Friday, January 22, 2010

Who's afraid of (service) dogs?

Now that we've had Sawyer for a few days, we've taken him on a few field trips. We're happy, if a bit jealous, to report that Sawyer is a rock star.

"Wow," people tell us, "You have such a beautiful and well-behaved dog!"

"Thank you! But, he really isn't our dog. Our dog is Dempsey. This is Sawyer. He's Dempsey's brother. They're both in training to become service dogs at Helping Paws, and as part of their training, we trade dogs occasionally, so this week we have Sawyer and Sawyer's family has Dempsey. If you had seen Dempsey, he's practically twins with Sawyer, they look so similar! And he's a pretty good dog, too!"

I suppose we could leave it at "Thank you," but as Dempsey's parents, we feel strangely compelled to fish for compliments for our little boy. Plus it explains why I still sometimes call Sawyer "Demps-uh-Sawyer."

Everywhere we go -- the hardware store, the mall, the fast food restaurant -- people fall in love with Sawyer. With one exception: the girl handing out samples of "teriyaki" chicken at the mall food court, who literally ran behind the counter with her platter of samples when she saw Sawyer, apparently afraid that he might try to steal some chicken.

I looked down at Sawyer. "It looks like we can do some education about how service dogs behave. Sawyer, are you ready to show your stuff?"

Sawyer just stared back at me. Translation from pup-speak: "Yes! Just tell me how to help!"

I walked Sawyer over to a table near the teriyaki chicken place and put him in a drop. Then I pulled out a piece of kibble and dropped it on the floor. Sawyer stayed put, watching the kibble bounce a few times, and when it came to a rest, he looked right back at me. I gave him a high-value treat.

Next I dropped 3 pieces of kibble. Same response: nothing. Then 3 more pieces. Nothing. I bounced a piece of kibble off Sawyer's head. Nothing.

"That's a very good dog!" said the girl with the samples. She came out from behind the counter, with her platter of samples, to join the small crowd that had gathered to watch us.

I explained that Sawyer is a service-dog-in-training, and that we had worked hard to teach him good manners. People were surprised that Sawyer was just 11 months old, but I explained that we had started when he was just 8 weeks; it had taken nine months of hard work before he was even allowed to train at a mall. With a real service dog, I said, people should have nothing to fear.

I pulled out another 6 pieces of kibble and dropped them at Sawyer's feet. He looked longingly at the 14 pieces of kibble that were now on the floor, but he didn't move a muscle. I called his name, and Sawyer immediately looked up at me. I clicked and treated him to a big yummy peanut butter cookie.

At this point, a few people in the crowd starting applauding, which startled Sawyer. He got up and looked around, but he still didn't touch any of the food on the floor. I got Sawyer to sit, picked up all the kibble I had dropped, and then rewarded him with another peanut butter cookie. Impromptu demo done!

Afterwards, a few people came up to me and asked how I (or rather, Sawyer's family) had trained him, and I had a chance to explain how we use clicker training and gradually raise the criteria. I also met a man whose friend was severely depressed after he had lost both his legs in Iraq. The man thought his friend could really use a service dog like Sawyer, and I told him about Helping Paws as well as some other programs that are specifically geared to the special needs of vets.

It was one of those great days when I felt like I was helping people just by being out and training. Awesome job, Sawyer! Way to represent!

P.S. Needless to say, I didn't get any of this on video. But before we took the show on the road, Sawyer and I practiced a lot at home. Here he is perking up when he thinks he's getting breakfast, but then staying put when I "accidentally" spill his food from the bowl. We're very proud of Sawyer!


  1. Holy Kibbleroni! This is discipline. Don't you ever try this with me. I'll win. Hey, make sure you don't forget to tell us who's posting. Seriously, I can't tell Sawyer and Dempsey apart either. My congratulations and standing ovation.

  2. That is wonderful. I travel with a Service Dog and it amazes me how many grown people with jump, scream and dart away from a quiet, well behaved dog on a leash (and harness in my case).

    Keep up the great work. It's wonderful when you can educate and help out others. I know that the VA is now running a PTSD dog program along with providing support for the dogs themselves (helping with the cost of gear, vet issues, etc).

    There are so many things that these special dogs can do to help. There is a man I know who is wheelchair bound, but recently got his mobility dog. He hadn't realized how much help they were for making life easier. From pick up work, to carting or everyday household tasks.

    These guys (and gals) love having a job to do. Heck, Spirit gets excited when it's laundry day!

    Take care,