For Gavin, class is in session.
The 2-year-old golden retriever-labradoodle mix closely follows Marissa Radick as she uses a wheelchair to navigate around household items — a TV remote, a cellphone and a credit card — strewn on the floor.
“Gavin, get!” the apprentice trainer says, stopping near a set of keys on the ground.
He picks up the keys with his mouth and rests his head on her lap.
“Let’s go,” Radick says, prompting Gavin to follow her to the next item as part of his service-dog training at Canine Companions for Independence in Delaware.
“A service dog is a dog that has had extensive training, including task training, that … the dog actually does that mitigates disability,” said Karen Shirk, founder and CEO of 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia.
Service dogs are taught to help with physical tasks such as opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off and pulling a manual wheelchair.
At Canine Companions, service dogs are taught 40 basic commands during their training, ranging from a simple “sit” to those that teach the dog how to sit at certain positions with their owner.
Task-oriented service dogs, it should be noted, are not the same as emotional-support animals. Emotional-support dogs provide comfort through affection and companionship for people dealing with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, mood disorder, panic attacks, fears and phobias, according to the United States Dog Registry.
Service dogs typically begin their training as puppies with volunteers or foster trainers to teach basic obedience, socialization and how to behave in distracting environments. From there, the dogs are handed off to professional trainers for advanced polishing.
Above all, a good service dog puts the needs of their owner first.
“I want a dog that is more interested in me then all the other dogs and everything else going on around them,” said Christy Talbert, owner of Buckeye Service Dogs.
Although any breed can be a service dog, labradoodles and golden retrievers usually are best-suited for the job.
“Those breeds like to work — they love to work — they love to serve their people and this, to them, is fun,” said Molly Schulz, a spokeswoman for Canine Companions for Independence.
A dog with a docile and obedient temperament that listens to commands are the qualities of a good service dog. Dogs training to be service dogs go through desensitization training to learn when not to bark, what sounds to pay attention to and how to resist chasing after distractions.
Not all dogs in the program graduate — for example, a dog could be too timid or have a health issue.
“We want dogs that are going to enjoy this life of going everywhere and doing stuff,” Talbert said. “If the dog doesn’t enjoy it, then it’s not the right dog.”
Buckeye Service Dogs says it has an 80% to 90% dog-graduation rate; 4 Paws for Ability estimates a 60% success rate; and Canine Companions for Independence says it graduates a little more than half of its candidates.
“We are trying to make that number better, but we’re also realizing that they’re not robots,” said Kelly Camm, 4 Paws for Ability development director.
Like people, service dogs need to maintain a balance between work and life during the average 10 years that they serve.
“They can switch very quickly from work mode to play mode,” Schulz said. “It’s just whatever you need from them at that time.”
One of the hardest parts about training service dogs is giving them away after training them, but changing people’s lives makes the emotional tug worthwhile.
“The most rewarding part, for sure, is seeing the dogs at graduate follow-ups and seeing how they are helping their new person,” Radick said. “It’s so great to see how those basic 40 commands can be developed into something that can really change someone’s life and provides that independence they were searching for.”
For Gavin, class is in session. The 2-year-old golden retriever-labradoodle mix closely follows Marissa Radick as she uses a wheelchair to navigate around household items — a TV remote, a cellphone and a credit card — strewn on the floor. “Gavin, get!” the apprentice trainer says, stopping near a […]