There are three mistakes that owner-trainers of assistance dogs commonly make when training their own service dogs for public access.
A. Not Setting Aside or Fundraising Enough Money before they start the process.
While owner training can be cheaper than program trained dogs, especially if you happen to be a professional trainer, the training ends up costing more that the person thinks. It is a good idea to have $3000-$6000 set aside before you start so you are not under the pressure which causes you stress or have to delay training while you fundraise more money. The lower end would be for starting with an adult dog, the higher end with a puppy.
Parts of Training Not Often Considered that Cost Money:
1. Time to make a realistic plan with the guidance of a knowledgeable service dog trainer, tailered for their specific needs.
2. Owner-trainers are not likely to have the knowledge of training dogs to take the dog to a high enough level to be reliable for public access. That costs money to learn whether it's online or inperson coaching.
3. Getting guidance from a trainer privately or even in semi-private sesssions isn't cheap. Rates vary from $40 to $150 per hour, depending on where they are.
4. Group classes help the dog to learn to work with them despite the distraction of other people and dogs. Plan for at least 4 setsof 6 classes over 2 years for a pup.
5. Testing for progress. Tests such as the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test, the Urban Citizen Dog etc are great indicators of what you need to work on. They typically cost $25 each.
6. Speciaized training such as scent training for diabetic alerts, gluton alerts, and other task training.
7. Access to locations and transportation for specialized public access training. Costs for arranging and reserving use of specialized services need to be covered by the owners.
8. Serious behavioral problems arise that the owner need professional help to solve. This can cost much money!
9. Independent testing for public access is key to prove that your dog demonstrates the required safe controlled behavior in public. Some juridictions require standardized testing provided by province or country. This may cost $200 plus transportation to the tester or to bring the tester to you.
10. Purchase price of the dog.
When the handler runs out of money, the training stalls and the dog is left in limbo. This may happen during critical socialization and fear periods, in adolescence and during public access and task training. This will set the dog back in training and can signicantly slow the training process.
Click here to see Part B
Caroline Mitter has kindly allowed me to share this post with you about the process of becomming a team with her dog.
"I've been thinking about Cricket, including our recent outings and the status of the minor issues we've been working on, and I've made a decision that is largely symbolic in CA but emotionally important.
Look, ma, no training tags!
Like Rani Aguirre, he's in the owner-trained service dog graduating class of summer 2017. I have sometimes referred to him as my service dog before now and he has met the ADA requirements for some time, but I've kept an "in training" patch on his work harness because I felt that there were some minor things that we needed to iron out and I wanted to be able to use the "in training" tags to remind everyone, especially myself, that he wasn't perfect.
He's still not perfect, he sometimes loses track of his neuron in group class, and we're still adding more tasks. However, he has really matured over the last few months and shown me that he is on point when it really matters. He can work without any reward besides my attention, pick up his leash and hand it to me instead of taking advantage under distracting conditions, and switch from play mode to work mode at the park if I need him. Despite his playfulness while off duty, he has been barked at and even charged by another dog in public with no reaction. He has worked some LONG days and nights in stressful situations, such as the UCDMC ER, and handled himself with aplomb on a recent trip to a friend's farm, complete with goats, chickens, and an overly friendly pony.
He and I have gotten better at communicating with each other and I understand now that when he's restless, it's not a lack of training, it's that he has a need that hasn't been met or he's trying to tell me that *I* need to take care of myself. I've gotten to where I hesitate to leave the house without him. We'll keep working on keeping track of that neuron in group class and adding more tasks. Now that the weather is getting more reasonable outside and I have a bit more energy, I'm hoping to work more on tracking and preparation for other dog sports.
It's been a bit over 3 years since I first brought up the idea of getting a service dog with my mentors and family, which started with researching programs, deciding I would train a dog myself, and finding a breeder who was having a litter, then 2 years of puppy raising and training. It's not been a fast, cheap, or easy process by any means. I'm incredibly grateful to all those who have supported us along the way and who continue support our growth and development as a team - Linda Barter as matchmaker and puppy raising mentor; Kim Wurster as breeder of the best dog ever; Nancy Haverstock Abplanalp and Donna Hill as our primary professional training support; Sandra Walther as public access training buddy; Christy Corp-Minamiji and clan as second family who gave him stability when I was in the hospital for weeks; the UCD vet behavior team (I think Michelle Borchardt was the first one who told me I could do it); my online training mentors in crime, I mean, um, um (Patty Aguirre, Cheryl Bloom, Karen Johnson Lawrence, Jo Butler, Carol Hall, Micha Michlewicz, Lynn Shrove and many more); my family, who financially backed this questionable startup and took him on countless walks and dog park trips; all of the local people who helped socialize and puppy sit him; and of course his entire online fan club, who made me laugh and supported me when I was feeling down about training and life in general.
What Are the Best Learning Environments for Your Puppy?
Start in a familiar environment (at home with familiar people). Choose the basic skills you need your puppy to know. Don't flood him with too many behaviors.
One person teaches him one skill at a time.
Teach the basic behavior (either by capturing, luring or shaping). Wait to add the hand cue until the puppy is clear on what the final behavior is.
Take him to at least 4 more rooms in the house and reteach the behavior from the start. This helps him to learn exactly what the behavior is and what cues you use for him to know what you are asking (they might be your body position relative to him, a prop you might use, a hand signal, and lastly the verbal cues you might use.) Most dogs learn body language easiest as that is how they communicate with other dogs. Each room will have different distractions. The more behaviors you teach and the more locations, the faster the pup will relearn them. This is calling 'learning to generalize".
Next add some distractions like you clapping hands, turning around, placing treats on a nearby surface, and cue him to do the behavior. Start with low-level distractions and progress to higher level distractions. Progress to doing jumping jacks, jogging by him as you cue him etc. Get family members to help add distractions incrementally. Give them specific instructions of what you want them to do,
Next, start generalizing the behaviors to other slightly more distracting environments out of the home: the deck, back yard, front yard, driveway, sidewalk, park etc. Before you start each session though, give your puppy time to explore the new space. That will help him get the sniffies out of his system and to get comfortable in the environment before you start reteaching him.
Now it's time to think about adding the presence of strangers, other known dogs, swings swinging etc. Ask neighbors and friends to come over for puppy training sessions. Retrain the behaviors with them watching, then adding mild distractions.
Now the pup is ready for puppy class. Choose one that has a clear structure and does not offer free-for-all play sessions. The point of classes is to teach your puppy to work with you in the presence of the distractions. Get permission from the instructor to bring your puppy into the environment to sniff around before the other puppies arrive. That way he will be comfortable in the environment before the other puppies arrive. This is called "acclimating".
Take the class and participate with your puppy as she can do. You will find that she is already far ahead of other pups in class as the foundation for learning has been laid.
Once the classes are over, continue training more complex behaviors at home, then away from home as before.
Then sign up for adolescent classes and advanced distraction classes. Each time, your pup will be exposed to new dogs and people in class. Ideally, find different location to take classes.
Then start to work on behaviors in more public places where you have previously taken the puppy when you were socializing her as a small pup (up to 16 weeks). This lays the foundation for public access later on.
How to Use the Clicker to Shape my Dog's Behavior
Your job is to find out what food or toy rewards are meaningful enough to your dog to make him want to play the game with you. And training really is a game to the dogs and you too!
Psychologist Skinner called the tiny steps in developing a new behavior “successive approximation” and he was right! If you reward really simple behaviors that are part of a more complex behavior, you can get the dog to change that behavior little by little into the more complex final behavior. The dog is “approximating” a behavior at first. Today we call this "'shaping".
Shaping a Behavior
If we first asked your dog to shut the door and just waited for the behavior to happen, we would be waiting a long time. So that method doesn’t work for this complex behavior. But by asking the dog to do a tiny bit of the behavior (touching the nose to the door), we now have the dog doing something that will lead to closing the door.
Next, we ask for a harder touch (as this will be needed to shut the door). Next, we can open the door a crack and ask him to push it closed. If he does not, we can get the dog to increase the behavior by simply waiting. Your dog will likely offer another touch, giving an extra hard push (as if to say, “Hey! Did you see that?”) and you click as he does so. If you reward him with a couple of treats, most dogs remember this and are more likely to do that same harder push again.
Practice at that level for a few clicks, then ask for a little more by opening the door slightly wider. And so on until the behavior is complete.
Have a look at the video to see how shaping is used to teach a dog to close a door.
A Written Plan
It is very helpful if you have a written plan of what the shaping might look like before you start training a task. Start by brainstorming: at the bottom of the page, write down the final behavior you want, then at the top, write down the first behavior you would think your dog might offer you. Most behaviors start with a sniff or a look in the right direction, the progress to a nose touch, paw or other foot movement etc.
Try to figure out what the steps would look like in between to get you there. Number them if it helps. You dog may not follow your plan, but at least you will have an idea of where to go with what he does offer you. If you get stuck, break each step down into 4 more micro steps. Make it as easy for him to take each small step as you can as this is how you can quickly progress to the more complex final behavior.
Jessie learned the basic idea of how to close a door in about 30 minutes of actual training time when she was about a year old. We had not done much shaping before this so it was new to her. I was cooking her treats on the BBQ and needed to take frequent breaks to check the meat. This was perfect as it gave her a chance to wander off and sniff, then she was eager to come back and try again. Perhaps she was processing the information she was learning.
For some dogs, shaping occurs quite quickly, while for others (especially the first few shaping exercises you do) each step may need to be broken down even simpler. The more experience a dog has with shaping, the more quickly the final behavior is offered. Now at almost 2 years, Jessie can move through a shaped exercise quite quickly and has the final behavior accomplished in record time (for her).
For practice before trying to teach your dog to shut the door, try shaping a firm nose touch to a piece of tape on your hand. Then try moving the tape to the door. Your pointing finger becomes a target to help the dog to learn that you him/her to touch the tape.
What Else Can I Do with Shaping?
Now that you know how to shape, the world is your oyster! You can train your dog to do anything! Start with simple behaviors and progress to more complex ones. Starting with Object-based shaping where your dog interacts with a physical object such as a target, book, chair, box etc is much easier than non-object based shaping like swinging into a heel position or giving you eye contact in distracting environments.
Choosing a Breed or breed mix for a Service Dog
How do I choose a large breed dog for my needs? I was considering German Shepherd Dogs but have been advised against them for many reasons. I need a dog that is sensitive to me as I have anxiety.
The key thing about any breed of dog is to choose one that matches your lifestyle. If a dog doesn't fit into your life, it won't work overall.
Another thing to look at is what specific tasks are you hoping the dog will do for you. Obviously, the dog will need to be able to physically do the tasks and you want to choose one that can be sensitive enough to be connected.
Any of the gun dog breeds generally could do well as they are sensitive and love to work with their person. A Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Short-Hair Pointer, Hungarian Vizsla or Brittany might be a few breeds to look at. A Standard Poodle might be another dog that is sensitive but level-headed.
One thing to be aware of is that in many breeds, there is a difference between the hunting lines and the conformation lines. Look at the specific lines they come from and what they have been bred to do and what titles they have. Hunting lines alone tend to need more exercise than those from conformation lines. A great example of this is the Golden Retreiver. There are field lines can be very high energy dogs who need much daily exercise, and then there are conformation Goldens like the dog off "Homeward Bound, The Incredible Journey" with Michael J Fox who are more laid back for both exercise and temperament. I've had two of the latter and they were wonderful family pets and made great therapy dogs as they loved people and were sensitive to their moods.
Another thing to consider is to look at how the general public views the breed. This dog will be at your side in public and will affect how the public, managers, and co-workers interact with you. A friend of mine noticed that people were much more friendly, helpful and tolerant of her needs when she retired her Belgian Malinois and got a yellow labrador. She felt they were uncomfortable with the Malinois as it was a protection breed. He was actually a very people social dog but people's perspectives do affect their interactions. If you get an unusual breed, you will be stopped frequently to be asked "What kind of dog is that?" which you may or may not be comfortable or have time to do.
Go meet the actual breeds!
Go to dog shows and meet breeders of your chosen breeds. Talk to them, interact with the adult dogs.
Find out if they possess the characteristics you need in a service dog and if you could live with the general nature, grooming needs, exercise etc of the breed. What are the pros, cones and health issues of the breed for your specific needs?
Find average people who live with the breed and talk to them. Arrange to see the dogs at home and away from home. Check out dogs at dog parks and talk to the people who accompany them. Observe how attuned to their person they are. Find out what the person likes and dislikes about the breed and their specific dog. Even within breed lines, each individual dog can vary quite a bit in his or her attentiveness, sensitivity, awareness etc. so choosing a breed doesn't ensure that you will get the dog you are hoping for. It comes down the individual choice of the pup. Check out a previous post on temperament tests of young adult dogs and puppies.
Allow yourself at least 6 months to find a pup or adult dog. Allow longer if you live in an area with lower numbers of breeds or dogs in general.
A BIG TIP:
If at all possible, go to see the adult dogs you will be getting a puppy from. Breeders interpretations of what you are looking for and what you actually get may be very different things.Their definition of 'sensitive' or 'low exercise needs' may not be the same as yours. If you see the adult dogs in real life, you can judge for yourself if you can live with the characteristics their lines have in them. Just because a breeder has had a few dogs trained and used as service dogs does not mean they actually understand your specific needs (especially since there is such a wide variety of types of service dogs) or can select a pup for you without ever meeting you. Since you are going to be investing so much time, money and energy in this pup, it is wise to arrange a visit with the parents, even if it costs you money on travel and an overnight stay or even a flight. Basically, this may limit you to pups that are within a days drive but at the very least, start there. Shipping a pup during the fear period can set her way back in confidence and socialization. Ideally, if you can go get her and bring her home, you can start the bond on the journey home.
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