Learning from Service Dogs

Do you beat yourself up because you can’t figure out how to teach your dog something he should be able to do?

Then it’s time for you to learn from service dogs.

Service dogs get the best start in life

Golden Retriever on bed

I've had the best start in life. I bet I could guide you back to bed.

While some service dogs are found in shelters or trained by their people to be more than pets, many programs have breeding programs. Training a guide dog for a visually impaired person costs around $20,000.

To increase the chance a dog will succeed at his job, he’s given the best start in life:

  • Extensive genetic testing on his parents to decrease the likelihood of health problems.
  • Socialization from birth.
  • Regular health checks.
  • Hours and hours of training.

Or service dogs are specially chosen by trained professionals

Some programs that train service dogs have had success identifying likely prospects from shelters and rescue organizations.

Behaviorists with good judgment and skill with temperament testing look over puppies and adult dogs trying to find that right mix of qualities to make a future service dog. It’s part art and part science.

Career change dogs

And yet, with all the time, work, and expertise that goes into identifying, raising, and training dogs to provide a service, not everyone goes on to become a working dog.

Guide dog programs have coined the term, “career change dogs” to refer to those who fail to become guides. While the term also applies to dogs that retire, it also fits dogs unsuited to the work due to temperament, health, or problems doing the work.

Programs that have their own breeding program, like The Seeing Eye, may see as many as 1 in 8 dogs move onto another profession or life as a pet.

And in programs finding dogs in shelters, only 1 in 500 dogs actually goes on to work as a service animal.

Learning from service dogs

So if paid professionals, dedicated volunteers, and the best wisdom of breeding and training can’t ensure a dog is 100% likely to succeed at the job he’s been chosen to do, what makes you think you should be able to make your dog learn everything you want him to?

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  1. That is such a good point. If we can’t teach our dogs to be the working dogs we admire so much, we should probably listen to them to find out what kind of work they would be good at doing. I do believe that a dog that has some kind of job is the happiest dog.

  2. Because I WANT him to?

    I hear what you’re saying, Pamela, but we don’t want our dogs to do things like recognize traffic signals. We want them to come when called and obey a command like “QUIET!” Is that too much to ask?

    (Yes. Yes, it is. Sigh.)

    • Well, it’s nearly impossible for some dogs. I suspect your best friend is called to be a herder/guard dog. So being “quiet” could be just about impossible.

      Not to say we shouldn’t work on things. Let’s just recognize that some things are hard to impossible.

    • Exactly! My dog should do everything I want her to because I am the master and I say so. *has tantrum*

      LOL. It didn’t work with the kids I babysat for either. 😛

  3. I love that picture caption ;0). Honey can guide me back to bed anytime.

    I have a friend who trains guide dog’s and one of her pet dog’s is a “career change dog”. She was just I’ll suited for any job that didn’t let her follow her nose everywhere. Now Kol on the other hand, his job is not to be a Devil Dog and frankly, he does *not* have a choice in the matter. He will learn to behave! HE WILL!! **sigh** Maybe I can trade him in for one of those well-behaved guide dog’s.

  4. Good point! Does that let me off the hook?? BOL!

  5. Oh, thank you! I finally realized today I physically cannot train all my dogs as well as the rescue dogs here the way I would like. I can get them well socialized, good with people, and everyone but everyone learns to “sit,” so now I can concentrate on “real” training with my main own dog, Justus, a dobie/hound mix. Whew.

    • Hey, I know some people who aren’t well socialized, good with others, or know how to sit properly. So if you accomplish some mix of those things with rescue dogs, you have something to be proud of! :)

  6. Yes, that’s why I have given up on Cali NOT barking at approaching dogs when we are on a walk . .I don’t know where we went wrong, but it doesn’t matter – she feels the need to let dogs know that she is coming 😉

    Honey sure knows how to look comfy!

  7. When we see a guide dog, we don’t realise the effort that went into training it.

  8. Great post!

    Interestingly, Elka chose to be my migraine alert dog. She didn’t start alerting ’til she was about 6 months old, but since then (except for two Saturdays ago when one felled me at work), I haven’t had a full-on migraine since. Is she a “serious” working dog, so far as her disposition goes? Nope. But if she feels something is going on, be it migraine, low blood sugar (for my fiance) or what have you, she’s very focused and insistent.

    • When I first thought of this post idea, I thought about including something about dogs that teach themselves skills. It sounds like you have one of those in Elka. I’m glad she’s able to give you some relief by alerting you before getting a full-blown migraine.

      Have you written about that on your blog? I’d love to learn more.

  9. Great post. I do have a Change of Career dog who is just an excellent pet. I couldn’t ask for anything else out of this guy. Of course the assistance dog organization makes the call when they release the dog, many times it’s the dog that chooses not to do this particular kind of work. We’re taking the Change of Career status literally and will be testing him as a Therapy Dog. And he’ll let us know if this is something he wants to do.

    • Great point! All dogs want a job (although for some it’s holding down the bed clothes) and we have to listen carefully to figure out what it is they want to do.

  10. You know, my basic skill combined with a highly independent dog means…I gave up on some stuff a while ago! Perhaps someone with more experience could get more out of Daisy or Bella…but I’m happy with what I’ve got so far.

    • I never understood anything about the hound drive until I adopted my last dog Shadow. It was amazing how catching a scent made her unable to concentrate on anything else.

      Just teaching a hound to look up from a scene is a major accomplishment. I think you’ve done wonderful things with Daisy and Bella.

      And, of course, they’re beautiful so that could be their jobs too. :)

  11. Thanks for yet one more timely, humbling point, Pamela. Why do I get so worked up when my dog has trouble understanding something small? It’s really not a big deal but in the moment I feel like my head is going to pop off.

    Have you ever read the blog “Raising Ruby”? The writer raises service dogs as puppies until they are old enough to enter advanced training. It’s a pretty interesting process and I’d love to get involved somehow one day.

  12. That doesn’t mean we stop trying!

    • Of course not. Everything in balance.

      Based on who I hang out with in blogville, I think there are for more of us who need to be reminded to chill out than there are who need to be told to do more with our dogs. :)

  13. That is so well said. Just like humans, they don’t all have the same talents. Our job as their allies is to find what they do well and enjoy, and give them opportunities to do it!

  14. Sometimes I feel bad because I’m not ‘doing more’ with Frankie and Beryl. Frankie certainly has the potential to hit some high spots with a different owner. With Beryl it would be great to show that Greyhounds aren’t just fast couch potatoes. But I’m not perfect and I don’t care if they’re not perfect and don’t have titles in front of their names (although Beryl does have her foundation CGC;) And having a title doesn’t mean your dog is perfect at a certain thing anyway.

    I am amazed at Service Dogs and especially self taught ones as Jen mentioned with Elka.

    • Frankie and Beryl make hundreds or thousands of people happy every time you post about them. What more could you want from a dog?

  15. We really do have to temper our expectations of our dogs sometimes. When we were looking into Bella’s breed make-up (ha!), it was largely done in an effort to understand her motivations. I had a Lab before – his motivations are different than hers and it was not ‘as easy’ to train her. It wasn’t as easy because we were using the wrong motivation. Different breed, different need. Additionally, each dog is an individual with their own needs and motivations.

    We need to learn to set expectations of our pups based on their view of the world as well as our own.

    • When we talk about it, we don’t realize what an amazing shift in consciousness it is to try to understand a dog’s view of the world. Just 40 years ago, no one would have known what you were talking about if you said such a thing.

      And it is such a great gift to us too.

      Great comment, Leslie.

  16. Yep, those are working dogs are very special!

  17. So wise Pamela, so wise. Kelly is going tomorrow to be “evaluated” by a professional trainer, to see if she is ready for cgc or therapy dog training. I felt we needed to see if she could handle this because she does not play well with others (dogs.) Wish her luck!

  18. “Holding down the bed clothes” (and rugs) is JOB 1 around here – in between playing and eating, of course!

    The Road Dogs