My Sweet Jersey Girl

This post is for Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #1. The theme for this issue of the carnival is “The First.”

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If you sometimes follow After Gadget, you might think that Gadget was my first service dog (SD), and that Barnum is my first successor. In fact, Gadget was once a successor, and Barnum is my third SDiT. What a disservice to the original predecessor, the one who started it all — my first SD, my sweet Jersey girl.

Before Barnum, before Gadget, there was Jersey. She was the first dog I acquired as an adult. She was my first bouvier des Flandres. She was the first dog I trained to be my assistant. This blog is dedicated to her legacy, especially what she taught me — and is still teaching me, even now, by reminding me of our training process — about patience. That goals have to be reached slowly, with the dog’s needs and timelines as the roadmap, not some arbitrary idea of what I “should” be accomplishing because someone else’s dog figured it much faster.

This blog is nothing if not a reminder to me about how, by starting with low expectations and repeatedly setting us both up to succeed, I was able to give Jersey what she needed to be my teammate. She taught me that.

Jersey in profile

My Sweet Jersey Girl

From 1999 through 2000, I wrote a series of articles about Jersey for Rescue Roundup, the newsletter of the American Bouvier Rescue League (ABRL). I decided that the words I wrote about Jersey when she was still with me, and when so much was fresh and new about SD training, would carry a much greater impact than what I’d write now, dimmed by hindsight.

There’s too much to cover in one post — it was a four-part series! — so this post will just cover the beginning of our relationship. Many seminal firsts — the first time I went grocery shopping without human assistance, the first time I realized Jersey was important to my safety, the first time she learned to fetch (which also led to her first retrieving service skills and her first realization that toys could be fun), and the first time we tried clicker training (which took place a year after the first article was written) — occurred later on and were described in later issues of Rescue Roundup. This post focuses on the firsts of Jersey’s arrival and beginning training, and an event that most dog owners probably take for granted, but that I had fantasized about for years: going for a walk.

Here are excerpts of the piece I wrote for Rescue Roundup, Winter 1999:

. . . During these years of extreme isolation and illness, I formed a plan: I would move from the city to the country, buy a mobility scooter so that I would be able to get around more and to walk a dog, and then get the dog.

Eventually I found a little house in a rural town, moved, and acquired a scooter. I fantasized about walking my dog the three-quarters of a mile to my mailbox in my scooter, enjoying the scenery and the companionship. . . .

I began researching hypoallergenic breeds. I started also to learn about assistance dogs. . . . The more I thought about it, the more I felt that a service dog could help me to lead a fuller, safer, more independent life.

Bouviers seemed an ideal choice: they had been bred as working dogs, were strong and rugged, and tended to bond well with their human pack members.

I researched service dog programs and discovered that most were totally inaccessible to me. . . . One program that [otherwise] seemed a good match was very expensive ($20,000) and was reluctant to even consider a bouvier, telling me they were “snippy attack dogs,” but I applied anyway resigned to getting a different breed. The program rejected my application.

I had also been making connections in the bouvier world — applying to Bouvier Rescue, meeting bouvier owners, and searching the Internet for other people with disabilities who had bouviers as service dogs. I decided that I could train my own service bouv.

While almost everyone seemed to agree that a bouvier could make a fine service dog, very few of the people I spoke to seemed to think that I could train one. Bouvier trainers and breeders told me that bouviers were stubborn, strong, and hard to manage, and I would need professional assistance. Many questioned whether I ought to be considering getting a bouvier at all, even as a pet. Service dog handlers told me that training a service dog is difficult and requires expertise — I should apply to a program. I called trainers to see if they would help me private train; they said that they didn’t do service-dog training.

Sometimes it was hard to tell what these “dog people” were really thinking when they gave me confusing, conflicting, and often discouraging advice. I believe some simply saw a disabled young woman and dismissed me. I was not their image of a person who could train a strong-willed breed to perform complex tasks. And, I admit, I wondered frequently if they were right. . . . There were days when it was more than I could manage just to feed myself, many more when showering or dressing was beyond me. The prospect of being responsible for exercising, pottying, feeding, and grooming a dog was terrifying enough. Where would the energy and expertise to train come from?

I spoke frequently with Bouvier Rescue. I was encouraged to focus on finding the right bouvier as a companion to me. Later on, if it worked out, I could think about getting another bouv to train as a service dog. With a mixture of excitement and resignation, I gave up on my service dog dream and prepared to welcome my new companion.

In March of 1999, she arrived: Jersey, a five-and-a-half-year-old bouv girl who was being rehomed by her breeders. She was beautiful, 65 pounds, with cropped ears and a docked tail, and a black coat. Jersey had been shown in conformation and lived primarily in the kennel.

She was very mellow and sweet, a good “starter bouv” for a person like me who spent almost all her time at home and wanted an easygoing, good-natured companion to lie around by her side.

The first few days with Jersey were wonderful and horrible. She was sweet, friendly, adorable, and easy to handle, but she was also big, clumsy, and scared of everything. It hadn’t occurred to me that every chair, table, and oxygen tank would be targets for her to bump into and knock over, causing her to skitter, panic-stricken from the room. Any sudden movement or raised voice made her cringe or flee.

Meanwhile, I made a decision: I was going to start training Jersey right away in obedience. It would be a good way for us to bond and gain some much-needed confidence, aside from being useful, since the only command that she appeared to know when she arrived was “kennel.” If it went well, we would continue and try some service skills. If we failed, then we would not be any worse off.

I joined an email list for people with disabilities who had trained (or were training) their own assistance dogs (ADs). More than anything else, I feel that the support, encouragement, guidance, advice, and experience of other people training ADs has made it possible for Jersey and me to be where we are today. There was so much against us — Jersey’s age, my inexperience, my inability to hire a private trainer, Jersey’s low drive and skittish temperament — and yet these other disabled folks kept giving me reasons why we could succeed. And, they provided inspiration (examples of people who had done it themselves), which is more reassuring than any words.

The first command we approached was “attention.” I would make a clicking sound with my tongue, and when Jersey looked at me I would praise her and give her a treat. I also praised and rewarded her any time she looked at me on her own. Jersey is very motivated by food. It took only a few days before Jersey spent almost all her time staring at me.* I felt like a human gum-ball machine, dispensing kibble and praise all day long. It was exhausting! Sometimes I went in my room or put her in her crate, just so I could take a break without discouraging the behavior.

Jersey inside a futon

Jersey gives The Stare even from inside a folded futon.

*Something dawned on me in the writing of this post: Jersey was a silent dog. She never barked or growled, except in her sleep. Her main mode of communication was The Stare. If she wanted something — attention, to go outside, food (especially food!) — she would sit and stare at me. If something or someone got in the way of her “stare beam,” she would move around them so that she could level her gaze at me, unblocked. It was only when I was reading these old articles and remembering that the first thing I taught her was “attention” and how good she got at it, that it occurred to me that maybe she hadn’t always been a silent dog, but that The Stare was a result of our training. She learned early on how to train me to give her treats by staring at me, and if it worked then, why not continue it the rest of her life? After all, it was 100 percent reliable: Every night she stared at me to remind me to feed her dinner, and every night — no matter how long it took for me to get the hint — I fed her!

Positive-reinforcement training can have a wondrous impact on a dog, especially a “soft” dog or rescued dog. Jersey is a perfect example of a dog that would have been very slow and difficult to train with compulsion (command-correction-praise) training, not to mention the effect it would have had on her psychologically. In the beginning, even the gentlest chain correction or stern tone made her jump out of her skin. It was simply counterproductive to use them. Additionally, as astounding as this may seem, Jersey did not seem to understand praise. I had never been around a dog before that did not understand that a high-pitched, happy voice meant praise. Yet, for our first couple of months together, I could praise Jersey until I was blue in the face and get no  response — no wagging tail, no interested expression, nothing. It was only after weeks of her associating praise with receiving a treat that she began to understand the meaning of praise and respond with pleasure when I praised.

Further, using positive-reinforcement training made a remarkable change in her personality. She gained confidence. She began to take an interest in her surroundings. She learned that she could follow a command and be rewarded. I afforded her little opportunity for failure, so we both felt proud of ourselves and had fun. It was fascinating, and often comical, to come to understand her learning process, especially in the beginning, when she was still learning how to learn. After she was reliably looking at me on command, in any situation and with distractions, we started on “sit.” We’d been working on “sit” for a few days when I noticed that she would frequently run up to me — while I was going to the bathroom, making dinner, watching TV, or otherwise not training her — and proudly and excitedly sit down in front of me, awaiting her reward.

Our biggest priority, aside from getting to know each other and beginning the rudiments of training, was to get her to walk next to me in the scooter. Since Jersey arrived in March, when there was still snow on the ground, my roommate, Laurel (who would move out in the summer), had agreed to take Jersey for her walks until the snow melted and I could use the scooter. However, knowing how freaky Jersey got around things that moved or made noise, I was sure that the scooter, which moved and made noise, would take some hard work to get used to. Thus, we began to work on Jersey attaining three crucial goals: building a positive association with the scooter, learning “heel,” and leaning “back up.”

Teaching “heel” was relatively easy as Jersey was very nice on the leash, especially with me. According to Laurel, Jersey felt fine about yanking her around! At any rate, I was able to get Jersey heeling in the traditional way, with me walking, with daily short sessions.

At other times of the day, I took Jersey down to the basement and talked happily and excitedly to the scooter. I dropped treats on it. I sat in the scooter and praised Jersey and fed her treats. Once Jersey knew some commands (“attention” and “sit”), we would train there, with me sitting in the scooter to give Jersey the idea that she could feel confident and get rewards while I was in the scooter, plus that the scooter was a place where commands were given and obeyed. Finally, I felt confident enough to start the scooter’s control device — not moving the scooter, but just getting Jersey used to the sound of the machine. It all went off without a hitch.

Meanwhile, I had also been teaching “back up.” The reason this was important is that my scooter is very large and has a wide turning radius. There are times I need to back up, and I wanted jersey to know how to do that with me. Teaching back up was easy. I would stand with her in the narrow aisle between her crate and the wall and slowly move toward her, saying “back up” and moving my hands in a “shoo-shoo” way. As soon as she took a step backward, I praised and gave a treat. Over time she learned to back up farther and in other places.

Sharon, Jersey, and Gadget

My big-ass, four-wheel scooter, Jersey sitting next to me. (At the time of this photo, Gadget had entered the picture, too.)

By the time I was ready to move the scooter, Jersey was already learning heel and back up. I started first just by rocking back and forth in the scooter, with the engine off, praising and giving treats. I would jiggle the basket noisily so she could get used to the noises it made without the added element of movement. She was cool as a cucumber. Then, I had Laurel hold Jersey a distance away while I used the scooter so Jersey could see me using it, but not feel threatened. I was so excited and please the first time we did this and Jersey tried to run after me! A lump formed in my throat.

From there it was a matter of slowly and carefully building up Jersey’s positive association with the scooter and using the commands “heel” and “backup” in relation to the scooter. Everything went great, and I became overconfident. On the first warm day when the snow had melted enough to leave some bare patches of grass, I tried to take Jersey out with the scooter. The bumping and jangling of the scooter and its basket over the rough ground, so different from the gentle whirring as it glided over the smooth concrete in the basement, totally freaked her out. She would not heel! She wouldn’t even come near me! She pulled at the leash and panicked at the scooter’s movement and noise.

I felt devastated. I wondered if I had ruined my chances of ever taking Jersey for a walk. But, with some thought, and encouragement from my online friends, I realized that if I took a few steps back and built up very, very slowly, we might regain the lost ground and even move forward.

I had to go back to sitting on the inert scooter, giving out extra treats, conducting extra training. Additionally, I realized I had neglected to introduce Jersey to the makeshift ramp which I used to exit the basement, a sheet of plywood that banged when I went over it. We spent many sessions of her getting praise and treats for stepping on the ramp. I also gave her more opportunities to see me use the scooter away from her.

When we were ready to test out her scooter-worthiness again, I had learned my lesson. I had Laurel walk Jersey several paces behind me as I went across the lawn and rocky dirt driveway. When we got to the smooth pavement of my landlord’s driveway, Laurel went home and Jersey and I worked there for half an hour until Laurel came back to take Jersey home. I did this a few times, and each time as Laurel walked her ahead or behind me, Jersey would strain at the leash, trying to get to me. This was very encouraging. Following Jersey’s lead, I would let her walk with me part of the way, giving her lots of loose leash so she could keep her distance, but still be by my side.

I remember the first day I took Jersey for a real walk. I asked Laurel to come along because I wasn’t sure how it would go. Would Jersey suddenly freak out and not want to walk with me? Would the scooter make it all the way to the mailbox and back, or would it die halfway up my landlord’s devastatingly steep driveway?

None of the above! Jersey, Laurel, and I had a perfectly nice walk. (We even saw an otter!) True, Jersey was a bit skittish when I went over big bumps or when pebbles spat out of my back wheels. She kept a safe distance from the scooter and needed encouragement to keep a good pace. But I was elated! We did it! we walked all the way there and back. I held the leash. The scooter made it up the driveway with no problem. Jersey seemed happy, if a little cautious, but definitely glad to be out moving with me for the first time. And, I thought, this is it. This is the beginning. Now I can walk my dog!

I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane with me. And enjoy the other pieces in the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival!

As always, we welcome your comments!

-Sharon, Barnum, and the muses of Jersey AND Gadget

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3 Responses to “My Sweet Jersey Girl”


  1. 1 Jenny October 28, 2010 at 7:19 am

    That was a really interesting post. I’ve never seen one of those dogs before.

  2. 2 L^2 October 30, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Excellent post about your first dog. I am continually impressed by those who have the time, patience, and skill to train their own assistance dogs. Thanks for sharing, and of course, thanks for creating the carnival!

  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler October 30, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Thank you both very much for your comments!

    @Jenny — Yes, bouviers are not popular in the U.S., which is for the best, IMO, as they are not the dog for everyone. They are much more well-known and appreciated in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. In fact, Barnum’s father is Dutch and his mother’s mother is Dutch, too. They are used as police and other working dogs in those parts of Europe.

    Bouviers tend to have strong protective and/or working instincts (prey and herding drive, among others), so they can be quite a handful. Of course, there are always exceptions, and Jersey was one. She was very characteristically bouvy in being totally devoted to me (always had to keep an eye on me; if she couldn’t see me, she’d move to where I was), rather dignified and aloof with gentle affection, mellow, even-tempered, hated the rain, etc.

    However, she didn’t have a protective bone in her body! If I fell, she was much more likely to bolt in fear than to come to me with concern. I had to teach her to come back to me if that happened.

    Gadget was much more of a typical bouv, for better and for worse, and Barnum seems to be outdoing himself in fulfilling Bouvy stereotypes!


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