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December 3, 2012
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Ember - My Service Dog by leopardwolf Ember - My Service Dog by leopardwolf
Ember, fondly known as Dogmeat ( and a variety of other nicknames ), is my CGC certified mobility assist service dog.

She is an Australian Shepherd / Golden Retriever mix. Before she became my assistance dog, she was my pet dog and a valued member of our family. I adopted her as a rescue when she was 1yr old, when her previous owners could not keep her. I had her for almost 3 years before we started doing training for service work.

She is a highly intelligent and focused dog, who works very hard to please. All of these things made her a very quick learner when we were training for obedience and general interactive behaviors. She was always top of her class. Her eagerness and willingness to work and learn was extremely beneficial when we began training for service work. I trained her myself, and sought the assistance of local training professionals for help along the way.

We diligently trained for service work and public access for about a year and a half, while also undergoing an extensive application process to join an owner-trained program with Can Do Canines, a local assistance dog organization. Our hard work and patience finally paid off and we were accepted into their program, where they helped us polish off service oriented skills. We were tested for skills work and public access, and are now a fully certified owner-trained mobility assist team.



"Why do you have an assistance dog?"

I get that question a lot, because physically on the outside I look normal. I have some health issues that have made things difficult for me. I have Dysautonomia, my own resulting in neurally mediated hypotension and related problems that often cause balance issues. When I have symptoms, trying to constantly compensate and correct my posture to keep from stumbling or falling can be very physically draining on top of the constant widespread pain and fatigue I experience due to Fibromyalgia.

I was once nervous to go anywhere without my significant other or a friend in case I had an episode that led to full syncope ( passing out ) and falling.

Amazingly, before she was trained for any of this, Ember actually alerted me to oncoming episodes and helped prevent me from falling on several occasions. This was one of the many things that prompted us to look in to information about service dog training in the first place, thus learning about owner-trained service dog teams. We were fortunate enough that Can Do Canines was local, and offered an owner-trained program.

Since Ember was already obedience trained and bonded with me, we just needed to take her training to the next level. Thus working to become an owner-trained team was perfect for our situation. We had to meet the same requirements of any program dog, including passing behavior evaluations and medical evaluations including hip and shoulder x-rays. All expenses to get this far have been out of my own pocket. I have been fortunate that when finances were tight, people were kind enough to donate to help cover the differences.

Ember has allowed me to be more independent again. With her help, I don't expend as much energy keeping balance. I can do more and stay out longer than I used to before I had her help. Ember has also been trained to retrieve items on command, to pick up items I drop, operate light switches, use push panels for access doors, and to get an emergency phone or go get help from someone if I need it.


- - - -

Some general information about assistance dogs ( service dogs ) - both organization raised ( program dogs ) and owner-trained dogs.

Most assistance dog organizations have breeders working with them, who breed for traits desired in service animals. Sometimes animals are donated, and in some cases organizations turn to local human societies and rescue groups to find potential assistance dog candidates. From start to finish, it typically takes somewhere around 18 months or more to train an assistance dog to the point where it is ready to be paired with its partner. Oftentimes there are extremely long waiting lists for these program dogs. I have heard in some cases people might wait years for a dog. Some organizations that train assistance dogs require the recipients to pay for them. The costs of raising and training an assistance dog to the point it is ready to be paired with a partner is upwards of $25,000+ USD per dog. Obviously this is more than most people can afford, especially if they have medical issues or are on disability, which many recipients are. Some organizations are able to offer dogs at no cost to recipients. Most organizations will not place a trained service dog in a home that already has other pets, which forces some people to have to rehome their current animal companions to be considered for a service dog partnership. These are just a few reasons why some people choose to train their own dogs.

One thing I would like to note is that the assistance dog organization I worked with provides all of their program dogs at no cost to their clients / recipients. This amazingly wonderful group ( and others like them ) is able to do this solely through the support of the public from donations and fundraising endeavors, as well as with the aid of a small army of dedicated volunteers, puppy raisers, and the full time staff.

There are mixed feelings in the assistance dog communities toward owner-trained dogs because some bad apples have ruined it for everyone. Some people don't follow steps to properly train their dogs for reliability and soundness, thus some might have behavior issues that are unacceptable for assistance work and public access. The other bad apples that ruin it for the bunch are people who pretend to have a service dog by slapping a vest on it, just so they can take it anywhere they go. It is against the law to falsely represent a pet dog as a service dog.


Thankfully, most owner-trained teams do the right thing. They educate themselves and seek help from various professionals. They hold themselves to the same high standards that any organization certified dog has to go through. As the name suggests, owner-trained dogs are trained by their owners, preferably under guidance from a professional trainer appointed by an assistance dog organization. Rather than being on the waiting list to get a dog you have never met, you work with your own dog that you have already bonded with. Not all pet dogs are able to meet the strict behavior and health standards required for assistance dogs.

Since Ember was already obedience trained and bonded with me, we just needed to take her training to the next level. Thus working to become an owner-trained team was perfect for our situation. We had to meet the same requirements of any program dog, including passing behavior evaluations and medical evaluations including hip and shoulder x-rays. All expenses to get this far have been out of my own pocket. I have been fortunate that when finances were tight, people were kind enough to donate to help cover the differences.

It takes a metric ton of patience, dedication, and repetition to just get to the beginning foundation of what is really required. If you have come across this writing by searching for information on owner-training, it is not an easy process and not one to be taken lightly. I have spent countless hours reading, watching videos, and having hands on experience to prepare for all this, and we have hardly scratched the surface. That being said, don't let it discourage you if you are really serious about it and can truly benefit from such an amazing partnership.

- - - -


Training is not over simply because we got our certifications. Training and learning keeps going, long beyond that. There is always room for improvement, and always room to learn new and exciting things!



Please feel free to contact me with any questions. I'm happy to help if I can.

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