A recent trend is for owner trainers to train their own Anxiety Alert Dogs. I have seen several issues appear in the training process that has to do with the environment the dog is raised in that concerns me and raises the question about the best way to train an anxiety alert dog. The problem seems to arise when the handlers start with a puppy and the dog has only limited access to other people who don't have anxiety issues.
Anxiety alert dogs, like all service dogs, need to have a solid bombproof temperament but also need to be sensitive enough to detect and respond to anxiety attacks. Not only do they respond to physical behaviors of the person, but there is also a thought that they may be able to detect high levels of cortisol much as a diabetic alert dog detects high levels of sugar. A dog that is too calm will not likely respond to the anxiety attack. A dog that is too sensitive has a good chance to become overly sensitized and actually become anxious himself. By the time a dog is 18 months to 2 years old, most dogs have passed through the fear periods and the temperament you see is what you will have later on in his working life.
The concern seems to arise when a puppy is raised by a person with severe environmental anxieties because there is a strong emotional component in the dog's social environment that can affect the dog's success.
Both genetics and the environment play important roles in the development of a dog (as they do a person). Starting with a dog with great genetics (health and temperament) is no guarantee the dog will turn out how you want her. Those genes respond to the social, emotional and physical environments the dog finds herself in while growing and maturing. At what point in life altering events occur in the dog's life can be important. A dog that lives in uncertainty at home during fear periods makes it harder for them to proceed through and bounce back once the fear period is over. A dog that has stability in his environment is likely do better. It is events in the environment that turns genes on and off.
If a pup is living in a stressful environment right from the start, cortisol levels will be chronically high and that can lead to reactivity issues, and can put the dog at risk for long term diseases like cancers and autoimmune diseases like allergies.
A highly anxious person raising their own anxiety service pup:
- may create a home environment that is too stressful for the pup
- risks having a pup unable to learn what is normal vs what is stressful if the handler is chronically stressed
- may not be able to go out on their own to train (for socialization and distraction training)
- who does not have a strong support system is not likely able to continue socializing and training the pup through these crucial periods
Here are some questions to consider before choosing to start with a puppy:
What type of anxiety do you have and to what level?
Will it interfere with your ability to train your dog to public access level? In what ways?
What will the pup's living situation be? Will you be the only one responsible for the pup?
What barriers are you up against?
Will these be realistically overcome (best to get someone else's opinion outside of the family on this as the people involved tend to either minimize or blow up the issues depending on where they are in getting a dog and in particular what living with a service dog might change their lifestyle (good and bad).)
Do you live alone?
Do you have a support system? List who they are and what they will do to help you with training your dog. (family, friends, caregivers, dog walkers, in person trainers, online support etc)
Do they actually like dogs? Do they have the extra time and energy to help?
Who exactly will be responsible for taking the pup for socialization and training when you are unable to do it?
Are these people emotionally balanced enough to offset the environmental effect of your anxieties on your pup?
What other responsibilities do you already have?
What other responsibilities do your caregivers already have besides the pup?
Do you live an extreme lifestyle? (excesses of anything-high stress in your job, high stress at home; driving long hours, dealing with a with a child with physical or psychological issues, dealing with another reactive dog in the house, dealing with a spouse or family member with drug or alcohol issues? etc.)
Are you on high doses of medication that affects your emotions and behavior?
Can you confidently go out to do socialization in public, and public access preparation and training?
If they answer to any of these is maybe, then you will want to seriously consider getting an adult dog as your service dog candidate. Most dogs are not emotionally mature until about 2 years of age. At that time, a dog's temperament can better be measured.
Here are Some Alternative Ideas:
- Have a friend or family member raise the dog for you. Make sure they use training approach that fits with your philosophy. (nearby accessible location is important for regular access to the dog to develop a relationship especially as the dog nears maturity and working age)
- Learn to train the dog under the support of an experienced positive reinforcement trainer. The dog is still living with someone else. This limited access will minimize the negative social impacts on the dog.
- Have a trainer train the dog. Board and train situations do exist. Do your homework on the trainer and his philosophies. At present there are very few 'Board and Train' positive trainers.
- Find an adult dog that has been returned to a quality breeder or that is being retired from conformation or breeding.
- Purchase a trained dog.
- Get a program dog. There are many new programs training PTSD dogs for veterans.
- Get an adult program dog that has been pulled from a see eye guide dog program (so long as the issues do not affect what you need the dog for)
Dogs are not immune to the social atmosphere they live in. As social animals, sensitive dogs in particular, will be sensitive to the emotional chaos and inconsistencies in life. In many cases, it is best if the dog is raised and trained in a more neutral emotional environment. It gives the dog time to mature and normalize. The dog will then be able to read you better when you are having your lows and alert to and help you overcome anxiety.