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How I'm Training My Next Service Dog, Chief

My seizure-assistance dog, Jolanda, is getting old, so it's time to get my future companion ready.

 |  Jan 22nd 2013  |   17 Contributions


I wrote about my service dog, Jolanda, in "My Life with a Seizure-Assistance Service Dog." Chief, a sweet Italian Greyhound-Cairn Terrier mix, will be her successor. She picked him when he was just five days old! Chief’s mom and siblings were in our care, and Jolanda helped care for them. She supervised him like a hawk and always made sure he was safe and stayed out of trouble. They like each other's company.

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Jolanda keeps an eye on tiny baby Chief.

Chief is a year old now and absolutely lovely. I picked him because he is a confident, laid-back, reliable, funny, happy little pup who really enjoys learning.

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Service dog candidates must be trained to mitigate a disabled person’s disability -- they have to do things for you in all sorts of settings. There is no specific number of tasks, but it should be a reasonable type of work they do.

Jolanda is getting older, so keeping up with me is more challenging. One of her feet is bothering her, but she still loves to go to the opera, theater, movies, and symphony with me, where she doesn’t have to walk much. We also go to the beach a lot, where she gets to run and swim as much as she wants.

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Jolanda at the courthouse.

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Jolanda, Chief, and friends at the beach.

Retiring a dog from such a personal job is a process. She and I have to get used to not being together all the time, and Chief and I must practice being a good team. Most importantly, I have to learn to trust him they way I can trust Jolanda. 

We started socializing Chief from day one. He and our cat are great pals and love to snuggle. We let him play, cuddle, goof, snuggle, and walk on leash, with lots of different people. He met children, strangers, the mail person, and neighbors -- nothing bothered him.

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Jolanda and Chief love to go on long walks. We're on Bernal Heights Hill here.

Chief’s training is coming along very well. Here's what he has already learned: 

1. He alerts me to upcoming seizures. I trained him to use the same pattern to alert me, so others (but mainly me) can understand his signals. He stands up my leg to get my attention, and then sits to make me understand that this was an alert and not just a stretch.

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Chief stands up my leg to get my attention.

2. His favorite task is to bring my medication pouch from a cabinet in case I need it and am unable to get to it in time.

3. When I am seizing, he lies on top of me or on my lap and stays there calmly.

4. He stops at every curb before we cross a street. This is an important safety aspect for me.

5. On command, he can find exits, restrooms, and quiet areas.

6. He's solid on staying calm in crowds. 

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Chief in his training harness on my lap at a baseball game.

7. He can interrupt my “windups," which signify impending seizures. When I find myself talking fast, walking fast, and shivering, Chief jumps up my leg to get my attention. He will then sit and stay, and I sit down to cuddle him until it passes. 

8. Other seizure symptoms are repetitive behavior or tics such as nail biting and lip smacking. When I sit or lay somewhere, he jumps up and paws my mouth. 

9. Chief can alert me to my medication time. He comes to me and nudges my leg several times to let me know my med alarm went off. He will only stop nudging once I take the meds, turn off the alarm, and/or give him a treat. He can already alert me without the phone alarm going off. He started to develop a feeling for the time frame. All my dogs have been trained to do that, and in six years I haven't forgotten to take my meds!

I am trying to train Chief to tell me when there is an unnoticed flickering light in a room, which could set off seizures. Jolanda found it easy, because it naturally bothers her, but he seems to have no interest in this task so far.

Chief's main job right now is to have fun while learning about all the things he needs to know for his working life. At this point in training he doesn’t need to be perfect -- only happy and at ease with the things we do together. So far he’s been amazing.

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We met a horse. Look how unfazed Chief is.

Chief takes everything in a very relaxed manner. He observes a lot, which I encourage. From the start, I sang a happy little song to the pups. They liked it and found it soothing and comforting. Whenever Chief learns about something new, I hum or sing a little song for him. 

Enjoying life is a must for a service dog candidate. Young dogs in general need to learn about their environment, but SDs need to learn how to work in it, too. It's natural for young dogs to get distracted, start barking, or be curious or hesitant, but it’s up to us humans to make it easy on the dogs and help them through it. 

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Chief hanging in there during a seizure.

Focus and attention is something we playfully learned from day one. I taught Chief to look up to me for advice when he doesn’t know what to make of a situation. I let him investigate the newness and once he looks back at me, he gets a click, praise, or nod, and sometimes a treat. That helps him to trust me in new situations. 

Because service dogs have to help people with life-limiting disabilities move through life, it's vital that we respect our dogs and the effort and devotion they give us. It’s teamwork, after all.

Chief's relaxed, approachable, and confident personality has made it easy to train him in public. We have taken him to Europe on a plane, and on trips within the U.S. on public transportation. We've gone to parades, carnivals, rodeos, and baseball and football games. He comes with us to the opera, symphony, theater, racetracks, restaurants, zoos, malls, and the farmers' market. You name it, he was there. 

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Goofing around with Chief at the Symphony on Halloween.

Some dogs take a little longer for public training; others feel very comfortable doing it faster. Either way is fine, as long as you properly introduce your dog to the new scenario and don't expect him to immediately be able to “function” at any given situation. It’s all a question of practice, consistency, and repetition.  

For everything Chief and I do, basic obedience is essential. A dog will always pick a learned behavior to deal with a new situation. The best outcome is for the dog to pick the wanted behaviors we practice day after day. 

So far, Chief knows how to sit, long distance sits, down, long distance down, stay, long distance stay, align to my left leg, heel, and come. His recall can be a bit flaky at times, but that’s okay – his stay is great. 

He can do tricks such as high ten, waving, paw, high five, bow, pray, roll over, under and over, on top and crawl, knock things over with his paws, left and right, hold items in his mouth and pick up different items when asked (and not asked!).  

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Chief’s doing really well so far. He still has a way to go, but it all looks very promising. You can follow our progress on our YouTube channel, where I regularly post videos. 

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