One unique experience we have the privilege of offering our students here at the School for Dog Trainers is our weekly service dog outings. Students can handle our service dogs in training out in a variety of public places. This is not only beneficial for our puppies and students but has also had a resounding impact on our local community. On Tuesdays, our staff and students go to a local elementary school where the children can practice their reading skills with the dogs, in a comforting and relaxing environment. On Thursdays we make trips to local nursing homes where residents get to receive some quality TLC that only a dog can deliver. These trips benefit all parties involved and are a ton of fun in the process.
Service dogs are some of the most environmentally sound working dogs in the industry, but they don’t just start off that way. It all starts with the selection process where only about 30% of dogs tested will pass. This test is done to observe a dog’s natural confidence and bounce back (how quickly they recover from something that startles them). We don’t expect puppies to be stone cold, unflinching machines from birth because that is completely unrealistic. Instead, we are looking for the curiosity to investigate something after they have been startled by it.
After we have selected a puppy it’s on to socialization stage, where they are exposed to anything and everything our world has to offer. Different shapes and sizes of vehicles, traffic, people of all ages and ethnicities, and much more are on the list of things that they need to experience at a young age. Even as the dogs get older, we continue to bring them out in public to generalize their obedience and service tasks. Service dogs in training need to learn that sit means sit regardless of if you are in the quiet of your own home or in the center of a crowded shopping mall.
Training Service Dogs
This socialization and generalization process is a great thing for students to experience. New trainers must learn how far they can push the comfort zone of a dog and when to give the dog a break before becoming counterproductive. Just because a dog needs to be comfortable in a large crowd doesn’t mean that we are going to throw a new puppy into the middle of a loud, noisy, overwhelming situation without warning. Dogs must be eased into these types of stressful situations. Students in our Master Dog Trainer Program and Service Dog Trainer Course learn to read a dog’s body language and properly expose them to these environmental conditions without scaring them senseless.
Just because we are working, it doesn’t mean that we can’t go to fun and exciting places. Historically students have had a great deal of fun on these outings. In addition to going to the reading program and nursing home, we have taken students to the zoo, aquarium, downtown Charlotte, the mall, the balloon festival, the museum, the Greensboro science center, and even trick-or-treating on Halloween. Each of these locations provide a different opportunity for learning not only for our dogs but for our students. At the science center dogs may be swarmed by hordes of screaming children and our students will learn how to calmly and politely tell them that their dog is working and can’t say “Hi”. I don’t know if you have ever had to tell a child (or even some adults) that they can’t say hi to a dog, but it is no easy task. Over time, these outings facilitate the students mastering the art of paying attention to the dog they are handling while navigating hectic environments.
If you are reading this and saying to yourself, “This is all very interesting, but I don’t want to work with service dogs,” understand that the skills that are learned while on these outings are not exclusively applicable to service dogs. ALL FIELDS OF DOG TRAINING BENEFIT FROM PROPER GENERALIZATION AND SOCIALIZATION. Whether you are working with police, pet, search and rescue, or service dogs, they all need to be environmentally sound. Police dogs can’t effectively detect narcotics in a vehicle if they are too focused on the traffic passing by. Pet dogs can’t enjoy going on adventures with their families if they fear every person they come across or car rides. Search and rescue dogs can’t be worrying about all the distracting sounds and smells when they are searching a disaster site. The skills that students acquire while on our service dog outings are useful in whichever field they would like to pursue a career in. The better understanding you have of dog training as a whole, the more likely you are to be successful in a specific niche.
Working with the Community
These trips don’t just benefit our students and dogs but also the people we visit. Our Tuesday trip to the elementary school reading program makes reading fun and something the kids look forward to. They get to practice reading with a non-threatening dog. We have found that the kids really relax and let their guard down when they are reading to the dogs. Our Thursday trip to the nursing home allows residents who can’t have pets of their own the opportunity to interact with the animals they love. It’s indescribable to watch the residents’ faces light up when we bring the dogs in. They know all our dogs’ names and will greet each one individually. Some even come prepared with snacks to give their favorite visitors. We interviewed one of the residents and she said that hands-down, Thursdays are her favorite day of the week.
We love the ability to give back to our community and being able to incorporate dog training and teaching students into that is such a privilege.