Chili on a hike
We’ve been following Chili, a black lab in training for Freedom Service Dogs, and his trainers, Tom Roll and Dawn Kairns, since January 2019 when he first came to them at age six and a half months. He’s now one year old. See our other posts about Chili here: https://sodapup.com/blogs/news/chili-service-dog-in-training, https://sodapup.com/blogs/news/chili-has-the-key-to-our-heart.
I caught up with them all again recently to find out how the last few months have been. In February, before the COVID shut-down, Chili went on his first plane trip to Arizona. When I asked how the travel had gone, both Dawn and Tom exclaimed, “Travel was GREAT! He looked like he’d done it a million times . . . . Just not a big deal. Absolutely great.”
Dawn said she’d wondered if Chili would be nervous or upset when the engines revved for take off or when the plane started ascending but he was just CHILL. Seems like he was aptly named. He also took all the other parts of travel in stride and was comfortable in the airport, going through security and everything else air travel requires.
Tom explained that when traveling with a service dog, you notify the airlines when you book your tickets and they try to place you in the bulkhead row so there’s room for the dog to sit on the floor at your feet. This is the way it worked out for their trip.
For the last several months, COVID has affected Chili’s training because most public spaces have been closed. Being exposed to various situations in the community is a huge part of his training. But as things have started to open up, Tom and Dawn have been able to start taking him out again and have noticed his pre-pandemic skills have remained solid.
His biggest challenge is being distracted by other dogs. “He’s so good at everything else. He just has to get that,” says Tom. When out on trails or in other places they might encounter dogs, Tom and Dawn work on helping him be less distracted by putting increased distance between him and other dogs, increasing the rate of treats, and increasing the quality of treats. “And he’s getting it,” they say.
Dawn training Chili at Freedom Service Dogs
What other challenges have they encountered in the training? The training requires consistency and constant awareness regarding reinforcement of skills. But that hasn’t been the hardest part. Says Tom, “The hardest part of training is sometimes not allowing him to be ‘a dog’ for the sake of his training.” Like allowing him limited access to other dogs. Or discouraging marking, a training request from Freedom Service Dogs, because you want to have a dog that will empty his bladder fully when he’s taken outside.
“Sometimes I have to pull him away from attempting to mark and he looks at me like, ‘What’s up?! I’m just trying to pee here!,’” says Dawn.
So what happens from here? Well, the good part is Chili gets to spend the summer hiking (and training!) in southern Colorado with Tom and Dawn at their summer home. But then: the thing no one wants to think about—and the truly most difficult moment in the training process—Chili returns to Freedom Service Dogs on August 22.
After returning to FSD, Chili will live at the kennel for four months during which time he’ll work daily with a trainer one on one, go on training outings, attend a daily play group with other FSD dogs in training and have lots of enrichment activities. He’ll spend weekends with a foster family—but not with Tom and Dawn.
In his early days back at FSD, he’ll start meeting clients so FSD staff can determine who he’s the best match for given his natural abilities. They’ll also be looking for a good connection between Chili and the clients. Once he’s matched with someone, part of his remaining training will be specific to the tasks his person needs assistance with.
A quiet moment with Dawn and Chili
Of course, anticipating the end of their time together is the hardest part for Tom and Dawn. These last few months together will be bittersweet as they contemplate being separated from him while knowing what a great gift they’re giving the client Chili will go on to help.
Tom said it best: “When we said we’d do it, we thought it was a noble thing to do. Now I’m finding out maybe I don’t have that much nobility.” But of course he does, they both do. Both say they don’t know how they would have weathered quarantine without him. They’ll miss him dearly. But they will also be so proud to have done such a service for the client who gets matched with Chili.
Stay tuned for at least one more update on Chili.