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What It's Like to Train Service Dogs

Service dog trainers and puppy raisers talk about preparing dogs for a lifetime of helping others.

 |  Aug 6th 2014  |   0 Contributions


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I believe it was President John F. Kennedy who said, “Ask not what your service dog can do for you; ask what you can do for your service dog!” That famous quote never rang more true than now, International Assistance Dog Week, which honors the hard work and dedication of the puppy raisers and trainers of assistance dogs; the individuals who overcome their disabilities with the help of a service dog; and, of course, the hard-working, loving assistance dogs themselves.

As a blind guy with a loyal service dog, Nash, my initial response to hearing about International Assistance Dog Week was: Shouldn’t this be celebrated all year round? As a service dog handler of five years who was apprehensive to get his first guide dog, I have come to realize not only the importance of the work my guide dog provides, but also the importance of recognizing the hard work and dedication of the puppy raisers and trainers of these amazing dogs.

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Hero the Standard Poodle was trained to carry oxygen tanks for Hope, a child with pulmonary hypertension. (Photo courtesy Cami Bajer)

In 2009, a few weeks before I headed off to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, my mom called me to tell me that my parents would be coming up for my graduation -- from guide dog school. At the time, that ceremony sounded like the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard, but after spending time at Guiding Eyes, I got it. It wasn’t for me: It was about the puppy raisers and trainers. For a lot of them it is the last time they will see the dog they raised to help a stranger have a much improved quality of life.

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Luna, a German Shepherd/English Mastiff mix, works with a child with autism. (Photo courtesy Cami Bajer)

Now I have a much better understanding now of the unselfish work that goes in to training a potential guide dog, I am thrilled that we will be celebrating not only our assistance dogs, but also all those people behind the scenes who might never get thanked for making the partnership I have with my guide dog possible.

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Glory, a future service dog, hangs out at the fire station. (Photo courtesy Amy Schupska)

International Assistance Dog Week also aims to raise awareness. A lot of people only think of guide dogs for the blind when they hear the term service dogs, but there are also dogs who are helping children with autism, our military veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, people with severe diabetes, the hearing impaired, people with stress disorders, and several other ailments. Yup, our working dogs make the lives of so many people living with a disability better, and all they ask for in return is to be loved and cared for. It’s an easy trade.

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Nash and I go everywhere together. (Photo courtesy Brian Fischler)

I spoke to some service dog trainers and puppy raisers to see what they think of International Assistance Dog Week and the work they do. Here's what they said:

Susan Kroha, a trainer for Guiding Eyes for the Blind

Susan was my trainer with Nash, and for all of the hard work she does, we say thank you. 

“People ask me if it's rewarding to do what I do and I always say yes, but it’s so much more than that," Susan says. "How can you describe the joy of matching a young person to their first guide dog? Watching them both walk forward into a whole new life, sharing a rare and special bond. The thrill of seeing a dog race, mouth open, ears forward, tail wagging to his new person, when he calls out to his dog. Witnessing a dog pull his person back out of the way from traffic, seeing the realization on the person’s face that the dog just kept them from getting hit. Seeing teams develop a quiet comfortable relationship that comes with time, trust, love, work, and play."

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Amy is currently training Betty the Lab to be a leader dog. (Photo courtesy Amy Schupska)

"Then there’s the joy-laced sadness that comes with giving an elderly person what will likely be their last guide dog. Being a guide dog instructor is rewarding and so much more.”

Laura Marth, a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind

“Training a service dog started out as a mission of giving a gift to another," she says. "The feeling of pride at seeing my dog work is single-handedly the greatest gift I could give myself. I have found my life’s work!” 

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Laura Marth trained Jillian, seen here demonstrating the "down" position.

Cami Bajer, service dog trainer for PAWSitive Partners

"I don't believe there are words to describe the feeling when you turn over a trained service dog to someone whose life is about to change," she says. "Service dogs do not solely provide physical assistance to those in need but also emotional support. When you are able to be a part of helping another woman, man, or child gain more independence, there is nothing much more rewarding than that. ... Every single time we graduate a team and see the two walk away towards a better life, there is very seldom a dry eye in the room!"

Amy Schupska, a puppy raiser for Leader Dogs for the Blind

“People say to us all the time, 'Isn’t it hard to give them up?' Raising a puppy is a labor of love," she explains. "We start out with a seven-week-old puppy full of love and promise and we help to shape and mold them in to young adult dogs. ... We help teach them the basics and they in return give us an overwhelming amount of love. The proud and bittersweet story doesn’t stop when we are done training them."

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Duke, a blue merle Collie, trained as a therapy dog, visiting children in Hospitals; he is now moving into service work for PTSD. (Photo courtesy Cami Bajer)

"The moment you see your puppy, the one you got up with in the middle of the night to take them go potty, traded them a Nylabone to chew instead of your favorite pair of shoes, is now the dog standing tall next to a blind or visually impaired client. That moment is just absolutely priceless and all worth it! All the tears you shed over being separated from them when they needed to go back to guide dog school to go on the next part of their journey are worth it. The pain and feeling of loss disappears and is instead replaced with so much joy.

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Amy raised Dylan the Lab.

Amy also mentions with pride the dogs she raised who had medical conditions preventing them from going through training, or who decided that working as a Leader Dog wasn’t their life path: "Each and every one of them has had a special place in my heart, and they have all taught me so much.”

Christie Bane, guide dog mobility instructor for Leader Dog  

“I train guide dogs because it is a job that allows me to make a difference in people’s lives. Being a trainer combines two things I am passionate about: training dogs and teaching people,” she says.

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Cami Bajer with Mags, a female Lab trained as a mobility dog. (Photo courtesy Cami Bajer)

While being a puppy raiser and a trainer of assistance dogs are similar roles, they are also vastly different, but the one thing they have in common is selflessness. During International Assistance Dog Week -- and every week -- I send a heartfelt thank you for the work you do. 

Read more about service dogs:

About the author: Brian Fischler is a standup comedian and writer. He has been seen on The Today Show, published in Maxim Magazine as the Comedian of the Month, and on Top Gear USA on The History Channel. Brian also runs Laugh For Sight, a bicoastal comedy benefit featuring the biggest names in comedy who come together to raise money and awareness for retinal degenerative eye disease research. Connect with Brian on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. 

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