I am afflicted with incurable Dane love, this I know. So a future puppy I would pick to owner/train as my next service dog would naturally be a Great Dane. Aside from a life long love affair with the breed, they also have the size and physical strength for what I need in an SD.
I won’t say I’m fat (I am), I’ll just call it “well insulated”!
I began to formulate a guideline for myself, for choosing a future Great Dane service dog in the last post. The place I started was knowing 1) what I would need from an SD, 2) what I would want but could do without from an SD, and 3) how breeders can give a puppy a head start before they are 8 wks old and coming home with me.
This post is the next step: selecting the puppy that is just right for what I will be asking of them. When I go to pick a puppy, I will be looking for is first and formost a natural attentiveness. Other vital criteria are curiosity, tenacity, calmness, and quickness to learn. Most all puppies have that, but I’m looking for those things in near raucus abundance.
Puppies change, going through stages of development just like humans do. So a puppy will not be the same “person” when they are an adult. Just because a puppy can learn a sit or a down fast doesn’t mean they will do it so easily later on.
An 8 wk old puppy hasn’t been “trained” yet, so what is most visible about them is their innate nature.That is why when I look at a puppy, I am watching for inborn habits, the deeper personality traits that will later result in a behavior that I have “trained”.
The next posts will be how to build, encourage, and shape each of these traits in a new puppy once they are home with me. But they gotta have the tendency to build on, and I have to recognize them in an 8 wk old puppy. As well as “catch” the subtle red flags of a tendency that would make training them harder.
A puppy that would rather play with littermates than hang with me isn’t going to have the innate desire to attend to my needs and wants 24/7, which is an essential part of the work drive of an SD. If the most commonly seen side of a puppy you’re considering is his backside, think again. I spent a huge amount of time trying to build on my late Kenai’s attentiveness, with limited success. Take it from me, you don’t want to consider a puppy that isn’t a “people person”! The puppy that leaves a good romp with his or her littermates to come see me is the single most important quality I’m looking for. There isn’t much you can’t teach a dog that wants to interact with you.
After all, how do you train a dog that isn’t paying attention? So the puppies in the litter that happily and repeatedly come to me, or follow me, even paw me for attention make the candidate list right away!
Puppies are naturally curious little tots, and that’s exactly what a future service dog needs to have. A willingness to pick up, mouth, swat around, and generally interact with anything in their environment morphs into a dog that will have a big skill set.
Selecting canned veggies at a store, pulling out a pan lid, putting dirty clothes in a washer, or finding a bench in a park without my direction are not typical activities of a companion pet. But a puppy that’s willing to adjust to the taste and texture of metal, willing to get their nose into a cabinet, or plays hide and seek can learn those tasks more easily.
Tugging games later become opening the fridge, or hauling a hamper to the laundry room. They will be inclined to pull up covers to help make a bed, or to open and close doors with a strap. Nosing toys around is where I can start to teach how to turn the lights on or off in a room. Or hitting the automatic door buttons, and even the elevator buttons. A curious puppy enjoys knowing they can affect their environment, and likes to do it.
What I don’t want is a super high energy puppy, a nervous and shy puppy, or an easily excited puppy. I have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), Lyme disease, and fibromyalgia (FMS). The pain and exhaustion of those conditions means I can’t properly exercise or provide continual activity to a very high energy dog.
Nor will I have the energy for the extra socializing a shy pup will require. A sensitive puppy has potential as an anxiety or medical alert dog, but my physical limitations kinda rule out an extra sensitive little one. Most Danes are sensitive to their person’s emotional state anyway, so why go too far in that direction if it makes more work for me?
An easily excited dog will have trouble remaining calm and focused in higher stress environments like shopping malls. Which is precicely where I need them to be calm and focused. I do encourage and reward puppies for being calm and quiet, but again, it’s more work if they’re turning into Scooby on you!
So a confident, chilled out fella is the man for me. A puppy that is happy to lay at my feet when nothing’s going on is what I want. His working life will have long down stays while I eat out, or watch a movie. He will have to enjoy the frequent naps and lay down times I need, too.
One thing I’ve noticed about my past Danes in particular is noise sensitivity, so I watch specifically for startling or lack there of. Socializing helps with that, but I’d like most to start out with a bomb-proof pup.
Opening a knob handled door is not an easy business for a dog. I don’t necessarily need a dog to, but wouldn’t it be great if they could open a closet door to get the blanket for me? It makes an exellent example for the need of a service dog to be willing to keep at it until they “get-r-done”.
Many SD tasks are what trainers refer to a “complex behavior chains”; in other words, there are many different skills involved in completing a task. For a knob door, they have to use their mouths, tighten their jaws around it, turn their heads far enough for it to release, and pull to open.
Some dogs will naturally put all those steps together. Others will have to be taught and rewarded for each one individually, until they are ready in their own minds to make the chain happen in order. (That’s called shaping, btw).
Like attentiveness, tenacity is an integral part of an SD’s work drive. A certain amount of stubborness is good, at least when it comes to mastering what they want to do.
I’ve posted in the past about how some breeds learn and understand differently than others. Some by repetition, and some by figuring it out themselves. These are generalizations of course, but overall, a Great Dane tends to happily learn a bit “on their own”.
By that I mean, left to themselves they will make associations, learn habits, and problem solve without your guidance. After all the breed was created to hunt without human assistance. A great book about training a dog with those habits is “When Pigs Fly”.
But having put so much emphasis on choosing a naturally attentive puppy, I should be able to avoid much of the difficulty I had with my late Kenai about changing his attitudes and associations with situations. Once he made up his mind, that was kinda it if ya know what I mean. (Told ya attentiveness is essential!).
So a pup that learns quickly, both on their own and equally well from me is a very good candidate. Even an 8 wk old puppy can learn a sit in just a few tries. Their memory and quickness improves over time but they can learn the basics really fast at that age.
I would like a puppy that is smart enough to problem solve on their own, to initiate or offer an old behavior in a new place or situation. If they need a little direction at first, that’s fine, but a pup with inititive and a willingness to try what worked “over there” is ideal.
To test for that in a new pup, I simply teach a sit with a reward, then move somewhere else to do it again. After maybe 3 sit lessons, I go to another place and look at them, waiting. If they pop a sit, I reward it really big and get myself some soft, fat baby love. (Best part).
The next posts will go into more detail, and I’ll be trying to “put together” everything I’ve learned and read over the years now. But this is a big enough order for a little 8 week old!