Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tails of Trains

Sitting on a train today with no canine for assistance or company, I can't help but remember the first time I took Bastien on a train. We were taking the Sounder Train from Tacoma to Seattle. While he was well versed at all other forms of ground transport be it buses, cars, or taxis. Heck, we even went on our first airplane trip when he was eight months old. At the time commuter trains were relatively new to the area. I went with plenty of time to pre-board and load (as I call it) with training tidbits and a medium GreenieTM, just in case he was a little unsure and needed some distraction. After, nearly a year of working, training and living with him, I knew this first experience with trains could set the tone for all future rail type travel. I have always been a person with itchy feet, so my service dogs have to trust me and be willing to come along no matter what the form of transport.

There we were sitting where we had been placed to wait outside near the tracks. His face as the train pulled in was unforgettable! It said, “Holy cow, mom! Is it gonna eat us!” While Bastien had never been a dog who cared much about loud noises, this was like a mini earthquake with the ground rattling all around. I began to have him do some training exercises like “Watch me” and “Puppy push ups” with rapid fire rewarding to keep him focused and relaxed as the train barreled down on us. He was more than happy to oblige me. Once the staff had the ramp in place he happily trotted across with me.

I used the same placement cues that we had been working on since we started taking the bus when he was eight weeks old. While the staff put the tie downs on my chair, I have him wait off to one side or the other depending on the chair spot using the cues “Right Side” for right and “Place” for the left side. He is also in a firm sit, with the occasional “Leave it” in case he is getting a little to solicitous with the staff tying down the chair. (Remember some transport staff have had bad experiences with or may not like dogs, so it is of the utmost importance that the service dog mind his manners and keep his tongue to himself.)

Once the chair is firmly in place I would move him to the space in front of me with a point of my index finger and a “Spot” cue. Nicely settled, we had a 40 minute train ride. I gave him the GreenieTM and he happily set to work. He did not even look up as the train roared to life to leave the station. Neither rain, sleet, snow, or the rumble of a train could distract him from his GreenieTM..By the time he polished it off and came looking for more, I knew trains were not going to be a problem for this dog.

I think even if a person is not an avid traveler, you owe it to yourself and service dog to introduce them to all possible forms of transport along with the necessary training to successfully work and enjoy these life options with your partner. Some rules of travel and cues Bastien and I found extremely useful are:

Traditional Cues:
-Back = Back Up
Leave it

My Cues (meaning I made them up because they made sense to me):
-Spot = used to identify the place where I want him to settle
-Straighten = used to get him to lay as closely to the side of my chair as possibly. I use this to fix the in inevitable sprawl that tends to happen with long placement commands like sit, down, and stand.
-Come round = meant to turn himself in a circle
-Tuck = told him to pull his tail in
-Get in = meant to go through a door ahead of me
-Go with ______. Meant to go with the person I handed his leash to. This one came in handy all the time.
-Outside = told him to find the nearest door going out.
-Bathroom = told him to find the nearest ladies room.
-Rattle = told him to shake. Handy in our wet climate for a service dog to wait to shake off until you find a nice out of the way spot.
-Find ______. = Told him to find a specific person in the crowd. This was a natural skill of his I noticed when he was young for learning people names and remembering. I took this talent and and capitalized on it. I would introduce him to someone by name and allow that person to really love up on him. Then when I would ask him to find that person later I would always right away give them person to pet him and make a big deal about it with him. This worked so well I found my boss in the middle of the Denver United airline terminal!

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