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Dog Leading the Way Home
Lessons for a service dog in training
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.

We have several good Home finds from a block away, once even approaching from a side of the block we had not taken outbound, and I think it’s time to let Jake Piper advance a little more. We take a long, free-to-be-dog walk into town, and halfway back I put on his service vest. He stands still for the putting-on-of-uniform, slides into it easily, and I see the change of demeanor I see in Puzzle when the vest goes on, as if he understands which rules apply.

“Take me home, Jake,” I say. We are about three blocks away. It’s a big step up from the block he had been doing, but we’re on the very road we took outbound, and we are walking into the wind. With any luck, it’s blowing straight over the house and into our faces. With any luck, Jake has so much of our outbound scent and home’s scent that the path back glows.

Jake perks at the command and starts off with great energy. Too much energy. For a moment I have to rush to keep the lead slack between us. If we weren’t near traffic, I’d drop the lead entirely to see which route he’d take. Jake’s head is lifted. The spotted left ear is standing almost straight up. The right ear twists like a corn chip. Everything about him looks happy, and with a terrier’s easy, distinctive trot, he moves confidently in the right direction. His pace is steady: Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home-Jake-Home. A couple of times he turns around to shoot me a glance. It’s a check-in but so confident and prideful that it reads less like How am I doing? and more like I am so on this. Who’s the good Jakey?

He’s the good Jakey, I think, and I am just about to share his overconfidence when suddenly he shivers all over, the nose drops, and the tail goes from a sway to a wag. This is the very kind of animation we may see in search dogs the moment they catch human scent. There is nothing about the Home command that should torque Jake up in this way; I’m thinking this even as he moves from the trot to a scramble and, nose down, begins to pull me along the sidewalk—right-direction-right-direction-yes-it’s-the-way-we-came—and then suddenly goes across the street on a diagonal, onto the opposite sidewalk, and into a row of bushes. Jake is crittering. He has chosen a place where possums like to sleep off the day, and I have no doubt he’s trailing one now. He is on it. He thrusts into the green so deeply that all I can see is his madly waving tail. By this time, I’ve abandoned my role as observer of the process and am pulling him into me, heaving hand over hand down the long lead. We meet somewhere in the middle of the thicket, and as a huddle of little possums scatter in the underbrush, Jake sits and turns to look at me. His expression isn’t guilty. He beams as though he thinks he’s done the job.

“Jake, come out of here,” I say, leading him out, giving an embarrassed little wave to an elderly man grinning from a neighboring porch.

No treat. Sit for Jake. Deep breath. Let’s try this again.

“Jake, take me home.” Jake stands and looks pointedly at the hedge, then back to me.

“No, Jake. Take me home.”

His expression mystified, as though he can’t imagine why a hedge full of baby possums is not the thing I want, Jake begins again. We move away from the hedge in a cloud of Leave Its; Jake crabs sideways, looking back toward possum land as long as he possibly can. Somehow, though, when we hit the sidewalk, he seems to shake off the hedge’s allure. He is service dog in training again, and I am hopeful that this time he’s got it. He’s slowed from a trot to a walk, a better pace for a human handler behind him, and I’m glad to see he made that choice. (I hope he made it out of consideration for his partner, but he may have made it because we’re now upwind of possum.) The lead between us is slack.

Two blocks from home. A block and a half from home, and we’re still moving in the right direction, at a partner-sensible pace. A car passes, honks lightly, its driver smiling at the two of us. I smile back, because really, we are on it this time, and here we are, woman and dog, the picture of obedience and collaboration. A nice walk now; Jake-goes-home-now-Jake-goes-home-now. No pull, no tension on the lead, still moving in the right direction.

A block from home, Jake’s head pops up with interest, and for a moment I fear he’s on another possum. But no— though Jake has snagged some happy scent on the wind, he doesn’t break stride for it. Instead, he moves steadily forward and with great confidence, leading us down the last block, up a low set of steps, and to the front gate. He sits and grins at me, eyeing the treat bag.

This was right on so many levels. Right direction, right pace, no startle at the car honk, a lead up the steps, to the gate, and the happy Here we are! Sit. The only problem: We’re at the wrong house. Not only the wrong house, but one of the most splendid historic properties in our little town. A beautiful full-blown Victorian mansion with turrets and wraparound porches, its lovely landscaping bounded by a wrought-iron fence.

To Jake’s credit, we passed this house outbound, and today it’s immediately downwind of our own. I can see home from where we stand. So could Jake if he were looking for it, but at the moment he’s happy with the house he’s found for us. Holding his Sit, he perks every time I look at him. This is home, isn’t it? I give him credit for having good taste, if not accuracy. He seems pretty sure we should just head on through the gate.

Excerpted from The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of “Unadoptables” Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing by Susannah Charleson. Copyright © 2013 by Susannah Charleson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 74: Summer 2013

Illustration Chyrysh

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