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dusty_sdit in positivelydog

collie222 recommended that I check out this comm and ask my question here, so here goes.

I am a dog trainer. I primarily work with privately owned dogs that are being trained as service dogs. I have a working service dog, Gypsy who is almost 8 years old now and getting ready to retire. I've been searching for a dog to train as her replacement for almost three years. I seem to be having a run of bad luck.

Currently I am working with a smooth coated collie named Billy. Billy is about three years old and a retired show dog (he has a fancy championship title and everything). Billy is the perfect gentleman at home and in any outdoor situation. He is calm, relaxed and friendly with just about everybody. The few people that he does not like he seems to be a bit fearful of and will avoid. When pushed he averts his gaze, cowers, and moves away. He will tolerate touch if he has no other option but clearly does not enjoy it in those few circumstances. Most of the time he is very eager to interact with people and LOVES to be petted and fussed over. It took two five min sessions with one of those people using a clicker and high value treats to get him to be calm with her and even choose to interact with her. He is not as enthusiastic with her as he is with other people, but he will approach her and accept treats and petting.

His big problem is that he is fearful in new situations. He's been worried about the car, and we worked through that with the help of a thundershirt, some patience and plenty of treats. He is now happy to get in the car, a calm passenger and pleased to be left for short periods in the car. He does get a little wiggy when trucks go by, but he recovers quickly. For the past two weeks we have been working on public access training. He has been to a restaurant (about 15 min before he stopped showing signs of stress and relaxed) and three times to my school (10 min, 8 min and 5 min to relaxation). So you can see that he is making HUGE progress.

He is, however, reactive to sounds in the environment. If he hears a door opening or closing he stands up and looks around to locate the sound, the same for people entering or leaving the area we are in. I have, of course, been rewarding him for all calm attentive behavior. He is getting much better and turns back to me faster and refocuses much faster now, than he did when we started. His stress signs are refusing high value treats, shaking, heavy panting, blinking, lip licking, pacing and cowering. The shaking and refusal of treats usually only lasts for seconds at a time. Everything else takes time to go away. Once he is relaxed he is very attentive to training and willing to do whatever I ask of him. He will respond to cues even when still stressed, even when he won't take treats, he WANTS to always be doing the right thing. If he has something to DO he calms faster. I've taught him to lay on a mat and I bring that mat with us everywhere. Being told to lay on it seems to calm him.

So my question for you is, what would you recommend in this situation to help Billy be more at ease in new situations? I am very committed to doing everything in my power to help him be as happy as he can be in life. I want him to enjoy working with me, and I really hope we can get there.





Comments

My question is.. why Billy? I know you've been having trouble finding your next service dog, but I'm not so sure that I'd label him as "the one". What will be the telling factor that Billy is actually up to this task? A lot of people go through exhaustive measures to try to get a pup to ve something that they'll just never be completely comfortable doing. It seems to me that a service dog would need to be completely comfortable in the job s/he is assigned... otherwise, we are actually doing a disservice to the dog.

Overall it sounds like you have made great progress with him using positive reinforcement and paying attention to his signals to you. I just wonder if he'll ever be totally ready to do this full time.

Billy has a lot going for him. Physically he is the right size, and built very well for the job. He is also learning quickly and preforming well with everything I give him. He is very well bonded to me. He continues to make good progress in public and I've seen dogs start off worse than he did and continue on to long productive lives as well adjusted service dogs.

If Billy stops making progress or shows me that he doesn't want to work in public I will let it go and start with another dog. So far he seems willing and happy to keep trying. Up until we are inside a building. He's just scared of something. I would rather keep trying than give up at the first obstacle.
Two suggestions:

1. Teach him to make noise, working up to loud, startling noises. Start by having him step on crinkly things, or knock over a paper cup, and work up to knocking down a stack of tin cans or smacking a tippy board against the floor with his foot to make a bang.

2. Have you done any pure shaping with him? That's been a huge, huge, HUGE confidence builder for my dog. The first few purely shaped behaviors take ages, but after that it's like a lightbulb goes off in the dog's brain and he gets creative and confident. If you want more structure, you could take a Sylvia Trckman online course: http://www.lolabuland.com/long-distance-classes/
Those are both great suggestions! I did some free shaping to get him to lay on his mat, but I may free shape some more and totally plan to try the noise making. That's awesome!
Through a Dog's Ear is an amazing source... they a great protocol for noise phobias: http://throughadogsear.com/canine-noise-phobia-series/

Also, I'd also continue using the Thundershirt as long as necessary!
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April 2014

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