Service Dogs Can’t Read Your Mind

By Michele Forto

Reality Check: Service dogs cannot read your mind. Service dogs provide their handler’s with specific “services”. These “services” are performed when the handler communicates with the dog in one form or another. Communication is the key and the service dog trainer’s job is to ensure that the dog is able to understand a variety of commands. Sharpen the saw: by maintaining good work ethic with your dog.

A service dog is a dog that is individually trained to perform tasks that mitigate the disability of the dog’s owner.

The undertaking of training a service dog typically takes two years of constant training.  Preparing a potential dog to live out his life doing “work” takes patience, perseverance, endurance, consistency and team work.

Starting in puppyhood, the selected dog, begins his training immediately learning that he is a dog surrounded by humans being asked to “work”, not just be a companion, but to provide a specific service for a person who cannot do for themselves.

There are several types of service dogs for various types of disabilities and as we discover new ways of helping people with psychological disabilities we are broadening our abilities to train “man’s best friend” to become “mans best assistant”.

A service dog is selected utilizing a series of temperament tests.  Once the dog has passed these tests and has been deemed suitable for service work intensive training begins and can last up to two years.  A trainer will develop training plans that grow with the dog as he grows.  The trainer will spend over ten thousand hours training one dog in this two year period. It should be noted that even after all this time and all of those hours; the dog may not pass and may simply not be cut out for “work”.

In some cases, the service dog is placed with their “handler” prior to the training being completed. The dog is hand-selected by the trainer and has been placed for early placement for bonding, usually in psychological service work and in autistic service work.  The need for the bond and immediate companionship can be a valuable service to the handler.  But this can pose problems for the dog.  Lack of training consistency and being allowed too much “dog time”, can lead to laziness and unruliness.

Rarely, a disabled person will contact a trainer with a dog that has already been selected and that has bonded well to the handler.  In these cases, after the trainer has determined that the dog is temperamentally sound to work as a service dog, training can begin.  These cases have a higher failure rate because the handler may not be able to give their dog up during the training period thus creating a strain and difficulty in the training regimen, length of training, and stress levels on the dog and the handler.  Also, the dog can experience confusion between what is now being commanded as “work” versus previously being commanded just to perform companion style pet dog commands.  The difference; when a dog is “working” they are expected to perform commands quickly and efficiently without being noticed by society.

The rate of success in training a service dog depends on many factors; ability to work and handle the stress involved physical and mental health, and being able to perform in public and not become a nuisance.  Service dogs are expected to go virtually unnoticed.

In the cases where the dog was previously selected by the handler and then later trained, the trainer now has to undo all of the dog’s bad habits and incorporate new ones as well as perfect the commands the dog may already know.  The family of the handler and the handler themselves are incorporated into the training regimen daily.  The trainer will meet with them weekly or monthly depending on the services needed.  Certain commands that may be necessary to the handler such as the dog picking up things from the floor and placing onto the lap, are very difficult to teach a dog that is over the age of nine months and will take much longer and will need consistent training done daily.

In the past, I have taken on such cases for psychiatric service work and mobility.  I have learned that undertaking established dogs even IF they pass the temperament testing, public access testing, and can perform six to ten necessary and specific commands pertaining to the person’s disability many of these dogs never develop the work ethic necessary to perform their “job” consistently on a daily basis.  They become more of a therapy dog that goes everywhere with the handler. Although I am not against early bonding with a dog, I am against the handler choosing the dog, raising him through puppyhood with virtually no training or the wrong training foundation has been applied and then attempting to train and prepare this nearly two year old dog as a service dog.

At Alaska Dog Works, I have developed a program that is successful in the training and placement of service dogs.  I choose the puppy, begin training immediately, and when the pup is about six months of age a potential handler is chosen for the puppy and weekly lessons begin while the puppy remains under my care and control.  By the time the puppy is eighteen months of age they will be living with their handler full time and working as a service dog in training with their handler.  I have found that training the handler for nine months or longer helps to seal that necessary bond and build trust between both the handler and the dog.

If you are looking for a service dog for yourself or a loved one, please contact a professional such as myself prior to running out there and getting that puppy that you think you’ll have the time and wherewithal to train yourself.  Service dogs are large investments and yes it may be more cost effective for you to do it yourself but don’t let the industry keep you from asking questions. Lead Dog Service Dogs can be trained for your needs with you alongside for the majority of the training.  It’s all about the end result and finding the best way to get there.  If I get you thinking about anything please remember that with any training it takes consistency.