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Where puppies become guides

January 6, 2019

Almost from the moment Roselle was born, her training began.

The first of 12 black Labradors born Feb. 16 at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort in La Cienega, she was placed in a small pen with a variety of objects — toilet scrubbers, bubble packaging, a skateboard, a plastic bag stuffed in a pillowcase.

The textured landscape changed as the litter’s trainers from Assistance Dogs of the West removed objects from the pen and replaced them with new ones — an effort to prepare Roselle and her siblings for the unknown, even before their eyes had opened.

A couple of weeks later, trainers and volunteers began dropping books and metal objects at random around the puppies or playing audio recordings of fireworks.

Founded more than 30 years ago, Assistance Dogs of the West trains canines from birth for careers as service dogs, a process that lasts up to two years and costs about $30,000 per dog. The dogs in training — about 25 to 30 each year — learn at least 90 commands. Some are prepared to work with a single person who has a physical disability or medical condition, while others are trained to work with groups at hospitals, courts, libraries and treatment centers.

Roselle and her littermates spent their first four months at Sunrise Springs — a place where they could become acclimated to human strangers during their rigorous training program and resort guests could get a puppy fix.

“It’s amazing to see the beginning of what’s probably going to be an amazing life for these dogs helping people,” said Kandice Knigge, who visited Sunrise Springs in May on a sojourn from Portland, Ore. “I’m just amazed how quickly they learn.”

Guests participate in the dogs’ training, sitting in circles with bags of treats and practicing simple commands. They can help brush the dogs’ teeth and cuddle them.

“They are learning to hang out with us and that people are awesome,” said Britte Holman, former puppy enrichment supervisor for Assistance Dogs of the West, who helped train Roselle’s litter.

“These are working dogs and not pets,” she said later, during a lesson, “and there are certain things like jumping and nipping my arms that are nonnegotiable.”

By the time Roselle was 11 weeks old, she barely twitched at the sound of a dropped bowl. She would sniff passively at a piece of cardboard or other item that had been dropped in her pen.

The sound of food was another matter for the puppy, whose feisty personality was beginning to develop.

Holman, who left her position at the end of September, would clang dishes as she gathered a dozen meals of boiled ground beef mixed with nuts, seeds and vegetables. The sea of black puppies would begin wagging their tails and showing signs of hunger.

Holman wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior. To get a meal, each dog had to sit, wait and stare into her eyes before she would lower the food bowl. This was difficult for some of Roselle’s sisters and brothers, but she performed well to get her lunch.

Once the puppies were fed, their lessons began.

Roselle waited for permission to leave the pen after Holman opened the gate — all part of the routine.

She found an unfamiliar plastic hoop on the ground. Holman made a clicking sound. The dog turned to look at Holman and started walking toward her.

No response.

As Roselle walked back to the hoop, the sound came again, along with a treat.

Within 10 minutes, Roselle discovered she would get a treat if she sat inside the hula hoop when she heard the sound — thus learning her first targeting command through positive reinforcement. The lesson would later help her learn tasks such as pushing a light switch.

“The big part of this is that they have to offer the behavior,” Holman said.

Each litter undergoes temperament testing to ensure the puppies aren’t too skittish or aggressive for the job, she said.

Most importantly, Holman and other trainers said, they listen to the dogs to determine their skills and enthusiasm, and let each dog determine its own career.

And if a canine in the program doesn’t have a desire to be a service dog, it won’t be placed in a job.

Roselle’s path is still unclear.

“She’s a super flexible dog,” said trainer and instructor Chloe Davis-Masters.

Roselle and nine of her littermates are continuing to progress toward a career, while two have found domestic life more suitable.

The puppies left Sunrise Springs to live with trainers when they were between 16 and 18 weeks old. They still have classes during the week to hone their skills, such as hitting buttons, retrieving items and solving puzzles.

By December, Roselle was nearly halfway through her training, said trainer Penny Ryan.

Sally Baker, a first-time “puppy raiser” volunteer with Assistance Dogs of the West, keeps one of Roselle’s sisters, Star, on the weekends and helps her build her skills.

During a recent training class, Baker held Star’s leash and guided her through what Ryan called “puppy sudoku.”

Star practiced her obedience and problem-solving skills as she opened a box of treats.

Baker will continue working with Star until she is placed in service. The opportunity to work with the organization was both amazing and nerve-wracking, Baker said, adding: “I have a lot to learn in order to help.”

Eventually, the young Labradors will work with veterans groups to become accustomed to serving people with post-traumatic stress disorder. They will learn to detect diabetes and signs of a seizure. As they are trained in each possible career path, trainers will make note of which job seems to be the strongest fit for each dog.

In September, a new litter was born and began training at Sunrise Springs. These eight young puppies will follow in the paw prints left by their predecessors at Assistance Dogs of the West.

“We have a really high success rate because of the environment we condition them in,” Holman said. “It’s making them well-balanced.”

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