By Meghan Whalen
I have been working guide dogs since 2006, and since 2010, I have been volunteering my time as a service dog puppy raiser and trainer. I have worked dogs I trained, and I have worked dogs from programs who came to me fully trained. They have all been fantastic dogs, but there is definitely a difference. Dogs from programs come into your home at around two years of age, and then you begin the process together of figuring out how to fit who you both are into a cohesive team in the home and while working. Those dogs I have trained from little puppies fit seamlessly into my home. I like to compare it to buying a custom tailored suit or getting one off the rack. They both present the same image, but the custom one fits perfectly and was made just for you.
There are four key factors that make a quality service dog, and if a dog is lacking in any of these four characteristics, it is the moral and ethical responsibility of the trainer or handler to pull that dog from training or retire the dog if she is already working.
- A service dog candidate must be intelligent and highly trainable. This is something pretty easily evaluated in young puppies. It is rare to find the right dog the first trip to meet dogs or puppies. I got lucky this time around, but it can take many trips to breeders and/or shelters to find the perfect service dog candidate. I went to visit the dog I’m currently training, Amiera, a couple of times at the shelter. The first time I was there, I showed her some very basic position and obedience work. The next time I came to see her, she offered me the behaviors I had shown her the day before, and she seemed eager and ready to learn more.
- The dog must be temperamentally sound. He must not startle easily, and if he does startle, he must recover seamlessly. He must show no aggression towards other dogs or people, and he should enjoy the process of being socialized to stores, restaurants, malls, street fairs, farmers markets etc. No dog who doesn’t enjoy the work should be asked to do the job, just as no dog who shows any aggression should be put in a situation where he may hurt himself or someone else. While I was evaluating Amiera, I abruptly slammed the drawer on the file cabinet in the room. She stopped and looked, but then she continued her sniffing tour of the room. She was aware of the noise, but it did not cause her to panic. When I first brought her home, she was not a big fan of sirens. She never panicked, but she gave a lot of signs that she was not comfortable. I was able to get her to focus on me and rewarded her as they passed us, and she quickly recovered from that uncertainty as well. If she had continued to be fearful of the sirens, I would have released her from training, because it would not have been right of me to insist she put herself in that situation time and time again.
- It is possible to have the perfect dog who is highly trainable and has the perfect temperament but still doesn’t make it through training. At about twelve months, he needs to be checked for physical soundness. He needs hip and elbow x-rays, and if he doesn’t pass either of these two clearances, he must be pulled from training. The constant pulling in the harness will just accelerate any kind of imperfections in the hip or elbow joints. It is only fare to both dog and handler that he start out physically sound to insure longevity of both dog and team.
- Last of all, if everything else has given the green light for finishing training, he needs to be able to make decisions and take the pressure of the job. Some dogs like training, they love learning, but they get overwhelmed and cannot handle the responsibility from the game of training to the level of focus required for actual guide dog work. My goal was to have Amiera’s harness training completed by fall of 2017, but I could tell she was not ready. She was doing a fantastic job in her training, but I could tell she needed to gain more confidence before I did the really high-pressure skill work. Her final traffic awareness training was completed on January 21, 2018. I cannot begin to explain the pride I felt as she demonstrated her understanding and skill when she stopped on a dime when our trained driver cut us off as we were flying down the sidewalk together. I got a huge grin on my face, because I was positive that we were going to be unstoppable together. I am almost certain that if I had done that training earlier, we would not have had such glowing results, so I am fortunate that I listened to my dog and respected her as an individual.
There are so many risks, and it is possible to be almost done with training and have it all fall apart. If Amiera had buckled under the pressure of traffic training, that could have been the end of her career as a guide dog. I would never ask her to do a job she didn’t love. There is so much room for error, but I choose to raise and train my own guides, because I love the sense of pride and accomplishment when I step out with my young mature dog and I think back to that sleepy little puppy who had so much potential. There is nothing better than knowing that we met the challenge head on together, and she has met and exceeded my expectations. I am looking forward to many years with this brilliant, loyal and eager little dog at my side.