You Can Do It, So Can I…by Lisa Harmon

Hey! I want some too! The Brother’s Grin, 21 wks

I feel like a brighter color text today, don’t you? It’s summer, and brown just feels a bit dull to me. So ya’ll get to read in green. Green’s a good color. It’s bright, it’s lively. What’s not to love about it?

There are lots of questions on the blog stats about owner training a service dog. You most definitely can. I’ll give a general description of what you need your dog to be able to do, but keep in mind that the type of service they give you depends on your disability. A mobility dog doesn’t have to watch for traffic for you, like a guide dog would.

Step one is socializing and obedience training: sit, down, stay, come, wait, leave it, heel, and back are the “biggies” that a dog needs to learn. The two things that are most important but aren’t actual commands are loose leash walking and paying attention to you.

Loose leash walking means the dog isn’t dragging behind you or pulling ahead of you. You want them to have their shoulders beside your leg, close enough that your hand is above them. Toes may get stepped on once in awhile, but they need to be close to you. They cannot sniff merchandise, or greet people and dogs they come across when working, either. Leave it command is your best training tool to get that done!

And paying attention is vital. If you need to turn or perhaps go around an obstacle, the dog should move with you, without being told to or using the leash. That doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is looking at your face constantly, or they’d walk into a parked car! But they must be aware enough of what you are doing and needing that you don’t have to get their attention to walk around a shrub on the same side as you.

Keep in mind the “little things” that you might need to change in a standard obedience class. A standard heel is on the left side. But if you need the dog to support your right side, you’ll need to change that. Personally, the leg that needs support changes for me, so I expect Kenai to stay on whatever side I put him that day, regardless of where he usually is.

Wait and stay are different: wait means “pause ’till I give another command”. Getting out of the car uses wait, until their leash is on and you give the okay to get out. Going through doors uses “wait”. They stop and stand beside you until the door opens, and wait for you to say “forward”. Then wait again until you’ve closed the door.

Stay means park and don’t move until I return to you. You can put the dog on a stay, sitting, down, or standing, and expect them to not move. If they can see you, they watch you. If they can’t see you they wait and don’t move anyway. If your dog is playing with a buddy accross the street, you won’t want them to come across the street with cars going by. So you give them a stay, walk over to them, and release them from the stay. That way you can walk back together.

Come is a huge deal for a service dog. No matter where they are, or what they are doing, when you need them, they have to drop everything and come. Playing in a dog park, if you can’t get up from the bench, you can call your dog to come and they will, no matter how much fun they’re having.

Socializing an intended service dog never stops. You’ll never reach a point where they have seen it all. From the time you get them, take them everywhere, and try everything: kids soccer games, elevators, busy downtown sidewalks, skate parks, outdoor cafe, parking lots, beaches, shopping carts, auto repair shops…you want them to be exposed to and able to concentrate through any noise, any movement, any environment.

Once the obedience skills are totally reliable, you should take a test like the AKC Good Canine Citizen test. You don’t have to by law, but please do. You and your dog’s abilities are objectively analyzed, and you’ll have a peice of paper in your hand to prove to a nervous store owner that you’ve put the time and effort into training an outstandingly well behaved dog.

In addition to obedience training, a service dog must have at least one task they perform to assist you. For example, picking up keys you’ve dropped, or a harness to help you keep your balance. The task training doesn’t have to wait until after obedience–young puppies are sponges and learn very easily. Kenai and I have to wait for the harness until he’s done growing at 18 months or so.

I have a page about the requirements, and about temperment testing. The blog roll also has lots of links. There are plenty of online groups, like yahoo’s Owner Trained Service Dogs for Beginners where you can find advice and support. And if you can find a professional trainer to assist you, so much the better.

You can use any method of training that works for you. The training I was doing with Kenai was not going well, so I’ve changed tactics and shifted towards positive clicker training to reinstate the sense of fun and joy we had lost somewhere. Maybe it was me that lost it and Kenai followed, but I still say we because he and I are a team, and we feel everything together. What one of us goes through the other goes through. 

No matter what training method you use, you’ll hear again and again the golden dog training mantra “be a calm leader”. I have it all over my blog because it is without question the easiest and best way to train a dog. But like many Americans, I have an anxiety disorder, compliments of fibromyalgia. Many Americans have depression, panic attacks, and all sorts of “not calm” difficulties.

Sometimes it is possible to just not train when the day’s stress is too high. But when it is an ongoing problem, many, if not most trainers will give up on you. They will tell you that you can’t do it. It’s been said to me.

There are more than enough things I must say “I can’t” to. But dogs are not one of them. I have more faith in them than that. Dogs give. They bend and they adjust. They take us as we are and work with the human they have, whether we are imperfect or not. Humans may call you defective, but dogs don’t even think of it. Impossible is not a word a dog knows or understands.

Training a service dog when you have anxiety disorders may not go as smooth as the Godiva chocolate cheesecake I had for my birthday, but you can and will find dogs trained to alert to anxiety and panic attacks. THEY CAN HANDLE IT, and so can I. For me, it is a matter of finding a way that works, a method that gives me confidence. I have the love not to give up.

My anxiety levels rise for awhile, and go down for awhile. That’s how it is for me. If anyone doubts that dogs are more humane than humans, then think about this: Kenai takes the ride with me. What I go through, he goes through with me, and doesn’t just give up and tell me to go away. He’s never once said “you can’t do it”.

When faced with difficulties, you need to keep your optimism. Tenacity is the best tool in life, and the flexibility to change tactics when you need to. You don’t need someone whispering in your ear that you can’t do it, you have the wrong breed of dog, that if you had kids they’d be neurotic…That sort of pessimism and inflexibility is death to any training program.

(as an aside to trainers, Labliness isn’t Godliness, so can we stop with the breed bias, please? Labs have their flaws too.)

I am forever telling Kenai’s timid littermate BB “you can do it, little buddy” when he hesitates at the stairs or gets scared of the shiney floor. I praise every little step he takes, and this blog is a record of every little step I take on the shiney floor of training my own service dog. I CAN do it, and I will. Giving up is not an option.

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