Every time we pick up an eight-week-old puppy to start their training, we know we are asking him or her to live an extraordinary dog life; we also know that it might not be the life they want or were born for. Through two years of training, we put our all into each puppy and try to give them every chance to become a service dog, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Roughly 35% of the puppies we start don’t become service dogs. In almost all of those cases, we release them for one of these four reasons.
This is probably the most disappointing reason why we have to release a dog. Sometimes, a great dog with the perfect temperament and great trainers develops a medical issue that holds it back from becoming a service dog. In the past, we’ve had dogs with chronic infections, skin diseases, and muscle tears released from the program. In all of these cases, we were able to find good homes for these dogs and they were able to live normal lives, but we have to maintain strict health standards.
Bringing a service dog into your life is a major commitment and it’s not fair to our veteran applicants to place them with a dog that might need consistent and expensive medical treatment for its lifetime or a dog that might not be able to work for long. It’s also not fair to the dogs to ask them to live the demanding life of a service dog when their medical conditions make that difficult. As an organization, we have a responsibility to our veterans and to our dogs that supersedes our hopes and dreams for every puppy that comes into the program.
Hips, Eyes, & Elbows
Hips, eyes, and elbows–these are the three keys to a service dog’s long and healthy work life. Since our dogs live more active and demanding lives than most pets, we need to know that their bodies can handle the stress. When we get a puppy from a breeder, we request documentation to show at least “good” rated hips, eyes, and elbows for three generations of that puppy’s family. So, we want to see ratings for the pup’s mom and dad, grandparents, and great-grandparents. This greatly reduces the chances of finding out that a puppy we’ve put two years of training and love into has “poor” hips or “fair” eyes.
This requirement is one of the primary reasons why we limit the number of rescue dogs we train. While rescues are often great dogs with the potential to become wonderful service dogs, we can’t trace their family’s health, so we have to make a bigger gamble on them. This problem is made even more complicated by the fact that hip and elbow issues can arise as a dog matures, so we might not know there is a problem until the dog’s final medical evaluation at two-years-old. In recent years, we’ve released rescues like Shelly, a one-and-a-half-year-old shepherd mix for poor hips and Misty, a one-year-old Great Pyrenees mix for poor eyes. Both of those dogs went on to live great lives as pets, but they couldn’t become service dogs.
Everyone who has owned a dog knows that they have their own personalities complete with their own quirks. As puppies mature in our program, we watch them grow into themselves and we treat them as individuals. One of the benefits of being a small organization is that we know all of our dogs and adapt our training methods to best suit their personalities. Among the group of dogs we have in training right now, we know that Rosie is curious about anything new and loves to dig her head into a new toy bin or even a box of new poop bags, that Auggie is the most stubborn of the three brothers, and that Sam has the personality of a laid-back, California surfer dude. Knowing those traits changes how we approach training, but sometimes, a puppy enters our program with a trait or quirk that doesn’t suit the life of a service dog.
For example, a dog that guards its food or toys might not make it as a service dog. We will always try to teach a dog that they can’t react negatively when someone approaches their food or another dog takes their toy, but even with patience, time, and training, that message doesn’t always get through. Sometimes, that’s just their personality.
Number 4 is unique to the Class of 2022 who entered our prison program in early 2020. Both Kelly and Cutter began their training in February of 2020, by the end of March 2020, our prison decided to lockdown the facility to anyone non-essential to running the prison due to Covid-19 concerns. They worked with us to make sure that our dogs could continue training and we could continue to be in contact with our inmate-trainers via letters, notes, and phone calls, but we could not bring dogs in and out for months.
For the older dogs in prison, the lockdown gave them more time to fine tune their commands with our inmate-trainers and did little damage to their training, but for the young puppies, it was challenging. In their formative months, both Kelly and Cutter only saw guards in brown uniforms and inmates in blue uniforms, they never went beyond our dorm and play yard, and their whole lives were spent on a strict schedule from sunrise to sunset. They were never in danger or not cared for, but their puppyhoods were certainly unusual. When prison allowed us back inside the dorm and we began taking dogs out to weekend raisers again, we immediately noticed some challenges with Kelly and Cutter.
With Cutter, a naturally confident boy, he was able to overcome his initial uncertainties about the outside world. Today, he is making great progress catching up on the exposure training he missed. But with Kelly, a pintsized brown lab, the challenges were harder to overcome. She took time to feel comfortable with new people and became overwhelmed with nervous energy in new situations. So, after many months of extra effort we decided to release Kelly to a loving family. She is doing great with them and their dog; she feels safe and comfortable in her environment. Do we wish she could have made it? Of course, but we never want to force a dog to do something they don’t want to do.
What Can You Do to Help All PSD Puppies Succeed?
We raise our dogs in a community of supporters. If you are among that community and are wondering how you can help all of our dogs make it to graduation, think about becoming a weekend raiser! If that isn’t in the cards for you, we have lots of other ways you can help. To start, brush up on your service dog etiquette so you know how to best interact with our dogs the next time you run into one out and about. It’s often helpful to our weekend raisers to have a “new face” to practice with on things like distraction training. If you have more questions about volunteering or service dog etiquette, please feel welcome to reach out to us!