18 Months- Service Dog Graduation

Jan 1, 2006 | Stitch's Story

A new year, and back to work. The first thing I do is sort out and print a list of Level Five behaviours we haven’t tested out yet. Then I pick one, and we get started. Since we’ll need a Front in order to test the Come at this Level, and since I’ve totally messed up everything she ever knew about Fronts by practising her swing Finish to (almost) perfection, we need to work on Front again.

I start standing up, planning to click any decent front. Nyuh uh, that was vastly underestimating how brilliantly she’s concentrating on swinging to my left. On the good side, she’s in the game and she’s making excellent eye contact.

We start again. This time I’m looking down at a 2-foot square in front of me and clicking any time any part of her is in that square and I can see her eyes without turning my head. It takes her quite a while to figure out what’s going on, including several clicks for being in the square, facing AWAY from me, and making eye contact by looking over her shoulder. Gradually, though, she begins to realize it would be easier to look at me straight on, and that she’s not getting any clicks for her swing-Finish behaviours. I’m tossing most of the treats in front of me to get her more comfortable there, and tossing maybe every tenth one behind me to the left to give her a chance to come back around and move her body to her left, counteracting the Finish direction.

Finally she hits a decent Front – one of those OK ones I was hoping to click when we started. I don’t toss a treat for that, but click and hand the treat to her fifteen times, so she doesn’t have to get up at all in between. Then I toss one behind her, and, coming back, she hits the right spot again and gets another ten treats and clicks in place.

Now that she’s found the general position and direction, she starts losing her eye contact. Perhaps she could stare at my treat hand. Nope, that doesn’t work. Perhaps she could stare at my clicker hand. Nope. Perhaps she could point her nose at me and swivel her eyes over to where Scuba is lying down. Hmm, that might work if I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but unfortunately I’m wearing them today, so we spend the last few minutes of her breakfast getting back to the solid, open stare we started with.

Since she had so much trouble realizing what I wasn’t clicking for, we spend her supper on free-shaping. She has a lot of trouble with this, too. I’m aiming her to jump up on the wicker couch. It takes the entire meal to get her on the couch, and then she forgets what she’s doing and can’t repeat it. She’s trying really hard, but she’s working too hard. She’s wagging her tail, but she’s also panting heavily while she works. She loses concentration whenever there’s any excuse – a small noise in another part of the house that ordinarily wouldn’t concern her at all. I realize that I’ve been avoiding freeshaping her as I can’t help thinking that Scuba would have taken four clicks to guess that I wanted her on the couch. Frustrating session for both of us.


At breakfast it’s much easier for her to find both a half-decent Front AND my eyes. There’s a lot to be said for letting a dog sleep on a problem. She still tries a swing Finish now and then when I don’t give her a click she expects, but now she’s only hoping it will work, not counting on it. While she’s doing so well, I have to keep telling myself that the Level 5 Front only requires her to hit the centre line consistently, which she’s now doing, while I keep thinking I need a perfect Front. I’m diligently feeding her in the precise centre, but she’s leaning toward whichever hand has the treat. This is what the Levels are for, to keep the trainer going in small, do-able pieces. She’s doing very well, I expect we could test out the Finish tomorrow.


Another freeshaping session for supper. This is much, much better today as well. I still have trouble not thinking of how easy this is for Scuba, but today I’m noticing all the things that Scuba knows about shaping that Stitch doesn’t know yet. That if the clicks are leading her toward an object, it’s a good bet she should interact with the object. That if the clicks are pinpointing where her nose points, she should go in that direction. That she can experiment to see what the click is actually saying. This all makes me feel better – these are specific skills that I need to teach her rather than a generic “she’s not good at this”. I get four behaviours out of one meal today – on the couch, head under the couch, front feet on the chair, and going around the coffee table.


For breakfast we go to Wal-Mart. Stitch tucks in tight against the left side of the electric cart, walks sweetly beside it, turns sharply with it, and backs up straight beside it when I back up. She glances at but doesn’t try to sniff 99% of the people we pass. She picks up ten things that I drop and one towel we find on the floor in the aisle. Piece by piece, she earns her breakfast, and on the way out to the car I mistakenly call her “Scuba”.

The truly amazing part of this scenario is how incredibly FAST we can fix problems with clicker training. Identify a training gap, and fix it, just like that. THREE visits ago, Stitch walked wide, sat wide, tried to visit frequently, and needed encouragement to pick up items in this strange place.

She’s not perfect. I’d like to move her default position back about 6″. I’d like to reward her less often than once every 15′. I’d like her to have a little more white on her… what an amazing, wonderful dog!

For supper we have another freeshaping session. Again, a huge improvement. I put a cardboard box on the floor – too small, she can only think of retrieving. I don’t want to start a session yet by convincing her she’s wrong, so I get a bigger box. Great – she sniffs it, she sniffs the bottom of it, she puts her head on top of it, she circles it clockwise twice. When she gets 3/4 of the way around it the third time without getting a click, she turns and circles it the other way. Offers me that 3/4 circle and return three more times. I stop clicking circling, so she puts her head on it again. After ten clicks for that, I stop rewarding it and she offers me two front paws on it, then tries the left paw, then the right, then she gives me a play bow with her front legs on the box, then Princess Paws. Marvelous.

Then I stop clicking for interaction with the box and switch her attention to a nearby chair. Interesting – she’s much less able to be creative with old objects than with new ones. She does try some of the things that worked on the box. We get a great head-rest from all four directions, circling in both directions, and putting her head under the seat. I try for crawling under it or putting her front feet on it, but don’t manage to get those.

To end the session, I click her front left paw for moving. My timing is off, because I don’t increase the left paw moving in comparison to the right, though I do certainly increase the mobility of both front paws. What I do get is a curious deliberateness about how she puts the left paw down, which is why I think I’m clicking when she puts it down rather than when she picks it up. Finally I change my paw criteria so that it has to be moving forward. This produces the beginning of a left-foot goose step, and we’re done. Interesting that THIS time when I watched her guessing, I saw an adult partner, not a puppy. That’s the first time.


Interesting morning session. She’s been picking up her bucket and giving it to me before each meal. Great, but she’s still pretty tentative about it, drops it a couple of times before handing it to me. And she’s picking it up the hard way, by the rim, because when she picks it up by the handle, it swings, which she doesn’t like. When we’re in a work session, though, the work overcomes her tentativeness, so I decided to teach her two things I need her to know. First, pick up the bucket by the handle. Second, that the word “No” will tell her not to pick up something that I might want later but don’t want now. This is a valuable lesson for Service Dogs, one that Scuba and I have used a lot in the last several years. It allows me to send her to a bunch of items and, from a distance, guide her to pick up the one that I want.

I could let her pick up the bucket by the rim and then not reward it, let it extinguish, and then start working on the handle, but I see problems. I want her to hold something until I cue its release. And it took her a long time to get comfortable enough to pick up the bucket in the first place. So we need to go another route.

I set the bucket with the handle up, and start clicking any approach before she reaches the rim, and any interaction with the handle. Gradually she starts to pick up the handle. This goes very quickly. In this context, she has no trouble with the handle.

It gets more complicated when I set the bucket slightly further from me and we set the second part of the session in motion. Travelling with the bucket is obviously a different behaviour than just picking it up, and she immediately reverts to the rim. I say No, take it away, and set it up again. Now I click X10 again for touching the handle. We play like this for the rest of the session. If she picks it up by the handle, she gets a click and food. If she starts to pick it up by the rim, I say No and reset it. I’m keeping very good control of the word, using it as a No Reward Marker and not barking it as a correction – something I wasn’t able to do until Scuba was about 7 years old. Stitch maintains her tailwag, and stays in the game. Indeed, she seems to find this a fascinating new set of rules.


Another freeshaping session for supper, and another excellent improvement. We start with the cardboard box that was too small yesterday. Fifteen clicks and she’s forgotten all about trying to retrieve it and is whomping it thoroughly with both front paws. I shape her then to the couch, and with a couple of lucky treat bounces, we get her head regularly into a head-sized hole between the couch legs. Then I shape her to putting her head on the seat, and then her front paws. Still nothing short of leading or commanding will get her to think of actually jumping on it.

Next to a nearby chair, in the same order – head under it, and then paws on the seat. Then around the coffee table. This proves to be the easiest behaviour for her to recognise. Eight clicks to get her going in the right direction away from the chair, and three more get her all the way around it and heading back around again.

Finally I head her back to the couch. There’s a bucket on it with some stuff in it. I’m trying to get her to pick up the bucket, but she dekes around my plan by taking each item out of it and bringing them all separately – a pair of scissors, a large double bucket snap, a roll of plastic bags. Finally it’s empty, and she brings me the bucket. We end the session by working the bucket handle again, and this time we get about 70% handle pickups. When she reaches for the rim, I say No. She hasn’t figured this out yet, she picks it up anyway, so I quietly take it away and put it back on the ground, clicking when she hits the handle.


At noon we go to sign up for our next set of classes. There’s a couple with three children meeting us there to look at PWDs. Scuba’s in heaven, of course, but Stitch finds all the attention just a trifle overwhelming and stays under the registration table with my knees guarding her a bit. Finally everybody stands up and a smart friend gets several handfuls of my kibble. I let go of the leashes and both dogs go out and start playing with the kids – well, Scuba plays, and Stitch tries to figure out how to get the food without getting TOO close. Excellent session for her.

Before supper, I’m reading over Level Five again, and I think we may be able to check off a couple of behaviours, so we start testing. Wow! She does Down from Stand on a hand signal. DownStay or one minute out of sight. Go To Mat 20′ and stay there for 5 minutes. BEFORE SUPPER! UnbeLIEVable! She does 3 x 20′ Retrieves, complete with Stays and nice Fronts – the double bucket snap, the clicker (hard to pitch a clicker 20′!), and a pair of plastic-handled household scissors. Sit from Down, hand signal only, and a 30-second out of sight Sit Stay. I’m amazed. I must be such a great trainer my dog learns in MY sleep! Well, not quite, I can look back and see how we’ve worked on most of this stuff, I just wasn’t particularly thinking about marking it off on the chart. WHEEEEE

I finish off the session sitting on the stairs working on eye contact. She has a hard time getting started, she wants to go try some more freeshaping. I have to start at ONE and Chutes & Ladders our way slowly up to 15 seconds of really solid contact. Scuba sitting behind her getting a kibble every time Stitch blows the contact doesn’t hurt a bit.

Then I ask Scuba to get her dish, and while she’s getting hers, Stitch gets her own and hands it to me. By the rim, but I’m not complaining about that today.


Well, THAT’s an experience. We start a new round of classes after having none for several months. We start with heeling. At least, the rest of the class starts with heeling. Stitch, in season and not having been with strange dogs for quite a while, drools like a hick and finds everything interesting. Remember last week she was so totally focused on Heel position that she couldn’t give me a Front? Now she’s focused so totally on Front that she can’t sit in Heel position for more than 3 seconds at a time. We’ve been working really hard on LLW and the Service Dog Walk – slightly ahead of Heel position, and specifically NOT looking at me. Guess what she gives me while the rest of the class is heeling. Yep. 6″ too far forward and not looking at me. She can’t play with me – being in season, I hope. Or maybe just that I’m wearing a neck brace and not enjoying myself very much. Recall, SitStay, DownStay, Sit for Exam, all good. Her responses to Sit and Stand cues is pathetic at best.


We have her first official outing as a Service Dog. We’re going to Calgary on the plane to help out my brother after surgery in his family. Scuba and I get home from Ohio at midnight, Stitch and I leave for Calgary at 9 AM. We get to the airport two hours ahead of our flight, check in, and then sit near the door and start working. Stitch has some trouble engaging her brain, but nobody else would be able to tell. She’s not leaping, jumping, whining or barking, she’s just sitting with her ears pulled back and ignoring anything I say. I start from the beginning. I’m using YES instead of the clicker, so I Yes for glancing at my face and work up from there to good eye contact and relaxed ears. Once we’ve got that, I spend fifteen Yesses explaining how to retrieve her leash again, and then go quickly to my ticket, my wallet, my paperback, my inhaler, my pen, some paper money.

She’s really getting into the swing of things when she looks out the window and spots a large statue of a flying pig (why is there a statue of a flying pig at the airport?). It’s facing us, and it looks suspicious, if not downright dangerous. She starts to growl, loses interest in the food, and progresses immediately to backing up with her head lowered, growling. I quickly take her away from the pig. As soon as it’s out of sight, she settles down to a very good Service Dog walk, and remembers how to retrieve her leash. I take her to another door and we go outside and sneak up behind the pig. This is fine, it doesn’t look scary from the back. (*I* think standing behind a pig of this size is pretty scary, but Stitch doesn’t). I shape her to touch the base with her paw, and she really gets into slamming the base, first with one and then with both front paws. In the midst of this activity, she develops a suspicion that this may, in fact, be the back end of the scary pig she saw before. She peeks toward the front as she approaches the back, but, having confirmed her suspicion, she seems fine with it and continues bashing the base. To get back inside, we walk past the pig. We turn to look at the front, but she’s not bothered by it any more.

The rest of the trip, she’s perfect. She keeps the leash loose, does the SD Walk, handles her first plane ride like an old pro, and rides the cart from the gate to baggage with aplomb.

At my brother’s, she’s also terrific. She’s an excellent houseguest, playing gently with the Mini Dachs and the kids. She’s clean in the house, good in the car, walks, sleeps… well, she’s not PERFECT – she IS a purebred Portuguese Water Dog, so of course she manages to snag half a loaf of bread off the counter. She’s a bit leery of one of the 13 yo male twins. She’s fine being ignored, and cheerfully approaches him, but he’s too fast approaching her and she leaps over me a couple of times to escape. I tell him to turn around, and she immediately approaches him, and as long as he’s not racing at her, she’s fine. By the end of the week, she’s wrestling with him.


Back home, we have another obedience class. This time I’ve got a handle on what’s happening. I think the part of having had a brain tumour that I hate the worst is being so slow on the uptake. Last week, instead of seeing a problem and fixing it, I just got frustrated. At least I didn’t “take it out on the dog”, I just didn’t do anything to help her get where I wanted her to be. This week I was ready before we started. Having seen her being a bit skittish with the flying pig AND my nephew, I realized she’d been telling me she wasn’t particularly comfortable in the training room (perhaps a result of playing with the three kids from sign-up day?). She was half in the game, but that’s not good enough. She was doing the Service Dog Walk and not looking at me, and getting frustrated when I kept stopping with no reinforcer because she wasn’t looking at me. And she wasn’t listening to my cues.

All righty then. I take more drugs before I go to class so I won’t be in pain. I buy a package of wieners on the way to class, and get there 20 minutes early. We spend the 20 minutes working on eye contact and retrieving, which, with the better treats, gets her in the game. I work the eye contact up to where she has to be looking at me AND have relaxed ears. Class starts and she’s doing great. Her stays and recalls are excellent. She’s perfect on Sit, Stand, and Down cues. We work on the swing Finish and the go-behind Finish, and she’s superb. Stand For Exam is strong and solid. When the class does Heeling, I pick one end of the room to lessen distractions (it takes a couple of rounds, but the class figures out that they can just stay out of my end and avoid congestion) and just work on moving with eye contact. Excellent. Since we both got so frustrated in the last class, I don’t back up, just walk a little slower when she’s not making eye contact. She glances up to see what happened, I Yes and give her a treat. Putting wiener bits in my mouth gives her a head-slapping moment. Her butt is swung out, of course, but the eye contact is greatly improved by the end of the class. I sit down and get a 30-second stare without any difficulty – and with relaxed ears while everyone dons hats and jackets and troops out.

Since Stitch was a puppy, she’s had a “thing” with me putting her collar on over her head. She also gets “sticky feet” when I put her cape or harness on. Tonight this is brought home to me as an actual problem when I discover that she is rock-solid on go-behind returns OFF LEASH on SitStays, DownStays, AND StandStays, but can’t do any of them ON leash. No matter how hard she tries, the loose leash magically pulls her around. When a llama is skittish about leashes or costumes, I have him wear an elastic harness with ribbons hanging from it. Today I’m going to make one for Stitch. Elastic so she can pull out of it if it gets snagged on something, and ribbons so she gets used to things brushing her body.


Alright, no elastic – I drape her in Velcro for two days. Tonight at agility class she is much less “sticky” about her harness.

Also even more enthusiastic than usual. I arrive ten minutes early as I did for the obedience class, and bring wieners. Spend a moment asking her to focus – she doesn’t need the moment, she’s in the game immediately. I finally figured out what I want her to do on contacts – three on the floor, one foot on the contact. Last week we spent two meals playing around with this new idea on stairs. The teeter is free when we arrive at class, so I go to it to teach her 3-1. To my amazement, she generalizes from the stairs to the teeter right away and immediately starts assuming the position. It doesn’t continue into the class, but in the class we’re working on drive and enthusiasm, so I wouldn’t expect it to yet. She HAS drive and enthusiasm, she’s wonderful. She’s assuming that she’s in class to do obstacles, and so are the other dogs, so she’s blase about them being close to her. She’s hitting crooked and distance entries to the teeter, dogwalk, A-frame, weaves, tire, and tunnel. She starts to blow out of the weaves at the fourth pole, but our excellent instructor decides that the weave base is interfering with her foot placement at speed (they’re still offset a bit). She’s better on the slanted ones that have a pole in each peg. This hasn’t been a problem and I’m not going to get excited about it. She should be into a straight line in a week or two. Wow, this pup has talent! It’s a thrilling evening for me.

One rather interesting behaviour. We’re walking along a bar jump and then pushing the dog out to jump away from us to a target as we continue to walk by. She ducks around the jump straight to the target a couple of times, but quickly realizes this isn’t going to work. Then she gets very serious and tiptoes beside me – like she really wants to get it right and is thinking of the target as a trap waiting to suck her in. Very funny.


I’m very sick for a week and the dogs have to amuse themselves. Today I finally feel like doing something, so I think of a training challenge. Everybody TALKS about getting their dog to retrieve a wiener, but nobody ever DOES anything about it, so today I get started. Amusing enough to get me going in spite of coughing and being dizzy!

I have a few bulk wieners in skins that have been in the bottom of the freezer for about four years – freeze-dried, basically. I get two of those. I ask Stitch to hold a pencil a few times, just reminding her of what “Get It” means. No problem. My criteria for a retrieve is to take it cleanly, hold it securely with whatever force is necessary for the particular object, to bring it straight to me, and to offer it willingly to me ASAP.

I hold one wiener (still in its plastic blanket) up and ask her to get it. A look of glorious surprise crosses her face and she reaches her molars toward it. “No” I say, not a correction but a piece of information. “Get it”. Her molars come forward again. “No, Get It”. Now she decides it must be some new Zen trick and resolutely keeps her mouth shut. I ask her again. She tries licking it. “No, Get It”. Finally she tentatively reaches for one end of it, to hold it like a cigar. Still not what I want – I really want to emphasize that this is a retrieve object, not food. I hold it with one hand on each end, ask again, and finally she gets it, reaching for the centre of it and holding it cleanly behind her canines. YES! Since I’m using her dry kibble to reward her, I give her half a handful for getting it right.

Over the next 20 repetitions, her mouth thinks several times of flipping it back between her molars, but I’ve still got at least one hand on it and I just take it away and start again. The second time her mouth changes its mind and she keeps the wiener in the correct position. At 20, I start putting it on the floor at her feet and having her pick it up. She’s really in the game, eager to sit and give it to me to get her windfall of kibble. We end the session with three 5-foot tosses, all totally successful.

I try the same thing with Scuba. It’s a no-brainer for her, just another in a long list of mystifying things I’ve asked her to do. Considering her vast experience, I let her choose how to carry strange things, and she chooses to resist temptation by picking the wiener up in her incisors, as if it were a credit card or a coin.