Flashback Friday: First Day of School

Original Post Date: 26 May, 2009

The sleep deprivation is definitely showing in my original blog content. What I present to you below is not the massive block of un-spellchecked text that rambles through more details about grooming, our first training walk, and obedience training. It is, instead, the same content but completely rewritten for comprehensibility.

One of the most unique rooms I’ve encountered at TSE so far is a dedicated grooming room. It’s a rectangular room with a bench running along three out of four walls. This bench is tiered, so at its lowest point near one door it’s barely two feet above the ground, but rises at intervals as it circles the room to a higher 3.5 foot tier at the other end.

Dogs and handlers combine their individual height and mobility stats together to need different heights for easy, ergonomic grooming. Both Prada and I are tall creatures; she stands on the highest tier where it’s most comfortable for me to reach every part of her body.

I remember daydreaming about building or buying a bench like this and finding space for it in a mudroom in my dreamhouse. If grooming is something you do regularly – and it should be – then it should be comfortable, not something that causes you pain or the dog stress. It’s worth investing in a good grooming setup.

I don’t have a grooming bench; I groom Greta standing on the floor. But I bought myself a seiza bench usually used for meditation to make myself more comfortable during grooming sessions. She gets excited whenever I pull it out from under my desk. It’s a bonding experience we both really enjoy.

More exciting than a customized grooming room, however, is the fact that we took our first training walk downtown today! The school is a little ways outside of Morristown so we load up into big whit vans with some of the seats removed to make room for multiple service dogs and drive downtown to work on the wide variety of urban obstacles available there.

I’ve been told that most dogs don’t do very well on their first outing with new handlers. There’s just too much different going on for the dog to fully concentrate, but it usually doesn’t take them more than that first lesson to settle into the familiar tasks of curb stops, traffic checks, and avoidances.

Prada, it turns out, is an over-achiever like me. Not only did she focus brilliantly, she also studiously ignored “common yard trash” (a couple of little yappy dogs in yards), and performed an advanced-level avoidance maneuver around an oncoming student with their new dog, too! Her gait is so smooth and even, which I’m told is common among German shepherds. They don’t trot, they prance.

I remember feeling like my steps would send me flying forward if I didn’t restrain myself. It was like my excitement turned the sidewalk into a moon-bounce surface. I felt like I had to concentrate in order to actually remember the cues and pay attention to Prada instead of just being so overwhelmed with how liberated I felt working with her.

Seeing Eye dogs receive a year’s worth of basic obedience training in addition to their 6-8 months of specialized training. These common commands like “sit,” “come,” “heel,” “rest,” “go to your place,” and “hup-up” are not only important for good canine manners but can also keep them safe, and make them easier to find when needed.

In addition to two training walks a day we also receive at least one, if not two, daily obedience lessons. I’m learning these commands for the first time – well, some of them, since I’ve had a dog as a pet before – and Prada benefits from the reinforcement in the midst of all the new and exciting changes taking place around her.

These lessons usually take place in the residential wings of the school, and it seems Prada isn’t very keen on turning around for the “heel” and “come” commands in the narrow space between me and the wall.  I don’t blame her, but I did see progress from the beginning of the lesson to the end of it, so I’m not worried.

TSE uses praise-based rewards for training and reinforcing their dogs instead of treat-based reward systems. There are reasons to be mindful of treat-based reward systems, as they can cause weight gain if you don’t moderate the dispensation of kibble accordingly, but in my personal experience treats are more motivating than praise, and combining the two reward methods is the best way to supercharge your training.

The reason I prefer treat-based reward systems now is because I’ve learned a bit more about the way in which dogs learn. Their brains have very specific survival-oriented priorities, and the acquisition of food is one of the highest priorities. It’s tightly linked to their learning capacity, which is normal for scavengers. Their survival depends on their ability to extrapolate concepts like “food comes from this source, but not that one.”

So, when you work with a dog’s natural instincts to achieve the result you want it takes a lot less effort to reinforce good behavior. You do need to monitor caloric intake and exercise, of course, and using treats for training costs more than “atta girl!” and a belly rub. And, of course, some dogs just aren’t as food-motivated as others. Your reward system should work with both your lifestyle, your means, and your dog’s preferences.

We’re expecting a thunderstorm tonight. I hear that’s not uncommon for New Jersey this time of year. While I love thunderstorms in general – they always make me want to write stories – I’m really hoping this one holds off until after our second training run downtown.

Our schedule here is pretty intense. Our days begin at 0530 with park and feed, then feeding the people, then a training lesson and obedience lesson. There’s some quiet time after or before lunch, depending on if you did obedience or training first in the morning. The afternoon includes more training and obedience, and dinner is followed by a lecture, so the learning day doesn’t really end until 8:30pm at last park.

The dogs are fed twice a day, given water at four intervals a day, and parked four times a day. Most dogs this size and exercising this much will need to park #2 twice a day and #1 four times a day. Water is given at controlled times and amounts so it’s easy to control when they need to park. This makes it easier for dogs to function in human workplaces, commutes, and social settings without random bathroom emergencies.

I look forward to sharing with you what I’ve learned about canine nutrition and digestion in future posts. But I will say that I still adhere to TSE’s principles of “if you know when the food and water go in, you know when it comes out.” It makes planning my day, travel time, and work breaks a lot easier, and it helps regulate digestion. If only it were that easy with us humans!

9 Comments

  1. Sleep deprivation has been something I’ve struggled to deal with (actually wrote about sleep tips for this on my blog’s latest post). It definitely makes emotions harder to navigate (as you experienced) and little challenges feel overwhelming. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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    1. It’s a pity that we accept sleep deprivation as a natural state for so many phases of our lives, such as the entirety of adolescence, early parenthood, and approaching significant events in our lives. This kind of resignation to an unhealthy sleep pattern took me years to shake off.

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  2. Fantastic blog post, really made me think and answered so many curious questions like: Don’t the dogs get distracted? Loo breaks? How long does the training taking? Thank you for feeding a curious mind. I had no idea that The Seeing Eye training was so intense. I can’t wait to read me.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found it educational. If you have any questions, I’m always open to answering them in the comments, or even writing an entire post about them. The more the sighted and non-dog-users know about our lives, the easier our lives get so I encourage curiosity.

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