I did all the research, of course. Which breeds would be best suited for me, different training techniques, different training tools … I thought I was prepared. When I picked up my nine-and-a-half-week-old ball of fluff, I had all but convinced myself that I could tackle just about any obstacle thrown my way. I had the support of other trainers, of course, and other handlers who had been in my position. When I brought Vincent home, I was so excited. He was going to be the most amazing dog ever and everything was going to be fabulous and I was going to have so much energy. Then when it was all over, I’d have this wonderful dog ready to go out into the world and help me grab it all by the horns.
|Vincent traveling on an airplane.|
Let me explain the reality of raising and training your own service dog from puppyhood. It’s not quite as I thought it would be. I enjoy sports references, so instead, think of it as though you’re about to go twelve rounds with Evander Holyfield. And then, for just a moment, imagine that you’re in that ring, you’ve got no boxing gloves, and you’ve never, in fact, thrown a punch in your entire life. Now you’ve got to figure out how to survive those twelve rounds. Holyfield is faster than you are, and he can throw a pretty good punch, too.
This is kind of what it’s like to raise and train your own service dog.
Round one isn’t too bad. You and your opponent are just getting to know each other. You’re just starting to figure out what works with him. Should you duck, or lunge? In dog training world, we’ll call this the basics stage. Before you start working with a puppy, you need to get to know that puppy. You need to figure out what sort of things work for that dog, and which sort of things don’t. There’s a myth in the training world that all techniques work the same on all dogs. This is a fallacy. Every dog is different, just like people, and understanding that will help you to understand that sometimes you have to approach things a little differently with dog B than you did with dog A. So, you’re getting to know your dog. You can recognize his ‘I have to potty’ face. You have realized that he’s more motivated by his toys than his treats. You have noticed when he’s more alert, more attentive.
And now, it’s time to dance. You throw the first punch. You might even throw a few really good ones, and you’re in the ring, and your feet are moving as though you’re possessed by Muhammad Ali, and you’re doing a pretty good job. You are gaining some headway, and you begin to think that twelve rounds might not be too bad.
By round three though, you’re starting to lose some steam. We’ll call this the ‘oh my goodness, my dog is growing up’ stage of the training process. When a puppy is first learning, everything is great. They seem to catch on easily. You might even try to rush things. I know I did at one point.
“Well, my pup knows sit, stay, and down, so we can move on to this now! Wow, he’s doing so great! This is the most amazing thing ever! I didn’t know I was a dog training guru!”
By the time Vincent was about six months old, he had been house-trained and knew most of his basics. I thought these basics were pretty solid. He listened well. We had bonded. We were the best of friends. This would be the stage of the fight just after you’ve gained some ground against Holyfield. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself, and for a moment, just a small sliver of time, you let your guard down. Holyfield sees his opening and cold-cocks you right in the face.
Vincent was being a bit … rebellious. All of a sudden my gorgeous, well-trained puppy was unrecognizable. He was barking at other dogs, running around and hopping on things and on people. He seemed to have forgotten how to sit, as though he simply couldn’t get his legs to complete the motion. I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me.
This is the not-so-glamorous side of raising and training your own service dogs. There are lots of ups and downs. Fear stages. Rebellious stages. Training hiccups. There are going to be several times when you’re going to doubt yourself during these times. I don’t know how many times I sat in my living room during times like these, head in my hands as I played over every day of the past several months in Vincent’s life and wondered if I had gone wrong, and where, and how to fix it if I had.
But the thing is, one punch doesn’t necessarily lose you the fight. Sure, your head is spinning a little bit, and the world looks like some blurry melting pot of colors and unrecognizable shapes. It takes you a minute to shake it off and make the world right itself again. You might need a bit of a break and a little pep talk from your cheering squad. In times like these with Vincent, I often turned to my friends, and to trainers and other service dog handlers in the community. In doing so, I learned something that turned out to be very valuable: That I was not alone. That other handler’s dogs went through fear stages. That other handlers’ dogs had chewed their favorite pair of shoes despite seven months of never showing interest in those things at all. And most importantly, that other trainers and other handlers had doubted themselves. Even those that were vastly more experienced than I was.
So, now you’ve had a bit of water, and the world has stopped spinning, and your cheering squad is screaming your name, and it’s time for another round with Holyfield. The little break helped you refuel a little bit, and your fans have definitely boosted your ego a bit, too. The bell rings, and you’ve already taken one hit, so you go back out there to face Holyfield knowing what that fist to the face feels like. You can anticipate it next time. You can work around it. You might even be able to throw a few more punches of your own.
I’m going to be honest. Vincent went through several of these stages. He had a lot of problems that at the time seemed like mountains I would never be able to scale. There were times I was sure that I had failed him, and in doing so, had failed myself, and that he would never be able to make it as a service dog.
The truth of the matter is the plain and simple fact that owner-training and raising your own service dog prospect is hard work. It’s an emotional roller-coaster with lots of ups and downs. The truth of the matter is that no matter how hard you work, no matter how much time you put in or how much you think you’ve analyzed everything, some dogs, most dogs simply aren’t cut out for service work, and you still may fail. I thought I would.
However, if you learn to roll with the metaphorical punches, it can be a very rewarding thing to do. Vincent did succeed. He’s getting ready to “graduate.” And the truth of the matter is, even though I still sometimes feel like I’ve spent twelve rounds in a boxing ring and gotten the stuffing knocked out of me, at the end of the day, I’m still standing, and there is nothing that I have ever been more proud of in my entire life than the seemingly insurmountable task that Vincent and I have tackled together.
Submitted by Kayla Hoyet
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