Sunday, July 31, 2022

Independently Training Your Service Dog


I have a page on this site filled with SD Tips with links to the laws involving Service Dogs (SD) and various training.  For this blog I want to focus more on some of the personal experiences and hardships that happen when you are disabled enough to need a Service Dog yet want to do the daily care and training yourself.  If you follow any of my social media pages & groups, you'd know that I speak with lots of other SD Handlers around the world and I see many of the same struggles over and over.

Self Doubt

One of the biggest challenges is often getting past the personal struggle of doubting if a Service Dog is really needed.  For years the thought was you had to be blind or in a wheelchair to qualify for your dog.  It seems that it's only been common to use a SD for other disabilities for the last 5-10 yrs.  In fact the Federal Law that covers Service Dogs and defines what a disability means in order to qualify for a SD, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), was signed into law 32 years ago.  It often takes a very long time for a person to admit that they are disabled enough to benefit from the use of a SD in day to day life.  Often times the individual lacks support from 1 or more family members that makes them have self doubt all the more.  Then the interactions with the general public any time you leave the house with your SD adds to this self doubt yet again.  I struggled with this really hard for about a year and still every now and then if I've been having a run of good health I wonder if I really need Azul with me everywhere.

Daily Care

In my opinion, starting with a young puppy is the best way to ensure success in training a Service Dog.  However, many disabled people (including myself) struggle with being able to care for a young pup and adolescent dog that is not yet fully trained.  Costs for routine care are often more then an individual can afford.  A dog has to have certain needs met before you can train them to do anything; food, water, shelter, going out to potty, exercise, enrichment activities, mental all adds up as far as financial cost and physical energy of the main caretaker.  

The puppy sleeping arrangements of needing to potty every few hours causing lack of sleep is just the beginning.  Then setting up a daily routine that meets your puppy's needs and allows you to get your day to day life activities accomplished can be quite challenging.  Then puppy grows up to become an adolescent which throws even more challenges in fitting everything into one day.  With my first SD, I made the mistake of giving her tons of exercise and keeping her busy because I thought that was what was needed.  Unfortunately that creates a dog that NEEDS to keep busy and much of SD life is being calm and doing nothing.  With Azul I started calming behaviors and settling down routines from the very beginning.  We also visited tons of new environments to simply sit there and do nothing.  I get asked all the time if Azul is a typical hyper Husky and my answer is always, "Nope, he's the calmest dog I've ever met!"

Now that Azul is mostly an adult, his needs for day to day activity are much less then when he was younger, but he still has physical needs that are sometimes hard for me to achieve on bad health days, especially when I have a month like this July where every single day is a bad health day.  There are days where all we've been able to do is play flirt pole for 2 short bursts of 5 minutes at different points of the day.  Azul does fine with this for a day or two, but after some time he needs to go explore and sniff whether I feel like it or not.

Training Challenges

The first major challenge in training is that you either train too little or too much or don't realize what training is most important.  There are tons of professional dog trainers out there who can teach you the basic concepts to force free training which is a never ending journey as there is always another way to apply something or problem solve for your struggles.  Then there are several SD Trainers that will guide new handlers attempting to train a SD.  (This is also goes back to financial issues and how much you can afford to spend on learning.)  With all of these professionals and dog training being an unregulated field, it can be hard to weed out the good trainers from the bad.  Often, we need to have more then one dog training professional in our contact list to accomplish all our goals.

Learning more about dog training brings about another challenge that many disabled individuals struggle with and that is cognitive issues due to brain injury, auto-immune diseases, and other traumas.  This challenge often becomes the one that is nearly possible to overcome simply because you can't find a way to take the information your trying to learn and apply it to your dog.  The phrase, "Easier said then done!" comes to mind here.  As someone who has brain fog, challenges with finding the right words, and a horrible memory, this is has been a huge hurdle.  Again this is why it helps to have a large network in the dog training world to help you when your overlooking something or can't figure out what your missing.

Often people search for that one template or training plan that works for them with their dog and that simply doesn't exist because every person is a unique individual and so is every dog.  Andrew Hale from Dog Centered Care is always referring to this as an individual's Emotional Truth.  When it comes to past experiences no two people are the same, so if you begin to look at the emotional journey that you undertake when training your own SD you can only go on YOUR emotional truth.  

Training also brings about a whole other level of self doubt when we get exhausted or frustrated with ourselves feeling like we are letting our dog down.  This can come from feeling like we are not training enough due to physical abilities or having other complications like not being able to drive to the location we'd like to do training in.  Feeling frustrated and helpless can then cause further health issues and send us into a spiral we can't seem to get out of.

As a Trainer, Behavior Consultant, and Canine Coach let me just say that the easiest way to get across all the training hurdles is to find a professional or mentor (or a few) that share your training style and that you are totally comfortable communicating with.  You need to be able to let this trainer see your best work and your worst days and feel comforted by the fact they want to support you without judgement.  If you're still searching for your support network, consider joining my Working Paws Facebook group which is filled with lots of knowledgeable and supportive people.

We all face challenges in day to day life, but getting over these 3 common challenges have made a huge difference in who I am as an individual, as a trainer, and as a mentor!  

My August Theme of the Month will be "Train Smarter, Not Harder!" and is going to involve lots of simple shaping exercises and environmental processing.  Here is to hoping August is a much better month then July!

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