Keeping a working dog happily working

Kismet running around with a piece of firewoodKismet is nine years old. She’s been my guide for a little over seven years. I’ve retired three dogs before her so when she showed signs of slowing down I was dismayed. She was reluctant to get up and into the harness at work. Once harnessed she was slow to move out. She stopped short of targets that she’s been showing me reliably for years. For no reason I could determine she started turning left where we had turned right a zillion times. It just felt like her heart wasn’t in it the way it had always been.

At home and out of harness she was as zany as ever. If I got out of bed before Jim on the weekends I’d take her out of the bedroom with me and close the door. When Jim came out later she’d go crazy the way she’s always done. She’d dash around the house making her wookie noises, leaping onto and off of the bed and dashing in mad circles around the house. If Jim or I threw a ball for Sirius she’d grab a piece of firewood and run around behind Sirius as he fetched the ball. In short her off duty behavior seemed the same as it had always been.

Why the discrepancy? I want to keep this brilliant little dog working happily for as long as I can. I spoke with a trainer at The Seeing Eye. After describing what was going on he confirmed that I was reading the signals correctly. The last thing he said was, “You never know when the last six months of your dog’s working life are going to begin. Don’t make the last six months ruin all the good years that came before.”

Determined to keep work fun and interesting I began. Kismet is clicker savvy. I started using the clicker at work every time I needed to work her. Before harnessing her I’d play a few clicker games. Things I’ve taught her using the clicker include shaking hands, getting her leash off the doorknob and bringing it to me, kealing over on her side like a dead dog, and spinning. She’d do each task I gave her, I’d click and treat, and then I’d harness up.

While this may have been more fun than just getting up, getting harnessed, and going to work, it didn’t make much difference in her actual work. She continued to move out slowly and stop short of goals.

Then I decided to skip the games and use the clicker as I worked her. At each destination on a route, each doorknob I needed to find, each elevator button I needed to locate, I started clicking and treating. In the space of a couple of days she was getting up the instant I took the harness off of the doorknob. She was instantly moving out when I picked up the harness handle. She was performing her graceful little swoop to the right as she located each doorknob or elevator call button.

In short, I had my Kismet back. Her annual physical was today. The veterinarian confirmed that she is in almost perfect health. Aside from some slight clouding in her eyes she’s fine. The vet told me what the possible effects of the clouding might be but I’ve seen none of those signs in her work. Now that I know she’s healthy, now that I’ve discovered a key to helping her work happily, I know we’ll have more time as a working team.

There is, of course, no way to know when those last six months will begin. For nowI’m just releived that I have my Kizzy working happily again. Just as I’ve learned a lot about life, death, and dying from my dogs, I’ve also learned a lot about work and retirement.

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2 Responses to Keeping a working dog happily working

  1. torie May 27, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    I’m glad you’ve got your little girlie working happily again. That sounds like some sound advice from your trainer. I hope she doesn’t stop working for a while yet.

    We weren’t taught how to use a clicker. I imagine it’s great fun though! Xxx.

  2. smartin May 27, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    Thanks Torie. The clicker is a great tool, just one of many. I’m greatly relieved at the almost instantaneous results. She’s a good girl that little Kizzy dog.

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