Busy day for black Labrador as she trains to become a support dog.
It’s been a busy morning for Elsie...
She’s already been for a run around Concord Park, followed by a quick shopping trip to Meadowhall and now she’s off home to load the washing machine and tidy up the living room.
The incredible part of this quite ordinary-sounding day? Elsie is a black Labrador.
And this is just another day of intensive training for the pooch who is aiming to become a disability assistance dog with Sheffield-based charity Support Dogs.
Elsie, who came to Support Dogs from another dog charity at the age of two, has already undergone a 12-week basic training programme and has just graduated to two weeks of more specialised training with instructor Sarah to prepare her for life as a disability support dog for new owner Mary.
Mary has a range of physical disabilities and spends much of her time in a wheelchair, so needs plenty of help around the house. She’s come all the way from Glasgow to train with Elsie, and has left her previous, soon-to-be retired, support dog Pippa at home with husband Andrew.
The Star has launched our ‘Pounds For Pups’ campaign, to raise £5,000 to fund one dog’s training.
Hundreds of people like Mary have already benefited from a trained assistance dog in the 25 years since Support Dogs launched in the city.
Through its three training programmes – for disability support dogs, autism dogs and seizure alert dogs – the charity uses a reward-based system to teach special dogs to carry out a wide range of tasks that make life safer and easier for its clients.
Elsie arrived at the Brightside Lane training centre first thing, having spent the evening with her loving Sheffield foster carers.
Sarah – who has a degree in zoology and a masters in clinical animal behaviour, plus years of dog training experience – decides to kick things off with a walk, or what dog trainers call a ‘free run’ round the park.
Elsie loves every minute of her time ‘off the lead,’ chasing seagulls and snuffling under hedgerows for food. But soon it’s time for work.
Sarah starts by working with her on retrieving keys dropped on the footpath, then it’s a plastic bottle.
Trainers use a reward system, giving the dog treats for completing a task – either dry dog food pellets called kibble, or carrots.
They save high value treats for the completion of difficult tasks, such as coming back when they are called.
Next, it’s off for a first visit to Meadowhall – an environment which has the potential to be something of a shock to the system for a still-learning assistance dog. It’s what trainers call a ‘restricted space,’ where only assistance dogs are allowed to enter.
Elsie’s not hugely happy about wearing her smart blue Support Dogs jacket but after more rewards she heads inside with Sarah and Mary, looking as though she’s been here dozens of times before.
She negotiates two lifts in Marks and Spencer, doesn’t react when a small child grabs her by the nose and generally trots happily alongside Mary in her wheelchair, obeying all commands.
After a rest and lunch back at the centre, Elsie practises opening and closing doors via a tassel attached to the handle, and finds and fetches a misplaced mobile phone several times. Her success rate is about 75 per cent and Sarah plans to come back to them the following day when Elsie is feeling a little fresher.
Finally, it’s off outside again to practise wearing a harness, and sitting at dropped kerbs.
The following day it will be more practice unloading a washing machine, before they turn their attention to ‘find daddy’ – the instruction or cue to look for Mary’s husband if she needs help.
Sarah said: “Training is physically and mentally tiring for our dogs, and more difficult for Elsie because she is adapting to a new person, but I am really, really pleased with Elsie and Mary.”
* Visit Support Dogs-donate to find out more about how you can help us reach our £5,000 goal. Alternatively, text SDogs15 (and the amount you’d like to give) to 70070, or call 0114 2617800.
* Tomorrow: Meet Kym and her ‘lifesaver’ Marley