Written by Alice Munley
Cam’O has become a very familiar figure around his new school, Belmont Elementary.
To say that he is loved by all is an absolute fact. Even the few students who were a little reluctant to reach out to touch or pet Cam’O, when allowed, have admired and expressed love and affection for him from a safe distance. As time progressed, he easily secured a permanent place in the heart of everyone at the elementary school.
Just how significant are these early, seemingly simple challenges for a young pup destined for a life as a service dog? Many times it is those simple challenges, coming within a typical daily routine, that can make the difference between success and failure in the final goal of a successful job as a service dog.
One of the first challenges Cam’O faced was his encounter with concrete steps.
This little challenge presented itself when we arrived for Cam’O’s first day at school. The parking lot for staff was up several steps and away from the school building. Because of those tiny little legs, I decided to gather him into my arms and carry him down and then up the steps from the parking lot for the first week. By that second week he seemed ready—comfortable with his new surroundings of many kids and adults. His first experience at navigating the steps on his own was slow and deliberate, but he seemed anxious to try it. A challenge? Oh yes! But he took the challenge in stride and succeeded.
His first approach to the down steps on his own gave little concern to Cam’O as he sort of just slid down each set of two steps. On the return trip at the end of that day, he showed super determination as he boldly pulled himself up each and every step. In a short period of time, he found the concrete steps to be just a normal part of his daily routine.
You might think that this young pup had mastered the stair routine from this early experience, but not so fast. There are a wide variety of steps and stairs just about everywhere around town and Cam’O would soon discover many of them.
“Many times it is those simple challenges, coming within a typical daily routine, that can make the difference between success and failure in the final goal of a successful job as a service dog. “
At home he absolutely did not want to attempt a trip down our staircase, even though the walkout basement was bathed in bright light from the sun. Negotiating steps down always seems a little more challenging to a very young and tiny pup—maybe it feels a little like trying to do a handstand. Think about that a little. Try carefully walking down the stairs at your house on your hands and knees. Then try walking up the stairs on your hands and knees—big difference, right? So now maybe you can understand just a little why tiny Cam’O was reluctant to venture down that long expanse of steps that seemed to disappear into the unknown.
I decided that we would wait to tackle the issue of the home stairs until a later date. It was time to focus more on the issues and challenges at school with the end of the school year approaching fast.
The next stair challenge at school was the long and steep staircase up to the staff workroom.
I believed Cam’O would be willing to try the trip up the stairs. First, I wanted to give him a little more time to get well acclimated to the activity and surroundings of the school, students and staff. I also wanted to give those little legs a bit more time to grow before presenting this new task. Of course, what goes up must then come down. It was important that I give him every opportunity for success, and this was going to be a big test for the little guy.
When the timing seemed right, and there was little to no distractions from kids and staff, we set out to conquer those steep stairs up to the workroom. True to the determination Cam’O has shown, he stepped right up and began his slow but steady journey up that staircase. He succeeded with flying colors. What a good boy!
Encouragement and celebration were key to his success.
We walked around the workroom, checked out all the strange looking objects, and with the memory of the journey up the steps still fresh in his mind, we headed for the stairs to attempt our journey down. I was pleasantly surprised that he showed only a tiny bit of hesitation before stepping forward with a single paw on to that first step. With a newfound confidence, he began carefully to make his way down the stairs one big step at a time. He kept his furry little body close to me, but continued to move down the stairs with that great determination I’ve seen before. Again, Cam’O enjoyed great success. I was so proud of him and expressed it with lots of verbal praise. This routine on the stairs soon became another normal routine at school. Every time we went up or down those stairs, Cam’O enjoyed the same praise for a job well done.
I have found over the years that the four most important words in training any pup are: praise, patience, persistence, and love. I try very hard to practice these goals as I raise little Cam’O, helping him through all the challenges of growing and training to become the best possible assistance dog.
True to his earlier experiences, he approached the idea of now going down with caution but determination.
This new challenge gave him the little bit of needed confidence to go down one giant step at a time. And that transferred next to the second set of long, steep steps he would encounter that led to the students’ lunchroom. With multiple steps inside and outside of the school building, Cam’O was getting lots of experience with a variety stairs.
While Cam’O possesses this great gift of determination, he is also a very cautious boy when coming upon new experiences.
Knowing the difficulty many dogs can have when they are faced with grated and open steps, we set out to find these sorts of steps around town. This will help Cam’O learn that there’s nothing to fear, no matter the type of stairs he will face. Open steps, grated steps, they all seemed acceptable to Cam’O. His experience is growing and his attitude is calm and nonreactive. I’m very proud of him.
Other early challenges included Cam’O’s multiple experiences with elevators.
They have large, strange moving doors, which open into a small enclosure where he must sit amongst multiple strangers. Then this box vibrates and moves, sometimes starting and stopping with a jerk. At an early age he accompanied us to multiple doctor appointments, requiring him to ride elevators up two or more floors. This appeared to be easy for him, as he showed no concerns with elevators, at least not yet.
I will continue to expose him to more elevators to keep his confidence strong in this area. Success and confidence in all areas of training and socializing will help him grow those positive behaviors as he encounters more new and different challenges.
Of course, Cam’O has faced many other challenges and will continue to face them daily. From over-excitement in the house, to occasional concern with very loud noises or odd shaped objects when we’re out socializing, everything is a training opportunity. For example, he can now lie quietly with a group of dogs, and now walks easily alongside a grocery cart.
Last but not least in Cam’O’s blog today are a few words regarding the ongoing challenge with Cam’O that appeared in those earliest days: barking. His barking was never out of control, but it was relentless at times in those early days.
The barking remains a challenge, but it is greatly improved and has decreased to just an occasional single bark. He never barks at other dogs or strange looking objects. His barking is usually in protest to being crated when he thinks it’s not time for the crate, or when he wants to follow one of us into a room and the door is shut in front of him. He’s learning that he’s not the one giving orders and we have no plans to pass that responsibility off to him. We think he is very aware that barking is not allowed, but he just wants to sneak in a quick shout out from time to time.
Cam’O’s desire for independence is not a bad trait, as he shows an abundance of willingness to follow our lead and do all we request.
As I write this, Cam’O is just six months old, but not near done conquering new challenges or growing physically. He is up to 38 pounds and 20” at his shoulders. A thick, white fluffy coat of long, curly hair covers his back from head to tail. I find it amazing that he has grown from that tiny little white cotton-like furball to this almost adult, stately looking male Golden Retriever, in just the last four months.
Come back next month for additional stories and pictures as Cam’O continues on the road to maturity and shows his progress in new areas of training. There are new challenges ahead for this growing boy!