What could be more perfect than rescuing an abandoned dog and training it as a service animal? Sometimes the happy ending isn't the one you expected.
Imagine a partner willing to accompany you wherever you went ... someone who would actually enjoy bringing you a ringing phone, picking up dropped car keys ... someone you felt safe with when you ventured out ... who could even assist with your balance. A faithful partner ready and willing to help, 24 hours a day, with never a complaint. As my limb-girdle muscular dystrophy progressed, I became very interested in finding such a four-footed partner.
I'd read about people who trained their own canine assistants, usually dogs they adopted from shelters, and I liked the idea of rescuing a dog. While writing articles about service dog providers for the last couple of years, I read many books and training manuals, interviewed numerous authorities, and spent time with both trainers and recipients of service dogs. I absorbed all the information I could, but nothing would prepare me for the actual experience.
About three years ago, I began looking for potential adoptees at our local animal shelters, but none seemed to fit the bill. Knowing that the average wait for a trained dog is two to three years, I also applied with Canine Assistants, just outside of Atlanta, an agency that trains dogs and owners, in case I didn't find a dog on my own.
In spring 1998, I learned about a dog who'd been a Christmas gift for a youngster almost three years earlier and was called Christmas. A mix of golden retriever and yellow Labrador retriever, she soon grew into a 70-pound bundle of energy needing more room to romp than the owner's small apartment offered. By the time we met, she'd lived in two additional homes and her reputation wasn't the best. Her last owner had kept her on a short chain attached to a tree because she wouldn't stop digging up the neighbor's garden. At 21/2, she was about the age when most dogs become canine assistants. It sounded promising.
Anxious and excited, my husband, son and I piled into our van and headed to a nearby park to meet Christmas. I spotted her right away. Attached to a leash, she was dragging a woman behind her as they made their way through the small park. I didn't say anything but I could read my husband's eyes as they met mine. With trepidation, we pulled into a parking spot and made our way toward the spectacle.
Christmas was everything I required in a dog physically, and beautiful to boot. Although thin, she was obviously strong, making assistance with transfers and balance a good possibility. She was spayed and in good health, with a short coat for easy maintenance. We discussed her high energy, which I equated with her needing a job to do. My hope was that she'd transfer her mischievous behavior and energy into concentrating on performing a service.
She lay down on the grass and allowed me to gently turn her onto her back, a sign of passiveness. The final test was to hold her muzzle. Would she let me do this or, as aggressive dogs do, would she turn away? She stared with big brown eyes and never flinched. My husband, Michael, did the same, bringing his nose to hers.
"Are you a good dog, Christmas?" he asked. She raised her paw in response, wanting to shake. Sold! Our earlier impression disappeared in an instant.
Christmas celebrates Easter
Our "honeymoon period" turned out to be a mighty short one. The following evening, it was I who needed rescuing while Chris, as we called her, was doing just fine. It was the night before Easter Sunday and, having tucked our son into bed, Michael and I were hiding candy-filled plastic Easter eggs in the back yard.
"Why don't we have Chris join us for the walk through our woods?" I thought out loud. "Should we leash her? Will she run off?" Michael countered. "Naaaa ... it's 9 o'clock at night," I answered, "and besides, none of our dogs have ever run off."
Chris not only ran off, she beelined it like a wild animal at full throttle through our one-acre woods. Panic set in as I called for her as loudly as I could. The next two hours were a comedy of disaster as I chased her up and down our steep street on my three-wheeled power scooter, calling her name, while Michael jogged behind us, calling out my name.
When Chris had finally finished her run, she appeared in our driveway and amiably followed me inside. After drinking two big bowls of water she collapsed on the cool kitchen linoleum, happy as a lark, while I quietly crept into our dark bedroom. As I sneaked into bed, Michael whispered, "At least you've bonded."
A walk in the park
The next day a friend called and wanted to get together at Centennial Park in downtown Nashville so our dogs could meet. Pam was bringing along her 2-year-old granddaughter and Astro, a golden retriever she'd recently obtained through Canine Assistants. My son, Lee, Chris and I arrived first.
|Chris has learned to walk beside the author's scooter on a double lead.|
Settled on my freshly charged scooter, I took Chris' leash and not a second too soon. She leaped from my van, and the scooter tilted on one wheel as I rose into the air hanging onto the leash with my left hand and the van with the right. Once all wheels were back on the ground, we proceeded forward as curious picnickers looked on.
"We're in training," I said politely, explaining away my embarrassment as Chris pulled me along. I gave Chris her first lesson of "sit-stay" while we waited for Pam. Chris seemed familiar with the command but reluctant to follow it with all the distractions a busy park has to offer.
As I concentrated on Chris, Pam approached us from behind and Chris instantly lunged at Astro, about 20 feet away. There was no way on God's good earth I was going to let go of her leash. I held on with all my might yelling, "Chris, NO!," and then my scooter tipped over.
Still holding on, I was pulled off the seat and dragged behind "my" dog until she reached Astro, with her tail a-waggin'. Now I knew the definition of embarrassment. My face took the brunt of the fall, glasses broken, my nose and cheek scraped from the grass burns. Yeow!
Pam sat atop her scooter not knowing what to do, and a totally reserved Astro wondered what had just happened. Strangers raised my scooter and helped me get back up.
"Hey, Mom," Lee said, "at least you didn't let go!" His words became our anthem.
Forging a partnership
Next, I declared Chris to be my sole responsibility, as she should be. I would tend to her needs entirely.
At dog training centers, it's emphasized that the person to be assisted is the only one who should feed the dog or give commands. Providers argue that this is critical for the dog's lasting bond and devotion to you and you alone. I found this an impossible task in my household, yet Chris needed to realize two things — that I was the boss and that her job was to assist me.
|Though she flunked service dog training, Chris is a beloved family pet.|
Chris gradually found comfort and trust in me because I was the one who bathed, groomed and fed her. Most important, I walked her an hour each day for a month after her arrival. She followed me everywhere in the house or, when at rest, quickly learned to respond to my call. (Outside the house it was a different matter.)
Though Chris was learning that I was her partner, she wasn't ready to be taken into every situation nor did I want her to go everywhere with me, such as when I taught in schools. At times when I wasn't home, another family member had to assist with Chris. I placed Post-It notes with commands at the back door for those instances when she needed to go outside.
Our rule was that if Chris didn't obey the "sit-stay" command, for example, the back door didn't open. The same was true when she was about to exit my van. If she wasn't sitting in the midsection correctly (front paws not hanging over the back of the bench seat), I wouldn't open her door. It's a simple and effective method. Another option I use for long trips is to strap her into a doggie seat belt.
While most dog training books and programs provide basic knowledge about canine behavior, a service dog provider or a resource like the Delta Society can provide the specifics for training your dog as a canine assistant — a big difference. As a rule of thumb, expect your dog to take a good six months just learning basic obedience commands. You can expect another six months or more for your dog to acquire specialized tasks such as picking things up, retrieving selected items or opening doors — assuming you work with your dog on a daily basis.
Chris was learning. But we had a long way to go before she'd really be a service animal.
While I had early aspirations of Chris bringing up the laundry from our basement, I soon changed my tune and wished that she'd just pick up something I dropped. To achieve this, I acquainted her with a squeaky stuffed toy she enjoyed. When I dropped it and gave the command "pick it up," she learned that if she picked it up it would become hers. This gradually expanded to her placing it in my hand and eventually bringing it to me from elsewhere. When she brought her toy to me upon command, I would throw it and play ensued.
|Chris never mastered the skill of fetching what her person wanted, but she's a whiz at tugging.|
The most commonly used training incentives are praise, toys and treats. "Whatever it takes" was my motto. My intent was to teach Chris both to pick up dropped items for me and to retrieve specific things like remote controls, shoes, the newspaper or a cordless phone.
With a year of repetition Chris became a pro at these skills, with one exception: She would only pick up or retrieve her toys.
Whenever I dropped an item of mine and told her "pick it up," she'd look at me and sit, wagging her tail. The same held true for retrieving items. Chris was fantastic at distinguishing among her toys and bringing me exactly what I asked for — as long as it was her toy. There was no fun in it for her otherwise. I moved on to another lesson.
If you have sufficient arm strength, you can use either a long sock with knots tied in it or a common tug rope to teach your dog a useful skill. Chris loves to tug and it's still a game I frequently allow her to win.
She learned to bring me her tug rope in the mornings and "tug" me into an upright position. I also find this helpful when I lie on the bed to get dressed. Expanding on this, I attach her rope to a door or drawer and ask her to "tug it open." Sometimes she will, sometimes she won't, depending on how badly she wants to play "tug," I suppose.
Turning lights on and off can be a handy skill for your dog to have. Imagine yourself saying, "Fido, get the lights," as opposed to transferring into your wheelchair from bed in order to flip the light or ceiling fan switch. Following Canine Assistants' practice, I placed cheese or peanut butter on the light switch and she'd flip the switch while licking off the food. The dog is supposed to gradually realize that moving the switch turns lights on and off and then do it on command.
But not Chris. Without the food, she would check out the switch and then walk away. Maybe you'll have better luck.
On the road again
Chris was never allowed to run free outside but she needed to run off energy somehow. To combat this, I took her on Saturdays to a fenced-in four-acre community garden where she could run loose. She ran to her heart's content for three or four hours while I did some volunteer gardening, but when it came time to go, Chris refused to come. It took another hour of chasing her before she finally surrendered.
After a few episodes of that game I kept Chris on a 50-foot lead fastened to my scooter base. Gradually I let her have more lead, calling her to me at various times for practice. After a solid year, Chris learned to "come" without being on a lead but I believe it was also because she knew she was contained by the fence.
|A Halti Headcollar can help in training a dog to follow you.|
This accomplishment didn't help me much outside the garden or outside my home. If the weather was good and Chris got loose, forget about seeing her until morning. As frustrating as this was, it wasn't the worst thing to happen.
Chris, we learned, is not only a digger, she's a car chaser. In our first year together, Chris escaped from me probably a dozen times, practically thumbing her nose at me as I called for her. After my first few experiences chasing her around to no avail, I refused to go after her again. It took only about an hour of exploring before she became bored and turned her attention to car chasing.
I knew that, no matter what skills Chris might accomplish down the road, without my confidence and trust that she'd come when called, Chris could never become my service dog. When she squeaked free from her collar while I bathed her outdoors, or darted from our doorway, Chris was a liability. What if she caused an accident or took after a jogger or bicyclist, or got hit by a car?
We tried everything to be on alert when she might escape, and to catch her or make her return. But running away was a game she wouldn't give up.
My husband especially wanted Chris, whom he called Psycho Dog, gone. After a year he located a family moving to a farm in North Carolina who wanted to meet Chris as a possible pet for their children. But I couldn't abandon her or place her in a fourth home in four years, and Lee had become attached to her as well. While my hope for Chris' becoming my service dog dwindled, my love for her continued to grow. I had a real dilemma on my hands.
I spent hours reading chapters from titles like Dog Problems and No Bad Dogs. "Jerk back hard on the leash and shout 'NO!'" they recommended when she lunged after bicyclists or motorcyclists. "Tie a long, long rope to her collar and when she begins to chase a car, step on the rope. This will make her screech to a halt." Some of the books suggested having a friend drive by and shoot the chasing dog in the snout with white vinegar.
I didn't think any of the ideas would work for me. My arms were too weak for the jerking method. The long rope wouldn't impress Chris, and using friends to assist was too risky. Professional trainers said she had an attitude problem, and one offered to "observe" her for an hour for $75, then advise me as to how I could better work with her. Did I really need to pay him $75 so he could see her take off?
Fifteen months after her arrival, the Psycho Dog was a strong member of our family, although no closer to the definitive "service dog." Periodically, even Michael was warming up to her!
Over the months I think she'd begun to trust that we wouldn't abandon her as others had done. She learned to hop into my van unleashed when I commanded as well as to exit safely upon command. Sometimes she even chose not to take off when she had the chance. I gained confidence that Chris wouldn't leave me when "on duty" but part of this was because I still used the double lead most of the time.
Not all my recollections of training Chris are painful, frightening or difficult. Some have been downright comical. During the first month Chris would sneak up on the couch during the night. One night I placed a half dozen mousetraps under a newspaper on the couch cushions. About 2 a.m., we woke up to a "POP-POP-POP-POP-POP-POP!!" It only took two nights for her to get the message. The same technique worked for the trash cans.
It takes a tremendous amount of time and perseverance to train a service dog but it takes some muscle as well. After more than two years, Chris continues to lunge after flying insects and people on bikes or motorcycles, and she still pulls me around refusing to heel. I've tried several training aids such as the three-point harness, a spiked collar, the Happy Walker (which omits a loud piercing sound when she pulls on her lead) and the Halti Headcollar, similar to a horse harness. Still, Chris prefers to lead and have me follow.
Except for those few minor flaws, she's the perfect dog. She greets me every morning with her tug rope hanging out of her mouth and tail wagging. Then it's a day of fun and games, bringing her favorite toys to each of us so no one's left out. When we tire of her antics, she teases our older dog until it's time to help me tuck in our son for the night.
Chris has made several trips to MDA summer camp over the past two years. Young campers and visiting toddlers hug and pet her all day long and Chris couldn't be happier. When I take her to MDA fundraisers, meetings or speaking engagements, she's always a hit, shaking paw with countless new friends.
Chris has come a long way in overcoming her various problems associated with being a rescued dog. For better or worse, she's part of the family now and a bona fide pet. We decided to fence in about a quarter acre of our yard so I can open the front door to let Chris in and out without fear of her bolting into traffic.
If I had it to do over again I wouldn't take on an older dog, especially one with a history of neglect and abuse such as Chris had. I'd only consider trying to train my own dog again if the dog was six months old or younger.
The other factor to consider is your muscle weakness vs. the dog's size and strength. Being able to raise a knee to the chest of a jumping dog or having adequate arm strength to tug the lead to correct a dog learning to heel is a huge plus, if not essential.
However, I certainly don't regret my decision to adopt Chris and try to train her. Not every dog is destined to be a service dog and Chris makes a great pet. Some dogs, even the psycho ones, are simply meant to be enjoyed.
P.S.: This summer, I received a call from Canine Assistants saying it had acquired a sponsor with MilkBone (Nabisco) and the Food Lion grocery chain to train a custom service dog for my needs. I should receive my new canine helper next year, four years after my original inquiry.
Now that I've tried to train my own service dog, I understand why the wait is so long to acquire a trained dog. The task these providers take on is truly remarkable and, unlike training your own service dog, the risk for the dog recipient is none. Providers work with you indefinitely to ensure you have the right dog for you. Additionally, they'll retrain your dog to provide new assistance skills as your needs change over time.
Service dog training agencies often breed dogs for that purpose, and pups are repeatedly screened for suitability during their early training. The dogs undergo training for more than a year before a human partner with a disability is brought into the picture.
Susan Duncan, author of Joey Moses, a book about training her first service dog, notes that training your own dog "is a lot like having a 2-year-old child because you have to be diligent to monitor its behavior and limit undesirable responses." She warns that rescuing a dog from a shelter is always risky. "Even though a dog might be healthy and enjoy the work, there is still a possibility that it won't be temperamentally suited to service work." Constant re-evaluation of the dog's suitability, along with persistence, patience and knowledge of training techniques, are needed to create a reliable service dog. Duncan has done it twice, and others report success.
Mark Sumonka went a different route. A paramedic in the Air Force when he was accidentally shot in the head, he's now a triplegic. He acquired a service dog named Farley through a military program, AIM HI Service Dog Training Center.
"Dogs are reactive and emotional beings," Sumonka, of LaVergne, Tenn., said. "Having a range of emotion in your voice, a variation of tone, is a prerequisite for commanding your dog. Farley also craves physical attention so your ability to touch your dog, pet and groom him is important."
Farley, a huge, 95-pound mixed breed dog, has been working with Sumonka for three years.
"I cannot put into words the difference Farley has made in my life," Sumonka told me. "He's really taken a load off my wife as well. When I first got Farley, my wife was jealous because I spent so much time with him. Even now, I am the only one who feeds him, bathes him, grooms him, pets him, walks him and plays with him."
Sumonka admits that Farley sneaks affection from his four kids at times. To reinforce Farley's duty to Sumonka, the kids have another dog.
He adds, "Farley was amazing since the day I got him. He did so much for me but even more after he'd been around me for six months." Although the dog had been fully trained to pull Sumonka in his manual wheelchair, retrieve and pick up items, turn on lights and open or close doors, Sumonka expanded on Farley's skills without a hitch.
"Farley seems to instinctively know what I need. He brings me my leg braces, shoes, gloves, keys ... picks up dirty laundry from the floor."
Sumonka and Farley maintain their skills by practicing every day even though it's been three years. Farley will retire in another couple of years and I asked Sumonka if he would consider training his own dog next time.
Without hesitation, his answer was 'no.'
"The dogs you get from providers are screened over and over for everything from health to aggressiveness to skills. They're raised in loving foster homes and have a known history. They're highly trained and exposed to various circumstances by professionals."
With help from corporate and private sponsors, these dogs are provided at little or no cost to recipients. Even though their estimated cost runs upwards of $10,000 to $12,000 per dog, their value is priceless to people like Sumonka.
AIM HI (Animals in the Military Helping Individuals)
Paws with a Cause
Wolf Packs List of Service Dog Schools & Information
Assistance Animal Advocacy
Federal Policies on Access for Service Dogs
International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP)
Pro-Train Service Dog Training Course
Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior, by Roger Abrantes, Wakan Tanka
Dog Problems, by Carol Lea Benjamin, IDG Books
Dog Training Basics, by Miriam Fields-Babineau, Sterling Publications
The Dog's Mind, by Bruce Fogle, IDG Books
Joey Moses, by Susan Duncan, R.N., Storytellers Ink, or order from Delta Society
No Bad Dogs,by Barbara Woodhouse, Summit Books
Partners in Independence, by Ed & Toni Eames, Howell Book House
The Perfect Match, by Chris Walkowicz, IDG Books
Teamwork: A Dog Training Manual for People with Disabilities, by Stewart Nordensson and Lydia Kelley, Top Dog Publishing