Job Interviews: Selecting Working Dog Candidates from Puppy Litters

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The Akita isn’t part of the Working group for nothing; these strong, intelligent canines excel at a multitude of tasks to help their human partners in everyday life. Whether guarding the home, hunting, pulling sleds or carts, or even tracking, the Akita is well-suited for the job. Over the years I have been blessed to have produced a number of pups that went on to become Service dogs, assisting their owners with the challenges of various disabilities.

It’s important to take the time to evaluate a litter for the traits that indicate what job each pup may be best at later in life. This is an exercise in patience, as you try to focus on a group of bouncing, bumbling fur balls! How exactly do you separate the pups with potential for occupational services?

I begin the process when the litter is about three weeks of age. By this time the pups are well on their feet and starting to explore the edges of their little world. Curiosity tempered with reserve is one characteristic to watch for. I’m looking for the puppy that boldly strikes out to explore – but then pauses to size things up from a short distance before going any further. This is a pup that is thinking the situation through, rather than rushing headlong into what could turn out to be a mistake. Does the puppy use all five senses to investigate people and objects? The pup that leaps into your arms is endearing and fun, but for service aptitude I want the puppy that looks at an object from all angles. I like to see her cock her head from side to side in order to hear better, reach out a paw to touch before pouncing, get a good, long nose full of scent, and maybe even take a tentative taste. You should be able to “see the wheels turning” as the puppy assimilates information. A good service dog is always assessing their surroundings – a natural multitasker who seems perfectly at ease while doing so.

I also evaluate how the dog reacts when I try to attract its attention. I’m looking for the pup that has eyes on me even when interrupted by others at play. When startled or distracted, how quickly does the puppy recover and refocus on the handler?

Any puppy for service jobs must have a high desire to please, so that is another important quality to screen for. Will the pup bring objects to you and retrieve on the toss? Can you direct the puppy to an object you prefer and make that preference clear to him? Once the pup understands your desire for a specific action, does he lose interest or does he seem to be waiting for the next directive? I want the puppy that wants to do the job, and I like to see initiative.

Play should be encouraged; a puppy needs to exercise body and mind and learn appropriate social cues from their dam and littermates. Observe the pup during playtime to assess how it reacts when play gets too rough. Look for pups that are able to accept correction from their dam and move on to the next adventure with little delay. The puppy should not be devastated at being corrected; no excessive whining, crying or hauling itself off to sulk. Neither should the pup refuse the correction and act out in an oppositional manner.

As the litter matures, begin teaching simple things such as paper or litterbox training. Is the puppy you’ve been giving high marks to so far picking up training quickly? How often must you demonstrate how to respond to a command before the pup performs properly? Does he respond best to voice or hand signals? Can he follow either without distraction? Expect natural puppy inquisitiveness and short attention spans to come into play, and you may not get the desired response every time – after all, they are still just babies. That’s OK; it’s a pattern of behavior over time that matters. Keep notes as you go.

A vital consideration during the evaluation period is prey drive –we are talking about the Akita, after all. Pups that perform the fastest, most efficient “squeaker-ectomies” on stuffed toys are not what I’m looking for. Although they should still show some interest in things around them, they need to be able to refocus on whatever they are currently doing. Pick a toy the puppy seems to prefer and engage in play, praising the puppy for working with you on this task. Then introduce a different interesting toy, tossing it around the area perimeter while simultaneously working on the interactive task you first introduced. It may take several tries, but give high marks to the puppy that continues to choose the interaction with you rather than the new distraction.

By this time your puppies are nearing placement age. Ideally you’ve been working on general socialization skills, such as walking on at least five different kinds of surfaces and socializing outside of the family unit. Can the puppy continue to remain on task despite alternative distractions? For these tests I put the puppy on a leash, allowing it to drag the length a bit to feel some resistance without a jarring impact. I keep a small bin of scrunchies (soft, fabric-covered elastic) with bits of ribbon, small bells and other lightweight items sewn on. I have these in several sizes, some to fit around the leg and others large enough to go over the neck or chest. The puppy needs to be able to regain and maintain concentration on you and the current task, rather than constantly stopping to look at, play with or remove the distractions she is wearing. This is building a handler/puppy relationship, teaching them to trust in the process and ignore certain harmless things around them. Eventually add immobile and then moving toys to the ground work around the puppy as you walk her, in order to acclimate her to environmental distractions. Gauge her response. Being initially startled is acceptable if the puppy can recover with confidence. Start small, and praise often for correct responses.

I keep puppies with the highest marks in these areas for up to 16 weeks, further evaluating which types of service work they are best suited for. For instance, a puppy that responded best to hand signals went on to learn hearing-assistance work. Other pups that excelled at voice commands and had the physical structure to support a human with gait and movement disabilities went on to become mobility service dogs.

Paying close attention to the strengths and abilities of each pup can help make the strongest placement in an environment that not only helps owners in need, but is rewarding to the dog as well.



La Dolce Far Niente

A general translation for this is, “the sweetness of doing nothing”. It is a reminder to stop and smell the roses.To use the good China. To open that bottle of wine you’ve been saving for a special occasion. To just BE for a moment in time.

It’s a well honed joke these days about how everyone is together, but in their own little world, usually on personal electronic devices.  There are times we need to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with the warm, real, tactile world around us. When was the last time you enjoyed doing….well,  nothing?

Know what I did today? After scratching Penny cat’s ears, she lazily stretched, sauntered to a warm stone on my entry way, and languidly laid her form upon the rocks to bask in the afternoon sun. As I sat on the stoop watching her, wondering how could a cat just walk away from everything around her and nap in the light, I rested my head on my knees. And fell asleep.   It was a catnap in the purest sense of the word. It lasted just minutes. Out there, in the sunshine, I lost every care in the world and was able to achieve complete peace. And I felt more rested than I have in months.

We tend to try to micromanage the people and situations on our lives. At some point we must admit that this level of control is an ego-centric construct. We think we feel better about ourselves if we believe we can handle every possibility right down to the day’s rainfall.  It’s silly really. Or so says my cat.  She’d much rather resume that nap.

I may join her.

I have to remind myself once in a while to enjoy the simple pleasure of doing absolutely nothing.  My day is usually so planned, so precise, so restrictive I’m amazed my google calendar isn’t giving me alarm alerts on when I’m allowed to breathe.  I need to give myself permission to enjoy small moments of quiet clarity without a schedule. For a very long time, I wasn’t sure that was possible.

I started small. Part of that objective was learning when to say NO. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to help, or that my  friends and family were unappreciative; it was simply that i was pushing myself beyond my limits and I needed to learn how to respect my OWN boundaries.  The ones who had my best interests at heart understood.

I began to carve out time just for me, and also, just for US. I’m married We still need date nights. Time for us to be just with one another and remind us why we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. I strongly believe this is a vital building block for a lifetime commitment.

But sometimes I need ME time too. It isn’t selfish or wrong. It is what t is, and it helps make me a stronger person inside. It is in these moments I recite the phrase and recommit myself to finding a place in my own soul where i am comfortable.

In moments like this I will open a bottle of wine or a brew a pot of tea, take my time preparing a plate of fruits and cheese and delicious snacks I didn’t need to put much thought or effort into; keeping it simple. I may load up my kayak and go to the lake in this state. I may take a map and go exploring the nearby hills. I may go no further than the 40+ acres we reside on and just melt into the forest floor shadows for a while on a blanket under the wise old oaks.  I need to have time to recall that there truly is a certain sweetness in accomplishing absolutely nothing.

Pick up a book and read it though. Snuggle the puppy. Make cookie dough and eat half the bowl with a friend or your kids.Walk in the rain.   Look closer for those defining moments of internal clarity in the quiet spaces between. I promise, they are there. You just have to want them badly enough.