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K-9 Prodigy

Unleash the genius in your dog

My Blog


Service Dog Graduates

Posted on 10 August, 2015 at 10:54 Comments comments ()

Congratulations to Team Kayda -- they have just achieved service dog certification through K-9 Prodigy! It's an extremely challenging, minimum 6-month program consisting of many hours, documented taskwork, and the nervewracking Public Access Test. They dug in, worked hard, and ultimately sailed through -- setting the stage for a wonderful working life together.

I am so proud of this team!

Graduating a service dog team

Posted on 8 July, 2015 at 10:52 Comments comments ()
One of the service dog teams is about to graduate! What an amazing time!

Here's the inside scoop on K-9 Prodigy's owner-trainer service dog program, and the graduation requirements. All the requirements are based on recommendations from Assistance Dog International, but there's also some K-9 Prodigy-specific ones!

1) Minimum training hours. 120 hours is the minimum recommended through Assistance Dog International. Since our dogs come in through a variety of backgrounds, the K-9 Prodigy training hour requirements are 120 hours for a dog with a substantial training, obedience and socialization background and 180 hours for dogs with less previous training.

These have to be focused training hours. It doesn't count as socialization training if you go to the beach and lie around for four hours with your dog. You could only count the time you were *actively* training the dog. Many clients training logs are filled with brief 5 and 10-minute training sessions. Those add up!

The hours have to be spread over a minimum of six months. In other words, you can't just crash-course a dog through 120 straight hours of training and be done in a week. That's just plain not training. A dog needs time to settle into training, develop routines, and understand service work as a way of life.

2)  Public access test. We follow the public access test developed from Assistance Dogs International down to the very letter! The test is videoed and kept forever. The test is then reviewed and marked by an "outside" trainer not affiliated with K-9 Prodigy. Since K-9 Prodigy is such a small organization, I don't have the luxury of having colleagues and panels on-hand to review the dog's progress. So having this set of "outside eyes" really helps, as well as provides independent verification of the teams public access skills.

3) Taskwork and proofing. It's important not to just train the taskwork, but also to make sure that it sticks and that the dog is able to perform under any circumstance. There's even off-leash proofing! The dog's taskwork is also videotaped to provide documentation.

4) Transition to work. This is important because, especially for owner-trainers, it can be a hard jump from "in training" to "fully working" team. Transition to work sessions involve ensuring the dog can work on his own without too much training/handling/reinforcements/etc and that the handler can get needed life tasks done without the dog being an impediment.

5) Before a handler graduates, I make sure that he or she understands not only the legal rights of service dog handling, but also the responsibilities. I'm a big fan of "service dogs should be seen but not heard." A service dog should be unobtrusive and the team should function fluently. Handling fluency is important before a team should graduate.

Cues Vs Commands Part II

Posted on 20 May, 2015 at 13:40 Comments comments ()
Remember this video from yesterday? We were talking about "cues" versus "commands" when working with dogs, and I was saying how for this dog, in training for autism work, his trained support pressure needs to be reliable when the handler needs it, *not* when she can rationally and logically command him to do it.

So, is this dog (it's Rocco, by the way, a talented Golden Retriever) responding to a "cue" or to a "command?" If so, what is it? And how do you train such a thing??? (I know! I promised you yesterday that I'd tell you!)

First off, this dog is working off environmental cues. An environmental cue is when the environment or something that happens in the environment happens and then the dog responds in a certain way. This might sound really rare and challenging, but actually it happens all the time. For example, take your dogs leash off the hook, and your dog might start bouncing and spinning all over the place! Not the behavior that you want, but it's something you may have inadvertently trained your dog to do -- on an environmental cue!

Rocco's environmental cues for this are 1) "yelling", and 2) the handler "falls out" of connection with the dog. Yelling is obvious, but "falling out" of connection with the dog means that the handler stops focusing on the dog, changes focus, may drop the leash or just holds onto the end, and basically leaves the dog to its own devices. You'll see in this video that at one point he ends up tangled in his own leash and the handler (that's me handling, by the way -- aren't I a good actress? LOL) does not even notice. An experienced service dog will notice when that that happens and start working to bring the handler back, even before there's escalation to yelling.

How did we train that?

First off, we had to make sure that Rocco was comfortable working around yelling, angry voices. Most dogs (and most people) do not like this. We used a technique called "classical conditioning" to make sure that Rocco not only tolerated yelling, but actually perked up when he heard it and trotted off to seek it out. He will also be monitored for life to ensure that he's not developing stress, disliking his job, or experiencing any other burn-out type symptoms (similar to the need for social workers and ER doctors to carefully monitor their own mental health.)

Rocco was taught a shoulder target to hip and then target/lean. We used a technique called "capturing" to train this behavior. With capturing, you basically just wait until the dog does something on its own, then reward it. Rocco had a lot of trouble with this part, because he's used to being in heel position or at least to politely avoid crowding and pushing the handler, so this step took a while.

But once he could do the target, we added a "transitional" cue so that we could get better control of the behavior while we worked to put it on environmental cue. The transitional cue is that left arm of mine sort of sticking out and diagonally towards the ground. Do you see it in the video? It's subtle. This gives him a "space" to move in and do his target. 

Once he was doing it on the transitional cue, time to move up to the final environmental cue. You always follow the same technique to introduce a new cue -- it goes 1) New cue 2) Known cue 3) Behavior 4) Reward! So, for Rocco, it went: 1) Yell 2) arm cue 3) Behavior 4) Petting.

In this video, we're transitioning off the transitional cue (ummm...I think that makes sense?) So there's very little transitional cue, just enough to "help" Rocco if he needs it, because you always want a dog in training to succeed. That builds confidence. I want Rocco to believe down to his very core that he can ALWAYS be successful at this task.

Other little tidbits to look for in the video are helping him problem-solve (could he get himself out of his tangled leash, with no handler help, and still come back to work?), monitoring stress (the "shake-off" after he got out of the leash tangle was probably a stress sign, showing that he found the entanglement uncomfortable or scary -- like I said we monitor him for stress, but service dogs have a stressful occupation ahead of them and do need to be able to handle stress, so a minor stressor like this one would have strengthened him, not weakened him), increasingly long petting times with awkward handler movement (the very last one, draping my full body over him), and practicing taskwork in a variety of locations (this was actually his first time doing this out "in public.") So there are lots of different elements of training going on here!

Interested in environmental cues? TRY THEM AT HOME! Remember that dog of yours who leaps and spins when you get the leash out? Why don't you put a "sit" on environmental cue of "leash comes out?"

Try this:

1) Pick up the leash. [This will be the environmental cue.]
2) Cue "Sit" (verbal or hand signal) [This will be the transitional cue.]
3) Dog sits.
4) "Good dog!" as you leash up.

Do that for a couple of walks. On maybe the 4th or 5th walk, drop your transitional cue, so it goes:

1) Pick up the leash. [Environmental cue.]
2) Pause and wait a few seconds, looking expectantly at your dog.
3) Dog sits.
4) "Good dog!" as you leash up.

If your dog has trouble sitting right away when you drop the "sit" cue, give him a few seconds to think about it. (Yes, it sometimes takes some moments for the wheels to start turning in their adorable little heads!) If after 3-4 seconds the dog still isn't sitting, then "help" the dog by cue "sit." Praise and leash, then try again!

There are endless possibilities for environmental cueing! Think of some! Let me know if you have any questions!

"Cues" vs "Commands," Service Dog Style

Posted on 19 May, 2015 at 23:04 Comments comments ()
A quick note -- the training string is hereby officially "full" -- I'll still go out and do an assessment for you, if you'd like, but it's going to be mid-June because I'll have availability to take on any more dogs!

So, things are busy and happy, with some fantastic dogs! Now, let's go ahead and talk about "cues" versus "commands." Let's talk about them "service dog style," because when you're talking training, service dogs are frequently the gold standard!

When you tell your dog to sit, do you A) Cue sit, or B) Command sit?

What's the difference?

I usually think of a command as a cue. Here's a young service dog working with me last week. He's being trained for autism work, and one of his main jobs is to seek out and provide comfort via leaning in/applying pressure to the handler to distract her from her behavioral melt-down and encouraging calming petting of the dog.

The video follows, and then I'll even tell you how I trained the dog to do that, but what I want you to think about is "Where's the command?"

An autistic child (or any child -- or, come to think of it, any adult) is not going to, in the midst of emotional melt-down, going to be able to rationally command the dog, "Come now to me for petting." No way! The emotional melt-down is the antithesis of rationality, and believe me, if the suffering child could verbalize a way to command or beg assistance of any kind he or she'd do it. But they can't. That's why they're melting down.

Enough chitter-chatter! Here's the video!

Training for Reliability: Service Dog style

Posted on 2 May, 2015 at 11:36 Comments comments ()
I just love this video of Team Kayda. They're the perfect team in many ways. They've just begun Month 5 of training, and are due to graduate after Month 6! This video demonstrates Kayda's taskwork and shows that she performs "individually-trained tasks to mitigate the person's disability."

(This wording is important, by the way. The tasks need to be specifically trained -- a service dog "task" can not be something is not specifically taught or that any dog is capable of providing. For example, simply providing a feeling of safety from the dog would not be recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act as a trained task. The dog needs to actually *do* something.)

Fairly recently, a service dog school in California declared bankruptcy after a whole slew of problems including that the dogs were not actually doing any of the tasks they'd been trained to do. This was particularly sad because the school charged quite a lot for the dogs and insurance does not cover service dogs, so the families were paying out of pocket for them -- this program charged about $7500 for each dog. The program stated that the families had signed off, confirming that they had "seen a demonstration of the dog performing the task and that they were satisfied with the task." I wonder what this demonstration entailed. If it was just the trainer standing in the family's living room showing what he'd taught the dog, it it would be sadly naiive of anybody to sign off stating that they were satisfied with it. 

There is a grey area in the ADA description of service dog requirements, in their statement that the dog needs to be "individually task-trained." Here's the grey area: it does not state how fluent or reliable the dog needs to be. It does not state how well the dog needs to be proofed against distractions. I filmed the Team Kayda Taskwork video at Washington Square Mall, but technically it could have also been filmed in a sterile training studio, or in the backyard, and it would still have met ADA guidelines.

When proofing a service dog (or any dog, for that matter) I like to answer the question "What if?" "What if _______ , would she still do her job?"

What if there was a plate of food sitting next to the unresponsive handler?

What if the lead fell out of the unresponsive handler's hand?

What if the handler tripped and fell as Kayda was leading her to the door?

What if a bystander moved in to try to help the unresponsive handler?

What if a bystander tried to take the dog from the unresponsive handler?

From a training perspective, the sky is the limit when asking these "what ifs." You can also ask them (and then train them!) to your own dog! These "what ifs" are what will get your dog up to the reliability of a service dog.

For example, the recall (come when called):

"What if my dog can't see me?"
"What if my dog can't hear me calling?"
"What if there's an obstacle between me and my dog?"
"What if someone is throwing a ball nearby?"

...and the list goes on!

Pros and Cons of Training Your Own Service Dog

Posted on 3 March, 2015 at 13:19 Comments comments ()
Are you considering training your own service dog? It's not a decision to take lightly! Owner-training is a huge commitment -- not something that you can do "on the weekends" or "when I get around to it." Good owner-training takes a substantial amount of time, energy, and good old-fashioned hard work. If you have a disability and are considering training your own service dog, here's the quick-list of pros and cons.


1) No wait time. Many service dog organizations have a wait time of several *years.* In particular, if your disability is one which will be helped by the mere presence of a dog, you will start to get some emotional and companionship support of the dog before it is even trained! (Note: Providing "emotional and companionship support" is not considered a "trained task" by the ADA...but service dog users know that this is a huge part of the dogs' benefit.)

2) The dog can be trained to *your* specifications. For example, many parents agree that the "stimming" behaviors of an autistic child are not harmful and should be tolerated as long as they do not involve self-injury (I agree with this, BTW -- long live neurodiversity!) but many autism service dogs are trained to interrupt stimming. If you do not *want* your son or daughter's dog to interrupt stimming, an owner-trainer simply doesn't train that task. You can concentrate only on the tasks that you actually need.

3) Owner-trainers develop better handling skills. Most program-trained dogs come with a handler training portion ranging from a few weeks at a campus to a few days (!) with an instructor, and many programs include at least some follow-up and troubleshooting if there are problems. But successful owner-trainers understand the entire process, have already dealt with most of the problems, and are usually more self-sufficient throughout the dog's career.


1) It's HARD to find the right dog. In my experience, expect to spend at least six months locating a suitable candidate. One of my current teams spent over a year finding their candidate. It's a very specific temperament that you're looking for; the perfect balance between calmness (for public access) and drive (for taskwork.) Oh, and don't forget about good health!

2) It's a LOT of work. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partnerships recommends 180 hours of training over a period of 6 months. Are you prepared to work your dog for 1-3 task training sessions every day for six months as well as public access practice?

3) It might not work out. Estimates for owner-trainer success rates range from 10% to 30%. This is a VERY low success rate. (For comparison, success rates for program-trained dogs are between 50-85%, and these dogs are usually specially-bred, specially-trained from puppyhood, and professionally trained and matched.)

Still with me? Here's my advice from almost 10 years working with owner-trainers and their dogs:

1) Choose your dog candidate with your head, not your heart. I know you're excited to get started training, but slow down, tiger. This is NOT the time to get bleeding-heart and want to "rescue an abused, aggressive dog and turn its life around" or "prove to the world that pit bulls are really great dogs." You deserve the most appropriate candidate you can find. Don't make it harder than it needs to be -- I promise, it will be hard enough.

2) Take your disability into account when training. This especially applies to people with Psychiatric Service Dogs. Yes, sometimes you are going to have a bad period and it will be hard to get out of bed. On those days, you are going to attend to the dogs basic needs, congratulate yourself for doing that, and not -- NOT -- freak out about training. On those other days, when you're functioning better, you're going to train and practice. Yes, that might add weeks to your training plan. Yes, that's okay.

3) Connect with others. There are many owner-trainer message boards, Facebook groups etc! Take huge advantage!

4) Know in advance what you're going to do if your dog does not complete training. Remember the low success rate? Ideally you should decide this before you even get your candidate. You can keep the dog and give up on the idea of service dogs. You can rehome the dog and try again with a different candidate. Or you can keep the dog and then get a second dog as a candidate. Only you can make this decision, but you do need to make it, and hopefully before you NEED to make it.