New Perspective: From Service Dog to Demo Dog

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

It’s time for the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, and the theme for this edition — hosted by Laura at Canines In Action — is “perceive.”

My life has changed drastically since I recovered my health. Barnum’s life has changed a lot, too! In the past month, Barnum has earned his CGC (Canine Good Citizen — an AKC title) and his CLASS (Canine Life And Social Skills), BA with honors. In the course of preparing for these tests, I have realized that how I perceive Barnum has also changed. I hope I bring this new way of seeing when I work with others who are training their own service dogs.

When you work toward a very high standard, it is easy to get too focused on unattainable perfection. I want to help others achieve a high standard while also appreciating how far they have already come!

* * *

When I got Barnum, I was extremely ill and in terrible physical and emotional distress. Awash in grief over the death of my second service dog, Gadget, whose help and companionship I missed in equal measure, I was not really able to see Barnum for who he was. Yet I wanted Barnum to be an even better SD than Gadget had been.

The work that went into Barnum’s career began years before he was born. I researched the Bouvier breeders I thought would be best. And the breeder I chose had spent years on her breeding. Then, based on her observations of her puppies and on their temperament tests, the breeder chose Barnum as the best puppy to be my future service-dog-in-training.

Once he got home, I went to great effort to socialize him to everything — dogs, horses, cows, children, elderly people, police officers, skateboarders. The sounds of chainsaws, thunderstorms, owls, rock concerts. I took him to farms, construction sites, and office buildings. I really wanted him to be able to work well in any situation.

But I was terribly disappointed in Barnum because he was not Gadget perfect. He was a puppy. He was not an Einstein. He was a sweet, “soft” dog. We were not flying through his training with lightening speed and mind-blowing success.

Then I found Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, and I started learning how to lay out a really solid foundation for all SDiT behaviors with ANY dog. I learned about the importance of training the dog who shows up (not the dream dog I wished I had). And slowly, over time, I trained a great in-home service dog.

I didn’t train Barnum for public access — even though that had been my plan and what I’d done with previous SDs — because I was too sick. I was stuck in bed and at home, so it was just too hard to do the training we needed in the wide world. Also, since I actually needed a service dog’s help at home, it made more sense to put in the effort to do what was immediately useful.

A part of me still blamed Barnum for not being a perfect, all-round service dog. I thought that if he’d been more food motivated, less distracted, or smarter, he could have worked in public. Nevermind that he never had a chance to put in the hundreds of hours he needed to learn to work in public.

* * *

After I got well, I no longer needed a service dog. I began pursuing my dream of becoming a professional dog trainer. That meant taking classes with Barnum so that I could have the student’s experience as well as so Barnum could learn how to focus and work in highly distracting environments. I wanted to prepare him to become my “demo dog.”

Over the past five months, Barnum and I have taken four six-week classes: a basic manners and obedience class, an intermediate manners and obedience class, a Rally Freestyle class, and a Canine Good Citizen class. I didn’t take the classes so he could learn new skills. No, I wanted something simpler: “I just want the kerflushinner dog to FOCUS on me and NOT pull toward the other dogs! If he can just use his brain and even remember how to SIT around other dogs, I’ll be happy!”

Of course, I quickly forgot that that had been my goal and wanted him to actually succeed at what we were doing. When we took Rally Freestyle (a class on the basics of dancing with your dog), we did learn new skills, such as leg weaves and spins, and we learned them relatively well and quickly because Barnum already knew how to learn, and I already knew how to train. Furthermore, I discovered that having learned the great precision needed for pivot turns or backing up next to a powerchair translated really well into dance moves! [Link to first video for email subscribers.]

[Link to second video for email subscribers.] [Text description of all videos.]

You know what I didn’t notice in those videos until I was writing this post? Barnum’s wagging tail. He is wagging his way through our dance routine, totally happy and focused on me in a room full of other people and dogs.

The Rally Free class was two months ago. Last night, as I drove us to our CLASS evaluation, I was completely confident. I was certain  — unless something really unexpected happened — that we would pass with flying colors. And we did. It didn’t matter that we were in a pet store, that there were people and other dogs walking around, that there were shopping carts rattling, parrots and the PA squawking, aisles full of dog food and treats and toys. I expected him to be focused and thoughtful and on-task, and he was.

This is how a service dog should be, but Barnum didn’t have the chance to achieve this level when he was a service dog.

What’s more, I don’t think either of my previous service dogs (who WERE trained for public access) were ever as well trained as Barnum is now.

Yes, Gadget and Jersey worked in public. They did their long down-stays on the floors of grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and emergency rooms. They were quiet and polite and willing. They didn’t snorffle people or food. They were well-trained enough that people were always surprised that I had trained them myself and said, “I wish MY dog behaved that way.”

Even though they usually met that most important service dog standard of being as unobtrusive as large, hairy dogs could be, they were never truly relaxed and familiar enough with working in those environments to perform at the level they did at home. Jersey and Gadget could sit and down and heel in those environments, but their more complex skills — such as cued retrieves — were totally unreliable in public. I can’t imagine asking Gadget to open a door or shut off a light in a public space, but I bet that Barnum could do either of those in a store, doctor’s office, or training facility. Which is good since hopefully eventually we’ll be teaching and demonstrating those skills in novel environments one day!

* * *

Each time I’ve trained a new service dog, I’ve wanted this dog to be better trained than the previous one. And each time, I’ve been very proud of myself and of my dog, yet terribly aware of all the areas we have not lived up to what I have hoped. I tend to work so hard to get to the next level that I forget what it has taken to get where we are and to just enjoy BEING there in the moment.

A few weeks ago, Barnum did his first demo dog stint. I brought him in to teach the basics of clicker training to twelve new dog owners taking their first dog manners and obedience class. As I began the “pass the puppy” portion of my spiel, I wondered whether Barnum would be able to follow cues from twelve new people three times each, whether he would stay focused, whether he would be relaxed enough to take treats gently. I was on the watch for anything we might do wrong.

But the students loved him.

“What kind of dog is he?”

“How many commands does he know?”

“How long did it take him to learn all this?”

After his last round of demos — when Barnum had eagerly done twelve nose targets to twelve students’ hands in the class –one of the students turned to his girlfriend and said, “Now I think our dog totally sucks!”

I laughed really hard. It was such a wonderful compliment to Barnum. It is also a terrific reminder of how ridiculous it is to compare one dog to another. I said to this student, “Barnum has been training for his entire life! By the end of this class, your dog will know how to do ‘Touch,’ too.”

When I see Barnum through others’ eyes, I realize how far we have come, how fluent and reliable his skills are, and how the solid foundations we built when he was young really have allowed us to do whatever we want. It really doesn’t matter that he is not the smartest or fastest or most motivated dog on the planet. What matters is that he knows how to learn, I know how to teach, and he is happy while he is working.

This is the gift I want to bring to others. I want to help people to train their dogs to be relaxed, eager, and focused. More importantly, I want them to see this about their dogs because when they get there, there will be nothing they can’t do.


New Perspective: From Service Dog to Demo Dog — 12 Comments

  1. It’s not just Barnum who is waggy-happy in the last clip. You are too and you can hear that the entire class is as well!! He seems aware of the audience but not unfocused by them. Lovely!!!

  2. I’m grinning from ear to ear. So happy to hear about your perspective and see Barnum so happy to be doing his job. Wonderful!!

  3. Love this post, Sharon! I love the videos of you dancing with a happy, focused, engaged Barnum!

    I have two adopted NGA greyhounds that I have been “working the levels” with extremely slowly. My first pup Batman even earned his CGC a few years back. And even though he does not have a lot of innate mental energy, has a high prey drive, doesn’t have a lot of fur and fat padding for sits and downs, etc. etc. etc… when we showed up on the day of the CGC test, he was so “In the Zone” in a way I’d never seen before. It’s such a gratifying feeling – to be working *with* a dog. Very addictive.

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  5. Dear Sharon,

    I just wanted to let you know how happy I am for you. I had your “washing-out” saga on your old ‘After Gadget’ blog shared with me through an online service dog support group. Reading the entire thing was a rollercoaster of emotions. Then I got to the post titled: “Why Barnum Is No Longer My Service Dog”. For a moment, my heart sunk and I could feel tears in my eyes..,. but then I read it… “I am no longer disabled… and I no longer need a service dog.”. I just about jumped out of my chair and did Snoopy’s happy dance. Hell yeah! You go girl! Congratulations! We get service dogs to get freedom from our disabilities, and though life tripped you and seemingly pushed you down with your experiences, in the end you achieved the grand goal. I hope all is going well for you, and that Barnum is enjoying being the crazy, active, happy, sometimes smelly, bouncing, loving regular dog he was destined to be. I am also blogging about my dog and I. The posts are nowhere near as good as yours are, but maybe one day they will be

    Lots of Love,
    Hannah the Human & Wade the Dog

    • Hi Hannah.

      Thank you very much for your comment and your Snoopy dance! Yeah, life is good. Barnum is enjoying being a demo dog, and I am enjoying being a trainer! I hope all goes well for you and Wade!

  6. I just saw this post. I am so happy to read your enthusiasm for how wonderful Barnum is and how well you have worked together to bring him to this stage.

    • Hey Nan. Thanks! Actually, I wrote this quite a while back, and Barnum has been doing a lot more with me since. We just completed our six-month intensive Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional course. Training Barnum was a big part of my coursework, and I was very grateful to have a savvy, trained, stable dog to work with. 🙂

  7. i followed your saga with Barnum on the TL yahoo list. Your transformation to accepting Barnum for who he is was great. I had been cheering for Barnum for quite some time. Lovely to read how thrilled you are with him.