Training My Own Service Dog

With my back getting to the point where I’m having issues with falling regularly and needing to apply for a wheelchair, I’m also working on training a dog to help me out. Murdock is a black Lab mix, and my roommate and the vet both think his other half is Feist. He’s a sweet, smart boy, somewhere around a year old, with very little training beyond housebreaking (but he was already bell-trained!) when he came here in early September. He got his shots then, and has been working with me daily since that time–usually 5-10 training sessions per day, 10 minutes or less each. We’re also making progress on letting me check over his paws, joints, skin and teeth; and letting me clean his ears without pulling away. They had a nasty inflammation and he’d scratched one bloody and nearly hairless due to a flea allergy–but Bravecto and Gentizol are helping them heal nicely, and the hair is growing back on the bare ear. While he’s not yet in optimum health, he’s on the way there.

He’s already learned sit, lay down, wait (stay), “you’re free”, walking nicely on a leash, and not chewing on things that aren’t designed for it…at least at home where there aren’t distractions. He’s still got to make some progress on not getting distracted/overexcited by other dogs’ smells or by other people, but that will come in time. For the moment, he’s still not realizing that the Chihuahua who shares our apartment is 1/6 his weight and can be fairly easily hurt if Murdock gets playing too enthusiastically. I’m hoping that changes very soon. He’s currently learning “under” so that we can build on going under tables/seats and lying down, which he’ll need to do in order to get to public access, and “up” onto a platform so that I can check him over easily when I’m in so much pain that I can’t bend over. We’ve been introducing him to people in uniform as the opportunities arise, and so far he’s not shown any fear of a sheriff’s deputy, pizza delivery guy, UPS driver, or the mailman, though he’d like to jump up and lick them, which he also needs to learn not to do when he’s working.

He’s also a very strong puller who loves to play tug, and sometimes nearly pulls me out of my desk chair if he engages all of his muscles. That will serve him well for work if he maintains that muscle mass, though he’s never going to be of a size to do heavy mobility work, since he currently stands around 19″ at the shoulder and around 40 lbs. If he can bring me my empty wheelchair or my cane at home, bring me a drink from the fridge so I can take meds for a particularly bad pain spike, or summon help in public if I fall and hurt myself, he’ll be significantly improving my quality of life and my ability to do more than stay at home and live at my computer. As it is, he’s gotten me out walking more, even if it’s in short walks around the parking lot, even if I’m having to watch my feet so I don’t fall. It’s more exercise than I’ve been able to get for months, because of the frequent falls and the fear of falling into a roadway again. (I’m just glad that driver was paying attention last week when I fell in front of her, or she’d have hit me.)

My roommate (visually impaired) has also worked with Murdock a little to teach him basic guide dog work so that he can get me home if I develop a blinding migraine while I’m walking him. He’s picked that up to the point where she’s comfortable walking him in harness for a few miles down the greenbelt park here in town–which she wouldn’t normally do with a dog who’d been training for less than 6-8 months, but he’s picked up the basics in a month. I was extremely grateful today that she has already done that, because I was dealing with neurological symptoms causing photophobia and causing sudden/sharp sounds to trigger electric shocks throughout my body, a pounding heart, and nausea…and he needed to go outside to go potty. I ended up going outside with him on his regular leash, a polarfleece ear warmer over my eyes to help block light, and walked with a hand able to touch the hallway wall while he took me down to the end of the building’s central hallway and stopped at the step off the back, waiting for me to step down. We successfully got him out and pottied, picked up his poo and took care of it, and made it back inside and back to my bedroom, where I found him some extra-special treats for doing such a good job when he hasn’t even been trained to help me with that yet!

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