After “What’s her name?” and “What’s the breed?” the question I hear most often is “How long did it take to train her?”

The short answer: for the life of the dog.  The long answer follows.

Service dogs are taken places where most dogs are not expected to be.  Because of this, they encounter some very dog unfriendly situations.  The floors may be slippery or, worse, see through.  The easy, but not for dogs, way from the plane to the airport exit may include an escalator ride.  The floor a dog has to lie on may have been cleaned with harsh chemicals.  The space between tables in a restaurant may be non-existent.   There may be wolves and monkeys and elephants nearby.  Or food everywhere, tantalizing, aromatic edibles and no shoplifting allowed. There might be large, beeping machines, some of them rolling by where the dog is standing.  The dog might be in a place, a bus, say where people don’t look down at the floor to avoid stepping on a dog because they don’t expect a dog to be on the bus.  And, of course, it might be dark and everyone is eating but the dog.  What sort of training can prepare a dog not to eat popcorn that someone, that would be me, spills right in front of his nose?  (Hint: a bulletproof “Leave it” did the trick.)  The list goes on and on.

Some of the solutions require management.  You cannot train a dog to ignore the toxic fumes from necessary cleaning products, discernible to them though not to us.  And there’s not too much a dog can do to avoid being stepped on when riding the bus.  The fix for those problems come from the human partner.  Sky lies on a towel at the pool and sits on my lap on the bus.  A larger dog can lie under the seat on the bus or be blocked by the owner’s legs.

As for the other situations, surprises crop up continually.  The better the dog is trained (a reason to keep teaching for the life of the dog), the faster she will learn something new.  The better the handler’s skills (another reason to keep teaching for the life of the dog), the faster the dog will learn.  I have often taught commands I didn’t know I’d need, just to keep my dog’s active mind active.  It was great to know the language was already in place when, for instance, I had to get Flash to go under my chair in a popular restaurant in Paris.  All I needed was “under” and “down.”  “Back up,” which is easy to teach, especially in a hallway, became the perfect tool in a favorite neighborhood restaurant, Florent, now sadly gone.  The only free table was near the door and the only safe space for Flash was in a little corner right next to the door.  If he went in head first, he would have spent the meal eye to eye with a wall.  By asking him to back up, he was facing me and could do his job.

There’s another reason to keep training, not just a service dog, but any dog.  When you give your full concentration to working with your dog, there is no room for anything else.  The world becomes you and your dog.  Fretting takes a vacation.  Stress diminishes.  Planning stops.  All the junk that swirls around our heads stops swirling.  If tai chi is meditation in motion – and it is – then dog training is meditation while teaching.  Because the dog knows exactly how much of your attention is on her – and so does your clever and active mind.  By giving your attention to your dog’s education, you not only improve his abilities, increase the bond between you and prepare him, even if he’s not a service dog, for the unknown, you take a break from the sometimes annoying realities we all face.  And amen to that.

While training a dog for all her life might sound daunting to some, it’s actually pure pleasure.  I love to engage a dog’s mind, to see the sparkle that communication brings to their eyes.  I love to see my dog master a new skill or just get it, whatever the it might be.  Properly done, training is a conversation, not a chore.  For me,  the answer to that question I hear so often is, “Education is a life long process, for any dog.”  It doesn’t matter what you teach.  It only matters that you teach.

 

 

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