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

Busting With Pride

Seva got her backpack! She has been getting accustomed to it at home. Service dogs even learn to dress themselves.

1. Seva has to show interest in the pack, e.g. by nosing it. I click and treat.

2. I hold up the pack and hold the kibble out in front of it.

3. To receive her reward, Seva has to walk through the pack so the chest strap is in its proper position.


Seva models her pack.


We’ve been working with the pack for a few weeks now, and Seva will walk into it before I click. It’s as though she got bored with the intermediate step of nosing it. I hold it, she puts it on. She keeps it simple and expedites her reward!

Eventually, she’ll be able to find her pack and bring it to me. The dogs do as much of the work as possible. To get them to that point the pack has to be a wonderful thing. The other day, I was going to remove her pack and gentle leader before putting the rest of her kibble in the bowl, but she got so excited when I took out a packet of Fortiflora (digestive enzymes for dogs) that I left her gear on. Never miss an opportunity to form a positive association.


All dressed up for dinner.


Now, if you see us out and about, Seva will be dressed in her Helping Paws pack. She carries her own business cards–please ask for one!


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.

Training Basics

Right now, Seva is working on two crucial skills, Watch and Sit. Service dogs need to pay constant attention to their handler so they are always ready to receive the next cue. The focus is amazing.

A Helping Paws dog at the Wag Walk & Run

You can see in the photo that while this person is watching the disc dog demo, the dog in the vest is facing and watching her with intense concentration. This readiness to work and the ability to watch a handler for cues is the foundation on which the other skills are built.

This always amazes me. This dog is surrounded by not only a crowd of people, but other dogs, and there’s activity all around him, and yet, he’s waiting for the next cue.

Seva is not there yet. In fact, a stick is far more interesting than I am. Sometimes I lose out to dirt. But she is on her way, which is beyond cool.

When we train, I have a clicker and treat bag on me. For Sit, every time her butt hits the floor, I click and give her a piece of kibble. Over and over. Between each click and treat, I move a little and she follows me. This resets the behavior. Pretty simple stuff.

For Watch, she has to make eye contact to get the click and treat. This is harder. Seva tracks the hand that feeds her–who wouldn’t? So I put my hands behind my back. She looks at the feed bag, she looks at my knees, my hips, finally my face and I click. She does catch on fast, and the eye contact comes more readily after a few minutes of practice.

A dog quirk, however, is that she likes to circle me between repetitions. She gets a treat, I step away, she follows, walks around me, then sits down. Sometimes she decides to sit behind me and watch my hands. Not so good for eye contact. I ignore this behavior and wait for her to reposition.

Today, Seva was sitting behind me, waiting a few seconds, then standing up and putting her paws on me: “Hey, I did it. Click me already!” This kind of behavior is neither rewarded nor punished. I help her get her paws back on the floor and we try again.

It’s important that the dog be able to perform anywhere, so we train in the kitchen, the hallway, and outside. As she can handle more distractions, I’ll increase the number of places we train. As I said, there are times when I still lose out to dirt.

She is a smart girl. Tonight when she was ready for dinner, she did not look for her bowl or whine. She parked her butt and stared at me.

What? Why? and How?

When I tell people I am going to be training a service dog, and that my family will be the dog’s foster family, that this will take two-and-a-half years of our lives, and then we’ll give the dog up, they have two questions.

Why do you want to do this?

I love animals. I mean, I adore animals. I always have and always will. I had a dog briefly as a kid. I’ve had several cats, rats, and a rabbit. I hand feed the squirrels and a pair of mallard ducks that come to our yard. For a long time when I was younger, my life ambition was to be an ethologist, a scientist who studies animal behavior in the wild.

Right after college, I worked in the Dean of Students office at The University of Texas. Services for Students with Disabilities was right across from my desk. I saw all the students come and go from that office. I saw the students in wheelchairs and some of the challenges they faced getting around. I saw the guide dogs working for the blind students.

I’ve been aware of Helping Paws for over a decade, and that whole time have been thinking this is an organization I’d like to get involved with some day.

Now, my partner, Scott, and I live near Helping Paws. We have a big fenced yard. We don’t have another pet at the moment. He loves retrievers. Most importantly, we share the same value system. Scott and I believe in the importance of doing good for society. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how this endeavor will probably change us and our children for the better.

We’ve volunteered before, some projects short term–an evening at a food shelf–some long term–mentoring a teen-mother. This is going to be two-and-a-half years with a puppy in our home, a member of our family. We, all five of us, are going to love this dog like crazy. This is also going to be following the rules and participating in an ongoing training program, so that at the end of our time together, this dog will be able to help a person with a physical disability lead a more independent life. The thousands of hours we put into this puppy will literally change one person’s life.


This is like nothing we’ve ever done before and we’re excited to be a part of the program.

How are you going to give up the dog?

Most people shake their heads and say, “I could never give up the dog.” I know I can. Scott can. The kids don’t have a choice. They weren’t too crazy about the idea of a temporary pet at first, but as we’ve been talking about the program and preparing for the day we bring the puppy home, they’ve come around.

We’re going into this knowing that the puppy is not ours. Not really. The dog will always belong to Helping Paws. That’s why we’re called a “foster family.” We also won’t ever forget the goal, because we’ll be following Helping Paws rules round the clock to make certain this dog is ready to work with and for another person.

Helping Paws publishes stories from their graduates in every newsletter. Read some of these stories. You’ll be moved and awed. You might still doubt that you could give up the dog, but you’ll understand what an amazing, life-changing event occurs when a graduate receives a service dog.

When the time comes, I’ll write about giving up the dog. I’m sure it will be hard. I’m sure I’ll cry. I’m sure I’ll be proud of our dog and happy for the graduate who gets to take her home.

Our puppy comes home on May 11th, just in time for Mother’s Day! We are receiving a girl. After I meet her, I’ll give her a name–it’s a privilege of the trainer’s, to name the puppy. And of course, there will be photos!