Training a service dog isn’t hard. The training part of it is easy.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a long, often stressful (imagine being in a grocery store with a puppy hoping with all of your heart he doesn’t pee), incredibly time consuming and a pretty much a life-encompassing process. But, the actual act of training an animal is easy. It’s the other stuff that you can’t control, like Genetics (capitalized because I now have appropriate respect for Genetics).
Genetic issues are the largest hurdle faced in large service dog organizations. Will the dog be physically sound? Will the dog have the temperment for service work and does the dog have “it”? “It” is that thing that the best service dogs have. It is a seriousness without losing the silliness of being a dog. It’s a heaviness they take on when you put them in their harness or vest. It is because of Genetics that most of the large service dog training organizations have turned to developing their own internal breeding programs. The breeding programs are their secret weapon against Genetics.
Genes control the variables of who we are. We can to a degree control the environment, how we learn and what we learn but we can not control genes. Fighting genetics is like swimming up a never ending stream.
How much do genetics play in the process of choosing the appropriate puppy? Before Charlie I would have said at least 50-60%. I egotistically thought I could make up the rest with dedicated positive proactive socialization and early positive training. Today, with the knowledge I’ve learned from Charlie, I would now boost that up to at least 80% or higher on the genetics side.
The Schultzs’ were concerned about allergies in the family and very much wanted a low allergenic breed. They wanted a labradoodle because Isaac had connected with a doodle.
For many of us who are animal professionals the word “labradoodle” makes us both smile and groan. They are absurdly cute and many of them make amazing pets and even assistance and therapy dogs. But, labradoodles are also notorious for having behavior issues like hyper excitability, high predatory drive, high arousal, over reactivity, general anxiety and separation anxiety.
As a veterinary professional I took serious grief from my colleagues when I flew to North Carolina and paid $2000 for my own doodle. I’d spent the previous 18 months learning about labradoodles and vetting breeders. River was named River to remind me to go with the flow of life instead of swimming up stream. River is now 6 years old and has lived up to his name. Therefore, I felt if we were choosing a labradoodle, we should use the same line and breeder River had come from. By far no guarantee, but at least an attempt at “stacking the deck” in our favor of getting an emotionally and mentally stable dog.
We tried to “stack the deck” in other ways.
Everything was fun! We positively and pro-actively socialized Charlie to as many situations we could think of during his critical socialization period.
Charlie was trained with positive methods using a marker signal (clicker training) and he loved training. I’m really excited in this video because he learned to raise his paw in the air in only 4 1 minute training sessions.
I think if I were to ask my son’s two service dogs what they would tell a puppy about the job of being a service dog they would both say it was fun, hard work and generally boring. On the other hand, there are many moments in a service dog’s life that are without a doubt stressful. The human world where most dogs don’t go – hospitals, movie theaters and schools, etc. are filled with stress; tails can get run over by grocery carts, alarms suddenly go off, cars honk their horns and general human chaos ensues on a fairly regular basis. Any assistance dog must have a very sound temperament. They can’t have even mild fear or anixety issues because the stress of the human world will “inflame” those issues for the dog.
This is a interesting video clip when Charlie was 8 weeks old. He is afraid of the metal food bowl. He wants the food in the bowl but is afraid of the metal, that is why he backs up and goes forward, turning his head side to side (those are called “conflict behaviors”). Charlie never did get over his anxiety toward the food bowl, even after training him to eat from a ceramic bowl that we gradually moved closer and closer to the metal bowl. As I look back now, I think this may have been the first sign that Charlie had mild anxiety issues but what was more foreshadowing was his lack of rebound. Rebound means that the puppy can startle over something new or slightly frightening in the environment but then “rebound” and investigate or get past the scary event – this is a MUST in all assistance dogs!
When Charlie was around 14 weeks old he saw a bag floating in the air while we were on a walk. He wanted to chase and grab it. That is not an abnormal behavior for a puppy but the problem was the intensity of his desire to chase the bag. Not even a treat held at the end of his nose was better than trying to chase the flying bag. Even after we’d walked away he couldn’t forget about it and continued to look in that direction. This is something we, in the dog world, refer to as “prey drive” and is basically the desire to chase things. Although we can modify “prey drive” by teaching the dog to do something else it is my opinion that it is impossible and unfair to attempt to completely eliminate prey drive in dogs. It would be comparable to asking a beagle to not sniff. It is better to give a prey driven dog the appropriately outlet for his chasing behavior.
Prey drive isn’t something that is appropriate in an assistance dog. Squirrels can’t be more important than the person the assistance dog is helping.
Another problem I began seeing was Charlie’s inability to get past something that “bothered” him emotionally. For example in the photo below Charlie can’t get his mind off the person in the dark coat in the distance (circled in red). In the other photo Charlie sees himself in a mirror at the grocery store. In this situation he would bark and it would be very difficult for me to redirect him to do something else.
When Charlie was around 16 weeks old I started seeing anxiety and over arousal issues begin toward sounds. It first began with the sound of a dog barking. When he heard a bark he reacted by barking back in a high pitched bark, almost screaming. Sometimes he would climb on my back while I was working and bark in my face. There was no way of comforting him because I wasn’t always sure what he was reacting to.
It felt like when we took a step forward another issue would pop up. I remember telling Krista over and over, “It shouldn’t be this hard.” I worked through many of Charlie’s issues using behavior modification and for a time anti-anxiety medication with the hope his anxiety was developmental (therefore would go away with support).
When Charlie turned 6 months old something happened that helped me make my final decision.
In this video clip, a bottle has fallen off my desk, startling Charlie (it fell across the room from him) making only a small noise. This barking continued until I removed him from the office and put him outside with the other dogs.
It was at this point I knew Charlie could not be Isaac’s service dog. Charlie’s barking made it impossible for him to even be a pet for Isaac. Charlie preferred spending his days playing with our 3 dogs and those were the days he seemed the least stressed. I agonized over this decision but in the end it was very obvious I was making the right decision for both Isaac and Charlie, but that didn’t mean it hurt any less.
I’d spent the las 5 months with this puppy 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. He was almost always with me and never far from my mind. Krista struggled with the decision – it is part of the grief process. She kept Charlie for a night and they were quickly able to see the anxiety issues I’d been seeing. Although this still didn’t make the grief process any easier for any of us, it was clear the decision that needed to be made. We adults struggled and cried while surprisingly, the kids handled the decision very well. Isaac knew he couldn’t tolerate Charlie’s barking.
Charlie (most of the time), Charles (when he was running threw the house with a shoe in his mouth), Chuck (when I kissed him on the nose and cut the hair away from his eyes) was meant to be Isaac’s custom designed service dog trained specifically for Isaac’s needs but Genetics had other ideas.
The decision made was that Charlie should return to his breeder. I was certain Charlie would make an amazing companion for a family preferably without children because of his his high prey drive (although I suspect he would likely be ok with older kids) and most definatelly with another dog in the household. I offered to help with any of his anxiety issues (if they continued) and very much wanted to stay in touch with Charlie’s new family. I was told by the breeder that he was going to a wonderful home but I know nothing more. That has been the most agonizing part of this for me. I miss him and I don’t know how he is. I don’t know how he is being treated. I want to know he is loved.
Is it a failure? If Charlie and his new parents are happy then it was not a failure for Charlie. But, what about Isaac? I’ve still failed to give him what I promised – my job isn’t done. Until Isaac has a dog that he can reach out to in the night to help him sleep, a dog that plays fetch with him, a dog that he can talk to about elevators all day long, a dog that he can introduce to people in public my job isn’t done. There is much more to come – stay tuned.
With much love,
Footnote: You will notice I use both terms “assistance” dog and “service” dog. “Assistance” dog is an umbrella term that service, hearing, seizure alert, etc. dogs fall under.