This post was written for the second Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, which is being hosted at http://l-squared.blogspot.com/.
A lot of my blog is talking about this integration of Hudson-and-me, this pairing that mostly works very well and has been going on for a year and a half now.
But how did we get here? And how do we stay here, and do we want to stay here, and what comes next?
Working with a service dog is a relationship, and in relationships, you have to make a lot of decisions. Some of them are very intentional; others you kind of organically stumble upon and later have to try to decide if you actually want to stick with them.
For me, the decision to get a service dog was easy. It was about a door.
I’m a law student, and have been since around the time I developed the secondary condition that really made me disabled. My law school is contained in two buildings. The first building has a totally inaccessible front door, up a flight of stairs, so it has a totally accessible side door with an electronic opener. That’s where about 3/4 of the classes are, and the professor’s offices, and maybe 1/4 of the administrative offices for the school. The second building has a stair-free entry, but at the time I started law school, it didn’t have an electric opener.
At the time I started law school, the most heavily impacted part of my body was my hands, so opening heavy external doors that swung out was something I just couldn’t do. I repeatedly got stuck outside until someone else was coming in or out and could hold the door for me, including numerous instances of being stuck in the pouring rain with no shelter while I waited for the door to open.
I decided then that I needed the full-time attendence of someone or something to help me. The idea of having a person follow me around 24/7 seemed like a nuisance. On the other hand, I’d had enough positive interactions with people who have assistive dogs for that to pop into my head pretty quickly. Once I’d been this way for long enough that it seemed logical that it might be permanent, I started researching service dog schools.
I knew right away that I just don’t have the experience, the physical and emotional wherewithal, or the desire to train my own service dog from scratch. Starting with a dog that had basic manners and skills seemed like a VASTLY superior option for me. That’s not to say I think there’s anything wrong with training your own dog, but I think to do that you need to start with a desire I just didn’t have. Also, though I love dogs, I know I don’t like dealing with babies – I want a dog who will reliably do its business outside and not chew up all of my shoes.
So then I researched service dog schools. After a lot of thought, I decided a smaller school that was more able to adapt to individuals would be a better choice for me, because I have a very unusual disability profile. I’ve had enough experience over the years with dog training to know that I’d want to get my dog somewhere that I’d have access to the trainers for problems in the coming years, so after-care and distance were major priorities for me. I also needed to find a place that would be willing to match me with a dog without a name for my symptoms, because the quick answers were lacking in my case and I didn’t want to wait god-only-knows-how-long to get a diagnosis so I could get a dog. I also wanted a program that matched dogs to people on a very detailed basis, and I was willing to wait longer to get a dog that suited my needs and my personality. I was okay with having some financial outlay and getting a dog sooner, rather than waiting longer for a program that charges nothing for its dogs.
All of those priorities distilled one of the closest service dog schools being the best match. I went and visited the program and met with the trainers, and I was very impressed with what I saw and with how thorough their matching process was. The trainers seemed experienced, available, and friendly; the dogs were happy, healthy, and exceedingly well behaved. It also pleased me that the head of the organization was herself a service dog partner. One of the things I REALLY liked about the school is the harnesses they have, which are custom-made and loosely based on horse saddles in terms of structure. They are healthy for the dog and really, really useful for a person who is ambulating but needs to be steadied or supported. This service dog school has been around for 20 years, which I liked for a variety of reasons. It meant there were a lot of graduates, some of whom were available to talk to me. I saw the rate of return for a successor dog as very encouraging – after all, if you didn’t like your first dog, you certainly wouldn’t get a second from the same place!
I expected to get a lab, because the school I chose does about 80-85% labs, and I was perfectly happy with that. I asked for a dog that would want attention and affection, and be playful. I also knew that because my disability varies a lot day to day and week to week, I needed a relatively attentive dog. Perhaps the most important feature of my partner-to-be was that he needed to be gentle. I injure easily, and a dog that runs into me or tugs on me while we’re walking is just asking for dislocations and pain. I had kind of hoped for a black lab, as I work in a field where we tend to be dressed very conservatively, which means a lot of dark colors, especially for pants and skirts.
I’ll admit, I really didn’t expect the partner I got matched with! I was a little disappointed that I was being matched with a fluffy ‘doodle instead of a sleek, elegant lab, but it wasn’t a huge deal for me. Hudson had all of the intelligence and desire for affection that I could have wished for. Part of the reason we were matched is the fact that I’ve had dogs all my life, so I’m kind of familiar with how dogs learn and think; Hudson really needed a smart and emotionally supportive partner. His training school had actually been worried about placing him, because he’s relatively fearful for a service dog and has to be worked through the things that scare him with gentle but firm understanding.
So eventually, I got my dog and I graduated. I had a dog who had a very good basic skill set and the beginnings of a solid bond with me. I then had to start figuring out what else I wanted him to do. The beauty of a service dog partnership is that most of the dogs who are driven enough to make it as service dogs are happy learning new skills all their life. Hudson is no exception, and he started learning things I didn’t even really intend to teach him. Some have turned out to be extremely useful, like ‘here’ as a positional cue (I put one finger out, and he noses that finger; it’s very helpful when I need him precisely placed) and ‘move it’ as a cue that he is (or will be) in the way. Others, like the hand signal to turn around, have mostly faded out of his memory because I rarely use them. I think all together, I have developed hand signals for about 1/3 of his repetoire of skills – the ones I use all the time, the ones I need when I have a migraine and the sound of my own voice claws at the inside of my skull.
I never really had to make much in the way of decisions about our gear. Our service dog school either provided us with our gear or had us purchase pieces that fit specifications, and I’ve never needed anything outside of that. I do make use of almost all of our original gear, and have only added one or two pieces, like his long play rope (for when we don’t have a fully-fenced area available).
One of the drawbacks of the service dog school I chose is that it has VERY strict rules about one can and cannot do with one’s service dog and a contract to back them up. I can’t feed Hudson anything designed for human consumption (except under very specific circumstances, like managing short-term GI issues), I am not allowed to let him off-lead except in fully-fenced areas, I must only use approved gear, etc. To be perfectly honest, with very few exceptions, I’ve never really felt the restrictions were inconvenient at all, so for me, it wasn’t an issue. Some of them seem a bit silly, but none have been really problematic. I know for others, it can be a BIG issue. I’m also obligated to re-certify every year or two, and during our first year, I was required to attend 6 follow-up classes, which was a greater difficulty than I expected. It’s inconvenient, but the trade-off of having a trainer available by email or phone all the time (and in person if necessary) and about 20 follow-up classes a year available if we struggle with anything has been worth it bigtime.
I do think the biggest decision in our partnership was the school I got Hudson from, and I have to say, I think the school I chose was a good match for me. No regrets there. I’ll be honest with you, I’m proud of how the dogs from our organization turn out and I’m proud to be a part of it. I think we’re one of the best schools that exists, and I think the way our dogs behave shows that.
There are a lot of factors that go into the decision of where to get a dog and/or how to train them. For me, well, I’m physically fragile and easily injured, so I definitely couldn’t start with a puppy and deal with teaching things like ‘don’t jump on me’ and ‘I am not a chew toy’ and ‘walk nice means don’t hit the end of the leash at a dead run’. I needed at minimum the basics taken care of for me, and I wanted to start with an adult partner rather than a service dog in training. The past several years, I’ve been living in either rental housing or university housing, both of which you can navigate relatively easily with a full-fledged service dog but may have difficulty with a dog in training, so self-training became even less possible of an option for me. And finally, I didn’t have the thing you need most to train your own dog – the desire to do so. I was just fine and dandy with the idea that the dog would come to me with the majority of the tasks I would need already in place AND a training method inculcated that would act as a platform for any further tasks I wanted to train. I also liked the fact that the majority of the graduates are within 100 miles of the school, which means there are a bunch of us locally, and we do get together sometimes.
If you’re thinking about getting a service dog, there are a LOT of questions to consider. I think the one you should sit and put the most thought into is where the dog is coming from and how the dog will be trained. Your whole partnership is affected very deeply by these first early decisions, and they’re ones you don’t get a do-over on.
I don’t think schools are right for everyone. I’ve met good and bad examples of service dogs from both schools and owner-trained dogs. While a lot of people evangalize about doing it one way or the other, I think it really has to come down to what will work best for you. I think you should put hours into the decision of how your dog will be trained before you commit; do your research, talk to other service dog partners, and make sure you get to meet dogs who were trained by your potential trainer. You won’t regret it.