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Choosing a Service Dog (SD) candidate and Self-Training or Not

PTSD service dogs

Service Dogs for PTSD (or other disabilities): Part 2
Choosing a SD candidate and Self-Training or Not

Okay, I had MANY questions coming to me after my Alex and service dog write-up yesterday, which I felt calls for a Part 2. PLEASE understand that training was my profession/career for years before becoming a caregiver, so I do have the knowledge and years of experience needed for training and training service dogs (even though Alex is not one, by choice).

This write-up is only intended to help you to be aware of what is involved in choosing and training a dog with the goal of it becoming a service dog. I cannot tell anyone if self-training or use of a service dog is for them or not, that is something that only you can decide for yourself. I do ask that you be completely honest with yourself before making a decision. There is a lot involved in training and/or using a service dog, that man are unaware of.

In order to understand what is involved in having and using a service dog, and deciding if a service dog is even right for you, you HAVE to do a lot of research! Another thing that I will preach, is are you far enough along in your treatment and continuing treatment to use a service dog? This is very important to be honest with yourself about! A SD is not a cure all! You have to consider… can you control anger/frustration, will you be able to manage your symptoms well enough for the dog’s safety, will you be able to tolerate when a SD acts like a dog, will you be able to keep up the dog’s training after fully trained? Will you continue to dedicate yourself to that dog, as that dog is going to do for you? You are a TEAM when you use a service dog.

Using a service dog is a choice for the one with the disability to make (exception would be service dogs specifically trained for children or adults with disabilities which require a guardian, the guardian is responsible for the SD and works with the team). If a person with a disability does not want to use a service dog, please respect that decision! A spouse/partner cannot make that decision for them, however they do need to know they will at times be in situations to where they are needed to care for the SD, it happens. A service dog is your lifeline and takes dedication to be a team.

And the biggie… Have you tried everything else first to see if other options of treatment help before jumping straight to “I need a service dog”? I have personally seen some with PTSD get a service dog right up front when diagnosed and symptoms are high, the first thing they turn to, then once that person gets used to getting back out, learns coping skills, or other treatments help, that SD gets left at home. When this happens it is NOT a good situation for the SD! They are trained for the job and love to work. A service dog is literally with you 24/7! Are you ready for that responsibility and for the number of years that SD is capable of working and their lifespan?

Another thing I will state up front, a SD is an animal and unforeseen things happen, medical expenses, dogs do get old… Are you prepared for those things? The reason I want to address this up front, and many people don’t unfortunately, is because once you get used to using and having that SD with you all of the time, one unforeseen thing can cause you personally a mental setback if that SD can’t work any longer. I saw this personally with Craig! His first service dog had to be retired after less than two years working due to an unforeseen vision problem, and Craig hit rock bottom again when she had to retire at such an early age. That’s why Alex became a part of our family, and why I trained him, even though Craig has chosen since then not to use a service dog. I do personally feel and have seen the benefits of a service dog to Craig, however he is not ready to use one again and I have to respect that decision, it is a choice only he can make.

If you do not have, and make the time to research, then you really should not even consider self-training, not to sound harsh, just stating the facts. Learn the service dog laws (Federal and State), talk to other service dog teams, visit quality (a word you will hear me say A LOT!) organizations, talk to trainers, watch how quality service dogs actually work, see for yourself what goes into training, learn what expenses are involved in maintaining a service dogs health, and understand that you will at times have issues when out in public if you choose to use a service dog… you have to know how to “correctly” handle these situations. Outbursts over a service dog conflict, especially in businesses that are uneducated are NOT going to benefit you or other service dog teams.

There are many GREAT self-trainers out there. It will all depend on the time and effort you put into it, as well as the dog’s ability! Not every dog will be a service dog, just a fact. Many may make great emotional support dogs (which do NOT have public access rights) and many may make great pets. Be honest, if a dog is not a service dog please have respect for SD teams out there and don’t take it out into public as a service dog.

For those of you that are asking how to pick a suitable candidate (dog/puppy) to train as a service dog. Honestly, it takes experience, and even then not every dog will make it to full service dog work. If you are not experienced in choosing a dog, basic and advanced obedience training, task training (a task is a specifically trained command(s) to mitigate a disability), and not experienced in animal behavior, I HIGHLY recommend getting help from a professional if you choose to AND can honestly dedicate the time needed to self-train!

If you know your life has many interruptions that could interfere with the time the dog needs then you may want to look at professional trainers or find a suitable, quality, organization. Also know, when you self-train, you are putting all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak. Not all dogs make it to full service dog status, so keep in mind all of your hard work, time, and money (oh yes it costs money even with self-training) may leave you with a pet or having to decide if you would re-home the dog if it washes out of training, develops health issues which would prevent it from working, and you have to start over with a new candidate. I think it’s 1 in 10 dogs tested/chosen make it to full service dog “quality” work, the last I read.

First, what breed is suitable for YOU, your lifestyle, and family??? What size of breed will be needed for the tasks needed, as well as compared to your own body size… the reason I state this is if you are a tall or larger built person with PTSD‬, a smaller dog may very well draw more attention to you than what already will be. 😉 We learned that one with Craig’s now retired service dog Maya (who I used in the photo), she looked like a puppy compared to Craig even though she is not a small breed. You CANNOT pick a pup/dog because they are cute, pretty, have loving eyes gleaming at you, or you feel you need to save them! The activity level of the breed and breed characteristics you choose MUST suit your lifestyle or the lifestyle you want to get back to or get to, and the tasks that will be needed. It is also important that the dog be matched correctly to you including personality and willingness to work for you.

Then decide if you want to get a pup from a breeder or not, and if you want and have time for a puppy or younger dog. If you choose a pup or younger dog, I want to state, there are different stages that pups go through and it is important to know and understand those stages, so training can move forward with as little setbacks as possible. There is also a stage where the pup can very easily pick up on and mimic anxiety and other PTSD symptoms, maintaining balance and training is important so that does not happen. IF it does, you may need to seek professional help from an animal behaviorist to assist you in training.

There are pro’s and con’s to every age level of pup/dog. A young pup is my personal choice. However, young pups take MUCH more time, house training, etc. and the late night outings are usually not an issue with PTSD being a part of life because majority of us are up anyway. 😉 The older the dog, the more corrections in behavior you “may” find need to be done.

Now, as an example, Alex was 6 months old when we got him, even though I personally prefer an 8-10 week old pup, he tested beautifully, however 3 weeks into having him and everything going great, we discovered he had a fear of large chains. This was a fear that I had to work him through and correct, which he did recover from the fear. However this is a good example.

With shelter dogs, as much as I do love them and they have my heart, I’ve had many over the years and they were/are awesome, you have to be prepared for any behaviors, temperaments, quirks, etc that they may have developed or experienced and be prepared, have a plan, for anything that may come up. Now, a young pup may go through the same exact thing as they develop, they may form fears, behaviors, etc. They are animals not robots and things can happen. Being prepared on how to handle or know how to handle different behaviors which may develop is important.

There are testing guidelines out there for choosing a pup/dog, however if you are not familiar with them and animal behavior I HIGHLY advise having an experienced trainer (that has service dog knowledge) help you choose a puppy/dog, even if you choose to do the rest of the training yourself or only turn for professional help for task training. Again, do your research first before getting a pup/dog!

Testing a pup/dog includes a lot to look for/at, such as temperament, aggressive responses, desensitization level to other animals, sounds, vision, touch, objects, etc., startle response and recovery time, dog’s body language and what each action/stance/position actually means for THAT pup/dog, social interactions, degree of dominance/submission, ease of handling in different situations, level of focus, retrieval, and anything that would be needed for specific disability work. Emotional support, comfort, love, and “making you feel safe” are NOT tasks and do not qualify as such.

(Remember there is no slacking, it takes hundreds of hours to train a service dog, a good base time frame is 2 years of training. Then after becoming a service dog they will need reinforcement training to keep them up to date on skills and tasks.)

Expense of a Service Dog. Please do not think that just because you adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue, or are given a “free” puppy/dog, that there is going to be less of an expense. NO dog is free, and especially not a service dog. Again a service dog is a lifeline, with that comes maintaining their health and other things needed, including quality food and treats, vaccinations, health exams… such as eyes and hips, proper work and/or vehicle equipment if or what is needed, toys/training toys, poop bags and clean up kit/hip pack, classes (which I recommend doing), CGC certification… this is not required or not in all areas however I highly recommend it for all service dogs, lead and collar, water/food bowls and travel bowls, liability insurance (another thing I recommend, they are still a dog), some people get health insurance for routine or emergency medical expenses, flea control, heartworm preventative, grooming if you are unable to do it yourself (Want to see someone frown on seeing a service dog in public? Take an ungroomed one out and that’s what you will get along with a lot of rude comments), nails MUST stay trimmed/short… or it can be a safety hazard out in public for the dog, as the dog ages there may be a need for medications or special beds… you have to keep in mind dogs age, and many other things… but those give you a basic list of expenses.

Another question I was asked…
Can my pet dog I already have become a service dog?

Some dogs do have the ability to. Some are still at a young enough age to train, age is important to think about… how long will that dog once fully trained be actually capable of working before retiring IF they make it through training? And is the dog of age to train for what is needed for the job?

The other thing to consider is what amount of pet training has already been put into the dog and MASTERED? Let me define mastered… having to tell a dog multiple times before the dog responds is not a skill mastered. Sure, they are still dogs and will have bad days where they don’t respond every time, but overall they should respond when commanded. This is also for the safety of the dog, there are many situations you will come across and proper response can be urgent.

However, I personally frown on this option of using an existing pet dog, I will never say it can’t be done because it can be in some cases, but there is a lot to consider, let me explain why. A dog that is an awesome pet and great at home with you, may not be the same way out in public around many people, new places, sounds, sights, smells, elevators, buses, trains, planes, other animals, food, etc etc. Some dogs can train through this, many won’t. Many are already settled into the home environment and routine, changing that may be stressful on them, which may bring on new behaviors.

The other large things to consider are habits that have already formed at home. People food is a huge one, many people don’t think twice about feeding their pet dog from the table or allowing them to eat food that dropped on the floor. Service dogs cannot do that! Those are already formed habits that would have to be corrected. They MUST be well behaved out in public which includes not sniffing which includes other people, animals, or food, not picking things or food up unless commanded to, not focusing on a child, squirrel, etc… focus needs to be on the handler and tasks trained to help the handler, barking is considered disruptive unless it is a trained command for alert or get help and used correctly, not using the bathroom or marking in stores or non-designated areas, not pulling to the end of lead (that is considered not being in control of your dog)… a SD should be right with the handler unless commanded otherwise such as pulling or opening a door, and the list goes on.

So you may find a lot of time has to go into re-training to correct habits already formed if you choose to attempt training a pet dog you already have. It can be done in some cases with some dogs, however you will be putting in additional time correcting any unacceptable behaviors. So that is something to keep in mind as well.

Okay, I think I’m writing a book here. 😉 So let me close with this, quality service dogs are awesome! I support them 110% and then some, I have seen firsthand how they change lives for those with disabilities, as well as for the family, for the better. They are by all means worth every second of time, work, and money that goes into them… and even worth the wait time it takes to train one or wait for one to be trained for you. But they are not a rush to or quick decision to make, and they are not a cure all. They will be your partner, and your lifeline if you choose to use one and honestly need one. Please take the time to do the research, think about what you need, as well as what they need.

I hope this helps answer many of the questions that have come to me.

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