Friday, January 17, 2014

The Head Halter: A Love/Hate Relationship

Piper in Hobby Lobby picking out dog bed material.

 Although I've raised puppies for guide dog organizations for several years, it wasn't until I switched to raising for St Francis Service Dogs that I started using the Gentle Leader, generically known as the head halter. To date I'd had plenty of experience walking dogs with flat collars, martingale-type collars, chain collars and Easy-Walk harnesses. Each one has its pros and cons. But the head halter was something new altogether.

 A dog's head halter reminds me of a horse hackamore. The hackamore is a type of training equipment often used to transition a young horse from halter to bridle. Briefly, it allows you to guide the horse not by a bit in his mouth, but by pulling reins attached to a noseband. The noseband exerts pressure on the horse's nose, chin and face.

For a dog the Gentle Leader works on a similar principle. The leash is attached to the nose loop, and when the dog pulls away from the handler, pressure on the dog's nose redirects his forward momentum, causing the dog to slow down or turn towards the handler instead. In that sense it makes walking a strong, active young dog much easier and less strenuous, which is great for the handler.

Piper at 4 months having lunch, wearing the Gentle Leader.
However from the first time Piper wore a Gentle Leader, at about 10 weeks old, he disliked it. He rubbed his head on the floor, on my legs and shoes, on the furniture, he tried to peel it off with his paws. Not being blessed with opposable thumbs, this was not possible. When I mentioned Piper's distaste for the halter, the trainer suggested I put the GL on whenever he was about to do something pleasant, like at mealtimes, chew time, fun walks, etc. This I religiously did but Piper wasn't buying into the Gentle Leader = Good association. You know the saying, "To call a spade a spade?" If Piper could talk he would have his own name for the Gentle Leader and I don't think he'd use either the word "Gentle" or "Leader". Maybe it's good dogs can't talk.

Piper at the Lynx train station, Charlotte, NC

Piper is nine months old now, and wears the Gentle Leader most times we work together. When it's first put on, what follows is intermittent head rubbing, snuffling and snorting along with some comments from the audience present such as, "Is that a muzzle?" and "Oh, has he been bad?" and "He really doesn't like that, does he?" You learn to gracefully shrug off these comments. Eventually Piper settles down in his GL and walks reasonably well. And the GL does give me great leash control. But somehow I can't help feeling it changes his personality. Piper seems a different dog with the GL on, not as happy and bright as he would be otherwise. However, Rules is Rules, and Piper, just like all the other service dogs in training at St Francis, must learn to use the Gentle Leader. It's a fact of life.

There is an important reason the school trains their dogs in the use of head halters. While a puppy raiser or a trainer can be capable of managing a young dog on a leash, when the dog is matched with a disabled person, loose-leash walking may start to fall apart. And dogs can quickly sense when to take advantage of a person. So their new partner needs to have tools to fall back on, one being that the dog can be easily walked on a Gentle Leader.

St Francis PR outing to downtown Roanoke.  Dogs L to R:  Newton, Shasta, Bijou (hidden), Lexi, Joli, Piper, Jeter.

This makes sense I suppose. It is encouraging when I notice Piper forgets he has the GL on for long stretches and life is good. Maybe it's my imagination, but these episodes seem on the increase. Head halter or no, Piper does LOVE working. Wearing his Gentle Leader may be a little daunting, but as one dog aficionado told me, "It's kinda like getting used to wearing a bra." Ha! Glad there's no leash attached to one of those!

Piper and I join a Southeastern Guide Dog outing to downtown Charlotte. Piper is seated between Patti (L) and Beverly (R). The guide dogs in training are wearing martingale collars.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Meeting Sam and Self-Control

Sam and young Piper last June

Sam and Piper in December
Piper is head-over-heels in puppy love. However, the object of his ardent affection and undying love is not some canine cutie, but my son, Sam. Sam has been a key player in Piper's young life since the little pup was seven weeks old. Together Sam and I have taken Piper on local expeditions and excursions, and he has witnessed Piper's growth through many awkward, laughable stages. Often at the house, Piper and Sam just hang together on the floor, Piper sprawled on his back, sparkling brown eyes fixed on Sam. When Sam is absent any length of time, Piper sits on the front porch with his head resting on a low rail and eyes dreamily fixed on the driveway, for all the world as if he's waiting for his special man to drive up.

Although Piper is my close partner and we have amazing times together, Sam is something special - the absolute light of his life. As Piper's raiser, handler and teacher, I don't see anything wrong with this. On the contrary, I think it is wonderful Piper can forge strong attachments with other people since close relationships are an important facet of a service dog's life. In fact, I am rather relieved. As a small puppy Piper tended to be rather aloof and independent and I used to worry about him giving people the cold shoulder.

Piper loves the cold and ice.
Not the problem anymore. More recently, when Sam's visited our house or we've visited the library, where Sam does IT work, Piper is beyond ecstatic - he is a whirling dervish of dog blissfulness. These meet and greet sessions used to be overwhelming, noisy and even painful. "Shush, Piper! You're in the library!" and "Oh, sorry, did Piper get you in the face again?" So, it came about that I turned Piper's infatuation into a training opportunity to teach my teenage dog the fine art of self-control.

One day when I heard Sam drive up, instead of letting Piper hurl himself at the back door, I quickly snapped on the leash. As Sam walked in, I positioned myself with Piper on the far side of the room and told Sam to stay by the door and wait quietly. With Piper weighing in at 65 pounds of solid muscle, our slick floors gave me a big advantage. He couldn't get a solid purchase to claw and haul himself over like a lassoed bull. Because I stayed rooted in one spot, Piper finally decided to pay attention and cooperate. Reaching Sam was his big reward.

The aim was for Piper to sit on a loose leash and check in with me, though it was fine if he watched Sam as well. When Piper was ready for permission, I'd softly say, "Piper, you want to Go Visit? Let's Go." We'd take a step or two forward. This is when Piper would try to launch himself again, at which point I would anchor myself again and we'd started the calming-down, checking-in-with-me process all over again. Whenever he completely ignored me, we'd play Monopoly:  Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, meaning we'd retreat to the far corner and start all over. "Hmm," thought Piper, "that didn't work like I wanted."

To move forward, he had to exercise self-control by walking at my pace and not surging ahead. Reminding him with "Eee-asy" helped. In fits of starts and stops, we slowly advanced across the room toward the prize - Sam. Finally, finally he calmly reached Sam. I released him with a "Go Visit", and they had a glorious reunion, where Piper lifted his muzzle, laid back his ears and molded his body around Sam's legs. He let out a little groan of pleasure. It was too cute. I gave Sam and Piper a minute of howjadoo-time, then called Piper away with a treat and lots of praise. Over to the far side of the room we retreated and did the whole exercise again.

By the third repeat, Piper got it, loose-leash heeling nicely across the room with only minor stops and reminders to walk easy. Success! At the start of this exercise I had to exert quite a bit of control over Piper, but it progressively switched to Piper understanding he needed to control himself. The big payoff was after the third repeat Sam and Piper got a nice, long visit. Sweet!

Piper last Tuesday at Riverside nursing home. Starting to figure it out!
After doing this exercise with the ultimate challenge (Sam), Piper shows way more self-control when visiting strange or familiar people in all types of settings. I ask the person to stay put while I bring Piper calmly to them and he visits with my permission. Usually the greet is short and sweet, and Piper is called away with a treat and praise. Now Piper has clear-cut guidelines for greeting people, and he's not confused about what's expected of him. And I don't have a rowdy, possibly unsafe situation with a 65-pound teen dog dervish. Teaching high drive Piper self-control during the puppy/teen stage makes him a joy to be around:  for me, Sam and those future loves of his life.