. On the left is a black Labrador retriever lying down, looking forward and wearing a red bow on its collar with a sign that says "You're My Person" with hearts on it in front of the dog.

Hi! My name is Amy Schupska. My husband of 18 years, Andy, and I have raised 14 Leader Dog puppies. We live in Michigan near Lansing. We are currently raising Monroe, an 8-month-old male lab and golden retriever mix. I own a pet care business in my town and am also an artist.

I’ve been a puppy counselor for six years. A puppy counselor is a puppy raiser who volunteers to head up a group of puppy raisers. Puppy counselors support raisers by answering questions, and planning outings and training opportunities. I started off as the counselor for the Michigan and Ohio Independent Puppy Raiser Group for about 5 years. Because the group doesn’t live close to each other, we primarily communicated through emails and I even visited a few of them. Two years ago, I achieved my goal of becoming a local puppy counselor when I was asked to head the Michigan State University/East Lansing Group. While I enjoyed being the puppy counselor of the independent group, I really enjoy being more hands on and in person with the MSU group.

A line of people each with their own dog standing in front of some tall yellow flowers with trees in the background.I enjoy coming up with a variety of locations and experiences for the raisers and their puppies. Some of the outings include places such as the movies, baseball games, a horse farm, cider mill, going out to dinner, or even just meeting at the mall. The different locations provide a large variety of experiences for the puppies such as different surfaces for them to walk on, new things to see and smell, and sometimes even different noises. It’s crucial that Leader Dog candidates are acclimated to these types of experiences.

One of the areas of concern for raisers is when a dog is career changed. This means that the dog is not suitable to be a guide either because of a health concern or a behavioral reason. Sometimes the dogs will go into “alternative careers” such as courtroom therapy dogs for children, drug detection, an ambassador for Leader Dog, service dog, etc. Since only 11% of career changed dogs will go into alternative careers, a lot will go home to their raisers or be adopted out by the public.

A black Labrador retriever lying on the ground wearing a red bandana with a paw print that has the American flag stars and stripes inside of it.Raisers often will feel like they failed their puppy if he/she is career changed for medical or behavioral reasons. I try to remind them how wonderful it is that Leader Dog listens to each dog to see if they are capable AND enjoy the work. I’m glad that they don’t try to force the dogs into jobs they don’t enjoy.

Even when a dog is career changed, I believe the year was still productive. The raiser and puppy have still been in the public eye teaching people about visual impairments and guide dogs. A lot of people don’t know how to behave around a service dog, so it’s helpful when we can talk to them about why service dogs shouldn’t be pet or distracted. Sometimes incorporating an adult or child into feeling like they are helping to train the puppy by being a distraction, etc., can make them feel like the interaction is meaningful.

I enjoy volunteering for pet therapy with my career changed golden retriever, Sally. We have been doing pet therapy for about 8 years and have completed over 275 visits. Sally and I primarily will visit the crisis unit in the Community Mental Health Center and exam relief for students at Michigan State University. Sally is phenomenal at reading a room of people and knowing who needs some extra love and attention. She will put her paw on the person or lean into them until she feels they are doing better. Sally knows me better than myself some days!

Six people, including Amy, posing for the picture with five dogs sitting near one of the people.Through Leader Dog, I’ve encountered many fantastic dogs and people. I’ve even traveled to the other side of the world to Taiwan to visit one of the dogs we raised! I’ve talked to people in the public that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. My puppy is a bridge for conversation which I believe will help them know how to interact with someone that is visually impaired with a guide dog someday. Everyone wants to feel like they belong and are included. That includes you, me, the public, and Leader Dog clients.

Ashley kneels on a log in front of a large body of water in the background. Her hands are on a dog in an orange body harness next to her.

By Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Ashley Nunnelly

Ashley here! Thank you all for the fantastic feedback from Ask Ashley blog #1! I am loving diving into these questions and problems with you, and if my answer doesn’t give you quite enough information, please reach out for follow up!

Renee writes:

When people arrive at our home, how do you keep the dog from getting so excited and wanting to jump on them?

Hi Renee!

Gotta love a full body slam as a greeting!

First, let’s talk about WHY they do that. Oftentimes, they are trying to get up to our faces to get near our mouths. It’s one of those leftovers in the genetic wolf-y behaviors. They want to lick your mouth and sniff your face and gather all sorts of information about what you did in your day while you were away from them.

“Mmm, I detect a leftover hint of coffee from this morning, I smell that Caesar salad she ate at lunch (anchovies, yum yum) aaaaaaand, what is that I smell? Did she cheat on that summer body diet and have a cookie as well? THE DELIGHT!”

All of my “voice of the dog” jokes aside, their noses are truly that sensitive and much of their understanding of the world comes through their noses. And our breath holds a lot of information about us: what we ate and drank, our health, our stress levels, etc.

Another reason why dogs jump up is that MOST of the time, it has been reinforced. There are always those people who squeal and say, “Oh, I don’t mind!” while they’re petting and kissing your dog right back.

There are also people who use their hands to push the dog off, or even just to block, or they bend down, etc. And if we use our hands and talk to the dog, then the dog is being reinforced with that attention, even if we don’t realize it.

So, I have several suggestions for working on this behavior and I recommend trying a variety, maybe a few together, maybe one at a time and see which one is effective for you and your dog! Different learners and teachers often require different strategies.

  • Teach an incompatible behavior. For example, teach your dog a rock-solid “go to your bed” behavior. The ideal of this behavior is: you stand at the door, cue your dog “go to your bed,” your dog runs to their bed, lies down and stays there until told otherwise. If you practice this skill enough, your dog will be on their bed and therefore not jumping at the door when guests arrive. To be frank, this takes A LOT of practice sessions. With my dogs, I practice each step of all the things that mean “guest is arriving.” So—door knock, reward on the bed, door open, reward on the bed, me saying “HIIIIIIIIIII” in a cheery voice even when no one is there, reward on the bed. I would also practice having a family member coming in and out so that you get practice with someone actually entering. Practice hugging the “guest,” practice talking excitedly, practice them handing you a bottle of wine and a tasty cheese plate—practice all the things that typically happen when you have a visitor. And practice them frequently. This way, when a real guest does come, your dog has “rehearsed” so many times that during showtime they know exactly what to do, even when they’re super excited.
  • Be prepared. Have your guest call you when they’re in the driveway. Put your pup on a leash and grab the treats. Ask your dog to sit. As your guest comes in, if your dog remains in a sit position, then feed, feed, feed! If they get up and try to jump on the guest, then you can use the leash to get them to take several steps backward and farther away from the guest. Typically, distance helps dogs make better decisions when they’re excited. The hardest part here will be to control your guest. Ask them to only pet the dog if the dog is sitting. And if the dog gets up or tries to jump, ask them to back up some and give you the space you need to get your dog’s attention back. With a lot of practice, you will no longer need the leash once your dog realizes that sitting is the key to attention and treats!
  • Management. A lot of the time with young, excited and social dogs, it’s easiest for you to put them in the crate or the other room during the “high excitement period” of the door opening and people coming in and you and your guest greeting each other. Usually by the time the guest has settled on the couch to chat, the general feel of the room is calmer. This is a better time to let the dog come out to greet the visitors. Dogs are very much mirrors to our emotions and the environmental situations. So, if you bring them into a calm setting, they are more likely to exhibit good calm behavior, or at least settle down quicker.
  • This is sort of a #3.5—this same technique applies if your dog jumps all over you to greet you when you come home. I know all of us can’t wait to greet our best furry friends when we get home, but if you’re coming to them all excited and they’re all excited and you let them out to run zoomies all over the room and leap upon you with delight, then you’re just reinforcing that you coming home is a massive event. Come in, put your stuff down, don’t make a fuss and wait for your dog to be quiet and relaxed in the crate. THEN open the crate and let them out. Save your snuggles for once your dog has relaxed a little bit so they will be less likely to turn into a Tigger.

With all three of these techniques, I recommend a lot of practice! Practice with family members, practice with you coming home, practice in the morning and in the evening when it’s dark. Practice with a handful of friends and have the same people come in and out five times each until it’s not such a big, exciting event for your dog. And start thinking about how you’re going to reinforce your friends for being training assistants! 😉

Doug writes:

Ashley. Our 7-month-old lab puppy has trouble with being in his crate when no one’s around. He barks for as long as there is no one in the room. We give him things to occupy him like KONGs but he just barks. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks. Doug

Hey Doug,

Poor little dude! Separation distress can be such a hard one!

It seems like he’s got himself pretty wound up about being alone so you’re going to need to go WAY back to the beginning of building a good crate behavior.

Start with teaching him to go into his crate on cue. Here are some general steps:

Note: THIS WILL NOT BE ALL IN ONE TRAINING SESSION. This will take days to weeks, especially depending on your puppy’s attention span and threshold to begin to get concerned about being left alone. Your goal is always to end the training session BEFORE your puppy gets to the point of vocalizing.

  • Toss a treat into the crate. As your pup runs in to get it, say “kennel up!” (I’ll use this cue throughout the steps, but you can use whatever you want your cue to be). Repeat roughly 5 times.
  • Without moving your body away from the crate, say “kennel up.” If your dog heads toward the crate, mark the behavior with a click (if you’re using a clicker to train) or a word (“YES” works great!) and feed your puppy in the crate. Release puppy from the crate with an “okay!” Repeat successfully 5 times.
  • Take a step away from the crate and cue “kennel up.” If your puppy is successful, feed in the crate and release with an “okay!” Repeat successfully 5 times.
  • Cue “kennel up” and when your puppy is in the crate, feed several times in quick succession until you cue “okay!” Repeat until you notice your puppy lingering in the crate and not wanting to come out.
  • Cue “kennel up,” close the door and open immediately. Feed. Repeat successfully 5 times.
  • Cue “kennel up,” close the door and open after 2 seconds. Feed. Repeat successfully 5 times.
  • Cue “kennel up,” close the door and open after 5 seconds. Feed. Repeat successfully 5 times.
  • Cue “kennel up,” close the door and open after 10 seconds. Feed. Repeat successfully 5 times.
  • Cue “kennel up,” close the door, latch the crate and open after 10 seconds. Feed. Repeat successfully 5 times.
  • Cue “kennel up,” close the door, latch the crate and walk away from the crate. Walk back and feed. Repeat successfully 5 times.
  • Gradually increase time until you can walk away for 30 seconds.
  • At this point you can walk all over the room, walking past and dropping a treat in the crate as long as the puppy is quiet. Be sure not to push too long so that they start barking. You want to come back and end the exercise before they get upset.
  • Start walking out of the room for gradually increasing amounts of time and coming back, treating, opening the door and releasing them on “okay!”

A few notes: Depending on your puppy’s level of concern, you may truly be playing with only seconds of success at first. It will feel painfully slow, but I promise it will be worth it! We want them to remain calm and end the exercise before the puppy gets upset. I threw out specific increasing seconds of time only because I do want you to actually time it and keep count. If 10 seconds is too long, then you work on 7 seconds until they’re successful at 7 seconds. Then 9 seconds, then 10. Then 12. Keep track of yourself so that if you accidentally push too far, you know exactly where your last successful place is so that you can master that place and build back up.

Some other useful things to think about while you’re building all the way back from step one:

  • Feed breakfast and dinner in the crate and leave the room while they’re eating, coming back just before they are done.
  • Work on crate behavior right after you have exercised them and they are tired.
  • I love that you’re trying to use a KONG. Maybe try different long-lasting types of treats so that the puppy is self-reinforcing for calm while they are playing with it (with practicing calm crate manners, they should quickly move up to being calm enough to play rather than just barking and concerned for you).
  • Cover the crate. Sometimes making it more cozy and den-like and removing sightlines to you helps the puppy to settle quicker.
  • Do not open the crate door if the puppy is barking. Wait for even a split second of quiet and open the door then. That way, your dog is associating calm manners with “people coming back.”
  • You can also practice Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol in the crate. This can help to reinforce calm behavior in the crate as well as to help your journey to build the length of time that your puppy is calm in the crate! What I love about this is that you can follow along and the MP3 times it for you. It helps keep you random on your treat delivery. 😊
  • You can play soothing music while you’re gone. There is music specifically for calming dogs like Through A Dog’s Ear. You can also try an Adaptil Diffuser, which is calming as well.
  • You could try a remote treat dispensing machine like a Pet Tutor, Treat And Train or Furbo dog camera so that you can reward your pup for quiet/calm without you having to be in the room.
  • A professor of mine from a graduate certificate program that I took through the University of Washington is quoted in this article on pet separation anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Start thinking about what your life looked like during pre-pandemic times and start preparing your pup for what that will look like when we are all free again! This is important for everyone reading who has older dogs with no current concerns as well! We’ve been locked in at home with our pups for a long time now, but let’s keep our eye on the prize and continue working to make them successful for when we leave again.

Timothy writes:

When I am out walking with my guide dog in our neighborhood, sometimes there are loose dogs that approach us and cause total chaos with my dog’s work. They bark and they follow, causing my dog to forget what she is doing and her attention is given to the other dog. How do I fix this? And when should I correct her?

Hi Timothy!

This is SUCH a hard one. I so feel for clients living in areas like you do. There is nothing more challenging than working a guide dog around loose dogs. Honestly, it presents a significant danger to the safety of you and your dog.

I would change your route if possible. Avoid areas where you know that dogs may be loose.

If you can’t, then I would talk to the owners and ask them to keep their dogs on a tie out or in a yard. Or AT LEAST to call them inside when you are walking past.

If the owners are not helpful, call Animal Control. In most cities there are ordinances against loose dogs. You should explain to them that this significantly impacts your dog’s ability to work and puts your safety in jeopardy.

Also, feel free to call Leader Dog’s client services team! As an organization, YOU, our client, are our top priority! We can help you advocate for you and your dog. If this advice doesn’t help you and you need more ideas, give them a call and feel free to ask for your original instructor or me (Ashley)! We absolutely want to hear from you and help you work through this so that you feel comfortable and safe working with your dog.

For those lovely readers reading this who are not guide dog users—if you’re on this page, I know you are an ally! Please help to educate your friends and neighbors about how interfering with a guide dog team by distracting the dog with greetings or with other dogs can create a dangerous situation for a guide dog user. While our Leader Dogs are highly trained, at the end of the day, they are still dogs. They do occasionally get distracted or scared. And a situation where a loose dog is charging at a guide dog could scare the guide dog and be a severe detriment to the life of the team.

Thank you all for your help in being advocates with us!

With care,

Ashley

Cindy writes:

I would love to raise a puppy but I have a 7‒10 year old border collie that worships me! She is always by my side and am concerned that if I get a puppy, she might be jealous and be mean to it. Have you ever had that situation?

Hey Cindy!

So much of this depends on your dog’s personality! If she has been socialized from a young age with other dogs and loves to play and has been around puppies, then I would say you’re just fine!

I have an older shepherd/collie cross who is my main girl, and she has raised many puppies with me! She teaches them so much about learning to be a respectful canine member of society. There are absolutely doggy manners and social protocols that only an older, wiser dog can teach a young puppy. It’s imperative that puppies interact with dogs of all ages and kinds to be a well-rounded, socialized member of canine society. Your border collie could be invaluable to you and help you teach the new pup the ropes!

Even if your dog loves her new puppy, make sure that you still carve out individual time for her. Help monitor to make sure that puppy isn’t mugging her or chewing on her ears and snatching her toys. Spend some special time with just you and her without the younger sibling tagging along. In my house, the only dog that is allowed on the furniture is my old girl. That’s her special snuggle time with me. Plus, it allows her a safe place to be able to retreat from the rotating door of dog hooligans that I parade through her house.

That being said, honestly, I have decided to stop puppy raising full time until Ronnie (my special girl) is no longer with us. The last time that I had a temporary very young puppy in the house, she tolerated it, but I could tell that she didn’t enjoy it like she did when she was younger. She used to love romping with the babies and let them climb all over her and chew on her and she was so perfectly tender and had so much fun. With this last puppy, I could tell that she kept retreating to the couch and having the puppy “piranha” in the room was just making her world smaller. I’ve decided that she is retired from being a puppy “aunt.” She still likes her “brothers” who are both 4 years old. But she told me that she would prefer not another infant. I love her so much. And even though I love puppy raising, I will honor what she says to me.

If your special girl is like mine, then listen to her as well! Cherish with me the twilight years of our girls who are our entire hearts. Even in your short description, I feel that I can just SEE the way that your girl looks at you and adores you, and I know that you and I will treasure every day with them.

All sappiness aside—if she is one of those dogs who adores other dogs, then sometimes having a baby in the house can keep the old girls young! It is adorable to watch them play like babies themselves with the baby puppies! My suggestion before you commit is to bring your girl around a friend’s puppy or young dog for a short time if she is well socialized with other dogs and to give her the chance to tell you how she feels. I know you’ll listen.

Give your girl a kiss from me!

Ashley

Karen writes:

Hi Ashley, 

I’m the breeding stock host for [Leader Dog Mom] Alexa. I have two questions. How do I get her to stop jumping on me? I keep telling her “OFF” and she’s still a jumper. I’m afraid she’s going to knock me down one of these days. Secondly, the other dangerous habit she has is taking off after we encounter cats on our walks. I’m using a harness so it eliminates pressure on her neck, but when she sees a cat, she’s chasing it! It’s a wonder she hasn’t jerked me off my feet. I’m worried about her safety and my safety. 

Thanks for any advice that you have. 

Hey Karen!

Thank you SO much for being a breeding stock host home! We value your help SO much!

Take a look at the other answer above about jumping up. I gave a lot of solutions there! But another addition for you is to ensure that she has a way to ask for your attention that is appropriate. Like sitting in front of you. Before she gets petting or attention, she needs to be sitting to ask for it. If she gets up, stop petting and ask her to sit again. Then resume petting.

If she doesn’t sit and tries to jump, then step out of her way, stand straight up and tell her to sit again. You can add a “stay” too if that helps her sit.

Also, try to be mindful of keeping her calm when you come home or in whatever time it is that she is all jumpy and excited. Keep your voice calm and your body still and movements slow. That will help her “read the room” and lower her energy to match yours. Only greet when you think she has herself under control. 😊

For the kitty-cat chasing: I would build a really solid “leave it” skill!

For all those readers who have Leader Dogs or Future Leader Dogs—they are NOT taught a “leave it” cue. They are taught that in the face of any distraction, they should maintain focus. For pet dogs or breeding stock dogs though, teaching them a cue that means “look to me and please leave that alone” is helpful.

Training plan for “leave it”:

Step 1: 

  • Present a closed fist with a treat inside.
  • Click or say “YES” when dog pulls her chin away from investigating the hand.
  • Treat.
  • Repeat 5 times successfully before moving to step 2

Step 2:

  • Present a closed fist with a treat inside.
  • Click or say “YES” when dog pulls her chin away from investigating the hand and say “leave it!”
  • Treat.
  • Repeat 5 times successfully.

(This step helps the dog associate the words “leave it” with sitting back away from the item that they want.)

Step 3: 

  • Present your hand flat open holding the treat (be prepared to close your hand if they mess up to prevent them from getting the treat).
  • Say “leave it.”
  • If the dog moves forward and back without taking the treat—click or say “YES!” If they stay still and don’t move to take the treat—click or say “YES!” Either option is fine here.
  • Treat.
  • Repeat 5 times successfully.

Step 4:

  • Present flat hand with a treat closer to the ground than you were before (you’d be surprised—this makes it harder!).
  • Say “leave it.”
  • If the dog moves forward and back without taking the treat—click or say “YES!” If they stay still and don’t move to take the treat—click or say “YES!” Either option is fine here.
  • Treat.
  • Repeat 5 times successfully.

Step 5:

  • Put treat on the ground (be prepared to cover it with your hand or foot to prevent the dog from getting to it if they mess up).
  • Say “leave it.”
  • If the dog moves forward and back without taking the treat—click or say “YES!” If they stay still and don’t move to take the treat—click or say “YES!” Either option is fine here too.
  • Treat.
  • Repeat 5 times successfully.

Step 6: Generalizing

  • Choose items that the dog typically tries to steal or chew on and practice the above steps using those items as “bait.”
  • Start with an item that is easy, such as one of the dog’s toys, so that they learn that the words “leave it” mean to do the same thing in a different context.
  • Then move to items that are more “valuable” but easy to keep the puppy from actually stealing if they mess up. Something like a paper towel that you can close up in your hand.
  • Remember, the goal is to slowly build success in these steps and items, not to tempt the puppy into messing up. We want them to have successful practice sessions of leaving something that they want alone. That makes them more likely to pay attention to us when it is not a practice session and we really do need them to leave it alone!
  • It’s a good idea to have practice sessions with items that you will need the dog to “leave” in real life. Paper towels, socks and electrical cords are some examples that come to mind!

The big part of this is to practice! Use HIGH value treats, especially when you bring this skill out into the real world! We want her to automatically be SO excited and look at you whenever you say “leave it” that she forgets all about the cat!

You’ll notice in the video that I let Gryffindor get involved in playing with the food toy and say “leave it” after he is already distracted by it a few times. This is an important step to make sure that they can practice refocusing to you when there is something that they really want.

Another useful tool that can help you feel a bit safer is a Gentle Leader head harness! They are a great management tool that helps control pulling. It can help you get some good practice in around the really tough distractions so that you can build a reinforcement history with them around. Later, you can take it off if you want and see those skills shine!

Check out my previous blog for more information about dealing with distractions as well. Basically, distance is your friend and take things slowly and successfully!

Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

Ashley

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This orientation is a great opportunity for people who would like to know more about volunteering to raise a Leader Dog puppy.  You’ll learn what is expected of you as a puppy raiser and the support Leader Dog has in place to help. Orientations are held from 6–8 p.m. via Microsoft Teams. Please contact Laura Fisher at 248-218-6422 or lfisher@leaderdog.org for more info or join online here once the orientation starts.

Ashley kneels on a lawn, smiling, with her arms around a yellow lab wearing a Leader Dog harness. The dog is sitting next to her and looking at the camera

By Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Ashley Nunnelly

My first advice column! This is going to be fun. Join me, Dear Reader, on a journey of thinking as dogs think as well as learning tips and tricks for how to change their initial doggy response!

Rebecca writes:

My [Future Leader Dog] puppy has problems with dog distractions. What are your suggestions for helping him learn to ignore other dogs that are walking by on the sidewalk or small animals that are scurrying across a yard? Offering a high value treat will focus his attention (mostly) on the treat but has not been effective in helping him to learn to ignore the distraction. 

Rebecca,

Thank you for reaching out! This is such a common one. Most dogs typically choose to do the “fun, natural doggy instinct” over “mature, calm dog” behavior.

Our goal will be to convince your puppy that keeping their attention on you is more fun and rewarding than all the other awesome stuff in the environment.

I always put it in the perspective of where is your last point of success? Typically, the variables that determine that are 1) the distance between your puppy and the distraction and 2) the intensity of the distraction. A dog leaping and barking is a totally different level of distraction difficulty than a dog sitting nicely at a person’s side.

The more successful repetitions that you can create, the more practice your puppy will get with appropriate and calm behavior. My advice: be prepared with tasty treats like you are now. If this behavior is hard for your puppy, then the “pay” (reward) must equal the level of work they are putting in. This is time-and-a-half holiday pay.

It helps if you can enlist some friends (or other puppy raisers) with dogs. When you actively work on scenarios with a group, you can communicate with them to help control the factors that are distracting your puppy and set your puppy up for success.

Start at whatever distance from the distraction where your puppy is successful (quiet and attentive to you). If it’s six feet—great! If it’s 20 feet—no problem! Wherever works will be your starting point. Heavily reward your puppy for keeping their attention on you. If your puppy is struggling, increase your distance as well as increasing your rate of reinforcement. Sometimes they need a treat every two seconds at first. They’re just babies learning a new challenging skill and that is totally normal.

Choose what success for your puppy looks like. Maybe it is “remain seated while another dog approaches.” Or maybe it’s “maintain a loose leash while walking past a distraction dog.” Just stay consistent! Each time your “success” behavior occurs, mark (say), “Yes!” And give a reward!

Once your puppy is acing your first level of distance or intensity, it’s time to make it just slightly more challenging. You want to push the difficulty a bit but not so much that your puppy can’t be successful. If you make a mistake and push too far too soon or you encounter a surprise while on a walk, just increase your distance from the distraction as soon as possible! You and your puppy just retreat while you’re talking to the puppy excitedly until you get to a place where your puppy is successful, then you can try approaching again if you want.

It takes time and patience for sure! But with plenty of practice sessions, the next time a surprise dog on a walk flirts with your puppy, your puppy will know that you have something better for them than the other dog.

After lots and lots of practice where you are certain that your puppy knows what to do, you can start to slightly delay your reinforcement. Example: eventually, instead of getting five treats back to back for looking at you and walking with a loose leash while passing another dog, now you give one treat after you are past the other dog. Your puppy is going to be the one that tells you what they’re ready for! Your job as their teacher is to listen and gently push their boundaries so that they increase their success!

This process is the same for small, distracting animals, though it’s harder to get small animals to participate in training sessions. I’ll let you know when I have all the downtown Rochester squirrels clicker trained 😉

Lynn writes:

Can you tell me if/how using a clicker is superior to using the marker “yes”?  It seems to me you always have a “yes” available, whereas you may not have a clicker in hand. 

Thanks!

Hey Lynn!

You are not alone in your curiosity about using speech versus clickers!

In Karen Pryor’s book Reaching the Animal Mind, she has a great section on this.

“The human voice is designed to convey many messages at once. Even a single word—hello, on the telephone, for example—identifies the speaker’s sex, approximate age, identity, and something about his or her current mood. You use the voice for good things and you use it for bad things. … you can never really clean out that subtext; and, at the very least, it much distracts the animal by always posing a question. What does this ‘yes’ actually mean this time?”

People use the word “yes” SO many times throughout the day in many different contexts, and the dog isn’t always rewarded afterward. Plus, it’s hard to make it “sterile” and sound exactly the same each time we say it. This makes “yes” less effective as a marker for the dog since it doesn’t always predict “treat is coming.”

Reaching the Animal Mind also details a study performed where dogs were timed on how long it took to learn new behaviors. Half the dogs were marked with “yes” and half were marked with a click. The dogs that were marked with a click learned the behavior significantly faster. The click is unique and sterile, and every time it is heard the dog gets a treat. This keeps the meaning for the dog incredibly clear.

All my personal dogs know both the “yes” marker and the click because you’re right, I don’t always have a clicker in my hand. My Leader Dogs in training all know both as well because Future Leader Dog puppies are raised using a “yes” marker.

Of course, you can successfully train a dog without using a clicker and simply use your voice, but the distinct and sterile sound made by the clicker will help your dog put two and two together more quickly and with less confusion.

If you’re a Leader Dog puppy raiser, then your “yes!” is the marker! It is your “click.” If you are interested in using a clicker instead, you must reach out to the puppy development team for permission. But until then, mark away with that “yes!” on the exact split second your puppy does that wonderful behavior and then reward.

Beverly writes:

Would love to have some steps for teaching adult dogs to place their head through vest opening.

Future Leader Dogs wear vests in part to help prepare them for wearing a harness when they become Leader Dogs. However, the behavior they learn that makes the dog an active part of “getting dressed” (cued by the phrase “head in,” as in “put your head through this opening”) can be useful for more situations than just wearing a service dog vest.

I LOVE teaching “head in.” It’s a fantastic way to ensure that dogs are actually comfortable and willing to have objects put on them, whether it is a Leader Dog harness or puppy jacket, a silly Halloween costume like I use in the video below, or a “cone of shame” after a veterinary procedure.

It is fun and it relieves a lot of stress for your dog because they are able to give their consent! And you’ve made it fun! No more wrestling a Gentle Leader on to an unwilling and wiggly puppy!

It’s also fantastic when Leader Dogs dress themselves—it saves a client having to find where their dog’s head is to avoid accidentally hitting the dog in the face with the harness. It’s quicker, easier and makes for happy dogs and clients!

Steps for head in:

Final (goal) behavior: Dog puts head through the object willingly when I cue “head in.”

You can use a clicker to help train this behavior (you can learn more about how and why to use clicker training from my previous post) or mark (say) “yes” with treats/rewards for each step.

  • Click or mark “yes” for nose to jacket.
  • Click or mark “yes” for nose through head opening.
  • Click or mark “yes” for head and neck through head opening.
  • Click or mark “yes” for standing still while jacket is fastened.

A few tricks that I have found helpful through the years:

  • Use your treat to your advantage. At first, after I click I put the treat at the jacket for the dog to come eat it. That helps to reinforce them when they’re in the position for step 1 of “nose to jacket.”
  • When I’m at the “nose through head opening” step, I use the treat to reinforce the dog while their head is through the opening. That starts to build up the length of time that their head remains there, which helps to prevent the game that some dogs like to play where they poke their heads in and out at lightning speeds!
  • You’ll notice in the video that I change the angle of my presentation of the jacket almost every time I ask for “head in” it at first. This helps the dog generalize the behavior instead of only recognizing what you’re asking them to do when you approach from one specific angle. My goal for Leader Dogs in training is always to have the dog shove their nose through the harness no matter what direction I’m holding it, because eventually they will be going to someone who is blind who probably won’t present the harness at the perfect angle each time!
  • As you can see in the video, I often have an end goal for myself to have the dog sit/stay and then RUN to the harness when I cue “head in.” This is not required, but hey, I like the pizazz factor!

Becky writes:

I have a 15-month-old [Future Leader Dog] who does very well at [loose leash walking] and obedience skills in most environments, except in grass. In unfamiliar grassy areas like parks, yards and fields she buries her nose onto the ground and is so absorbed in the smell she does not respond to voice, touches, leash cues or even treat lures. Are there some exercises you can recommend for “shaping” her in back into heeling and [loose leash walking] in these situations?

Hello Becky!

She’s got her super sniffer on, eh?

Two things: if the sniffing is more important than the food to her, then you can actually USE letting her sniff as a reinforcer! So, say she sits on cue or loose leash walks on grass for 10 steps successfully—GREAT! Good girl! Take off her vest, make a long leash and let her do a “sniffy walk” for a few minutes.

Then, put her vest back on and do a little bit more obedience work. After she has played your game for a little while—same thing—surprise! You get a sniffy walk!

This is a simple version of the Premack Principle. In short—a more probable behavior can reinforce a less probable behavior. If given the choice, your puppy would bury her nose in delicious grass, so you can use that to your advantage by allowing her the opportunity to do her very favorite thing as a reward for doing the “boring” (to a dog) obedience work. Over time, obedience work will become super exciting because eventually she may get to sniff!

The second thing is lots and lots of practice. Luckily, it’s still nice enough outside to spend time in parks, yards and fields! Go armed with special yummy treats that will be payment valuable enough to pay attention to you.

Enjoy the opportunity to follow your puppy’s nose and see where it takes you both!

Carlisle writes:

My grand-dog is a beautiful golden retriever. As a puppy she was in the home with an elderly black Labrador retriever who had anxiety. Any outside noise or the doorbell resulted in barking, growling, etc. Unfortunately, this behavior was not corrected by his parents and more tragically, the puppy learned it as she lived with the older dog for nearly a year.

The older dog has since passed away but Rosie continues to growl and bark with that stimuli. She is now 2 years old. Is there a way to correct it? With the pandemic her parents are working from home, the children are home, and when she exhibits the behavior she is getting verbally reprimanded, which does nothing.

Hello Carlisle!

How to get dogs to stop barking is a question on many people’s minds! It is certainly a common doggy issue, much to our eardrums’ chagrin.

Let’s start by thinking about WHY the dog barks from their perspective.

Dogs are pack animals, which means that when Rosie’s pack mate barked at all of those stimuli, Rosie learned “ALEEEEERT ALEEEEERT! THE PACK IS CONCERNED! DANGER DANGER!” and now, if she is being verbally reprimanded when she barks, from her perspective her human packmates are just joining in the barking! She thinks she is such a good protector.

Another thing that often happens is that dogs hear the doorbell or the UPS truck and begin to bark. They don’t realize that the UPS person will always approach, drop a package and leave. What Rosie currently thinks is the doorbell rings → she barks → the UPS person leaves. Her barking was reinforced by the UPS man leaving (in her mind)! Often you see this with dogs barking in the windows at passersby. All of their ferocious barking has made the other dog on a leash with its owner leave their sidewalk! “Serves them right, get outta here! Scram, you!” Little do they know that the intruder dog was just continuing on its normal walk with its owner.

There are also definite breed-specific barking tendencies. Smaller dogs, especially terriers, will often have a predisposition to be a barker. Herd breeds, which often use their voices to communicate with their flock, loooooove to hear themselves talk.

My first advice for people is always to close blinds and block off visual access when they are not around to interrupt the behavior. That way the dog does not get the chance to practice “chasing off the mailman” when unsupervised. For a dog like Rosie that seems to be more keyed in to noises, I would leave her with some calming classical music to mask the sounds. There is even music specifically tailored to dogs’ tastes!

When your dog is already barking: Call Rosie to you, reward her for coming, then show her a more appropriate behavior to do. For example, in my house the sequence is “Ronnie, Come!” → reward → “Ronnie, down-stay.” That way she is away from being able to stare at the window and ferociously guard the house from the invading squirrel army, and she is also near me so that I can continue to give her treats every so often as she remains in the down position and not barking. I typically release her from that down-stay after a few minutes. My goal is for barking to be less reinforcing then her down-stay is. I do this by adding treats to the down-stay!

Another important thing to do is to practice this sequence when there isn’t actually a UPS person or visitor there. That way, when it’s game time and the UPS person is approaching, Rosie has already practiced what to do over and over and over again before the stakes were ever actually high.

The good news is that old dogs really can learn new tricks! It just takes a little longer because their habits are already well practiced. The important thing is to practice and stay very, very consistent! Inconsistency on the part of the trainer creates confusion on the part of the dog, so when learning a new skill consistency is necessary to achieve success.

Angela writes:

We have a Lab retriever, Georgie Jane, she is almost 4 months old. We recently enrolled her in training classes and they use a clicker, as well. However, these training sessions will address sit, leave it, red light, green light commands and not the current behavioral situation we are facing right now—biting. Her biting is becoming a bit too aggressive and when we attempt to correct it using the methods that we have learned from various feedback, it does not work. Therefore, we have instituted a “time out” in her crate as a result to give her a “reset.” We do not yell at her or send her there for punishment, but something must be done to curtail the almost attack like biting which occurs more than once daily. What is your suggested method to assist with this behavior while she is young? Please note, the giving of a toy in place of our hand or body is not working; oftentimes we are away from a toy while in the yard and she approaches seeming ready for a pet or to play—we acknowledge but soon after it turns into lack of interest in the toy or playing and more with the biting. Please help!!!  

Hi Angela,

First off, Georgie Jane is the most stinkin’ adorable name that I have ever heard in my life.

Second, the puppy piranha stage is no fun! You are absolutely on the right track with using a “time out.” If I use the crate as a “time out/take a break” spot, then I typically put them in there with a tasty chew toy of some sort as well. This keeps the crate from turning into a punishment as well as giving them something to focus all that excess energy onto so that she will be more relaxed when she gets out.

What puppies are looking for when they are biting is attention—they are playing with us the same way that they play with their littermates. What we want to make sure is that they learn that not only is that NOT the way to ask for our attention, but also that “using teeth makes the humans go away.”

For biting and mouthing, consistency and patience are key!

  1. Try to redirect to a toy. If that works, praise!
  2. If toy doesn’t work, stand up, look away, remove your hands and count to 10. All attention is removed and playtime is put on “pause.” After you get to 10, try to reengage with a toy.
  3. If you have tried to “pause” a few times but the biting continues, just quickly stand up and leave the room. Count to 10, then come back in and attempt to reengage with a toy.
  4. If she’s in a puppy way-too-wound-up state, put her in the crate, give her a treat and a long-lasting tasty chew of some sort (like a KONG stuffed with peanut butter). Let her self-soothe and calm down in there for about 10‒15 minutes and then let her attempt to rejoin the family when she is not so wound up.

The thing to remember is that puppies are infants. They truly are not developed enough yet to have full regulation of their emotions. Just like human toddlers who lose it and wail like you’ve broken their hearts over the tiniest silly thing, puppies are the same. And they do get that overtired “BUT I’M NOT SLEEPY YET” crankiness too. Those are definitely the times to jump to #4—“time out.” It’s absolutely a time to give her something else appropriate to chew on while she self-soothes. That will help to encourage only calm interactions with you and your family.

If she comes up to you with a toy—great! Make sure you play with her actively with tug or fetch or another game she likes instead of just giving her the toy for her to walk away with and entertain herself. We want to make sure to acknowledge, “YES, Georgie Jane girl, THIS is how we play!”

It sounds like she is getting plenty of exercise, which is great! I would give her a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day plus 15‒30 min of training a day. Training makes puppies very mentally tired! That little brain is being put to work. I also recommend puzzle feeders. Why waste food in a bowl when you can make it work for you to entertain your puppy for 30 minutes? There are all sorts of puzzle toys you can find online. My dogs’ favorites are the snuffle mat, the KONG Wobbler, and the Outward Hound Spinner toy.

The final thing that many people forget is that puppies NEED sleep. Usually a lot more sleep than we allow them. I read an article recently that stated that puppies should actually be getting between 18‒20 hours of sleep a day (less as they get older of course)! Growing and learning takes a lot of energy that needs to be replenished with good, uninterrupted sleep. Often when they are sleepy, they are more cuddly and docile, so we naturally bother them and wake them up. This leads to a grouchy, sleep-deprived puppy that may get frustrated a little easier than normal. Which usually leads to them using their teeth.

So! Big takeaways:

  • More sleep
  • Good exercise
  • Mental engagement with training and puzzles
  • Teeth make the humans go away

Good luck and have fun! I promise she will grow out of this—right about the time her adult teeth start coming in and they don’t hurt as much anyway!

Herb writes:

Here’s a good question. With limited vision it is hard to find the dog’s waste after it has gone [to the bathroom]. Is there a way to train the dog to stay so that we can just follow the back to the tail and know that the waste will be right there? Maybe the clicker method could be used?

Hi Herb!

Ahh, the walking pooper. The dog that makes every guide dog instructor’s hair go early grey! For context: when a Leader Dog is relieving itself, we advise clients to locate the “deposit” by trailing their hand down the leash to the dog, then down to the dog’s tail. That should give a pretty good idea of where to aim the doggy bag. However, if the dog moved during the process, the search can be more challenging.

Unfortunately, this is a difficult situation to offer advice for because it often depends on the individual personality of the dog.

There are many dogs that are “private poopers,” if you will. If you interfere with them to try to get them to remain stationary, they will just stop pooping until afforded a little more privacy. This can lead to issues with the dog relieving itself on route (while out walking in harness with an instructor or client).

I have seen SOME success with gently holding the dog in place with a short leash or by the collar. I have also seen some success with moving myself to stand in front of the dog and using my body as a block to prevent the dog from walking forward.

I don’t use a clicker with this because I can’t get a high enough rate of repetition for the dog to ever really have the chance to deduce what exactly I’m clicking for. Nature only calls every so often, and after several hours pass the dog has forgotten what they were doing at the time of the earlier click.

My best advice is to choose a well-lit area (depending on your level of residual vision) or enlist a friend to do a spot check after the fact to make sure that each mess is fully gathered. And keep your feet still while locating the “deposit!” There is nothing worse than a poop shoe in the morning!

Wendy writes:

My dog comes out of his crate barking and jumping every time. I got this dog from a breeder when he was 1 year 4 months. I believe this was allowed or tolerated by the breeder. What can I do to change this behavior? He has had some positive reinforcement training… and does respond. Just need some steps to do to stop the excessive barking and jumping when he is excited and leaving his crate. 

Hi Wendy!

It seems like he has gotten a LOT of practice being way over-excited when a person comes in to get him. Now, he can’t stop himself from overreacting to his feelings while being in the crate when you let him out: he’s been all alone! He’s been waiting for you, Mom! He’s missed you and thought about you the whooole entttiiiiire tiiiiiiime!

Your goal will be to teach him a calm behavior when exiting the crate and greeting you upon your return. When you come in from being out of the house, ignore him. Ignore him until out of the corner of your eye, you notice that he has laid down in his crate and is doing something “calm.” Then walk over to him and casually toss a treat. If he gets too excited, just walk away again. Your voice and your body needs to be very, very calm and slow. Your dog is going to be watching you, so everything that you’re giving off needs to be relaxed.

Repeat your approach until your dog is relaxed enough to hold a down-stay or a sit-stay while the door is opened. Let him out and head straight outside the room or the house without any interactions until he has calmed down enough not to jump on you and bark.

I would also start teaching your dog the cues “wait” and “OK!” You can practice some patience with the “wait” cue by cueing it at doors to outside, while you’re putting the food bowl down, or before your dog is allowed out of the car at the park, etc. Cue “wait” and reward your dog for staying put. Then allow them to go forward to get what they want on the cue “OK!”

Consistency is definitely key here. If he’s barking, he doesn’t get let out of the crate. You are working to instill patience and calm before he is allowed out. We want your approach to the crate to be no big deal to your dog. We want your dog to think, “If I lie down and stay calm, Mom actually comes to get me sooner.” It’s going to take a little longer to get him out than you’re used to for a little while, but stay consistent and the payoff will be worth it! Good luck!

Gretchen writes:

It is my understanding the puppy raisers are not supposed to use the clickeris that correct? I am a breeding mom host. If my understanding that puppy raisers do not use a clicker [is correct], can I assume that my [Leader Dog Mom] has not been trained with a clicker since I believe she was not at [Leader Dog’s campus] very long before she was selected for breeding? I am trying to figure out if I wanted to do clicker training with her if I would be starting from scratch or not. Also, just curious… I assume that the [Leader Dog] client will not use a clicker. How do you transition the dog away from the clicker? 

Gretchen,

You are correct! The majority of puppy raisers use a verbal marker of “yes!” and then reward. Your Leader Dog Mom (LDM) will probably be very excited if you say “yes” in a perky tone.

If you want to start using a clicker with your LDM, I assure you it does not take long for them to build the association with click=reward. Some people “load the clicker” to begin by using the clicker for something like 10 clicks in a row and giving the subsequent treats for “free” (not asking the dog to do anything to earn the click).

I prefer to start with cueing familiar, simple behaviors like “sit,” “touch,” etc. and use the click as a marker for the second that “rear-end touches ground” or “nose touches hand.” I find that the dogs catch on pretty quickly!

The clicker is also only used when you’re working on something new! Once your training goal has been met for a certain behavior, you can retire that clicker and only reward with food, praise, toy play, etc. Even though the specific marker of the clicker has faded, the positive reinforcement should not!

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This orientation is a great opportunity for people who would like to know more about volunteering to raise a Leader Dog puppy.  You’ll learn what is expected of you as a puppy raiser and the support Leader Dog has in place to help. Orientations are held on Leader Dog’s campus in the canine development center from 6–8 p.m. Please contact Laura Fisher at 248-218-6422 or lfisher@leaderdog.org to get your name on the attendee list.

1039 W. Rochester Road, Rochester Hills, MI 48307
Go to the building with the big, green roof.

Additional orientation dates: September 28, November 23 (all from 6–8 p.m.)

When Future Leader Dogs are 12 to 15 months old, their volunteer puppy raisers return them to the Leader Dog campus to begin formal guide dog training. Puppy raisers have already worked with their Future Leader Dog on the fundamentals of good behavior and obedience. Now, it’s our guide dog mobility instructors’ turn to build on that foundation with the special skills needed for guide work.

Guide dog training has four phases, each of which introduces more challenging work and lasts about a month. Our guide dog mobility instructors work in teams. When the team begins with a new class of dogs, each instructor is assigned a “string” of about eight dogs. Each string will have a variety of sizes, breeds and temperaments. We need a variety of dogs for every class to ensure we’ll have the right match for each client.

Stages of Training

Foundations

During the foundations phase, the instructors begin to build and strengthen relationships with their dogs. The instructors work with the dogs on things that puppy raisers taught, including loose leash walking (walking in a heel position at the instructor’s side without pulling on the leash), settling calmly, and obedience (sit, down, stay, stand, etc.). This helps the dogs recognize that the skills they learned need to transfer to a new handler. It also gives the instructors a chance to evaluate the dogs’ skills and learn their personalities. Instructors use praise and treats (we like low-calorie Charlee Bear treats to help keep the dogs in good shape) to reinforce the skills they’re working on. The dogs get their first introduction to the guide harness and curb work (training them to stop at curbs before crossing a street).

The first two weeks of foundations are spent on the Leader Dog campus. The dogs then progress to working on quiet streets as they learn basic cues.

Basic

In basic training, the instructors build on guide skills like stopping at curbs, traveling in a straight line, avoiding obstacles, making turns, and stopping for traffic. They also start working on new skills, such as having the dog find an empty chair. Instructors and dogs load up in our training trucks and head to our auxiliary training building in downtown Rochester. This building serves as home base when they’re out training on local streets. Instructors take the dogs into quiet neighborhoods and the busier Main Street area.

The instructors and dogs start working in group obedience classes to make sure the dogs are responding to the instructors on an individual basis. To increase the complexity of the training, instructors add distractions to the group classes. During this phase, our veterinary team performs another health exam on the dogs. The instructors check the dogs’ training progress with a blindfold exam. For the exam, the instructor is blindfolded and the dog must take them on a route in Rochester while demonstrating the skills they’ve learned (a spotter follows each exam to make sure everyone stays safe).

Intermediate

This phase includes the addition of country travel and working in larger urban areas. The dogs have established basic skills and met standards up to this point. In country travel training, the dogs learn to walk along the left side of the road in areas where there are no sidewalks. Instructors work on complex guide skills, such as recognizing overhead obstacles, traffic responsibility, and intelligent disobedience.

Leader Dogs must recognize when they’re passing under an obstacle that their handler will run into, like a low-hanging tree branch. This way they can safely guide their handler out of the way. Traffic responsibility is teaching the dogs to slow down and stop when a vehicle pulls into their line of travel. The instructors work with the dogs to teach them intelligent disobedience: if the instructor commands the dog to move forward but there’s a hazard such as a vehicle in the way, the dog must deliberately disobey the command. Clients often talk about moments where their guide dog’s intelligent disobedience saved them from situations like stepping into a construction zone or being hit by a car.

Dogs being trained for clients in our Deaf-Blind program may learn additional skills like alerting to a sound (such as a doorbell or knock on the door).

Instructors and our client services team start “pre-matching” dogs to client applicants. Training may proceed differently for a dog that might go to a large city versus a dog that will be working in a country setting.

Advanced

This is the most difficult phase of training. The dogs must master complex situations, multiple moving cars, busy streets and difficult obstacles to be ready to be matched with a client. Instructors and dogs train in Detroit, which provides plenty of distractions, complex obstacles and unique environments.

During the last week of advanced training, things wind down for the dogs. They come back to quiet residential areas in preparation for where they will begin working with their new “forever person.” Part of the application that our clients submit includes a video of them traveling in their home environment. This helps instructors gather information like what the daily travel environment might include and the client’s walking pace. Instructors review videos of incoming clients to make the best client/dog matches possible. At this point, about 25–30 dogs are ready for clients. There are always more dogs than clients to ensure that we have options when making a match.

All the dogs receive another health exam and complete a second blindfold exam with their instructors. This exam uses a less familiar route with more complex obstacles. If the dogs score well on this assessment, they are now “class ready.”

Class

This is when the real work begins! Class begins in the Polk Residence Center on Leader Dog’s campus, where clients stay during their time here. Instructors meet their clients and spend the first two days working with them on what we call JUNO training. During JUNO training, the instructor plays the part of the “dog” by holding the harness and leading the client. This helps the client learn the commands and mechanics they’ll use with their Leader Dog. This also gives the instructors a chance to evaluate whether they’ve selected the best dog for each client.

After JUNO training is complete, the moment everyone has been waiting for arrives: dog issue day! All the dogs are groomed and ready to make a good first impression. Instructors bring the dogs in one at a time to introduce them to their new handlers. The introductions take place privately in each client’s room. Then, the clients and dogs have the rest of the morning to just meet and bond.

In the afternoon, the new handler and dog teams will take their first walk around the practice course on our campus. Instructors work closely with the teams in the beginning and slowly reduce the level of support until the handler and dog can walk comfortably without the instructor right beside them. Over the next few weeks, the instructors, clients and dogs will practice working in quiet residential areas and progress to busier, more distracting environments to solidify each team’s skills. They also work on skills like finding an object or location. Instructors talk to each client about individual goals to include during training. For example, if a client is about to go to college, the instructor and handler/dog team can head to a nearby campus to practice in that environment.

After three weeks of training together, the clients and Leader Dogs head home. Clients introduce their Leader Dogs to their new environment and begin practicing daily routines. The year and a half of growing, learning and practicing that each Leader Dog has just completed is now the foundation for a person’s independent travel.

You can be part of a dog’s journey to becoming a guide dog – become a puppy raiser today. Interested in getting a Leader Dog of your own? Explore our Guide Dog Training program.

A young woman in jeans and a hoodie kneels beside a small yellow lab puppy wearing a blue badanna. The woman is smiling and feeding the puppy a treat

Every team within Leader Dog has a specific function, and their work can get pretty specialized. Last fall, Leader Dog’s puppy development team and the training team (the instructors and supervisors who work directly with our Leader Dogs and clients) started working on ways to teach each other more about what each team does.

To start, the puppy development team followed a group of Leader Dogs in training through each stage of the guide dog training process. This experience let team members from both departments discuss how puppy raisers can build positive training skills in their puppies as it relates to the ultimate goal: guide work. The collaboration was a great success and both teams enjoyed the experience.

A group of three men and three women kneel or sit on the floor, smiling at the camera. Each instructor is holding a young puppy wearing the blue Future Leader Dog bandannaThen it was puppy development’s turn to let guide dog mobility instructors (GDMIs) experience what it’s like to train a very young puppy. During the education session, each instructor got a puppy along with tools that are given to our volunteer puppy raisers (leash, bandanna, toys, treat bag, kibble). The instructors worked on the same skills our puppy raisers start with when training their young Future Leader Dog: putting on the bandanna, settling on a mat, stepping up on a paw pad and basic exercises such as handling paws; looking at teeth, ears and eyes; brushing, and trimming nails.

The instructors also did a relaxation protocol (introducing the puppy to mat training) and played the “I Spy” body handling game, which helps the puppy get used to people touching various body parts. In that game, the lead teacher says something like, “I spy my puppy’s head.” The handler touches the puppy on the top of the head, says “yes” and then feeds the puppy a food reward. This teaches the puppy that being touched brings rewards! Throughout the session, the instructors also learned how often a young puppy needed to go out to “park” (relieve itself), and that success in that area is… inconsistent.

A young yellow lab puppy wearing a blue bandanna sleeps on a gray mat near someone's feetIn playing the part of the puppy raiser, many of the instructors gave “their” puppy a name during the session. They found out that while puppies are a lot of fun, they are also a lot of work. The plan is to allow all the instructor teams to participate in puppy training so that every member of both teams can learn what we do to nurture successful Leader Dogs from puppyhood to partnership with a client!

A young yellow lab puppy lies in grass with its mouth wide open while looking at the camera. Its small, white teeth are visible

If you’ve ever spent time with a young puppy, you probably experienced the “shark teeth” phase. If you were frustrated with how often your puppy was biting, the good news is that it’s perfectly normal for puppies under 5 months of age to use their mouths on everything! However, you don’t want your young dog to grow up thinking it’s okay to bite (and your hands, apparel and furniture might need a break), so here are some do’s and don’ts to help you guide your puppy to use its mouth appropriately.

Do:

  • Snuggle and pet your puppy when it’s relaxed or sleepy. Your hands are exciting teeth targets when they’re close to the puppy’s mouth, so putting them nearby when your puppy has less energy to bite reinforces the idea that getting petted is not an opportunity for nibbling.
  • Have toys handy so that you can redirect biting behavior when you’re playing with your puppy. If you’re sitting down with the puppy and it gets overly excited, stand up and end the game. Reward good behavior, such as sitting, with a treat or another chance to play.
  • Keep your puppy entertained. Teach games such as low-key fetch or hide and seek with toys.
  • Have treats handy to reward good behavior. Teaching your puppy to sit and stay in a certain spot (such as on a mat or dog bed) while you walk by is a handy behavior to use. You can toss a treat or kibble on your puppy’s “spot” to make it a good place to be and reward the puppy with another treat when it visits and stays in that spot.
  • Keep track of the times of day when your puppy is more likely to be bitey.
  • Use a crate and/or baby gates to create safe play areas. If your puppy doesn’t have access to yummy chair legs in the first place, then you don’t need to worry about teaching it to leave the furniture alone.
  • Every two or three days, rotate the toys that your puppy can access. This helps to prevent the toys from becoming boring.
  • Make sure your puppy gets regular naps. Growing puppies need lots of rest, and a tired puppy is more likely to bite.
  • Prevent your puppy from having the opportunity to bite, indoors and out. If your puppy is wildly biting at you or the leash when you’re out on a walk, straighten your arm and hold the puppy out away from you (make sure all four paws are on the ground) until it calms down. In the house, you can let your supervised puppy drag a light, long leash around, and if biting starts to happen, you can step on the lead until it stops.

Don’t:

  • Touch your puppy on the head. Puppies invite play with other puppies by biting at faces, so petting your puppy on the head is a signal to bite and play. Scratch your puppy on the chin or chest instead.
  • Wrestle with your puppy. Wrestling invites biting and rough play. In addition, your puppy needs to accept handling of all different body parts for grooming and veterinary exams. Wrestling will make it more difficult for your puppy to stay calm while being examined or groomed.
  • Shove or wiggle toys in your puppy’s face. Wiggle a toy along the ground instead.
  • Use punishment-based techniques (holding the puppy’s jaw, holding the mouth shut, etc.). The fallout from these techniques can make a puppy hand-shy.
  • Use repetitive verbal cues (“no,” “no bite,” “ouch,” etc.). If you’re repeating your cues, they’re not working, and that will teach your puppy that your words have no meaning. On top of that, if your puppy is biting for attention, giving verbal recognition will actually reward that behavior.

Additional Tips

Is your puppy getting enough mental stimulation? Try exposing your puppy to something new, teaching a new trick or game, or feeding meals in a KONG or other food-dispensing toy. Anything that encourages your puppy to use its brain will help use up that puppy energy and make it easier for you to manage.

Be prepared for your puppy’s behavior and plan ahead. Reward the puppy with treats, praise or play when things are going well, and do your best to remove objects and opportunities to bite. When you know you’re going to be busy with other parts of life, having a crate or an enclosed “puppy-proof” area and a prepared KONG or two filled with kibble, small amounts of peanut butter, biscuits or other food (freezing the stuffed KONG helps the filling last longer) will ensure that when you just don’t have time to deal with puppy biting, there’s a safe place for your puppy to go and amuse itself while you do other things.

As with all dog training, consistency is key. You may need to try different techniques to see what works best for you and your puppy, but don’t give up when the puppy’s behavior doesn’t change overnight. Your puppy is learning and growing, and keeping your behavior consistent will help your dog to be consistent as well. Make sure every member of your family is on the same page! With time and patience, your puppy will learn to use its teeth in ways that make both of you happy.

A man stands in a large open space with tall dog kennels visible behind him. In front of him sit three dogs, one black lab and two golden retrievers, looking up at the man. Another black lab walks toward the group

Once Future Leader Dogs are returned to our campus by their puppy raisers, most will live here for four months in the canine development center before graduating to working Leader Dogs. During that time, it’s important that every dog stays happy, healthy and ready to learn the lessons that will allow them to be successful guide dogs. To make sure that happens, we have several groups of people who work and interact with the Leader Dogs-in-training every day.

At any given time, we average between 110–130 dogs in the canine center. During a typical day we have 10 dog care team members, 20 guide dog mobility instructors (GDMIs) and 15 canine support assistant volunteers interacting with our dogs. Each one provides our dogs the maximum amount of interaction time to support their opportunity to become a successful Leader Dog.

Our dog care team members’ normal routine is to feed, medicate, handle, relieve and clean 2–3 villages (average of 25 total dogs) twice per shift. After those tasks are complete, they focus on the dogs’ health, training and enrichment. They take dogs to the vet clinic to check any health concerns, problem solve any concerns that were noticed while caring for individual dogs and spend one-on-one or group enrichment (dog-to-dog interaction) time with the dogs in their villages.

A typical weekday has 20 GDMIs concentrating on providing the 5–8 dogs they are responsible for with progressive guide dog training, such as a 30-minute training in the canine center or taking 3–4 dogs for a half-day training trip to Rochester, Birmingham, Detroit, etc. While the GDMIs focus mainly on training, they also pay close attention to the health, enrichment and care of their dogs.

We have three shifts of canine support assistant (CSA) volunteers every day. Each CSA shift has a dog care team member who guides their shift to provide enrichment time. The current focus for CSA volunteers is to provide one-on-one enrichment time with our dogs. This might be grooming (we have a never-ending supply of fur) or performing TTouch techniques (essentially a form of massage) to calm our dogs. We recently introduced a new opportunity for CSA volunteers to support group enrichment with our dogs.

We also created a new volunteer opportunity, dog transition assistant, with the goal to have 21 shifts (two hours long each) with two volunteers on each shift. The focus of this role is to use relaxation protocols that our puppy raisers have already introduced to our dogs to help them transition into their new environment. An amazing group of puppy raisers helped develop this role that other puppy raisers are now supporting on-campus.

Our dogs receive an amazing amount of interaction every day, and each staff member and volunteer helps to pave the way for another client receiving a well-trained Leader Dog that is ready to become the eyes of someone who’s blind or visually impaired.

Pictured above: Apprentice Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Kevin Guay interacts with some of the dogs in our canine center during a group enrichment session.

A golden retriever puppy wearing a blue Future Leader Dog bandanna sits with one paw on an orange dog toy

Leader Dog’s Puppy Development Supervisor, Deb Donnelly, offers advice on how to teach your dog to sit.

Sitting on command is a skill that all dogs should have because it is helpful in many situations, such as:

  • Mealtime – Encourages calmness around food
  • Playtime – Helps you keep control before throwing a toy and keeps your dog focused on you instead of only the toy
  • Meeting people – Teaches your dog not to lunge or pull to get to a person
  • Going outside – Prepares your dog to stop before going outside and starts your walk in a well-behaved fashion

Using Mealtime to Teach a Sit

Getting your puppy to sit when food is coming can be a challenge, but it’s also a good opportunity to use something your puppy wants to encourage good, controlled behavior.

  1. With your puppy’s food bowl in hand, take a piece of kibble and hold it in front of your puppy’s nose, then slowly raise it upward so that the puppy needs to look up to keep the food in sight. Soon it will be easier for your puppy to see the kibble from a sitting position, and the puppy’s rear will hit the floor.
  2. Once your puppy is in a sit, lower the food bowl to nose height and reward the sit by taking another piece of kibble and giving it to the puppy. Make sure to take the food to your puppy so that it stays in the sit and doesn’t lunge for the food bowl.
  3. Lower the bowl to chest height and reward.
  4. Lower the bowl to elbow height and reward.
  5. Lower the bowl to the floor and reward one more time.
  6. Release your puppy from the sit position by saying “OK.”

As with any behavior you teach your puppy, patience and consistency are key. Be prepared to help your puppy understand what you want it to do and that calm behavior will be rewarded, and you will be on your way to a well-behaved dog!

Additional Tips

  • Make sure your puppy is looking at you when you give a command.
  • Only say “sit” once. Do not repeat the command. Let your puppy figure out what it is supposed to do for the reward.
  • If your puppy gets overexcited at meal time, fill the bowl away from the puppy and set it aside somewhere until it’s time for a meal.
  • Train your puppy in a quiet area where it is less likely to get distracted.
  • DO NOT use physical pressure to push your puppy’s rear down. This can cause injury, especially to young dogs.

Deb Donnelly has been with Leader Dog since 1995, starting as a volunteer puppy raiser before coming on board as staff in 2012. In addition to her work at Leader Dog, she is currently raising Davey, her 23rd Future Leader Dog. She is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP) and is Level 1 certified in TAG teach. 

Gretchen Preston sits smiling at the camera with her left arm around her Leader Dog, black Labrador Floyd, who is wearing a leather Leader Dog harness

By Gretchen Preston, Leader Dog Handler

Cold, wind, rain or snow may force an occasional “inside” day. Excessive heat, high humidity or just having a busy day may restrict your Leader Dog’s daily exercise routine. Leader Dog client Gretchen Preston talks tips and strategies to keep you and your Leader Dog active both outside and inside on severe weather days. Try one of these exercise tips or invent your own!

BACK TO BASICS: Work your dog in the down, sit and stay commands. When your dog has mastered the “stay” command, you are ready to play “Hide and Seek.” This game is a great way to tune-up your Leader Dog’s “stay” and “come “commands. Reward your dog with high, happy tones or a small treat when he or she finds you. Make the game more challenging by increasing the amount of time your dog is in the “stay” position and increasing the difficulty of your hiding place.

INDOOR OBSTACLE COURSE: Work your Leader Dog in-harness in your house or apartment. Set up an indoor obstacle course by moving furniture and creating obstacles to navigate. Then, the real fun can begin. Take off the leash and use only the harness and your voice and hand commands to assist your Leader Dog in navigating the obstacle course. Once you have mastered harness-only guiding, take off the harness, leaving only the collar on your dog. Place your hand gently between your dog’s shoulder blades. Use your voice and hand commands to assist your dog in navigating your obstacle course with your hand only on him/her. Then, change the obstacles, or do it in reverse. I have trained my Leader Dog to work without his leash, harness and even without his collar. This “naked” guiding could prove to be useful if there was a fire or another emergency where you had to leave in a hurry or your harness or leash were not available.

BONDING ACTIVITIES: Use inside days to do extra grooming, practice your T-Touch massage techniques, or just play with your dog. These activities will help develop intimacy, trust and love between you and your dog.

TAKE THE STAIRS: Both inside and outdoor steps have great exercise potential. Find the nearest staircase. Stairwells in high-rise apartments, commercial or office buildings can add an extra challenge. If you and your dog get bored walking up and down flights of stairs, kick it up a notch and jog or take two steps at a time. Just watch your footing!

RUN YOUR DOG: KONGs are good outdoor exercise toys. They also work well for indoor play in large spaces such as a gym, recreation room or even a long hallway. In this game, your dog will be off leash. Make sure you are in a secure area if your dog is not trustworthy to be off his or her leash. Throw or roll the KONG and ask your dog to “fetch” or “get the KONG!” When your dog finds the KONG, ask him or her to “Bring it to me!” If your dog is resistant to bringing you the KONG, practice this exercise game in shorter spaces inside. If your dog won’t chase and retrieve the KONG on his/her own, play a game I call “Rodeo.” You will need another person to play this game. Again, your dog will be off leash, so make sure you are in a secure area. Stand 40 paces apart. Make sure you and your partner both have treats in your pocket or pouch (I use pieces of Leader Dog Floyd’s dry dog food for treats). Put your dog in a “sit” beside you. When your partner is ready, he or she calls your dog. You release the dog and the dog runs to your partner. Take turns running your dog between you. Use a welcoming, “Come!” Between each sprint, have the dog settle before running again. Increase the distance between you and your partner or change your position left or right to make the game more challenging for your dog. This game is especially good for very cold days. Your dog gets a maximum amount of exercise in a short amount of time. Be aware of when your dog tires.

In frigid temperatures, you are safer to exercise more times per day for shorter periods of time. It can take minutes for a dog to begin getting frostbite. Vulnerable areas are the tips of the ears, the end of the nose and the paws. If you must stand with your Leader Dog on snow, ice or even a frozen sidewalk while you are waiting for a ride, bus or train, try to keep your dog moving his or her feet every minute or two. This helps to promote blood flow and keep the dog’s pads from getting frostbite.

A dog lifts his or her paws off the ground when they are cold. In the heat, your dog will lift his or her paws when their feet are being scorched by hot pavement, a sizzling sidewalk or sun-drenched sand or gravel. Always be cognitive of the ground surface temperature. Remember, your dog is barefoot.

If your Leader Dog is content just hanging out on inclement winter days, or if it’s just too hot, this is a sign that it is time to get up and move. Play, groom or better yet, gear up and go out for a walk or an outside game. If it’s a hot day, head to an air-conditioned space to exercise. Keeping yourself and your dog fit will assure many happy, healthy days to come!

Light Up Leader Dog

Join us this holiday season as we Light Up Leader Dog! For a $10 donation, a luminary will be placed in your honor on Leader Dog's campus on the evening of December 11, 2021.