Answers to The Big QuestionThe big question that I am always asked when it comes to my desire to self-train a service dog for my daughter is Why don't you just get an agency dog already trained?
The answer to this question is very easy for me to answer. I chose to train our own service dog because of many reasons. The first being the wait time that the agencies have to get a dog. Right now, here in Canada you are on the wait list for an agency-trained dog for 18-24 months. That's 2 years! A lot can happen in two years and when I was training River for Asia I knew that we may not even have 2 years if I didn't act now. The second reason was because I actually can train service dogs. I have been training dogs for many years and have taught myself many things through books and workshops.
When a family receives a dog from an agency they get an adult dog. In my opinion, I think training a dog for seizure work should be started as a puppy.
How Did I Train River for Seizure Work?
This is another question I get a lot. Even from other dog trainers. Below I have laid it out step-by-step for ease of understanding.
We got River as an 8 week old puppy. The first thing we did was give everything a word. For example, if she barked we'd say "Bark". When she stopped barking we'd praise and say "good Quiet". We did this for quite some time until she could bark and be quiet on command. That was the very start.
1) train "bark" and "quiet"
2) When Asia was starting a seizure one of us would tell River to bark. We'd encourage barking as loud as she could. After a minute of barking we'd toss her a tiny piece of Roll-Over, a treat she'd ONLY get during a seizure. This was a huge treat for River.
3) When I no longer needed the "bark" River would be told "quiet" and was rewarded with 2 large slices of Roll Over. She knew that in ALL cases she would NOT get more Roll Over after she had received the two large slices. Her job was to simply "bark" when there was a seizure. At first we'd have to tell her to "bark" because she had no idea what Asia was doing.
4) At 6 months of age River surprised us all. She had been training for 4 months almost daily as Asia seized. (yes, that is how bad it was) Well, "something" caused River to bark like crazy just like she did when asked during a seizure. We checked Asia and everything was ok....so we thought. 5 minutes after the barking started Asia seized. This was the first time River had done this on her own and she had actually alerted BEFORE the seizure. She had made the connection with the "pheromones" that a body gives off before and during a seizure. Yes, she loved that Roll Over enough to get excited when she sensed the beginning of the Roll Over cycle...which was actually the beginning of Asia's seizure aura.
So, as you can see, training really can start sooner than 24 months. Agency trained dogs are in puppy care first learning basic obedience, then they go into the training program. For our family, it is the right decision to go with a self-trained dog. We also get to enjoy those puppy years, the obedience classes, and all of the other fun that puppies bring. This answers that big question for many and as I write in this blog I will be sharing my other reasons why self-training is right for our family.