If you’ve ever wondered how service dogs do what they do, here’s a behind-the- scenes look from a former assistance dog trainer.
Beverly and her assistance dog Drake were waiting for the elevator at the mall. When the doors opened, she saw a man in a wheelchair inside. He made no move to get out, and she wasn’t sure if she could fit her own wheelchair plus her dog into the elevator next to him.
“I’ll wait,” she told him cheerfully. But the next time the elevator stopped at her floor, the same man was still sitting inside.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his speech slurred by the effects of cerebral palsy, “I’ve dropped something, and no one understands me when I ask them to pick it up for me.”
“Oh, let my dog get that for you.” Within moments, the item had been delivered into the man’s hands, and he gaped at Drake in astonishment.
“I’ve been stuck in this elevator for half an hour!” he exclaimed. “Where can I get a dog like that?”
As Drake’s trainer, I know how much time and effort led to that moment in the elevator, and why there is such a long waiting list for dogs like him. Assistance dogs are time-intensive and expensive to train. It costs service dog charities upwards of $30,000 to raise and train each dog. And some turn out to be just too nervous or impulsive to enjoy being assistance dogs. These are adopted out to good homes, often to the volunteers who raised them.
For those dogs that make the cut, my job as an assistance dog trainer was to give them all the skills they needed to truly make a difference in my clients’ lives. Here’s how it’s done.
Before they reach a trainer like myself, future assistance dogs are heavily socialized, starting at eight weeks of age when they are given to volunteers to raise. The volunteers take their puppies with them everywhere so they will grow up accustomed to crowds at the mall, explosive noises at the movie theatre, and rattling shopping carts at the grocery store.
When the dogs are approximately a year old, they leave their foster homes and enter advanced training, which is where I came into the picture. The dog-handling abilities of volunteer puppy raisers vary, and while some dogs came to me with excellent obedience already in place, others arrived tugging at the leash and then greeted me by jumping up – not the best start. Happily, dogs learn fast, and as long as a dog had been well socialized, I knew she had been given a great start.
Obedience is a vital aspect of assistance and therapy dog training. A service dog must always walk nicely on leash. He must ignore the many distractions around him and never bark, steal food, or get in people’s way. Therapy dogs especially need to be able to greet people calmly and be gentle at all times.
Training a dog to open a door or fetch the phone is actually easier than teaching him to ignore a French fry on the floor of a restaurant. The first two skills impress people more, but the last one is much harder and takes a lot longer to teach.
I taught obedience with a combination of positive reinforcement and consistent correction in increasingly difficult scenarios. By the time a dog was ready to place with a client, I could put her in a “stay” and throw balls past her nose, while doing a hula dance around her, and she would continue to hold her command.
3. Advanced skills
My first act as a trainer was always to introduce a new dog to the clicker. Dogs have a limited capacity for language, so that distinctive “click!” can be a trainer’s best friend – the fastest and clearest way to let a dog know he has earned a reward.
Once the dog has learned that a click means “jackpot!” you can use it to guide all kinds of behavior, like flipping a light switch or retrieving a nickel…or ignoring that French fry on the floor.
The clicker is mostly used to shape behaviors. You click the dog for doing something close to what you want – like sniffing a target stick. Then, as he begins to repeat the behavior, you increase the criteria for success – now he has to push the stick with his nose. Just as with obedience, you slowly make the game harder and harder to win, until eventually the dog is pressing a button instead of a stick.
Once the dog mastered a skill at the training centre, I would take him on the road. Dogs are very specific learners, so the canine who could hit the automatic door button perfectly at the training centre would very often be stumped by the exact same button at the local mall. Much of my job involved taking the dog everywhere, clicker in hand, until he could do his skills anywhere, anytime.
4. Loving and letting go
Eventually, the time would come to say goodbye to the dog I’d been training for the last six months to a year. That was always a bittersweet moment. It was always hard to see them go, but placing a dog with a new client was such a rewarding process that it more than made up for any loss I felt.
One of my favorites was a golden retriever named Poppy, who possesses a remarkable desire to comfort those who are emotionally distressed. One day we were headed back to the kennels after a training session when we found a volunteer sitting on the floor, crying. Poppy immediately left my side and lovingly laid her head in the volunteer’s lap, just wanting to soak up all the bad feelings and pain.
From that moment on, it was obvious that Poppy needed to be a therapy dog. She is now at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice in Vancouver, where she provides love and comfort to the children, parents and medical staff alike. I miss her, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Whether I was training an assistance dog like Drake or a therapy dog like Poppy, I felt deeply honored to be a part of something so special – the opportunity to guide an animal into a job that would touch the lives of others in a profound way.