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Training Service Dogs: From Puppy to Invaluable Partner

By KeaGrace on Apr. 26, 2017

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Have you ever seen a Service or Guide Dog working in public and thought, “Wow! I wonder how they’re so well-behaved?” Here’s a secret: That dog was taught manners, basic and public access behaviors by someone just like you—not a professional dog trainer. Most Service Dogs are trained by people who want to help others and give back to their communities. 

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Service Terms Decoded:

The Foundation of Service
In the chest of every Service Dog beats the heart of a puppy raiser. Service Dogs would not be possible without the hard work of all the volunteers who bravely offer their homes, hearts, lives and time to a dog who will one day make a difference in the life of someone with a disability.

Service Dogs can’t be raised in a kennel environment (though some programs rehome and train shelter dogs to be Service animals). In order to become Service Dogs, they have to be extremely stable, calm and focused while in public—and the only way to do that is to have them in public from a very young age. They also need exposure to a home environment, which isn’t possible from a kennel. 

The training you see from working Service Dogs is actually just the tip of the iceberg. These dogs have beautiful fluent behaviors, perform life-changing tasks for their handlers and are dedicated workers. What you don’t see is the foundation of Service and Guide Dogs—the hundreds and hundreds of hours of careful socialization and reinforcement for relaxed interaction with the world around them. All of that foundation work is provided in the home and by the hands of a volunteer puppy raiser. 

While puppy raising is a huge part of becoming a Service Dog, it’s not the only piece. There are several stages to taking a brand-new ball of 8-week-old fluff from blank slate to fully trained Service Dog. Puppies usually spend 14 to 18 months with their puppy raiser before returning to their program for evaluation, and an additional three to nine months of dedicated task training. During task training, Service and Guide Dogs learn the invaluable skills that allow them to help someone, and polish the basic training they learned as babies. 

The Early Days
Every Service Dog and Guide Dog program has a distinct set of policies, guidelines and protocols in place for selecting, raising and training dogs placed through their organization. Some programs, like Guide Dogs for the Blind and OccuPaws, have in-house breeding programs. That means the puppies and dogs were bred by the program to be Service or Guide Dogs. Organizations with in-house breeding programs carefully select parents who have the characteristics that make good Service Dogs. They’re calm, tranquil and relaxed. They’re focused on their trainer or partner, but not to the point of it being overbearing. They’re responsive and easy to train, but not over the top about food, toys or rewards. They have excellent health, structure and genetics. 

Most organizations with breeding programs utilize custodian homes for their breeding dogs. The dogs they breed aren’t placed as Service Dogs in the field. Instead they live with someone who’s local to the program that loves and trains them and provides for their needs. When the program needs the male or female in question, the guardian home brings the dog to the facility or veterinarian for breeding. Once breeding is complete, the dog goes home to their guardians. Mother dogs often remain with the program until the litter is whelped, weaned and placed. 

Once the litter is born and the puppies are cleared as healthy and happy, many programs use a technique called early neurological stimulation (ENS) to provide the puppies with safe and structured exposure to all kinds of sounds, surfaces, tactile input, touches and experiences. ENS is also known as bio sensor or the Super Dog program. Dr. Carmen L. Battaglia, a researcher specializing in canine development, notes several benefits of ENS, including more tolerance to stress, greater resistance to disease and better performance in simple problem solving tests. Puppies are evaluated constantly so the program can best place them with a suitable puppy raiser. The program monitors activity level, learning style and many other factors.

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When Puppy Raisers Step In
In general, puppies go to their puppy raiser around eight weeks of age and usually remain with the puppy raiser until they’re 14 to 18 months old. Programs provide excellent support for puppy raisers. Most require the puppy raiser to attend training classes and specific outings with their puppy. Plenty of written material and guidelines, videos or other information help make raising a puppy easier. Typically there are program-affiliated clubs in the area so everyone who raising a puppy can work with likeminded people. 

Puppy raisers are responsible for all the puppy’s care, socialization and training, unless otherwise noted by their program director. They house- and crate-train the puppy, get him or her used to training equipment, and transport the puppy to events, outings, veterinary appointments, evaluations or anywhere else the puppy needs to go. Service and Guide Dog puppies go everywhere with their trainer: school, work, restaurants, movies, the mall, bookstores and more. A puppy in training is able to accompany a puppy raiser at work after a certain point in time, as long as the workplace is not sterile or high-risk. Most programs help secure permission and formulate a plan to make bringing a puppy to work or school a smooth process.

While some programs provide all of the puppy’s equipment, food, veterinary care, toys, gear and anything else the puppy needs, some require the puppy raiser to pay for everything out of pocket. The good news? Money spent on a Service or Guide Dog in training is typically tax deductible. (Make sure to maintain good records and keep all receipts if your program doesn’t provide for everything.)

It’s very important to carefully follow the rules and guidelines of your program. Service Dogs and Guide Dogs aren’t like other dogs. They must be 100% free of temperament flaws, bad manners or little habits that wouldn’t be an issue in a family pet. A moment or behavior that doesn’t seem very significant to you could be career-changing for a puppy, or deem the dog unfit as a Service Dog. For example, many people think it’s funny to let their dogs chase laser pointers, but playing games with lights or laser pointers is expressly forbidden by Service Dog organizations. It can create an obsessive behavior that can’t be untrained and often results in the dog getting hyper-stimulated or over-aroused by common objects or environmental factors. 

A number of circumstances and issues can exclude a puppy from graduating the program and becoming a Service Dog. A puppy who barks, growls, grumbles, whines or vocalizes in public will not be able to be a Service Dog. And a puppy that learns to bark at things they see outdoors or out of reach, or that gets overly excited about toys may not successfully become a Service Dog. If your puppy in training is at all fearful, shy or scared of something and the issue can’t be resolved, then the puppy in question isn’t suitable as a Service Dog. It’s important to remember that calmness, relaxation and focus are prized above all else when it comes to shaping the behavior of a Service Dog in Training. 

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Other Ways You Can Get Involved
Some people worry about the length of time puppies stay with their host family; 14 to 18 months is a long time. However, don’t let the time commitment scare you away from getting involved with a Service Dog or Guide Dog in training. Another option is to become a Puppy sitter. Puppy sitters keep a puppy for very short periods of time. Some examples of when a puppy sitter might be necessary include:

  • A few hours—when a student has an exam they need to focus on or a doctor’s appointment the puppy isn’t ready to attend
  • A few days—when the puppy raisers are going on an out of state or international trip
  • A few weeks—like during a puppy swap, which is where puppies are rotated to different handlers so they get used to working with others

Puppy sitters are just as important as puppy raisers. Short-term Service Dog in Training raising is a great place to start. It allows you to get the training required to be a puppy raiser, gain some experience and see if raising a puppy is for you and your family without the year-and-a-half time commitment. Other volunteer positions related to training Service Dog puppies include puppy drivers, puppy socializers or weekend puppy parents. Puppy drivers take puppies to appointments, puppy socializers hang out with program puppies or play games with them, and weekend puppy parents take dogs who are in advanced training home for the weekend so they retain their house manners and get some non-public access time out of the training facility. It’s important to note that not every program has part-time raising or volunteer positions, but it never hurts to ask.

Advanced Training
Every organization has a different system and set of requirements for deciding when a puppy is ready to return to the program for advanced task training. Your program will communicate with you and make expectations clear. Typically, a puppy in training exhibits calm, relaxed behavior in public, is responsive to all basic training, possesses some foundation skills such as nudging drawers with their nose or hitting a touch lamp with their foot, and is mature enough to handle the intensity of advanced training. Some programs use a levels system, like OccuPaws, and others utilize an extensive set of field evaluations and tests. Some programs make the decision based on additional factors. 

Regardless of how a puppy is deemed ready for advanced training, it’s always hard to let them go. It’s difficult to pour thousands of hours of love, time, companionship and effort into such an amazing creature and then have to say goodbye. However, the puppy you’ve put so much heart and soul into will likely go on to give someone their independence and life back. These incredible working dogs make a huge difference to the people they’re partnered with—but without puppy raisers it wouldn’t be possible.

Puppies that return to their host program spend several months undergoing formal training to be a Service Dog or Guide Dog. There are dozens of tasks a Service Dog can learn, and Guide Dogs undergo some of the most rigorous training processes in the canine world. After they complete their advanced training, the dogs are partnered with a person who needs them. Both the new partner and the newly graduated Service Dog or Guide Dog undergo program-guided training so they can to function as a team. 

Conclusion
When it’s all said and done, it takes approximately two years of hard, dedicated work to properly raise and train a Service Animal, regardless of what type of work the dog does. Make no mistake about it—it’s not easy to train Service and Guide Dogs. But there’s nothing like the satisfaction of knowing you had a hand in giving someone with a disability the opportunity to live life to the fullest. 

 

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Comments
by Michele Hires
‎04-25-2017 12:35 PM

I went to the Petco in West Melbourne Fl to return a collar I bought for my dog. Susan started asking questions as to why I was returning the collar. She gave me her name, schedule and told me to bring my dog in so she could help fit him with the proper collar, but the great service didn't stop there when I brought my dog in she fitted him with the right collar showed me how to put it n and how to properly walk him. He us a big chocolate lab and was never trained to walk on a leash. Her knowledge and caring for the customer and their fur baby just goes above and beyond!!! You have yourself a gem of an employee!!! Thank you for having such a wonderful lady on your staff. Susan is just the best!!!

I went to the Petco in West Melbourne Fl to return a collar I bought for my dog. Susan started asking questions as to why I was returning the collar. She gave me her name, schedule and told me to bring my dog in so she could help fit him with the proper collar, but the great service didn't stop there when I brought my dog in she fitted him with the right collar showed me how to put it n and how to properly walk him. He us a big chocolate lab and was never trained to walk on a leash. Her knowledge and caring for the customer and their fur baby just goes above and beyond!!! You have yourself a gem of an employee!!! Thank you for having such a wonderful lady on your staff. Susan is just the best!!!

Posted on Apr. 25, 2017
About the Author
  • Keagen "Kea" J. Grace CPDT-KA, CTDI is a freelance writer and author who specializes in training professional working dogs. She is widely published in a variety of venues and actively competes in several canine sports. She also serves as a consultant for Service and working dog programs across North America and Europe.
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