Changing careers is hard, for people as well as dogs.
Schooner, the Great Dane pup we raised for service work was recently released from service dog training. The transition has taken some time, but I think Schooner is settling into the new lifestyle of stay-at-home dog.
Service dogs in training get to go everywhere with their trainer. When I put my shoes on and grab my keys, the service dog in training knows what’s next: he gets leashed up, vested, and hops in the car with me to head out on an adventure. The routine is pretty familiar and the dogs get used to it.
The first time I left Schooner with the other dogs, I hadn’t given my departure a second thought: it was errand day and I had to get on the road, as there were lots of stops in front of me. I gave our three stay-at-home dogs their frozen stuffed Kongs and they happily trotted off to start to work. Schooner looked at me as if I’d given him something disgusting. Surely I had this wrong: surely I meant to take him.
After watching him fret while I was gone, I knew I had to come up with a plan to help him transition from working dog to his new role of stay-at-home dog.
My first goal was to get him conditioned to eating Kongs again. He wasn’t interested in the stuffed frozen Kongs I hand out as I leave. He needed something a little more immediately reinforcing. He was worried when I left and working on something frozen wasn’t paying off quickly enough for him so I began leaving him with a Kong stuffed with just regular old peanut butter — not frozen. “Mmmmm,” he appeared to say, “now you’re talking!” as he took his Kong over to his bed to investigate it more thoroughly.
I ran into a problem a couple days later: Schooner associated Kong delivery with my departure. He wouldn’t eat the Kong (even with just plain, unfrozen peanut butter) because he was onto me: I was trying to distract him with a Kong so I could sneak out the door without him. It was clear I had to deliver those Kongs at random and unpredictable times. Times when I wasn’t going to leave. Over the next several days, I’d give the dogs Kongs at various times — the only constant was that I wasn’t leaving after the Kong delivery.
After I convinced Schooner that Kongs didn’t always predict my departure, we could move along to the next goal which was uncoupling keys/shoes with running to the door in anticipation of coming with me. I actually worked this one at the same time as the random delivery of Kongs mentioned earlier. I would pick up my keys, deliver a Kong, and sit at my computer. Or I’d put my shoes on, deliver a Kong, and return phone calls. Regardless of what else was happening, gathering my shoes and keys did not go together with my leaving. I got smart and left my shoes on for the day and put my keys in the car long before I needed to leave in order to uncouple those clues, too.
Forgetting how massive he is and how much room he takes up on the couch, I hadn’t moved a dog bed into the living room. As I watched the dogs on our Dropcam, I could see that part of Schoons’ distress was in the fact that he didn’t have a comfy place to sleep while I was gone if the other dogs got up on the couch before he did. There was a big, fat, smooshy bed about 15 feet away from him in my office (easily accessible for any of the dogs, including Schoons), but he didn’t want to use it because then he’d be the only dog sleeping in the other room. Heaven forbid. I began leaving a big bed in the living room and now there’s always a comfy sleeping spot for whoever doesn’t get couch seating.
I’ve also started taking Schooner along on my early morning exercise jaunts. He and Lily go about 3 – 3.5 miles every morning with ease. He’s quite athletic and in very good condition so while the distance isn’t strenuous, he’s a tired dog when we get back thanks to the physical exercise, but mainly due to the mental stimulation — all the sniffing opportunities, new sights and sounds, and the brain power required to process it all. So when I have errands, I tire him out, leave him with a Kong, and I’m confident he’ll finish the Kong and then start napping. The exercise is good for him and it serves several purposes for us both.
Our daytime routine is now fairly well set. Recently, Schooner turned his nose up at his unfrozen peanut butter Kong and instead wanted the frozen (yogurt, pumpkin, peanut butter) Kongs that the other three dogs get, so now we’re even closer to our regular routine — all the dogs are getting the same thing. He no longer rushes to the door when I grab my keys and instead is now running to his bed where the Kong has been consistently delivered. Next week, I’m starting on a training plan for our dear giant boy — my goal is to get him certified as a therapy dog and maybe think about some competitive obedience.
Schooner is huge. He’s also a bed hog. Who’s really hard to move when he’s dead-asleep lying diagonally across the bed, leaving me no space. Actually, compared to the other transition issues, this one’s not at all hard to deal with. We’ll get it all sorted out, of that I’m sure.