Steps to Training a Service Dog

Owen and Hatchi’s Story was an instant attraction, which built Owen’s self-confidence. Even though Hatchi was not a professionally trained service dog, he fulfilled Owen’s needs. While I understand there are amazing benefits from having a pet companion, I’m also impressed by the trained service dogs which perform tasks such as, guide work for the blind and seizure or diabetic alert.

puppy_raiser_large_format_slideTwo years ago we were visiting Mark’s mom in Vancouver, Washington and met her neighbor, Mildred Bowen, who is a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).  She has raised five puppies since 2006 and became interested in doing so after retirement. She knew the dogs would give her an extra incentive to get out and walk.

YellowPupinBlackPawRaising a skilled canine companion starts with the breeding program. Using advanced technology, the breeding program meticulously selects and pairs dogs for breeding. Volunteers provide homes for the breeder dogs and whelp the puppies and at eight weeks old returns them to CCI’s national headquarters in Santa Rosa, California.

When the puppy passes a medical and temperament screening, he/she is moved on to the volunteer puppy raising program, which lasts about eighteen months. Millie says, “They teach them basic obedience skills such as heel, either right or left side, sit and wait. The dogs are trained to hold the command until they are verbally released or given another command.”

Additionally, Millie gets the dogs comfortable with being out in public, walking in traffic and going into stores. She starts out with a stroll through a small grocery store, then advances to the use of a shopping cart. As they get older with more experience she takes them into bigger warehouse stores such as Home Depot, Costco and the shopping mall. She teaches the dog to wait under the seat in a dressing room or while trying on shoes. The goal is to teach the dog to be well mannered and essentially unnoticed in public.

The dogs also go to medical appointments with her so they are accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells of a dentist or doctor’s office.  Introducing dogs to traveling on a train, bus or shuttle is an important part of their training, as well as taking them to the airport and even flying with them. The purpose of the volunteer puppy raising program is to introduce the dogs to many situations and to teach them to be well mannered in all conditions.

I research the website Canine Campanions for Independence, cci.org, to learn what happens next.

“After the puppy raiser returns the dog to Canine Companions, the dog attends a six-nine month training course with professional instructors at a Regional Training Center. The first two weeks, dogs are screened, undergoing x-rays and medical tests as well as tests to evaluate their temperaments. Some dogs are released at this point due to medical or temperament problems. The others continue into training.

First Semester
The first semester, which lasts three months, reviews and builds upon the basic obedience commands the dogs learned as puppies. It is during this semester that the dogs begin to work around the wheelchair and learn the retrieve command. Those that pass the first semester continue into their second semester of training.

Second Semester 
The second three-month semester finishes the commands the dogs will need to know such as pull, and light-switch. They learn over 40 commands and practice working in different environments. During training, the dogs are screened to see if they truly have what it takes to become a Canine Companions assistance dog. Those that do prepare for Team Training, where the dogs are paired with a recipient and both human and dog are trained to work together.

TeamTrainingBTeam Training
This two-week session teaches the recipients proper care and handling of the Canine Companion. After the training session and public access testing, they attend a graduation ceremony in which the puppy raiser passes the leash to the Graduate and the Graduate officially receives the Canine Companions assistance dog.

Follow-up
Canine Companions has a comprehensive follow-up program to ensure the ongoing success of its working teams.

Approximately six weeks after the conclusion of the two-week Team Training class, graduates return to Canine Companions for final testing, certification and fine tuning if needed. Throughout the working life of the dogs, graduates periodically return to campus with their dogs for workshops, seminars and reunions.

In addition, Canine Companions instructors remain in close touch with graduates on an on-going basis through correspondence, reports and by providing advice via telephone and email. Instructors also travel into the field to conduct workshops and to resolve specific training or behavioral problems in the graduate’s home and/or workplace environment.”

There’s a lot of work that goes into raising a service dog. My hat goes off to the volunteer puppy raisers and the professionals who train them to do marvelous things.

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