Life of a service dog: Training time!

As a future service dog my training takes many forms. I must understand human words and execute them, I must possess situational awareness so I know what is appropriate and I must have exposure to many types of things and places – as many as my human handler can think of so when I grow up nothing will scare me. If something does startle me I have to learn to recover quickly ‘cause people depend on me.

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Veterans Moving Forward provides veterans with therapy and service dogs and amongst the puppies they are raising to help veterans cope with various injuries is an assistance dog in training that is near and dear to our hearts. His name is Nathan, in honor of Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal.

Compass is sharing Nathan’s journey from birth, through his puppy “years” and into his final stages of training in our series “Life of a service dog.” We hope you enjoy Nathan’s story as he goes from a clumsy puppy to a focused service animal ready to serve our nation’s veterans.

Nathan takes in a training at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.
Nathan takes in a training at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.

Written by assistance dog in training Nathan with help from his human handler, Cyndi Perry.

As a future service dog my training takes many forms. I must understand human words and execute them, I must possess situational awareness so I know what is appropriate and I must have exposure to many types of things and places – as many as my human handler can think of so when I grow up nothing will scare me. If something does startle me I have to learn to recover quickly ‘cause people depend on me.

So when I was 4-months-old I got to go to – I can’t say “visit” as that word means for me to gently put my head in a human’s lap – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia.

Wow! What a great place for a dog … and people too.

Nathan learns to hold an umbrella for his handler. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.
Nathan learns to hold an umbrella for his handler. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.

The center is tucked into the woods along the Potomac River. There are trails to hike, lots of new smells, wildlife to see, a place to swim, new people to meet and oh did I mention the smells! They train all sorts of people to do all sorts of things here. There are courses in migratory bird conservation, endangered species, refuge management, habitat restoration, leadership training and even fluvial geomorphology – yeah that one puzzled me at first too, but it is all about river behavior and I LOVE swimming in rivers, so I want to take that one next!

My handler was at the center for her training, but I got to learn a few things too. For one thing, I had to pay attention to my handler but be quiet during her class. Okay, so I fell asleep under the tables a few times, but that is okay for me. But maybe I should not have been snoring and laying on my back with my belly exposed? The main thing was that I not be a distraction. Come on, look at my face, how can I be a distraction?

The commons is where humans eat and talk. Wow, the smells in there were nearly overwhelming. And people walking from one place to another. The first room has all this food that humans eat and they walk from one side to another with people handing them food. It is very confusing in there for a pup. How is a pup supposed to act with all that going on? Well, I learned to stay close to my trainer. Preferably by her side and not to tug on the leash or the food on her tray might go flying! Honest I was good and only thought about doing that once.

Service dog in training Nathan learns to make friends with the grizzly bear. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.
Service dog in training Nathan learns to make friends with the grizzly bear. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.

My favorite part is lying under the table on the cool hardwood floor. People don’t even know I am there. In the evening I was taken to the tavern. People sit around and talk and eat popcorn. Again I had to lie under the table and try not to eat the popcorn that fell on the floor just a tongue-length away. This training stuff is tough.

Probably the hardest thing for me to learn was to get used to the other animals. This is the USFWS training center, so there are grizzly bears – yes, I am not kidding. They are VERY big. It took me a while to be comfortable being in the same room with the grizzly. Eventually with my human’s help I realized that this grizzly was not going to hurt me.

They also have caribou and wolves, which were not as scary as the grizzly. But check out the look on that wolf! See how calm I look?

And all these are the animals on the inside. It is a whole other world outside. We walk outside to get from the classroom to where we sleep for the night and from there to where the humans eat. And it is all through the woods, not like where my handler’s office is in the city. Outside there are deer I could not chase, squirrels who taunted me to chase them, crows that asked what I was doing there and bald eagles who looked down at me from their big nest in the tree. All creatures I had to try and ignore.

To get my mind off all the animals my handler would give me jobs to do. Like carry her umbrella for her. I was happy to do that for her. After a few minutes the umbrella got heavier and heavier. But I did not let go until she asked me to give it to her. She praised me and gave me a big hug for carrying it for her. Between you and me, I was relieved she asked for it back.

Nathan shows how hard it is to pay attention sometimes. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.
Nathan shows how hard it is to pay attention sometimes. Photo courtesy of Cyndi Perry.

Another reason the USFWS training center feels so comfortable to me is because there are several retired Coast Guardsmen who work there and the Coast Guard has held business meetings and other gatherings there. One retired Coast Guardsman, Capt. Bill Ashforth, is my friend. After 27 years with the Coast Guard he now applies the skills he honed in the Coast Guard to the USFWS. Bill was the commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Operational Systems Center located only a few miles from the training center. He said working for the USFWS “felt like coming home after the Coast Guard – the sense of mission in both is doing something larger than yourself.”

I am starting to understand my sense of mission; honor, respect and devotion to duty. Even carrying my human’s umbrella for a long way with the squirrels teasing me!

Stay tuned for my next blog about my Canadian roots.
– Nathan

3 comments on “Life of a service dog: Training time!”

  1. watched this kind of dog training s for such job in NatGeo and they really helped the needy, elders, etc. Dogs can even smell if a person is sick. Truly mans best friend.

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