The Ups, Downs and About Turns of Progress

The path to successfully owner training a service dog, at times, is a winding, bumpy, poorly lit road. Despite whatever challenges may be presented along the way, the effort is well worth it. I’ve spent the past few months reflecting on all of this.

This is a picture of Bradley and I in the parking lot at the gym.

Speed Bump
We hit a major speed bump a few months ago, when I began experiencing too much anxiety to train Bradley calmly and confidently. Bradley is very sensitive to changes in my mood and when I became stressed, so did he. This created a vicious cycle, as we would each enhance the other’s level of anxiety. This quickly escalated into me becoming anxious simply because I was worried about potential future stress! Such a dynamic was becoming counterproductive.

I became extremely discouraged by this setback and faltered in my confidence in my ability to see Bradley through to the completion of the training process. My doubt was in my own ability, not Bradley’s capacity to learn. I expressed my concern with our trainer and took comfort in her assurance that many owner trainers have similar misgivings when they hit plateaus in their training progress.

To remedy this problem, Bradley’s trainer and I decided that she should handle him by herself during training sessions. While I would prefer to handle him myself, it wasn’t doing either of us any good for me to handle him when I wasn’t at the top of my game.

I determined another, more profound solution to this problem with the help of our trainer, as well as my psychiatrist, is to cross train Bradley as a psychiatric service dog. This will be a significant change for the better, as his sensitivity to my psychological state will be put to constructive use.

Psychiatric Service Dogs
What a psychiatric service dog is:
While most people understand the job guide dogs perform, psychiatric service dogs are far less widely known. Psychiatric service dogs, also referred to as PSD’s, are service dogs who are specifically trained to mitigate their handlers’ psychiatric disabilities. Just as there is an infinite variety of physical and medical disabilities, there are just as many variations of psychological disabilities. The handler of a psychiatric service dog must meet the legal qualification of being disabled in order to be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, just like any other type of service dog handler.  PSD’s perform tasks like alerting to symptoms, responding in a manner to lessen the severity of symptoms, grounding and many other skills.

What a PSD is not:
Many people are familiar with the term, “therapy dog,” and more people are becoming familiar with the term, “emotional support animal (ESA).” Therapy dogs and ESA’s are both distinct from each other, as well as from psychiatric service dogs. I’ll offer a brief description of therapy dogs and ESA’s to prevent any confusion between each of their roles and PSD’s.

Therapy dogs are thoroughly socialized, well-mannered dogs who are trained, tested and then certified to provide therapeutic support to well deserving members of society, like school children, hospital patients, nursing home residents and more. These dogs visit institutions to socialize with others who can benefit from the unconditional affection of a canine friend. While they play a valuable role in the lives of many people, they are not service dogs and their handlers are not afforded unrestricted public access rights with them.

On the other end of the pet therapy spectrum, is the emotional support animal (ESA). These are animals who provide comfort to their owners for not necessarily debilitating psychological conditions. These animals are not specifically trained to mitigate a disability, so they are not service animals. As such, their owners are not given public access rights. However, many statutes make provisions to allow owners of these animals to obtain housing in accommodations that are not otherwise pet friendly. Additionally, air carriers permit ESA’s to travel with their owners free of charge, provided proof of need for such an animal is presented.

It can be easy to blur the lines between therapy dogs, emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs.  A common misconception is that the sole purpose of PSD’s is to provide psychological comfort simply by being present.  If that were the case, these dogs would be ESA’s, not service dogs.  As with other types of service dogs, PSD’s are specially trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate their handlers’ disabilities.  While their presence certainly provides their handlers with comfort, this is simply a by-product of their job.

For more information about psychiatric service dogs, please visit the Psychiatric Service Dog Society’s website.

Making Lemons into Lemonade
While Bradley’s sensitivity to my stress level initially served as a detriment to our teamwork, it presents a unique opportunity to help both of us.

By incorporating PSD work into Bradley’s job, it will both channel his awareness of my tension into a positive response, as well as act as an aid in decreasing my own anxiety.

In my particular case, I’m training Bradley to recognize when I first begin showing signs of anxiety and to alert me to it so I can take action to prevent it from becoming worse.  In addition to alerting to my anxiety, I’m working on having him perform grounding tasks, like pressing his body against mine, nudging and licking me.

So far, this has put a positive twist on an unpleasant situation.

Career Evolution
In other news, I’ve made a very significant decision that is going to change the nature of my partnership with Bradley.

The reality has set in that I’m not going to be capable of training Bradley to perform at the level of reliability I need to obtain the degree of independence I desire.  While Bradley has a phenomenal temperament and eagerness to learn, my lack of guide dog training expertise is going to prevent us from reaching our full potential as dog guide team.

While I’m confident that Bradley will learn basic guide skills like obstacle avoidance, stopping at steps, finding certain items of interest, etc., I’m not as secure in my ability to teach him vital skills like intelligent disobedience and more advanced work in traffic.  Even if I could, I can’t say I’d be able to trust my life in the skills I taught him.

Therefore, I have made the decision to apply for a program trained guide dog.  Because Bradley enjoys working so much and we have come so far, I will not be retiring him from service work completely.  Despite not reaching the extent of independence I need, Bradley can still help me do more than I could do on my own.

Many guide dog programs refer to dogs who are deemed unsuitable for guide work and go onto working as other types of service dogs or bomb sniffing dogs as “career change” dogs.  While Bradley’s career has changed a bit, it’s more like a change in his job description.  His career is evolving but he’s still going to play a very significant role in our partnership.

That being said, I’m absolutely ecstatic at the thought of getting a program trained guide.  I feel that in doing so, doors will open that have never been open for me before.

In a few weeks, I’ll be applying with Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York.  So, not only will I continue to chronicle Bradley’s progress in this blog, but now I’ll also be sharing my experiences applying for and acquiring a program trained guide dog.


8 thoughts on “The Ups, Downs and About Turns of Progress

  1. Well, our journeys are certainly full of speed bumps.

    Kodi and I have hit those bumps too. He lost his confidence when we were outside in public, he was freaking out at every sound, every person that approached us. I was thinking I had failed him somehow.

    We took a little break while the weather was bad, we worked on some skills inside, then struck out again. I don’t know what happened, but his confidence was back, he’s been doing pretty good. Only ‘lost it’ once, when a big rig passed us near the sidewalk and it’s air breaks went off.

    I’ve taken him back into the bank and pharmacy for the first time since last year, he had a little trouble with the doors at the bank because they aren’t automatic and I struggle a bit, but otherwise, he was a bit excited, but quiet and able to sit next to me and obey me. I was very proud of him.

    Like you, I’ve had some serious concerns about whether I’m ever going to be able to take him on the bus with me, if I can ever take him shopping with me in a crowded store, or whether his skills will be limited to inside the home and every time I have those doubts he does something to surprise me.

    We were having trouble picking things up off the ground for me when we were outside, but three times recently he responded positively to picking up items from within my path.

    Just wanted you to know you’re not alone in having doubts, being emotional about your training and second guessing your ability to train. I’m right there with you, but Kodi helps me overcome, we overcome our fears together.

    Hugs and Tail Wags my Friend 🙂

    • Thank you for the kind words, Robin! I’m glad to hear you two are growing together as a team. Even though I have come to terms with our limitations, Bradley and I still have an irreplacable partnership that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Like Kodi, he always boosts my faith every time I get discouraged.

  2. Good luck with a program guide dog. After going through that kind of training, you may be able to owner train a future dog. I have also had some set backs with training Shaman. He was attacked by a Pit bull and became afraid of other dogs and also became some what dog aggressive. After several months of working him at Pets Mart around other dogs,he has finally gotten over his fear and is now working around other guide dogs and pets with no problems.Hang in there Elizabeth. I think you made the right decision for now and in the end,your skills will improve and so will your confidence.You will be able to try owner training again. It is good that Bradly can still help you in a different way.You will always have a special bond with him.

    • Hi Mardi,
      I’m so sorry to hear about what happened with Shaman. Poor guy! I’m so glad to hear that you were able to work past it with him!

      I do hope to owner train again at some point in my life. I know that there are several guide dog owner trainers who have had program dogs and then used their knowledge from those experiences to train their own.

      Take care and good luck with Shaman!


  3. I just came across your blog and greatly admire what you’ve done and are doing with Bradley! I was a volunteer puppy raiser for more than five years, for guide dogs as well as service dogs and I understand what you’ve been through, to some extent as I have a career changed 18 month old golden retriever living at home with me now. It was good to see your progress and Bradley’s and you provide much good information on etiquette and training standards! I know that if I ever need a service dog, if I have the means, I’ll attempt owner-training before a program dog for the reasons you listed at the beginning of this blog. I’m so happy to know that you have the ability to keep Bradley and get a program-trained dog, as many owner-trainers don’t have that ability! Kudos to you and Bradley!

    • Hi Ally!
      Thank you so much for your kind words and thank you even more for volunteering your time and dedication to the honorable service of puppy raising.

      Owner training is an invaluable gift and I continue to strongly advocate it for those who can do it. The bond that’s created through the training process is unlike any other, short of the bond that comes from trusting your life in a service dog; no matter who trained him.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope you’ll check back in again!


  4. Hi Lissi and Bradley! I’ve been “chewing” on your latest news since it was posted. I have joy in my heart for you and sadness too.

    I know how hard you’ve worked with Bradley and how special he is in your life. I’m sure you’ve really evaluated this big decision to apply for a trained guide dog. I’m guessing you’ve thought of this, but with all of Bradley’s training you’ve instilled, could a guide dog program take him, and work to train the areas that are a struggle for you? I’m sure you, your husband, and your SD trainer have already weighed the options, this was just on my mind.

    Last summer, I too had to make a decision. It was too much for me to self-train with an SD trainer’s assistance, due to my brain injury struggles. That’s partly why Windsor was trained by an SD trainer away from me and now I’m carrying on the training with an SD trainer here. It’s more feasible for me now. We are doing well and the waiting period allowed the Brain Protocol more time to keep healing my brain so that I could participate more in Windsor’s training. (Fun to do since I was a teacher prior to the 2003 car accident!)

    So, know that you, your husband, and Bradley are in my thoughts. I support you in whatever direction you take. I was so happy to read today that you are making progress with the Guide Dogs for the Blind.

    God Bless!

    • Hi Christy!
      Thank you, as always, for your kind words and support. It means so much to me!

      I wish it was an option to continue Bradley’s training to the level that I need with a professional. The trainer we’ve been working for is absolutely wonderful but she does not have any experience training guide dogs. However, she’s done a lot research on it since she started working with us and has given us extraordinary help with it. When I first got Bradley, I contacted several trainers who specialize in guide training. One of them stopped responding to my e-mails and the other was obscenely beyond my budget. I contacted other trainers, but non offered guide training to owner trained dogs.

      It is sad, because Bradley and I have come so far as a team! If it wasn’t for that element of training that I’m not confident in, we’d be very close to a fully functioning team right now. That’s why I’m not willing to wash him out upon the arrival of a guide dog. Bradley is a once in a lifetime kind of dog!

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