A few months back I picked up our new Pup, Banshee at 8 weeks of age. A Rottweiler bred by Mary at Stevmar kennels whose blend of genetics I have been waiting years for.
Banshee will be my main helper and trigger dog for consults and classes once she is ready for task and this will allow Pepper and Emmy to retire and have a slower pace of life.
A helper dog needs to be much more than just a 'pet'. They need to be very stable, non reactive, brave, outgoing, handler sensitive but also able to make good choices on their own as well. They need to be able to communicate clearly and take cues from their handler despite maybe preferring another pathway. They need to be able to assess a client dog and learn how to layer in pressure and when to diffuse a situation by calming signals.
Essentially they need to be kind but also cautious.
Emmy does this by being mainly oblivious to any aggression directed towards her, then using a baleful stink eye to communicate her thoughts on the dogs behaviour. She is quite dismissive and rude with her body language, an old aunty to a tee.
Emmy came to us at age 6 from Albury pound and was already quite damaged by life. High levels of anxiety as well as struggling with reactivity and learned helplessness. Her pathway through pressure was to shut down totally, not brave at all. Not ideal for a trigger dog, a wrangler dog or even just a pet yet she has managed to find her brave and will leave this world a stronger spirit. She has achieved so many life goals and I am very proud of the little red rodent dog, my only wish that we had a lot longer together.
Pepper varies her response depending on the dog we are working with and she will let me know if we have a legitimate 'murder dog' on our hands or if the dog is just young and damaged by life and needs a helping hand to know how to be around canines again.
Her initial response is to ignore a dog no matter their response to her and then she gradually layers in 'pressure' by side looks to direct stares of alternating duration and intensity.
This will get the dog reacting and allow the handler to work through the training scenario under direction from me.
We can then add more energised movement to the picture as well as vocals of GSD squeaks and barks.
If the client dog is a teen then Pepp will often start to 'flirt' and create a level of engagement with them through her body language. If the dog is still a puppy then she is even more animated with her play behaviour.
Parallel walking at the end of the session often see's the former reactive dog settle into a comfortable new alliance and as long as the critical distance is not breached and the dog leaves the training session feeling safe and calm then we have a winning situation for all involved.
Face to face greetings are not advised as this can just reset the original trauma and loss of handler trust for the dog.
Raising a helper dog is a juggle between making them as brave as possible but with clear boundaries for their behaviour. We don't want to squash their personality but there needs to be brakes and steering in place for drive.
Banshee has mighty big shoes to fill coming after Pepp and Em, those two have been amazing and have helped not only hundreds of dogs over the years but also their owners.
For four years they were also on the road with me teaching people to be Dog Trainers and had to be part of day long classes and be handled by hundreds of different people of pretty diverse personalities.
Exhausting and stressful work for all of us as well as life on the road living out of a backpack and spending way too much time in the car.
I am enjoying this transitional period with my girls as the old guard pass on learning to the new student and watching the interplay, how Banshee is learning to moderate her demon ways with our pack. It saddens me though to see how much my girls have aged and knowing that with Emmy her time is now limited.
Fingers crossed Pepp has a few more years of her sassy input and can keep an eye on young Banshee as she matures and learns her skills from the matriarchs.
If I am to keep working in this section of this industry then a great helper dog is essential.