Hello, All! According to our calendar, this week, the week of August 4 through the 11 is International Assistance Dog Week! In light of that, we thought a blog post about the subject of assistance dogs would be appropriate.
The idea of me getting a service dog was not mine to begin with, although I have always loved dogs. My first word as a baby was “Bo,” the name of a family friend’s beloved Black Lab. When I entered kindergarten, the first book I ever independently read aloud to myself was “The Pokey Little Puppy.” It was a psychologist who originally advised my parents and me to look into the idea of a service dog. He himself uses a service dog for mobility assistance resulting from an accident in young adulthood.
He first spoke to my parents about the idea of a service or assistance dog being trained to assist me with complications resulting from cerebral palsy, a physical disability. Such assistance could include: retrieving dropped or out of reach items, turning on lights, opening and closing doors, drawers, a refrigerator, assisting with dressing and undressing, running for help on cue in an emergency, etc.
We did eventually determine that an assistance dog would be a great help for balance and stability on uneven surfaces and stairs due to tendency to fall. However, with an accompanying diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and a nonverbal learning disability which severely impacts visual spatial reasoning abilities, we noted that a dog would also be essential for the purpose of navigational assistance and independent living in the community without twenty-four hour staff support.
At age 22, prior to getting a service dog, I was still getting lost in my own neighborhood unable to find my way home. My parents reasoned that if I could not find my way through my own neighborhood, I did not stand much chance of making my way in a city every day and being able to live independent from them without someone to take me home or lead me back to where I came.
Today, I have my service dog Lucy, a Yellow Lab named for The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Lucy is trained to navigate and find the way home based on scent tracking when given a specific verbal cue as well as to provide balance support on uneven surfaces and stairs due to a physical disability.
Potential service dog puppies begin their training very young at approximately three to six weeks old. One of the most common questions I am asked by the general public as a service dog user is:
“I just got a puppy. I want to train him to be a service dog. Is this possible?”
Maybe, but likely not. Service dogs start out as puppies, yes. However they are often bred and hand chosen by licensed professional dog trainers and licensed service dog training programs exclusively for the purpose of service dog work. Not every puppy will have the personality, temperament, focus, and drive to be a service dog. Service dogs in training (and puppies) are repeatedly tested at various points in the training process for temperament and personality stability or instability. Of the number of service puppies selected to enter service dog training programs, approximately 2% will make it to graduation, according to Canine Companions for Independence.
“Roughly how long does it take to fully train a service dog?”
Approximately 2 to 2.5 years. The dog will typically begin training at about age 3 to 6 weeks and continue until placement with his or her partner, usually around age 2 to 2.5 years old. Training includes hundreds of hours of exposure to public settings and various distractions such as: stores, restaurants, school classrooms, medical offices, community farmer’s markets, and sporting events. Distractions can include, other dogs trained and untrained, food scraps, trash, loud noises, crowds, small children or people of varying races, ages, and ethnic backgrounds, etc.
“What happens to the service dogs that do not make it to graduation?”
Different programs will have different policies on how they address this. Some will adopt the dogs out to suitable families after the family goes through an application process and is approved. Others may choose to turn the dog over to another program which can more easily make use of the dog’s specific talents and personality such as working for a local police department or assisting with a reading support program at a local school.
“What kinds of behaviors are looked for in a potential service dog puppy?”
Calm nature, Confident, Eager to learn new skills and behaviors, likes to experience and go new places, Seems to adapt well to new environments, strong desire to please, (most puppies will demonstrate this if training expectations are established early.) Does not appear to startle at or be excessively afraid of loud noises such as excessive whining, barking, or yelping. Sociable and friendly but focused, not shy or timid. Is growing used to kennel or crate. Is relatively quiet, even when left alone in crate for short periods with handler gone. Curious nature, likes to learn, but not to the point he is invasive or infringes on others.
“What Kinds of Behaviors are NOT Looked for in a potential service dog puppy?”
- Aggressive Tendencies i.e. Growling, Guarding of food or toys, Lungeing, Biting
- Overly Distracted, Particularly in Public
While it is natural for a dog to be curious, a fully trained service dog, with consistent training and reinforcement, will learn to control him or herself and his nature to engage in behaviors that may distract or could potentially cause harm to the team, especially in public, such as:
- Chasing small animals such as rabbits and squirrels
- Chasing balls, frisbees, electronic or dropped toys
- Breaking position to greet another person unless given permission to do so
- Too much attention toward food, snatching food off the floor, sidewalk, or otherwise within reach such as in a restaurant or at a performing arts center
- Paying too much attention to other people, too friendly, sociable
Other Undesired Behaviors in Service Dogs:
- Not housebroken, has accidents in public places. Unless the puppy is very young and in the initial stages of the training process, he or she will know not to eliminate unless given a specific cue and taken to an appropriate area. Definitely by a year old, the dog should be fully housebroken and able to consistently hold his urge to eliminate for a number of hours (about 5) in public and at home
- Excessive sniffing of people in passing, sniffing, mouthing, or licking merchandise in stores or businesses
“What are some common breeds for service dogs and guide dogs?”
According to United States law, a service dog can be any breed. However, labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and german shepherds are often common for their strong desire to work and please, their easy trainability, the fact that they learn relatively quickly, and can be good with children as well as adults.
“Is an emotional support animal considered a service animal?”
No, they are not the same. Under U.S. Law emotional support animals do not have access rights to public establishments as a service animal does, because an emotional support animal does not have to be highly trained to perform specific work or tasks benefitting a person with a documented disability or medical condition. The primary purpose of an emotional support animal is companionship, and in some cases, to assist in reduction of mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety simply by being present with the individual. An emotional support animal may be prescribed as part of a treatment plan by a mental health professional. These animals, while not allowed in public establishments, are permitted in housing establishments with a “NO PETS” policy and on airlines.
“Is it okay to pet a service dog?”
Always ask the handler first. Primarily, service dogs are trained to work, and are given opportunities to play and socialize when told. Do not approach a vested or harnessed dog in public and simply pet or talk to it without permission. This is distracting to the dog and is, many times, against training protocol.
“How has having a service dog changed your life?”
Having Lucy has greatly increased my community access and independence as well as my confidence and energy level. Having a service dog has allowed me to be less reliant on staff support throughout the day and have a productive and fulfilled young adult life while confidently navigating my community.