Updated: Jan 3, 2019
Moses and I walk onto the patio of my favorite coffee shop, Rich’s Brew, and I put him in a down stay and go get a mocha. The idea that he will not be there when I get back does not cross my mind. Actually, it does, because there is a table of chatty coffee drinkers about 10 feet away, so I secure him to the table. I am there for a business meeting and know that he will spend the entire hour quietly resting at my feet with an occasional nudge for acknowledgement. Otherwise, he is just content to lay where he was asked. I return, mocha in hand, to a thumping tail and Moses exactly where I left him. He is such a joy.
Wise Dogs are amazing. I am not going to call him old; he is instead WISE because it gives him the respect he deserves. Moses is almost 11, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix with more hair than a large yak. He is in the sunset of his career as a FEMA certified search dog and has traveled more than a lot of people. He has been in most major airports, small and large hotels, in rental cars and long van rides. He has been to (or driven through) 30+ states including both coasts and the Gulf Coast. He has never gotten sick on an airplane (I have). He has also saved a human life.
Right now I spend a lot of time traveling with puppies, so traveling with a Wise Dog is a joy.
I call this stage of the partnership with my K9 partners the “Changing of the Guard.” I am transitioning from the comfortable Wise Dog to a new partner. Moses and I have gelled and he just does his job, whether it’s a down stay in a busy airport or launching himself across a rubble pile to find someone who is buried. The trust I place in my dogs must be passed to a new partner, whether I am ready or not. In this case, I was mentally and emotionally prepared for the task of training one new partner.
I now find myself training two (yes, two) puppies for odor detection work.
One is a lab under the age of two (Dash); the other is a Dutch Shepherd under the age of one (Niko). Emotionally, they are both at the same maturity, but learn and behave significantly differently. At least I have the benefit of one being a beautiful golden red and floppy ears (Dash) and the other being jet black with a few brindles and pointy ears (Niko). Just that simple change in stimuli (the color of the dog) helps me to remember which dog I have in front of me and adjust my training style appropriately.
I did not remember how much work a puppy is. I had forgotten how much foundation work I did with my Wise Dog.
Training these two new working partners requires me to be outside of my comfort zone. What works for them may not be what worked for my past dogs. Being able to adapt and develop plans on the fly, looking for the things I need to build on or the behaviors I need to quickly redirect is mentally and physically challenging.
As we work through the ‘building’ of a contract and relationship, EVERYTHING is up for negotiation. I am writing the contract with these two new dogs. The contracts I have with my old dogs give me a framework to start with but as we are move through the fine print of our working relationship contract, I find that I am now speaking a totally different language with each dog.
I must train the dog in front of me.
I must rely on my observational and technical skills, which is the basis for all good training. I must have structure and discipline as I train these two unique individuals. They push me every time we walk out to train.
I am simultaneously ramping up K9Sensus (formerly the Paws of Life Foundation) to bring science-based training to working dog trainers/handlers, bringing my 15-year dream to life. Of course, I must do consulting work to fund the dream. I find that the same structure and discipline is required to be self-employed – you do not wake up one morning, able to pay the bills or find a new consulting job without putting in a lot of foundation work. Getting outside of my comfort zone on a regular basis is required.
It is also exhausting. But the dogs make every moment worthwhile. A few of the things I did not remember about building a Wise Dog:
The time it takes to teach that perfect heel
The need for constant environmental socialization
You have to build the joy for playing with a toy
The balance you have to strike when training a dog to be biddable and to think they are bullet proof
The joy of a fabulous training session
The frustration when things do not go as planned
How fast they learn things you want them to know
How fast they learn things you do not want them to know
They do not generalize well most of the time, but sometimes they do, so be prepared
The structure and discipline I must have to build that Wise Dog.
There are more. These are the few I could think of in 20 seconds.
I look forward to bringing you all along with me on this journey, as I work through the contract negotiations with Niko and Dash. I promise there will be highs and lows, and much laughter – mostly at myself.
Robin has been training working dogs since 2001 and educating working dog handlers and trainers all over the nation since 2008. She is the CEO of the K9Sensus Foundation, a foundation that focuses on training the human end of the leash. While working in corporate america, she managed relationships and people using the same behavior principles she honed training dogs. Not only can these principles transform your ability to work at an elite level with your dog, but apply to every animal (humans too!) you work with.