Greetings, faithful readers. Please enjoy this amazing post from a courageous guest blogger sharing her tale of self-training her own assistance dog. Planet Dog and the Planet Dog Foundation are committed to supporting the many ways that dogs work to help people in need and we deeply thank Christina for sharing her story!
"When I was first asked to write this blog post, I was anxious about putting myself out there for everyone to see. Anxiety is nothing new for me, though, as you are about to find out. I eventually decided that it would be a good thing to write this, both for the education of others and for myself.
My name is Christina and I work in the Planet Dog Company Store with my Service Dog in Training, Saxon. Late last summer (2012), I was finally diagnosed with Anxiety (with compulsions) and Panic Disorder (Panic Attacks), which I had suffered with my entire life, but never had a proper diagnosis.
Shortly after, a friend suggested a Service Dog (SD). It was something I'd never thought of for myself. I knew that SDs could help people with a variety of disabilities, both physical and mental, but I'd never thought of myself as disabled. So, I did my research and discovered that I would qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act and I could probably benefit from the use of a SD. I talked to my psychologist about it and she agreed that it was something I should pursue.
I also learned that one option for disabled individuals is to train their own SD, if, for whatever reason, they decide a program dog is not right for them. Most people are aware of SD programs, but few are aware that individuals with disabilities may also train their own SD. This is what I decided to do. There are many reasons that I decided to owner train, but one of the main reasons is that I thought it would be beneficial to me to be involved in the training process.
I already had a dog, Saxon, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier who was a little less than two at the time. I had adopted him a year and a half earlier when I was going through a low point. He was well trained, but he needed a lot more training before he could even be considered a SD candidate.
I made a few mistakes in the beginning: I brought him out into public too early, I began public access training before task training, and I didn't use enough reinforcement when training tasks. Luckily, though, none of my mistakes were too damaging and Saxon is doing amazingly well with his training. In fact, he just passed his Canine Good Citizen test last week! He still has a lot of training to go before he will be ready to work as my SD, but he is amazingly attentive and eager to please.
In order for a dog to be a SD, he has to do more than just provide comfort for his disabled handler. He has to perform specific tasks that help mitigate the handler's disability. Saxon's main tasks will be distracting/redirecting me during a panic attack, leading me to an exit or other safe space when I am feeling overwhelmed or having a severe panic attack, and interrupting and redirecting my compulsions. We will probably add more tasks as time goes on.
He will also be trained to retrieve dropped items as I sometimes have difficulty doing so myself as a result of joint pain. Because the pain is not severe enough to be considered disabling, this does not count as a task to mitigate a disability, but is a bonus. In addition to all of that he provides great comfort to me and I have fewer panic attacks when he is around, but that is not a task, it is just a wonderful and comforting bonus.
While owner training is a perfectly valid and legal way to train a SD, it's also a very difficult thing to do, especially without support. I was a member of a few online communities, which definitely helped, but it's nice to have the backing of a program to help you if you run into any issues.
Thankfully, about a month ago, I met a local SD partner who told me about a program called Possibility Dogs Inc. (http://possibilitydogs.org/) that trains rescue dogs with proper temperaments to be SDs for people with mental disabilities. I contacted the group and, because I adopted Saxon when he was five months old from a family who could no longer care for him, they considered him a rescue. They welcomed us to the program and offered to help us in any way they can.
They will assist us with any fundraising we may need for training or equipment, will provide us with a program ID and patches for his vests and harnesses (which are not required by the ADA, but help prevent access issues), and will document and administer a test called Public Access Test (PAT) later this year. A PAT is not required for a dog to be a SD, but it is a good test to take to ensure that the dog can effectively do his job in public without being distracted by what is going on around him, because there will be a lot of distractions!
Many people are unaware that you should not pet or try to distract a SD while the dog is working. When public access training with Saxon, I have had people run up and pet him, make kiss sounds to get his attention, squeal about how cute he is, take our picture without asking and we even encountered someone working in the mall who chased us with a remote controlled toy car! These were all great training opportunities for Saxon and me, but inappropriate ways to act around a SD.
While I am not likely to be hurt if Saxon isn't focussed on me for a minute or two, there are some SD handlers who can be injured or become ill if their SD is distracted from working. This is why it is so important for people to understand that SDs are working and should not be distracted from their job.
This comical Public Service Announcement from the Norwegian Association of the Blind does a great job of showing many of common ways that people distract SDs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nf6-i5C0Bwg& Instead of distracting the dog from working, talk to the handler (not to the dog) to ensure that it is ok to pet the dog and don't be offended if the handler says that you can't. I will often let people pet Saxon while he is in training if they ask nicely and it is an appropriate time to do so.
I am so thankful that that Saxon came into my life when he did and I am so thankful to all of the people who have supported me throughout this journey. I hope that you have found my post to be informative and please feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments, I will do my best to answer them for you."