deza: (Secret master librarians)
[personal profile] deza
I have been a service dog handler since 2008.

We aren't owners. Often it would be more accurate to say our dogs own us. We rely on our canine partners for everything from picking up dropped items to reminding us to take our meds to alerting us to dangerous situations to calling for help from outside to helping us through emergency episodes. Our dogs are furry medical equipment, constant companions and best friends.

As a handler, I am on a number of service dog boards. There are two types of "new to this" posters that make me fear for the safety of both the dog and the handler.
  • "I just got a new dog for my disabled child. I've never had a dog before. It's a year old lab mix and the people at the shelter said he was top of his obedience class. He is so smart! Where do I start?"
  • "This is my 8 week old doodle puppy Precious. I haven't been diagnosed with anything but I have [insert at least 5 trendy disorders]. I'm going to train her to be mobility support and for public blocking and turn on lights and pick up things and do the laundry and help with homework and cook dinner. She already knows sit and paw and is fully potty trained. I'm already taking her to restaurants for her public access training. Where can I get a vest that will expand in size?"
And yes, I've seen both these messages pop up today.

I know. They seem like good-hearted people who are exploring how a service dog can enrich their lives and reaching out to the community for help. They make me want to reach through the computer screen and throttle them, because it is idiots like this that give handlers a bad name and are fueling those "pets passed as service dogs" news reports.

First off, evaluators at shelters are wonderful people who are working their asses off to help dogs find good homes. They are not likely to be service dog trainers, and they probably haven't a clue as to what the needs for a service dog temperament actually are. They aren't likely to be thinking in terms of hip and elbow health, psychological stability, bonding capacity, intelligence and submissiveness and the delicate balance that must be maintained for a service dog to be working well. In service dog breeding/training programs, where the dogs are bred specifically for optimal service dog specifications, there is still a 1 in 8 chance that any single puppy just will not have the mindset to be a service dog. A service dog is not a pet, and the psychological demands placed on a service dog would reduce most pets to anxious messes. Shelter evaluators are placing pets, not service animals.

Anyone who has never had a dog before should not be attempting to train a service dog. Period, full stop. I had almost twenty years' of training and rescue experience before I attempted to train my first service dog, and I still made some pretty serious blunders. Training a dog has a learning curve to it, and training a service dog is a master class level undertaking. You can't learn everything you need to know from reading Cesar Milan (while popular, his methods are all wrong for service dog work) and watching YouTube videos.

By all means, work with the good folks at the shelter in picking out and training a perfect pet animal. Just don't expect more than a pet.

When starting with a puppy, trainers need to realize that this is a living, breathing, BABY animal. A puppy needs time to grow up and mature before it can understand the training. It's like sending your kids to school. No matter how smart your six-year-old Einstein may be, he just does not have the cognitive capacity to be studying particle physics. Brains need time to grow and to learn how to learn. Expecting a puppy to learn anything more complex than basic tasks is setting up the dog to fail. Service dogs need to be trained in a way that convinces them of their own success, because the dog's success is a life-or-death matter for the handler.

Understanding canine psychology is one of the key components in training a service dog. Dogs, by their nature, prefer to have clearly defined territories in life. They want to know where they live, who they live with and how they fit in. A service dog is expected to completely ignore that one basic need. The dog has to be willing to go to any place, no matter how smelly, noisy, dirty or dangerous it may be, and remain perfectly focused on the work it is trained to do. Think how out-of-sorts and distracted going someplace completely new and foreign is for you as a human -- and most of the time YOU know it is coming. That is every day life for a service dog; constant change and turmoil with the handler being the one fixed point in the dog's life. Small wonder so many of them have some level of separation anxiety!

I know a lot of people believe they wish they could have a service dog. The furry friend by your side at all times, the romantic ideal of being able to take your dog anywhere and no one can stop special snowflake status from getting you through. As someone who has heard "Oh you're so LUCKY" too many times, STOP THAT. Get that silly romanticized notion out of your head. The diaper bag of doggy supplies I carried for my service dog is bigger than the one I had for my two kids. Having a service dog takes work. You have to plan out where you are going to go, in what order, so you don't over-tax your dog or yourself. And that's AFTER you have a fully trained, working dog. While you're training, you have to work in extra time on ANY outing, because it will take 15-20 repetitions before a modeled behavior becomes a trained behavior. You also have to accept that dogs don't generalize training. Just because Poochie has perfect heel turn at home doesn't mean the same will hold true in PetSmart or at the bus station. Expecting anything else again sets the dog up for failure, which erodes the dog's confidence in what he has been trained to do.

And lastly, YOU CAN NOT HAVE A SERVICE DOG IF YOU ARE NOT DISABLED. Do I need to say that louder for the people in the back? Service dogs get the legal protections they have because they function as medical equipment for their handler, mitigating the handler's disability in some way. They do not go out to be cute, or to draw attention, or to protect from scary figments of the imagination. Denigrating their purpose because someone wants to feel that they are part of a protected minority with "special privileges" makes a mockery of people who are struggling to do the most basic of human life skills. I'll clue you in on a secret - most of us with service dogs would give ANYTHING to be healthy enough to not need one.

tassie on the road.jpg

This is my adorable little bit of fuzzy medical equipment. She can tell me if a seizure is coming with 20 minutes or more of preparation time. She also is trained in helping me recover from a seizure, providing Deep Pressure Therapy to prevent post-seizure anxiety attacks. Fortunately my seizures have died down and I don't need her services, so she's retired to being a pampered pet. I'm hoping to acquire a dog to train up to mobility work in the near future. I love Tassie, but she's just too small to catch me when I fall down.

LJ Idol Week 6. Heel Turn.
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