How to Train a Service Dog: Part One
I was contemplating making a move to a big city but found myself feeling overwhelmed and unsafe due to the strangers who kept approaching me. As both a woman and a wheelchair user, I felt particularly vulnerable (“sitting duck’ was a term someone so generously offered) and I knew it was only a matter of time before someone saw an opportunity to use my situation to their advantage, or simply cause me to feel uncomfortable due to inappropriate social contact.
I was feeling quite proud and independent after I drove to the airport, parked, got help with bags, took a four-hour flight, checked into my hotel and found myself exploring the city on a fully accessible bus. I roamed the streets feeling like Mary Tyler Moore in her famous show theme song,
You’re gonna make it after all!
Well, that was until I was at a bus stop, waiting next to a man who appeared inebriated or perhaps had a mental illness. Claiming that he lived downtown, he decided to volunteer-without my consent-to be my wheelchair “pusher”. When the bus came, the driver came out and pulled down lift. When I asked him to help me up the steep ramp, he said “He will do it”, and let the stranger push me up the ramp into the bus! The man then wagged his finger at me in a threatening manner as I sat on the bus and tried to ignore him.
I sat fuming at the bus driver. That was neither safe nor ok, since I could have been flipped out of my chair due to this man’s lack of knowledge of my capabilities. When I got off the bus, I took the arm of the driver and said, “Please do not ever let that happen again.” He said, “I thought he was with you.” Being in a wheelchair seemed to be the only determining factor for this presumption.
I also ran out of steam while trying to get to a new destination off the bus route. My arms needed a break from pushing for a while, and since I was alone, I felt vulnerable, because I could not run or fight back if needed.
This sense of vulnerabilty extended to the issue of being solo in an apartment or house, which can be intimidating and lonely in a new environment.
So…… what does this all have to do with a Dog?
Well, frustrated that I may not be able to go and do what I wanted in this great new city, it occurred to me that maybe it was time to get a service dog. One that could intimidate any possible strangers from “volunteering” to push my chair without my permission, or who just wanted to lighten my load by taking off my backpack and running with it.
Out of curiosity, I started looking on adoption sites for dogs that “looked scary”, but could be trained to do all the things legally required of an assistant dog for a person with a physical impairment (more on that later).
Now, I must tell you that most trainers state that the qualities of a service dog are the antithesis to a “protection dog”. They are trained NOT to be aggressive, and traits belonging to protection dogs would fail a temperament test for service dog training.
“Service dogs are trained to tolerate and not be protective, a child can yank their tail and it should not harm the child, within reason.”
However, one trainer offered this compromise: they could “add on” guard command training once the dog passed its canine citizen test. That would allow me to ask my intimidating-looking, but sweet dog to growl or bark on command when I felt threatened. Additionally, having the dog with me could potentially prevent someone from taking the chance on approaching me with ill intent.
My first encounter with a possible adoptee was a pit bull mix. He was smart, young and adorable. However, I realized that many cities have ordinances against pit bulls, and I didn’t want to take the chance that my dog could grow up and hurt someone or another animal (no bullying or hate mail please, I get that all pit bulls are not dangerous). Though many people do have pit bulls as service dogs, I was intimidated, and the trainer said that a dog could sense my apprehension. My fear would make me incapable of being the emotional alpha leader that this breed required.Then I spoke to a service dog trainer in Georgia who specialized in Weimaraners for veterans. Once fully trained, these dogs cost over $35,000 and are paid for by the Veteran’s Administration.
John McClemore of KISS Service Dogs is a trainer and combat service veteran with PTSD, and he specially trains Weimaraner dogs for others with this condition. His work has transformed these men’s and women’s lives. We will be interviewing him on our PUSHLiving.com Podcast soon. You can subscribe here.
McClemore gave me a list of nationally certified dog trainers in my area, including those from the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), which is affiliated with Cesar Milan. Others include the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), IACP Certification, CCPDT, About the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers – ccpdt.
The list shows each trainer’s specialties, like “Assistive Service dog specialty”, which I was looking for. I called the only two on list with this expertise. Not every trainer has the skill-set for this, though they could if they choose to specialize. There are also Therapy Dog certifications that you can go through, but they are not required.
- Service dogs provide a physical service governed by the ADA.gov.
- Therapy Dogs are dogs that help with hospitals, cancer centers, children homes, etc.
- Emotional Support Dogs are companion animals that a medical professional has determined provides benefit for an individual with a disability. This can be anxiety, depression, PTSD.
The TSA, ADA, and FHA all have different standards on how the above will be regulated. For example, many people will get a doctor’s letter allowing them to bring their emotional support dog on an airplane or in housing that has dog or breed restrictions. The ADA specifically states:
“…animals that provide only emotional support and/or companionship are not designated as “service animals” and the laws that protect legitimate service animal handlers do not apply to handlers of companion or emotional support animals. You must to be legally disabled, and the dog must serve some task for you.”
Read more here to get better acquainted with the laws and why “fakers” are a real problem.
Even if your dog is trained via a trainer who has these qualification, if you travel abroad, your dog may not meet the requirments of a service dog.
“All guide and assistance dog owners visiting the UK will need to ensure that their dog complies with the European Pets Passport Scheme (PETS), and the specific requirements for entry into the UK, which are different from the rest of Europe.
Recognized Assistance Dogs
Regulation in Europe and the UK makes reference to “Recognised Assistance Dogs”. These are guide and assistance dogs trained by member organisations of Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or the International Guide Dogs Federation (IGDF).
Know the Law
“The National Dog Registry.com and all other online service dog certificates are unethical, and by law no such thing exists. Know this by knowing the law.” Christine Snelgrove, Professional Dog Trainer specializing in Assistive Dog Training
Using the list of trainers John provided in my area, I left a message for one trainer, and the other picked up the phone at 10pm at night. I realized that this match was meant to be when I started describing my disability, and she said, “I know exactly what you are capable of.” Her mother was in an accident and was a C-6-7 incomplete quadriplegic, my exact injury. She recognized my issue with balance and with core strength. What a crazy coincidence, as I have two daughters who I raised from birth, and now I will have a trainer who was raised by a mom like me. 😊
Phone: (954) 829-3593
North Miami Beach, FL 33162
17.6 milesServices: Aggression, Agility, AKC Obedience, Assistance Service Dog, Behavioral Consultation, CGC Training, Clicker Training, Fun and Games, Group Training, Private Lessons, Multi Species, Private Training
Locations: North Miami Beach, Aventura, Miami Beach, Bal Harbor, Sunny Isles Beach, Hollywood, Hallandale, North Miami, North Bay Village, Fisher Island, Bay Harbor, Williams Island, Miami Shores, Biscayne Park, Golden Park, Ojus, Miami, El Portal, Pembroke Pines, Fort Lauderdale, Sunrise, Ives Estates
After spending time with my brother’s adopted Doberman, I decided that was the dog for me! While not common, an article from AnythingPawsable.com suggests that Dobermans are now considered plausible options to serve as service dogs. Read it here
So, I joined local rescues, put an alerts on PetFinder.com and Adoptapet.com and took the steps to adopt one. It was somewhat risky, since an adult Doberman can be unpredictable and prey driven, and I have a six-pound, 11-year-old Chihuahua, Charlie, that I could not risk getting hurt. One Doberman came to my house to meet us and quickly went after Charlie. Another, that I fell in love with at the shelter was adopted. Another I applied for from a rescue, but they didn’t even bother to acknowledge my application.
Then one day, I saw an ad for a Doberman/Labrador mix puppy. The owner was only 19, got the dog and brought her home without telling the rest of his family. His mother wasn’t very happy about it, and said he could not keep her. This puppy was nine weeks old and solved the issue of the breed restrictions against Dobermans and Labradors make great service dogs. So, this would be the perfect mix for me! (Note: Breed restrictions do not apply to service animals, but often it is the condo or apartment’s insurers who do not allow these breeds and it would be a difficult thing to have them have insurance cancelled or raised due to my dog.)
The trainer said it was good that I got her so young, since a dog’s brain chemistry is formed during the first 12 weeks of life and this imprinting period affects behavior. She said I had a lot of work ahead of me, starting with the 12/12/12 process. This is the process trainers use to expose dogs in training to different types of people and environments.
12 types of people: black, white, Hispanic, elderly, babies, children, even costumes.
12 types of surfaces: rocky, sandy, smooth, cold, hot, rough etc.
12 types of sounds: cars, trains, airplanes, construction, loud noises, screaming.
You want a service dog that is not skittish or frightened or alarmed when they encounter unfamiliar things … like a clown!
So, this is the work I must do over the next three weeks. I will do this on my own and recruit friends and family to assist.
Operation Rosie the Service Dog Grooming has begun!
More to come…
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