International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners

What Will They Think Of Next?

by Joan Froling

My Samoyed service dog, Dakota, just surprised me by bringing me a can of Diet Coke on his own initiative. It is very difficult to keep a straight face and pretend I do not notice him. He looks so hopeful standing there. He thinks he's figured out a way to get a delicious milkbone out of me whenever he is hungry. After all, each time he delivers a Diet Coke on command, I reward him with a treat. Clearly I'm a person who is very fond of those silver and red cans in the kitchen cupboard.

Over to the side, my retired Samoyed service dog, Nikki, sits there watching the neophyte with an amused expression. As Dakota lets out a low whine of frustration, Nikki catches my eye and grins his Sammy grin. He knows my heart is granite when it comes to unsolicited retrieves. Has to be. I once made the mistake of thanking Nikki with a treat when he brought me a cassette tape unsolicited. I thought he found it on the floor somewhere and probably brought it to me because he didn't know what else to do with it. Foolish guess! A short time later I had nine more cassette tapes piled on the floor in front of me. He was raiding the shelf next to the stereo! I stopped rewarding him after that first one, but it was hard to curb his high hopes. It took quite a few more trips before he finally resigned himself to the fact his brilliant scheme for obtaining extra milkbones was not so brilliant.

He later tried to peddle Diet Coke to me, just as Dakota is doing. There isn't much he hasn't tried.....or so I thought. Dakota from time to time takes it upon himself to show me Nikki didn't think of everything.

At the moment, Dakota's tail no longer waves jauntily over his back. It hangs limp and depressed. It has dawned on him that something is wrong. His jaws are beginning to ache. What should he do? He looks over his shoulder at Nikki. The old Samoyed seems to be laughing at him. Dakota hates an "I told you so," look from Nikki. Turning back to me, Dakota lowers his head, mouthing the can as if it has a sour taste. I think he is threatening to drop it unless I take immediate delivery. He is clearly not a happy camper. I let him stew for another fifteen seconds, as if he is invisible and I still don't know he's there.

I finally take pity on him. In absolute silence, I remove the can from his mouth, set it on the end table, then go right back to typing this, not meeting his gaze. You can hear the wheels clicking in his mind as it sinks home there won't be any treat or praise for this unscheduled delivery. Should he try another unsolicited retrieve? He studies my face. The laughter I'm suppressing almost gets the best of me, but I manage to hang in there. I want this to be a totally unrewarding experience for him. No signs of approval. If I laugh, he might think this stunt delights me. It does. But if I had to cart a dozen cans of Diet Coke back to the kitchen in one afternoon, it would rapidly lose its charm.

With a long plaintive sigh, Dakota turns away. Back to the ole drawing board! He flops down in his favorite corner to give this business of earning milkbones some more thought.

You have to love it.

This kind of thing doesn't happen every day, by any means. Normally a service dog waits for a command before performing a task. But every once in a while, admittedly "something" does seems to get into them. Out of the blue, a service dog may suddenly initiate a task or make use of a skill in a way it was not intended or add his own special "twist." You never know what he'll think of next. It is part of the fun and fascination of the lifestyle we call assistance dog partnership.

This business today puts me in mind of another time that Dakota decided to try an "unsolicited retrieve." In that particular case, I liked the stunt so much, I responded quite differently. I lavished praise and milkbones on him, communicating whole hearted approval. I knew that positive reinforcement of the action would encourage him to repeat the behavior.

It happened this way. I taught Dakota to fetch a can of Diet Coke from the kitchen cupboard, rather than the refrigerator, since my refrigerator door has no handle to which I could attach a strap. Naturally it took a couple months of step by step work to reach the point where I could send him all the way from the living room through the dinette into the kitchen to open the cupboard door, retrieve the can of soda pop and bring it back to me without fumbling it. As a separate task, a couple months later I trained him in a step by step fashion, to take an empty Diet Coke can from the living room through the kitchen out to the laundry room where he would deposit it in a recycling bin. As I drink about four cans a day, Dakota received plenty of practice on both tasks. Pretty soon it became routine. I'd typically ask Dakota to take an empty can out to the bin. I'd listen to hear if it hit the floor or if he actually put it in the bin like he was supposed to. If he scored a direct hit, I'd call out "Good boy" from the other room. He'd hurry back for more praise and a milkbone treat. After he ate his milkbone, I'd send him to fetch me a refill.

One afternoon he didn't come back right away after dropping the empty off. I wondered what he was doing? He apparently had halted by the kitchen "Pop cupboard." The door was ajar from an earlier run. He was staring at the cans of Diet Coke. This I surmised when a few seconds later, I heard the telltale sound of him grabbing a refill off the shelf. The rascal had decided to save himself some time!

This innovative "twist" was something I definitely approved of.

Because of the extra fuss I made over him, as if he were a hero, the next time he took an empty can out, it is not surprising that he repeated the stunt on the way back. Soon it became commonplace. Two tasks for the price of one! A lot less bother for me. In fact, it wasn't long before I was disappointed if he didn't remember to stop and grab me a refill on the way back of his own accord. After the first month, I let him know it, too. Decided to withhold praise and a treat henceforth if he came back without that refill. Rather than reward him, I'd pretend to be annoyed.

"Where's the Pop? What are you doing here? Where's my Pop" I'd demand as if he'd forgotten something even a nine week old puppy wouldn't goof up on.

Dakota would stand there looking at me. A long cool calculating look. I'd try to appear very resolute. Usually he'd break off the stare and give in and return to the kitchen for a refill, but not always. Sometimes a hint of mischief would appear in his eyes. He would fake an attack of amnesia. Pretend he couldn't comprehend what I wanted of him. He'd begin to wander around the living room as if dazed with confusion, a casual aimless stroll. He'd waltz by the two doorways that would lead him back to the kitchen as if they didn't exist. He'd be watching me out of the corner of his eye to see how I was reacting to this ploy.

That is one of the challenges of working with a dog instead of a machine.

How far should you let a service dog push you?

Not too far, if you want to keep such incidents rare and therefore humorous.

One strategy that works with Samoyeds, a breed that has a definite weakness for food treats, is to hold up a milkbone or something else that is edible and put on a show of it being so delicious, you are not going to be able to resist eating it yourself if a certain somebody doesn't hurry up and finish the task.

Talk about a dirty look! What a sneaky, grossly unfair tactic! The salivating Samoyed will slink out of the room and return with the appropriate object and fling it into your lap. Then he snatches the treat out of your hand and gulps it down. Not the most gracious of deliveries, but it does get the job done.

So much for the "positive reward method" of gaining compliance.

Did I mention you are not allowed to laugh at them for caving in to their Achilles heel?

Another strategy for coping with the amnesia-game is to suddenly start acting like a marine drill sergeant. It works well when the problem is a challenge to your authority because of confusion over who is team leader. It straightens the dog out in a hurry.

One tactical choice is call the dog "to Attention," with a loud "Stop That!" Follow it with the command "Pop!" in a no-nonsense tone of voice, as you sternly point toward the kitchen.

Something less confrontational, yet highly effective, is to make your dog do the equivalent of "doggy pushups," for his failure to promptly obey a superior officer. Make him perform several basic obedience commands in quick succession, the faster the better. For example: "Down!" "Come!" "Sit!" "Down!" Then praise him for compliance. Talk about an attitude adjustment! Afterwards, you can send him back to complete the original mission, confident of obtaining his full cooperation. The spark of rebellion in his heart has been firmly squelched.

A very sensitive dog who wilts if criticized might do better with a different strategy. You can simply drop something you are sure he will pick up for you, like the TV remote or a pen, then reward him, puffing up his ego till he thinks he walks on water. In his conceit, he'll forget all about amnesia-game. He will be putty in your hands. Temporarily, that is.

Dakota, the time-saving Samoyed and I have been together for over two years. He consistently stops on the way back to pick me up a refill now. No longer tries to pretend he has amnesia. Imagine how many daily repetitions he's had of this particular task since mastering it! Four times a day multiplied by 22 months. However, don't think 2000 repetitions will turn a dog into a mindless robot, or as some call it, "a push button" service dog. There is no such thing.

Actually, I'm afraid you'll discover a service dog is going to be pushing your buttons every now and again. Never maliciously. But becoming a service dog does not confer instant sainthood on a dog. Certainly not on a Samoyed service dog.

The latest is that I can hear the clink of Dakota dropping the empty pop can into the recycling bin. I wait for the thud of the cupboard door opening and the familiar scraping sound of him grabbing a can of Diet Coke off the shelf. Sometimes it can be a long wait. Instead of the scraping sound, there is a gentle lapping sound that goes on and on and on.....a service dog taking time off for a leisurely drink of water out of his bowl prior to completing his mission.

The audacity!

The sheer unmitigated gall!

Where did he get the idea he's entitled to schedule his own coffee breaks?

And so it goes......the never-ending give and take of life with the most lovable piece of assistive technology ever invented.

Return to IAADP home page

Assistance Dog Partnership