Before starting to work in Rochester, every dog has to be leading out in harness (moving forward and putting pressure into the harness when asked to go "Forward") and showing at least rudimentary awareness that it is good to stop at curbs and stairs that they encounter on the practice course. They should all be able to maintain focus on training and on me when in the presence of distractions. They should be able to perform an obedience routine with little to no difficulty.
Once they can do all of the above things, we show them the dog truck and take them for an introductory ride. The dog truck we use in the first phases of training looks like a gigantic FedEx truck. It has benches along the walls with tiedowns spaced at regular intervals. The truck is huge and noisy and learning to drive it was probably the scariest part of the new job when I started at Leader. When driving it, I feel like I'm the captain of an ocean liner or something. We have to park it in the garage every day and there are, like, inches of clearance on either side. Did I mention we have to back the truck into the garage? Every time we start a new training cycle I have to relearn the trick to backing it in straight, and until I do there is a lot of folding in the side mirrors and do-overs (getting the back half in only to realize the front half is crooked and this isn't going to work -- again). The dog truck rattles and bounces and clatters horribly on the awful Michigan roads. It sounds like a cattle car. Amazingly, the dogs adjust after just a couple rides and 90% of them sprawl out and doze during the drives. (The other 10% look out the windows, or try to play with their neighbors, or stare longingly at their trainers and try to communicate with us that they belong UP FRONT with us and not in the back with the other dogs.)
The dogs start their training in town in a mostly residential area. They are learning the basics: you walk curb-to-curb, you can't turn to investigate front yards or driveways or interesting smells, you can't lunge after those brazen Rochester squirrels that sit a couple feet off the sidewalk and then scurry away as we approach, you can't stop walking to sniff noses with your buddy walking towards you from the opposite direction, you have to walk in the middle of the sidewalk, you have suddenly become wider and have to accommodate the width of your trainer when you move around obstacles. There is lots of rewarding during this stage of training and minimal leash correction -- training should be fun. I love the first couple months of training the most because you can see the dogs' skills build day-to-day. The later stages of training are not quite so exciting because the progress peaks and plateaus once the dog has acquired all the skills and solidified self-control in the presence of distractions.
I just finished all my dogs' Week Three progress reports. I'm going to repeat them here just in the interest of showing what types of good things and what types of challenging things have come up by this point in training. I'm not including any identifying information about my specific dogs at all -- don't want any puppy raisers who might be reading this to feel bad for any reason. Let me say one thing about the progress reports first -- if I were a puppy raiser, I would be trying to read between the lines of these pretty concise reports and guess whether my dog was likely to make it or not. My best advice: that's really hard to do! We can't predict at this stage which ones are going to graduate and which ones will be career changed. (Sometimes we can if there is a big, obvious problem, but plenty of dogs who looked really nice at Week Three have washed out at later stages because either they couldn't handle the pressure placed on them as training went on, or else because a problem that appeared to be improving in Week Three plateaued at a level that doesn't meet Leader standards for placement with a client. So it's still a big question mark at this point, even for the professionals.)
Dog #1: Happy, sweet, willing dog. Anxious in the kennel, takes a long time to settle down when out of the kennel. Pops up and down for the first twenty minutes and then finally relaxes and stays relaxed. (I believe this is kennel stress and will be greatly reduced once Dog #1 is out of the kennel -- so not a major problem, but at the same time, something that differentiates Dog #1 from other dogs who settle right away or in a couple minutes.) Very bouncy dog with constantly wagging tail, approaches everything with enthusiasm. Learns commands quickly. Focuses very nicely when in harness. Walks a nice straight line down the sidewalk, not overly sniffy, not much instinctive distraction so far, which surprised me because often a dog with that energy level has a lot of distraction to go along with it. Rarely misses curbs. Pace and pull are moderate -- another surprise because of the energy level, but a pleasant surprise. (Moderate is comfortable for me.) Has some discomfort with going up stairs -- hesitates on the approach and then scrambles up -- but is responsive to methods used to fix this problem. Seems confident with all environments outside of stairs aside from one suspicious reaction to a sheep statue in the training garage -- barked and was fearful, but did come up and check it out with encouragement and was totally fine after that. (That sheep statue is scary, by the way. Lots of dogs bark at it the first time they see it.)
Dog #3: High-energy dog, bounces instead of just walking. Very food-motivated. Nothing else exists when trainer has treats. Dog #3 will do anything for treats. I believe Dog #3 could walk through a battlefield with bombs exploding and guns shooting, or through a petting zoo with rabbits and chickens underfoot, and Dog #3 would not be focused on anything other than what is necessary for it to do in order to earn a treat. Has to be reminded "Gently!" when getting a treat, otherwise I worry about the safety of my hand. Dog #3 appears fearless. Despite high energy level, goes right to sleep on the floor when I sit down. Also, does not pull like a freight train in harness but has a nice, comfortable pace and pull. Learns new things very quickly. Understands curbs but does not understand that swinging butt 90 degrees out to the left once stopped at curb, so head can swing to the right (thus closer to my treat hand), is not part of stopping at curbs.
Dog #4: Very calm dog, low energy level, extremely good obedience. Settles immediately as soon as I sit down. Appeared to be a confident dog at first but in past week has shown suspicion of a couple of objects. Dog #4 has a strange type of suspicious reaction in which, once the suspicious object is noticed, Dog #4 will turn head away from object and will refuse to look at it. Attempts to get Dog #4 to approach suspicion-inducing object are unsuccessful. BUT -- Dog #4 will walk up to and past suspicion-inducing object, even in close proximity, without altering line of travel or pace and pull. Normally dogs who are suspicious of an object will swing wide around it or slink up to it and then bolt past. This dog prefers to pretend the object isn't there. Jury is out on whether refusal to approach object will become a major problem later in training. Dog #4 also finds it hard to resist small running animals like chipmunks and squirrels, but is making good progress in this area. Walks at a very comfortable moderate pace with a medium pull.
Dog #5: First week, I pegged this dog as too stressed and high-energy for this job. Could not get Dog #5 to settle for any length of time, not even a minute, not even when out of the kennel for an hour. Was close to sending Dog #5 home but came in the second week to find Dog #5 has accepted that I'm an OK person and that working for me is cool. Dog #5 now settles right away and is fully engaged in training. Dog #5 is not afraid of anything and, while at first distracted by anything moving in any close proximity, is now much more interested in the work and in me than in anything else. Very alert dog who notices everything but doesn't do anything other than notice. Dog #5 does not appreciate being left on the training truck while I work with other dogs and lets me know by vocalizing. Pace and pull are comfortable -- moderate -- and straight line is very good. This is an extremely bright dog who, while thinking food treats are okay, also seems to enjoy the challenge of figuring out the work just as much as getting treats.
Dog #6: Really nice, sweet, straightforward dog with good ability to focus on training and very high willingness. Settles immediately and dozes until called upon to do something. No serious issues have manifested so far other than I wish Dog #6 would stop barking so much in the kennel. Dog #6 is my fastest and hardest-pulling dog. Has been confident with everything so far and gives me the feeling of being a really sound, stable dog. Not too distracted by anything -- always engaged in training and always trying to figure out what I want. If I had to pick any one dog as Most Likely To Succeed, I would pick Dog #6.
Dog #7: Very, very sweet dog. Very willing to do what I want, very engaged in training. Lower distraction level, easy to regain attention when mildly distracted by anything. Seemed a little anxious and high-strung the first couple weeks -- hard to settle, wiggly during grooming and harnessing, very intense -- but this seems to have diminished now that we're working in town. Settle is very good now. Obedience is very good as well. Very sensitive dog -- a heavy hand in training could easily shut this dog down. I think this is going to be a slow dog with a light pull. Pace is moderate/medium right now but this is the kind of dog who, as responsibility increases, is going to slow down to make sure things are done right.
So that's what we've got at the end of Week Three.