn how to work with the dogs in public. Nine sitters joined us at Bass Pro Shops in Harrisburg, PA, and each one was matched with a dog and a puppy raiser. Together, they traversed Bass Pro and the Harrisburg Mall.
Since we only had one hour, we focused on six tasks and behaviors: loose leash walking, getting in and out of the car, pottying, greetings, leave it, and entering and exiting the elevator. All of our sitters did a wonderful job working with their dog!
Loose Leash Walking
Loose leash walking is perhaps one of the most important and most difficult behaviors to teach the dogs. The dog must walk on the left side of the handler with the leash in a loose “J” shape. The handler clicks and treats the dog for attention and for being in the correct position beside them.
The dog is never allowed to pull. If they pull, the handler walks backward to give the dog “penalty yards” until the dog is in the correct position again. Then they walk forward again, clicking and treating for a loose leash.
Sometimes it can be very frustrating to work on loose leash walking, especially if the dog is excited about being with a new person or in a new place. But it’s so important to always reinforce the loose leash and never let the dog pull. Once the dog is placed with their partner, pulling on the leash could potentially injure their partner. The dog must have the self-control to walk calmly next to their partner.
Like loose leash walking, getting in and out of the car is an exercise in self-control for the dogs. The dog must enter the car on the cue “car” and wait to exit until given the “okay.” Why is this important? The safety of the dog may depend on having the self-control to wait for the “okay” to exit the car. The dogs will be going almost everywhere with their partners, which means they’ll be getting in and out of the car a lot. So, for example, if they’re getting out of the car at the grocery store, the dog must be able to wait for their partner to make sure it’s safe for them to get out of the car in parking lot.
All of our dogs potty on the cue “get busy.” (We don’t recommend saying this cue inside, even if you’re not saying it as a cue for the dog. Some of our dogs are very good at responding to these words!) Before they enter any building or public space, our dogs must be given a chance to potty, even if you know they’ve just gone half an hour ago. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all working service dogs be house trained, and service dogs can be legally asked to leave if they are not house trained. It just makes good sense to give the dog a chance to take care of business before entering a public space.
Service dogs must also be under control while out in public. However, this can be very challenging for puppies in training, especially when people want to pet the puppy. During greetings, the dog must have all four paws on the floor, and their attention should be on their handler. It may help to put the dog in a “sit” or a “down.” Feeding the dog treats (no clicks) while someone is petting the dog will also keep the dog focused on their handler instead of the person petting them.
In these situations, the handler can say no to people who want to interact with the puppy. If they just need to take care of errands and leave or if they don’t think the puppy can handle the greeting successfully, it’s perfectly fine to tell people they cannot pet the dog.
Our dogs should be able to ignore food or other items on the floor. Even if a treat meant for the dog falls on the floor, the dog is not allowed to eat it off the floor. They get a new treat (or two) from the treat pouch.
Why is it important for the dogs to ignore food or other items on the floor? For one, if the dog is chasing down food on the floor, it means they’re not paying attention to their handler, which means the dog isn’t doing their job. Two, the dog may pull to get to the food, which could potentially harm their partner. Also, what the dog thinks is food might actually be harmful to the dog. For example, if a person’s medication fell on the floor, the dog must have the self-control to “leave it” until those meds can be picked up. So the cue “leave it” means the dog must ignore the object and never gets to go over and eat it.
“Leave it” can also be used to tell the dog to ignore people or other animals.
Many of our dogs will be riding in elevators with their handlers, so it’s important for the dog and handler to be able to enter and exit the elevator safely. You don’t want the doors to close with the dog on one side and the handler on the other! The dog must wait while the handler blocks the door with their body. Then the handler tells the dog to “go on through,” which cues the dog to enter (or exit) the elevator, turn around, and look at their handler.
Thank you to all of the sitters who joined us for class, and thank you to the puppy raisers who shared their knowledge with our sitters!
If you’d like to sign up to become a puppy sitter for Susquehanna Service Dogs, just visit our website and fill out an application.