June 13 2012
There really is one place where you won’t hear the word “no”: It’s at the training sessions for service dogs.
Whether the dog’s job is to lead the blind or alert a person with diabetes that his/her blood sugar is low, the training is completely positive. This means no yelling, hitting or prong collars is allowed.
And, when they are puppies, it means a steady supply of treats.
“It’s really important that we not use pain in our training, because that creates a dog who’s scared of his job,” said Mary McNeight, director of training and behavior at the Service Dog Academy in Seattle. “And what we’re trying to create is a dog who can’t wait to do his job.”
This philosophy seems to be working. The Service Dog Academy in West Seattle, which offers the only “train your own diabetic-alert-dog program” in Washington state, has made exponential progress with its program. Not only has it successfully taught dogs of all ages to alert their owners of certain medical conditions, but it also trained the world’s first narcolepsy-alert dog.
This particular dog has made it possible for its 24-year-old owner to travel without fear of falling or getting in a car crash because of unexpectedly falling sleep.
The trainers use the Pavlovian-response technique for all of their medical-alert dogs. The idea is that if you ring a bell each time you feed a dog, eventually the dog will drool just from hearing the bell. The trainers take this method, and the fact that dogs have an extremely sensitive nose, to teach them to alert their owner to specific medical emergencies.
Medical-alert dogs are usually Labradors, golden retrievers or poodles, though any breed of dog without a “pushed-in” nose (which can impair its ability to smell) would be suitable, McNeight said.
McNeight said two of the best things about her program are that the medical-alert
All About Pets!
training is completely free and the organization doesn’t make people wait for years before they finally get a dog.
“Our program is taking the $20,000 price tag off of a diabetic-alert dog and allowing people to use their own pet dog to train for service work,” McNeight said.
But that’s not to say it’s not a huge commitment. The people and the dogs must devote eight weeks to classes and work on their own for at least 30 minutes a day.
And, of course, taking away the hefty price has made the business side of the Service Dog Academy much more difficult. Needless to say, McNeight hasn’t seen a paycheck in a while.
Although it has the same positive overtones and lengthy time commitment, the methodology for dog training through the organization Guide Dogs for the Blind differs greatly.
Most importantly, medical-alert dogs can
be trained at any age, while guide dogs must begin training when they are a mere 10 weeks old. This is because guide dogs not only need to master a plethora of commands (including “do your business,” which is the command to use the bathroom), but also learn how to make decisions on their own when leading a person who is blind.
“If someone, for example, is crossing the street and there’s a car coming, but they don’t hear it, they think it’s OK to cross,” said Kokie Adams, a puppy “raiser” in Green Lake for Guide Dogs for the Blind. “So they go to cross, and the dog has to disobey their command to go forward. They call that ‘intelligent disobedience.’”
About 90 of the dogs used as guide dogs are Labradors, but only yellow and black ones, officials say, because brown labs have different personalities from the other two). They also use mixes of golden retriever because they are even-tempered and more willing to obey their owners, Adams said.
Adams and her daughter, Rockee, have just started training their second puppy to be a guide dog. Aaron, a black lab, is only a couple months old and arrived at their house by way of an air-conditioned puppy truck from Guide Dogs for the Blind’s headquarters in California.
When he is 16 months old, Adams and Rockee will put him back on the puppy truck so that he can move on to further training to become a guide dog. But until that time, they must take him just about everywhere they go, including to work each day at Adams’ law firm, and teach him commands ranging from “sit” and “stay” to “go to bed.”
Adams explained that, on average, about 60 percent of these dogs make it through all of the steps of training to become a guide dog. If they do make it through, they will be placed with a blind person who, based on a survey for both dog and person, looks to be a good match. If the dog doesn’t, it will be categorized as a career-change dog.
“If there are certain behaviors that they’re showing that they can’t seem to work through, then they can be career-change dogs,” said Adams. “This means they are available for adoption. Sometimes they’ll be considered to be a companion to a blind child or a search-and-rescue dog or a therapy dog.”
Guide Dogs for the Blind had 2,196 “Active Guide Dog teams” in North America last year, according to its website, with nearly 11,000 graduates and 141 puppy-raising club, including the one in Seattle for which Adams volunteers to train guide dogs. The Seattle group has raised about 140 dogs with its 40 to 50 members, said leader Heidi Hespelt.
Although Adams and her daughter both agree that it will be extremely difficult putting Aaron back on that truck in a year, her daughter said it’s not the most difficult part.
“The hardest part is not letting him sleep on your bed,” Rockee said.