We get a LOT of calls about service dogs.
A LOT. As in, upwards of twenty a day.
So, why aren’t we full up to the brim with people, and a waiting list ten miles long?
Because 99% of the people inquiring about service dogs don’t know what it takes to produce one, maintain one, and own one.
This is the heavy hitter. It’s not readily apparent, but a service dog is life-changing. Some of those changes are extremely positive, as the dog does its tasks, and life saving in some instances. Some are just changes, that can be uncomfortable – public attention when you’re travelling anywhere with your service dog, Having to house and feed a dog. Having to maintain its training – which includes sometimes radical reassessments of life philosophy as well as some pretty significant lifestyle changes. If you don’t commit to these things, then you end up with a very expensive pet.
There’s also a huge commitment on the part of the service dog organization – when you contact us about a service dog and say that you are going to commit to one, immediately we begin networking to find the right dog for you, juggling logistics to figure out which trainer can take the dog, fosters for the dog, a training plan for the dog, how to raise immediate funds to secure this dog for you, working with rescues, individuals, shelters out of state, trainers out of state, establishing alliances with breeders and professionals across thousands of miles to get you your dog – basically there is a massive upheaval of effort initially to work towards your dog, even before you ever see it. This process requires thousands of man-hours and quite a bit of money to even begin.
Speaking of which, there is a huge time commitment. Not only do our trainers field thousands of hours of inquiry calls, plus the time to find, vet, obtain, and place in a foster a dog, there’s the time of training. A reputable trainer working full time as a trainer (and our SD trainers work part-time out of financial necessity) takes about three weeks per task to establish that task in the dog’s learning repetoire, and then another month or two proofing that task in all environments (though proofing usually cycles through all tasks).
This is somewhat variable – for example, a hearing dog alerting on a weather radio, cell phone, and home phone will take three weeks for the first, two weeks for the second, and a week for the last because those tasks are very similar – but they are still seperate tasks. When you’re talking about very difficult tasks that a dog doesn’t have a lot of innate skill in – force fetch for example – it can take a month to truly establish that skill on the dog in any meaningful and useful way. Some dogs also pick things up faster than others, or slower, depending on their personality and background.
In addition to that is proofing the dog’s temperament and obedience, which must be absolutely stellar. It can take up to a year on a young untrained dog to have their obedience truly rock-solid and their public access smooth. Our organization manages to expedite this by preferentially choosing dogs that are mature (or close to it) so that we don’t have to start them as puppies (another year if we start with a puppy), but that also means we must fix any minimal hangups that they come with.
Training doesn’t stop after the service dog comes home. This is the part that’s very difficult for some – a service dog is a working dog. They aren’t a pet – that means they don’t get to do whatever they want, dig holes in the yard, pee on the side of the couch, and play fetch with abandon – they have a job to do. This means they must be treated differently than a pet – as in no affection from strangers or even people outside of the service dog’s person, strict discipline in terms of completing tasks (the dog cannot decide it doesn’t want to work one day), which can include corrections, something that a lot of people cannot stand to do to any dog. A service dog cannot be allowed to mess up, people’s lives and livelihoods ride on those dogs.
In fact, a bad service dog is in a lot of ways more than just a very expensive pet, they’re a direct threat and liability to their service dog candidate – and sometimes they are downright dangerous.
It is guaranteed that if training and discipline is not maintained on a service dog, they will eventually quit working for you at best, and become a liability to you at worst. The training isn’t difficult to maintain, but it is challenging because you have to take an active, strong position with your service dog, and learn to handle dogs very well. Just like any professional animal handler like a military working dog handler or police dog handler, you rely on your dog to work well and must learn and enforce that training throughout the dog’s lifetime. You must become a professional service dog handler.
It takes resources to be able to afford to turn out service dogs. Whether those resources are from donations or from service dog candidates, to be able to continue doing this, it does cost. None of the service dog trainers I know are independently wealthy enough to be able to train these dogs and give them out for free – trust me, we would if we could. Often, to be able to serve more people, service dog trainers try to work full time at this or are able to work part time only, thus putting all of their resources into dog training. Those (like me) that work full time often put all funds received back into training more dogs.
That being said, there are a lot of predatory organizations out there who will take a lot of money from you, and not offer you the time, training, and commitment that a reputable organization will. All of these things covary together – the more time, the more training, the more commitment, the more money. If there’s an imbalance in that equation, WATCH OUT.
And it costs just as much, if not more, to self-train a service dog, though many people choose to do that. The turnaround rate on a self-trained dog is a lot longer simply because self-trainers are by and large not as experienced. There are a lot of bumps in the road that you may have to go back and find professional help to deal with, and if the training of a service dog is incomplete or insufficient, they again become an expensive pet or a direct liability.
So. Before you decide that a service dog is for you, understand that these are the things you will have to be onboard with, heart and soul. It’s a journey that you will never forget, and the dog that you produce will be there working with you, living for you, and always be an asset and a friend. But it doesn’t happen through magic, and service dog organizations rely on your commitment and effort to make this work.
For a really good memoir about a young man’s experience with his guide dog, please read “Through Gilly’s Eyes”. It’s honest, fair, and open about the growth and journey of first having a service dog obtained through a traditional guide dog program.
One of the current trends in dog-owning culture is that of thinking of dogs as “children” or “babies”, exemplified by terms like “furbaby” and “Pet parent”. Frequently, anthropomorphism is vilified, particularly in behaviorist circles as being unfair to a dog, as being flawed as a method of understanding behavior. Often the same people who vilify anthropomorphism in a behaviorist context engage in that same flavor of anthropomorphism that leads them to swearing off using any force with a dog, refusing to use crates, and always attempting to avoid all stress for their dogs, an infantalizing of their dogs.
After all – people in this mindset do not treat their dogs like their children, of course not. You’d never let your child deface your property without consequence, even very young children. You’d never take all responsibility and accomplishment away from your child in the name of protecting them. You would certainly never spend all of your time petting and praising your child for doing absolutely nothing. You would be clear to a child, decisive, teaching them the rules of life and how to navigate social environments. If a child was violent, you’d never just accept it and try to isolate the child away from any stressful, triggering situations – at least I should hope the parent would attempt to find help for the kid.
Dogs aren’t treated like children. Dogs are treated like babies.
A mature dog has about the mental capacity of a two or three year old kid – and two and three year old kid is generally going through the process of being potty trained, going to preschool, learning how to speak effectively and to use polite communication to navigate the world. Children at this age are allowed to help with household tasks (though how effective they are is questionable) and take responsibility for certain areas of their life and behavior. Additionally, about certain things the three-year-old-kid comparison isn’t even sufficient, because adult dogs are very mature in their physical capacity and in certain ways that they interact with the world, and particularly in their emotional maturity they are “older”.
Just as it’s disastrous to infantalize young children, It’s equally disastrous to infantalize a dog.
Dogs, like toddlers, want to know very clearly what rules are, to be provided with predictable structure, and also given plenty of responsibilities (within their capability, which if you remember that dogs are very physically capable can be quite challenging things). It’s fulfilling to have responsibilities, tasks, and rules, and means that a dog gets a lot more freedom and quality of life when you provide these things, much how a well behaved toddler can go to a lot more places with its parents than a screaming hooligan.
Restricting a dog by treating it like an infant means never providing it with rules and expectations, never teaching it how the world works, never having any goals for that dog. By coddling and protecting and isolating a dog from stress, strange things, or learning experiences that are sometimes unpleasant, you’re doing the dog no favor. When this happens, the dog’s world shrinks and keeps shrinking as they become more confused, more anxious, sometimes more aggressive.
As infants grow into children, good parents expect more of them, and take the time to teach and guide their children. Dog owners often never do.
Knowing as I do what dogs are capable of if you do take the time to give them that structure, training, and expectations, it’s insulting to see people who treat their dogs like mental deficients, like helpless babies. It’s a squandering of that potential, a disrespectful and sometimes intentional ignorance of what a dog can become and what is best for them, all in the name of selfish, codependent emotional gratification on the part of the owner.
Dog owners don’t have “furbabies”, they have dogs. We have a responsibility to dogs to give them the guidance they need to become the fulfilled, sufficient, thinking beings they deserve to be.
I think that part of every dog’s training should be a gentle regimen of Dog Annoyance.
What is Dog Annoyance, you say?
Just that – doing things that are just very slightly uncomfortable to your dog, just a little odd, in order to expand their horizons and their ability to tolerate uncomfortable and weird things. When you take your dog with you everywhere (like I do) they are inevitably going to end up in some odd situations. They’re going to meet odd people. And making the odd normal is something that I would argue is essential to the welfare of every dog.
I’m not a fan of bubble-boy dogs that are managed heavily because their owners don’t want them to ever feel a moment of discomfort or alarm – I think that dealing with a certain amount of weirdness and discomfort is normal, and it is negligence on the part of a trainer not to equip their dog with the ability to handle that.
That being said, dog annoyance can also be HILARIOUS.
I think to a certain extent these sorts of exercises grant your dog a sense of humor about weirdness, too – after all Dax is smiling and happy even as he flops down the hallways in his platypus gloves.
Even more, I think that exposing your dog to little bits of weirdness, and then resolving them – making sure that you “check under the bed for monsters” and assuring them that there really is nothing to fear – really strengthens your dog’s trust in you, and assures them that even when the going gets tough, their person will take care of it.
And that is really invaluable.
You’ve seen it.
The internet arguments. The hateful, judgement filled ripostes over obscure matters of philosophy, breeding ethics, training, dog food.
The in-person arguments, accusatory fingers pointing at prong collars, red faces, spittle flying, pausing just a breath before catfights and hair pulling.
The people dressing their dogs up in humiliating costumes (well, I’ll admit to that one), talking about their “furbabies” verus their “skinbabies” and that it’s “all in how they’re raised” and the ubiquitous pitbulls-in-tutus and squeaky juvenile voices. Don’t shop, adopt!
And the dogs. The money. The time. The extremely tacky dog-themed clothing and jewelry.
For some, it’s a calling, for some, it’s a passion – for some they’re just NUCKING FUTS.
Why? Why is dog “culture” so full of crazy people?
I have a few hypotheses. I figure that I weigh in about a 3/10 on the Scale of Crazy Dog People, for these reasons:
– I spend money on my dogs. Not a lot of money because I just don’t make that much. But if I made more, it would be more. (And yes, some of it is on tacky dog themed jewelry and accessories. I qualify.)
– I train dogs. This takes up a lot of time, in the order of 15 to 20 hours a week extra on top of working full time.
– However, I do not get into constant internet arguments with people over the validity of various training methods/ breeding practices/ feeding practices because frankly, I don’t really care what other people think.
– I don’t refer to my dogs as “furbabies” and myself as their “guardian” and I do not think that I “rescued” them.
– I don’t care if people buy dogs or rescue them, I’m simply enough of a libertarian that I want them off my ideological lawn about what I do with my own dogs.
But there are a lot of people who do care. A lot.
I’ve thought about why for a while, and I’ve come up with a few speculative reasons.
1) Tribalism. Everybody wants some self-identity. Are you a balanced trainer? You are part of one club. A force-free trainer? Part of another. Raw-feeding? Border collies? Herding? Agility? Rescues? Show breeders? These clubs can become more than clubs, but more like religions. Woe betide anybody from outside the religion who tries to question the tenants of that religion – prepare to be mobbed and burned at the stake as a heretic. This seems to be part of human nature that has been adapted towards dogs.
2) Munchausen’s by Proxy. This is a actually a mental disorder through which somebody diagnoses another person (usually a child) with a myriad of different diseases and disorders, drags them around to different specialists and doctors, essentially to get pity and attention from other people. Sound familiar? This problem seems to occur most in training circles (Oh, poopsie is DANGEROUSLY aggressive! But I don’t actually want to solve the problem because then I’d lose this thing that gets me attention and sympathy) and in rescue circles (Oh! Poopsie was a victim of terrible, terrible ABOOSE! Let me tell you about this purported abuse in long, graphic detail!).
3) Moral Balancing. This is a phenomenon by which people do Something That Is Good, and so feel justified in doing Other Things that Are Bad, as if their previous moral investment was savings in the bank that they can spend by being dicks. For example, because you rescue dogs, you feel justified in treating people like total crap. This is seen extremely frequently in all circles – dog people just do not treat people well, especially if they have a very strong, ethical position on something – say, rescue, or aversive free training.
4) Dogs cannot say no. Dogs are entirely dependent on us. They can’t pack their bags and leave – so if you’re a douchebag, and you’ve alienated all of the people in your life because of your moral balancing and tribalism, the dog’s still there. They may not like you very much (and trust me, I’ve seen plently of dogs that didn’t like their person) but they can’t say anything about it with words. And that’s good enough. They are, ultimately, our captives if we choose to use them as looking-glasses, as ego-boosters, as justifications for our crazy. If we choose to infantalize them, allow them to become obese, allow them to be aggressive, allow them to be unhappy, unfulfilled, and use them ruthlessly for our own narrative, they can’t protest. They can’t hold us to a standard of behavior, of cleanliness, of reason. They are ultimately voiceless, and ripe for a person to layer over their own thoughts, ethics, hangups, and stories on.
And that, I think, is the most important reason that so very many crazy people get into dogs. Because dogs are a social creature, and so are we, and we need that. But they can’t give us negative feedback about shitty behavior, and so have to sit mum as they are toted around as symbols for a cause, or examples of “human atrocities”, or used for an angle, or political wrangling, or moral retribution on another group. Even if they try to protest with their teeth, or just their eyes, that too can be turned to support somebody’s narrative, or the dog can be quietly disappeared.
So stop and think next time you’re using your dog as an extension of your ego. We all do it, a little – through competitions, through training. It can be an innocent thing. But always make sure you’re keeping your dog’s welfare prime in your mind, because they cannot speak for themselves, even to save themselves from you.
An Ode To Mutts
the sacred ring
and offend the pedigree’d
For mutts achieve
their looks from a
forbidden, classless love
outside the tight grip
of human codependence
And wilder, more
whose great grandfather
was a bootlegger of chickens
wily enough not
to get shot
Mutts live with
their genetic secrets close
to their chests
playing cards that you
guess by trying everything
they defy your
of what is proper behavior
for THAT kind of dog.
They are like ourselves
In that we don’t know what
They, or we, are good for
But the journey is what
For they poop
on manicured lawns
outside the show grounds
for one reason
Mutts are punk as fuck
-Jessica Cargill, ©2013
Oftentimes in dog training, I tell owners to speak and act like Bob Ross, because their dog needs to have clear, easy, gentle, unexcited communication.
Bob Ross could have easily been a dog trainer.
“Hi, I’m Bob Ross, and for the next 13 weeks, I’ll be your dog trainer. I think all of us at some time in our life, have wanted to train their dogs. There’s a dog trainer hid in the bottom of every single one of us. Here we’ll show you to bring that dog trainer out, because you too, can train Almighty dogs. Some of us have been told we have to attend Animal Behavior College for half your life, be blessed like Cesear Milan to train a dog. We’re here to show you that’s not true.”
“Each week, we’ll use the same treats and same equipment, so if you have your leash and collar next week, you’ll be ready to start along with us.”
Remember – Dog trainers all started out not knowing how to train dogs. They learned through apprenticeship, trial and error and experience, their skills. Some of them might have been gifted with grace and good proprioception and timing that made learning to train dogs easier, but none of them are superhuman. It’s putting in the time that makes you good.
You may not be interested in becoming a professional dog trainer, but if you are working with somebody, they should never act like it’s some mystical set of skills that are impossible to master. They should be willing – and happy – to show you how to train, because there’s no secret formula. Just like Bob Ross.
Your training might not make a picture quite as pretty as your instructor’s, but it’s progress.
And when you’re getting frustrated working with clients, or if you are a dog owner and you’re frustrated working with your dog, just remember – Bob Ross taught millions of random, unknown people how to paint a picture, and even if none of them were masterpieces, it still worked.
So when you’re really frustrated, and nothing is working, just sit back. Paint some happy trees.