This week we’re going to feature what, in my opinion, could rightfully be called the “Kings” and “Queens” of the dog world: service dogs. To be clear, I’ll be talking about those dogs that are trained to help people with disabilities, as compared to those dogs trained to help our emergency or armed forces.
It wasn’t that long ago that the only disability that dogs were trained for was blindness. Nowadays the scope of their help covers other areas as well such as:
• Deafness or being hard of hearing
• Being wheelchair bound
• Children with autism
• People suffering from PTSD
• People suffering from epileptic seizures
• People suffering from diabetes
To get to the required level of training, all service dogs trained at a recognized service dog organization will experience a very scheduled lifestyle along these lines:
• At 8 weeks of age, the puppy will be placed with a foster family for a period of 12-16 months. During this time, the puppy will accompany the family everywhere they go to help socialize the puppy and get the puppy used to a vast array of different noises and smells. It is also during this time that puppy learns basic obedience skills, housebreaking and the meaning of boundaries. The development of the puppy is monitored throughout by the organization, which will determine if the puppy will move onto more advanced training or be dropped from the program.
• At 14-18 months of age, assuming the puppy has “made the grade” during fostering, it will be returned to the organization for one-on-one training with professional trainers. Temperament and aptitude have been assessed and the training for a specific disability begins. Depending on the intelligence of the dog and the disability being trained for, the puppy will spend 6-12 months every day with the professional trainer.
• At 24-30 months of age the dog will be placed with a client. Before a dog is placed, a lot of background work is carried out to match the temperament and size of the client to that of the dog.
The recognized service dog organizations are very protective of the gene pool out of which the puppies are born as they want to be able to replicate those characteristics that have worked well for them over a number of generations.
So how do these dogs provide such amazing service to their clients? Through months of hard work and repetition of specific acts, the dogs get to know what is required of them and the action(s) needed if certain events happen. With disabilities such as caring for people with PTSD, epileptic seizures or diabetes, people have zoned in on the dogs’ amazing sense of smell, teaching the dogs not only to recognize a change in the client’s body chemistry (smell) directly before an attack but then what action to take to protect the client.
The average working life of a service dog is approximately 8 years, after which they can retire and bask in the glory of knowing they have added immeasurable value to someone’s life. God bless them all!