Service Dog Success Story: Willow the Belgian Tervuren

“My dog Willow spent several months living with Sam and working on service dog training this past year. Sam did an amazing job helping willow transition from needing constant direction to be able to work independently. She has an amazing talent and relationship with all the dogs she works with and truly speaks dog. Willow is now able to assist me in ways which she was unable to before. Furthermore, I continue to get support and help from Sam on a constant basis. She is highly recommended.”-Emily G.

Willow came to us all the way from Boston, MA to work on advanced obedience and public access work for her career as a service dog.

Willow is a working line Belgian Tervuren who was about two years old when she came to stay with us for a few months. Willow’s owner, Emily, made the long trek from Boston to Lexington so that we could work on building some advanced behaviors with Willow. Emily did a wonderful job on Willow’s foundation training, but she needed to take it to the next level to ensure that Willow would be a model citizen as a service dog. This meant that we had to teach Willow advanced obedience, tasks to mitigate Emily’s disability, and public access training.

A Strong Base of Obedience

First we had to improve upon Willow’s obedience foundation. We taught her off leash control, as well as building her ability to perform obedience behaviors under high levels of distraction. During this period we also worked on teaching Willow very long duration behaviors. As a service dog, dogs may have to hold a down stay or a place command for as long as a couple of hours at a time, and we were able to teach Willow that she has to hold these positions until we release her, even if that means that she is going to be there for awhile.

Lastly, we taught her some new obedience behaviors that are very important for service dogs to have. These behaviors include “under”, which means that the dog must tuck themselves under a chair or bench to keep out of the way of foot traffic, and “leave it”, a strong food refusal command because service dogs go into places such as restaurants and grocery stores. Below you can see video of her working on this command. I can literally throw food, in this case hamburger buns, and she knows that she is not allowed to take them. This commitment to ignoring distractions is very important in service dogs, and being distracted by things such as food can cause them to miss an important alert cue.

Task Training

Task training was another area that we focused on with Willow. In order for a dog to be legally considered a service dog, they must perform specific tasks or work that mitigates the disability of their handler. We taught Willow some grounding behaviors and showed Emily how to pair these behaviors with scent and behavioral cues to start Willow on independent alerts. Willow also learned some mobility task basics, such as bracing, counterbalance, retrieving dropped objects, and hitting handicap buttons. 

Public Access Work

Public access is the portion of a service dog’s training where they go out into public and get exposed to all of the hustle and bustle of the real world. Before I ever start taking dogs out into public, they first have to meet a certain standard of obedience. Once I’ve established strong obedience, I will take the dogs into dog friendly stores, such as Tractor Supply, Rural King, and Petco. When the dog has shown me in those environments that they are reliable in their obedience, will not disrupt shoppers, and are ignoring distractions, I will start to take them more places that are open only to service dogs.

The difficulty of the environment is slowly increased to make sure that the dog is set up for success. Some examples of places that Willow went with me while in training include: various restaurants, Walmart, Kohls, Home Depot, the Kentucky Horse Park, the Breeder’s Cup World Championship Tailgate, University of Kentucky campus, movie theaters, on public buses, the Newport Aquarium, downtown Lexington, and countless more. 

The Transition

After a few months of staying with me, Willow was reunited with her owner Emily. Emily drove down from Boston and spent a few days learning all of the things that Willow had learned, and practicing with her as a team. Go-home lessons are an extremely important part of all boarding school programs, because they are where the skills transfer over and the dog begins to view their owner in a new role as a leader and a partner to work with. Willow did very well with her go-home lessons, and was able to travel home to Boston with Emily to practice all of their new skills.

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