It has taken about seven months of training to get to this point – Elke’s first official outing as a Service Dog in Training. It doesn’t usually take that long, it’s very individual, but Elke’s training is often hampered by my health. I am simply not able to stand up for long enough to train, and so there are long gaps between sessions. Consistency is key in training, and that is often just not possible.
But still, we made it. It’s not a race, and I don’t care how long it takes. We make progress, little by little, and that’s good enough.
Elke passed her initial assessment, which means she has intermediate obedience skills, she walks calmly on a loose lead (most of the time), she has never shown any sign of aggression, and she is quiet and calm in public.
Performing specific Service Dog tasks, such as opening doors, or picking up dropped items are not necessary at this stage. We’ll train those as we train the required level of behaviour to be out in public. To do that, we need to BE in public, and today was our first go at that, with Elke wearing her official ‘Service Dog in Training’ jacket.
I was supposed to be meeting my dog trainer. She has an illness related disability and has a service dog herself, and training service dogs is her career. Unfortunately she didn’t show up. I have no idea why, I hope she’s OK.
Anyway, it didn’t matter. She has briefed me on what to do, how to manage our first session in public, so we trained anyway.
With the Service Dog in Training jacket on, Elke is legally allowed to enter shopping centres, and go anywhere I’m able to go. Service Dogs are a rare sight in Australia, the industry is in its infancy. As such, few people will have seen a service dog before. Most people will stare. Some will come over and want to pat the dog.
Lesson number one – no one is allowed pat a Service Dog when they are working, except their handler. Patting her is a distraction, and puts her off her job. Most people understand this once its explained, and are respectful.
I did underestimate how many people would stare though, and I admit I feel quite uncomfortable with the attention. I have never enjoyed being the centre of attention, but most people aren’t that intrusive, just curious. And most people are very positive and encouraging, even complimentary. Quite nice really.
Legally I can take her anywhere right now, but in practice, that’s a bad idea. Elke needs time to acclimatise, learn about new environments slowly, one at a time. Pushing her too hard, too fast would result in her becoming stressed. She needs to enjoy training, and enjoy working. So we take baby steps.
It’s important for me to watch for stress signs, ears flattened, an ‘alert’ posture ready to jump at any moment, the whale eye, panting. I know Elke pretty well by now, and I can feel when she’s getting stressed. She was curious and alert, but never upset. She got a little excited when she saw other dogs, but she handled it well.
The people who didn’t handle it so well were the owners of the little yappy dogs. Something I’ve noticed about owners of Pomeranians and that size of dog. Gorgeous little dogs, but many of the owners have no control over them. The attitude tends to be ‘oh she’s so little, she can’t hurt anyone’. Which is so not the point.
Two ladies today let their little dogs run wild on a very long lead, and both dogs came up to Elke. Elke got excited, but responded well to my commands. Both owners made excuses for their dogs bad behaviour on the basis that they are little and cute. Both dogs barked and yapped loudly, one even bared its teeth and growled at Elke. Not cute. Annoying. Can you imagine if my German Shepherd bared her teeth at someone and growled? ALL dogs should be controlled in public. Little dog or big dog. And letting your dog run 5 metres on a long lead that you are unable to pull back in time is not cool.
But it was a great training exercise. As I said, Elke responded well. By the fourth Pomeranian she was getting TOO excited though, and I moved her on.
I took her inside the shopping centre, where the little yappy dogs cannot go.
I sat on a bench, Elke sat on the ground. And eventually lay down, very comfortable, very relaxed. She was getting bored infact.
A few people approached me, I’m happy to explain about Service Dogs, that’s part of the agreement I signed. Our behaviour in public reflects on all Service Dogs, and I am self-training with the support of Service Dogs Training (registered not for profit). The organisations that provide fully trained dogs to disabled people do not approve of self-trained dogs, so there is a rift in the industry. Self-trained dogs are seen as less highly trained and unregulated, even though they have to pass exactly the same critieria. Because of this bias, self-trained dogs are held to an even higher standard, and we have to be even better behaved than other dogs in training.
That’s OK. I’m mindful of all of that, and I will continue to take it slow and follow advice.
There are also a whole lot of cowboys in the industry. People actually buy a coat off ebay and try to pass off their pet as a Servcie Dog. Can’t stand those people. They often don’t even have a disability, they just want to take their pets with them. I don’t have words for how low and selfish an act that is.
A genuine service dog has a coat with a logo from a recognised training organisation. I have also an official ID card with a picture of me, and of Elke, so I can prove she is a registered Service Dog in Training. If someone can’t show you this ID, their dog is likely NOT a service dog and they are committing fraud!
I feel pretty strongly about the people who try to fake it, and rort the system. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to train a dog. Fakers make me sick.
I showed a few people my ID, but no one challenged my right to be there. I have been warned this will happen and I just have to stand my ground. I am legally allowed to be there with my dog.
Not one person asked me what my disability is. It was clear most people believed I am a dog trainer, and have no disability. Also fine. The awareness level of invisible disabilities is pretty low. But I don’t have to educate everyone on everything all the time, so it was kind of a relief that no one asked me about me.
I stayed inside the shopping centre for around 15 minutes. Elke was pretty much going to sleep. The entire training session was 40 minutes, including the outside walking time. Long enough, so I headed for home.
Session 1, done!