What about those Service Dogs?

Over the past couple of months I have traveled from our home location in Florida to NY and to California to deliver Service Dogs.  Soon we will have a dog in Dover, DE and in Washington State.  Since most of our dogs have been local placements or pick ups, the airport has been a new experience for me outside of the training atmosphere. 

We have encountered other ‘service dogs’ barking or growling at us, pulling their owners around, and generally acting in a manner that is not acceptable of a pet, let alone a supposed Service Dog in an airport.  I guess some are Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and others are just I posters wearing vests that say Service Dog.  We even ran into a very large Great Dane that nearly pulled its handler over to us.  I believe he was an “ESA”.  Quotes added for sarcastic emphasis.  The airlines should not have to screen dogs, but I wish they would.  When you go through ticketing you should have to demonstrate at the very least an equivalent test to the CGC and COMMUNITY CANINE (CGC-A) in order to bring your dog on a flight. 

People often ask about the dogs and their training when we go out locally and when we travel.  Our training protocol varies based on each dog, but here is a rundown of what it takes to get a properly trained Service Dog in our facility.  First, start with a good dog.  I would love to use more shelter dogs, and have 3 currently in the program, but they are often too unstable to be used for any type of service work.  Many people, shelters and rescues alike cry foul when they happen upon breeders who do no testing or health clearances for their dogs, yet they expect that it is easy to simply use a shelter dog for service work.  It really isn't that easy. Many people wrongly believe they can make great Service Dogs if just given a job and love. The truth is, the odds are stacked against those dogs.  I turn away most well bred dogs that come in with people who went out on their own and purchased a puppy or dog in hopes of it becoming their SD.  Only about 1% of dogs have what it takes.  I would give the shelter dog about a 1 in 300 chance.  Training for what we do, we must be very selective. 

On to training.  When dogs come in they get into a routine.  They are kenneled and put in a stressful environment to expose them to many things.  You have to keep in mind that these are not pets, but rather highly trained ‘medical devices’ that must operate under any condition in any environment they are put in.  Even with our exposure in a busy facility that has heavy equipment running outside, multiple dogs passing by on the regular, different people training in close proximity to them, they must learn to contain themselves.  It seems harsh to some, but think of them as the Navy SEALS while every other dog is just regular Army soldiers.  There is a world of difference, and it means you must have different training to succeed.  Since we focus on Veterans with PTSD and TBI, as well as children with Autism and Epilepsy, there is no room for failure.

The dogs are handled by multiple people on a daily basis because we don’t always know the final destination of a dog when we first start the training process.  We want them to enjoy people.  What we do know, is they must be walked a lot, and they need to play.  Their life will be given over to work and play will become secondary for them soon enough.  Our facility affords them the opportunity to get out in the yard and just be a dog.

Obedience training and Task Work training comes next.  We work to develop the dogs’ natural abilities to hunt, retrieve.  Our training methods are simple.  We primarily work a dog using positive reinforcement such as praise, a toy, or even a food reward for certain things.  After a certain point, dogs are put under more ‘pressure’ to perform.  We always work our dogs with the philosophy of holding them to a given expectation, but pressure to do it longer and with greater distractions is necessary.  Let’s backtrack just a little.  We start with a good dog, right?  So it should easily be compliant, right?  The answer would be a little yes and a lot no.  We need dogs that are driven, very driven to work.  Crazy dogs, some might say.  We need dogs that are clear-headed, willing to work, wanting to please.  This dog may have to wake up a 200-lb Combat Veteran that is fully entrenched in a night-terror, or active nightmare.  It might have to sidetrack a 10-year old boy with Autism and an anger disorder or dissociative personality disorder.  When that child needs deep pressure or interruptions from harmful behavior, you need a capable dog.  A dog that is easily pushed aside will not fit the bill.  We must push these dogs to performance extremes in order to know they can do their jobs without every losing control.  So, when I hear people complaining about the way we train or board dogs, I get a little defensive.  I am an advocate for the dog and also for the person they will be paired with.  It is critical to train properly to get the dog we want to provide. 

People are more concerned with methods than the results, it seems.  I posted an article on our blog the other day that gets into some methods we use.  I also posted a few weeks ago about communication.  I would suggest reading those to gain more insight into methods we use and what I prefer along with what I dislike.  Above all else, dogs are treated with respect, and never stripped of their dignity of being a dog.  I know that this level of dog training isn’t for everyone.  In our years in business we’ve had employees and volunteers alike who just weren’t cut out for it.  Some are better suited to do other things, perhaps training pets for tricks or simple Obedience.  Working dogs are different in the drives the possess.  More of some, less of others that a good pet quality dog might have. 

Another question I get while out is, “How did you become a Service Dog Trainer?”. The answer is simple.  I expanded on my previous formal schooling in training professional and pet dogs, found I was really good at it, and started studying the disabilities that I wanted to help with.  Children with Autism were similar in some ways to a Veteran with PTSD.  I learned more about PTSD and TBI while serving on the Advisory Board for 3 years as the Dog Training Advisor for Healing Paws for Warriors, a local Service Dog facilitator for Veterans.  We did the dog training, they did people training; we learned from each other.  I continued to get better at what I did.  I hired more staff, one with a major in criminology and a minor in psychology.  I hired a former sea life trainer, and learned how sea life and dogs are not at all alike, but I did learn more about capturing natural behaviors.  She is now the primary dog trainer for Healing Paws for Warriors.  I have mentors, and I mentor.  The learning can never stop.  I learn from my 2-year apprentice, and plan to learn from our newest trainer that will be here from CT in October.  Since there is no professional certification process that regulates dog training, your knowledge and abilities can be measured a couple of ways.  You can take tests, mostly online, and gain knowledge based credentials, or you can do the work and prove your abilities. I have chosen to do the latter.  I am a registered AKC Evaluator, and have belonged to several groups with lots of letters, but the best proof is in the pudding.  Our facility has produced numerous dogs, trained to standards that exceed federal ADA guidelines.  I am currently working on legislation to create national training standards, not just a pay to participate program which is responsible for the current standards. 

If you are interested in our program, you should stop by and get to know us, I think you will like us.  We are an all-inclusive type of place, that participates heavily in our community through giving back.  You may have heard that we are breeders of some extraordinary pups, too.  Yes, we do sell our puppies when we have them, because not all of them can be Service Dogs.  We also purchased some puppies recently.  We groom puppies to be strong using a series of challenges in our facility.  We then send them off to grow up from around 6-months until around 12-months when they come back to finish training.  If you would like to join our mission and be a puppy raiser, or become involved as a Service Dog Mentor (we let you walk and care for the dogs we have in Service Dog Training – at our facility) then reach out to us.  Some people assume the worst when they see things from the outside because they are viewing things through a lens of ignorance.  Get involved, be part of something that is truly life changing. 

May your light shine brightly today.