Written by Colt Rosensweig
Reprinted from January 19, 2016
Part of being a service dog handler is transitioning from one dog to another.
Unfortunately for us, service dogs can’t work forever. Each dog has his or her own quirks, strengths, and weaknesses, and the transition can be hard.
You’re with your service dog practically 24/7 for years on end, which means you both get used to each other’s needs, signals, likes, and dislikes. Changing partners is a huge adjustment, and it’s nearly impossible not to make comparisons between your previous and current dog (usually in the older dog’s favor).
Which brings me to my New Year’s Resolution, which I’m going to do my best to keep: I want to stop (as much as I can) comparing my current partner, Kaline, to his predecessor, Juno. Well, except for right now, since I think it’ll be interesting to do in a blog post!
Juno started service dog training when she was an adult, nearing middle age.
Even when she was a pet, when we first adopted her, her general M.O. was to follow me around until I sat down somewhere, then curl up at my feet until I was ready to go somewhere else. You can see how that was a really handy tendency when she started working.
Though she was something of a hot mess as an under-socialized adolescent, by adulthood, Juno had grown to be an unflappably calm, solid presence. The only thing I can think of that ever fazed her during her working career was a performer cracking a whip on stage during a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
Juno is also an extremely eager, creative learner.
Not only will she do almost anything for food, she also took readily to clicker training. If she doesn’t get rewarded for one behavior, she’ll start running through a repertoire of behaviors and even think up new ones. Teaching her to do new things—like retrieve, carry objects around, and open and close drawers—was nearly always delightful and struggle-free. (Extinguishing bad behaviors, like her adolescent dog reactivity, was a struggle, though we eventually succeeded!)
And another fabulous thing about Juno: Being part Lab, she has a basically Lab-shaped body, and thus every single piece of gear I ever got her fit her like it was custom-made for her. You don’t appreciate that until you get a weird-shaped dog, let me tell you!
As you can see, Kaline had very big shoes to fill.
“Everything we encountered was a training opportunity: both a blessing and a curse. “
Kaline started training as a baby puppy.
I like training dogs in general, but I especially love training puppies. They’re a blast. But I’d never had my own puppy—Juno was adopted at 18 months, and my first dog, Angel, was about two when we got her. As a puppy, Kaline was a pretty quick learner, food-motivated like Juno, but it was exhausting being out and about with him. I thought I’d been pretty vigilant when working Juno—you’re always on the lookout for possible distractions or threats to your service dog—but I didn’t have to worry about her behavior. Not so with a puppy! Everything we encountered was a training opportunity: both a blessing and a curse. I quickly learned to wear a bait bag at all times so as not to miss one of these opportunities.
He also wasn’t, and isn’t, nearly as creative about learning as Juno.
Kaline does very well with luring (using a treat to help show him the desired behavior), but becomes easily bored and frustrated if he isn’t getting hints. He won’t just come up with new behaviors; he’ll sit there and stare at you, then decide that your food isn’t actually that enticing and go find something else to do.
Did I mention that nearly all of Kaline’s gear beyond simple cape-vests has to be custom made? There’s a reason he’s lovingly known as the Princess Diva.
Where Juno is fairly aloof with strangers, Kaline is a social butterfly with both dogs and people.
He just assumes that all new dogs and people are going to love him and be his new best friends. It was much harder for him to learn to ignore people trying to distract him, and it’s something we are constantly working on. So many things that just came naturally to Juno, Kaline had to learn, sometimes laboriously over weeks. He had trouble learning to hold a long down-stay, so I began attending the “classic” movies religiously with him every Wednesday night. The ticket packages were cheap ($30 for six movies) and the movies sparsely attended—fewer people to notice if we had any trouble! I think we ended up getting three of those packages, and by the end his long down had improved markedly.
Teaching him to retrieve to hand seemed to take forever.
What Juno picked up during one slow night at work, back when I had a job that wasn’t dog-centric, Kaline took over a year to put together. Juno is very quick and doesn’t need much amping up; once she realized there was a cookie in it for her if she picked things up and gave them to me, all I had to do was point, receive the object, and feed her. What Kaline needed was his Auntie Sonja, a soft zip-up pencil case full of high value treats, and for me to get SUPER EXCITED about everything to do with retrieving. Food just wasn’t enough when it came to learning that. He needed me to be far more demonstrative than I’d ever been with Juno. Once Sonja helped me come to that realization, his retrieve improved swiftly and we’re now to the point where I can use retrieving an object as Kaline’s reward for doing something else.
“Now that we’ve had our own place for a year, I’ve come to realize anew just what a fantastic partner he is.”
Enough about Kaline’s shortcomings.
Now that we’ve had our own place for a year, I’ve come to realize anew just what a fantastic partner he is. For one, he is just about the most hilarious dog, service dog or pet, I’ve ever met. He makes me laugh every single day. Much of the time he falls asleep with all his feet in the air. Sometimes he finds tennis balls on our walks and, since he knows if he can get it home he can keep it, will doggedly carry the slimy object for a mile or so and then cuddle with it when we get back. He also has a huge obsession with sardines and watching him struggle to contain himself while I make his dinner is endlessly entertaining. Kaline is quite a silly boy when he’s not working, and he has no inhibitions about showing it!
Things that Juno does because I ask her, Kaline does because he absolutely loves to do it.
Juno is not, in general, a cuddler. She would do deep pressure therapy for me, but she would get off whenever I told her and be very glad to be finished. Kaline will sometimes just do DPT, because he already knows I need it, and he will refuse to get off if he senses that I am still not calmed down enough. As an added bonus, he adores cuddling in bed and basically sleeps on me or pressed against me as tightly as possible. This might sound like annoying bed-hog behavior, but for me, it has improved my sleep tremendously.
Momentum pull, a task I use a lot and which Juno never found all that wonderful, is Kaline’s calling.
Where Juno never really got past needing a target person to follow, Kaline learned to pull in a straight line, follow directional commands, and seek out the path of least resistance in record time. He loves it. He’s great at it. It’s something you can end up taking for granted, since it seems so natural for him (much like holding long downs was natural for Juno).
And while as a puppy, Kaline could be momentarily unnerved by random things—a fire in a fireplace, period costumes, large plastic figurines—as an adult, I think he’s even more solid than Juno.
His reaction (or lack thereof) to fireworks never fails to amaze me.
We can be in the lower deck at a ballpark, with fireworks being set off on the field, and he just chills out on his mat, either watching the show or staring at me in hopes of getting rewards. I taught him early on that loud noises of all sorts mean he’s probably going to get food, and have never regretted this!
“It’s become much less me showing him what to do and how to do it, and more both of us just knowing what needs to be done. “
He lay by my feet in the front row of Odysseo, a Cavalia show featuring about 30 horses performing each night, and had no problems (well, he didn’t really like being splashed by cold water at the very end of the show, but can you blame him?). He still doesn’t particularly like trucks rumbling by very close to us, but otherwise, nothing fazes him.
Learning to teach the way Kaline learns best—which is not always the way Juno learns best—was a really big part of us becoming a good working team. In some areas he needs more or different motivation than she does, while in others, where Juno needed a ton of encouragement, Kaline’s got it, thank you very much, and please stop chattering, Mum. It took a long time, but for about a year and a half or so, we’ve been working smoothly as a team. It’s become much less me showing him what to do and how to do it, and more both of us just knowing what needs to be done.
He now knows all my weird little signals, and I know his.
For example, I taught him to shake off on cue because 1) I really don’t like it when he does that inside restaurants and 2) even when he’s out of gear, each shake off seems to last several minutes, like I just soaked him in water. Kaline knows he isn’t supposed to shake in restaurants or when he’s doing harness work, so he’ll let me know if he needs a quick “shake break” by doing what looks like a head tremor. He’ll just twitch his head a couple times, and then wait for me to take him to an appropriate place and give him his cue.
It takes a long time to reach the level of comfort and trust with your new dog that you had with your previous dog.
And even though I’ve had that for a while now with Kaline, I still compare him to Juno (along with other friends’ service dogs) far too often. Sometimes you forget that your previous partner had some things they struggled with, and some working quirks you found annoying. No dog is completely perfect, and even the ones you think can do no wrong have off days. It’s important to appreciate everything that’s wonderful about your current partner, and that’s what I’ve set as a goal for 2016.
Because one day, I’m going to be training NextDog.
(Hang out around service dog handlers enough, and you realize that we are constantly thinking about and tweaking plans for NextDog. It never stops.) And when that day comes, I know I’ll be wishing I could just work with Kaline forever.