Saturday, August 20, 2011

Service dog Prospect - Help from the Community

Poodle and a Pitbull (congrats to being Karen Pryor training partner!) mentioned the fact that she would love to get involved in Service Dog work.  I was going to answer her in a reply. . .but well, it just got too long.

Now I admit that I am limited in my hands on knowlage of SD work and training.  George was my first (all Owner Trained) and Spirit my second (I would say about 80% done by his trainer and then tweaking him to what I needed), so please take what I am saying with a grain of salt.

George was a "rescue" (mom was rescued but he was born in a home) and did great for about 9 months being my active SD.  He had an incident with a little girl that ruined him for indoor work - he still comes with me to the barn and horse shows 'cuse Spirit is a big woosie.

Through being on boards and listening to others chat getting a rescue dog for the SD life has its good and its bad points.  For a mobility dog I would probably pass since I would like to know the history of hips, elbows and breed health concerns.  I would save up my pennies, research breeds of dogs and breeders, talk to see if they would be willing to wave the cost of a puppy or donate a dog 8 - 15 months old, etc.  If the dog was not doing strenuous body work, but had to use its brain more I would keep my options open to a rescue.  

There are so many reasons why dogs are rescued.  It is a cold hard fact, but many of them are there due to some type of abuse or neglect.  And while the wonderful creature that is DOG is very forgiving for what man has done to it, we have to respect and acknowledge that some mental damage might have been done.   This is why you need to really use an objective eye when looking at the dog for Service work.  What might be acceptable or workable with a pet dog just cannot be risked with a Service Dog prospect.  Some dogs have triggers, like men in baseball caps, or anyone with a beard.  I've met one woman who wanted to make her dog into an allergy/asthma dog but it lunges and snaps at white women (it is about a 5 lb Chihuahua, but still not acceptable behavior), but a rescue pitty who is a terrific wheel dog for a woman in a wheelchair.  This is where those of you out there with hearts of gold could step in and use your skills.

There are some stats out there on SD schools that have breeding programs, the wash out rate is still 99 out of a 100 (or 49 out of 50 depending on who's stats you use), so you know they are still doing something wrong (or we have to accept that breeding programs just don't work).  On the other hand I know a private trainer who has the eye and skill to not only pick out and train a variety of SDs but match them to the most appropriate handler for success.  I think she has about a 80% success rate from dogs she picks - both from breeders and rescues.  She has the added luxury to know the specific person before she matches or looks for a dog for them.  

About 1 in a 1,000 dogs have that special "IT" that makes them an excellent Service Dog.  I think that some dogs do the work for the love of their partner and if not exposed to specific stimuli can have a good working life.  We have to acknowledge that being a Service Dog is stressful, just ask George, so even with good intentions they just stop working.

If anyone is interested in helping owner trainers I would get involved with local groups, either in real life or on the boards.  If you have actual training knowledge that is demonstrable, you can offer them your skills and help network with rescue groups to see if there are any available prospects.  One of the hard aspects of selecting or training a dog for a person with disabilities is our health and energy levels.  Some days we just can't make it out of the house let alone out of bed.  This puts a huge monkey wrench in scheduling visits or appointments  If they had someone they could count on (to even just drive them to an appointment) and that could use their critical eye for looking at the dog they are out to see - that would be a big help.

It is a long road out there to find and train a SD.  I know of a woman on one of my boards who is being careful doing her search.  I believe it has been almost a year now that she has been looking.  Part of her issues is that she does not drive.  If there had been someone knowledgeable in selecting a dog and had been willing to drive her to look at prospects, there might have been a match if she could have extended her search parameters.

On the other edge of the spectrum I have heard of/read the stories of others who were not as careful in their search.  Some have gone through more than 5 dogs while looking for the "one".  Others didn't take time (or money) to have proper testing done and after 12+ months of time, training and love they have had to "wash out" their dogs due to temperament issues, structural issues or general health concerns that would have been caught earlier with the proper tests (be it from a vet or a temperament test). 

As much as our dogs are "durable medical equipment" according to federal law (and the tax man), we can't just run into a medical supply store, state our needs and pluck what we want down from the shelf.  These amazing creatures take time, energy, money and tears to show up on our doorstep ready - and willing - to put their best paw forward.


  1. Wow! Thank you so much for this post. I'm going to have to pick your brain some more in the future. Right now my plans are very hazy because I'm saving up for a move to the PNW from NYC where I would start doing the SD work with rescues, and that won't happen for at least a year or so.

    I am so completely aware that the major aspect of this plan is my ability to select appropriate dogs for their partners - the training is almost secondary! I would love to know more about the private trainer you mentioned, maybe pick her brain a bit too when I'm closer to planning stages.

    Any SD forums/lists you recommend? Feel free to e-mail me privately if it gets too cumbersome for the blog -

  2. Let me know when you get up here (I'm in the Seattle/Tacoma area), would love to get together and chat some time! Just be prepared for the drizzles. . .nothing like the torrential downpours that have been happening lately on the east coast.

  3. Drizzles are easy! Throw on a rain jacket and keep on hiking! I'm very attracted to the mild winters and summers - the last year in NYC has been almost unbearable weather-wise (especially for someone who spends most of my day working outside).

    I'll definitely look you up when we get out there. I'm eyeing the Eugene/Bend, OR area. Planning a trip for early November to check it out and see if there's anything I don't like (which I doubt there is).

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