The Training Process

  • By Debi Krakar
  • 18 Jan, 2016
What goes into training a Hound for a Hero
Written by: Neitha Engert, Volunteer Coordinator and Service Dog Trainer
You've seen several posts now by Tucker, a Service Dog in training, about what it's like to be in the Hounds for Heroes program. For this post, we thought we'd give you a more thorough and big-picture understanding of what goes into training.

Every dog is unique, and every trainer is unique. But one thing is for sure -- training a service dog is an adventure every time!

When a dog comes to us from a shelter, rescue, or owner surrender, they spend their first week adjusting to their new home and family (often this the first time they have been allowed inside a house!). Slowly they begin to leave the home and venture around the neighborhood. The handler and dog attend their first training class after two weeks out of the shelter (we need to make sure they do not show any signs of illness). But that doesn't mean that training is on hold. Rarely does a dog come to us walking like a champ! Loose leash walking is an important skill and there are many different ways to teach your foster to stay close at your left side. Basic commands can be taught during this time as well. A minimum commitment of 45 minutes per day is required, but most trainers go way above this minimum.

Once training classes begin, it's full speed ahead. As well as practicing the tasks learned in class, the dogs start visiting dog friendly locations. Home Depot is a favorite for trainers, as there are minimal distractions (i.e. no FOOD! TOYS!). Click here for a complete list of retailers that allow dogs. Throughout the training process it is important to expose the dogs to as many different environments as possible. These include things like: people wearing hoodies, sunglasses, hats, crying babies, balloons, ducks, etc. I've been known to make a u-turn just to get the experience to walk by a little person or someone wearing a head scarf!

After usually 2-4 months the trainer and dog are ready to take the next big step -- going to non-dog friendly establishments. Not so fast -- there is a test that needs to be passed first. Austin Dog Alliance requires each team to pass the Canine Good Citizen test (CGC) before receiving the "service dog in training" vest. This test ensures that the team is ready to represent our organization in the best light possible. It doesn't mean they're perfect, and they will still be in training. The test requires that they're able to walk politely through a crowd, greet a stranger, demonstrate sit/stay, ignore another dog and much more. It is a very exciting day when the dog receives his/her vest. Now the fun begins! The dog can start going everywhere with their trainer.
Usually the trainers live their normal lives and just include the dog in their everyday errands. Sometimes it requires them to make an effort to visit places they wouldn't normally go to, like the movies or coffee shop. Of course the grocery store is something best saved for last, and in the beginning, off-hours are recommended. Each dog is trained to perform a minimum of 3 tasks to mitigate the symptoms for their new owner. Trainers practice these tasks in different environments. For example, an important task that is needed for almost every person suffering from Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) is "get my back". The dog is trained to get behind the owner and provide a buffer from people coming up on them suddenly or crowding their space.

A match is made about two months before the dog is finished with his/her training. This allows the trainer to tweak the tasks and add new tasks if required. The new owner provides valuable information about their daily lives, and more importantly, information about how they hope their lives will change once they receive their dog. One question I like to ask is "what things did you do in the past that you would like to start doing again?"  That gives the trainer an opportunity to take the dog to those places and prepare the dog for that environment. It's very rewarding during "going home week"  when you can take the dog and new owner to those places and the owner can see immediately how their life is about to be changed. This can be as simple as going the grocery store again, or going to Monday night trivia.

Finally the time has come for the dog to start training with their new owner! This could be month 6 or month 8 -- remember, every trainer and dog is unique and learn at a different speeds. " Going home week" is comprised of 30-40 hours of hands-on training. The new owner takes the leash and begins to train the dog. In a way it is like the dog never knew these commands and we start all over. Each person has a different voice tone, or a slightly different hand movement, etc. But these dogs are so smart that they pick it up quickly. The owners are taught the tasks, as well as how to care for the dog. The trainer makes sure they visit a variety of different places and have time to bond during this week. At the end of the week they take the dog home and introduce them slowly to their house, neighborhood, etc. After one week they return to Austin Dog Alliance to complete the last step, the public access test. It is only after successful completion that they receive the coveted red Service Dog vest with a picture of both of them tucked in the side.

A going home party is planned to celebrate the dog, the owner, and the trainer. At the end of the night we go our separate ways, but it is definitely not good-bye. The trainer will follow up with the owner on a daily basis at first, then weekly and then monthly. We invite them back to the center to work on any issues that may arise. And of course, we love to get happy updates as well! It's an amazing gift to see this team together and realize that we had a part in giving them their life back.

Editor's note: The time line provided in this article is for a very experienced trainer with a carefully selected dog. Every dog will not succeed and the timeline for an inexperienced trainer can be substantially longer.
Maggie, Service Dog in Training
P.S. Now that you know what goes into training, we thought we'd let you hear from another Service Dog currently in the program! Meet Maggie:

Hi, and Happy New Year! My name is Maggie. I am a very special dog because I get to go places that other dogs are not allowed. My foster mom, Donna, says it's because I'm in training to be a service dog through Austin Dog Alliance! You wouldn't believe the places I've been and the things I've seen. At first, I was just scared to death -- I wouldn't even take treats. Everyone called me sweet and calm, but I was just hoping the floor would swallow me up. I had no idea why they took me into a room with a lot of other dogs and people. Some of the dogs were acting crazy, and some were in cages. People were opening and closing doors and moving chairs and clicking things and holding treats in front of my nose! Now I feel a little silly when I think about it. People are nice, treats are yummy, and the other dogs won't hurt me. Things got even crazier after I passed the Canine Good Citizen test and got my vest. My foster mom says that through it all, I have stayed steady by her side and acted like a calm, sweet dog. Maybe that is really why I'm special. Please consider donating to my fund to help make sure I get to go to my forever home with a veteran in need as soon as possible - click here !

The Alliance Blog

By Debi Krakar 02 Feb, 2017

By Lane Ingram, LPC

By Debi Krakar 27 Jun, 2016
Our new kennels (more like private suites!) are open. Which means it's time to get down to business!

These past few weeks, our staff has spent many hours evaluating shelter dogs to find the select few who have the right temperament required to be a service dog. Once brought into the Hounds for Heroes kennels, they meet with several different trainers daily and their progress is tracked. The goal is to perfect basic manners before earning the coveted vest, which allows them public assess to train in a variety of environments.
    By Debi Krakar 22 Jun, 2016
    Pavement and sidewalks can become very hot during the Texas summer and in extreme cases can burn a dog's paws. To determine whether the pavement is too hot to trot, follow this simple test:
    • Place the back of your hand on the pavement for seven seconds. If you can't hold it there without it hurting, it's too hot for your dog's paws.
    By Debi Krakar 16 May, 2016

    Hi everybody! It’s Tucker and guess what, I’m no longer a service dog in training. I’m now a full-fledged, 100% service dog. That’s the very exciting news I was talking about in my previous post. I have been super busy being the best helper ever to my forever person, so it’s taken me a while to have time to write this last blog, but I didn’t want to leave all my peeps hanging!

    Last month, mom and Debi set up a time for me to meet my potential forever person. We were all a little nervous about how the meeting would go. After all, it meant I was going to be meeting the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with -- pretty heavy stuff. Well, turns out that there was absolutely no reason for nerves. The minute I saw my forever dad, it was love at first sight for both of us. It was like my foster mom had left the room. I immediately only had eyes for my new dad. Mom and Debi laughed the attachment was so obvious.

    That didn’t mean we were home free, though. Mom and a team of service dog trainers worked with my new dad to teach him all of the commands that I'd spent the last several months perfecting. Of course, I did spectacularly!

    After this, my mom and I said goodbye and I got to go to my potential permanent home. Mom cried a little and hugged and kissed me, but she actually did pretty good. She said it was because she knew I was going to go to a new home where I would make a big difference in my new dad’s life.

    By Debi Krakar 04 Apr, 2016

    I’m back! It’s me, Tucker, continuing my saga of becoming a Service Dog. Sorry it’s been a while since I wrote, but man, have I been busy. Today, I’ll tell you about some of my new adventures out in the real world.

    I’d been to Costco and done so well that mom decided it was time to take me grocery shopping at HEB. So that I wouldn’t be too intimidated at first, we made our first trip early in the morning. I was a little distracted, but every time I started to lose focus, mom asked me to “Watch Me” and I immediately made eye contact with her. We didn’t stay too long and mom only picked up a few items, but I was a good boy and did a down stay at the checkout and waited for her to pay for our selections.

    Over the next few weeks, we made several more trips to the grocery store during busier times of the day. Now, I’m able to go with mom while she does all of her shopping for the week, even going on the weekend. Mom says that’s even hard for her to do!

    By Debi Krakar 09 Feb, 2016

    Hello Everybody! It’s Tucker the Service Dog in training again. I’ve been really excited to tell you about a big adventure I had in my journey to becoming a Service Dog.   First, let me tell you, Mom and I have been blowing and going since I got my new vest. We’ve been to Target, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Specs, Bicycle Sports Shop and a whole lot of other places. For the most part, I’m a perfect little angel, although, I’m still working on ignoring other dogs.

    One of the big milestones in my training came a few weeks ago. I went to Costco. Well, anyone that has ever been to Costco knows it’s a busy place. They have lots of cool stuff and THEY HAVE PEOPLE FOOD! Well, this was my first experience going somewhere that had a bunch of people food. Mom, Susan and I walked all around the store with a big basket past lots of different food. The hardest part of the whole experience was walking down the meat aisle. I thought I was in doggie heaven. I really wanted to look at all the different meat, but Mom kept asking me to sit and watch her, so I made it down the aisle with no mishaps.

    Another thing I got to practice was settling. When Mom and Susan would stop to talk to people about me, it was my job to lay down and wait patiently until they got finished talking. I like doing this since I can chill out and listen to all the nice things people say about me. A lot of times, people have stories to tell about their dogs or service dogs they’ve known. That part is cool, too.

    By Debi Krakar 25 Jan, 2016
    Rocco and handler Guille visit OT Connection, an occupational therapy clinic in Pflugerville, every Tuesday.

    "Having Rocco come to our clinic is the highlight of many of our clients weeks," explains Katie Duke, Clinical Director and Owner of OT Connection. "His owner Guille has had great ideas of how to incorporate him into our Speech, Occupational, and Physical Therapy sessions that highlight his 'tricks!' They walk him, brush him, dress him up in costumes, command him to do tricks, have tennis ball races, and so much more. The activities target fine motor skills, bilateral coordination, expressive language, motor planning, eye-hand coordination, and self-care/dressing skills. Having Rocco involved in our sessions motivates many of our little ones to participate in activities that weren’t able to be elicited before."

    Guille, Rocco's owner,  adopted Rocco 7 years ago. They soon realized that he had a naturally calm temperament, and she and her husband decided to involve him in the Austin Dog Alliance Pet Therapy Program.

    "Throughout the training process," Guille explained, "he responded very well to all of the tests, including simulations of loud, crowded environments. When people approached him, he would remain at ease."

    The team visits O.T. Connection on Tuesdays and Provident Crossings every other Thursday.

    "I remember that at the beginning I didn't quite understand how much dogs could help, but very soon I realized that even with just their presence, the therapy dogs provide a feeling of peace that I could actually feel myself. I love being part of this program -- it is a joy to see that Rocco can make a child or an elderly individual smile and make them feel so relaxed.

    We are both learning every week how we can help them more, how we can make them happier, and how we can make a difference every single time we are there... and we are really enjoying it!"

    By Debi Krakar 18 Jan, 2016
    What goes into training a Hound for a Hero
    Written by: Neitha Engert, Volunteer Coordinator and Service Dog Trainer
    By Debi Krakar 15 Jan, 2016

    Hi to everyone that’s been reading my blog. For those of you that haven’t been, my name is Tucker and I’m a service dog in training with Austin Dog Alliance’s Hounds for Heroes program.

    Last time I told you about all my hard work in my Dog Manners 2 class. We continued to work on polite behavior like letting a person walk up and waiting patiently by my mom’s side until she told me it was okay to go say hi to them. That is totally tough for me since I really like people, but I’m starting to get the hang of it.

    Another funny thing we worked on was playing like we were shopping in a store. I had to do a down stay while mom pretended to try on some funny clothes and a hat. Boy, did I want to get up and laugh at her, but I controlled myself and remained in my stay until she told me free (that’s my release word that tells me it’s okay to get up)!

    After 4 of my Dog Manners 2 classes, I was doing so well that all the ladies who are trainers for Austin Dog Alliance decided I was ready for the next HUGE step in my becoming a service dog. I was going to have to take a test! The test is called the Canine Good Citizen test (also known as the CGC test). I was kind of apprehensive but everyone assured me that I could do it, so I was willing to give it a shot. The CGC test has 10 parts. Several of the parts demonstrate my obedience prowess. Well, I could ace those, no problem. The other items tested my ability to focus on my mom which was a little harder, but I still did pretty good. Finally, my mom had to leave me with a lady I didn’t know and walk out of my site for 3 MINUTES. That seemed like an eternity, and I did cry (just a little), but I did it.

    Guess what, I PASSED. My reward for passing this test was an awesome surprise. I got my very own vest to wear that says “Service Dog in Training”. My mom was pleased as punch that I passed. Getting my vest meant that I could start going to places that normally don’t allow dogs -- can you imagine such a thing?

    By Debi Krakar 07 Jan, 2016

    Our pet therapy teams are out in the community every day of the week helping children learn, visiting hospitals and nursing homes along with a wide array of other services. They really are a heroic group of people and dogs.

    But in addition to the routine requests we receive, we also receive requests that are outside the norm, for example:

    “Do you have a team that speaks Spanish? The dog needs to speak Spanish too.” (Yes, we do!)

    “Could you help us make a public service announcement? We need a dog who can open a box, jump in and close it behind him.” (Yes, we can!)

    We receive many requests for media appearances and calls from all over the United States inquiring about our programs. But recently we received a request from a professor with UT and MIT, Dr. Bradley Knox, who is developing an interactive, animatronic dog to -- hopefully -- help children learn.

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