by Natalie Bridger Watson
People who are training their own service dogs are under an extraordinary amount of pressure from day one.
In addition to the baseline difficulties caused by our disabilities, we have also taken responsibility for the two-year process of painstakingly transforming a tiny infant mammal of another species into a reliable medical device. One which we will then depend on to literally save our lives for the next decade.
So, let’s acknowledge the obvious: That is an incredibly high bar.
And sometimes we get a little bit carried away in our enthusiasm.
It’s almost always their first service-dog training gig. They have waited months or years to get their prospect. They’ve done all their research. They’ve watched the videos, they’ve talked to other handlers, they’ve found a corner of the service dog community where they feel comfortable.
After all that learning and waiting, they have counted down the minutes until their prospect will come home. It’s going to be them and their dog against the world, partners for life.
Most of the time, they’re not a professional dog trainer, but they’ve done enough work with the family’s dog that they’re confident in their training skills. And besides, they have resources to reach out to if they run into trouble. They can’t wait to start this new adventure.
The puppy comes home, and he is perfect. Not merely perfect, but transcendent, sublime, world-shatteringly wonderful in every possible way. He is overflowing with potential. His puppy breath smells like hope.
And the owner-trainer dives into training with a gusto. Finally, time to act on those carefully laid plans! The puppy learns sit, down, stay, shake, roll over, take a bow, spin! He excels in his obedience classes. He is a wonder. His owner’s confidence blooms with every new success – and at this point, it’s all success. After all, this is the perfect puppy!
A couple weeks into their intensive training, the owner has a medical crisis, because the owner is disabled and that is a thing that happens on the regular. That’s why the puppy is here.
And it so happens that the puppy does a puppy thing before or during the crisis. Did he just do a medical alert? A natural alert? By jove, I believe it was! It must have been!
The owner-trainer is equal parts astounded and relieved. They are on the right track! This “training your own service dog” thing might be possible after all with a puppy this perfect.
So, they push the puppy a little bit further and a little bit faster – after all, the puppy is succeeding left, right and center. They put him into intensive training. He can handle it. He is a miracle on four legs, a furry Einstein.
The team starts practising in public early — really early. Puppy knows ten tasks by the time he’s six months old and he naturally alerts to every disability ever. The team is doing eight hours of training towards public access accreditation every day without breaking a sweat. Other dogs may need to take it slow and work on their foundations at this age, but this puppy is a prodigy. He can handle anything.
…. Until he can’t.
When starting a new service dog project, it’s normal to feel a sickening combination of ambitious and terrified. By this point in the journey, we’ve already had it carved into our brain that there are only two possible outcomes: utter perfection or screaming catastrophe.
We know that it is our solemn duty to protect the honor of other SD teams everywhere by being unimpeachably, unquestionably perfect at all hours of the day. We know that anything less than that is grievous injury to the reputation of the service dog community and a shame upon our people.
Now let that anxiety simmer for months or years in the unfortunate toxic soup of subtle one-upmanship and humble-bragging that absolutely permeates the online service dog community.
It’s no surprise that every new prospect leaves us teetering on the fine line between optimism and sheer panic.
The tragedy of the perfect puppy prodigy is that, despite their early promise, they often fail to live up to their own potential. Many struggle more than they needed to, and many others wash out of training entirely.
And they don’t wash out because they have some hidden flaw that doomed them from the start. They wash out because their handler becomes so fixated on getting to the finish line fast that they rush forward on a shaky foundation.
Service dog training involves a lot of pressure on both the handler and the dog. That’s why we have such high criteria for our service dog program eligibility.
And under pressure, shaky foundations collapse.
There is an adage in the dog training community that “slow is fast and fast is slow,” meaning that it is often faster in the long run to be thorough with your foundations in the beginning. That holds doubly true for service dog training or any type of intensive working dog training where burnout is a serious risk.
I suggest you read that paragraph again. And again.
Lock it into your heart as deeply as you’ve internalized all that talk about perfection and upholding the reputation of the service dog community, because it is every bit as important. Slow is fast and fast is slow. Digest the idea. Hold onto it. Write it on the cover of that notebook where you keep the training plans for your perfect future puppy.
If you want perfection when you are training your own service dog, then the best way to achieve that is to earn it by training slowly and building on a solid foundation.
Let the puppy learn puppy things. Focus on quality, not quantity, in your socialization plan. Support your dog’s changing brain through adolescence and expect to hit some temporary setbacks. Evaluate your progress regularly and shore up your weak points instead of exclusively improving on your strengths. Remember that you are building a functional partner, not racing toward a finish line.
The best service dog programs in the USA very consistently wait to place dogs until they are 18-24 months old. This is not an accident or a coincidence. It is hubris, pure and simple, to think that a first-time owner-trainer is going to have a reliable, proofed, stable, public-access-ready dog in half the time it takes someone who does this for a living, working with the best resources available.
When clients contact me with stories about their perfect puppy, I am cautious. When friends assure me that their adolescent dogs have a dozen tasks under their belt already, I don’t get excited — I get worried.
Because perfect puppies tend to burn out.
Training Your Own Service Dog? Choose Slow, Not Perfect.
We all want to believe we have the perfect prodigy puppy who was literally born for this job. We need as much help as we can get — if we didn’t need help, we wouldn’t be owner-training a service dog in the first place. And with the amount of pressure that we’re under to be perfect in every circumstance, it sometimes feels like a magical puppy is what it would take to succeed at all.
The uncomfortable reality is that the perfect puppy does not exist.
There are, however, many adequate puppies who can be shaped into service dogs with effort, skill and patience.
The critical ingredient is time.
Natalie Bridger Watson CPDT-KA is a
- Positive reinforcement dog trainer
- An advocate for deaf dogs and reactive dogs
- A service dog handler
- And the author of “Level Up Your Dog Training: How to Teach Your Dog Anything (Some Assembly Required)”
She is based in Jacksonville, North Carolina