Princeton is well on his way to becoming a service dog. Over the past few weeks we have continued to work with Rebecca Fouts, a trainer from Access Canine Solutions. Princeton learned how to walk nicely on a leash and got accustomed to his service dog vest. He also learned some puppy manners like “leave it”, “wait”, and he has started learning how to heel. A few weeks ago, Rebecca took us to Staples for Princeton’s first public access trip. There was a lot of planning and training that led up to this huge milestone in Princeton’s life. Before a service dog goes out into a public place that isn’t pet-friendly, 3 important steps need to be taken: temperament testing, socialization, and training.
The Temperament Test
No dog is born a with the impeccable manners and reliability of a service dog. However, to a large extent, service dogs are special dogs from birth. Puppies that get chosen to go into service training need to be driven, confident, non-aggressive, and relatively calm, even from birth. Just like how people have a variety of personalities and capabilities, dogs are born with strengths and weaknesses that make them right for different kinds of jobs.
The temperament test is generally given when the puppy is 7 weeks old. The go-to temperament test for service dogs is the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test. This test is given by an impartial participant and it allows the breeder and the trainer to get a good idea of the puppy’s personality, strengths, and weaknesses. No test can predict with absolute certainty what a puppy will be like as an adult, but the Volhard is a pretty good indicator of personality and drive. The Volhard is a combination of five tests:
- Social Attraction – The tester gets the puppy’s attention with noise and movement. The puppy is scored on whether it comes to the tester and the confidence it has if approaches.
- Following – The tester stands up and walks away. The puppy is scored on whether it follows with confidence or not.
- Restraint – The tester gently rolls the puppy on its back and holds it there. The puppy is scored based on how much it struggles and on the attitude it has while restrained.
- Social dominance – The puppy is allowed to stand and the tester strokes it from the head all the way down the back. The puppy is scored based on how it responds.
- Elevation dominance – The tester gently elevates the puppy off the ground for 30 seconds. The puppy is scored based on how it responds.
Since the puppies in Princeton’s litter were going, in a large part, to working homes (service dog training, hunting training, etc), they were given an additional test to determine their “obedience aptitude”. This test is done 4 or 5 parts depending on what the breeder and the potential families are looking for. Princeton took the 4 part test. This included:
- Retrieving – A crumpled paper ball is thrown in front of the puppy. The puppy is scored on how much interest it shows in the ball and whether it picks the ball up.
- Sound sensitivity – A sharp noise is made on the floor near the puppy (like a metal bowl falling). The puppy is scored on whether it startles and how it recovers from the sound.
- Sight sensitivity – A towel is dragged in front of a puppy or an umbrella is opened. The puppy is scored on how it reacts.
- Structure – The puppy is scored on its conformation and how it holds its body.
Princeton was also given a hunt test with live quail and was checked thoroughly by a vet for any congenital defects.
Temperament tests given to shelter dogs and older dogs are different and more in-depth. An older dog may have been traumatized by past events, so it is crucial to have a more thorough test.
As a service dog puppy grows and hits developmental milestones, it is very important to expose him to as many new experiences as is reasonable. By the time the puppy is 14 weeks old, it will have developed many of its ideas and attitudes about the world and any traumatic events that happened during that time will be committed to its behavioral memory. Because of this, the quality of experiences is just as important as the quantity. Not only do we expose the puppy to many different things, we do so in a positive way. The key is for the puppy to have as many positive associations wih his environment as possible. Also, during this time the puppy learns how to react to his environment. Socializing your puppy helps him grow into a dog that is calm and comfortable in a variety of circumstances, even ones he has never experienced before.
In the first 4 months of his life, we exposed Princeton to a huge variety of people, places, and things. Some of these included:
- Different types of people – Princeton met old people, young people, people with different hair styles, people with different clothing, disabled people, babies, people of all races, etc.
- Different types of food – Princeton was exposed to all sorts of yummy treats as well as cooking smells.
- Different surfaces – Princeton walked on sidewalks, stairs, carpets, tiles, blacktop, gravel, marble, sand, grass, even see-through grates and manhole covers.
- Other Dogs – Princeton went to a puppy play-group where he met dogs of all shapes and sizes
- Working equipment – Service dogs need to use a variety of different equipment. Princeton tried on vests, walking harnesses, a head collar, a pinch collar and he even got to interact with (but not wear) Daphne’s heavy mobility harness. He was also crate trained during this time.
- Moving things – Princeton walked around an idling bus, walked on the sidewalk next to moving cars, sat while bikes, skateboards, strollers, lawnmowers, and balls rolled by, and walked next to a shopping cart.
- Pet-friendly places – Princeton walked around a college campus, strolled along the campus of a middle school, checked out an outdoor mall, played on playgrounds, ran through woods and fields, hung out at a bus station, and, of course, visited the vet.
- Different sounds – Princeton heard bowls clatter to the ground, he listened to different types of music, idling engines, and heard several different types of alarms and sirens.
- Transportation – Car rides, train rides, a plane ride, and a ride on the elevator
- Handling situations – Princeton got baths, was combed out, and was hugged and loved-on by strangers.
- Anything else in the environment that could be scary to a puppy – We walked past statues, took him outside on the porch during a storm, and basically exposed him to anything and everything we could think of.
Some puppies, Princeton included, go through a fear period where they get scared of things they weren’t scared of before. Princeton’s fear period lasted about 2 weeks. During this time, we toned down his socialization outings and stuck just to normal walks, puppy play group, and playtime in the yard. Puppies during their fear period are more easily traumatized. Over-exposing a puppy to external stimuli during a fear period could cause behavioral problems later on in life.
Service dogs have important trained tasks that help their disabled handlers, but they spend much more time learning how to behave in public. It is important that a service dog is able to work and behave in public places that aren’t pet friendly. Ideally, a service dog should be as invisible and unobtrusive as possible. Silent, but confident.
Under United States law a service dog is only required to be housebroken and not an unreasonable nuisance (eg. they can’t bark in movie theaters, beg for food from customers in restaurants, or jump up on people) as long as they are trained to help their handler mitigate his/her disability. However, proper service dog handling requires a lot more training than just that. Ideally, when working, a properly trained service dog will:
- Focus more on their handler than the environment
- Walk nicely on a leash
- Remain quiet at all times
- Lay down for as long as they have to without shifting about excessively
- Ignore environmental distractions
- Avoid any sniffing of the environment
Before we even thought about taking Princeton into non-pet-friendly public places, he went through a basic obedience class. He learned how to sit, down, and walk well on a leash. He got accustomed to wearing his service dog vest. He learned to keep his barking under control. He came when called. He started to be able to leave distractions alone. He even learned how to potty on command. When we finally took Prince out in public for the first time, we kept it short. Our first outing was no more than 20 minutes long. We sat outside Staples for 20 minutes and let him potty and relax. We walked through the store with only training in mind. I kept my full attention on him at all times.
In the past 3 weeks, Princeton has been to Staples, a shoe store, and Bed, Bath, & Beyond. He even worked next to Daphne once. So far, all of our preparation is paying off. He’s a delightfully well-behaved little guy when out in public. He doesn’t sniff too much, he ignores people, and he focuses on me when asked. Right now, we’re not asking him to look professional. It’s still important, for socialization purposes, for him to pay attention to his surroundings when working. We let him sniff a little and even take a bit more leash that we would expect of a graduated service dog. When he does come back and pay attention, he gets a lot of cheese and praise. Princeton is loving his work and training so far. While there is a little luck involved, we also set him up to succeed by preparing him for the big, crazy world.