JR’s alert-dog-in-training, Hunter, is doing well. He is almost 8 months old now, and a total sweetheart of a pup. He has made himself quite comfortable around the house and farm, and is, as hoped, very attached to JR. He is very intelligent and picks up commands very quickly. He absolutely loves having a job to do, and doesn’t discriminate. If he sees us digging something, he joins in and digs right beside us. If he sees us herding the steers, he runs over and attempts to bring them back to us. He thrives on the free time he gets running around the farm. Considering JR has never trained a dog before, I think he has done quite well teaching Hunter the basics. I’ve actually decided to take it a step further and make him multi-purpose. I want to give him a bit of guidance in the herding skill, so he can actually be helpful around the farm as well. He tries anyway, so why not?
He has posed a few challenges I had not expected, though. First, I’ve never a raised a puppy with young children in the house. It is so difficult for the young ones to follow the stricter rules required of a service animal, so we have to really stay on top of that. Also, his instincts command him to herd anything that moves. For the most part, he has learned to control his desire and not to chase the animals, or even attempt to herd without permission. Bicycles and toys, on the other hand, are a whole ‘other issue! He just can’t resist trying to snap those tires as they roll by, so we are now working on teaching him to stop when told. A third issue we are dealing with is his obsession with food. Any kind of food. Or crayon. Crayons taste like candy according to him. And with 5 homeschooled kiddos in the house, there are crayons left on the floor almost daily. He is like a spring ready to explode at the site of a food bowl or a morsel on the ground. While this wouldn’t be an issue for a typical farm dog, it is a big issue for a dog that is expected to be on his best behavior in a restaurant. Thus, we are working diligently on teaching him to ignore food and temptations of all sorts, unless we feed them in his bowl or he is running free in the pasture (no sense in fighting that battle!). He is doing well, and he has a lot of try in him, which I like. He is also learning to discern when his “uniform” is on, meaning he has to be on his best behavior. He makes little mistakes occasionally, but most of the time, does very well.
Finally, the biggest difficulty was that he REALLY bonded to JR. Now, mind you, Australian Shepherds are known for the loyalty and tendency to attach to one person more than the others. That’s one reason I chose the breed. He took that to the extreme though! JR could not leave Hunter’s sight, and if Hunter had his way, JR couldn’t go more than 3 feet from him. This began to pose a problem on outings that resulted in the kids playing around. For example, if we went to a playground or JR started playing some game with a group of church kids, he would give me Hunter’s leash to hold while he played. Hunter would go nuts, and I just could not get his focus. He wouldn’t take his eyes off JR, he would whine and squirm, and so forth. So, I took over his training. I’ve been working on weakening the bond a little bit, just so he can learn to focus on me and relax in JR’s absence when needed.
The good news is that the alert training is going well. Hunter has learned the “low blood sugar” cue we taught him, so now we are working on teaching him to discern the scent and link that cue to the correct scent. That often takes a while, but we believe he may have alerted twice now. He didn’t use the correct cue, but that is a common mistake for newly alerting dogs. They can get so wrapped up in their concern for the diabetic and their desire for the treat (they only get a treat for an alert–no other reason), that they forget their cue. This is very exciting for us. One of the biggest risks in training a dog like this is the fact that we could spend a year training him to be a “perfect” service dog, but if he doesn’t have the desire to alert, then it is all time wasted. Almost any dog is capable of alerting, but only some will ever have a strong enough desire to actually follow through on the training. This is one reason I do so much personality testing in the beginning, in the hopes I can weed out the candidates most likely to NOT alert in the future. Still, though, it’s never a guarantee. Every step the dog-in-training passes simply increases our chances of developing a successful alert.
For now, we will keep plugging along. Hunter went through a pretty intense and lengthy puppy phase, chewing on things, having accidents in the house, testing boundaries, and so forth. He seems to be coming out of it now, though, is becoming more trust-worthy every day, and I’m looking forward to evaluating him in a few more months. I have high hopes for him.