Micro Blog #2

• On June 14th, Seva weighed 22 lbs, officially doubling her weight since we got her on May 11th. Of course, now she weighs 27.5 lbs.

• Some of Seva’s well-earned nicknames: Bear: she looked remarkably like a little polar bear when we brought her home. Especially when she ran and her rear end swung side to side. Berserker: she, like all toddlers, has two speeds, berserk and crashed. Bitey McBite Bite: self-explanatory. Dingo: like Bitey McBite Bite, but with jumping and pawing, not to mention the lunge and grasp with teeth!

• Scott and I avoid disposable everything. A single roll of paper towels lasts us 6 months. Well, it did before the dog. We went through 6 rolls in 5 weeks. Yikes! Can you say, “house training”?

• We now think Seva is house trained! We’re going on two weeks without an accident.

• This dog is sun-phobic. She will watch a tossed ball to see where it lands, and only chase it if it lands in the shade. I’m not kidding!

• Prepare to be bowled over by the cutest bear around!

Fluffy baby bear. 8 weeks.

She still looks like a bear! 14 weeks.

(Thanks, Scott, for the great action shots!)

Gaze Deeply Into My Eyes

One of the first skills a service dog learns is to make eye contact. She needs to be watching her trainer all the time, ready for the next command. Even when there is a distraction. Even when there is food.

Last week in class, we learned a new game. I hold a piece of kibble and wait for her to look at me instead of the food. When she makes eye contact, I click and she gets the kibble. Seva did this beautifully in class.

At home, she had forgotten everything. I held out the kibble and she went for it. I moved it out of reach and she pawed at me, climbing after it. This went on for several minutes as I kept patiently waiting for her to look at me instead of the food. Then I made kissy noises and she looked at me. Ah ha! She got the food. I attracted her attention to me a few more times, and that was all it took. After that, I held out the food and she looked at me every time.

Now, understand, that kibble is pretty darn tasty and it is a real challenge for a pup to take her eyes off it. All she had to do at first was glance at me. But now, she has to look at me for several seconds before she gets the treat. It’s not a sustained gaze, more of a rapid eye movement between me and the kibble, but she is definitely watching me and she understands the expectation.

One thing puppies are not good at is generalization. This is why they need to be trained in lots of places. If you don’t ask them to sit everywhere, they think they only sit in the kitchen. So after lots and lots of good Watch With Distractions, I switched hands and held the kibble out to my right instead of my left.

Seva didn’t know what to do. She got up and went into her crate since it was near my hand. When I didn’t click, she sat. Then she came out. Walked in a circle…. Puppies will try everything they know to earn that kibble. At times like this, the trainer’s job is to wait for the desired behavior and click at the moment that captures it. Seva eventually figured it out.

If she couldn’t figure it out, I would have moved the kibble back to my left hand. I’ve had to back it up on occasion. I never stop the training with her failing. I back it up so she can succeed. We repeat the successes a lot so she always feels rewarded and not frustrated at the end of a session. As with people, frustrated puppy won’t want to work for you.

Here’s a great picture of Seva looking at me and not the kibble.

Watching with distractions.

Gramma’s Muffins

This is how I used to make Gramma’s Raisin Bran Muffins:

1. Make muffins.

Time < 1 hour.


This is how I made Gramma’s Raisin Bran Muffins today:

1. Set out baking soda, measure 1 cup of water, put water in kettle on stove to boil.

2. Tell Seva to stop jumping at the counters. Put her behind gate. Wash hands.

3. Stir 1 ½ t. baking soda into 1 c. boiling water. Set aside to cool.

4. Set out: flour, sucanat (or sugar), vegetable oil, eggs.

5. Talk to Seva a lot to try and distract her from jumping at the doors and walls in her little cordoned off area.

6. Cream 1 c. sucanat and ½ c. oil with hand mixer.

7. Realize Seva is peeing on the floor. Scoop her up and run outside.

8. Return to the kitchen. Wash hands.

9. Beat 2 eggs and 2 ½ c. flour into sucanat and oil.

10. Let Seva outside because she is pawing at the door. Stand in the door and watch her. When she squats, holler “Better go now,” the potty cue. Call her in, give her a treat for a successful recall. Wash hands.

11. Stir into batter the cooled water and baking soda.

12. Let Seva outside. Bring her inside. Give her an ice cube to occupy her for two minutes. Wash hands.

13. Stir into batter 2 c. soymilk (or butter milk) and 1 ½ t. salt.

14. “Kennel.” Wait for Seva to obey. She knows what I want but does not want to be crated, so this takes a few minutes. She looks at me. I look at the crate. Finally, after circling my legs—puppy procrastination—she enters the crate. Shut it. Click and treat. Wash hands.

15. Stir into batter 2 c. All Bran cereal, 1 c. Bran Flakes, 1 c. raisins.

16. Let Seva outside because she’s been doing her high-pitched squeak the whole time and I don’t know if it’s saying, “I want attention,” or “I really have to go!”

17. Watch Seva run into bushes. Call her back. Pull mulch out of her mouth. Give her a treat in exchange for the mulch. Wash hands.

18. Preheat oven to 400*. Fill muffin pan. Slide into oven. Set timer for 18 minutes.

19. Play the Retrieve Game with Seva while muffins bake.

20. Let Seva outside because she’s lost all focus. Bring her in.

21. Take muffins out of oven. Set aside to cool in pan for a few minutes.

22. Realize Seva’s chewing on the rug. Squirt it with Bitter Apple spray. Wash hands.

23. Put muffins on a cooling rack.

24. Return full attention to dog.

Time > 2 hours.


Meet the Berserker!



The Contract

I did sign a contract with Helping Paws, but that’s not the contract that I’ve been thinking about. There’s this other, more important contract. I have established a social contract with Seva. It has strict guidelines and is renewed moment-to-moment through my consistent behavior.

We all have social contracts with our pets, to one extent or another. I had an extensive social contract with Turtle, my cat—extensive on my part. Her end of the deal consisted of “love me back and look cute,” two things that came naturally to her. My contract with Seva is extensive on both ends. This dog earns everything from food to praise to basic attention.

Clause One: Click and Treat.

The foundation of this contract is that if I click, Seva gets a treat, even if it is an accidental click. She has been conditioned to that click, and my job is to consistently reinforce the association. Every time she does what I ask, she is rewarded. Every time she is rewarded, her good behavior is reinforced.

Right now, she is learning Loose Leash Walking (say that a few times fast!). Whenever she follows me without pulling on the leash, I click and treat. If she pulls, I stop moving and wait. I hold the leash and wait patiently for her to refocus. Once she notices me again, I click and treat. I move, she follows, click, treat, ad nauseam. This is all with me walking backwards, encouraging her forward. Today we upped the stakes. Now, I turn around and walk forward. She is expected to walk beside me, instead of following me, and that is a lot harder.

Some people get their dogs to walk on a leash by keeping a tight grip on a short leash, and when the dog pulls they don’t let him stray. Still, the dog pulls, and the dog gets accustomed to the collar pressed against his throat. The dog learns this is how he walks.

Seva is learning how to walk by being rewarded for doing it right and ignored when she does it wrong. If you’ve seen a service dog in public, then you know how effective this training is. Those dogs walk nicely beside their humans without pulling or straying, without getting their paws stepped on or rolled over, without losing focus whenever a person or new smell crosses their paths. The goal is for the dog to keep pace with her human with as little control as possible. Imagine how long it would take to get through Target if you had to constantly remind a dog where to be and when to move and to pay attention.

While I ask a lot of Seva, and it is constant, I make certain that what I ask is only what she can reasonably accomplish. Let me say, while I am training Seva, our Helping Paws Trainer, Sue, is training me. Seva’s education is my education, also.

Clause Two: I never tease Seva. Ever.

Suppose Seva is sitting in front of the freezer, giving me those eyes. I do not pull out an ice cube and hand it to her, no matter how cute she is. She has to work for her ice cube.

I pull out the ice cube and she starts doing circles as her excitement grows. She might jump, and I withdraw the cube and turn away from her. I say, “Wait,” and she sits again, though now she’s growing twitchy with anticipation. Only when she has taken that breath that signals she is resigned to waiting patiently do I give her the ice cube. And this week, I raised my expectations.

Instead of tossing the cube on the floor, I lower my hand, reminding her to wait for it. If she stays sitting, I keep lowering my hand. When my hand is in front of her, I say, “Easy” as I open my hand to reveal the treat. I am risking a nip as she lunges at her treat, but she’s a smart pup. She is both eager and careful. So far she hasn’t gotten me and each time I do this, she is a little slower, a little gentler.

It may seem like a lot of work just to deliver an ice cube, for both of us, but it’s part of the program. She knows absolutely that she will get that ice cube. Even if she fails to perform how I want, she will get the cube. The secret to success is making my expectations equal to her ability. I did not start feeding her treats off my hand until I was confident she would take them without biting off a finger. We’ve been working with the cue “Easy” for a couple of weeks. It was not entirely new, but using it with a treat that makes her spin in circles was new.

Clause Three: Seva is never punished.

This method of training is one of rewards only. There is no scolding or punishing. If she misbehaves, she is ignored or redirected to an appropriate behavior. If her behavior is dangerous or destructive, we immediately take control of the situation, but that is not the same as punishing her.

Seva has earned a few different nicknames: Berserker, Bity McBite Bite, and most recently Dingo. If we are dealing with any of these dogs instead of our sweet little Seva-Bear, she can be crated for a time out. I do not, however, shove her into the crate and slam it shut, no matter how frustrated I am with the Dingo that has been gnawing on my arm. I get her attention with a treat and toss it in the crate so she goes in herself, or—now that we’ve been working on the cue—I show her the clicker, say, “Kennel” and wait for her to go in. Once she is in the crate, I click and treat, then shut the door for her time out. This way, the time out is practically her own idea.


After class, playing with her brother and sister.


Because I abide by this social contract, and my family also follows the rules, Seva’s world is secure and predictable, which makes it easy for her to learn and to please. She is becoming a dog that is confident, gentle, and reliable.

Me and My Shadow

Last night, Seva and I were out in the yard. The deck light cast our shadows long and dark, right up the side of the shed. Seva stopped cold and stared at those tall dark specters. When my shadow moved, she quaked.

Funny? Yes. It’s adorable to see her first take notice of something I’ve all but forgotten. The thing is if I respond wrongly, I could have a dog that is actually afraid of her own shadow. I got down on her level and talked happy. Lots of “good girl” and “isn’t this fun?” The words didn’t matter. What mattered is that I showed her everything was just fine and I wasn’t scared at all.

If I had cooed at her, “Ooooh, who’s a scared puppy? Poor thing.” It would have reinforced the notion that she should be nervous. She would have learned that to be scared is the correct response to her shadow.

So, thus reassured, she walked up to the shed and checked out our shadows. She was still a little nervous, but she had the confidence to explore for herself, and once she saw there was nothing to be afraid of, she went back to her business of snuffling around in the grass. Case closed.

Puppies and children are not born nervous. They hit an age where they suddenly take notice of things and realize that they are big, loud, and/or strange. What happens after that really depends on what we teach them.

Seva has only shown signs of fear a few times. The way we respond is key to whether or not she will grow up oddly afraid of her own shadow (for example) or not. In a pet, such a quirk is manageable. It might even be cute. But in a service dog, it could seriously interfere with her career.

The fear thing goes hand in hand with socializing her to as wide a variety of people as possible. (See Age of Socialization.) What imprints now will impact her personality for the rest of her life. Unlike a child who can learn that the vacuum cleaner will not try to eat him, Seva will never be able to rationalize away her fears.

Now, that's brave!

Age of Socialization

Think about the dogs you’ve known.

How many of them had some kind of quirk? Stella, a neighbor’s dog, did not like bikes. She barked like crazy whenever a cyclist went by—including me. I once helped my neighbor chase down Stella as she chased after a cyclist. Some dogs don’t want to walk on wet grass. They freak out if they hear a train. They bark at people in hats. Think about the dogs you’ve known. What were their quirks?

Now, think about a service dog and the myriad of situations she will find herself in, situations normal dogs never encounter: the city bus, grocery store, place of employment, restaurants, etc. Imagine the trouble it would cause if the dog won’t walk across a metal grate or board a bus or barks at the bearded coworker, etc.

Imagine that the person who spooks the dog is really important to her human’s life—a coworker or a home care assistant. Imagine that person is from a country where people don’t keep dogs as pets or is afraid of dogs. If the service dog is not absolutely well behaved, the dog will jeopardize that relationship. There are any number of reasons a person and a dog won’t get along, among them are because the dog does not know how to respond to the person’s beard or skin color or manner of dress.

Seva is at that age when things that make an impression on her, both the positive and negative, imprint permanently. Her future behavior is being shaped by her exposure and reactions to people and things now. This is the age of socialization.

Part of my job is to make sure she meets all kinds of people in a friendly, supportive manner. Fortunately, most people like puppies and she is really cute!

On Sunday, Scott and I took Seva to Urbanimal. I knew we’d have a good time in Uptown, and I was right. Urbanimal has a totally mellow shop cat named Ben. Seva saw Ben as just another four-legged-friend and was in immediate pursuit. She sniffed Ben, then licked him, tail wagging nonstop. When Ben had had enough, he swatted Seva, which she took as an invitation to wrestle, puppy style. This was where we intervened—to save our puppy. I think Ben could take care of himself.

Seva & Ben at Urbanimal.

Then it was off to Lake Calhoun and the busiest trail in town.

Seva can walk nicely. Really, she can. But, boy, you put a few hundred people around her with bikes, blades, strollers, and dogs…forget about it! She did not know what to do with herself. She was too stimulated to even open her mouth for a piece of kibble, never mind listen to me. I kept a tight grip on a short leash and managed her enthusiasm.

Seva's first trip to the big city.

Seva met a bunch of people and dogs on the trail. She got a close-up look at some in-line skates, and she watched an ice cream bike go by. She wanted to meet every person and every dog she saw, whether they wanted to meet her or not. When she’s tugging at the leash to meet someone and he passes her by, I swear it hurts her feelings. I know I’m anthropomorphizing, but you should see the look on her face. Seriously, if you ever see us on the street, make sure you stop to say hello. And if you’re wearing mirrored sunglasses or a giant hat or a welder’s mask, all the better.

At Lake Calhoun

(Also see Me and My Shadow.)