The “Dog Day” Experience

Guide Dog Partnership
Guide Dogs are probably the most widely recognized type of assistance dog. Equipped with a harness with a long, semi-rigid handle held by the blind handler, a guide dog strategically navigates around obstacles, indicates to hazards in the team’s path and intelligently disobeys commands that would be dangerous with which to comply. With up to two years of extensive training, a guide dog offers his handler the safety and confidence she needs for all manners of independent mobility.

Guide Dogs have traditionally been trained by nonprofit organizations or guide dog schools. Members of the blind community attend these schools for about a month at a time to train with their first guide dogs. The first couple of days are usually dedicated to orientation and lectures.

In many cases, students have preceded their lives as guide dog handlers with years of cane use and help from other people acting as sighted guides. Embarking on the journey of guide dog partnership will be like nothing they’ve ever experienced and may open doors which were previously inaccessible. Though many students live full, independent lives both before and after becoming a guide dog handler, they report preferring the increased degree of dignity guide dog partnership offers in comparison to alternative mobility options.

Dog Day
The day has finally come, when students know they are about to meet their guide dogs for the first time.  This day is wrought with intense emotion, as it is a moment students have been dreaming about for months- sometimes years.

Imagine what it would feel like to know, well in advance, that you were about to meet your best friend for the next decade. While it goes without saying that you’d be looking forward to this moment, it makes sense that you’d likely have a severe case of butterflies in your stomach. Will your new partner be all that you hoped for? Would you click right away? Would he be the breed or color you strongly desired? Did you make a mistake attending guide dog school? You have months of anticipation built up. How could you be expected to wait a second longer?

Speaking about her own Dog Day, Emily Sheets, handler of a guide dog from The Seeing Eye, expressed to me so poignantly, “When we were told to go to our rooms while they went over to the kennels to get our dogs, that’s when I simply refused to wait any longer, but had to anyway.” If that doesn’t sound like a day filled to the brim with excitement and tension, I don’t know what does. Emily goes on to talk about just how much her nerves had affected her, “I forgot my leash so I had to dart back in my room to get it. Talk about nervous when I literally was just told to bring the leash and leave it up to me to immediately forget to grab it.”

After minutes drag on like hours, it’s time.

Each guide dog is brought to his or her new handler by the student’s instructor. Students are told the dog’s name, how the name is spelled, the sex of the dog and the dog’s breed and color.

This is the point at which the new handler puts her hands on her new partner for the first time.  Feeling out his features, she notes the blockiness of his head and the texture of his fur.  She finds out whether her dog is the type to greet her as an old friend or may be briefly disappointed to find that her dog prefers to stick by the more familiar person in the room.  She’ll speak the dog’s name for the first time and may offer some treats.

All the eagerness, anticipation, worry and excitement of the past several months culminates in these first moments together.  This is just the beginning; this is Dog Day.

A Guide Dog Candidate

It’s been nearly a year since Bradley, my previous guide dog retired. In that time, my life has changed profoundly in several ways. Most significantly, my husband and I welcomed our first child into our family. Our six month old daughter is the center of our world.

During my pregnancy and for several months after my daughter’s birth, I put my plans to train a successor guide dog on hold. I’m so glad that I did because it allowed me to dedicate 100% of my attention to my newborn daughter’s needs.

After many waking hours of reflection, I’ve concluded that I’m ready to begin the process of obtaining my next guide dog.

I’m starting out by launching fund raising campaigns to assist with the initial purchase of a dog who will be my service dog candidate.

The first campaign is a t-shirt fundraiser via Teespring. The theme is “Where there’s a dog, there’s a way.” This is not only a reference to the amazing impact service dogs have on the lives of the disabled, but also to the incredible versatility of the species. Dogs have been enhancing civilization for thousands of years. Whether you have a dog who contributes to your livelihood or have a pet who amazes you on a daily basis, we can all think of myriad examples of dogs making our lives better.

Please consider purchasing a shirt to support my journey with my next guide dog. You can purchase a shirt with this design through February 4th. If enough shirts aren’t ordered, Teespring won’t print them and you won’t be charged- So be sure to share this with your friends to make sure enough are ordered for you to get yours!

Click here to see the t-shirt








A New Beginning

As anyone who has followed my blog in the past three years will know, it has been a long road in my endeavor to obtain a successor to Bradley. After some wonderful and major life changes, I’m ready for a new beginning with a new partner. Please join me as I begin the journey to obtaining my future guide dog.

You’ll notice a revamping of this blog, looking to the future, as I invite new friends to share this experience. I’ll continue writing about issues relating to assistance dogs and, of course, keep the updates about this journey coming. Please bear with me as I (re)introduce myself.


Bradley, Retired Service Dog

How the Idea of the “Fake Service Dog Epidemic” is Hurting Service Dog Handlers (Part I)

In September of 2013, I had my first (and only, to date) access challenge. Everything ended on a positive note, because I was prepared with printed information for the business and did not engage anyone in a confrontational manner. I recorded the exchange and it’s on my YouTube channel. 

Of course, my access challenge video gets far less attention than its more sensationalized counterparts, which usually consist of handlers losing their composure and the confrontation escalating…because, which is more emotionally charged?

Earlier today, I stumbled upon a comment on my video, made by a person who questions the legitimacy of my service dog and speculates that there must have been red flags that gave the business cause for concern. Further back and forth with this person goes on to reveal that the person is very anti-owner trainer and pro-nationally recognized certification system.

If it weren’t such a troubling state of affairs that we now live in a reality in which service dog handlers have to contend with a general public, who, in the interest of protecting “real service dog teams,” jumps at the opportunity to make presumptions and accusations first and ask questions later, I would find it funny that someone could happen upon a video devoid of drama, which clearly demonstrates a service dog handler who is dedicated to non-confrontational education and associate the handler with those who misuse the system.

You can view the aforementioned comments on my video on YouTube.

(After asserting my positions on various issues and identifying that this is an individual who is not interested disagreeing in a constructive or civil manner, I’ve decided not to engage the person any further.)

My First Serious Access Challenge

This past Tuesday was the first time I experienced an access challenge that went beyond something along the lines of, “We don’t allow dogs in here.” “He’s a service dog.” “Oh, ok.” Or, “Is that a service dog?” “Yes.” “Ok, just checking.”

I was pressed to present “paperwork,” for my dog. Here’s a video of how things transpired with the second employee who approached me.

(Video description on YouTube: Before recording this, I had an initial interaction with a different employee, who insisted I present papers/documentation for my service dog. After quickly asserting my rights with her, she opted to have me talk to someone else, who I was told would be a manager.

This video reflects the entirety of my interaction with the second and final employee who I dealt with.)

My biggest Achilles Heel in this situation was the degree to which I was caught off guard. I’m lucky in that I’ve become accustomed to a partnership devoid of experiences like this one. Business employees rarely give me a second glance- at least not a scrutinizing one- when I enter with Bradley. So, when I was immediately approached in a somewhat hostile manner, being commanded to present documentation that was not legally required of me to either possess or present, I was very taken aback. I’ve experienced a myriad of access challenges, vicariously, through my friends in the service dog community, but it’s entirely different to experience it first hand. This was an invaluable learning experience just as much for me as it was for the employees to whom I asserted my rights and offered an education of theirs.

I do worry how much differently this experience would have been, had I not been prepared with the relevant educational resources about the applicable laws. Of course, I would have continued my effort to remain calm, well spoken and assertive, without compromising any of my rights or responsibilities as a representative of the service dog community. But I’m not sure that, in the absence of printed out educational material, the employees would have been as receptive to what I would have had to say.

This experience validated my position on the use of ID cards for service dogs, whether they’re from scam registries, fake certification companies or even the presentation of a legitimate certification ID for the purpose of gaining access to a place of public accommodation, during a public access dispute. Whoever was there with a dog, legitimate service dog or not, had presented something of that nature, which further cemented the impression in the eyes of management at that business that such documentation is required of service dog handlers. In an effort to make things easier for herself, that person directly affected how much more difficult things were made for me. I have no one to thank but myself, for my preparedness to deal with the ramifications of her decision.

The Quest for My Next Service Dog

As anyone who has been following this blog for quite some time knows, Bradley and I haven’t been partnered with each other terribly long.  I brought him home when he was 11 weeks old and started his training shortly after.  He’s now five years old.


Looking Ahead to the Future
For the past few years, my plan has been to acquire a puppy candidate to train as his successor.  There are a number of reasons I came to this conclusion.  Foremost is that I want Bradley to be able to retire at his own pace and to be able to ease into it.  That’s a luxury that many service dogs, unfortunately, are not afforded.

Nothing is guaranteed, and when a service dog is suddenly no longer able to work, it’s devastating to both the handler an the dog.  While I can’t predict the future, there is no way to deny that reality or, short of optimal medical care and maintenance, to guarantee against it happening.

My hope for Bradley is that he will live a long, healthy life and maintain his willingness and capability to perform his job for years go come.  That being said, I have established a timeline that I have committed to following, in regard to Bradley’s retirement.  Just thinking about Bradley retiring is enough to stir up painful emotions.  It’s a reality I have to face, though, and it’s better that I do that now than when my hand is forced.

I have chosen to begin the process of retiring Bradley at age eight.  In many cases, handlers choose to work their service dogs as late as ten or more years old.  In Bradley’s case, however, his job is not only mentally demanding but also physically demanding.  It is my belief that he should not be expected to perform his job as he does now, well into his senior years.  I want to provide Bradley with a long, happy retirement, as a very special pet.

The Plan
It takes about two years to train a service dog, from puppyhood.  My goal is to acquire a puppy service dog candidate by the time Bradley is six years old.  He just recently turned five.  This would allow me to take two years to train a puppy into young adulthood, with the hopes that he would be ready to take over for Bradley by the time Bradly turns eight.  Ideally, I would ease Bradley into retirement, working each dog alternately, until Bradley was ready to fully settle into life as a retired service dog and active pet, who would remain a major part of my life.

This means I need to acquire a young puppy within the year.  While that sounds like a liberal amount of time, once one takes into consideration the research that goes into finding a suitable breeder and then waiting until that breeder expects a new litter of puppies, which often only happens once a year, the clock ticks faster and faster.

There are a myriad of breeds that I have researched and have added to my list of breeds to consider for my future service dog candidate.  There are so many factors to take into consideration that there are few who fully meet my criteria for a partner.  Here is a list of some of my top choices of breeds:

Golden Retriever
A Golden Retriever is certainly a safe choice for a service dog candidate.  I have fallen head over heels for the breed.  Right now, however, is the time to explore my options and that is what I’m doing.  If the option presented itself so that I could acquire a suitable Golden Retriever from a compatible breeder, I would jump at the opportunity.


German Shepherd Dog (European Working Lines)
The GSD, while a common breed used for service work, is not quite as “safe” a choice as a Golden Retriever.  I’m perfectly comfortable with that.  I’m ready for a dog with more drive,  who is handler oriented, yet capable of thinking independently.



Belgian Malinois
These dogs are SMART.  Like the GSD, they are pumped full of drive and require a handler who can keep up with them.  I’ve reached the point in my dog handling experience that gives me the confidence that I am capable of a successful partnership with a dog who needs a job and the right handler to meet his needs.


Doberman Pinscher
I’ve been dreaming of the day I could call a Doberman my own for over half my life.  This is another highly intelligent breed who thrives with a job.  They can be independent thinkers but are closely bonded to their handlers and sometimes learn faster than their handlers can teach them!


Siberian Husky
Yes, I did say Siberian Husky.  This breed is quite unlike any of those listed above.  Aside from the Golden Retriever, they are also the only breed of those listed that I have actually owned.  My experience with my Siberian Husky, Sydney, was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a dog in my entire life.  They are notoriously hard-headed, independent thinkers and almost at the opposite end of the spectrum from Golden Retrievers, when it comes to ‘trainability.’  This is actually a ‘selling point’ for me.  I enjoy working with dogs that command creativity in training and I understand what makes these dogs tick.

Other breeds I’d gladly consider:
Rough Collie
Pit Bull- provided the dog were large enough.  Many are small.
Border Collie
Cane Corso
Norwegian Elkhound

Coming To Terms
This is a position I veery much wish I did not find myself in, but it is par for the course, as an owner trainer.  Not only does the search for compatible breeders present a unique challenge, but it also serves as a very real wake-up call that Bradley is not going to be my service dog forever.

I know that, unlike many working dogs, deep down, Bradley does not have the soul of a die-hard working dog.  He has been a phenomenal partner to me, an eager worker and a fast learner.  I can’t ask for much more than that.  Yet there remains the possibility, as there does with any service dog who is transitioning into retirement, that he will prefer his working life to that of life at home- especially when his position has been filled by another dog.  I plan to do my best to set him up for all the happiness in the world, in his life as a retired service dog.

Undoubtedly, I’ll experience my own type of grieving process, along the way.

Asking For Help
For both our sake, I’ll spare you the details of the circumstances which have contributed to me ending up in a position in which I’ve decided to ask for help from others to fulfill my goal of acquiring a service dog candidate during a very specific window of time.

If you’ve ever visited this blog before, you may have noticed that there is a link to the right that will bring you to a fund raising page.  That fund raising page is an effort to raise money to support the purchase of my next service dog candidate.  I ask that you consider supporting me in this endeavor by making a donation, no matter how small.

However, what I could most benefit from is finding a breeder who would be willing to consider donating a dog to me to train as my service dog.  I realize that this is asking a lot and I hope that you’ll continue to bear with me for just another minute.

I appreciate that giving dogs away may be a hardship on breeders.  However, there are a myriad of reasons why, in the long run, donating a dog for service work can work in a breeder’s favor.  Aside from putting titles on dogs, the pride that would undoubtedly result from producing a dog who successfully made it through training to become a service dog would speak volumes for one’s breeding program.  What better way to assure future puppy buyers that your dogs are of sound temperament than to have an active, working service dog who is enriching the life of a person with a disability?

So here is my plea to breeders, whether you produce a breed that I mentioned above or not: Please consider this tremendous act of kindness while fulfilling your dedication to better your breed to the best of your ability.

Here is a photo of Retrieverman’s gorgeous girl, Miley. She is Bradley’s age and, as you can see, also has a bit of the graying going on that Bradley does now. Because Bradley is darker, his graying stands out to others more and I find myself getting almost constant inquiries about his age, these days. Seeing Miley’s ‘spectacles’ is my first time seeing similar graying on a Golden with a lighter coat than Bradley’s. I think she looks beautiful!


Below is a current photo of Bradley.  You can see his more obvious graying against his darker face.

Natural History


Getting gray spectacles now.

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Assistance from Service Dogs for People with Eating Disorders

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2013

We are currently in the midst of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2013 (Feb 24-March 2nd). The message NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) is promoting is, “Everyone knows someone.” The unfortunate reality is that this holds true with far more prevalence than most people are aware; According to NEDA, “30 Million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime.” Don’t think you know someone with an eating disorder? If you know me, you do. I’ve lived with an eating disorder for the past ten years.

In honor of ‘NEDA Week 2013,” I’d like to dedicate this post to exploring the potential for assistance that service dogs may offer to those struggling with eating disorders.


A Brief Review of the Role of Service Dogs
Service dogs are dogs who receive individual training to do work or perform tasks which mitigate their handlers’ unique disabilities. It’s safe to say that, in most cases, the exact nature of the assistance a service dog offers is distinct from the manner in which a service dog assists another individual with the same or a similar disability.

In defining the role of a service dog, it’s also necessary to understand what is meant by the term, “disability.” A disability is a condition that affects an individual in a manner that significantly affects or limits one or more major life activity.

A service dog is *not* a dog whose sole purpose is to provide comfort through companionship, whether that means a person is less depressed because of the therapeutic benefit of having a pet dog or a person feels safer having a pet dog whose presence may serve as a potential crime deterrent.

Two factors must be simultaneously present for a dog to be considered a service dog: A person with a life-limiting disability and a dog who has been individually trained to mitigate the manifestation of that person’s disability.

Alternative Uses of Dogs to Benefit Those with Psychiatric Disorders
There are two additional roles dogs may play in the lives of people with medical conditions or psychiatric disorders. These additional roles, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals (ESA’s) are often confused with service dogs but it’s crucial to understand the differences between the roles. Later on, I will reference potential uses of ESA’s to benefit those who live with eating disorders. If you’d like to learn more about the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals, visit the page on the subject at the Please Don’t Pet Me website.

An emotional support animal does not need to be a dog- although dogs will be the focus of this post. Emotional support animals, unlike service dogs, do not need to undergo any individualized training to mitigate their owners’ disabilities. The primary role of an emotional support animal is to provide a therapeutic benefit through companionship and the inherent comfort of having a dog around. They are permitted to live in housing that prohibits pets, as a reasonable accommodation to a person with a disability and may travel in cabin with their owners during air travel, per the discretion of their owners’ medical and mental health care providers. People with disabilities do not have the right, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to be accompanied by ESAs in places of public accommodation, as they do with service dogs.

Physical Health Implications of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are psychiatric in nature and have tremendous ramifications to sufferer’s physical health. Detrimental consequences are both short term and long term. Each type of eating disorder affects individuals differently but any eating disorder can carry a risk of mortality; this can be the result of heart failure caused by electrolyte imbalance or low blood pressure, kidney failure, caused by dehydration and esophageal rupture. Other negative health implications associated with eating disorders pose a threat of serious and lasting harm to those affected.

Comorbidity of additional psychiatric disorders among those diagnosed with eating disorders is prevalent, with some of the most common comorbid conditions including: Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorders, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Linking Effects with the Benefits of Assistance from a Service Dog
It is not uncommon for service dogs to have ‘job descriptions’ that involve behaviors that can be the difference between life and death for their handlers on a regular basis. While not every individual who lives with an eating disorder is facing imminent risk of death on a day to day basis, the effects of some eating disorder behaviors can inch sufferers closer to a point at which that may change, as the eating disorder behavior becomes more extreme or cumulative effects of ongoing behaviors begin to affect the individual.

Independent of life-threatening or long term effects, some eating disorder behaviors can result in undesirable and unsafe short term effects, like fatigue, dizziness, headaches and syncope.

Keeping the degree to which they affect a person in mind, all of the aforementioned effects of behaviors associated with eating disorders have the potential to interfere with one or more major life activity, rendering an individual disabled. With the right forethought, it is certainly possible for an affected individual to benefit from the assistance of an individually trained service dog.


How Can Service Dogs Help Those with Eating Disorders?
Taking into consideration that the individual is affected by his or her eating disorder to a degree at which it meets the criteria to be considered a disabling condition, it’s important to remember that each disability manifests itself uniquely from one person to the next. Eating disorders are no exception. I’ll discuss just a few ways a dog can be individually trained to mitigate the disabling nature of various eating disorders. Most will be familiar to those who are familiar with the types of behaviors psychiatric service dogs assist people with various conditions and disorders that are not related to eating disorders.

  • Preventing and Interrupting Maladaptive (Eating Disorder) Behaviors
    With some creativity, there is virtually no limit to the manners in which a service dog can be trained to perform behaviors that are incompatible with something the handler struggles with resisting strong urges in which to engage. In regard to eating disorders, this can include anything from ritualistic eating (or exercise) habits to purging after eating. One example of how a service dog may prevent his handler from engaging in purging behavior may be to physically interrupt the individual’s efforts toward purging by doing something like persistent pawing at the handler or pawing at the door if the handler has shut the dog out of the room. The dog may also be trained to alert members of the handler’s family to the handler’s behavior by barking or using another trained cue to communicate with others who are actively supportive of the handler’s recovery. A service dog may also be trained to perform similar behaviors to interrupt a binge eating episode.
  • Reminding the handler to perform important daily tasks
    Service dogs can be trained to remind their handlers when it’s time for something important to happen. In the case of eating disorder behaviors, this may be something like a reminder to eat a meal or a snack. An effective way to condition a dog to remind the handler to do something at the same time every day is to create a daily routine that involves doing something the dog will look forward to and come to expect, each day at the same time. The service dog will need to be trained to perform a specific behavior that will serve as the reminder, in order to make the ‘payoff’ happen. The payoff can be something like a high value treat, a meal, a walk, a game of fetch- anything the dog loves. Ultimately, what will be most important is that the dog is persistent in his reminding behavior. It should be something that the handler cannot easily ignore.
  • Medical Alert and/or Response
    There are a wide variety of medical conditions for which service dogs can and often are trained to perform alerting and response behaviors for. Alerts are behaviors the dog performs before the onset of a medical crisis (or before the handler is aware of it), to warn the handler that it is coming. This gives the handler the opportunity to take appropriate action to either prevent the medical crisis or get into a safe situation in which to experience the oncoming crisis. Responses are behaviors that a service dog is trained to perform after a medical crisis has started to take place. A response can be anything from keeping the handler safe while the crisis takes place to alerting someone else that the handler is in need of assistance. Because some individuals with eating disorders experience effects like syncope (fainting), a service dog who is trained to detect a syncope episode and alert the handler to it can be tremendously helpful. If the dog isn’t capable of detecting it before it occurs, and many are not, the dog can be trained to respond by doing something like seeking out another person for help.
  • Providing Trained Support During Times of Distress
    This type of assistance is typical of most service dogs who are trained to assist people with psychiatric disabilities. The types of tasks service dogs may perform to be of such assistance vary significantly from one team to another. Some handlers can benefit from a service dog providing Deep Pressure Therapy, when anxiety levels rise. In the case of an eating disorder, it’s not at all uncommon for heightened anxiety to be a major factor in the individual’s experiences. This can be of particular prominence directly before, during and immediately after meals. Service dogs can be trained to perform any combination of behaviors to alleviate their handlers’ distress.

Of paramount importance to stress is that, similar to any other use of a service dog, this assistance is never to replace or conflict with effective medical treatment. The role of a service dog in the life of an individual with an eating disorder must be one that promotes steps toward the individual’s recovery- not providing assistance in a manner that supports the destructive nature of life with eating disorder behaviors. This unique partnership should allow the handler to build mastery in effective coping behaviors and ongoing progress, on the road to recovery.

Techniques for Using Pet Dogs or Emotional Support Animals to Manage Eating Disorder Behaviors

-Use training sessions to treat yourself along with your dog: Set up your training environment so you can enjoy a snack while rewarding your dog for his work. Each time your dog earns a reward to reinforce a behavior, treat your dog and be sure to take a bite of your chosen snack immediately after. (Make sure that you are not touching food or treats intended for dogs with the same hand you’re handling your own food with, to avoid contamination. Using eating utensils for your own food is recommended.)

– Eat with your dog: Schedule meals like breakfast and dinner at the same time you feed your dog.

This is a picture of Bradley holding his leash, taken in May 2009.

– Walk away from purging: Plan the longer walks of the day with your dog for times after you eat. Not only will you be physically distancing yourself from your typical purging environment, but you will also be putting space between the time you consume your meal and the window of time you are most likely to purge. Any anxiety about purging is likely to subside, the longer you’re out on the walk. Make sure to make it a restorative, peaceful bonding experience for you and your dog.

IMG_2522– Incorporate your dog’s exercise into your own exercise routine: Keeping your dog’s physical welfare in mind, most young, healthy dogs will happily become your outdoor workout buddy! Just as people need to train before they can become regular joggers or runners, dogs require conditioning, too. Make sure not to push your dog too hard, too fast. Once your dog is walking, hiking, jogging, biking, swimming or participating in other recreational activities with you, you can develop a balanced routine that keeps your dog’s happiness and safety in the forefront of your mind, while establishing healthy habits for yourself. (If it’s enough exercise for your active dog, it’s certainly adequate activity for most people.)

– Learn about nutrition: There’s a wealth of information available online about canine nutrition. Admittedly, some sources of information conflict with others, but there is a lot to learn. You’ll be putting yourself in a position to learn more about how to optimally fuel your dog’s body to provide him with the opportunity to be in prime health. Armed with your newfound knowledge and understanding of nourishing your dog, do yourself the same favor. Meet with a nutritionist and do your own research about what makes your body tick. Knowledge is power.

Bradley and I embracing with a colorful Autumn scene in the background

– Treat yourself as compassionately as you treat your dog: You would not want your dog to be without what he needs to be healthy and happy and he certainly wants you to show the same care to yourself. Balance is healthy for both of you and neither of you will judge the other for your imperfections.

Take Note
In the presence of any disability, the decision to use a service dog as a means of mitigating the manner in which an individual is affected is a very personal one. While the assistance a service dog can provide is invaluable, embarking on such a partnership is a tremendous commitment and responsibility. The commitment and responsibility is not only to the service dog who will be one’s partner for upwards of a decade, in some cases, but also a commitment to take care of oneself by doing whatever an individual and his or her medical treatment providers deem appropriate to best manage the symptoms of the medical condition. A service dog is neither a cure nor a band aid, but rather a partner with unwavering dedication to performing the job for which he was trained.

It’s important to emphasize that a diagnosis is not synonymous with a disability. While two people may receive the same diagnosis, that doesn’t mean they are both affected by the criteria an individual must meet to receive such a diagnosis in the same manner. The manifestation of a diagnosis for one person may be significantly life-limiting, while the other is able to manage symptoms and care for himself or herself independently. This is not exclusive to eating disorders; it is applicable to any medical condition, whether it is psychiatric, neurological or physical in nature. (On the other hand, one need not receive an official diagnosis to be affected by symptoms to a degree which renders the person disabled.)

Finally, upon researching the manner in which one may benefit from the assistance of a service dog, it will become clear that not all forms of service dog jobs are created equally under the law. Some tasks or work mitigate a disability to such an extent that a court of law would support the use of a service dog to perform individual tasks or work independent of additional trained tasks or work, while other trained behaviors may be helpful in allowing an individual to maintain safety and independence, yet they may not play a role significant enough for a dog to legally be considered a service dog.

Some of the concepts suggested above may not be strong enough ‘stand-alone’ tasks, yet a dog who is trained to perform a combination of them will make a greater impact on the disabled person’s independence. I recommend reading some task lists, particularly those outlined for psychiatric service dogs, on IAADP’s (International Association of Assistance Dog Partners) website, to learn more about ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ tasks or behaviors, when considering whether such skills would result in a dog being considered a service dog.

Comorbidity Of Psychiatric Conditions with Eating Disorders

As I mentioned above, there is a high occurrence of comorbidity of additional psychiatric conditions, among patients with eating disorders. Each of the most commonly occurring comorbid conditions (Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorders) has the potential affect an individual to such a degree that he or she may be disabled. Combining the effects of such conditions with those of eating disorders can have devastating consequences on the lives of those who are affected by them. The assistance provided by psychiatric service dogs could prove to be invaluable and life-changing, in such cases.

A Humbling Shaping Exercise

I’m so excited to announce that Bradley and I started our first canine sport class a little over a week ago.  It’s an agility foundations class.  Last night was our second class and we still have yet to lay eyes on actual agility equipment.  I had expected our instructor to take things slowly with all of us agility newbies.  However, I didn’t quite expect to take such small, calculated steps.  I’ve gotta say, I’m incredibly impressed with how the class is being operated so far.  I’m glad that we weren’t blindly thrown into the world of weave poles, A frames, jumps, dog walks, tires, etc.  This class is truly catered to the novice agility enthusiast with plans to compete in the future, which describes me to a ‘T’.

My experience with group classes is pretty limited.    Unfortunately, that limited experience has not, up until this point, exposed me to knowledge or skills that I didn’t already have a firm grasp on, so I felt like both Bradley and I were bored and wasting our time.  I’m very happy to say that is not the case with this class.  Heavy emphasis is being placed on teaching handlers the basics of clicker training and shaping.  Music to my ears!

Befitting to a foundations class, we are truly working from the ground up.  When I say the skills we’re learning and practicing are basic, I mean it.  But they are laying the foundation for effective handling once we’re ready to run an agility course.

Here’s a short video of a simple turn that took some time for us to get used to manipulating.  As easy as it looks, the footwork directly conflicts with the manner in which we normally take turns, so we got off to an awkward start.

We’ve been totally at home with the various exercises that have been presented to us, including shaping some new, simple behaviors, shaping interaction with various objects, demonstrating basic obedience skills and homework like working on loading the clicker and teaching some new behaviors, like bow, ‘sit pretty,’ turning in alternate directions and our own behavior shaping ideas.

Our homework this week is to teach our dogs a new behavior, using shaping.  I was having a hard time deciding on what to teach Bradley.  I wanted to come up with something interesting.  I was stuck though, so I decided to work on solidifying Bradley’s proficiency at the tricks we’ve started to work on.  With all the the training I’ve done with Bradley, there are very, very few parlor tricks that Bradley knows.  Almost everything I’ve taught him has a practical purpose.  I decided to let go of that, in this context, to simply allow us to get what we’re supposed to get out of the assignment- mastery building, not task training.

Humbled By Shaping
Bradley is a quick learner and a willing worker.  He excels at learning through clicker training and has learned the majority of service dog tasks that he knows through clicker training.  As I set out to work on our assignment to work on a new behavior, this evening, I took our overwhelming success rate for granted and was taken aback when we hit a speed bump.

The task: Roll over.
Probably second to giving paw, rolling over is one of the most common tricks that dog lovers tend to just assume a dog knows how to perform. It’s such a common behavior for a dog to learn, it’s almost as if people are under the impression that dogs are born knowing how to perform the trick on cue.  I can’t even count the number of dogs I’ve taught to roll over; while I have always used luring, I haven’t always utilized the method of shaping.  I set out to teach Bradley how to roll over, I fell back on the familiar tool of luring with a treat.  Already in high drive mode from earlier in the training session, Bradley had other things in mind, besides following the lure.

He was ecstatic.  True to his die-hard-clicker-training-loving soul, he was throwing off every single behavior he could think of that we had worked on recently.  Offered behaviors are my favorite part of clicker training.  They’re also Bradley’s favorite part.  At this point, however, he was way ahead of himself!  He was offering behaviors from lying on his side, bowing, twirling in circles- to everything in between.  Adorable as it was, I noticed a feeling creeping up that should never be a welcome guest in the context of clicker training: frustration.

Fortunately, I had mindfulness on my side and was able to gently let go of the approaching frustration, take a step back and evaluate how to proceed so as not to communicate any frustration to Bradley.  I knew that if frustration was present, the training session would have to end.

I was able to identify the first roadblock that we were experiencing; Bradley was not paying attention to the intended lure.  It wasn’t a matter of refusing food because of stress.  He was simply going a million miles per hour and leaving me, kibble in hand, in the dust.  After identifying that problem, I was able to set him up for success in following the lure and then had the opportunity to mark and reinforce that piece of the behavior.  He was able to reel himself in, slow down, and keep his eye on the prize.

Once he was consistently following the lure, I still had to take baby steps.  We had a major success, when he finally stopped doing entirely incompatible behaviors to rolling over, like offering a lie on his opposite side.  From that point on, I was able to mark every little step in the right direction, as he brought his head toward the lure, putting himself in a more compatible position for rolling over.  He got jackpots for rolling onto a hip or a shoulder and got the biggest, final jackpot reward for rolling all the way over.

Setting out to accomplish this task, I never would have thought that it would have taken so much effort and calculation to get Bradley to the point at which we concluded the session.  From a learning and bonding perspective, I can wholeheartedly affirm that I’d rather it have gone the way it did than have achieved immediate, almost thoughtless success.

Training sessions aren’t only for the dogs 🙂