The picture above was taken on day 2 of our rally competition. All 5 dogs are Canine Hope dogs, but not all the people in the picture are dog trainers. 1 of them is an 11 year old (my daughter), 2 of them are teenagers (15 and 13), 1 of them is a self trainer (she worked with the org to raise a puppy for her son), and 1 of them is an official trainer for the org, raising a fully trained DAD for a family.
I am asked all the time what I think some of the most important things are when it comes to choosing a service dog organization. One of those things? Being local to the group, and having the group do ongoing training. I am asked often if I think it’s a good idea to get a dog from an out of state group. Often times, these groups will train the dog, and have the client fly in for a whirlwind 3-5 day training program. Then they send you and the dog home, potentially thousands of miles away from help if you need it (and you WILL need it). A HUGE part of the program we are involved in is training the person/family that will be using the dog. You see, here’s the thing. The dogs from Canine Hope are really smart and very well trained. In the right hands, they are down right amazing. And that is the problem. They are really smart. And perfectly capable of taking advantage of a poorly equipped handler. Or worse, telling the handler exactly what they are supposed to, and the handler not knowing or understanding what is being said. You see, dogs and people don’t speak the same language. And yet, for this to work, we need to be able to communicate with each other. These dogs don’t walk up to you, tap you on the shoulder, and in a fine British accent say, “excuse me good sir, the small blonde child appears to be going low”. Nope. There are a myriad of ways that these dogs tell us things, and they are telling us things constantly. Some subtle, some brazen. And most times, for us to continue to have these animals talk to us, we need to reward that communication (or in the case of unwanted behavior, not acknowledge/reward it) at exactly the right time. But if you are not a dog trainer, you have no idea how to do this. You need to be taught. You need to be shown how to talk to your dog.
When we got Raven, and even before that when we got Major, they were perfectly capable of competing in these rally events with an experienced handler. But we weren’t equipped yet to guide them through. Because believe it or not, these dogs can’t read the signs themselves. They need someone that can tell them what we want them to do in a way that they can understand. One of the amazing things we get with our organization is weekly training sessions. A place to go learn how to handle the dogs, work through issues we might be having, lifestyle specific concerns, questions, and of course, training sessions set up by Canine Hope. A big portion of these dogs lives consist of them being attached to us by a leash while out and about. Walking through public access areas like stores, malls, schools, on trains, around other animals, etc. For an untrained dog, or a well trained dog with an inexperienced handler, these situations can become very stressful for the dog. Damaging. Dangerous. The average pet dog is not accustomed to these scenarios. In order for these dogs to perform their tasks properly, accurately, and with as little stress as possible, the handler needs to exude confidence. Everything the handler is feeling transfers directly down the leash and into the dog. If the handler is fearful, stressed out, angry, confused, inexperienced, the dog is very quick to pick up on that, and all that information is relayed to the dog.
When looking for an organization, one that provides support after the dog is delivered is of HUGE importance. Whether that is in the form of weekly or monthly get togethers and training sessions, one on one sessions, or, if out of state, skype/youtube, or putting you in touch with a trusted local trainer, this is a must. In a perfect world, people start to work with dogs long before they are ever placed or receive their own dog. By the time their dog comes home, they have most likely had a minimum of a year under their belt to learn how to properly handle a dog, work with a dog, address issues, correct behaviors, and have had hours of time spent in public access settings. Before the dog goes home, there has been some overnight and extended stays in their own home, a trainer has been out to the house to see what life at home looks like, and to assess what will be required of the dog. The diabetes management has been looked over, and if there are problem areas, suggestions and recommendations have been made. The effort is placed in the early stages, before the dog has been delivered, in anticipation of creating a successful placement. No one at Canine Hope (or ANY responsible organization) wants to spend years training a great dog, and then just throw it to the wolves to sink or swim. They should want their teams to be successful, it is in the best interest of the family, the dog, and the organization. And if it is determined that a family isn’t capable of providing the right atmosphere for the dog, that should be addressed.
Here is a shocking stat that I learned at the last DAD conference I was at. The average working life of a diabetic alert dog is 1 year. Why is that? Because people buy these dogs thinking they are just another tool. They assume the dog comes complete, with no work due on their part. Or these dogs were never ever suited for service dog work to begin with. Major has been with us for almost 3 years. He is better today then he was when we got him. Why? Because we continue to work with him. Train him. Go to sessions with our trainers. Ask questions. Seek suggestions and advice. We are always learning, as is Major. We find that the harder we work, the harder they work. And Major being better today has very little to do with him having 3 extra years of training under his belt. Major is amazing at what he does. It has everything to do with us being trained, learning about these dogs, how to handle them, how to read them, how to live with them, and how to communicate with them.
Now here’s the thing. There are horrible stories about aggressive, fearful dogs that are being placed in homes with children. Stories of dogs that snap and bite, urinate in fear, can’t be taken out in public, can’t be around other animals, and haven’t ever alerted. Many of those dogs cost $20,000, and were placed with the families at 12 weeks old. These families have signed contracts that don’t allow them any recourse. They were scared, they wanted help, and they were preyed upon by awful people. They were told all the things they wanted to hear, and made promises that were never kept. Had they started off working within the org prior to ever getting a dog, things would be a little different. Just another reason why a local place can be better. Even if you decide to forgo the organization all together, adopt a dog at your local shelter, and work with a local trainer, you can be in better shape.
Here’s the point. Let’s assume you have found a reputable Organization, breeder, trainer, etc, and we can assume the dog will be trained to do it’s job. Under the knowledgeable lead of a trainer, this dog will perform it’s task, and will be great with obedience and public access. But without training the new handler, that all goes away. The new handler may have a diabetic toddler they are caring for, taking their time and effort away from the dog. Or the handler may be a teen or child, looking to take a dog to school. Ever tried to walk your pet past a PB&J sandwich or goldfish crackers left on the floor of a school cafeteria? If the family is like ours, there may be multiple handlers in the house. The dog will act differently for each handler. They are quick to learn who will let them get away with things. Everyone that will handle the dog will require training. Even things as simple as properly holding a leash.
When the dogs and families are trained properly, the results are spectacular. A great working team, mixed with good diabetic management is an amazing thing that only leads to healthier type 1’s, and that is exactly what we all want. When an organization is willing to put in the time and effort to make sure that not only can their dogs pass CGC or public access standards, but that the families and children handling them are also capable of doing the same and more? THAT is amazing. Consider sports cars for a second. They are capable of SO much more than the average driver could ever fathom doing. If the average driver pushed those cars to extremes, without having the proper training, the results would be disastrous. But in the hands of a well trained driver? You get the point.
My daughter has taken an interest in working her dog through competitions. We are encouraging this, as is the organization. There are several kids and teens doing the same. What is becoming of it? A better bond between dog and type 1. More focus. Better alerting. Better behavior. There is nothing but positives. And this:
That is pride. In working hard, setting goals, and achieving them. The dog has had hundreds and hundreds of hours of training. And so does the handler. We need just as much training as the dogs do. They know their job. We need to know ours too.
If the organization cares about you, your dog, and your team’s success, they will make sure that you know what your doing. For now. And for the life of your dog.