17 Months- Service Dog Training at Walmart

Nov 23, 2005 | Stitch's Story

Stitch and I go to Wal-Mart. I borrow their electric scooter, and we go off into the wilds of the store to find some unoccupied aisles – not easy as we’re getting into the Christmas season. Stitch rides at my feet on the scooter until we find an empty aisle, then I tell her to get off and we start practising walking politely beside the scooter. I’ve brought a sample bag of Temptations cat treats – dry and very small but seemingly utterly delicious – to keep her focused in this very distracting situation. I’m clicking for maintaining the desired position with her nose even with my knee. This isn’t HER desired position, she’d rather be up front leading, but pretty soon she gets it. I put some effort into remembering to click when she’s looking where she’s going – I don’t want her to spend her entire Service Dog career with her head cranked around looking at me.

When she’s getting pretty good at maintaining position fore and aft, we go to the end of our aisle and stop just out of traffic so she can watch everyone walking by. This is tough. She wants to visit and sniff, sniff and visit, but she’s boxed in on the left by shelves, and on the right by the scooter. The leash is short enough to keep her out of the intersection, so she’s got no real choice but to maintain position and watch the crowd. She really gets into this when she realizes she has no choice but she’s going to get clicked for doing it right anyway. Wow!

When she’s able to watch the people and hold position and still know what I’m doing – that is, when she’s stopped drooling like a hick in the big city – we go back to our quiet aisle to work on some jobs. I brought a sock to drop, but just in case she won’t pick it up, I start with the end of her leash. It takes her a few reps to decide that “Get That” might mean the same here as it does at home, but once she gets it, she… um… gets it. And gets it. And gets it. I drop the sock, she grabs it and gives it back. I toss the sock here and there and she gets it every time. We go to another quiet aisle where there was a bit of packing foam on the floor, and I ask her to get it. Nope, can’t, she’d have to get out of Heel position to do that, and she doesn’t recognise it, so it doesn’t have any inherent pull on her like the sock does. It’s OK, you can do it, Get That. No, really, you CAN do it! So she goes to it – but it doesn’t smell like me, so I didn’t drop it and obviously wouldn’t want it (good grief, I never worked on her picking up something I didn’t drop first!). With a little more encouragement, though, she picks it up and gives it to me. I make a big fuss.

One more thing I’ve noticed. She’s holding front-back position very well, now we need to work on a swing Finish to keep her close to the scooter and not glomming her butt out into the aisle. Between her butt and the scooter, people are starting to avoid the aisle we’re in. She HAS a swing Finish, but not with me in the scooter. And, apparently, not in strange places unless I pivot to my left. I can’t pivot left in the scooter, so I back up slowly instead. That does it, she scoots right in, and we spend the next 15 minutes working on better and better Finishes. By the end, when she gets too far out to the left, too far forward, or her butt starts drifting out, I just back up slightly and she corrects herself. I’m thinking next time we do this, I’ll borrow the manual wheelchair so I can back up and pivot more easily.

Finally, we start going down aisles with one or two people in them and working on crotch-diving. Really, she’s not THAT bad, she just wants to sniff their knees and packages as they walk by. At first I lure her past people, giving her a click and treat when each person has successfully past us without her turning her head toward them. Soon she figures it out and I can pass people leaving her to ignore them on her own. I’m adding a cue I’ve used all my life – “Mind Your Business”.


Actually following through, we go to the training room AKA parlour and work on Finishes. I start out standing and spend five minutes reminding her about swinging while I pivot left. When she’s got a good handle on that, I stop pivoting and shape her to swing well into position while I stand still. That comes quickly, so I move to a chair and sit down, square with the room and facing south. As I expect, she has no clue what to do. I keep my mouth shut and shape any motion of any back foot to her right. It takes several minutes, but she suddenly realizes I’m looking for the swing, and from then on she can’t lose. Another few minutes, and I move to another chair about 3′ away and facing east. Oi, this is confusing! She offers me swing finishes to the original chair three times. That doesn’t work. Finally she offers me eye contact, I click for that, and we start shaping again from there. Several times she offers me spins from last week, but I ignore them. Between the spins and the swing Finish, she’s developing a superstitious head position with nose up and pointing slightly to the left, looking at me out of the corner of her eye, as she’s about to swing her butt in. Not something I’m looking for, but not obnoxious, and a good indicator that the butt’s about to come in so I’m ready to click.

We finish the session with several minutes of freeshaping her to jump up on the wicker couch. Another good session.


Having practised, we go again to Wal-Mart, borrow the electric scooter, and find a quiet aisle. She’s MUCH better today, having a clue as to what is expected of her. Her butt only “escapes” into the aisle once, and didn’t come back in time because I see someone coming and get flustered trying to get out of their way. Once they’re past, I regain a brain and Stitch swings in nicely.

A little girl goes by and stops to watch us. Instead of going forward trying to meet and greet, Stitch tries to back up behind the scooter. In the beginning I think this is kid Zen, backing off to eliminate temptation, but as I think about it more, I think she really was backing away from the kid. For the rest of the trip, she’s extraordinarily aware of every small person in a shopping cart or walking, while steadfastly ignoring carts and adults. Another fear period starting? Or is my 17-month-old bitch finally coming in season for the first time? Just in time for Christmas. Of COURSE. Other than that, it’s an excellent session. She’s working reliably, on the ball, in the game. She slows when I slow, goes fast when I go fast, and since she’s thinking about the swing Finish, she gives me a brilliant straight backup in nice close Heel position when I back the scooter up.


Another session with finding Heel positon with me sitting. There are six table-chairs, and a wicker set consisting of a couch, a chair, and a rocking chair, making nine different positions we can practise Heel position in one room. I make sure the seats are all facing in different directions, and make some easy and some difficult. One chair is beside a step, leaving about a foot of space for her to sit in between the chair and the step. The couch is 18″ from the chair, and that chair is 18″ from the wall. Three chairs are set in a close conversation piece, two facing each other and one at right angles to them.

I start sitting in one chair in an easy position. Stitch starts to angle off a bit to the left and I click her butt moving. Oh, that again! It takes her six clicks to find position, but once she’s got it, she keeps coming back. I move to another chair facing the same direction. Two clicks, and she’s got that. Then I move to a chair facing in a different direction. Oh, that’s hard! She examines the situation and tries finishing to the previous chair. No click. She tries finishing in front of me with her right side against my knees. No click. She looks me in the eye and stamps her feet – I’m reduced to clicking any motion to the right of any back foot. Eight clicks, and suddenly it clicks and she’s in position. We work on that for a while.

I move to the chair beside the step. She confidently finishes below the step. No click – in order to be in the right place, she’ll need to be ON the step. Not getting a click annoys her, she jumps forward and does it again. And again. HEY STUPID, I DID IT! She whines, but I think I’ve got a good background of reinforcement, she’s really in the game, and I’ll wait her out. Finally she puts both front feet on the step. Click! I wait again. Her back feet step up, click! Five clicks for just being there, and then I toss a treat out in front of us to get her out of position. It takes her a second to get her front AND back feet on the step, but now she knows how to do it, and we’re done.


I start the next session in the simple chairs, and she totally understands. Her position is excellent, she’s got her butt tucked in and her chin back far enough. In fact, sometimes she tucks her butt TOO far in, but I’m willing to “put up” with that. I move to the chair beside the wall. That’s fun to watch, she tries to swing her butt into position, hits the wall twice, then experiments with backing into position. Eureka! Now she can swing her butt into position, she can move her feet in closer to bring her into position, and she can back up into position. We try out each chair in the room, and she understands all of them. I’m really pumped about this.

Since she’s doing so well, I start putting a cue on the Finish. I ALWAYS put the Finish cue on too soon, but this time I think I’ve got it right. Scuba’s cue is “Swing” but I try out “Stitch Swing” a couple of times and it doesn’t flow, so I’m back to the silly one – “Chook”. I can see this becoming “Ch” – a tiny reminder to hold Heel position.


Stitch still doesn’t pick up her dog dish (actually a small stainless steel bucket with a handle) unless we’re actively in training mode, me with food and clicker in hand, and her in the game. I’ve reached the “this is ridiculous!” stage. I spend four days working each meal with her retrieving the bucket. She’s not happy with it, but she’s in the game so she’s doing it. Maybe what’s so ridiculous about it is that this is a dog who can’t think when she’s excited unless she’s got something in her mouth – Leroy (her stuffed dog), her dog bed (which she rushes to greet and carry around the house every morning), paper, empty pop cans, shoes, Ron’s huge winter boots. But she isn’t comfortable with the kerflushinner bucket. We’re going to change that.

I watch her carefully during these eight sessions, and discover that she’s especially uncomfortable when she picks it up by the handle and it swings whiles she’s trying to walk. She WILL pick it up by the handle, if I insist, but there’s no reason to insist, so I let her discover that it’s “safer” if she picks it up by the rim. It’s difficult to hold on to that way, unbalanced, but it’s her choice – and certainly better balanced than a boot. It’s metal, but so are the pop cans. No possibility of knowing what’s in the little brain, but we ARE going to change her mind.

So, eight sessions, eight full meals spent on retrieving the bucket, and adding the cue. The ninth session, I set everything up exactly as before, get the other dogs out of the room, and ask for the bucket. She looks at it, she touches it, she licks it. She looks at me. She lies down. She does Princess Paws. She whines.

I get the other two dog dishes, fill them, and put them down. The dogs chow down as usual. I resume position, staring at the empty bucket. Stitch looks at the other dogs, licks her bucket, runs to the other dogs as if I’ve accidentally left her breakfast over there and not told her, comes back, licks the bucket, nudges the bucket, lies down and gives me Princess Paws.

If I was telling someone else to do this, I’d tell them to reward the nudge, but I’m going to be a bit harsher than that. She gives me Princess Paws and I walk over to the computer and start working. She runs to me, stares at me drooling, then runs back and forth between me and the other dogs. Hmm, THAT didn’t go as she’d planned at ALL!

At suppertime we start again. If this doesn’t work, I’ll give her another eight meals of being in the game, then reward the nudge. I fill the other buckets, give them to the other dogs, then stand and stare at her bucket. She looks at me. She looks at the other dogs eating. She drools. She nudges her bucket, mouths her bucket, picks it up and drops it. Stops and listens to the other dogs eating and drools again – she’s making drool puddles on the floor. Finally she picks up her bucket, brings it to me, and hands it to me. With much dancing and singing and petting, we run to the pantry, fill the bucket, and she gets her supper.


For six meals, we have success with the given criteria. I first ask Scuba to get all three dishes, then put Scuba and Ruby in the dog room, put one bucket on the floor and look at it. Stitch mouths it a couple of times, then picks it up and gives it to me, then we rush to the pantry, fill the dishes, and put them down.

I up the ante by putting Scuba and Ruby in the dog room without Scuba getting the buckets. I take one bucket out of the basket, put it on the floor, and stare at it. Stitch touches it once, then lies down. In a flash of brilliance, I toss two pens on the floor by the bucket. Stitch picks up one and hands it to me and gets a good cuddle in response. She then turns, looks at the second pen, picks up the bucket, and delivers it to me. Victory!


A week before Christmas, and Stitch is in season for the first time at 17 months. Probably not an ideal time to be training. Nevertheless, I put the other dogs out, put Stitch’s bucket on the floor, and wait. She clearly knows the job. She looks at the bucket, walks around the bucket, nudges the bucket and glances at me. I do nothing. She picks the bucket up gingerly and drops it, then sighs, gets a better grip on it, and hands it to me. Great rejoicing.

I fill the bucket and give her a few kibbles, then we go in the parlour with the nine chairs. Man! She could find Heel position blindfolded! We do three repetitions in each chair, and she nails every one. What the heck, let’s make it harder. Her grasp of Heel position with me standing up wasn’t particularly secure, so I stand up, prepared to do the same work over again, but she’s got that too. No matter where in the room I go, no matter what direction I face, no matter whether she has to sidestep to find position or back up into it, no matter whether I ask for a full swing finish from Front or ask her to fix tiny errors in position, she’s got it. The Level Five Finish test is 3 out of 3 minimum 1/2-point-off Finishes, and because I’ve been working it today, I make the test harder. We do five in a row, not anticipating the cue but responding immediately to it. Four perfect and one 1/2 point off. Gosh, I love clicker training!


I assemble three buckets and we spend one entire meal just retrieving buckets. Before we start I put one in the middle of the kitchen and encourage her to pick it up. I have to repeat myself a couple of times, urging her to pick it up and bring it to me. She touches it and mouths it as usual, but then brings it instead of her more usual lying down. In the parlour I toss all three buckets around the room and wait, and she jumps into the game with all four feet. She tries dropping the bucket at my feet a couple of times, but I can’t see it when it’s on the floor, so she picked it up again and held it until I asked for it. I threw them in different directions, under the coffee table and the chairs. Finally I started placing them upside down so she had to bunt them to knock them over before she could pick them up. No problem. As she brought each bucket back, I clicked, took it, dropped a few kibbles in it and put it on the floor so she could eat the kibble. Then she’d pick it up and hand it back to me, and we’d repeat the process. After the third or fourth one, I’d take it from her without clicking and send her off to get a different one. Excellent session. We’ll see what effect the session has on her behaviour tomorrow.


No discernable difference in the response this morning. Avoiding, touching, mouthing. We’re working in the kitchen this time. Once she decides to pick up the bucket, we’re back in the game, and play hard with three buckets again, rightside up, upside down, over here, over there. There are two dog toys on the kitchen floor which she has the chance to pick up but she ignores them, grabbing the buckets with gusto.

The last four kibbles we go in the parlour and I ask for swing Finishes. She nails four out of four perfectly.

Evening, success! I put the other dogs out, go into the kitchen, look at the bucket on the floor and ask Stitch to get it. She moves right to it, bunts it once, picks it up, and hands it to me.