The Life and Times of a Service Dog

So many people don’t understand the process of breeding, raising and training a service dog. Many people are involved in the process. I have had the wonderful experience of raising puppies for Canine Companions for Independence and for Paw Pals. There are other organizations as well, and many dedicated people involved in the breeding, raising, socialization, and training of these wonderful dogs. I have had the joy of not only raising Kiwipuppies, but I have also had the joy of puppy sitting and even watching dogs that I have previously helped raise.

While raising these puppies is a great joy, it is also very difficult to give them back for their final training and assignment. However, seeing them at work, and knowing that I was able to help, is an incredible feeling. I plan to continue helping for many years to come. As of this post, I have the joy of helping to raise Kiwi. She is a huge bundle of energy and love. She is also one beautiful dog. This week, she has been brushed four or five times, she has had a bath, she has had her nails trimmed, and she has worked on a few of her commands. She may be just a bit too smart for her own good though. Smile

Anyway, these dogs are all pretty incredible. They go through so much to get to the point where they can help others. They are so much more than your typical pet dog.

Day 0: The process starts well before these wonderful dogs are born. The puppies are usually born through breeding programs designed to enhance the traits of successful service dogs. The tough part is figuring out which traits contribute to success. From my experience, these traits include:

  • Health – It is important that they be free of physical limitations such as hip issues, skin conditions, allergies, and other health concerns.
  • Temperament – They must be calm and patient animals. They need to react properly in highly stressful situations and not react in a negative way to loud noises or rude people.
  • Friendly and Loving – They must be very social animals as their partner depends not only on their skills, but also on them being incredibly well behaved and very approachable. Many people don’t realize that these animals are extremely valuable in that they help start conversations and help establish friendships. A threatening looking animal adds to the barriers that the handicapped already have in meeting other people and making friends. For years, parents have told their children, “Don’t stare” or similar statements that have taught many people to basically ignore the handicapped. The result is a significant barrier to making friends and being accepted in society. These dogs help to break down those barriers. After all, who doesn’t want to talk to the person that has a beautiful dog by their side?
  • Proper bite – meaning that they must have soft and nimble mouths that enable them to pick up small objects such as pencils or other items that might get dropped and give them to their partner. They must have gentle mouths. Even when given a treat, these dogs should take it gently.
  • Size – depending on their role, they might need to be large and strong as they help pull wheelchairs or help provide stability and balance for their partners that need their help getting up or to stop from falling. In many cases, they must be tall enough when standing on their hind legs to turn light switches on and off. They must be able to help open and close doors, too.
  • Low maintenance – they must be easy to groom. They need to allow handling of their paws to allow easy nail trimming and they must have fur coats that are easy to brush and maintain.
  • Intelligent – these animals must be the smartest of the smart animals as they need to learn how to perform many tasks.

I am sure there are many other traits and attributes that I have missed, but it is really hard to describe these dogs.

Day 1-50 (about 8 weeks): The breeder caretaker carefully monitors the little puppies from the moment they are born as they begin iinteracting with each other and their mother. The breeder caretaker starts the socialization process right away as they handle the puppies, groom them, and monitor their health and growth as well as their behavior. The puppies are learning from the first day how to interact with not only their siblings and mother, but also with people. The simple things like having their nails trimmed when they are little balls of fluff teach them how to react when groomed and they learn that it is not a horrible torture at a very early age. In almost all cases, they learn through positive reinforcement of their actions and reactions.

8 Weeks to about 18 months: The puppies are raised and socialized to be good canine citizens. They are exposed to many different situations and environments and are taught basic commands. They are taught to toilet on command while on their leash, they are taught how to walk properly next to their handler, and they are taught several other basic commands. The puppies go to work with their raisers, they go shopping with their raisers, they go to church with their raisers, and basically spend huge amounts of time with their raiser and others while they grow.

The focus of most of the day’s activities are in the socialization and basic obedience training of the puppy. They learn how to sit nicely when waiting to be fed. They learn how to bark (speak) on command and they learn how to not bark and be quiet on command. They learn how to help their raiser get them dressed for work. They learn how to lay down under chairs and tables and stay out of the way. They learn the commands to go to a bed or to go to their kennel. They learn how to walk with their raiser through doorways. No, they can’t run an ATM, but they can be taught how to insert the card and retrieve it along with cash. It is probably too much to expect them to enter the PIN and request the amount of money. The point is that they can do many great things and many small things that have a huge impact on the quality of life of their partners.

Yes, they get to play. Many people don’t understand just how much love and attention that Barb and Maisiethese dogs receive during their lives. They get tons of play time and they are allowed to interact with other animals. Their play is usually structured to a degree, though, as they learn skills like how to fetch items and bring them to their raiser. They learn how to come when called. While they are not allowed to rough house and wrestle, they are certainly allowed to play. They get chew toys, squeaking toys, and balls to play with and enjoy as well as getting to play with other dogs while being socialized.  They get to experience many of the same things as other dogs, like playing in the snow.

18 months and later: The puppies are now “polished” in that they are taught some new skills based on their work assignment. This is the time when it becomes clear whether they want to be working animals. In most cases, they love to work as they get to do things that other dogs never get to do every day.

Once they are fully trained and end up working with their “forever” partner, they then spend the rest of their productive years helping their partner. They help push buttons to open doors, they pick up pens and pencils, they pick up dropped papers, they get the newspaper, they help open drawers and refrigerator doors, they alert others when their partner needs help. In many cases, they even help pull wheelchairs and brace themselves so that their partners can get up from chairs and couches. They work hard and they help their partners until they are ready to retire.

Retirement: After working for several years, they retire and live the good life. Regrettably, there comes a time when they just can’t handle the physical demands of their jobs and they have to retire. In those cases, they might end up back with the people that raised them as puppies, or they might end up with friends or family of the dog’s partner. In all cases, they have wonderful homes to go to when it is time to retire.

Death: This is the worst time, obviously. This is the time when everyone involved from the breeder caretaker, the raiser, the trainers, and their forever partner, reflects on what a great animal they were and wish them an eternity of love in the afterlife. Not only are many people involved in helping a small ball of fluff to become a great service animal, but these same dogs really make their mark on all of the people that they touch as they grow and become a key part of so many lives.

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4 Responses to The Life and Times of a Service Dog

  1. Sherri Wakefield Mangin says:

    Russ, you did an excellent job of laying this all out! I thoroughly enjoyed reading every word in your article. I would only add that knowing these wonderful dogs are born and raised to truly make a difference in someone’s life makes it easier to train them, love them and place them in the hands of destiny. Thank you for taking the time to share this process and thank you for your wonderful work!

    Sherri Wakefield Mangin

  2. Claire Farrer says:

    Dear Russ,
    Thank you and all who like you raise puppies for people like me. My last service dog, Sheba, a black standard poodle, died in March 2010. I was bereft, especially because she had been effectively “retired” for 16 months while she fought pancreatitis, a battle she eventually lost, even though I was convinced that her vet. and I could keep her going. She wouldn’t go out without her red service dog pack, even though there was no longer anything in it. And she still protected me, braced for me (even though I found ways to get up without stressing her). For a while I wondered how I could possibly get along on my own and feared what would become of me.

    And then a series of miracles happened: Sandy, the advanced trainer for our local Paw Pals group, found, Joyce, a poodle breeder (I’m allergic to most dogs) who donated a puppy for me, and a couple from just up the road a bit contacted Joyce saying they were willing to raise a puppy. Sandy met the couple and approved them. So now, my new dog, Phoenix, is with his puppy trainers. It will be a while before he is able to come live with, and help me, but just knowing he is on his way has brought me out of my depression and worries. I see him at least two times a month, during the puppy trainers’ meetings, and his puppy trainers make sure he spends a little time with me at the end of each training session.

    Truly I am blessed by so many people helping me and assuring I will have many more years able to live on my own. God bless them and you for your selflessness.


    • Claire,

      I am so glad to hear that you will be the recipient of the poodle puppy. Of course, it will be a good while before your puppy is ready.

      The joy and pain of working with such wonderful animals is often compounded by the delays of getting a replacement. They are a joy to raise and to see them working, and there is the massive pain of their loss. I can’t even imagine just how hard it must be.

      In any case, I look forward to seeing your puppy learn and grow. I hope I get a chance to see Phoenix before too long.

      I wish you the best!

  3. (Dave &) Magic J. Johnson says:

    What a wonderful article about the Life and Times of a Service Dog! We were actually in a very unique situation. I was the puppy raiser for Rini for CCI. Classes 2 times a month (300 miles, plus motels, etc.) My husband, Dave, was handicapped due to a serious spinal injury in Viet Nam. However, we did return Rini back to San Diego. After a full day of separation from her, testing, etc. They came back out with her. The advanced trainers there knew of my husbands injury and handed her leash back to us. That was one of the most wonderful days in our lives. From that moment on, she was totally dedicated to helping my husband and giving him so much help and comfort until his death. As it turned out, after his last spinal surgery in Nov. 07, he was diagnosed with one of the rarest diseases on earth. Rini was with him every day thru many hospitalizations and surgeries and a Mayo Clinic research study and laid next to him with her head on his chest in our vehicle when he died and I personally took him to the designated hospital and doctors to donate his body and organs for further research by the Mayo Clinic. Now, Rini is 10 years old and is slowing down a bit herself, but she has been reassigned to me. I’m just now getting over my 2nd complete knee replacement and she does so much to help me. I see to it that she is not stressed and her life is very comfortable. I’m looking forward to helping as much as I can when I get over my current surgery. Possibly I’ll be able to ‘Puppy sit’ others when needed. I would love to meet you someday. Sincerely, Magic

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