Have you ever seen the show So You Think You Can Dance? I am starting to think there should be a show called So You Think You Can Train A Service Dog. I have a six-year-old Golden retriever named Gideon who currently works as my service dog. I also have a nine week old German Shepherd puppy named Pixie who is going to eventually transition into being my service dog in a few years when Gideon retires. I am in breed-specific Facebook groups and I see at least one question every few weeks in both groups. I have (insert medical issue here), how can I train the dog I already have to be my service dog? At this point, most of the time I see that I bite my tongue, shake my head and scroll down. Don’t get me wrong I believe that it is within the capabilities of disabled people to train their own service dogs. I believe an owner trained can be brilliant.
I trained Gideon myself but before I got him six years ago I spent a decade learning everything I could about service dogs.I had several false starts, with several dogs before Gideon. I made several inquiries about partnering with a dog trained through a recognized program.I chose to train my own dog only after a whole lot of soul searching and talking to those I trusted enough to know that they would give me an honest opinion on whether or not I could accomplish the level of training the dog would require.
As much work as a pet puppy is, a puppy being trained as a service dog is twice that. Let me explain with an example.A couple of days ago a thunderstorm popped up, a big loud, crashy, one. We had a little warning that this storm was coming, just enough to scare me. I was scared because some dogs are afraid of storms. Storms are a common fear for dogs. The intensity of the fear is different for every dog. Sometimes you can work the dog through it, sometimes not.
One of my parents’ dogs, Caylee is a ten-year-old Border Collie / Golden Retriever mix that we got as a puppy. She is a sweet, incredibly loving dog. She was my first service dog prospect. She was my first hope and then there was her first thunderstorm. She completely shut down. She wasn’t moving, she refused to get up off the floor. I had a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. Fear like this is a huge red flag in service dog training. A dog has to focus on the handler through loud noises and, distraction and all kinds of crazy.Caylee’s level of fear does not bode well.
In spite of my worry, I push forward because I’m stubborn and I will not give up. Mom and I worked with Caylee for two years trying to get past her fear. She got incrementally better but she is still noticeably scared every time thunder rumbles through and she never got past basic obedience because her fear of thunder was so paralyzing. So the storm a few days ago had me a little nervous. I was worried, and with good reason, I think. Once again, Pixie has surprised me. The rumble crash and bang was no big deal for her.
I tell you both stories to point out how fine that line can be. That line between hope and pragmatism. The line reminds you that things can change in a blink. At some point, it occurs to me that puppy raising is my thing. I’m not perfect and I will never claim to be but I have learned some things.
Raising a puppy to be a service dog is not for the fainthearted, especially when the puppy you are rasing is going to be your dog. It’s scary and nerve-wracking because unlike when you get a dog from a program whether or not training is considered a success or not is entirely on one person, you. If the dog struggles with a task people often say something like: why would you ever try to train a dog to be a service dog yourself, there are programs for that sort of thing.”
It’s a gut punch that knocks the wind out of me every last time. I have been unsure about a great many things in my life. I have always felt a little awkward in my skin, I have struggled with perceptions of myself for my whole life. There aren’t many things in my life that I’m proud of accomplishing, especially not as an adult. I am proud of raising Gideon into the amazing dog he has become. Pixie is a magical little girl who surprises me every day. Yesterday I woke up to realize that my brand new wireless mouse wasn’t next to my laptop on the table in my room. I panicked because the last time a mouse of mine went missing with a puppy in the house we found it in several pieces. So I was shocked to find it carried into the living room whole and undamaged. I know it was Pixie because she is the only one who picks up random things and carries things around without any intention of destroying them.
This post has become more than a little rambling so I will come back to the original point.Owners can train their own service dogs.That being said please do your research because it’s a massive undertaking. Probe into the dark corners of your limitations. Be brutally honest with yourself, service dog training is hard and stressful. Be patient, this thing isn’t going to happen overnight. This is one of those things where what you get out of it is proportional to the effort you put in.