International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners
FINDING A SUITABLE CANDIDATE FOR ASSISTANCE DOG WORK
by Joan Froling
Note: As author, I have decided to avoid gender preference by referring to a dog as "him," but either gender can be a fine service dog.
THE QUEST FOR THE SUITABLE ADULT CANDIDATE
Transferring the Bond: Many people wonder if an adult dog will be able to bond to them as closely as a pup they raise from scratch. In most cases, the answer is "yes." A well socialized pup grows up to be a dog with the capacity to form deep emotional attachments. He is eager to give love and to receive it. He wants to "belong" to someone. If separated from "his person", he doesn't spend the next five to ten years grieving and moping around. After a few days, loneliness sets in. He also begins to feel increasingly insecure without a pack to belong to. Eventually the dog becomes very receptive to the attentions of someone who is willing to meet his emotional and psychological needs. For the past half century, this marvelous ability to bond to someone new has been demonstrated again and again. Thousands of guide dogs have transferred their love at the appropriate time from a foster puppy raiser to a trainer and from a trainer to an assistance dog partner.
Recruiting from the Show Ring: One good source for adult dogs of the caliber needed for assistance dog work would be serious breeders who exhibit their best stock at dog shows. They generally give the pups they keep a great start by carefully socializing them to people and new places, for they know a dog will never win championship points if he acts shy or fearful in the ring. The dog is trained to let strangers come up and examine him. The dog must concentrate on his handler's signals and work cooperatively with that individual in order to win prizes. Such a dog must learn to ignore hundreds of barking dogs, the loud speaker system, the noisy crowd and other distractions while "working." He will be traveling to new places on a frequent basis, competing both indoors and outdoors, if his breeder wants him to win a title. All of this can be excellent preparation for a career as an assistance dog.
There are a number of reasons why a show dog may be retired from competition between the ages of one to three years old. Some dogs earn a title but are not really needed in the breeding program. Some may be sound but aren't able to outshine the beauty of all the others and win a title. Some breeders can only afford to campaign one dog at a time or are limited by city ordinances on how many they can keep. It is possible to find a healthy two year old with OFA, CERF clearance, who is housebroken, well socialized, beautiful, eager to please, for $1000. (Barely enough to reimburse the breeder for the x-rays, veterinary care, food, and other costs of raising that dog). Depending on the breed, a titled AKC Champion may cost $1000 - $2500, with $1200 to $1500 about average. Many devoted breeders are far more keen to place the adult dog in a good home than sell to the highest bidder. Some are thrilled to have one of their dogs become a service, guide or hearing dog and may sell one they've decided not to show anymore for as little as $500, plus shipping. Some may even consider donating a dog.
But a note of caution: Not ALL show dog candidates are created equal. Some may not have the necessary health clearances. Some may not be housebroken or well mannered as they were kennel raised, so it will take several months of work to accustom them to living in a house.. Some show dogs will have just the right temperament, but naturally some of them won't. Ask questions before making an investment in a retiring show dog. A thirty day trial period should be included in the purchase agreement so the dog may be returned for a full refund if not as well suited for this career as the breeder and buyer anticipated.
Animal Shelters: Finding a suitable candidate for assistance dog work in an animal shelter or dog pound won't be easy. According to a 1997 poll of the non profit training programs that belong to Assistance Dogs International, only a small percentage of the dogs evaluated by them at animal shelters over the course of a year were able to pass the initial screening tests given on the spot. Recent statistics from Paws With A Cause, one of the largest providers of hearing dogs and service dogs in the USA, put its success rate with 600 of the best shelter dogs they could obtain last year at only 25%. Over a third of the dogs had to be dropped from training due to bad hips and other health defects. The other big reason for failure during training was the manifestation of an aggression problem related to people, cats, dogs, food or territory.
Adoption fees will vary but as a general rule, are very modest compared to what you might have to pay if purchasing a dog from a breeder. On the other hand, some of the expenses that a breeder may cover, such as the cost of the OFA x-ray, the dog's vaccinations and a bath before shipping won't be covered by an animal shelter.
It could easily run about $400 to put a candidate through the Health Screening and a Thirty Day Evaluation Period. If the 25% success rate achieved by programs with expertise in evaluating shelter dogs holds true for an owner trainer or private trainer, you may have to put three or four dogs through this process to find one that can pass all the tests and make it through training. This may be less expensive than purchasing a dog from a breeder if you get lucky with the first or second candidate, but it could equal or exceed the price of a dog with OFA clearance from a breeder by the time you put a third or fourth candidate through a health screening.
Other Potential Sources: Other strategies for locating a good candidate may include bulletin board advertisements at local obedience schools, talking to breed clubs on the Internet and phoning Rescue groups. You might find a promising candidate by calling breeders who advertise in dog show catalogs, a national breed club publication or in magazines like Dog World, Dog Fancy and the AKC Gazette. Also a phone survey of local veterinarians and boarding kennels may yield the names of breeders of show dogs and working dogs in your area.
Shipping a dog in by air freight costs about $250 plus the crate ( $50 used, $125 new). Figure on spending the same amount if the dog is unfit and must be returned. Obviously it would be smart to at least have the hips x-rayed and a heartworm test done before paying to have the dog shipped to you. Also consider having a fecal check, flea dip bath, worming, and vaccinations done at your expense prior to having the animal shipped cross country so he can go right home with you from the airport, not have to be quarantined in a boarding kennel till you take care of these necessities.
ADVANTAGES OF AN ADULT CANDIDATE VERSUS A PUPPY
A big advantage of starting with an adult candidate vs. a puppy is the fact the adult could begin serious training immediately. The results of the health and temperament screening are far more meaningful if performed on an adult (age 18 months to 3 yrs.) rather than on a puppy. It is true that occasionally an adult may fail due to a latent health or temperament problem that doesn't manifest itself for several months, but the risk of this happening is very low, compared to the risk of a puppy failing because of a serious health or temperament problem after a year of careful nurturing. An emotionally mature adult will master the schooling for good manners much faster than puppies or adolescent dogs. The guide dogs and hearing dogs trained by non profit programs may be ready for placement (team training) in as little as four to six months. A service dog's education make take 8 months to a year, but if living with the person while undergoing training, an adult could begin performing simple tasks around the house in as little as six weeks. The advantages of starting with an adult should be carefully considered when selecting a dog for this career.
This information is provided as a public service, with the hope it will lead to a better understanding of what a program, a private trainer or an owner trainer needs to consider when selecting a dog for this career. The goal is to help people who are disabled improve their chances of achieving a successful partnership. Expect to put some time into this quest for a suitable candidate. Have faith that somewhere out there, the right dog is waiting for you to find him. When you do, he will be worth all the phone calls, networking, health screening tests and patience you invest.
© Copyright Joan Froling, 1998. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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