RUFF TRANSLATING RUFF RANTS
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One of the things I have thought most intensely about for the Ruff Translating service dog program is the way in which we approach “pairing” as a multi-year process, and not just a few week transfer of skills from the program trainer to the new handler. In many “program” style service dog training organizations, the trainers will complete the baseline training with a dog- and then there will be an abbreviated, but intense period of time that the trainer teaches the new handler how to “operate” the dog. The process is often referred to as “pairing” and can include everything from making sure the dog is a good personality fit for the handler, to public access practice, to teaching a new handler the basic care of a dog. This concept as a few week (max) crash course with no follow up support is incredibly common and exhausts me on multiple different levels.
I don’t think that just practicing the commands and learning basic dog cognition is enough for service dog teams to be successful. Obviously, a service dog needs to be highly obedient and the handler needs to be familiar with the ways in which dogs learn to troubleshoot as well as keep training in tip top shape. What this “program” process neglects and what irks my spirit (and frankly common dog sense) to core- is building communication between handler and dog and then following through to actively shifting from performance to partnership. What do I mean? An excellent example came to me in a recent lesson with an about-to-graduate team. We were working out in public, specifically around focus with one of the dog’s favorite distractions- children. I am exacting about the dogs I work with in how they behave with any level of distraction- and so certainly I was expecting to walk into this lesson to troubleshoot obedience. What I saw though, (thank you, dear autism for your incredible pattern recognition gift)- was more about the way that the tenor of the relationship changed with the introduction of this specific stimulus.
I like to imagine the connection between service dog and handler as a living link, as sturdy and alive as a vine. For a moment, let’s picture what this connection looks like as a physical manifestation. Picture a shimmering strand running from the heart and mind of a human, with a million different tiny threads across the person’s body woven into a cord that stretches across the open space to the body and mind of the service dog- a different shade of thin cord so multiple in it’s connections it looks like a spiderweb emerging from the dog. The point in between contains both sets of thousands of threads- and is woven together so seamlessly you don’t notice the different shades coming from each organism at first. The link bends, it tightens together, it stretches apart- sometimes it frays, and you can see a few knots tied for extra strength.The knots look like they are breathing in and out as they adjust to the pressure of the outside environment- they don’t look at weak points but rather like they are built for reinforcement and lasting success. It seems to have no limits with how far it can stretch, but the link is also bouncy in movement- when it stretches apart the bond applies light pressure and the two organisms snap back together easily.
I see tending this link is my most important job as a service dog trainer- until the handler is ready to take care of the link independently. What I am looking for in “tending” this link- is not just command response, or tasking skill- but that when there is pressure on the link from outside sources (distractions, home life, disability progression)- the link takes those distractions in stride and can handle the pressure without snapping. The link between the handler and dog is woven together through experiences, practice, learning with each other, and fostering understanding for each other across species lines. I tend the link through recommending boundaries around socializing with dogs/other people during training and working, training exercises intended to create focus and communication, teaching dog cognition, being dogmatic in intentions for a radically disability positive experience and changing aspects of our trajectory in training based on accessibility, and many other ways over the course of the work with each handler. Many, many of my handlers have heard me exclaim, often too loudly, “we have to prioritize the bond!” which is the language I’ve used before to talk about the aforementioned link. I think “link” is a much more useful semantic here, most dogs are very bonded to their people regardless of training- but the service dog and handler link is an intentional connection that requires fostering beyond proximity, snuggles, and snacks. There are some really involved dog training techniques I could devolve into here on how to do this successfully. But we will save that for another day.
So now we are back, in this lesson with a team whose link is well tended from the last 2+ years of our collective journey and frankly no longer needs my interrupting hands in the way. My goal right now is just to prove that to them. Two kids walk past in a grocery store- and the dog shows alert and attention towards the distraction. His heel position is fine, his attention isn’t phenomenal but not completely overwhelmed. Recently he did get overwhelmed, and his obedience faltered which severely taxed his handler’s stress level. That was layered over of some life's happenings and then some of my least favorite words in dog training were sent my handler’s way, “if you are anxious your dog will be anxious”. Y’all, this is ableism plain and simple. Your dog does not have to be anxious automatically if you are. If they were- why the hell would we use them to manage mental health? To be an impeccable dog handler does not mean you are always “in control” of your emotions.I watched my handler go through this idea someone threw at her- physically. Her tension escalated the second she saw kids- before even the dog, her shoulders got crunchy. I could feel her anxiety from across the store. But that doesn’t have to be a failure for her and the dog at that moment. She doesn’t need to “get it together”. She doesn’t need to over-control her dog. I am a frequently dysregulated person, from a lifetime of cPTSD layered with nuerodivergency. I am not always in a good state of mind for any dog, nevermind my own service dog. But I am exceptionally dependable in how I communicate with my dogs, and my behaviors towards them are incredibly consistent. That, and building my link to each dog on a galaxy of experiences and not just my bad moments, is the framework for the present. So we co-regulate. I don’t need to be the false idea of a leader. I just need to be honest, with myself and the dog. If the link were again made visual- it would look bunched up, tight, and the threads coming from the brains of both organisms would be frantically gasping for tension to control the link. This, this is the moment where there is a difference between tending that link instead of “dog training” as we think of it in terms of command and response.
The human of the team starts looking to me for solutions, when to correct for obedience, she is rapidly looking for a food lure. But that is not at all the root of what needs to happen. Yes, of course- we use our tools to regain control of an actual animal in a public store. Everything isn’t this beautiful concept of a team moving in tandem- there are practical things that must happen so that the dog behaves to our high collective standard near children, food, carts– the works. We have to address the behavior of very light leash leaning (and we do). Then I switch gears to actually addressing why this is a point of conflict for them. I tell the handler to just move, just continue with her own presence. This was interpreted initially as “running away” by the handler, but that’s not what I mean at all.
When the handler starts to disengage from the small distraction picture and trusts that she is not “in training” with her dog (ie: working on his focus only, getting him comfortable with gear, checking his tasking etc) that precious link, that is all of the experiences up to that moment, then responds to the tension in her movements. Tension is just tension- not good or bad. She puts pressure on the link to stay with her, in the moment of “grocery shopping” simply by continuing to exist outside of the “training” moment. The dog relaxes, resumes offering heart rate alerts, and with a few more gentle reminders goes into a state of excellent interest in the outside environment without being over excited. As the handler starts moving, and stops “training” her dog- but utilizing the link and instead reinforcing the training, the dog is a different animal. Truly, he relaxes into their link as much as she does. This does not mean there will never be any obedience blunders, or moments where a dog is distracted. We are all in variable states of success at any given thing- and dogs are no different. That cheesy line of “your best looks different everyday” is the truth. There is no such thing as a perfect service dog. There is a well trained service dog and well tended link. In social media we so often see these posts of a service dog constantly staring deep into the eyes of their handler while moving, maintaining a full focused heel. As a professional dog trainer, and as a service dog handler, I call bullshit and also ask, why? A focused heel is a useful obedience skill. Offered eye contact from a service dog, with no reward exchange consistently required- is vastly different from maintaining a focused heel for some unknown reason while walking through a grocery store. I want to see a dog who is checking in on AND with their handler frequently, and a handler who is relaxed enough in regards to their link to be present with their dog without being constantly “in training” mode.
I absolutely expect my service dog to follow my obedience cues, give me eye contact when asked, etc- but I also live within the link we have worked so hard to form. Most of the time, I don’t need a ton of verbal commands while we are out because I trust she knows the expectations, knows she will be rewarded when she offers those behaviors, and I feel confident enough in our communication to navigate tricky decisions. I am happy to give her a subtle reward or correction when she makes choices. Rarely do I ever give her a right or left heel position cue unless I see an obstacle that I want her in a specific position for even then she is usually there before I ask. She holds her own preference of a right or left side in any environment, moves when asked, and is absolutely allowed to perk up her ears and notice something. I lean on our link, not away or towards anything but into each other. She chooses the link too, and we move through the world. She has no reason not to- the link is as comfortable and safe as it is for me. She isn’t hyper focused on food, she doesn’t beg or attention seek, she just moves. The explanation for her consistency is that she knows she will get a reward if/when she goes above and beyond our link or just for a job well done. But the relationship is no longer strictly transactional. She is allowed to be both interested in the world around her, and expected to still choose her service dog work when needed. Achieving this still requires us to tend our link, together- do those tune up training exercises, practice things, continue to learn. Tasking for a service dog is a set of skills, and I strongly recommend brushing those up to any team, from time to time. However, outside of that, committing to a pairing process that takes the appropriate amount of time with the amount of dedication is the difference between the optics of an “obedient” dog – and the decision making of a unified service dog team.
Addendum: This way of conceptualizing training is imperative to service dog work, but it is also incredibly useful for training non-working dogs. You can have a "link" with ANY dog, not just those skilled in disability assistance.As per usual, prioritizing accessibility and non-conformity offers unique insights into success for everyone.