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!
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.
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.
Luis and Tuesday with a Minnesota veteran.
Tuesday greeting some Helping Paws dogs.
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?
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.
Seva is 19 months old now. Her graduation is going to come up sooner than we think (between 2 and 2 1/2 years). At this point, she’s learned most of the skills she needs to be a service dog. The focus now is on consistency, duration, reducing food rewards, and linking commands into chains so that she can do more complex things. Oh, and minding her manners in public. That’s going to be tough!
We’ve been working on new skills, Rise–standing up on a wall–and Put–dropping an object into a bin, instead of Giving it to me. These are tough skills for a puppy. Recent additions to our homework have been to put together commands in a chain.
Now, Seva can do all sorts of command chains, like Get It, Bring, Give. Get Dressed, Rest Your Head. Rise, Snuggle. Those command chains are natural and intuitive. I didn’t think she was ready for a chain with Rise or Put in it, until Sunday.
I had her Rise (we practice with a board to save our walls), and thought, “What the heck.” I grabbed her light switch and gave the next command in the chain: Light. She did it! Camera time:
And if she could do Rise-Light, why not Rise-Put? I tried. She succeeded. I grabbed my phone again. It was propped up on the counter, so forgive the framing. You’ll see in the second go that Seva tries to quit halfway. She puts her chin on her crate like, “Come on, Mom. That’s good enough.” Typical teenager!
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.
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.
No matter how well trained, how wonderful, how loving, they’re still dogs.
Seva has had 3 Helping Paws dogs stay with her. Last fall, Percy spent a few days with us while his foster mom traveled. Stubbs spent a night with us in July. And this week, Cash is staying with us. Seva has also stayed with other Helping Paws foster families on occasion.
Just like with children and playdates, you can’t put two dogs in a room and assume fun antics will ensue. There is some interesting dog psychology at play. This is some of the stuff I’ve observed.
Seva & Percy
1: the guest dog is usually very well behaved. It’s not his territory, so he’s minding his manners while he settles in. That doesn’t mean he won’t have fun, but he’ll defer to the home dog and humans.
When Seva stayed with Jed, we warned Jed’s dad, John, that Seva steals fabric and paper and ate a sock while on her first overnight. She didn’t steal anything, even when the laundry basket was right there in front of her! Scott and I got excited, thinking maybe she’d turned a corner, maybe Jed had taught her that eating socks is bad. But no. We were home no more than 15 minutes and she’d stolen a sock off the bedroom floor. It turns out she was just on her best behavior for Jed and John.
When another dog is here, Seva is the instigator. It’s her territory and she doesn’t need to mind her manners. In fact, she might be out to prove something. If there is wrestling in the house, Seva started it. Just ask Cash.
Seva & Cash–oh, sure, they look cute when they’re sleeping.
2: not all dogs are a good match for each other. Percy was a big lap dog. All he wanted to do was lay down next to me and Scott. Seva would rather play until she crashes. Every time Percy settled in, she started biting his ear. Read about that weekend here.
Stubbs and Cash are better-suited for Seva’s favorite pastimes: run & wrestle. Here is Stubbs taking charge!
3: as with children, they will teach each other things. Cash will take a Frisbee out of your hand—and you better watch your hand!—then take a bite out of the Frisbee, then refuse to give it back to you. Guess who can’t have her balls until after Cash goes home? That’s right. Our little bear has begun resource guarding her toys. Cash is a really sweet boy, but some dogs just love their Frisbees more than others.
Seva and Cash were wrestling on the deck yesterday and look what they did!
Seva & Cash broke my pot.
It’s not all bad. When Seva stayed with Chuda Lono, he showed her how to leave kibble on her paws until his mom, Wendy, said Release. He also showed her how to spin around. She came home with 2 new skills that we still practice.
Seva & Cash find some tree and make a mess.
4: puppies get jealous, too. As sweet as she is, Seva doesn’t always want to share. She doesn’t mind someone playing with her toys or eating her food, but if Scott and I are paying attention to the other dog, here comes Seva. Our very-much-not-a-lap-dog inserts herself just to make sure we remember whose dog is whose.