BARKS from the Guild September 2015

Page 34


Great Expectations

Based on her current experiences with red heeler puppy, Gertie Mae, Gail Radtke details


how to go about training a therapy dog while admitting that, ultimately, it is up to the dog

expect great things for Gertie Mae, my six-month-old Australian cattle dog, as she follows in the footsteps of my late red heeler, Tawny Mae (see The Art of Teamwork, BARKS from the Guild, July 2015, p.41-43) to become a therapy dog with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. However, part of me is starting to face the reality that my expectations for Gertie Mae and her expectations for herself might be worlds apart. Gertie Mae is a true heeler in all her herding glory. If it moves, it must be chased! Herding and therapy dog work do not really go together. As such, I have my work cut out for me if I am to stick to my plan to train Gertie Mae to be a therapy dog and evaluate her when she is two years old, which is the current required age for the St. John Therapy Dog program. I started training with Gertie Mae from minute I brought her home at the age of 11 weeks. As the program coordinator for the St. John Ambulance Therapy dog prison visitation program with Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, British Columbia (see Endless Possibilities, BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, p.43-45), I had the necessary access to take Gertie Mae into the prison with me. This gave me the opportunity to expose her to a unique new environment and meet a diverse population of people in a controlled setting. Bearing in mind the principles of classical conditioning, I made sure to pair each experience with a high value food treat or toy to make it a positive experience. Much of Gertie Mae’s future therapy dog work will be in the prison program so her experience of this environment at such a young age will be invaluable for her future evaluation. When I am training with Gertie Mae I spend a great deal of time teaching her how to resist moving objects. For her breed characteristics and instinct this can be difficult of course but I do not believe it to be impossible. Gertie Mae is wonderful with adults, but I have discovered that she has difficulty relaxing with

Gertie Mae is a heeler to the core.Time will tell if she will be suited to therapy dog work

younger children who move quickly and make loud noises because she wants to break out into chasing games. Impulse control training at her young age is also a vital component. Learning to not go with her instinct and instead make different choices takes time, and all interactions need to be planned out so certain behaviors cannot be rehearsed and strengthened. Using the principles of positive reinforcement I can reward calm behavior and whenever she chooses to disregard moving objects. I am fortunate to have my own training facility in Mission, British Columbia where I can set up specific training scenarios in a controlled environment. Play and physical interaction is highly rewarding for Gertie Mae so I use toys and play to reinforce behaviors with her; food is not always deemed to be of the highest value with a

Gertie Mae (left and right) and her training partner, Phaedra (center), undergo exposure training to wheelchairs, walkers and umbrellas


BARKS from the Guild/September 2015

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