A smart dog plus a smart trainer equals practical tricks, such as the dog learning to pick up dropped items like a hat.

A smart dog plus a smart trainer equals practical tricks, such as the dog learning to pick up dropped items like a hat.


Summer is here. My favorite time of year. Now is the time to get out the T-shirt and hat (for those of us who are follicly challenged), grab the dog and go outside. The great outdoors calls — you can hear the sound of the songbirds newly returned from their southern vacation with tunes practiced and on key. Frogs are croaking their approval of their release from the icy winter prison. The trees have dressed in their summer finest, with eye-popping green leaves. A soft breeze carries a welcoming hint of freshly mowed lawn to your nostrils. It gently picks up speed like a summer breeze will, and … oh man … it’s strong … crap! … there goes my hat!

The definition of frustration is being a quadriplegic alone on an outdoor excursion with your dog when a gust of wind slaps you in the back of the head and knocks your favorite hat to the ground. Now what?

service dog trainingUsually I would wheel back home, get my trusty piece of rope with bungee cord — taped together temporarily “for now” (meaning 20 years ago), and return to  the scene of the calamity, then fish around until the hat is hooked and lifted back into my lap. Then I return with the rope to its safe place before I drop it on the ground, too. I suspect that over the years I’ve provided hours of entertainment for others while I do the “funky chicken” around and around trying to hook my hat, telephone, whatever. And then there’s the TV remote. That sucker will lie just out of reach after I knock it off the table, changing the channel to a soap opera when I’m home alone for the day and just about to catch the last lap of the Daytona 500. It might as well be on the moon as on the floor!

You get the idea. It is a major inconvenience dropping some important item when you are a quad and can’t pick it up.

I had the brainwave years ago that a service dog would be amazing. The only problem was, they are very expensive and the waiting list was years long. I looked around the room and … hmm … our yellow Labrador was peacefully sleeping on the floor. She looks like a service dog, seems to be friendly, retrieves a tennis ball and stick like a champ … I wonder? I had no idea how to train a dog at that time, and spent hours and hours trying, but couldn’t get her to pick up anything but balls and sticks.

One day there was a glimmer of hope. I dropped my phone while home alone. I asked her to pick it up, and she did. She walked right over and set it in my lap! I couldn’t believe it; life was going to be so much easier with a service dog. Imagine the time I would save. We’ll be a team — I drop stuff and she picks it up! She sat down and wagged her tail expectantly, I praised her profusely. Then when I didn’t throw it, she grabbed the phone out of my lap and set it on the floor, lay down and went to sleep, never to pick anything up for me ever again.

Ten years and one dog later, we have  a golden retriever. Hmm … the brain- wave returned, I decided to try again, this time a little smarter. Looking up “service dog training” on YouTube revealed many great videos. The key was to start slow and use treats to reward any advancements. At first a treat is given if they even look at the item (we used my hat). Then she progressed to touching the hat, then mouthing it, then picking it up. We got her closer to the goal by holding out with the treat until she hit the next level. It was literally no more than 10 minutes and Ginger was reliably picking up my hat and setting it in my lap!

service dog trainingBack to the windy summer day: Ginger looks at my hat on the lawn, then makes eye contact with me as her ears perk up, as if to ask a question.

“Would you pick it up for me?” I say quietly. Dogs have excellent hearing, so it’s good to get them used to a quiet voice; then you won’t need to shout commands.

Her ears drop and her tail wags as she runs to my hat. She picks it up, runs back to me and drops it in my lap with a smile.

“Good girl!” I say to exuberant tail wags.

She bounces away while looking back at me, as if to say “C’mon, let’s continue our adventure!”

It is surprising the added freedom from something as simple as being able to pick up the things you’ve dropped. My outdoor excursions are much more worry-free. I now go clean the lawn before mowing by getting her to pick up sticks, balls, bones, toys etc., and bring them to me. It’s incredible that a mere 10 minutes following the proper training methods have shown Ginger what I wanted, and now I have an eager helper nearby at all times.

I still test her a few times a day to make sure she remembers. She has picked up hats, cuffs, sunglasses, pencils, pens, a credit card (she showed real tenacity in that challenge), a cell phone, remote controls, firewood, a quarter, and my personal favorite … my straw when it fell out of my wine glass!

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How did you learn about dog training?
I watched a YouTube video on training service dogs.

2. How long did it take to train Ginger, the dog, to pick things up?
Following the video, it took about 10 minutes until the first retrieve, and she continues to improve every day.

3. Did you do all the training yourself?
Not at the beginning. You may need somebody who can reward your dog quickly at first. You reward them for just looking at the item in the beginning, and I’m clumsy and slow with treats, so it’s hard for me to reward at the moment she does the right thing. Now Ginger realizes that it takes time for me to reward, and she’s OK with that.

4. What kind of dog will work?
I’m not a dog expert, but I’ll bet most dogs will work for treats. Ours is a golden retriever and wants to help, so maybe she’s a little quicker than some.