It’s a lot of work to be a service dog.
Schooner is back at his service dog organization and was featured in their latest mailing. Of course, I’m partial to the big ox, but I think the mailing provides an accurate look into what a service dog does, who needs a service dog, and the work that goes into training a dog to work in service to a person. Written by the Executive Director. (The picture isn’t the one depicting her experience in the story below, rather it’s a puppy picture of Schooner and I about nine months ago in our local grocery.)
What is the expression? “Don’t try this at home?”
Part of training a service dog means taking them places they might go in their working life. The grocery store is an obvious choice. But Whole Foods on the Friday before Easter is a perfect example of not thinking ahead.
The store was unusually crowded and I had elected to bring Schooner who is unusually large, currently weighing in at 147 pounds and still growing. Schooner is a Great Dane learning to be a balance dog and his primary task is to walk with care so that his intended recipient, who has a form of Muscular Dystrophy, can use him for stability.
As we entered the store, Schooner’s nose was not on the ground, so I was lulled into a false sense of security. Rather, it was in the air, sniffing the displays of food samples right at the mouth- and eye-level of a dog that stands thirty four inches tall. When it came to his “leave it” cue, amnesia set in. What was that block of cheese doing on display in the pasta section anyway?
In the meat department, I noticed a tick on Schooner’s leg just as he noticed the display of fish on ice. Without thinking (my modus operandi for the day) I pulled the tick off. Now what was I supposed to do with it? While holding Schooner with one hand and the tick in the other, I assured all the guys who came out from behind the meat counter that no, Schooner was not going to ingest all their fish, and yes, he eats a lot.
People are attracted to Schooner’s size and several people asked to pet him. Although I said, “Of course,” I struggled to keep his focus on his work. It’s a simple fact that people will reach out and touch him so he needs to learn to ignore them and other distractions. It’s like walking the Pope or the Dalai Lama for all the attention he attracts and all the hands that reach out.
Schooner and I will soon return to Whole foods because the truth is we have to master the place. That’s what it means to train a service dog — it’s not just about learning to open doors or retrieve items, it’s about keeping it together no matter where you are. So we will go back again and again until Schooner can walk like a gentleman, remember his cues, act like there’s not an enormous display of meat, fish, or cheese — even though there is — and when all the guys in the mean department come out to say hello, he won’t drag me over so he can lick their aprons.
Schooner’s partner will be completing high school next year and then will go off to college where she will undoubtedly be in places as distracting and crowded as Whole Foods. Schooner must be able to negotiate crowds, deal with things he has never seen before, and remain steady. She has had multiple surgeries to keep her legs from turning in so she can continue to walk as long as possible. She fights hard to do everything a young person enjoys. Schooner’s job is to ease her struggle so she can participate more fully, rather than declining to participate because she is tired, weak, or worries about falling down.
She is slightly built and Schooner will outweigh her by half, another reason he must be a calm partner. During a recent fire drill at her school, she was slow to exit and said her classmates pushed past her. She feels invisible…but not for long. Not with Schooner by her side.
Our service dogs make a tremendous difference in providing independence to a person with a disability. It takes a great deal of time to educate and train each dog. Simply put, we need your help so we can train more dogs and help more people.
I hope to be there, with Schooner as my escort. I hope to see you there!