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.
WHAT KIND OF DOG IS NEEDED?
Assistance dogs face special challenges that ordinary pets and other working dogs never encounter. It is difficult for trainers new to the assistance dog field and inexperienced handlers to fully appreciate the extraordinary demands that public access work will be putting on a dog's nervous system and mind. It will be crucial to the success of a partnership to find a dog with the right kind of temperament to handle the job. Good health and other factors are important, but they will be meaningless if the dog is temperamentally unfit to handle this career. The most common mistake newcomers make is to take an unsuitable dog and try to force the animal to become an assistance dog. The attempt to force a square peg into a round hole may result in a dog that can perform specific tasks but the flawed temperament creates problems that ensue cheat the assistance dog partner out of much of the joy of assistance dog partnership.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?
Assistance dogs should be able to work cooperatively with a disabled human partner in busy airports, restaurants, malls, public schools, theaters, museums, hospitals, churches, office buildings, sports stadiums and many other public settings, taking the constant bombardment of strange noises, new sights and unfamiliar odors in stride. They must ride calmly on elevators, subways, ferry boats, trains, buses, jets and other forms of public transportation. They must put up with hundreds of strangers reaching out to pet them without permission over the course of a year. It is not unusual for toddlers to come up from behind, grab the dog's fur, then fall, NOT letting go of the fur as they fall. The dog must not retaliate for the painful yank, nor snap at somebody who steps on his paw or tail. The dog is not allowed to growl if some security guard at an airport checkpoint tries to grab the leash or perform a hands-on inspection of the contents of the dog's backpack. The dog should permit emergency personnel to tend to his human partner with a good natured, tail wagging tolerance, because acting like a bodyguard in that situation could result in the dog being executed on the spot for putting a human life at risk. An assistance dog must not become belligerent in the presence of another dog, even if the other dog "started it." An assistance dog must be willing to ignore food temptations, people calling or whistling to him, kids whizzing by on skateboards or bikes, and a number of other distractions while he's "on duty."
It is asking an awful lot of a dog to cope with all of these challenges. Most would find it too stressful, no matter how much training you gave them. A dog with a fearful nature would be miserable. A dog that wants to be your bodyguard is the worst possible choice. Experienced trainers look for a dog that is calm, friendly and confident. This kind of temperament is not exclusive to one breed and it allows for more than one personality type. Just by way of example, adult dogs with the following personality traits could be classified as good candidates for training:
* Placid, gentle, tolerates strangers petting him but could care less about it.
* Laid back, amiable, shows pleasure if petted but doesn't go up to people begging for attention.
* Happy go lucky, everybody's pal, seeks affection, willing to play or go for a walk with anyone.
* Sensitive, anxious to please, prefers owner but may seek attention from others if owner busy.
* Very serious, intensely bonded to owner, calmly ignores everyone else, safe for children to pet.
* Energetic, thrilled by outings to new places, convinced the world is populated entirely by his fan club members and he intends to meet every one of them.
© Copyright Joan Froling, 1998. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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