Leader of the Pack

In order for a service dog (SD) or service dog-in-training (SDIT) team to function properly, it is important for the trainer or handler to establish pack leadership.  Dogs function on a pack mentality, and what this means is that dogs are by nature social pack animals, and they function on a hierarchy.  For each pack, there is only one leader.  The leader of the pack establishes the rules, and the others in the pack simply accept them.  This type of behavior is instinctive for dogs, and it is therefore important from the start that the handler / trainer establish pack leadership.

The FSDS temperament tests dogs, and selects those dogs appropriate for service work.  Thus, the dogs accepted into our program all show a predisposition to submit to the leader.  In cases however, when a handler or trainer fails to demonstrate leadership, this sets the stage for problems.  Dogs tend to see things from a “black or white” perspective, and there are no gray areas.  A handler who allows the dog to be leader one day, and expects them to follow the next creates confusion for the dog and failure for the team.  Leadership is not the same as “dominance theory”.  The FSDS uses only positive reinforcement training, and we believe that training can be fun and rewarding for both dogs and trainers.  We teach our trainers that a good leader is gentle but firm, and sets healthy boundaries for their dog.  A service dog does need to have a clear leader in the home and out in the community, and in some cases this is a necessary safety measure.

Some practical tips for good pack leadership are:

Control your territory– a dog must learn where they are permitted to go, and when.  For example, a dog should not be permitted to control your sofa, bed or favorite chair.  Likewise, let them know where their “time-out” spot, or resting area is and do not permit them to sleep in the middle of the hallway.

Go first– when you are negotiating doorways, steps or curbs your dog should take the lead from you in terms of when to go.  A dog who rushes past you is exerting pack leadership.

Only give commands that you are able to enforce.  When introducing a new dog into the house, it may be prudent to leave them on a leash until they demonstrate the ability to follow commands.

Assure that your dog earns their treats.  A good leader ensures that their dog earns all of their treats.

Control times of bonding and affection.  A dog that constantly nudges and climbs on it’s handler demonstrates alpha behavior.  The dog needs to know that the leader is in charge of affection.

Enforce mealtime etiquette– your dog should be instructed to lay quietly during meals, either under the table or in their designated rest area.

Asserting yourself as pack leader will help your dog to feel safe and secure.

Classroom News


SDs have become a part of the everyday classroom environment at AAEC High School. This normalizes the presence of SDs in the community and helps to change societal views on SDs and individuals with disabilities.

Estrella Mountain Campus– during the month of September we have stepped up our efforts to assist the teams in adjusting to their public access life together.  To this end, weekly field trips have begun, and during these trips the teams all receive valuable hands-on instruction in real life settings.  Field trips this past month included a trip to an Outlet Mall and to Cabella’s.  These trips are in addition to our regularly scheduled class sessions, and as such our students are working harder than ever.  In anticipation of the final semester, when our recipients will join the class, we are also working on leadership skills with students.  One of the most powerful aspects of this program is the reciprocal mentoring experience that we have created.  Our students gain leadership skills to allow them to mentor not only their intended recipient, but also to mentor the newer students.  Our recipients, all of whom have earned their dog through community service, are able to mentor our students and provide them with new perspective on the importance of giving to your community.

Paradise Valley Campus– our newest class is off to a fine start.  The students are hard at work on their Orientation training.  During this time, they will study service dog laws, canine safety, grooming and nutrition requirements for service dogs, introductory anatomy and physiology and a host of other topics.  Students will also certify in canine first aid and CPR.  During this time, students are also taught tips for managing the behavior of other pet dogs in the home prior to introducing a SDIT.  Our program stresses to our students the negative impact that a dog with no obedience training may have on a SDIT.    Upon successful completion of their Orientation training, students will become eligible to receive a SDIT.

 Planning for the Future

The FSDS program is set up to be aligned with the Arizona Department of Education standards for Career and Technical Education.  As such, we have made a commitment to our students to help them acquire marketable job skills, and to provide opportunities for job placement.  We realize that the most important asset we have is our people, and have always believed that by nurturing and investing in our students, we invest in the future of the FSDS.  At this time, four of our current students are high school seniors and on track to graduate in May of 2014 from both our program and high school.  It is our hope that as this program grows and expands to additional campuses, we will be able to hire on some of our program graduates as intern instructors, and help them move up through the ranks.

Featured Recipient: Mario Hernandez

Mario_HernandezThe FSDS  program honors those who have served our community by providing them with fully trained and certified service dogs at no-cost.  This month we are proud to recognize first responder, Mario Hernandez.  When we think of first responders and dangerous jobs, our thoughts often turn to police and fire personnel.  Emergency Medical Service workers are often overlooked, however, their job is fraught with danger.   Each day as they put on their uniform and report for duty, they lay their lives on the line to protect us.

Mario served as an EMT for 20 years, and during that time was responsible for saving countless numbers of lives.  Reflecting back on his years of service he commented, “Have you ever had a job you felt was a blessing? I had such a job for twenty years.”  Along with the heart-warming memories of those frightened children and elderly women he was able to comfort, are the reminders of how dangerous his job was.  Working in a large city, about 70% of the calls Mario responded to were drug and violence-related.   Mostly of these calls were for shootings, stabbings and other types of assaults.  In the course of discharging his duties over the years he was shot at, and held at both knife and gunpoint.

Another danger of the job is equipment.  One Sunday morning, Mario arrived at work early to check out his ambulance and ensure that all of the equipment was in good working condition.  He noted that the oxygen tanks were empty, and proceeded to the supply room to refill them.  An equipment malfunction occurred, causing the oxygen tank to explode.   Mario was hurled backwards and burnt from the waist up.  He was rushed to the Burn ICU, and underwent a long and painful recovery.  Left with permanent disabilities, he was unable to return to the job he so loved.

Mario has searched for many years for a service dog (SD), and had all but given up hope due to the long wait lists and high costs.  He was told that he did not qualify for a no-cost dog because his service was not military, and therefore not worthy.  He turned to the FSDS for assistance, and we are honored to be able to provide Mario with a SD from our upcoming graduating class, at no cost to him.  We believe that his 20 years of service and devotion to the community make Mario a very worthy recipient.  Mario exemplifies the sort of person that the FSDS program was put in place to serve.

Safety and Wellness Tip

Fall is officially here, and it is time for some yard clean-up.  This is the time of the year when we break out the rake to clean up piles of dead weeds, leaves and such.  Remember that these piles are places where dangerous critters may nest.  Make certain that you do not leave these piles to collect, and that you promptly clean up any areas that may harbor dangerous snakes or spiders.  Supervise your dog at all times when they are outdoors to exercise, and remember to provide your dog with routine flea and tick preventive medications.  Prevention trumps intervention.

Upcoming Events

Oct. 1st: Arizona Dept. of Education Transition Conference- presentation on successful transitioning of students with service dogs.

Oct. 3rd: Asian American Hotel Owners Conference- presentation on service dogs in hotels

October 12th: G.A.I.N. Event, Rio Vista Park, 8866 W. Thunderbird Ave., #A, Peoria AZ  85381, 5:30 – 8:30 p.m.- the FSDS will be on hand to provide canine first aid and CPR demonstrations, as well as service dog education.  Come out and meet our teams in training.

May 17th, 2014: Service Dog Graduation for Estrella Mountain Class, to be held at the Glendale Civic Center.