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On Choosing a Service Dog Candidate

A few people have asked, here and elsewhere, “Why not just train Zille?” since my post on a possible service dog puppy. Zille thanks you for your faith in her abilities, but it’s kind of a complicated question to answer. It boils down to Zille lacking the self-confidence in some situations that I’d need in a Service Dog; for instance walking next to traffic REALLY creeps her out, no matter how many treats are involved. Which is fine for a pet dog, but if she’s being my Walking Cane then having her swerve into me and attempt to put me between her and traffic isn’t going to work out so well.

Probably the best candidate in the house is actually Beowulf, who is steady in any public situation that does not involve food and capable of spending hours keeled over on his side alternately sleeping and staring into space while contemplating the vast mysteries of the universe, but he’s also six years old which means that his service life would be pretty limited. And I’d still need to put a lot of training on him to use him as a full-time Walking Cane because right now if I take him into a restaurant he is going to have no problem resting his enormous head on a table next to someone’s plate (whose is not important, could be me, could be the people at the next table) and attempting to explain that he’s just starving.

And even if Tink didn’t have a myriad of health issues of her own which affect her joint stability, well, her temperament is not at all suited to service doggery since she firmly believes that wherever she goes, she should be the center of attention and also she has no intention of peacefully walking next to me at my pace while I use her to stabilize myself. She has places to go, things to do, people to see.

That being said, there are things the existing dogs can do for me and I plan to teach them to do those things in order to brush up on my own training skills before a potential service puppy sets foot in the house. Zille, for instance, can easily learn to pick up things I have dropped (so I don’t have to bend over) and to go and fetch things for me. Beowulf can be my Walking Cane in situations where he is not likely to bring disgrace and disrepute on the noble profession of Service Dog, or make things harder for other service dog teams who may need access to that place in the future.

Because that’s the thing about using a service dog, business owners are going to judge future teams who visit their premises from you and your dog. A Service Dog isn’t just a pet that’s really well-behaved, it’s an exceptional dog who can handle huge numbers of situations with dignity and aplomb, make safety decisions for its partner on the fly, and be as unobtrusive as, well, an actual inanimate cane would be. If a service dog screws up, that’s going to make it that much harder for other teams to access that space without hassle, as the business owner may not have a lot of experience with service dog teams, and may think the disruptive dog’s behavior is typical, or may just not feel like taking the chance. It’s illegal to deny access to a service dog team, but that doesn’t mean some people won’t try it and not every service dog handler is going to have the energy to argue with the person trying to deny access.

Hence my decision that none of my current dogs are really appropriate for full-time service work, and that I should start with a cane at the moment, when I only really need assistance part-time, and work towards a service dog who does a better job of fitting the bill. This doesn’t mean I don’t adore my dogs, but that I am realistic about their abilities and what will make them happy. Zille would be miserable encountering new situations every day, with new and strange sights and sounds. Beowulf would violate service dog behavioral standards by begging for food (and possibly attempting to mug people for love). Tink, well, I don’t call her La Diva Tinkerbella for nothing.

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Ponderings and Possibilities

I generally try to keep Teh Serious out of this blog. I mean, let us face it, there are any number of Serious Blogs out there where you can read about Serious Things. You can even read about Serious Animal Related things, and if you are looking for a blog that periodically does Serious Dog (and Other Animal) related things, I highly recommend For The Pitbulls over there on the right hand side of the page under “Blogroll.”

But I’m going to break pattern here to tell you that I’ve been having chronic pain issues for years now, and they finally got bad enough over the last year that I went to the trouble of finding a doctor who is knowledgeable and respectful and listens and the consensus is that I probably have fibromyalgia, which for those of you who are not familiar means I am tired a lot, I am in pain a lot, and periodically my brain is somewhere off in left field (probably because I am tired and in pain). I’m seriously pondering getting a cane because of the balance issues I have, especially when I’m tired.

I’m also VERY seriously pondering a puppy this spring. Yes, yes, I can hear you asking if I’m nuts. But this time around I am looking at a Working Dog Puppy, with an eye towards intensively training said puppy to become a Mobile Cane and All Around Mobility Assistant. It will take two years at least, because the dog will not be able to do weight-bearing tasks until his (or her) growth plates have totally fused and he (or she) has been X-rayed and verified as sound orthopedically. There is a possibility I will spend 2 years training said puppy and … have to wash the dog out of training. Which would suck.

But I have researched Service Dog programs here in Virginia, and the two that do service dogs for Wobbly But Ambulatory people will not place a service dog in a home with pet dogs. Well, that’s not going to work, since you can have my pet dogs when you pry my gun from my cold dead fingers. The one program I found that does NOT mention automatically disqualifying people with pet dogs does not do dogs for Wobbly But Ambulatory people, only people who use wheelchairs. Well, crap.

So anyway, there is the possibility of puppy come springtime. I have my eye on a couple litters of German Shepherds due this year, looking for a puppy who is bright, people-oriented, even-tempered, and confident. A puppy who wants to work with a people like Tink wants all the pillows on the futon for her own personal use. A puppy who sees strange things and thinks “Goodness, that is odd, I should ask my person what to do about this.” A puppy who will ignore all the people in the world who think they are freakin clever to meow, bark, and call to service dogs. I will also be talking to various professional dog trainers, because it is always useful to have some professional help with this kind of in-depth, complicated training.

Or maybe I’ll chicken out, because raising a puppy, let alone one you want to be skilled enough to handle public access, is a full-time job in and of itself. We shall see, gentle readers. But there is the possibility of vicarious puppy in your future, and I wanted to warn you in case you can’t handle the cute.