This post is for the 10th round of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival.
About two years ago, I began researching Labrador Retriever breeders in Ontario. I had learned that Cessna, my current program trained guide dog, had developed tiny cataracts, so had made the decision to “take the plunge” and owner-train her successor. The vet wasn’t sure if Cessna’s cataracts would grow and how long she would be able to work, so I decided then and there that we would need to begin our search for the right “Future Guide Dog Hopeful”.
It took about two months for us to settle upon a breeder, Red Labrador Retrievers, and about a month more before the litter that contained my little caramel firecracker was born.
On June 10th, 2011, RLR’s Babe In Total Control or Rogue for short, entered our family. From the start I just knew I had made the correct selection. Rogue was confident. Rogue was busy. And most important to me, Rogue was independent-minded.
Over the past year and a half rogue and I have had our challenges. I have tried to make sure she obtains all of the exposures, socialization opportunities and challenges needed to give her a proper start on her journey to becoming a guide dog, but the road has not always been smooth. Many people would probably look back at our challenges and suggest that I wash her from training and return to Dog Guides, but we’re not yet ready to quit.
Our first real obstacle came when rogue turned 7 months. It was like someone had turned a switch. rogue was no longer feeling confident in public. She was backing away from people who wanted to greet her. She was hiding behind our legs and peaking out to see if the person had left. She wouldn’t come out when the person squatted and started calling her in an excited voice. She wouldn’t even come out when we had them hold out some treats. Sometimes she’d also begin barking at them when she was backing away, or bark at random people passing our table in coffee shops or walking past us in the grocery store. We were not ready for this sort of reaction, but knew it must be some part of her normal puppy development. I also knew that one of her half siblings had been washed from autism service dog training for shyness, so I knew it was possible she could face the same fate if we weren’t able to work with her through this issue.
We decided the best thing to do initially was to take a few weeks break from training all together. rogue was spayed, so needed a week to heal and I also felt as though she needed some time to just be a dog. After the three weeks were over, we started taking Rogue on short trips into town for lunch or coffee. If she barked at anyone, we said “quiet” and then asked the person, if they hadn’t run off, if they wouldn’t mind offering her a piece of hot dog. Rogue was better with some people than others. We couldn’t figure out a pattern, so just worked with what we had. If she didn’t immediately shy away from the person offering her the treat, we’d push her a little further and see if she would allow them to give her attention. We did this for about three or four months before we noticed she was no longer barking at random people and shying away from their greetings. We didn’t always stick to our short outings of course, taking her to run errands and for totally new exposures, but I think being patient and rewarding her for being quiet and greeting politely was what helped Rogue regain her confidence.
Our next real challenge didn’t show itself until November. Don’t get me wrong, Rogue’s training hasn’t gone completely flawless, but it wasn’t until November that we were confronted with a problem I didn’t see a way around. Since last Christmas, Rogue has been wearing the Active Dogs padded harness vest along with the Premier Easy Walk Harness. I thought she was comfortable with the equipment, but then a friend pointed out issues with her body posture and the way she was holding her head. Huib started to pay more attention to this and said that he felt Rogue may be uncomfortable with either being in public or the equipment she was wearing. I decided it was time to work more seriously on loose leash walking in public (I’d been working on it with rogue in the house for months). Rogue had always been ducking the opening to her vest when I would go to put it on so I didn’t think that was an issue, but felt that maybe she was reacting to the feel of the Easy walk. We stopped using it and were introduced to the fact that Rogue has a soft trachea. Back in May Rogue had made us suspicious of this possibility when she had 48 hours of reverse sneezing episodes, but with the use of the Easy walk, we didn’t really understand how bad the problem was. After speaking to a friend who knows a great deal about the condition, we switched Rogue from a regular nylon flat collar to a martingale. Similar to her ducking of the vest opening, she was ducking my efforts to put her nose through the opening of the martingale. It was the introduction of the martingale that brought us to the realization that Rogue was not only reacting to the feel of the Easy Walk, but that she was also upset about the gear in general.
I was at a loss.
I was convinced that I would now have to wash my girl.
I didn’t see how I could possibly get her comfortable with wearing a martingale and guide harness.
After days of e-mailing back and forth with friends and talking to Huib, it was decided that we should try finding gear that didn’t require Rogue to put her head in to put on. I also decided to take another break from training and just focus on what Rogue already knew. First, we found martingales that opened up like a nylon flat collar on the Silverfoot website. Then I came across a doggie back pack we had purchased in the summer for Canyon. I asked Huib if it would be possible to modify it, so that Rogue could wear it for guiding, he didn’t see why not. I ordered the new martingales and Huib got to work on converting Canyon’s Outward Hound back pack into a guide harness.
It has been about a month since we started using the new martingales and Outward Hound back pack. Rogue’s attitude and body posture in public has changed drastically! She’s happy to be out and even tries to seek out the attention of random strangers – something I’ll need to now work on, but it’s a place to start. the martingales also seem to eliminate the coughing and gagging when we’re not paying close enough attention and rogue happens to get to the end of her leash.
Some people may look at the challenges I’ve faced and suggest it is time to cut my losses and accept the fact that Rogue may never become a guide dog, but we’ve overcome things so far and I’m not ready to throw in the towel.
Some people may look at our challenges and say that Rogue isn’t an acceptable guide dog candidate, but I’m not ready to give up on her. If I had given up on Cessna so easily, I would have missed out on eight amazing years of partnership with an amazing teacher.
Some people may look at my lack of training knowledge and suggest training rogue is too big a job for me to do on my own, but I’m not ready to agree. Rogue and I have gotten this far with my trial and error style of training, so I don’t think it’s time to stop moving forward.
Rogue may never be a “perfect” guide dog, but am I a “perfect” trainer? Were Phoenix and Cessna “perfect” guide dogs? Is anyone “perfect”?
The only answer I can give is that Rogue has been a patient learner and I think she’ll make the “perfect” guide dog for me.