Teach Your Dog to Read: A Unique, Step by Step Program to Expand Your Dog's Mind and Strengthen the Bond between Youby Bonnie Bergin, Sharon Hogan
Dr. Bonnie Bergin originated the service dog concept and movement, and she has been training dogs to assist people with disabilities for more than thirty years. She knows that dogs have an almost limitless capacity to learn. Teaching dogs to read was one of her dreams—and now she has made that dream a reality with a system anyone can use with just about any dog.
In this clear, inspirational guide, she provides step-by-step instructions for training the dog in your life to read flash cards with one-word commands and stick-figure drawings. With more than fifty instructional photographs, Teach Your Dog to Read is an amazing tool for making your dog smarter and enhancing your capacity to communicate with each other.
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Teach Your Dog to Read
By Bonnie Bergin, Ed.D., with Sharon Hogan
Random HouseBonnie Bergin, Ed.D., with Sharon Hogan
All right reserved.
Learn to Be Your Dog's Coach
Teaching a dog to read requires far more than a few flash cards and a pocketful of biscuits. This chapter will show you how your attitude and your dog's familiarity with basic skills can set the stage for successful reading lessons.
Expect the Best
Much of what I know about how dogs learn comes from teaching service dogs to help people who have limited mobility. These dogs can learn to pick up things that are dropped, turn lights on and off, tug open doors, unzip clothing, and pull wheelchairs when their human partners get tired. Now all of the dogs who are trained at my Assistance Dog Institute learn to read, too.
One amazing golden retriever, Quest, works with Steve Sweeney, a man who has a physical disability and a brain injury. Despite Steve's slow, unclear speech and his limited movements, Quest does everything Steve asks without complaint. She has learned to be both versatile and adaptable: lying quietly beside his wheelchair during his college class by day and attending a rock concert by night. Steve has taught Quest to read more words than any dog I know: She reads more than twenty words and responds to stick figures depicting almost all of them. In addition to severalcommands that are included in this book, Quest sits up and begs, gets several different items for Steve, and can give a "high five."
Your dog, like Quest, is most likely smart and capable-she just needs some kind and consistent training. As you do your part in teaching your dog well, get ready to be astounded!
Can I Teach My Old Dog This New Trick?
Your old (or young) dog is probably more brilliant than you ever imagined she could be. Now, by teaching your dog to read, you are just pushing her training a bit further than you have before. Before we get to the bare bones of reading, though, let's dispatch with a question that may have been rolling around in your head ever since you picked up this book: Can my dog, my humble mutt, really learn to do it?
I've trained hundreds of dogs to read, and I can assure you that it doesn't matter if your dog is highly trained and smart as a whip or a happy house dog, a seemingly more simpleminded being. It doesn't matter if your dog is old or young, male or female. All can enjoy reading. Here is a tale of two dogs: Keila and Mac. Perhaps you will see a bit of your own dog in their stories.
Keila: A Dog with Baggage
My black Labrador retriever, Keila, had a nightmarish past with a family that treated her cruelly. She had been tied to a tree and stoned throughout the day by kids passing by. At night she was untied and left to roam, to fend for herself, and to forage for food. Her heartbreaking story is, unfortunately, shared by tens of thousands of dogs who end up in shelters and pounds.
When I first adopted Keila, she would growl when men and boys approached her. Even though she was a smart, year-old dog, it took quite some time to convince her that certain behaviors were acceptable in the home and others were not. As a streetwise survivor, learning to "sit" on command was not as relevant to her as it was to other family dogs-she was still concerned about physical survival.
Today, thirteen years later, she is a strong-willed but affectionate member of the family. I love her dearly, and she me. She'll do almost anything I ask now, very seldom choosing to ignore or avoid my direction-but we both know she could if she so chose. That early streak of independence is still her safety net.
In retrospect, it's fascinating to identify the stages Keila moved through while adapting to life with me. She quickly adjusted to the feeding system, readily learning when and where food would appear, then gobbling it down as if it might not appear tomorrow. In no time at all, she became comfortable sleeping in the bedroom, a part of our family: my husband, myself, and our five other dogs. Housebreaking was a snap. She seemed attuned to the hum of the household. Yet one day she disappeared, leaving our ranch for places unknown. We were distraught. We trudged miles calling for her and regularly checked the local animal shelters. Four days later, she miraculously reappeared. Apparently committing to being here, she has been here since.
From that day forward, she was ours. She demands affection with unquenchable thirst. What I give her is never enough, but to her credit, she does try to earn it, looking to do whatever she thinks I require. Once she became more secure, learning to "sit" was easy for her. "Down," a posture of submission, took a little more effort, but she did it. Retrieving came naturally. Gradually a deep satisfaction settled over her.
She still gobbles her food, sticks to me like glue, accepts it as her responsibility to pick up whatever I drop, and expects affection on demand. In fact, we "argue" regularly about how much of me belongs to her and how much of me I am entitled to keep for myself. She usually wins. But now I can ask anything of her and she will do her best to figure out how to make it work. She takes joy in the doing, taking little notice of my recognition of her effort. She now finds bliss in doing tasks for their own sake, and she is self-motivated to learn. She is ready to read.
Mac: A Puppy Prodigy
Well-trained service dogs are astoundingly capable and flexible. They work for the delight of working, teaming up with their human partners in many ways in order to ameliorate the effects of their disabilities. Sweet, kind, and willing Mac is one of those dogs.
This large, four-year-old golden retriever with a very light-color coat was born into a different sort of life from Keila's. He was whelped at my house, and from his first day of birth, he was bused every day to the Assistance Dog Institute. There he met up with volunteers who come throughout the day to pet our pups.
At the institute, he also was matched with a student from the Sierra Youth Center. Through this program, incarcerated at-risk teens learn to train service dogs for people with disabilities. The youths benefit by learning to control their anger, to be loved, to use self-control, and to take care of another being. Mac benefited from a student's teaching. His formal training began when he was twenty-nine days old.
Mac was taught to sit on command by the middle of his fourth week. At six weeks, he was enthusiastically turning on light switches, starting to learn to retrieve, and responding to commands to "up" (put his front paws on a tabletop), go to bed on carpet pieces, turn, and lie down. For his efforts, his trainer showered him with appreciation and rewards.
Other commands soon followed, and Mac built a repertoire of ninety service dog commands well before the institute placed him with a human partner when he was only a year and a half. Learning these skills was a way of life for him from puppyhood. His exercises were carefully managed so that he enjoyed them, and his progress was satisfying for both him and his trainer.
Mac's early upbringing was as close to perfect as possible, and so is he. He now works as a service dog, assisting a person with a severe mobility limitation. He constantly hears his human partner singing his praises, and he deserves every bit of it.
From birth, Mac's physical and safety needs were met. His lessons provided stimulation and recognition. While still very young, he moved from working for treats and approval to enjoying the opportunity to perform for its own sake. The more skills he has mastered, the more he has sought to master. Mac is ready to read, too.
A dog can never be too old. Whether your dog is old, like Keila, or young, like Mac, he probably can learn to read at least a word or two. We still don't know when a dog's brain is most fit for reading. At our institute, we have found that older dogs have a harder time remembering words than younger dogs do, so we try to start training our dogs as young as three and a half to four weeks in the hopes of building lasting associations in their minds.
If you have an older dog with whom you have a great bond, though, by all means go ahead and give reading lessons a try. In the end, the dog's personality and your connection to him may be just as important as the malleability of his mind.
Do make sure that your older dog can see before you begin to teach him to read. Some people think that their older dog is dim-witted, when, in fact, only his eyesight is dimming with age. You can tell that your dog's eyes are ready for reading if he is free of cataracts and he's visually tracking your movements (not just tracking sounds and smells) like a secret service agent as you go about your daily routine. A dog who can see is wired to pay attention to movement-that is the hunter in him. My dog Harvey, for instance, is alert to every move I make, even when he is dozing. I swivel in my chair; his eyes open and track my movement. I take a step forward; he's at the door before my second step hits the ground.
Because of their attraction to movement, it's easier to get dogs to respond to hand signals than to verbal commands. Using the dog's name to get his attention, followed by a sweeping hand motion, is much more powerful than just a verbal command like sit. We will make good use of the dog's phenomenal ability to focus during his reading lessons.
Another thing to consider if you have an older dog is whether or not he is in good enough physical condition to respond to the words that you would like him to read. My Anatolian shepherd, Hoja, knows all of the service dog commands, but she has been having a lot of orthopedic problems because of a cruciate ligament (knee) injury. Even if I ask her to do simple things like sit and down, it's very painful for her, so I've had to abandon the idea of teaching her to read more words.
A dog can never be too dim. About twice a year, I teach classes on cruises that cater to people with disabilities and their assistance dogs. During these classes, I often ask my students to bring their dogs up to the front of the room to demonstrate reading. Usually the dogs who have never been exposed to reading before "get it" after three to five exercises.
In one of these classes, a dog named Sam came up to the front of the class with his owner, and I led them through the steps that you will be learning in this book. We began with the flash card "down." Sam seemed slow in catching on; in fact, I didn't see a light in his eyes that he was getting it, even by the sixth exercise.
The next day in class, we tried again, but still Sam did not respond.
Finally, on the fourth and last day of the cruise, Sam did a reluctant down on his own. We were all thrilled, but wary. Sam's movements still seemed to lack enthusiasm.
About four months later, I was teaching on another cruise and Sam was back. I needed someone to demonstrate reading, and I asked Sam and his human partner to come forward. His owner looked shocked and nervous, because she knew how poorly Sam had performed on the last cruise. She showed him the "down" flash card without saying anything; he downed immediately. We were ecstatic!
Sometimes the problem is not with a dog's ability to learn but with his motivation to show you what he knows. Sam had to be convinced and to convince himself that reading was worthwhile.
Whether she is old or young, whether she has had a rocky start like Keila, is somewhat reluctant to learn like Sam, or has had lots of training and a sweetly satisfying youth like Mac, you'll know your dog is ready to read when you can see that he is eager to learn-for the fun of it. And you'll know that you are ready to teach your dog when you are ready for that fun to begin.
Breed is no barrier. Although I haven't worked with every single breed of dog, I've never seen one breed of dog that can't read. I have six dogs-an Anatolian shepherd, a black Lab, a yellow Lab, and three golden retrievers-and I have taught them all to read. I have also worked with a variety of breeds in my social/therapy and obedience classes, and every one is an able reader.
Some dogs, like terriers, are more excitable, and they may need to calm down a bit before they can learn to read. Others, like basset hounds, may need to get excited before reading lessons can begin. In the next chapter, I'll show you some tips for getting your dog into the right mood for school.
Self-starters wanted. Employers and teachers everywhere love to work with self-starters-people who take initiative and figure things out on their own. If your dog is a learning machine-eager to participate in new activities, with an active mind and body-reading should come easily to him.
If, in contrast, your dog is a passive couch potato, you may need to work with him to encourage him to think for himself. For example, at our institute, when a dog inevitably gets a foot or two caught in a leash, we don't thread it through his legs to fix it for him. Since many people with mobility limitations cannot physically help a dog in this predicament, he has to solve it himself-so we teach him to do so. We gently set the leash up so that he learns to lift his leg to untangle it himself. We do this with a simple tangle, then work with more and more complicated ones. In each instance, the dog has to figure out how to solve the problem. Reading is also a form of mental exercise, and if your dog has an agile mind, he is probably ready to read.
Be the Top Dog
To be your dog's coach, show him that you're the top reader of the pack. Just as the best elementary school teachers convey a passion for the written word, you'll need to bring your enthusiasm to the classroom. Maintain an expressive voice and a self-assured manner. Dogs, like people, are great at reading body language, so a coach has to be tuned in to his dog. Pay attention to your dog's mood and respond with just the right amount of enthusiasm. Gain his attention, but you don't cause him to become so excited that he can't concentrate.
Excerpted from Teach Your Dog to Read by Bonnie Bergin, Ed.D., with Sharon Hogan Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Bonnie Bergin, Ed.D., is the president of the Assistance Dog Institute (www.assistancedog.org), the world’s only academic college that awards associate and master’s degrees in dog studies. Her latest initiative, the High Schooled Assistance Dog Program, teaches at-risk youths to train assistance dogs for people with disabilities. The author of two dog-training books and winner of Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award, she lives in Santa Rosa, California.
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This book is incredible, it takes us humans to a whole new level of interaction and connection with our dogs. Bonnie Bergin gives us a step by step understanding of how to actually teach our dogs to read while imparting a wealth of training knowledge that makes us look at ourselves as much as at our dogs. The whole process helps me understand and communicate better with my dog,and I think some of the lessons apply to how I interact with other people! I read the book after having taken classes with Dr. Bergin to teach my service dog, Hams, to read, and found that reading the book adds tremendously to my ability and my understanding. We are mentioned in the book and we confirm its accuracy! I recommend this book to everyone who has a dog, anyone who likes dogs, and everyone else as they need to know the astounding potential for dogs in our lives!