Cura and I have been together since 2009. We want to thank all of you who followed the early days as well as those who popped back on occasion during the long hiatus. Training was done, the days passed, and we were settling into our life together.
Fast forward: Cura is slowing down and a new member of the family is in training. On top of that, we are all busy with our new calling . . . Running the Training Department for Paws and Stripes. Join us on our journey!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Challenging comfort zones

During our last private session, we were working on some of Cura's more advanced skills. Specifically, we were working on things that she needs to know in the event that they are needed, but hopefully will not ever need to be used. They are things she will need to know in case I fall and need her to go for help. Now, since I have not fallen since Cura came home -- amazng how just having her with me all the time has eliminated those monthly/bi-monthly tumbles -- it is possible that I may never fall again. Even if I do fall, it is not likely that she will need to do anything more than her recovery series, designed to keep strangers from yanking me up from the ground before I have assessed whether or not there is any problem and help me get back on my feet. But, she still needs to know what to do in the event that I need human help rather than canine assistance.

So, we have to teach her and then practice -- gradually working her up to being able to find a family member at quite a distance and leading them back to me. This is particularly challenging for Cura because she is uncomfortable when separated from me (can you say that is the understatement of the century -- okay, maybe the decade) let alone when I am not in sight. This is a very stressful exercise for her and training has to tread a very fine line between teaching her the skill (helping her step outside her comfort zone) without pushing her too far, too fast and causing her to either shut down or freak out.

We have begun working with the command that someone would use to get her to take them to me.  Generally termed the "Where's Mommy?" command, only we use my name to avoid confusing her since one of the people she is begin trained to find is Nonna Ear Rubs.  Now it is time to practice outside the comfort of the house, in places with more distractions, and with me actually not being in Cura's line of sight.  We had tried this earlier in the training -- months ago -- but we were moving too fast for her.  One time we pushed her comfort zone just a little to much and she didn't find me right away and lost her head a little -- translation, she freaked out and went charging around the library frantically trying to find me (yeah, I DID feel like a big ol' b***head, in case you are wondering).  So, a learning experience -- we took a few steps back and focused on working on the command in the home and giving Cura more time to feel safe in her new environment/job -- remember, she has not even been home for a year yet and at that point, it MAY have been six months.

So, how did it go this time?  Very well!  It was still a bit stressful for her, but the few times we made it more challenging for her and she didn't find me right away, she didn't panic.  Instead, she started to use her nose and searched meticulously until she found me.  So, what did we do?  Yep, you guessed it, we increased the challenge.  Instead of her finding me and having me standing, waiting for her -- I laid down on the ground and waited.  Cura did a brilliant job of finding me but did not like the fact that I was on the ground.  After licking my face like crazy, she managed to go through the entire recovery sequence (with face licks in between), but she clearly was not happy about this new development.  After about 5 minutes, we did it again.  The second time she barely managed to get through the recovery sequence.  Too stressful with attempts made too close together -- but she did do it!  So, definite progress.  We pushed her comfort zone a bit, but next time she will cope with it better and pretty soon it will not even phase her to find me on the ground because she will know exactly what to do.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Training Withdrawals

This past week there were no training classes on Sunday and Monday. Rick and Heather have sensibly begun to give themselves a break between class cycles so, no training. Cura and I are clearly going through training withdrawals.

It isn't like we don't train outside class -- if that were the case, Cura would not be ready for her 'mid-term' yet.  As it is, after about nine months of training, preparations for Cura's 'midterm' began.  This from a dog that had been 'unmanageable' in the shelter!  I have said it before but I must say it again -- all she needed was a job.  Being cooped up in a kennel all day with no significant outlet or way to expend her energy meant that she had a serious case of cabin fever.  Many people in the blogosphere are expressing their pent up frustration about being snow-bound -- imagine being snow-bound for 13+ months!  You would probably be so twitchy that you couldn't think straight.  That was Whoopee!!  So full of pent up energy that she virtually hummed.  Then, on March 26, Whoopee!!, the unmanageable buzzing dog, ceased to be and Cura, the diligent, dedicated companion, was born.

But, I digress . . .  Cura and I train every day.  We practice throughout the day -- five minutes here, five minutes there.  The odd command, just because.  But, it is  the Sunday and Monday Basic Training Classes that really 'feel' like training for us (that and our private sessions, but that is not what this post is about).  Plus, the training sessions serve several purposes.  First, it gets us out of the house to practice.  Practicing in the home only insures that Cura can do her job with no outside distractions.  If we don't train in other places, Cura will not learn that commands require a particular response regardless of where she is or what is going on around her. 

Both Sunday and Monday training classes provide different, beneficial experiences.  Sunday classes tend to have a lot of dogs in them, so Cura is exposed to several dogs at once -- some of which are not exactly 'polite'.  These classes tend to have several fussy dogs and/or owners who are learning the ropes.  So, these classes are very good for conditioning Cura not to react to other dogs in her environment, regardless of their behavior, and they are perfect for teaching me the techniques that I need to learn to help Cura feel secure and safe in a chaotic environment.  Recently, I had a couple of experiences where this was very necessary. 

The first one involved a place of business that had a 'resident dog' on site.  This dog was not receptive when it came to allowing another dog into its 'territory'.  It got up, attempted to approach us (I say attempted because we were with Nonna Ear Rubs and she took it upon herself to set the boundary) and began growling.  This was great because the dog got no where near Cura so she did not even flintch and Nonna Ear Rubs got a chance to practice her boundaries -- she is getthing better (and quieter).  The second was another Service Dog that decided that he wanted to 'say hi' to Cura -- an action that requiered that it leave its charges side -- a man who was using walking crutches to move.  What was his response to his Service Dog leaving his side and pulling.  He said, "It's playtime!"  My response?:  "No, it's worktime!')  I am happy to report that Cura performed brilliantly -- any worries about her behavior are needless and this midterm will prove it.

Oh dear!  Another tangent.  I am sorry my friends, it appears that I need to figure out what is relevant and stop introducing things that, while interesting, do not fall under the topic of the post!  So, back to the training classes . . . Monday is 'shoes' day.  The classes tend to be smaller and the facility is larger than the one used on Sundays, so this is a great environment for Cura to practice her skills in her shoes.  She is getting much better about being able to perform the more advanced skills despite this annoying piece of equipment (while Cura is getting better at wearing and working in the shoes, she rarely happy about it.)

Exposing Cura to these environments and challenging her are an intregal part of her training and success as a Service Dog.  Sure, we train outsid of class -- but the classes provide unique environments that play a significant role in Cura's (and my) development.  I am looking forward to the first class this weekend and, I have a sneaking suspicion that Cura will be happy to go to class as well.