Dawn greeted with smiles, kisses, and happy hellos on the way to day’s first potty break. Following dad’s feet to the door & out the gate, they’re off—seeming to cheer “new day, happy day, follow me!” Tearing across the field to the back lawn & tumbling over top one another, both take turns chasing each other back & forth. After a few minutes, a quick stop to sniff about & do their business before continuing back inside. A few sips of water, ‘first breakfast’ biscuit treats & it’s time to snuggle back down again. Everybody finds their spots, settling in to enjoy the last moments of calm & cuddle before parade day gets in gear!
[Important: PLEASE DO NOT venture out to train in public environments like those described herein unless you & your companion have done the foundational basic training & practiced working together using those commands successfully. Taking a walk around the neighborhood with a companion, with occasional sirens or groups of people, is much different than being surrounded by crowds & startling noises for long periods of time. Your companions should feel comfortable and secure with you before venturing into more active and distracting surroundings.]
Parades! Every first Saturday in August, the Town of Wilton Annual Blueberry Festival Parade begins in the parking lot directly across the street. By early morning everyone is getting vehicles & themselves into place, finishing last-minute touches & warming up for the march toward downtown. The noise continues to build until about 10 minutes or so before start time, then everyone quiets down to almost silence waiting for the signal to begin. 9 AM & our family was ready—with its newest member, a new ‘baby sister’ for Benson, six-month-old Tootsy (aka Toots)—watching all the activity & enthusiastically greeting all other dogs in the crowd!
‘Front-row seats’ to a parade, complete with horses, sirens and Shriners speed-demons, provide a variety of stimuli that can startle or overwhelm a companion pet. Similar venues, such as outdoor sporting events or fundraising walks, can prove valuable training experiences when planned & managed carefully. Learning to navigate varied environments & situations, with varying degrees of activity and distraction, is a pivotal ability for any assistance or working companion. We added one additional challenge this year: Toots! This would be her first experience with large groups of people since days at shelter, and we knew there was potential Toots could spell trouble.
We were blessed with the Greater Androscoggin Humane Shelter [ http://www.gahumane.org/ or on FaceBook at https://www.facebook.com/gahumane ], whose staff & volunteers begin laying the groundwork with basic commands while sheltering & fostering all their rescues. Benson & Toots were ‘best buddies’ from the moment we all laid eyes on her at Androscoggin, where she was known as Toodles. Our home is alive with noises of fun and hope again, even if we could have done without the other aspects of puppy: occasional disemboweled shoes; late nights & early mornings of house-training; misappropriated items deemed toys by a cute wayward chewer, and so on. (We transitioned Toodles to Tootsy because a name meaning ‘goodbye’ is not ideal; it may confuse her when others use it in context during visitations. It most certainly creates an ironic situation for those who are trying to teach their new forever-friend to come! PetParents can more easily transition a companion to a new name if it is similar to its current one.)
Parades (and similar events as those staged from the facility across our street, like cycling tours/fundraisers and benefit runs/walks) offer an additional benefit when training: I can shift back & forth in the crowd throughout the parade to come or go as we please. This is not the case at more formal settings or ticketed events where our movement is limited out of respect to participants & other audience members. They also happen to provide prime opportunity to keep advancing Benson’s training while bringing Toots up-to-speed. As with small children, we need the ability to duck-out with an over-stimulated and difficult young one.
Try to set up the sessions for success—limiting the high-stress crowd/drill time (we do 15 or 20 minutes at most to begin, working up to 30+min) followed by breaks of free play or relaxed walk (a minimum of at least 5 to 10 minutes) for frequent but unpredictable lengths of time. We alternate between levels of high activity & concentration, at the front of the crowd (within 5-10 feet of the parade), to the fringes of the activity in the back or even further off. Hubby & I also use several techniques to create a dynamic training experience for each of them: planning entrances & exits with each companion; pair-time mixed with family-group time; exchanging leads (our pairings); using gear (packs, Halti-collars, vests/safety-wear) at random points in the session, and so on. These practices enable us to easily trade-off or separate or work with one individually at any point, or to deal with problems—both companions prepared to work with either of us regardless of who began their training session or walk that day. Benson & Toots are a wonderful match, and their friendly competitiveness has actually improved attention span & skill training with both.
Benson needs ‘down time’ to process what he’s learned, observing the group from a secure, non-threatening distance periodically. Whenever possible, take the time initially to assess the crowd & potential obstacles when training with your companion, before moving into the action, and then periodically at various moments during the process. Benson is able to concentrate on our relationship, following direction from me during the close-quarters action, when he’s already observed the crowd. He needs to take his queues from me, as he studies, trusting me to evaluate & ‘pilot’ until he develops enough skill & confidence to take the lead.
The parade was festive, the crowd raucous as ever, with Toots & Benson making it through together. The only difficult moments were when the full-size horses trotted out. Toots gave an ‘alert’ bark—they were the first horses she had ever seen! Both she & Benson stood to go meet & play with them, struggling against their leads for a few moments. Everyone settled down once the horses repositioned themselves & stood still, waiting for the queue to continue down the street. Come nightfall, the whole family ventured outside & enjoyed some fireworks—a pleasant surprise since they scare many dogs. We had prepared to be comforting & calming, possibly retreating home with distressed pups, rather than actually watching fireworks!
Because we took the time to prepare & everyone had a pleasant experience, Hubby & I are really looking forward to the next parade or major outing. Benson & I are now preparing for our training visitations beginning this fall: children’s reading sessions at the local library; the after-school program at the church; assisted living centers in the area. Toots is a quick learner, eager to please, and has a great disposition. I expect she may be far enough along by next spring to consider getting her certified when Benson tests (dogs must be at least a year old to certify through Pet Partners). Tootsy’s enthusiastic, but sometimes troublesome, intellect may be the key to her future success as a companion.
Hubby & I are happy with how things are working out with our newly blended family so far, even if the timing wasn’t what we expected. Occasionally you have to listen to your instinct and take a chance on integrating someone new into your life. We saw an online listing for Toots, considered her attributes a potential match for our family, and took the time to research it further by visiting the shelter with Benson. Take an educated risk and open your heart and home to a rescue you’ve carefully & lovingly considered. We took a chance, and were willing to deal with the ‘trouble’ that went with that. Now, we are all enjoying this fresh path & grand adventure together; we can’t wait to share our next steps with you!