Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about Mikaela Zufelt’s experience training an assistance dog. The first story was published in December 2010.
At six months old, Neffa has doubled in size and learned more than half of the 30 commands he needs to master before leaving the Zufelt household.
“He’s very advanced for his age,” said his puppy raiser, Mikaela Zufelt, a sophomore at Davis High School.
The commands he’s learned, which include “heel,” “back,” “up,” “bed,” “under,” “shake” and “stay,” all display specifics tailored to the job Neffa is training for.
“Every command is really structured around the wheelchair,” Karey Zufelt, Mikaela’s mom, said.
For example,when Mikaela taught Neffa the command “under,” which tells dogs to go under chairs or tables, she made sure that Neffa learned to enter and exit from the same side.
“They can’t go through a chair, because the wheelchair would get tangled,” Karey explained. “That’s why they’re different from pets. With pet dogs, you can just stick them through. With service dogs, you really have to think about it.”
In addition, “When you walk the dog, the dog must be parallel. Some dogs will kind of walk outwards or inwards, but they could be run over by the wheelchair,” Karey said. “(CCI is) really a stickler for position.”
Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions for Independence is the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs.
As a prospective future working dog, the commands Neffa learns will help him assist people by enabling him to do things such as pay at counters and turn on and off the lights (“up”), get on veterinary counters by himself (“jump”) and provide support for weight transfers for people in wheelchairs (“stand”).
“The puppies receive the same training for one and a half years,” Karey said, “with the wheelchair in mind.”
Specialties are selected only after they leave their puppy raisers and go back to CCI headquarters for advanced training. Puppies could become skilled companions for individuals who need the dog but have a caregiver work the dog, facility dogs who work at hospitals and serve patients or service dogs for those in wheelchairs.
“(CCI) chooses their jobs for them,” Karey said.
Neffa has graduated from the first-level class, Kindergarten, and is now in Basic training classes.
“Six months really is a huge milestone,” Karey said.
“At six months, they’re still smaller and cute, but they’re just more mature,” Mikaela said. “It’s nice having him last longer in training.”
This is the second assistance dog that Mikaela has raised. The first, a yellow Lab named Deckle, went on to become an assistance dog for Pat, a boy with autism. Mikaela started raising Deckle when she was 13. The experience is a lot of fun, she said.
Neffa already knows 19 out of the 30 commands he needs to learn. He’s working on “Stand,” Mikaela said, where the dog must stand up on four legs from a sitting or lying position.
Ahead of him are commands such as “out,” “roll,” “side,” “jump” and “car.”
Commands are not the only things the CCI puppies learn differently from their pet counterparts.
“The dogs also have to learn to grab objects as small as a dime,” Mikaela said.
“A pet will bring back the object and drop it in your lap. For these (CCI) dogs, it’s not just a game of fetch,” Karey added.
Neffa truly lives up to his name as a working puppy.
“The dogs always have to be in training,” Mikaela said. “But he gets the same attention as any other dog would.”
When not actively learning commands, Neffa works on his house training.
“House training is really important. They learn not to jump, not to beg for food, not to get too excited,” Mikaela explained.
When time comes for Neffa to be turned back in to CCI, the organization will look for several characteristics that point toward a successful service dog.
“Dogs can fail for any type of aggression — food, toys, other dogs, chasing, excessive excitement. They can also fail because of bad house manners, or any kind of fears,” Mikaela said.
“That’s why we have to really socialize them around trains, buses, horses, lawnmowers, glass walls, near cats and birds,” Karey said.
They also look for temperament and work ethic, according to Mikaela.
“The dogs don’t need to have the commands down perfectly. What’s more important is how willing they are to work,” Mikaela said. “They can always train the dogs at CCI, but the dogs have to want to learn.
However, Mikaela wants to get Neffa as proficient as possible on all his commands.
“Proficiency means he will be able to do the command in any situation, any place, by anyone,” Mikaela said. “That means for ‘under,’ he needs to be able to do it with small chairs, big chairs, low things, high things.”
“Everywhere we go, Mikaela will find some way to train,” Karey said. “Every place is her training ground.