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.

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