Sunday, August 28, 2022

Walking with a Service Dog

How do I take a morning walk with my Service Dog Azul?

Very much like any other dog and human would do. You see, some SD Handlers believe that a dog can't learn the difference between a working heel and a free sniff-a-bout kind of walk where the dog is allowed to walk in front, behind, beside you...where ever they want. This video is to demonstrate that dogs can generalize these cues to the environments you train them in.

The key is consistency in your set up.

Here are my simple criteria that tells Azul what to expect. Azul always wears a harness and a short traffic lead attached to his harness no matter what type of walk we are doing. Some handlers will use different gear, an exercise harness for sniffing and a working harness for heeling and increased focus. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact I do this with my younger dogs. But I hate switching gear out so I end up phasing out that gear change.

My walking style predictor is the leash I use, or more specifically the length of leash I use. Places where Azul is free to sniff around I use a 6 ft or longer leash, quite often my homemade 10 ft leash. Places where I want Azul in work mode, I use a leash that is 4 ft or shorter, often an 18-24 inch traffic lead. And no matter where we are walking, my leash is almost always attached to a waist belt or shoulder strap as my hands would frequently drop the leash. The other set of criteria that I train is environmental. Most often outdoors walks are meant for Azul's enrichment and he is free to sniff, while indoor walks are meant for work and he should stay close in his loose heel. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Outdoor places such as exhibit space at an arboretum, conservatory, or memorial garden are working environments with a short traffic leash and heel required. There are also a few pet friendly stores such as the pet store where our main goal is to allow Azul to smell, so here we use a 4-6 ft leash and I follow Azul around unless I need to ask him to avoid a certain aisle or animal. Azul also knows that he has lots of friends at Tractor Supply, Home Depot, and our local library so the chances of me giving him permission to socialize is much higher in these locations then other places. So you see, I'm pretty far from having exact established criteria for walking. I make exceptions all the time! For the most part Azul knows those exceptions in our local environments. But that is also where verbal cues and hand signals come in to play. If I need Azul to do something other then what the leash predicts, a simple cue tells him what I need from him in that moment. Because Azul is a Medical Alert & Response Service Dog, he has to be ready to work pretty much 24/7 no matter what environment we are in. Azul is trained for some light mobility tasks including forward momentum and counterbalance to help prevent me from falling. Due to multiple issues with my disability I fall often which can lead to further complications and his tasks help to reduce that risk.

In this video you can see how he helps me walking down a hill and pulling me a hill. This takes place during our normal morning walk which I would not be able to do without his support. So here he is working for a short period of HIS sniff-a-bout and exploration walk.

Azul has learned to switch back and forth from work mode to play mode at a moments notice. On average he works less then an accumulation of 2 hrs a day but he's always ready. Often the work Azul does goes unnoticed by those around us. That is by design! It's important to me that Azul and I work as a team to take care of each other. That means that I watch out for his needs to explore the environment by planning to spend more time sniffing and looking around in new environments. Azul watches out for my needs by frequently checking in with me to see how I feel and what I need. Often he knows I'm going to need help long before I know I need help.

We are still working to increase those check in's in high distracting environments such as when we are walking with friends or working with clients but as Azul gets older this becomes easier. Adolescence is a long and trying time for both handler and dog. My next blog will focus on using environmental processing to help your adolescent dog be more successful.

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