Monday, September 29, 2014

Cinder's New Job and Service Dogs

     Last week, I posted on Facebook that Cinder’s been exhibiting a new set of behaviors I want to foster.  I am profoundly deaf without my hearing aids and remain well below the normal hearing range with them. In fact, one evening last spring, while I was showering, Cinder absconded with one of my less than nine month old hearing aids and chewed it to unrecognizable bits.  Luckily, my hearing aids came with an incredible one year warranty/replacement policy and the $4500 hearing aid was replaced a few weeks later!  That escapade makes her among the most expensive Border Collie puppies ever!  However, maybe she’s decided she should make up for it by learning to help me around the house by alerting me to sounds I can’t hear.  This week I've been having a hard time sleeping and decided I should use my flashing alarm clock in case I didn't wake up in time for work.  Usually I don’t need my alarm clock-we’re up by 4:30-5:30 every morning without alarms. I've awakened well before the alarm each morning. Since I don’t usually set an alarm, I've forgotten to shut it off each morning.  Each morning, the alarm went off while was in the living room, drinking coffee and watching the news. Cinder began racing between me in the living room and the bedroom.  Each time when I've followed to see what she was trying to tell me, I've gone with her to the bedroom and she’s jumped on the bed, looked at the flashing, beeping alarm; and yipped at it, then looked at me.  That’s exactly the behavior of a Hearing Service Dog trained to alert someone to a noise-get the person’s attention and alert them to the noise and its cause by taking them to it.  Hence I posted on Facebook that perhaps Cinder’s behavior indicates a talent which I had not considered-to help alert me to noises and alarms around the house as my Hearing Dog.  ***Please note that I am not in any way intending to claim her to be a working, registered Service Dog, but more like a personal home helper Hearing Dog.  Real Service Dogs are intensively trained and registered.
     In response to my Facebook post, I've had several inquiries about my experience with a Hearing Dog or Service Dogs and information about Service Dogs.  This is my response, and I apologize for the delay:

     Yes, I've had a couple of Hearing Dogs. My last one was actually also raised and trained by me, my son, and canine behaviorist friends at Purdue University while I was an adult student there.  We trained a variety of Service Dogs of different breeds, ages, and goals.  I acquired my last Hearing Dog as an eight week old puppy from a friend who gave him to me as a gift for that purpose.  Normally people do NOT acquire and train their own Service Dogs so this was all by special circumstances and my association with behaviorists specializing in Service Dog training and research on different aspects of things that pertain to training quality Service Dogs.  I also happened to be one of the only people my behaviorist friends knew personally who had dog training experience and also needed a Hearing Dog.  My puppy became part of the program and study as my Hearing Dog.  He never retired - cancer took him at eight years old.  He was a Pembroke Welsh Corgi and the dog for whom my current Border Collie, Gilley, filled the void in my heart.  Gilley was never supposed to be a Service Dog for me-just my new “BFF.”  As it turns out, Gilley’s equally as intelligent, special and helpful to me – but not as a Service Dog.

      Qualities desired in a Service Dog vary. The most basic qualities are a dog with a pleasant and unflappable personality, possessing good health, confidence, stamina, intelligence, desire to please, and the likelihood of a good “work ethic.”  Other qualities are also required, but those are the basics.  Other qualities desired are generally characteristics that relate to specific Service Dog types and duties.  You don’t want to use a Chihuahua as a Guide Dog because they’re too small, but they may make excellent Seizure Alert Dogs.  When it comes to Service Dogs, there is no singular suitable breed because there are so many different jobs for Service Dogs and so many dogs that can fit the need.  Many programs make a point to use rescue puppies and young adult dogs too.  By using rescues, they achieve meeting program goals while saving dogs’ lives. 

     Service Dog puppies are generally raised by breeders and foster families who specialize in raising puppies intended for Service Dog work. Many Service Dog programs have a list of “approved puppy raisers” to whom they send available puppies to be raised until they’re ready to enter their program of specialized training. Puppies are raised by foster families until they're 12-18 months.  All Service Dogs are well socialized, obedience trained; and generally have their Canine Good Citizen certificates before they ever begin their specialized Service Dog training.  Some will go on to become Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs, Seizure Alert Dogs and many other specialized Service Dogs. Others are “cross-trained” to be Service Dogs for people with multiple disabilities requiring a combination of skills. 

      Each type of Service Dog is trained based on their size, personality, and particular characteristics needed for a specific type of service. Most Guide Dogs are taught the same basic skills of assisting their visually disabled human partners, but many are also taught added skills specific to helping partners with multiple disabilities.  Service Dogs are truly, “tailor made” with training for some “generic” skills and tailored training to fit the needs of human partners they will serve.  This ensures a disabled person obtains a Service Dog that truly provides things they need in ways that work for them with their disabilities and lifestyle needs. 
     By the time a Service Dog is fully trained and ready for a human partner, there is a huge investment of time, training, maintenance and expense involved.  Every effort is made to match dogs and humans that  are a good match together as working and life companions.  The average age of most dogs when finished with their Service Dog training is around three years old. Their expected life of service is generally five to seven years; and they are generally retired between 8-10 years old.  When retired, they usually are placed with someone else in another home.  The reason for retiring them to live in another home is that if they remain with their disabled partner, they often do not understand NOT working for them after a life of service with them. Retirement is meant to take them out of service and give them a pleasant retired life for the remainder of their elderly dog life.  

      People often wonder if a breed like the Border Collie, known for high drive and high energy can be a good Service Dog.  The answer is yes, if it’s the right Border Collie with the right training, matched for the right job.  But not every Golden Retriever or Labrador is a great potential Service Dog either!  It’s all a matter of a dog with the right set of characteristics for the job.  Energy level is not a criterion for inclusion or exclusion since energy can be channeled in positive ways.  Attitude and aptitude are far more important characteristics.

      Back to Cinder.  Could she be a real Service Dog? NO!  Cinder’s reactivity immediately disqualifies her from being either a Service Dog or a Therapy Dog.  A dog that’s unpredictable in any way is NOT a good candidate, especially if that unpredictability may also endanger someone.  Why would I consider making her my unofficial Hearing Dog?  I already have her and she is already showing me indicators that I could train her to help ME in MY home situation.  I would never consider any attempt to pass her off as a working Hearing Dog!  That is not the idea at all!  My thought is to capitalize on what she seems inclined to do for me already before I ever try to train her for more.  She is a Border Collie and needs a job so the more she can do, the more her job(s) can expand to give her a greater sense of purpose and expand her repertoire of skills to help her stay busy and have more purpose.  She can learn to tell me about various alarms, phones ringing, appliances making noises, doorbells, cars, and other sounds I can’t actually hear.  It’s not a physically demanding but they’re things she can do within our home to help me.  Since going out in public is generally stressful for her, I need to teach her things to occupy her in any way realistically possible.  Who knows?  Maybe she just really hates my alarm clock and wants me to shut the dang thing off; and she may not learn to alert me to other alarms unless she hates them too!  That could be the whole thing start to finish; and my idea of capitalizing on her as a helper may not be so great.  But I prefer to remain optimistic about adding, “handy momma’s hearing helper” to her list of skills if we can.

      I'm including some links to websites for Service Dog programs that have more information if interested in more/better information:

Assistance Dogs International (ADI)
National Service Animal Registry (NSAR)
Service Dog Registration of America
The United States Service Dog Registry
Seeing Eye-Guide Dogs
Paws with a Cause
Freedom Guide Dogs for the Blind
Dogs for the Deaf, Inc
Circle Tail, Inc.
Midwest Assistance Dogs, Inc.
St. Francis Service Dogs
Indiana Canine Assistant Network, Inc. (ICAN)
Guiding Eyes for the Blind 
Leader Dogs for the Blind 
Pilot Dogs, Inc.

Again, back to Cinder.  Cinder’s been doing pretty well with her obedience work so far; and the first two weeks yielded no significant reactivity issues.  However, I've intentionally been strategic in where we claim our spot during class so I've been able to keep her view of most of the other pups fairly limited.   This week, I’ve been asked to move to the middle of our class so I can see and hear as much as possible while our instructor addresses the class; and so we try putting Cinder in a position to see more dogs more of the time.  I’m not sure I’m ready for Cinder to more easily see more pups, but we can’t improve if we don’t test ourselves.  I guess we'll soon find out how it works tomorrow evening.  I think we both come home tired after class, but I'm not sure which one of us is more so.  Cinder naps for the 45 minute drive and is still tired when we arrive home.  Stress is a definite energy sapper-for both of us.  I'm just glad that so far, we haven't been kicked out of class because I have a reactive dog that can't control herself-yet.  I'm learning to celebrate every victory no matter how large or small.  Just because we do something well once doesn't mean it will always be repeated so we pray for more victories than non-victories.
     Whatever path we trod, we’ll go together as friends to the end.  Meanwhile, today was just another day in the on-going endeavor Raising Cinder.



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