Can I Train My Dog to Be an Assistance Dog?
Some of you might know that one of my very good friends and mentors is Natalie Ramm, the head trainer at Mobility dogs. I’ve spent years learning from her and while training an assistance dog team is never something I set out to do, the opportunity kinda fell into my lap when I had a client with health concerns.
When I met Rachel she had just adopted a dog called Libby. And because Rachel’s health challenges made walks challenging, I suggested that she help Libby become a better dog by teaching her some tasks around the home. It would not only give Libby a purpose and help her exercise her body and mind but having a dog who could help her would also help Rachel out with tasks she found difficult. Libby was not a suitable candidate as a certified assistance dog and at the time I didn’t even know that NZ owners could train their own dogs as their assistance dogs.
Anyway, long story short, Libby crossed the Rainbow Bridge. I was looking for detection dog prospects for my other friend and mentor Guus Knopers (got a ball mad dog making your life hell who’s under 3? He’ll take your dog! But for political reasons he can’t take bully breeds) when Ruby came to stay for the day so I could assess her suitability as a detection dog. It was immediately apparent that she was not going to be the world’s best detection dog, but she was so sweet, I immediately thought that Ruby would be a great match for Rachel and she could even pass certification – and she almost looked identical to Libby!
What Sort of Dog is Ideally Suited?
Ok, so let’s look at what dogs are commonly used as assistance dogs, and why. Firstly the dog needs to have a biddable nature (that means that they’d love to do what you ask because you asked it and won’t be “stubborn”), and be happy go lucky in almost any situation. It mustn’t chase cats or be highly prey driven (that’s the instinct to chase balls and cats). The most common breeds selected for this work is Golden Retrievers and Labradors because they’re generally biddable happy-go-lucky dogs.
A dog with a stubborn nature or one who is fearful isn’t going to be a good candidate for the work, not without some serious extra training, and most owners haven’t got the skills necessary to pull such dogs through, so it’s best to pass up on these dogs. Even experienced trainers won’t take on these dogs to train them as assistance dogs. The work involved, and the type of training these dogs need might take too long or the dog might need a stronger owner than most people with disabilities can be. So, these dogs are often left as pets or given other tasks better suited to their nature.
An assistance dog is almost a unicorn dog. They’re happy being handled by anyone, without being worried about children, men, car rides, strange noises or anything else for that matter. If you ask them to sit, they do so without question. And they would rather run away than bite. Remember assistance dogs need to cope in our confusing, scary world. So the term often used to describe horses: “bombproof” is a fitting description of what an assistance dog needs to be.
Any dog who bites or threatens to bite is not suitable as an assistance dog. A dog who threatens to bite or resorts to biting is not suitable as an assistance dog. An assistance dog also cannot refuse to do a task. An assistance dog is really a unicorn dog.
What Training is Involved?
There’s a lot of training involved that goes into a successful assistance dog. Of course, firstly there’s no such thing as a perfect dog. And even if you found a dog as close to perfect as possible, you’ll still need to teach them how to navigate things like supermarket entrances (with those funny one way things), walking past the meat section (without getting distracted), malls, underground carparks, walking next to a wheelchair, using lifts and so much more things that your average dog would never need to experience.
So once your dog is OK with all that, you’ll also need to teach your dog specific tasks. The tasks you teach your dog needs to be tasks that you need a dog for. Like taking items from shelves, picking up things you’ve dropped, alerting you when your heartrate gets over a certain beats per minute. You can also get your dog to do things like deep pressure therapy, finding your medicine and more. You can even teach your dog to get help in case you faint if that is a common challenge with your condition.
Teaching your dog the different tasks is of course the fun part – or at least it is for me. But you can’t have a dog who can perform every task but barks at children, nips at men and freaks out when someone stands up all of a sudden. An assistance dog also needs to be able to relax and lie down or sit, because ultimately assistance dogs need to be seen and not heard.
Why Assistance Dogs Need to be Impeccably Behaved
There is a very good reason why assistance dogs need to be exceptionally well behaved. Firstly, they’re out in public and the perception of dogs by many are that they’re dirty, slobbery and dangerous. A lot of people are scared of dogs too. And so for assistance dogs to be welcomed by society requires them to be impeccably behaved.
In NZ we only have a few organisations who certify assistance dogs, like guide dogs, mobility dogs, assistance dogs and so forth. And there’s only one organisation that is prepared to certify owner trained dogs, and that is Perfect Partners. The thing is though that they cannot certify just any dog, they don’t want to have a reputation of certifying “pets-with-privileges” it’s not what we should aim for in NZ because assistance dogs have a job to do. And the quality of that work needs to stay high.
The other thing to keep in mind is that it is a privilege for people with disabilities to have dogs to help them, like guide dogs, mobility assistance dogs and so forth, is not a guaranteed right. If one dog causes trouble, this negatively affects every single organisation. If dogs cause trouble Internal Affairs can take away this privilege at any time. So all the organisations who certify dogs to assist people with disabilities have a responsibility
But How Can You Teach Your Dog to Help You at Home?
I’ve put together online classes to help you learn how to train your dog the skills they need to be able to assist you around your home. You can check out my class Cool Dog Skills (Learn How to teach your dog almost anything)! And the skills you’ll learn here is designed to teach you the necessary skills that you’ll need to have a dog who can help you at home.
Why can I write a blog like this? Because not only did Rachel and Ruby get certified through Perfect Partners but they were an exemplary team. That was not by accident, I was trained well by my mentors. So, while I don’t specialise in assistance dog training, I have helped a team, not only achieve their certification but exceed the expectation of an owner trained assistance dog.
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