[image-77]Earth science writer Audrey Haar rehabilitated her middle age+, unsocialized rescue dog by viewing the world through her eyes.
It turns out that you can teach an old dog new tricks, even if you are a cat-lover with no particular background or skills except the ability to see the world through a dog’s experiences. Earth science writer Audrey Haar of the Joint Polar Satellite System Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center learned enough about socialization to rehabilitate her middle age dog and, as a bonus, temporarily cared for a puppy for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
Haar’s husband’s golden retriever died during their first year of marriage. Although they tried to get a dog from a traditional rescue organization, they ended up with a different kind of rescue dog, a 5 ½- year-old retired female who had been used for breeding who came from a kennel in the country and was named Aspen.
Aspen grew up with cats and dogs. Once in her new suburban home, she wanted to play with the neighborhood cats until dissuaded by their constant swats. She even tried to make friends with the Christmas lawn decorations. She was sweet.
She also had no idea how to interact, much less play, with people. She flinched when she heard normal household noises like the disposal. She refused to get into a car. She was always on edge.
Haar’s husband thought Aspen was stupid. Haar thought she was just stressed.
“My husband had only raised dogs from puppies. I googled ‘adult dogs’ and realized that she was doing everything by the book. We just hadn’t read the book,” said Haar.
They took Aspen to a behaviorist who explained that Aspen, having grown up in the quiet countryside with dogs, needed to be socialized around people and noises. Since she was no longer a pup, the process might take some time, but she could learn.
Haar tried to look at the world through Aspen’s eyes and limited past experiences. She realized that Aspen’s reactions made sense because her world had been a quiet one filled only with dogs and cats, not people. She figured out that Aspen’s only car ride had been to forever leave the kennel, the only home she had ever known, which was why she was terrified of cars. Haar began adapting Aspen to life with active humans in a noisy house in the busy suburbs.
“We had to teach her how to play with people. I read about communicating with dogs and how to speak her language. I learned to look away when I said ‘no’ or when I was too busy to give her attention. That’s what she does and what she understands,” said Haar.
Haar also became interested in Pets on Wheels, a not-for-profit volunteer organization that arranges visits from volunteers and their dogs to people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. One evening while stuffing envelopes with others for POW, Haar met a lady with a Guiding Eyes for the Blind service dog in training. Intrigued, she asked a lot of questions.
[image-51]GEB dogs are born in their Yorktown, N.Y. facility. At about eight weeks of age, they are sent to live with a puppy raiser for about a year and a half. They then return to Yorktown for five months of intensive training after which, if they are deemed suitable, they are then placed as a service dog.
After deciding to become a puppy sitter, Haar attended GEB’s puppy orientation classes to learn what to do with a GEB puppy. GEB incorporates basic commands like come, sit, stay and heel as part of socialization. Two additional commands are “close,” meaning that when the handler taps his or her leg, the dog sits between the handler’s legs with its back to the handler, and “place,” meaning that the dog calmly lies down where the handler’s points. “Checking in” is an important one. Dogs are rewarded for looking at their handler on a very consistent basis, as if asking, “Hey, what are we up to now?”
Service dogs must be thinking dogs. The same is true for working dogs such as sheepdogs and also high-level competition dogs. To encourage thinking, dogs are presented with choices and then rewarded for coming to the right conclusion. “If the dog wanders off, you don’t immediately ask them to return,” said Haar. “You give them a moment and hope that they realize to come back on their own.”
Once she was trained, Haar puppy sat a young pup over a weekend. She enjoyed this so much; she puppy sat a few more youngsters. The big moment arrived in late October. Haar took home Champion, an 11-month-old Black Labrador Retriever for a week.
Haar and Champion spent a week going everywhere together including her office, conference rooms and even a restaurant. Champion seemed to understand that when he was wearing his GEB jacket, he was working.
They went twice to his GEB puppy class where they practiced still more socialization through creating situations dogs might encounter. The classroom was divided into stations. At one station, the dogs had to sniff but not eat food on the floor. At another station, the dogs had to calmly meet people dressed in scary Halloween costumes. The dogs also practice going to the vet for an examination that includes being touched all over and seeing cotton swabs and toothbrushes.
“When in a class where there is more stress than at home, simple things become difficult,” said Haar. “Some dogs get overstimulated by the presence of other dogs.”
Champion and Haar also had a training session with the GEB regional leader, who handled Champion on a pack walk. The idea was to walk calmly with other dogs in a busy social environment. The group walked back and forth over the same area until all the dogs were calm. Haar observed that the GEB regional leader connected with Champion and kept him connected with her.
What Haar finds most rewarding about training dogs is that working with the dogs produces results. The more she works with them, the better the results.
Aspen has become so well socialized to people that she is now a therapy dog associated with the organization People Animals Love. Haar's husband regularly takes her to work with elementary school children with reading issues. Some of these children feel more comfortable reading directly to dogs like Aspen than to people. A few even show her the pictures. Given Haar’s new-found talents, Aspen’s next trick may be reading the books to the children.
“It was helpful that I knew so little about dogs when my husband got Aspen. Socializing her as an adult dog was a very rewarding project. Champion, who was super socialized from the start, had the exact opposite upbringing, but working with him was also rewarding,” said Haar.