The Making of a Service Dog Team
There is so much more that goes into the making of a SD team than just dog training, and this month we would like to take our readers on a journey down the path to becoming a certified team. For us, this journey begins with an understanding that we service three distinct populations of learners in our program, setting us apart from other SD training programs. These three populations of learners are: student trainers, prospective recipients and dogs. This month we will address each population separately.
Our student learners are high school students across the Valley who are enrolled in our youth-based service dog training program. These students range from neurotypical and able-bodied, to physically and/or learning challenged. While most of our students are mainstream, some have Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) that outline specific educational strategies for success. The student learners participate in a program that spans two academic years of school. For the first semester the students participate in an Orientation Program, during which time they learn about service dog etiquette and laws, canine safety, nutrition and grooming and a host of special topics. Students are required to pass several written and skills assessments prior to being considered to receive a service dog in training (SDIT). Near the end of the first semester, those students who have successfully completed Orientation are awarded a SDIT, and for the remainder of the first semester their task is to begin potty training and basic obedience. For the next 18 months the students attend classes with their dogs and acquire training skills in basic – advanced obedience as well as advanced SD skills training. Throughout the 18 months student-dog teams are required to pass several skills assessments. While these students are learning in the classroom, we are at work behind the scenes to educate our prospective recipients.
Our prospective recipients are exclusively challenged, and the needs of each recipient differ. The FSDS training program recognizes that physical / neurological challenges impact learning. For instance, those individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with or without traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) are able to learn, but they will learn differently than other students. Similarly, individuals who are neuro-typical but faced with chronic pain or issues that arise from medications that may impair memory and concentration must also be approached differently. We do not believe that 2-3 week “boot camps” serve the best interest of these learners, and have moved to a more flexible system of online education for all written materials that allow the individual as much time as needed to master lesson materials. Once a recipient has completed all written materials, they are ready to join our student learners in the classroom for the final semester of the program. During this time, all hands on skills are taught.
Our final group of learners is our dogs. We do not believe that kenneling a dog serves their best interest. Our dogs are all shelter rescues, and once they are adopted they are immediately placed with our student learners. The dogs become a part of the family, and attend classes with our students. Once they are cleared for public access, they go everywhere that their student goes, including to school each day, dates and even family vacations. During the final semester they are introduced to the recipients and are given the opportunity to get to know them, visit their homes and work in public over a period of several months. This approach is designed to allow time for bonding and help ensure a more seamless transition upon placement.
Three groups of learners, three separate approaches that fit into one training program. The end result is teams that are well-trained and prepared for their public life, and a ready supply of new and qualified trainers to meet the growing demand for service dogs here in our community.
First and foremost, congratulations are in order for our final two student teams, Whitney Pulsipher and her SDIT “Addie”, and Seriani Jasper-Llumiquinga and her SDIT “Riley”. These additional two teams passed their Public Access Test on July 25th and are now out and about in the community. This means that we have had a 100% pass rate on the public access test for this class. Way to go!
This month there is much excitement as we welcome a new campus and new staff to our program. Students at the Paradise Valley campus of Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center (AAEC) will begin their training with us. Our students at the Estrella Mountain campus will enter their second year, and we are looking forward to upcoming opportunities to allow our second year students to serve as mentors for the new students.
Congratulations to Felicia Roberts, our first recipient to complete all of her 250 volunteer service hours and earn her service dog through our Pawsitive Community Program. She has so enjoyed her volunteer experience, that she has volunteered to do additional hours to assist another recipient in need. Four Paws Up to this wonderful young lady for her dedication and willingness to help others.
Summertime can be fun, but can also mean some severe thunderstorms. Remember that thunderstorms can be both frightening and dangerous for your dog. Remember to keep your dog inside during inclement weather. Also remember that if your dog is frightened of thunder, a quiet place to lay with some familiar objects will be soothing. Avoid having your dog near open doors where they may run off, as each year many dogs are lost when they get “spooked” and run off during storms.
We are currently seeking donations of large dog crates for our new classroom. If you have a crate that is taking up space in your garage, please consider donating it to the FSDS for our youth-based training program. Your donations are tax deductible.