23 May 2008

All Work and No Play Makes Molly a Dull Girl

Service dogs shouldn't work 24 hours a day. Like their human counterparts, they need the chance to have fun and relax. They also need to get enough sleep. Now Molly, for example, likes helping me, but that still doesn't mean she should be in her vest and expected to behave perfectly all day long. She'd burn out quickly if I demanded that of her, especially when she is so young still--she isn't ready for it yet. A long day once in a while is one thing, but long days day after day can stress a service dog.

We also need to accept that our dogs are like people in that they can have bad days and make mistakes. We train them carefully to try to prevent things from going wrong, but they can get sick of just make a mistake. Or we might make a mistake and confuse them, causing them to do something we didn't expect.

For the most part, Molly is "on call" when we're at home. She can lie on the couch with me, play with her toys, nap on her bed, or whatever else she wants. If I need her, I will call her and I expect her to come pretty quickly to help me. If we get visitors, she can talk to them and she can try to get either me or my husband to play with her. We tell her if we aren't in the mood. Basically she just gets to be a dog with that little extra of coming to help me when I need her and call her. But she spends much of her time near me and doesn't seem to mind helping me. She'll come running with a toy in her mouth then drop it to pick up my crutch for me. Once I'm all set, she picks her toy up and goes right back to her game.

Molly also has to work short periods at home for training sessions. When I tell her it is time to train, I require her to focus on what we're doing for a few minutes (10 max). Afterwards, she can have a break and go have some fun.

We also have more formal play sessions at home either inside or out. For these, I settle in with her and a toy for a little while to play with her on her terms. We often play with a ball or her kong. She loves to play fetch and variations of fetch that include down-stays and walking slowly to get the item. Molly also likes to chew on sticks, play with weeds from the garden, and go to the beach. She puts a lot of time and effort into making sure that I am happy and safe all day every day. It is my job to make sure that she is happy with her life too.

We rotate Molly's toys to help keep them interesting. We often save her ball for interactive play sessions and let her keep the other toys for playing by herself or playing on her own and bringing to us to ask for short play sessions. After she's had a toy for a while, we'll put it up and get another down. The break makes the toy new and exciting again and limits how many toys we have scattered around the house.

A kong is a great toy for helping a dog entertain itself. If I've been feeling really rotten for a while, I'll often put goodies in her kong so she can have fun getting them out. For example, I fill it half way with kibble, add a teaspoon of peanut butter, and fill it the rest of the way up with kibble. Another fun thing to do is to put a chew stick in the hole. That takes forever for her to get out.

Molly also likes to be outside to run around. To make sure she gets the chance, we put up a fence in the yard for her. I can roll out to it in a wheelchair and let her in to run around. She generally won't stay long without company, but it gives her the chance to run free without any worries of her getting into trouble.

For car rides, Molly is always off duty in the car. It is a good chance for her to rest up before and after working in public so she is fresh and ready when I need her. She has a basket in the back of the car that she loves to curl up in to sleep. If she wants to look out the windows she is welcome to, but usually she naps.

My husband helps make sure that Molly gets the exercise and playtimes that she needs for a dog her age. She needs more mental exercise than physical, but she is young and does need to get out and have fun and experience fun things like playing on the beach. I find it a great help to have a healthy person in the family to make sure that Molly's life is well-balanced and that no side of her development is neglected.

Once she is older and more stable, I still intend to give her a healthy balance of play and work. By then she will be more accustomed to her job and needing fewer breaks for that reason, but she will still get them when she can to make sure she stays happy and healthy and keeps loving her job.

I love the way she comes running eagerly when I call her for help with a toy in her mouth. She'd rather help me than play and doesn't go back to her game until she is sure I don't need more help. That's a dog that loves her job and that's how I want it to be until the day she retires.

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