As part of his recovery from a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder, retired Staff Sgt. Spencer Milo participated in the service dog-training program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, learning how to train dogs to assist other wounded veterans. Gabe, the dog he worked with the most, is now three and a half, and is partnered with an amputee.
Gabe was a puppy when I met him. He was just getting started. So a lot of times we would take him to crowded events or places to make sure that he stayed calm and that his attention was focused on me and my needs so he would be that way with other veterans.
We did this every day. I’d take him around to my appointments with me or around town if I needed to.
We used treats and praise as methods to train and reward. We trained him how to open doors; how to pick up artificial limbs; how to bark on command; how to remind people to take medication; how to take their socks off; how to pay a cashier; if someone started to fall, how to brace for them – anything you can think of. It’s really quite amazing what these animals are capable of.
A lot of times what we’ll do is we’ll show the dog where whatever we want is and we’ll walk them back and forth and back and forth so they know that’s what we want. We’ll teach them, and with praise and treats say, “Look!” And once we have their attention we’ll say, “Find it.” And then they’ll go and grab it and we’ll have them bring it to you.
Eventually you start hiding it and putting it in different places. You’ll put it somewhere where it’s harder to reach until they understand that when I say “Look for this,” that’s what their mission is. They need to find this. Give them a task. The dogs in the program are all Labrador and golden retrievers. They’re working breeds. They want to please. They want to work. So eventually, when you get to the point where they can do that, you teach them a command for it and they’ll go and get it for you.
Eventually, they’re just like us. They’re creatures of habit. If every single morning at 8:00 for six months or six weeks they’ve been going and getting this item, come 8:00, if it’s not around, they’re wondering why they’re not going to look for it. They’ll start looking to you and that’s where we as their partners, we say, “Oh, I’ve already got it,” or “Don’t worry,” and you’ll give them a treat anyway. Or they’ll give you a sign as if to say, “Remember I’m supposed to go get this?” “Oh, yeah, go find it,” and they’ll go find it and bring it back.
We teach them to be gentle with their mouths. We’ll hand them something that’s a little fragile or something that maybe they know they need to be careful with so they can practice that portion of it.
For turning on the lights, we have a mock light switch that’s on a pole. We’ll have them come up to it. We’ll ask them to sit. They’ll sit down and then we’ll say, “Light.” We basically will hold a piece of treat up to the light. Originally they just think they’re trying to get the treat, but in the process, they’re turning on the light.
As soon as they get the light or make an attempt, we praise the heck out of them so they realize, “Whatever the heck I’m doing, I’m doing right and I need to keep doing it.” You keep using a treat over and over and over, and then eventually, they just want to do it because they know if they do that, they’re going to get a treat. Then you do it without a treat and you just use verbal praise. And then eventually it gets to the point where you can just say, “Hey, turn on the light for me, Gabe,’ and he’ll go and turn the light on.”
These dogs are so intuitive. It’s just amazing. Our job is easy: We just point them in the right direction and they do the rest.
Since medically retiring from the Army, Milo works with several veteran-related charities, including Warrior Canine Connection and Hired Heroes USA. To learn more about him and about the service dog-training program, read “The healing power of dogs.”