Do you love dogs but don’t love the idea of a decade or more commitment to one? Perhaps you are an empty nester looking for an opportunity to stay active, and do something meaningful in your community. That was the case for Jeanette Townsend, a local resident who lost her beloved family dog, Scout, about six years ago. With her grown children soon going off to college, the loss of their pet hit Jeanette and her husband hard. They loved their dog, and still had more dog love to give, but weren’t sure if they were up for another decade of pet care. About that same time, Jeanette learned about puppy raising. Raising a puppy for a purpose is a real thing, and people like Jeanette are doing it all around you: they are raising puppies into service dogs. Jeannette’s experience demonstrates that if you have room in your home, your heart and your schedule, you can raise a puppy and make a real difference in someone’s life.
Fulfilling a Need
Service dogs serve many needs, like guiding the blind, assisting with mobility, or even calming a person with PTSD. The need for service dogs in this country is huge and there are local organizations that can help you get started.
A Typical Day
When you are dealing with puppies no day is typical, but there is a routine. Each day after breakfast, they take a walk. After lunch they usually go outside for exercise and fresh air. Then after dinner, they go back outside a third time for a walk. When it rains or snows, they still go out, so long as it is safe.
Throughout the work day, Jeanette sprinkles in training that feels like play to Albie. One of Albie’s favorite games is one where Jeanette scatters a bunch of different shipping boxes throughout the house. Some are marked with a treat inside and they are closed, but not tightly. Then she tells Albie to go find treats. While this is fun for Albie, he is learning how to think for himself and find solutions. He’s also developing comfort and skill at putting his head inside a narrow space to retrieve an item.
In addition to the games, walks and exercises she does with Albie at home, she brings him into a local training center once a week and twice every other week for group training.
Training a Pet Versus a Service Dog
Raising a service dog does not require any formal dog training experience, but it is a lot different from typical pet dog training. You may want to train your pet to come when called, and to stay, sit or lie down. In service dog training, the dog must learn some additional skills and be 100 percent reliable on them. Jeanette has to expose Albie to as many situations as possible to develop his comfort and confidence in all situations. So she takes Albie with her everywhere, such as: into the city, where there are different noises and crowded spaces, to the mall with different smells and distractions, and even a restaurant or movie theater, where he learns to be very still and quiet for a long period.
The fundamental skills all service dogs have to learn include: recall, push, pull, drop, and give. A push is when the dog learns to push a chair in, for example. A pull is when he pulls a rope tied to the fridge door or pulls a drawer handle. A drop refers to dropping the item he was carrying in his mouth, and to give is when the dog puts an item in its owner’s hand.
When a veteran commands his service dog to get his medicine, the dog goes through a series of pulls, pushes, gives and drops, using everything he’s learned with Jeanette, including the lessons from the box game. The dog is also trained to react to specific signs of distress in sleep, such as thrashing or vocalizing, by turning on the light switch, physically shaking the bed, or gently nudging the veteran awake.
Time To Go
It can be hard to turn your newly trained service dog over to his new owner. There’s sadness, but also pride. Jeanette points out, “It’s not at all like losing a pet. You go into the arrangement knowing the outcome. It’s exciting to watch Albie develop his strengths. I can’t wait to turn that into something that’s going to change someone’s life forever. If I had any hesitation, once I meet the veteran, those feelings dissipate.”