Category Archives: dogs

Canine Good Citizen Test

cgc-bannerAfter a six week training course, this weekend Luka and I passed the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. The course was really for me, not for Luka. He could have easily passed the test with a good handler. I was the one who needed the training.

One of the challenges I faced during the fall was managing Luka’s behavior during interactions with other dogs. When we came across another dog on one of our daily walks Luka tended to bark and growl even from a distance. I wouldn’t say he was aggressive but he definitely wasn’t friendly and it made those interactions very intimidating to me. We had worked on this in Austria but I was obviously doing something wrong.

I spoke to a local trainer and she explained that Luka had probably learned to assert himself around other dogs out of necessity. We don’t know anything about his life before being rescued but she theorized that he may have had to fend for himself and is therefore wary of any potential threat, especially strange dogs. She reminded me about the proper way to desensitize reactive behavior with classical conditioning then lots of repetition with operant conditioning. The problem was that as the weather turned colder and snow started to fall from the sky people seemed to stop walking their dogs. The opportunities for exposure to strange dogs rapidly dwindled and repetition was out of the question. She suggested we take a Canine Good Citizen class which, besides being good practice for us both in basic handling, would give us a chance to work regularly around lots of other dogs.

So every Saturday morning we met with other student teams and practiced for the test. I quickly learned how to capture Luka’s attention around other dogs and hold it in exchange for lots of high-value rewards. In very little time I gained a great deal of confidence in these situations which, as it turns out, was the piece I was missing. Now when we meet strange dogs we fall into a practiced routine which gets stronger and smoother every time.

Here is Luka and I taking the CGC test:

And here is some additional footage we recorded over the weekend of Luka demonstrating several “distance” commands that were not part of the CGC:

Dog Scooter!

In a prior blog post I mentioned how much Luka loves to run. I bought an attachment for my bike that allows him to run next to me while remaining tethered to the bike and quickly discovered that he also likes to pull. After a short while, however, I grew uncomfortable with my setup. First of all I felt like that huge bike tire spinning around (it is taller than Luka) just a couple of feet away from his head was an accident waiting to happen no matter how cautious I was. Secondly I felt like I couldn’t hop on or off the bike quickly if the situation warranted it, such as an off-leash dog approaching. Finally I didn’t like where it positioned me – sitting on the seat I’m pretty far above Luka’s head and we can’t make eye contact.

The Willy Scooter

So I did a little research and discovered that they make scooters for adults. – why should the kids have all the fun with their Razors? A Scooter seemed like a good alternative with smaller wheels, being low to the ground, and easy to step on/off.

I’m not the first one with this idea. Indeed there’s a bunch of people who use a tug line – the same kind used for sled dogs – to attach one or more dogs to the front of their scooter to stay in shape during the summer (and for fun). I gave this a try as you can see in this short video:

This was loads of fun but it, too, had some problems. With Luka out in front, he was pretty much in charge of where we went. I taught him the mushing commands for left and right (haw and gee) but “whoa” just didn’t seem to be in his vocabulary. Fortunately the scooter has excellent brakes! I also didn’t like being so far away from him. When we are walking I like the fact that I can see his face and can notice where his attention is focused. Likewise I like his being able to check in with me visually from time to time.

Photo courtesy

Then I discovered The Dog Powered Scooter. It seemed like the perfect solution since it brought Luka back next to me rather than way out in front. The original design uses a L-shaped bar like an outrigger under which your dog is tethered to the harness attachments from both sides. This ended up not working very well for Luka as he really didn’t like being under the outrigger and he liked even less being constrained by harness attachments on either side of him.

So I merged some parts from my bike attachment and came up with this: Photo courtesy Tyler Trahan

I’m using the footplate and vertical bar from the Dog Scooter kit and the horizontal spring-loaded harness attachment from my bike rig. This puts Luka right next to me – exactly the position he is in when we are walking. I bought a special harness designed for sled dogs that distributes the weight more evenly over his whole body. And it all fits in the back seat of my Honda Fit hatchback so I can bring it to work for mid-day scoots through the park.

I can’t tell you how much fun this is. Luka does most of the work on flat ground and I pitch in on hills or when he gets tired. He ignores most of the many distractions that we pass by such as barking dogs, pee-mail messages left by other dogs on tree trunks, and (drum roll here) even squirrels. If I think he really wants to take a break during our scoot and have a good sniff, I simply step off the scooter and the quick-release attachment comes off in less than a second. Luka can then enjoy the cornucopia of smells that surely fill his dreams. I haven’t gotten verbal confirmation from Luka but judging from his enthusiastic whole-butt-wagging when he sees me getting the scooter ready I think he likes it too!

Here we are scooting along the sidewalk in our neighborhood. (Thanks to my two-son film crew, Josh and Tyler.)

Food Glorious Food!

Luka’s training method uses positive reinforcement to reward behavior. In my Chicken Camp blog post I described how a clicker is used to mark a desired behavior and let the chicken know that a reward in the form of food is forthcoming. This is the same basic technique used with Luka but with several enhancements. First of all, a reward can take many forms including praise, play, and touch yet it is mostly delivered in the form of food because it is a primary motivator. Secondly I vary the quality and quantity of food depending upon level of difficulty. Lastly a reward is not always preceded by a click. I still use the clicker during training sessions such as when we are on a walk and I ask him to sit or put him in a down. However when in some “real life” situations like at work, or in a grocery store or restaurant I can silently reward him with food when he correctly executes a command since the clicker is often inconvenient and noisily intrusive.

Luka gets four different levels of reward food, level 4 being the lowest reward level, level 1 being the highest level; each level is a little tastier and more enticing than the prior. Which reward he gets depends on how strongly I want to reinforce a given behavior and how hard he had to work. For example, putting him in a down while I shop for jeans won’t earn him much since there isn’t much distraction and he probably wanted to lie down anyways out of sheer boredom. However putting him in a down because a rabbit has foolishly decided to run across the field behind our favorite ice cream place will earn him a much higher reward because of the sheer willpower he had to muster in order to comply.

His level 4 reward (low end) is a high quality, grain free kibble. He gets this for simple commands like down, sit, place, and heel unless there is significant distraction or I’m trying to shape the behavior in a new way. I’ve tried a few brands but lately have settled on Acana Pacifica. Luka really likes anything that tastes fishy – the stinkier the better. The other reason I really like this stuff is that the kibble size is not too small. I tried some other brands with smaller kibble and to give him a fair reward I would have to give him a small handful which is rarely convenient and usually ends up with a slobbered hand. I like being able to toss him one piece through the air and I think he enjoys tracking the trajectory and snatching it in mid-air. Plus we look really cool when we do it – I feel like one of those SeaWorld trainers who can toss a fish and get it to land right where the animal is jumping.

I use a wide variety of products for Luka’s level 3 rewards. They are usually about the same size as one or two pieces of kibble but are softer and tastier. I like the Zuke’s products although I’m not convinced they are super healthy. My favorite is Pet Botanics Grain Free Salmon Omega Treats. They stay pretty soft over time and I can easily cut them into smaller bites. These seem to be Luka’s favorite too. I can’t tell you how I decide when to give a level 3 instead of a level 4 reward – there’s some crazy formula I have in my head that directs my hand to one pouch or the other. It mostly involves how much distraction he had to ignore and how well he executed the task. Lazily laying down after looking around to make sure there isn’t anything more interesting to do will earn a level 4 (or sometimes not even that) whereas a snappy down right where and when I want it will earn a level 3 and a kind word of praise or scruff behind the ears.

Level 2 rewards are the first step into the big leagues. He only gets these for difficult behaviors or behaviors I really want to reinforce. Luka and I have been working hard at dog encounters which are challenging for him. He really wants to bark and interact and I want him to just pretend the other dog doesn’t exist. We are pretty close to my goal although it has been a lot of work. As soon as we see another dog approaching I get his attention with a “watch” command and reward him with a level 2 reward which is supremely tasty. I’ll let him look at the other dog but as soon as I think he is getting overexcited or about to bark I capture his attention again and reward him again with level 2. This process repeats until Luka is visibly calm or the other dog is out of range. It has worked remarkably well. Luka’s default behavior now when he sees another dog is to look at me pleadingly which I immediately reward with level 2. I have successfully taught him that the tasty reward I have in my pouch is far more interesting than an approaching dog. I also use this reward for recalls and other really important behaviors. I currently alternate between two level 2 treats: Charki Puffs which is dried beef lung coated with dried beef liver paste, and Cadet Gourmet Salmon Snacks. These are dry and hard and can be easily broken into smaller pieces depending on how big a reward I want to give. Luka goes bonkers over these treats, in large part, because they have a very strong taste and an even stronger smell. The strong odor has actually been a bit of a problem – my treat pouch which is permanently attached to my belt has taken on quite the odiferous personality. I’ve taken to keeping my daily supply sealed tight in a ziplock bag. Of course this slows down delivery at reward time which is usually time-critical so I’m still working out how to handle this.

Level 1 is the holy grail of rewards and is reserved for only two behaviors: blood sugar alerts and the Really Reliable Recall. I rotate between a few different ingredients but they all involve meat. Usually it is grilled chicken breast cut into pieces and divided into hearty servings. Sometimes I’ll add pieces of cooked hamburg or slices of beef or turkey hot dogs. Lately I’ve also been supplementing with a single-serving of string cheese which I peel into long stringy pieces that he stretches from my hand whilst standing on two feet. Being ahead of the game and having level 1 treats available as needed takes preparation. Once a week I’ll grill up a whole package of chicken, cut the pieces into small pieces and divide them into Ziplock bags which I keep in the freezer then thaw as I need them. I do the same thing when we grill hamburgers, making extras to cut up and freeze for a later date.


Good thing we have a big grill!

You may have noticed from my description that I didn’t list what I feed him at meal time. That’s because he has no meal time. All of Luka’s food – every bite he eats – he earns as a reward. He never gets a bowl of food. We don’t even own one. When I tell people this they often look at me incredulously then start in with a predictable series of questions that reflect the questions and issues I had to resolve during training.

The issue most people raise is the hardest for some to accept although it wasn’t really a problem for me. It usually takes the form of “aren’t you just bribing him?” or “that sounds like slavery”. In general they question the morality of the work-for-food scheme. Here’s the thing: dogs need to work. They need to have a job and a purpose, especially big dogs of the working breeds. It is only in the last hundred+ years that humans started keeping dogs *purely* as pets which is why all the small “designer” breeds are fairly recent inventions. The idea that Luka is somehow being duped or bribed doesn’t make much sense. Am I being duped or bribed when I go to work every day in exchange for a paycheck? In the end, we all work for food in some capacity, each according to their own abilities. Even my youngest son, Timmy, has chores he is expected to do or he’ll starve (just kidding).

The bigger issue I had to wrap my head around has to do with the day to day implications: how am I going to carry all this food around? My answer to this question is still evolving but the current solution looks like this:

The blue treat pouch is a high quality self-closing pouch with two internal sections where I keep level 3 and 4 treats. The clip on the outside is my own invention for hanging used poop bags during walks. The black fanny pack has several zippered sections where I keep the following:

  • A glucometer kit
  • Smarties, peanut butter crackers, and granola bars (for me)
  • ADA information cards
  • Level 2 treats in a ziplock
  • Two or three level 1 treats in ziplock bags plus string cheese
  • A small plastic bowl to feed him level 1 treats without making a mess
  • Extra poop bags
  • Just-Add-Water paper towels in case of emergency


Each morning I load up with the supplies I’ll need for the day, strap it on and I’m ready to go!

The system of carrying all his food around and constantly rewarding him was hard to get used to. However the benefit is hard to dispute: training happens continuously. We don’t put aside a half hour a day or an hour on a weekend to train in the back yard. All day long, as long as we are awake, we are training. Every time he sits on command, he gets reinforced. Every. Time. There are some behaviors that we don’t exercise regularly so I *do* put aside periods when we can practice these but they are easily integrated into our daily walks or play time in the yard.

Some days there just aren’t enough opportunities to reward Luka,  especially when we are just hanging out at home. On these occasions I let him exercise his mind with a treat ball full of kibble or this really fun dog puzzle. I shot this video the second time we used it but now he’s a pro – he quickly opens every compartment and finds the treats. Time for a new challenge!





Watch This!

Goofing around at Zotter Chocolate Factory in Austria.

We made it! After an intense week of training and a long flight from Austria, Luka, Cathy and I are settling in to our new life. There are so many stories to tell about our time in Austria that I don’t know where to begin. I’m inclined to tell it sequentially – start at the beginning. But so much is happening every day now that such an approach seems restrictive. Instead I’ve decided to tell the story in snippets merging my current experience with moments from training week.

One of the commands Luka and I have been working on a lot is “watch.” When I give this command he is supposed to look at and focus on me, upon which I mark his behavior with the clicker and give him a treat. This is easy when there are no distractions – indeed most of the time at home or at work he he is checking in with me with great regularity. As the level of distraction increases however, it becomes much harder for him to focus on me. During these times, the chance that my commands will fall on deaf ears increases proportionally with the level of distraction (SQUIRREL!). It is of utmost importance that I enforce 100% of the commands that I issue. If I tell him to sit, he has to sit, and if he does not – mostly likely because he is distracted – it is crucial that I recapture his focus and get him to sit. Failure to do this will, over time, erode his training since he’ll get the idea that he has a choice over which commands to obey and under what circumstances he can ignore them.

It seems to me that the watch command is the bedrock upon which all other commands rest. If you can’t reliably hold or capture your dog’s attention even in times of high distraction then you will inevitably find yourself unable to control him in those situations and end up resorting to brute force or just avoiding those situations entirely – neither of which is ideal. Obviously no dog is perfect, and complete control is probably an unattainable ideal but it is a worthy goal to work towards. So we work on it every day when we are out walking. Often he turns and looks my way without my issuing a “watch” command and I reward this behavior as well. This is all part of operant conditioning, a topic I’ll be explaining in detail when I blog about Chicken Camp, and is central to Luka’s training philosophy.

Once Luka was solidy responding to watch commands and freely offering watch behavior without command I changed the game on him by varying the level of reward that he receives each time. At all times I carry four different level treats with me, another topic I’ll be covering in the future. Level 4 is dry kibble. Level 1 is a mix of chicken and hamburg that we cook on the weekends and package into single-serving containers and is only given as a reward for alerts and a “Really Reliable Recall” command. Level 2 and 3 fall on the tastiness spectrum in between. When Luka responds to a watch command he always gets a treat – I use a lot of level 4’s and 3’s but sometimes I throw in a level 2. When he offers a watch behavior without command then I use the same variable reward scheme except that sometimes I don’t reward at all.

This is called variable reinforcement and is a huge multiplyer for behavioral control. In Luka’s head he is gambling each time he performs the behavior – he never knows exactly what reward he will receive and every so often he gets a jackpot. Yes, I am turning my dog into a gambling junky. Fortunately his paws can’t hold poker chips or pull the arm on a slot machine. This method really works and I can see its impact already. When Luka looks at me there is a questioning look in his eye with a bit of excitement as if he is saying, “What are you going to give me this time, Dave?” It engages him mentally in the game and keeps his focus on me. Games of chance are highly addictive because of the way our brains are wired and I am taking advantage of that to maintain connection with Luka. But unlike in a casino where the house always wins, Luka and I both win – he gets rewarded every time, our bond deepens, and my ability to control his behavior and self-control is strengthened.

During the first two days of training I had a very hard time capturing and holding Luka’s focus. Barbara, our trainer for the week, intentionally put us in highly distracting situations to promote this connection, such as walking past other dogs in a penned area. On Tuesday, our second day of training, Barbara went into a tall fenced-in area and picked up a chicken. I had to walk past the fence with Luka and keep him under control. This was among the most intimidating experiences of the entire week. Barbara had advised me that, should Luka ignore my watch command, I should step towards him with my knees towards his face so that he pretty much had to look up, which I could subsequently reward as a “watch” behavior with a really good treat and, having regained his attention, get him to sit or lie down where he would find it easier to maintain self control. Giving the treat would be important because I needed to remind him what was waiting for him if he would choose to focus on me rather than the chicken, and I couldn’t just offer a treat for free.

Dancing with Luka

Boy did Luka want to go for that chicken! As predicted, my watch commands were completely ignored so Barbara asked me to make him watch and get him to sit. What ensued was a comical dance where Luka would try to peek through or around my legs as I pushed towards him, completely refusing to look up at me and instead trying to keep both eyes on the chicken. Then he started turning in circles backwards and we danced around and around a few inches at a time while he stared excitedly at the chicken and made whining noises. I felt completely out of control. It did eventually work although I’m not entirely sure if it was what I was doing or if he just got bored with the dance. Eventually he looked at me and I rewarded him with a big dose of level 2 and he sat down because it was far more comfortable than looking straight up and eating while standing on all fours. After that, his head swiveled back and forth between me and the chicken as I continued to reinforce his self-control. It wasn’t pretty but it did work in the end. I was thoroughly exhausted!

Back in control!

That night as I was thinking about my day I was thinking how much I disliked that experience and that I would never want to do that again. But I realized that it was actually really valuable because it gave me confidence. Ok, it wasn’t pretty and I was definitely not in complete control. I didn’t resort to brute force to control Luka, and we made it through. There will be times when we encounter similar difficult situations and knowing that I’ll be able to handle them – with or without grace – was very reassuring.

On Thursday Barbara said she wanted to try the “chicken” distraction again. I was thinking, “no problem – we’ve really been working hard since then – this should be a piece of cake.” Then Barbara explained that the situation would be a little different. First of all Luka and I would be alone inside the chicken coop with many chickens and ducks and no fence to separate us. Second of all Luka would be off-leash. Ok – now she had my attention. I’ll cut to the chase (pun intended) and say that no chickens or ducks were harmed in the exercise. Luka did great. It was a lot of work and but I was able to maintain at least a semblance of control using just my voice and body language.

I’m writing this on Thursday, the Fourth of July, just a week after the chicken test. My life has changed so much since then, as has Luka’s. It was a week of many firsts and that’s what I’ll be blogging about next.


Holding Pattern

A little over a month ago I got a call from my trainer, Scott. Mya had been demonstrating some behavior that had him concerned about her viability as a service dog. Specifically she was showing signs of anxiety in new or highly stimulating situations. Two triggers he mentioned were dense crowds of people and shiny tile floors. We talked about some possible root causes of her anxiety which included psychological trauma from her spaying, an early second-fear period (dogs go through two or more major “fear” periods in their early development), or a unknown medical problem. Either way he needed to slow down her training to avoid overwhelming her and risk making her anxiety permanent. He said there was also a chance this might be a temperament issue and she could turn out to be a poor candidate for service work which would mean starting over with a different dog. I know Scott felt badly having to tell me this but I appreciated his concern and professionalism.

Mya – lounging by the fire with her treat ball.

Needless to say this was a sad day . All my plans and hopes were suddenly put on hold. I had to take down the paper-ring chain that my youngest son and I had been trimming each day to help him (and me) manage our excitement for Mya’s homecoming. In the weeks that followed I distanced myself emotionally from my hopes for Mya and focused on day-to-day activities. Scott promised to give Mya a little more breathing space and slowly reengage her training in hopes that she just needed more time.

We’ve been in touch several times since then and our optimism has gradually grown. Scott has seen definite signs of improvement in Mya and feels confident that she will be able to overcome her issues with time and patience. He has been gradually exposing her to situations that challenge her – a process that will continue after I take over as trainer. At this point we don’t yet have a specific date for when Mya will be ready, but hopefully she will continue to improve and we’ll soon be able to celebrate her first homecoming.

On May 2, I’ll be traveling to Oxford, Mississippi for the 2013 Wildrose Kennels Diabetic Alert Dog Conference. This is a yearly event run by Wildrose Kennels and provides an opportunity for the small DAD community to gather, inspire, and learn from each other. This will be my first year attending and I’m really looking forward to it. Scott will be there along with many other trainers and people I’ve met online but never in person. Most importantly Mya will be there and I’ll get to meet her for the first time and spend lots of time getting to know her and learning how to handle her. You can bet I’ll have something to blog about when I get home!

Mya alerting Scott to a low (76) by grabbing the bringsel.


Reflection ©2012

Many months ago I began to seriously consider what it would mean to have a constant companion in the form of a service dog. Seeing Mya in pictures for the first time was a bit like seeing my unborn child in an ultrasound. For me, the bonding has already started although at this point my connection is to the *idea* of Mya.

From early in this process I noticed a shadow skirting the periphery of my emotional field of view. I ignored it for a long time but as Mya’s homecoming marches ever closer the shadow has pushed its way into my consciousness and forced me to deal with it directly. Suzanne Clothier’s wonderful book “Bones Would Rain from the Sky” brought it into sharp focus.

It all comes down to this: To love a dog is to invest in grief.

When Mya comes home she will be a puppy and our relationship will mimic that of parent and toddler. Within just six months she will have grown into a teenager and after just 18 months she will be, in human years, as old as my eldest son. When she reaches her 8th year she will have caught up with me age-wise, having gained wisdom, patience, and intuition and will be accelerating away from me towards old age. Assuming she remains healthy, in just 12 short years she will be a senior citizen in rapid decline until her eventual death.

There’s an unspoken contract we agree to when we have children. It is that, with occasional exception, we will die before them. We will not have to suffer the horror of seeing these vessels into which we pour so much love gradually lose their physical and mental vitality sliding inevitably to their demise and decay. Without that contract I wonder how many people, in this modern age of birth control, would choose not to raise a family having computed the difficult calculus of short term love versus long term pain.

With dogs, the contract is reversed. We go into the relationship knowing that we will watch our beloved family member die either naturally or by our heart-wrenching decision to end her suffering. There is no decades-long process of separation to cushion the blow like we have with our children as they gain independence, move out, and start lives of their own. Losing a dog of any age is like losing a young child whose world revolves around you, who loves you unconditionally, and depends upon you for their very existence.

And yet we do it anyways. We take these wonderful, loving animals into our hearts and lives like it is the most natural thing in the world. Whether we are conscious of it or not, dogs remind us of the impermanence of life – that our own immortality is just an illusion. To welcome a dog into your life is to exercise the belief that love is stronger than loss, and that each day is numbered and should be treasured.