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Dog Leading the Way Home
Lessons for a service dog in training
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Illustration of homes

Jake piper’s making slow sense of the Home command. I’m not sure how much he’s really got it. He follows Puzzle readily when she leads us home, but I notice that he is clearly following her. He is a moment behind her dance steps, always, and doesn’t appear to be making any choice of direction. When I give him a handful of trial runs beside her, I realize that as long as she is with us, he will be content to let her lead. I don’t think he’s got it. It’s time to work him on the Home command alone.

I’ve watched him work his nose since the very first day he came to us, and what I know about Jake Piper is that he’s got a keen sense of scent and a high drive impulse. But, unlike Puzzle, he doesn’t have six years of finding a specific something and leading me to it with his nose. Jake also naturally works more head down across the turf than head up across the wind. He can trail a rabbit’s recent path through our back yard quite easily, but it’s Puzzle, head up, who seems to snag the airborne scent of passing humans long before they reach the house. It’s Puzzle who picks up on the roof-hugging squirrel pressed flat to the tiles above us. Of course, she is a field dog by birth and long trained to work air scent, and he is all raw nose talent and completely unversed. I’m interested to see just how quickly he picks up the Home command and recognizes what I need him to do. I’m curious if he’ll consistently backtrack our trail or if he, too, in time will simply take us home by moving from scent zone to scent zone regardless of the path we took outbound. It’s possible he won’t pick up this command at all.

Jake learns words quickly, so I start with teaching him what I mean by home. Walking along the boundary of the property, I’ll suggest we go home, and then, as we approach the front of the house, tell him to find the door. Jake has successfully learned that the Door command can mean door in as well as door out, so I hope to build on that understanding. Where once it was just about finding the door, Jake’s task now demands he find home and the door. For a week’s worth of sessions, I simply say, “Let’s go home,” as we approach the house, adding the Door command as we step onto the property. Jake learns commands well. The first time I say, “Let’s go home,” along the back fence of the property, and he chooses to run the length of the fence and then turn right to get to the front door, I mark it as a success. Yes, he did pee over other dog marks on the way—a quick hike of leg out of form rather than function— but he got us there. He enjoys the command, the job, and the big, big praise for a good dog doing well. In this he is much like Puzzle. Home is a happy command to give a once abandoned dog like Jake. Every time we work it, I’m reminded that in a way Home celebrates what he nearly never had.

We begin to train farther away. This is tougher for Jake, working across a merry universe of distractions. Even one house down from ours there are enticements: a cat arching in a window, any number of piss marks on trees, a child’s sock, a dead pigeon. Before we can nail the Home command, Jake has to reliably Leave It, a term he now understands. Usually good about it, he occasionally plays dumb and lunges for whatever (Never heard that command in my life). He also plays deaf (Even if I do know the command, I didn’t hear it).

Jake’s a curious beast, leaving the taunting cat and the rotting pigeon much more readily than the piss marks, leaving the child’s sock most reluctantly of all. He doesn’t try to snatch the sock as toy, but he’s curious about it. When Jake does Leave It on the second command, he looks up at me in puzzled innocence, as though he’s wounded by my tone of voice.

In a few days, from one house away, he leads me home. In a week, from two houses away, he leads me home. When the month is out, I can give him the Home command as we round any block leading to the house, and he’ll take me there, long lead drooping and scraping across the sidewalk, a loose connection between us so that I can be certain I’m not cuing him with tugs even I don’t recognize. For a time we work into the sun so that my shadow is thrown behind me—I want to make sure I’m not even cuing him by some lean of body he can see, though I’m not sure he recognizes what a shadow is.

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