How to make your dog an awesome dog!

Seva is an awesome dog.

But do you know that as a puppy, we called her Dingo? And Bitey-McBite-Bite? And she didn’t let me sleep through the night for like six months. And she had something called puppy strangles that covered her snout in something that looked like chicken pox. And she got ear infections. And she chewed on her feet and I had to wash them with special antibacterial stuff from the vet. And she had a bunch of UTIs and then had to go through a heat cycle before being spayed. And….

The point is, she was a difficult puppy. There was a lot going on with her for the first 18 months, from being a high-energy chewing-biting little thing, to having a plethora of health issues. She tried my patience. A lot. And I am a very patient, very gentle person.

So, how did Bitey-McBite-Bite grow into the awesomest dog around? This is what I want to tell you about. The secret is training. The magic is in how Helping Paws teaches us to teach the dogs.

Seva has a sweet disposition, but I don’t think she’d be as sweet, mellow, gentle, and generally awesome if she’d been trained differently. And if we’d bought her somewhere as a pet, we would have trained her differently.

Why? Because of ignorance. Seva is actually my first dog, and Scott has commented many times that he can’t believe how good she is. He’s had dogs, dogs he raised, and none of them turned out as good as Seva.

Are you with me here? I’m saying that left to our own devices, the Dingo would probably still be a dingo. A more mature, calmer, better dingo, but a dingo nonetheless.


You don't get the food by watching the food. Watch me!

You don’t get the food by watching the food. Watch me!

The secret is in the training.

• Her training began at eight weeks of age and continued week after week. In other words, start as early as possible and don’t get lazy about your training goals.

• Training is done only through a system of rewards. Puppies are not punished for being puppies. We use the clicker method. The first thing Seva learned was to associate a click with a reward. Then I had to click good behavior any time I saw it.

• Bad behavior is redirected, not punished. Replace the sock with a chew toy. Move the puppy outside and clean up the accident. When the puppy goes berserk, exercise her, don’t stifle her energy.

•Training develops a set of skills that need to be practiced, and practice is guided by a patient, rewarding mom/dad/trainer. You wouldn’t toss a sneaker at a five year old kid and expect him to tie it on his own, and puppies don’t learn to walk nicely on a leash just by putting them on a leash. When Seva was learning to walk on a leash, I took her in the backyard and rewarded her for walking with me and for looking up to see what I was doing. That is how she learned to walk in step with her human.

• Every good behavior is shaped with rewards. It’s not about tolerating or not tolerating a behavior. Every day, from day one, when Seva ate, I put my hand in her bowl and stirred her food. I picked it up and put it back and fed her off my hand. I touched her legs while she ate. As a baby, she didn’t question my doing this. As a two-year-old dog, she never resource guards. Not even her best, favorite antler. She absolutely trusts us to give, take, give, and there is no fear that she won’t have enough. And, yes, I do still put my hand in her food from time to time.

• Never say “no.” This is probably the first thing we learned at Helping Paws. We do not say “no” to these dogs. I brought that home and put it at the top of the list of rules Scott and the kids had to learn before the puppy came home. I think that we don’t say “no,” because “no” can be used so harshly. People shout “no” at each other. People snarl “no.” People hurl “no” across the room. When you’re raising a puppy with rewards and patience, “no” gets in the way.


We say, “Ah-ah.”

You don’t sound half as frustrated when you say “ah-ah” as when you say “no.” I’ve been known to say “ah-ah” to Scott and the kids. They don’t really like that. I guess they’d rather I say “no” to them. I don’t know. I think “ah-ah” is kind of nice.


Fluffy baby bear.

Running at 8 weeks.


Running at 1 year.

The other day we had Seva on a flooded golf course. We let her sprint, because she loves to run. She’s the Black Stallion dog. Seriously. You should see her run. After a bunch of sprinting, she decided to check out the water and grab a drink. This water is full of blue-green algae that can kill a dog in minutes. I shouted, “Ah-ah!” like I’ve never shouted it before. I was scared to death for that moment when her head was bowed to the water. She obeyed. She left the water and she’s fine. If I had shouted “no,” she wouldn’t have understood.



Lack of training kills dogs.

Do you know that most dogs are given up to shelters between 9 and 18 months? That’s when a dog is in adolescence. Dog adolescence is worse than human adolescence, though much much shorter. With dogs, it’s like the terrible twos and the teenage years get rolled into one dreadful phase. The Dingo was a rotten teenager. All that energy needing some kind of channel, and she was finally big enough to counter-surf and get stuff off the table. Nothing was safe and, as a result, she needed constant supervision.

According to Cesar Millan’s website, the #1 reason dogs end up in shelters is lack of training:

1. Lack of training: Many people get a dog without realizing how much training is involved. Dogs do not come trained. They need diligent leaders who are willing to put in the hours setting rules, boundaries, and limitations, and spending time teaching them commands. Puppies do not come housebroken and must be taught to go to the bathroom outside. People fail to take this into account when bringing home a dog and ignore problems, which often lead to behavioral issues. Shelters are filled with dogs that have potty training, socialization, and obedience issues, all of which could have been prevented through proper training.

Read more:


Adolescents can be hell.

During this phase, I remember telling sympathetic friends that, because I was with Seva all day and in charge of her training, I saw the little milestones Seva passed. I could be frustrated and tired, but those glimmers of “good dog” kept me going. And I felt all alone in this. The kids didn’t like her anymore and Scott…let’s just say he wasn’t a fan of hers during those months.


There’s biting, and then there’s biting.

Now, I want to point out that while Seva was also known as Bitey-McBite-Bite, she only bit us when she was playing. It hurt because those baby teeth are pointy as all get out. But she was never aggressive. And she never bit when she was caught off-guard by someone or something. It was not a reaction to us or her environment. It was teething and playing. And she has outgrown all that.

We trust her completely.




What’s a growl for?

Seva does not have an aggressive bone. She doesn’t even know what a growl is for. I have only ever heard her growl on occasions when there is a gate between us. She doesn’t like being separated from us. If her usual stare, whine, bark tactics don’t get me to come move the gate, she will say, “Grrrrrrruff!” It’s the most adorable growl I’ve ever heard.


Nature vs. Nurture.

Seva is an awesome dog, no doubt about it. I can’t tell you how much of her awesomeness is nature and how much is training. But I am positive that her training helped her develop her nature in the best way possible.

She’s not perfect. Don’t kid yourself. I could list a whole bunch of personality quirks and flaws, but at the end of the day, she’s still awesome!


To quote the Panda, "There is no charge for awesomness."

To quote the Panda, “There is no charge for awesomeness.”

Get the Door Breakthrough!

This just happened. Like within the last hour, and I couldn’t wait to share it. Seva had her Get the Door breakthrough!

In the last post, I showed how she would use her handle if I was holding it, but suddenly couldn’t see it if it was attached to a door.

I attached a piece of fleece to the handle and she worked with that over the last few weeks. I kept shortening the fleece, until there was nothing hanging down. She would nibble at it and open the door with her teeth in the fleece, but not on the rubber handle. Not even a little bit. That will get our pantry door open, but it won’t do for out in the world. Public doors are heavy.

From time to time, I’d remove the fleece from the handle and she’d go right back to ignoring it. Suddenly Seva is deaf, dumb, and blind.

And then, tonight she opened the door with the fleece a few times. I unwrapped the fleece from her handle, showed her a cookie, put it inside the pantry, and said Get the Door.



This is a huge breakthrough! I love it when she has these moments, finally connecting a command to an action, or getting over some nebulous hurdle like the mysterious aversion to her door handle only when it’s attached to a door.

This time the cookie is not in the pantry. We’re working on actually holding a door open until she’s asked to release it. She will one day hold the door open for me while I walk through it. For now, I’m just excited she’s using the appropriate tool!



I’m so proud of her tonight!


Get the Door

Seva is working on a new skill called Get the Door. It’s an impressive skill, once it’s mastered.

Suppose I’m in a wheelchair. Holding a door open while going through it can be tough, so I hang a strap on the door, tell Seva to Get the Door, and she opens it and holds it while I get through the doorway.

Pretty cool, huh?

Only, Seva has a weird issue with the strap.

It shocked me, because she got the base skills immediately. I hold the strap out, she Takes it and Holds it until I say Release. No problem.

As soon as the strap is near a door, Seva won’t go near it. Not even for a COOKIE!

Our trainer, Eileen, gave me a fleece toy to get Seva excited about the door. So she had a breakthrough with the toy. She can open a door with the fleece toy. But…watch the video.



I think it’s funny when I put the strap on the door and Seva bows her head. It’s like, “I can’t see it. I don’t know what you’re talking about. What door?”

Even when she watches me put her cookies right inside the door, she won’t touch the strap.



Hmmm…I’m not sure how we’re going to get past this one.

Until Tuesday and Seva

I just read Luis Carlos Montalvan’s memoir, Until Tuesday. Luis is a veteran with chronic physical injuries and PTSD. Tuesday is his service dog. Some of you have probably met Luis and Tuesday, and more of you have probably read Until Tuesday. In 2012, Luis and Tuesday were the guests of honor at a Helping Paws fundraiser for their PTSD dogs pilot program (photos by Scott Stillman). And if you read the Helping Paws newsletters, you probably already know that Until Tuesday was an inspiration for the program (read story #4). I’m afraid I was unable to attend the fundraiser and have not met Luis or Tuesday, but I feel like I know Tuesday thanks to the memoir.


Until Tuesday and Seva

Luis and Tuesday with a Minnesota veteran.

Until Tuesday and Seva

Tuesday greeting some Helping Paws dogs.

Until Tuesday and Seva

Luis talking to a full house.

Until Tuesday is a quick, enjoyable read. I found myself thinking “just one more chapter before I get up and do blank.” That said, Luis writes about some pretty awful things, like the attempt on his life in Al-Waleed, and some serious things, like his insistence that the US military take responsibility for the people it sends to war. He is honest about his own troubling past, like self-medicating with alcohol, falling out with his parents, and coming to terms with the fact that he has a disability. There were times I put down the book so that I could absorb what I had just read about some troubling realities, from a young military couple facing medical restrictions mandated by their insurance company to water boarding detainees in Iraq.

Despite this being a memoir about struggle and disillusionment, it is enjoyable, because it is also a memoir about hope and love. Luis strikes a remarkable balance between light and dark, so that at no point did I feel the dark material was more than I could handle facing. Perhaps the secret here is that he opened with Tuesday as a puppy. And I knew going into the book, as any reader would, that the outcome would be uplifting. Open with puppy, close with uplifting image of best friends: hard to beat that combination.

Clearly, Luis is an activist. I engaged with his message and never felt he was preaching to me. I think that is because he was sharing a narrative of personal experience–a lot of raw, deeply moving personal experience. If he had told me a lot of statistics or distanced himself from his message, using abstractions, he would have lost me. But he didn’t, and I cared through the entire book.

Now, I titled this post Until Tuesday and Seva. How does Seva fit in here?


Until Tuesday and Seva

Seva and geese in Loring Park


Tuesday and Seva are a lot alike. I mean, peas in a pod.

Tuesday knew all the commands, but was described as immature. For example, in this retrieving exercise, “He didn’t have trouble identifying the right object, but after a few runs he couldn’t help taking a victory lap around…the room.”

Seva likes to prance and shake the object in her mouth on the way to delivering it, her version of the victory lap.

Tuesday used to bring Luis his socks. Tuesday “loved to wrestle with them on the way back from retrieving them, and half the time [Luis] delicately slid slobber-covered socks into [his] desert combat boots.”

Whenever Seva performs Tug to remove a sock, she first uses the tips of her teeth, lips pulled back, to nibble at the sock until she gets a grip without biting toes, then she leans back and pulls. Once the sock is off, she can’t just put it in my hand. She has to gobble it into her mouth and then prance it over to me and regurgitate it into my hand, making certain it is good and slobbery. I don’t know why socks are so irresistible, but I’m glad it’s not just Seva.

Luis describes how Tuesday walks slightly ahead of him, which was a negative during training, but is beneficial to Luis because Tuesday provides a buffer in crowds.

Guess who else likes to be out in front? I often ask Seva, “Hey, who’s driving this boat?”

“Tuesday does his happy dance, ducking his front half and raising his behind and sort of pounding his head and shoulders into the rug with a scrape and a wiggle, first one side and then the other…It is energetic, goofily joyful, and mesmerizing.”

Yep. Seva does that all day long.

One day, if Seva’s person wants to know what Seva’s life and training were like before graduation, he or she will only have to look here. I am grateful Luis documented his journey with Tuesday. I don’t know what Seva’s person will need from her, but it was meaningful to read about Luis’s experience bonding with Tuesday and how that dog changed his life. It is such a remarkable thing, what these dogs do.

I sometimes wonder if Seva will make it. She knows her skills, is super smart, enthusiastic, and loving. She’s also “immature.” Like any mom, I worry about sending her out into the world. Reading about Luis and Tuesday brought home the fact that it is really about the match between human and dog. When the time comes, I’m sure the right person will be there to match with Seva.

I’ll leave you with one more thought. I realized, while reading Until Tuesday, that Seva won’t fulfill her service dog potential with me. I don’t need her the way her person will. I don’t need her to monitor my anxiety. I don’t need her for balance. I don’t need her to pick up dropped keys. I pretend I need her for all sorts of things when we’re training, but it’s not the same. I believe that the dog, once matched with the person who truly needs her, will respond to that need. And that is when Seva will achieve her full potential.

Method Training

Seva will go to someone with a physical disability. As we get into more advanced skills, I have to ask more of her and do less myself. This means, to help with Seva’s training, I have to imagine I have a disability. Like method acting, I think of this as method training.

I’ll give some examples.

A lot of graduates (that’s what Helping Paws calls the people who receive the dogs) don’t have very good manual dexterity. It’s hard to grasp and hold objects in their hands. So, if I’m pretending I don’t have good manual dexterity, when Seva retrieves an object and doesn’t quite get it in my hands, I let it fall and ask her to retrieve it again. Right now, she is learning to hold something in her mouth without chewing or dropping it while I pretend I can’t quite get hold of it and touch her muzzle before finally taking the object.

Some graduates are partially paralyzed. If I drop my keys between my feet, I pretend my feet are paralyzed and let Seva figure out how to get the keys without any help from me.

Some graduates are ambulatory, but need support. When we train on a staircase, I tell Seva to “Step,” and she places her front paws up (or down) one step, then waits while I use her as a brace to bring myself up (or down) that step. I don’t really need her for support, but I put some weight on her so she knows what it feels like to be used as a brace.


Me & Seva

Me & Seva


We use wheelchairs at the training center so the dogs get used to walking beside them. One day, we put tennis balls behind our backs. We had to hold the balls in place, which meant we couldn’t lean forward to hold out a hand to our dogs. They had to get each item they retrieved in our hands, even if our knees or the chair’s wheels were in the way.

The dog packs have a belly strap that buckles. Sometimes, I sit in a chair and make her bring me her pack. Then I hold it out and Seva has to walk through the chest strap without any help (like making the opening wider). Then she has to rise onto my lap so the buckle is easier for me to reach. When she gets dressed this way, I’m teaching her to adapt to my needs, instead of doing it the same way every time and establishing a pattern of how much—or how little—she has to do to get dressed.

As I train Seva and work through many of the ways her help could be needed, I’m reminded how fortunate I am to be able to take my mobility for granted.

Look: A Training Video

One of Seva’s recent commands is Look. It tells her there is something nearby I want her to find and retrieve.

In this video, Scott hid a set of keys in a store. Seva and I walked into the aisle and I gave her the command Look.

She looks for the keys and when she spots them, I say Get It.

She picks up the keys, and I say Give.

She puts them in my hand.

What if she didn’t know what to pick up? I would use the cues That’s It, Leave It, and/or Try Again to direct her to the right object. It’s kind of like playing Hotter/Colder and the tone of my voice does most of the work.



Training Video: Take/Hold

Today Seva had a breakthrough!

We have been working on a two-part skill called Take It and Hold for some months now. This one is tricky for the dogs because they have to take a PVC dowel in their mouths right behind the canine teeth, where there is a gap before the molars start, and hold it without biting or gnawing it.

Seva is a nibbler and getting her to take and hold the dowel was a process! Mainly, she didn’t do it. She’d nibble the pipe or she’d let it slide out of her mouth if I moved my hands even a little.

Last week, when Cash was here, we didn’t do much training. I felt badly about that, until today. I got out the dowel and the bag thinking we had to make up for lost time, but maybe the break was what she needed, because she took the dowel and held it on her own until I  clicked (the signal that she had accomplished the skill). After a few of these, I grabbed my camera.



Another of Seva’s newest skills is Snuggle. Here she is practicing it with Scott. Some of the recipients of these dogs don’t have feeling below the neck and Snuggle is an important way for them to connect with their dog.


Seva & Scott Snuggle

Seva & Scott Snuggle



Seva had a big day today. Vet appointment at 8:30 a.m. I was told to bring her in with a full bladder, and I did.

These things are bound to happen. It was just a matter of time. Really.

When we finished at the vet, I took Seva into some wood chips to “do her business.” She did. I’m sure it was a relief to pee after all that time. Then we headed over to Knollwood Mall to do some indoor training.

Knollwood has a nice hallway without any real stores off it where you find tables, the restrooms, and an exit to a back lot. This is where we went, down the hallway, past the tables, and to a bench. I showed her kibble and we worked on Watch.

In just moments, Seva was distracted beyond distracted. She wouldn’t take a kibble if it was right under her nose, which it was. She gets like this, and typically a change of scenery or trying a new skill will bring her back to me. Not today.

She looked antsy. Then those hind legs started to spread and the tail curved away from the body. “No no no no no no no no!” I jumped up off the bench and ran for the door, Seva in tow. We got outside and I scanned the parking lot–where can we go? Ah ha! A median covered in wood chips covered in snow. We ran across the lot to the median and she wasted no time in dropping a large turd.

I dutifully bagged it and put it in the outdoor can at the mall entrance–because I’m considerate that way–thinking Boy, that was close!

Inside again, I noticed a janitor walking toward a storage room, a frown creasing his face. I looked further down the hallway and saw another janitor standing off to the side holding a long pole, also looking unhappy. Then I saw a chair positioned over a turd. It was nicely formed and about 3″ long. When you bag poo every day–as any dog person will tell you–shape and consistency matter. I don’t think the janitors were fully appreciating this turd.

I took a new baggie out of Seva’s pack. She carries her own poop bags–because she’s considerate that way. And we carried the poop to the outdoor can, then came in to resume training.

With both a healthy pee and poop out of the way, she would surely be able to concentrate on her work. We went deeper into the mall, because really, why would we want to hang around where she’d just done her business? We joined the senior mall walkers, looked at a bright store display, growled at a kiosk that was still draped with a tarp, and all was fine until it wasn’t.

Seva started acting all twitchy again. Forget it, I thought, this is not any way to train. So we went back to the tables where I’d left my coat. I had barely lifted it off the chair when Seva went into a squat!

Out popped a turd–I saw this one–and we ran for the door AGAIN. This time we knew right where to go and she dropped another big pile.

I used my last baggie on this one, so I grabbed a bunch of paper towels from the ladies’ room on our way inside. I picked up the turd and collected my coat, Seva’s leash around my wrist.

As I turned to leave, one of the mall walkers, an older gentlemen, called out, “Wait! I just wanted to tell you that my niece has one of these dogs. One of these exact dogs.”

1. I’m a polite person. “Oh, that’s great.”

“She’s paralyzed from the waist down.”

2. When we’re training in public we are ambassadors for Helping Paws and service dogs the world over. “Oh.” Not so great. “Does she have a Helping Paws dog?”

“It’s just amazing what these dogs can do with some training.”

3. I’m holding a turd in some paper towels, and it’s starting to smell. I discretely move the offensive object behind my back. “Yes, it is amazing.” You have no idea, mister!

Escaping at last, we deposited yet another poop in the outdoor can. And I have never been so glad to end a training session!


Guilty as charged.

Training #1

For the next several posts, I’m going to show you Seva in training. I recorded one training session, but I’ve divided it into clips, each one focusing on a different cue or cues.

This training session took place at the end of August, before Seva ate a sock and had to don the cone of shame. She’s 5 months old here.

Get Dressed


Watch and Roll Over