By Sarah Thompson
The past 12 months have been pretty hectic for our family; our son, Frankie (6), has Angelman Syndrome and an acquired brain injury from a seizure when he was two years old, and in March last year his first assistance dog, a Smart Pup called Hercules, arrived.
I think it’s fair to say that underneath all the excitement of those first few weeks with Herc, we had our reservations. We found adjusting to life with a working dog was a serious business. While learning the ropes with Herc, my partner, Jonathan and I really struggled to keep up with the demands of Frankie’s daily care. We had underestimated the impact that this extra workload would have on us, and I know that I found the relentless nature of it all quite overwhelming. This was supposed to make life easier, not harder.
Although Frankie and his sister, Evie, seemed very happy with the new addition to the family, it was pretty tough on us both. For a while there we didn’t have a minute in the day to spare for ourselves, let alone each other. I think we both wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
You would assume that before we decided to raise the $25K required to take this on, we might have tried to understand it all better – what it really takes to teach a dog to want to help you out. And in hindsight, I think we thought that we didunderstand. If we were able to get the funds together then it felt like it was a bit of a no-brainer.
A dog that could alert us to Frankie’s seizures and provide companionship, go everywhere with him, of course we wanted one.
We had time (2 years) to get our heads around it, and we were told that the first few months would be difficult, and that it would take time for him to settle in. I did think it would be hard, but it still came as a surprise to me, how hard it really was.
Smart Pups (the provider of Herc), with all they had invested in Hercules, had some pretty high expectations of us. Given that we already had our hands full, they did feel a tad unrealistic at first. However, it didn’t take long for Herc to turn the charm on. We knew it was an amazing opportunity, and figured that we had signed up for it so we needed to stop freaking out and make it work.
With a fair bit of input and telephone support from Herc’s trainers we made it through the ups and downs of the first year.
Smart Pups are based on the Sunshine Coast, and train dogs that assist children with special needs. They have only recently been recognised and public awareness is still developing. Their trainers and volunteers spend a great deal of time and energy training their dogs, which can be trained for different purposes, depending on the needs of the child. This can include medical or seizure alert, mobility assistance and companionship. Unlike the two-unit relationship between an adult and their assistance dog, Smart Pups work as part of a three-unit-team. An adult handler, child and dog. These dogs are only legally able to access public areas when all three members are present.
He would need to wear his coat and to carry ID paperwork, but in theory we could take Herc anywhere that Frankie went. To the shops, to hospital, to school, to restaurants, on a plane. So obviously he would need to be well under our control and able to handle any situation.
Smart Pups prepare their dogs by training them in many different environments, and they are put through their paces by their trainers for at least 12 months. Throughout the training process they are regularly assessed to determine whether they are still fit for service. As well as having a gentle nature and intelligence, these dogs need to love working, and to thrive on it. It’s not surprising that not everybody graduates.
Herc had spent time living with a family in order to provide him with socialisation and familiarity around children. He had made it through the program, demonstrating all the right attributes, and with good attitude intact. We were told he was judged a good fit for Frankie.
We were very excited when we heard that he was in the final stages of his training. We were sent this photo of Hercules a couple of months prior to his placement. Although still a puppy at 12 months old, he was fully grown and weighing in at around 30kg. A first generation Labradoodle, he had a kind face and a goatee beard.
One of his trainers arrived at our place a couple of weeks before his placement to put in some ground-work, and to answer any questions we might have. Jonathan was at work, but I had many…
Can he go running with me? Can he play on the beach? Can he ride in Frankie’s bike trailer? Can Evie play with him?
Of course the answer to all my questions was NO. He’s not a pet dog.
So he was not a pet dog, and we were not to treat him like one. This chat felt a bit harsh and I remember feeling a bit deflated.
We were to learn that our needs, (as humans) were different from dogs. Apparently, in order of importance a dog needs…
1. exercise, healthcare and a good diet.
Affection was last on the list. I had to harden up, and to resist the temptation to smother him with my need for his unconditional doggie love. It was up to us to learn to relate to him effectively and to develop a working relationship with him. He was already a well trained dog, who had been living with a highly skilled dog handler up until his placement. Preventing it all from unravelling was going to be the challenging bit.
Herc arrived with his trainers, who stayed in town for a week, spending a truly intense five days with us. They were here to settle him in and to provide us with the training required to become his handlers. In order to maintain Herc’s level of training there were many rules and commands for us to learn.
They were very patient with us, and we were being sized up as much as they were.
In order to become accredited handlers, we had to learn the rules and the dog handling skills required to pass a public access test with Herc at the end of the week. This was to be done at Indooroopilly Shoppingtown, of all places. I generally don’t perform well under pressure, particularly in public. So it was terrifying.
Herc was already toilet trained, and he responded like a pro to his trainers’ commands. The challenge was to transfer this authority to us. Being a pack animal, he needed to recognise that Jonathan and I were his new leaders. He would try to establish where he stood in the pack, which we had to reinforce was below Evie and Frankie. From being the last to enter a room, to being greeted in the morning and fed. We had to make this clear to him as he established himself in his new environment.
There was to be no random affection, which felt a bit harsh, and everything was reward based in order to motivate him. We also needed to build his trust. We didn’t want to be too stern as he was working out what was expected of him. We found him to be very sweet and quite sensitive, picking up easily on any tension, so once we relaxed a bit he did too.
There were many commands to learn.. say sit, and he sits, free and he gets up, place and he stays on his mat, quick quicks and he toilets himself. It was very cool. Once we got the hang of the timing, and tone we used; high and excited for praise and deep and harsh tone for wrong. It was hard for us both to strike the right balance. At first I was too soft, while Jonathan was too harsh.
There was no more just popping up to the shops, incognito. In order to fit in enough exercise and training each day, every outing was a learning opportunity for Herc, and full kit was required. It already took time to get Frankie sorted to go out. Now there was more to remember, and it all felt much harder as it involved grabbing leads, and halties, coat, treat pouch, pre and post toileting on lead etc..
As well as getting Herc to adjust to us as his handlers, we had to learn how to facilitate a bond with Frankie. Because Frankie was so immobile, and couldn’t speak or reliably pat or give him eye contact or treats, we had to make him interesting to Herc. The main strategy was hiding treats on Frankie and making a big fuss whenever he was near him versus ignoring him when he wasn’t.
Smearing peanut butter on his feet was also pretty effective.
When he arrived he didn’t scavenge for food or go into the kitchen. With the exception of PB we weren’t to give him human food. We needed to maintain this control in order to reduce opportunity for distractions when he was in supermarkets and restaurants.
Many of his commands were around interaction with Frankie. Lap and he rests his head on Frankie’s lap, kisses and he gives him a lick, touch and he touches Frankie’s hanging bells with his nose or a switch button, press and he makes a toy squeak, take it and bring it when you throw him a ball and he has to bring it back onto Frankie’s lap. We had to try to practice these commands every day so that he wouldn’t forget them.
There were also games that we played like blowing bubbles, and playing with balloons, which Herc would get very excited about. Frankie loved it and was clearly enjoying listening to everything that was going on around him, and so we started to incorporate Herc’s training into his his daily therapies. We found he was very aware of the sounds that Herc made and we used this as motivation for his visual tracking exercises. We even tried putting Herc in a yellow T-shirt to make him more visible to Frankie. He wasn’t too keen on this.
There were different codes of conduct for different scenarios, which we had to reinforce. Inside the house he was free to wander around, but to stay calm and not run. He would follow us everywhere, a constant shadow and a massive sticky-beak, he was interested in everything that was going on – waiting for his cue in. We didn’t want him to get into the habit of soliciting attention from everyone who visited the house (like a pet dog) so we needed to ask people to pretty much ignore him, and not to pat him. This was hard because he was being so good, and we all wanted to. If he was paying attention to Frankie then everyone could praise him, that was different.
It was important for Herc not to bond with Evie, who wasn’t allowed to engage with him much at first. Only Jonathan and I, as his handlers, were able to feed him or give him commands. This was hard for Evie. We had never had a dog before. But she understood the reasoning and handled that part really well. Unlike us, she remembered all that the trainers had told us, and she took a back seat driver approach. At times very annoying but mostly quite helpful.
When he was in public with Frankie he was in work mode, and it was stricter. He was on lead with his jacket on, obeying commands and going places. At first he found it particularly hard to ignore other dogs on our walks and we had to be quite firm and use the treat pouch with the command leave it It could get a bit intense. I found all the attention we generated walking the streets pretty challenging at first.
In order to maintain his work-life balance we needed to socialise him and give him some free time and exercise every day. When he was off-duty at the dog park he could sprint around with other dogs and people could pat him then. Herc is quite the social butterfly, by far the friendliest, and most excited dog in the dog park. After he’s had his fix, sprinting around, chasing and jumping over the little dogs he is always much calmer, and happier to get back on the job.
Having a child with special needs makes you fairly conspicuous, but a trained dog in a coat attracts a fair bit more attention. I didn’t like this much, and found the general public pretty unbearable at the start. I’m not sure what was worse – the staring that lasted a bit too long, or the smiling dog-lover approaching with their dogs in tow. They were well meaning, and mostly lovely people who were just mad on dogs, and intent on giving Herc a pat and asking questions about his breeding. It was stressful though, because I was usually in the middle of trying to cross the road, or pick up some ice cream. Trying to be polite while pushing Frankie in his stroller and controlling Herc, who was being distracted by their yapping dog, was not always easy.
Unsolicited advice, and the occasional concern for his welfare, wore me down a bit too. Feeling like I had to justify what we were trying to achieve probably shouldn’t have upset me, people were just trying to understand, but for a while there I was a bit over-sensitive to it. It felt like very few people out there understood this dog training business and the amount of work and commitment it involved. I found some people quite self-involved when it came to their own dogs, and their concerns more about their own emotional state than the needs of the dog.
We are coming up to our annual review with Smart Pups. In order to keep our public access we will be put through our paces with Herc and his trainer again. Hopefully we’ll get a good report card, without the need for a visit to Indooroopilly Shoppingtown.
Herc is a pretty lovely dog. Fortunately for us he’s great company. He’s patient and sweet, following us everywhere and quietly taking everything in, waiting for his cue in. In many ways he and Frankie are strangely alike, if a dog can be zen…
Evie loves him, and they have a bit of a covert thing going on. We do think he already makes a positive difference to Frankie’s day to day, with his calm attention providing a unique level of interaction that a pet dog would be unable to provide. However, Herc’s primary role was to be seizure detection, and Frankie hasn’t experienced any further seizures since the prolonged seizure which caused his brain injury three years ago. Obviously this is a good thing, but it does leave Herc with a bit of a gap in his repertoire.
If we are going to go to all the trouble to maintain Herc’s public access, and continue to develop his skills and training we would like him to extend this, and to attend Frankie’s Special School with him. Currently, Herc visits the classroom at drop off and pick-up for those two school days, but stays with me while Frankie is at school.
If requested, Smart Pups will train a teacher and teacher-aide to be Herc’s alternative handlers while he’s at school. Unfortunately for us, it looks like there is no precedent for this at his school so we will need to take it slowly, as it would be a big commitment and unknown for them to take it on.
We are hoping to involve Herc more extensively in Frankie’s communication and make his interaction a motivator for his learning. We figure that if we can demonstrate that Herc can assist Frankie to make choices, then he will be an essential learning tool and be accepted into the classroom. Add the cuteness factor, and how could they seriously deny us?
It could be a stretch for us to keep it up, but Herc has shown that he has the intelligence and the will, being able to respond to a recorded command such as Hercules, bring me the ball or Hercules, lap Frankie.
Frankie can operate a switch button with his foot and choose between two buttons, each with a different recorded request. He has shown with his therapists that with enough repetition and correct positioning, he can show intent with his foot movement and make a choice which indicates that he understands cause and effect. If I push this button Herc comes to me. If I push this button Evie comes. It’s a fairly motivating combination, and if successfully initiated then this ability to choose could be measured, and hopefully open up other learning possibilities. It sounds like a bit of a stretch I know, but we think it’s damn exciting and feel we have to give it a go.
The other extreme would be to for Herc to hang up his coat, giving up his public access. This would make life a fair bit less complicated, and Herc a rather expensive and overqualified pet dog. But we’re not quite ready to do that. Many people have invested in this dog raising and training business to get us to this point, and although we know they would probably understand if we did bail out, we are feeling optimistic that we can make the Herc and Frankie partnership worthwhile. It may be that we end up somewhere in the middle, but we are all kind of taken with him, and like Frankie, we think he has a lot of potential. I’m just hoping that we have enough gas left in the tank to tap into it.
Will keep you posted..maybe.