As any Service Puppy Raiser can tell you, we get tons of questions. I meet so many people who are curious about service puppies and the puppy raising experience, I thought I'd share a few of their questions here.
(Please remember, these are just my opinions and may not reflect the opinions of any other Service Puppy Raiser; each person's and dog's experience is unique. Also, my answers on training questions are based solely on the curriculum of our organization and may well differ from the training programs and requirements of other service dog organizations.)
OK, I'll start with the big one.
Q. How do you do it? I mean...how can you give her up?
A. Raising a service puppy is an amazing experience. But, it is also not for everyone. Clearly, there are significant time and financial commitments, but above all, you are making an enormous emotional investment. You are going to nurture, fall in love with, and eventually have to let go of a dog that is yours in so many ways, and yet not your own.
Ruby is a doll and an imp; I completely adore her and love fills me to the brim each time I look at her. But there is a small part of my heart that doesn't belong to her. I'm saving that for someone I don't yet know – the person with whom she will someday be paired – and it justly tempers the love I feel for her. When she begins her life with the person she was truly meant for, that piece will fall into place; it will always be something the three of us share.
I know it will be painful when it is time to give her up, but there will be so much joy and hope mixed in with my sadness. I want to give her all the tools she needs and then I want her to soar. To witness the love and trust of a team, the beauty and fluidity of a person and service dog who share life's challenges, is to understand how honored I feel to be part of the journey toward my dog's partnership.
Q. Would you do it again, raise another service puppy?
Q. How come I can't pet a service puppy?
A. I completely empathize with how difficult it can be for people not to pet service puppies in training, trust me!
I remember seeing a very little service puppy many years ago – a baby Ruby clone, complete with tiny cape – in a pizza place. It was all I could do to stop myself from scooping her up, covering her with kisses, and pretty much just plopping her on top of my slice along with the pepperoni and eating her right up. People have good intentions – petting a service puppy is just a way of showing affection, right? Why would that interfere with her training?
The reason we don't allow anyone to pet a service puppy in training is because it's so important to teach the puppy not to solicit attention. When you refrain from petting Ruby, you are contributing to a very valuable part of her education. You are teaching her that there is no benefit to approaching other people when she is with her partner, unless her partner gives her a specific command to do so. The focus a service dog has on her partner, and their bond, is an absolute lifeline between them.
Q. It's not fair that a puppy has to work all the time. She never gets to have any fun.
A. Not really a question, but I've heard this fairly frequently, mostly when we're out shopping. Maybe it's from people who really dislike shopping and are just projecting it onto the dog!
Just like any puppy, Ruby's life is all about having fun. Zooming around the house and yard, playing with squeaky toys, enjoying ear scratches and belly rubs. And lots of treats and cuddling and snooze time.
When it comes to our "work," I can say without any hesitation that Ruby loves to train. I do too, it's always fun for both of us. Walks are also a very important part of training; we teach our pups not to pull on the leash (loose leash walking) as they grow accustomed to the world around them. I also like to train informally throughout the day, in ways that are out of the context of our sessions. While I'm cooking dinner, I might put her in a sit or down while I walk over to the stove for a bit, walk back, then release her. Or just out of the blue while we're watching TV, I'll ask her to "touch" (bop my hand with her nose – a building block for later skills she'll learn, such as pressing buttons or turning switches on and off); she thinks it's a fun game.
As far as outings, Ruby is naturally curious and she loves going into stores and other public places. She's never forced to do anything she's not capable of, she's rewarded frequently, and we always end on a special fun and upbeat note.
Q. What kinds of things do you teach her how to do?
A. During the approximate year and a half that Ruby is with me, we'll work on socialization and cues such as sit/stay and down/stay; stand; wait; here (come); lap; car; touch; under; fix (untangle herself from the leash); heel; etc.
Q. Can you train her to go get me a beer while I'm watching the game?
A. I get this one ALL THE TIME! Yes, service dogs can be trained to perform specialized tasks such as opening the refrigerator door, retrieving an item, closing the door, and bringing the item to their partner. But I've trained Ruby to reject light beer so the fridge will have to be stocked with a good double IPA.
Q. What happens to her after she leaves you?
A. At 18 months of age, Ruby will enter Advanced Training for approximately 4-6 months, where she'll learn the more specific skills she'll need when she is partnered with a person who has a mobility-related disability. If all goes well, at around two years of age, she'll be teamed up with a partner and I will proudly attend their graduation with a large supply of tissues!
Q. What happens if she doesn't make it?
A. That depends on why she doesn't make it. If it's a health-related issue, she will be released from the program, offered to me to keep, and I will adopt her. If she has a behavior or temperament issue that prevents her from attaining public access, her trainers will determine if there is another area in the realm of canine assistance for which she might be suited, and she'll be trained for that sort of job. If the behavior or temperament issue completely disqualifies her from service, she will be released and offered to me. If, for any reason, I am unable to adopt her, there is a waiting list to adopt released dogs so she would ultimately wind up as someone's well-loved pet.